Misinforming a Nation/Chapter 06

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If the same kind of panegyrics which characterize the biographies of the British painters in the Encyclopædia Britannica were used in dealing with the painters of all nationalities, there could be made no charge of either unconscious or deliberate injustice. But once we leave Great Britain's shores, prodigal laudation ceases. As if worn out by the effort of proving that Englishmen are pre-eminent among the world's painters, the editors devote comparatively little space to those non-British artists who, we have always believed and been taught, were the truly significant men in painting. Therefore, if the Britannica's implications are to be believed, England alone, among all modern countries, is the home of genius. And it would be difficult for one not well informed to escape the impression that not only Turner, but English painting in general, is “like the British fleet among the navies of the world.”

A comparison, for instance, between English and French painters, as they are presented in this encyclopædia, would leave the neophyte with the conviction that France was considerably inferior in regard to graphic ability, as inferior, in fact — if we may read the minds of the Britannica's editors — as the French fleet is to the British fleet. In its ignorant and un-English way the world for years has been laboring under the superstition that the glories of modern painting had been largely the property of France. But such a notion is now corrected.

For instance, we had always believed that Chardin was one of the greatest of still-life painters. We had thought him to be of exceeding importance, a man with tremendous influence, deserving of no little consideration. But when we turn to his biography in the Encyclopædia Britannica we are, to say the least, astonished at the extent of our over-valuation. He is dismissed with six lines! And the only critical comment concerning him is: “He became famous for his still-life pictures and domestic interiors.” And yet Thomas Stothard, an English painter who for twenty-five years was Chardin's contemporary, is given over a column; James Northcote, another English contemporary of Chardin's, is given half a column; and many other British painters, whose names are little known outside of England, have long biographies and favorable criticisms.

Watteau, one of the greatest of French painters, has a biography of only a page and a quarter; Largillière, half a column; Rigaud, less than half a column; Lancret, a third of a column; and Boucher has only fifteen lines — a mere note with no criticism. (Jonathan Boucher, an English divine, whose name follows that of Boucher, is accorded three times the space!) La Tour and Nattier have half a column each. Greuze, another one of France's great eighteenth-century painters, is given only a column and a half with unfavorable comment. Greuze's brilliant reputation seemed to have been due, “not to his requirements as a painter” but to the subjects of his pictures; and he is then adversely accused of possessing that very quality which in an English painter, as we have seen, is a mark of supreme glory — namely, “bourgeois morality.” Half a column only is required to comment on Horace Vernet and to tell us that his most representative picture “begins and ends nowhere, and the composition is all to pieces; but it has good qualities of faithful and exact representation.”

Fragonard, another French painter whom we had always thought possessed of at least a minor greatness, is accorded no more than a column, less than half the space given to B. R. Haydon, the eighteenth-century English historical painter, and only one-third of the space devoted to David Wilkie, the Scotch painter. Fragonard's “scenes of love and voluptuousness,” comments that art critic of the London Daily Mail who has been chosen to represent this French painter in the Encyclopædia, “are only made acceptable by the tender beauty of his color and the virtuosity of his facile brushwork.” Alas! that Fragonard did not possess the “grave moral purpose” of Watts! Had his work been less voluptuous he might have been given more than a fourth of the space devoted to that moral Englishman, for surely Fragonard was the greater painter.

Géricault, one of the very important innovators of French realism, is given half a column, about an equal amount of space with such English painters as W. E. Frost, T. S. Cooper, Thomas Creswick, Francis Danby and David Scott; only about half the amount of space given to John Gilbert, C. L. Eastlake, and William Mulready; and only one-third of the space given to David Cox. One or two such disparities in space might be overlooked, but when to almost any kind of an English painter is imputed an importance equal to, if not greater than, truly significant painters from France, bias, whether conscious or unconscious, has been established.

Again regard Poussin. This artist, the most representative painter of his epoch and a man who marked a distinct step in the evolution of graphic art, is given less than half a page, about equal to the space devoted to W. P. Frith, J. W. Gordon, Samuel Cousins, John Crome, William Strang, and Thornhill; and only half the space given to Holman Hunt, and only one- third the space given to Millais! There is almost no criticism of Poussin's art; merely a statement of the type of work he did; and of Géricault there is no criticism whatever. Herein lies another means by which, through implication, a greater relative significance is conferred on English art. Generally British painters — even minor ones — are criticised favorably, from one standpoint or another; but only now and then is a Frenchman given specific complimentary criticism. And often a Frenchman is condemned for the very quality which is lauded in a British artist.

Of David it is written: “His style is severely academic, his color lacking in richness and warmth, his execution hard and uninteresting in its very perfection,” and more in the same derogatory strain. Although this criticism may be strictly accurate, the same qualities in certain English painters of far less importance than David are made the basis for praise. The severely academic style in the case of Harding, for instance, becomes an “elegant, highly-trained” characteristic. And perfection of execution makes Birket Foster's work “memorable for its delicacy and minute finish,” and becomes, in Paul Wilson Steer's pictures, “great technical skill.”

Ingres, truly one of the giants of his day, is given little or no criticism and his biography draws only a little over half the space which is given to Watts (with his “grave, moral purpose”), and only a trifle more space than is given Millais, the Pre-Raphaelite who was “devoted to his family.” In Guérin's short biography we read of his “strained and pompous dignity.” Girodet's biography contains very adverse criticism: his style “harmonized ill” with his subjects, and his work was full of “incongruity” even to the point sometimes of being “ludicrous.” Gros, exasperated by criticism, “sought refuge in the grosser pleasures of life.” Flandrin also is tagged with a moral criticism.

Coming down to the more modern painters we find even less consideration given them by the Britannica's editors. Delacroix, who ushered in a new age of painting and brought compositi back to art after a period of stagnation and quiescence, is nailed to France as follows: “As a colorist and a romantic painter he now ranks among the greatest of French artists.” Certainly not among the greatest English painters, for Constable is given more space than Delacroix; and Turner, the other precursor of the new era, is “like the British fleet among the navies of the world.”

Courbet, the father of modern painting and the artist who revolutionized æsthetics, is given half a column, equal space with those contemporaries of his from across the Channel, Francis Grant, Thomas Creswick and George Harvey. Perhaps this neglect of the great Frenchman is explained by the following early-Victorian complaint: “Sometimes, it must be owned, his realism is rather coarse and brutal.” And we learn that “he died of a disease of the liver aggravated by intemperance.” Courbet, unable to benefit by the pious and elegant esthétique of the Encyclopædia Britannica, was never deeply impressed by the artistic value of “daintiness and pleasantness of sentiment,” and as a result, perhaps, he is not held in as high esteem as is Birket Foster, who possessed those delicate and pleasing qualities.

The palpable, insular injustice dealt Courbet in point of space finds another victim in Daumier whose biography is almost as brief as that of Courbet. Most of it, however, is devoted to Daumier's caricature. Although this type of work was but a phase of his development, the article says that, despite his caricatures, “he found time for flight in the higher sphere of painting.” Not only does this create a false impression of Daumier's tremendous importance to modern painting, but it gives the erroneous idea that his principal métier was caricature. The entire criticism of his truly great work is summed up in the sentence: “As a painter, Daumier, one of the pioneers of naturalism, was before his time.” Likewise, the half-page biography of Manet is, from the standpoint of space, inadequate, and from the critical standpoint, incompetent. To say that he is “regarded as the most important master of Impressionism” is a false statement. Manet, strictly speaking, was not an Impressionist at all; and the high place that he holds in modern art is not even touched upon.

Such biographies as the foregoing are sufficiently inept to disqualify the Encyclopædia as a source for accurate æsthetic information; but when Renoir, who is indeed recognized as the great master of Impressionism, is dismissed with one-fifth of a page, the height of injustice has been reached. Renoir, even in academic circles, is admittedly one of the great painters of all time. Not only did he sum up the Impressionists, close up an experimental cycle, and introduce compositional form into the realistic painting of his day, but by his colossal vision and technical mastery he placed himself in the very front rank of all modern painters, if not of ancient painters as well. Yet he is accorded just twenty-seven lines and dismissed with this remark: “Though he is perhaps the most unequal of the great Impressionists, his finest works rank among the masterpieces of the modern French school.” Critical incompetency could scarcely go further. We can only excuse such inadequacy and ignorance on the ground that the Encyclopædia's English critic has seen none of Renoir's greatest work; and color is lent this theory when we note that in the given list of his paintings no mention is made of his truly masterful canvases.

Turning to the other lesser moderns in French painting but those who surpass the contemporaneous British painters who are given liberal biographies, we find them very decidedly neglected as to both space and comment. Such painters as Cazin, Harpignies, Ziem, Cormon, Bésnard, Cottet and Bonnot are dismissed with brief mention, whereas sometimes twice and three times the attention is paid to English painters like Alfred East, Harry Furniss (a caricaturist and illustrator), Francis Lathrop, E. J. Poynter, and W. B. Richmond. Even Meissonier and Puvis de Chavannes draw only three-fourths of a page. Pissarro and Monet, surely important painters in the modern evolution, are given short shrift. A few brief facts concerning Pissarro extend to twenty lines; and Monet gets a quarter of a page without any criticism save that “he became a plein air painter.” Examples of this kind of incompetent and insufficient comment could be multiplied.

The most astonishing omission, however, in the entire art division of the Encyclopædia Britannica is that of Cézanne. Here is a painter who, whether one appreciates his work or not, has admittedly had more influence than any man of modern times. Not only in France has his tremendous power been felt, but in practically every other civilized country. Yet the name of this great Frenchman is not even given biographical mention in the great English Encyclopædia with its twenty-nine volumes, its 30,000 pages, its 500,000 references, and its 44,000,000 words. Deliberately to omit Cézanne's biography, in view of his importance and (in the opinion of many) his genuine greatness, is an act of almost unbelievable narrow-mindedness. To omit his biography unconsciously is an act of almost unbelievable ignorance. Especially is this true when we find biographies of such British contemporaries of Cézanne as Edward John Gregory, James Guthrie, Luke Fildes, H. W. B. Davis, John Buxton Knight, George Reid, and J. W. Waterhouse. Nor can the editors offer the excuse that Cézanne was not known when the Encyclopædia was compiled. Not only was he known, but books and criticisms had appeared on him in more than one language, and his greatness had been recognized. True, he had not reached England; but is it not the duty of the editor of an “international” encyclopædia to be aware of what is going on outside of his own narrow province?

Any encyclopædia, no matter what the nationality, prejudices or tastes of its editors, which omits Cézanne has forfeited its claim to universal educational value. But when in addition there is no biographical mention of such conspicuous French painters as Maurice Denis, Vollatton, Lucien Simon, Vuillard, Louis Le Grand, Toulouse-Lautrec, Steinlen, Jean Paul Laurens, Redon, René Ménard, Gauguin, and Carrière, although a score of lesser painters of British birth are included, petty national prejudice, whether through conscious intent or lack of information, has been carried to an extreme; and the editors of such a biased work have something to answer for to those readers who are not English, and who do not therefore believe that British middle-class culture should be exaggerated and glorified at the expense of the genuine intellectual culture of other nations.

Modern German painting fares even worse than French painting in the pages of the Britannica; and while it does not hold the high place that French painting does, it is certainly deserving of far more liberal treatment than that which is accorded it. The comparatively few biographies of German artists are inadequate; but it is not in them that we find the greatest neglect of German achievements in this branch of æsthetics: it is in the long list of conspicuous painters who are omitted entirely. The Britannica's meagre information on German art is particularly regrettable from the standpoint of American readers; for the subject is little known in this country, and as a nation we are woefully ignorant of the wealth of nineteenth-century German painting. The causes for this ignorance need not be gone into here. Suffice it to say that the Encyclopædia Britannica, far from fulfilling its function as a truly educational work, is calculated to perpetuate and cement our lack of knowledge in this field. It would appear that England also is unacquainted with the merits of German graphic expression; for the lapses in the Britannica would seem even too great to be accounted for on the grounds of British chauvinism. And they are too obvious to have been deliberate.

Among the important German painters of modern times who have failed to be given biographies are Wilhelm Leibl, the greatest German painter since Holbein; Charles Schuch, one of Germany's foremost still-life artists; Trübner, who ranks directly in line with Leibl; Karl Spitzweg, the forerunner and classic exponent of German genre painting as well as the leading artist in that field; Heinrich von Zügel, one of the foremost animal painters of modern times; and Ludwig Knaus who, though inferior, is a painter of world-wide fame. Furthermore, there are no biographies of Franz Krüger, Müller, Von Marées, Habermann, and Louis Corinth. When we recall the extensive list of inferior British painters who are not only given biographies but praised, we wonder on just what grounds the Britannica was advertised and sold as an “international dictionary of biography.”

It might be well to note here that Van Gogh, the great Hollander, does not appear once in the entire Encyclopædia: there is not so much as a passing reference to him! Nor has Zorn or Hodler a biography. And Sorolla draws just twenty lines in his biography, and Zuloaga less than half a column.

Despite, however, the curtailed and inferior consideration given Continental art, it does not suffer from prejudicial neglect nearly so much as does American art. This is not wholly surprising in view of the contempt in which England holds the cultural achievements of this country — a contempt which is constantly being encountered in British critical journals. But in the case of an encyclopædia whose stated aim is to review impartially the world's activities, this contempt should be suppressed temporarily at least, especially as it is from America that the Encyclopædia Britannica is reaping its monetary harvest. There is, though, no indication that England's contemptuous attitude toward our art has even been diminished. Our artists are either disposed of with cursory mention or ignored completely; and whenever it is possible for England to claim any credit for the accomplishments of our artists, the opportunity is immediately grasped.

It is true, of course, that the United States does not rank æsthetically with certain of the older nations of Europe, but, considering America's youth, she has contributed many important names to the history of painting, and among her artists there are many who greatly surpass the inconsequent English academicians who are accorded generous treatment.

The editors of the Encyclopædia may contend that the work was compiled for England and that therefore they were justified in placing emphasis on a horde of obscure English painters and in neglecting significant French and German artists. But they can offer no such excuse in regard to America. The recent Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica was printed with the very definite purpose of selling in the United States; and the fact that they have sold many thousand copies of it here precludes any reason why American artists should be neglected or disposed of in a brief and perfunctory fashion. An American desiring adequate information concerning the painters or sculptors of his own country will seek through the Encyclopædia Britannica in vain. If he is entirely ignorant of æsthetic conditions in America and depends on the Encyclopædia for his knowledge, he will be led to inaccurate conclusions. The ideas of relative values established in his mind will be the reverse of the truth, for he cannot fail but be affected by the meagre and indifferent biographies of his native painters, as compared with the lengthy and meticulous concern with which British painters are regarded.

And yet this is the encyclopædia which has been foisted upon the American people by means of a P. T. Barnum advertising campaign almost unprecedented in book history. And this also is the encyclopædia which, in that campaign, called itself “a history of all nations, an international dictionary of biography, an exhaustive gazetteer of the world, a hand-book to all the arts”; and which announced that “every artist or sculptor of note of any period, and of any land is the subject of an interesting biography.” This last statement is true only in the case of Great Britain. It is, as we have seen, not true of France or Germany; and especially is it not true of America. Not only are many American artists and sculptors of note omitted entirely, but many of those who have been awarded mention are the victims of English insular prejudice.

Looking up Benjamin West, who, by historians and critics has always been regarded as an American artist, we find him designated as an “English” painter. The designation is indeed astonishing, since not only does the world know him as an American, but West himself thought that he was an American. Perhaps the Encyclopædia Britannica, by some obscure process of logic, considers nationality from the standpoint of one's sentimental adoption. This being the case, Richard Le Gallienne would be an “American” poet. But when we turn to Le Gallienne's biography we discover that, after all, he is “English.” Apparently the rule does not work with Englishmen. It is true that West went to London and lived there; but he was born in the United States, gained a reputation for painting here, and did not go to England until he was twenty-five. It is noteworthy that West, the “English” painter, is accorded considerable space.

Whistler, who also chose England in preference to America, is given nearly a page and a half with not unfavorable criticism. We cannot refrain from wondering what would have been Whistler's fate at the hands of the Encyclopædia's editors had he remained in his native country. Sargent, surely a painter of considerable importance and one who is regarded in many enlightened quarters as a great artist, is dismissed with less than half a column! Even this comparatively long biography for an American painter may be accounted for by the following comment: “Though of the French school, and American by birth, it is as a British artist that he won fame.” Again, Abbey receives high praise and quite a long biography, comparatively speaking. Once more we wonder if this painter's adoption of England as his home does not account for his liberal treatment. Albert F. Bellows, too, gets fourteen lines, in which it is noted that “he painted much in England.”

Compare the following record with the amounts of space accorded British second-rate painters: William Chase, sixteen lines; Vedder, a third of a column; de Forest Brush, fifteen lines; T. W. Dewing, twelve lines; A. H. Wyant, ten lines; A. P. Ryder, eight lines; Tryon, fifteen lines; John W. Alexander, sixteen lines; Gari Melchers, eighteen lines; Childe Hassam, fifteen lines; Blashfield, ten lines; J. Francis Murphy, fifteen lines; Blakelock, eight lines. Among these names are painters of a high and important order — painters who stand in the foremost rank of American art, and who unquestionably are greater than a score of English painters who receive very special critical biographies, some of which extend over columns. And yet — apparently for no other discernible reason than that they are Americans — they are given the briefest mention with no specific criticism. Only the barest biographical details are set down.

But if many of the American painters who have made our art history are dismissed peremptorily in biographies which, I assure you, are not “interesting,” and which obviously are far from adequate or even fair when compared with the consideration given lesser English painters, what answer have the editors of the Britannica to offer their American customers when many of our noteworthy and important artists are omitted altogether? On what grounds is a biography of J. Alden Weir omitted entirely? For what reason does the name of Robert Henri not appear? Henri is one of the very important figures in modern American painting.

Furthermore, inspection reveals the fact that among those American “painters of note” who, so far as biographical mention in the Encyclopædia Britannica is concerned, do not exist, are Mary Cassatt, George Bellows, Twachtman, C. W. Hawthorne, Glackens, Jerome Meyers, George Luks, Sergeant Kendall, Paul Dougherty, Allen Talcott, Thomas Doughty, Richard Miller and Charles L. Elliott.

I could add more American painters to the list of those who are omitted and who are of equal importance with certain British painters who are included; but enough have been mentioned to prove the gross inadequacy of the Encyclopædia Britannica as an educational record of American art.

Outside of certain glaring omissions, what we read in the Encyclopædia concerning the painters of France and Germany may be fair, from a purely impartial standard, if taken alone: in some instances, I believe, judicial critics of these other nations have performed the service. But when these unprejudiced accounts are interspersed with the patriotic and enthusiastic glorifications of British art, the only conclusion which the uninformed man can draw from the combination is that the chief beauties of modern painting have sprung from England — a conclusion which illy accords both with the facts and with the judgment of the world's impartial critics. But in the case of American art, not even the strictly impartial treatment occasionally accorded French and German painters is to be found, with the result that, for the most part, our art suffers more than that of any other nation when compared, in the pages of the Britannica, with British art.