Our Philadelphia/Chapter 14
CHAPTER XIV: PHILADELPHIA AND ART
IGNORANCE of art and all relating to it could not have been greater than mine when I paid that first eventful visit to J.'s studio on Chestnut Street.I lay the blame only partly on my natural capacity for ignorance. It was a good deal the fault of the sort of education I received and the influences among which I lived—the fault of the place and the period in which I grew up. Nominally, art was not neglected at the Convent. A drawing-class was conducted by an old bear of a German, who also gave music lessons, and who prospered so on his monopoly of the arts with us that he was able to live in a delightful cottage down near the river. Drawing was an "extra" of which I was never thought worthy, but I used to see the class at the tables set out for the purpose in the long low hall leading to the Chapel, the master grumbling and growling and scolding, the pupils laboriously copying with crayon or chalk little cubes and geometrical figures or, at a more advanced stage, the old-fashioned copy-book landscape and building, rubbing in and rubbing out, wrestling with the composition as if it were a problem in algebra. The Convent could take neither credit, nor discredit, for the system; it was the one then in vogue in every school, fashionable
INDEPENDENCE HALL—LENGTHWISE VIEW
or otherwise, and not so far removed, after all, from systems followed to this day in certain Academies of Art.
Another class was devoted to an art then considered very beautiful, called Grecian Painting. It was not my privilege to study this either, but I gathered from friends who did that it was of the simplest: on the back of an engraving, preferably of a religious subject and prepared by an ingenious process that made it transparent, the artist dabbed his colours according to written instructions. The result, glazed and framed, was supposed to resemble, beyond the detection of any save an expert, a real oil painting and was held in high esteem.
A third class was in the elegant art of making wax flowers and, goodness knows why, my Father squandered an appreciable sum of his declining fortunes on having me taught it. I am the more puzzled by his desire to bestow upon me this accomplishment because none of the other girls' fathers shared his ambition for their daughters and I was the only member of the class. Alone, in a room at the top of the house—chosen no doubt for the light, as if the deeds there done ought not to have been shrouded in darkness—I worked many hours under the tuition of Mother Alicia, cutting up little sheets of wax into leaves and petals, colouring them, sticking them together, and producing in the end two horrible masterpieces—one a water-lily placed on a mirror under a glass shade, the other a basket of carnations and roses and camelias—both of which masterpieces my poor family, to avoid hurting my feelings, had to place in the parlour and keep there I blush to remember how long. It must be admitted that this was scarcely an achievement to encourage an interest in art. For the appreciation of art, as for its practice, it is important to have nothing to unlearn from the beginning; mine was the sort of training to reduce me to the necessity of unlearning everything; and most of my contemporaries, on leaving school, were in the same plight.
My eyes were no better trained than my hands. Works of art at the Convent consisted of the usual holy statues designed for our spiritual, not aesthetic edification; the Stations of the Cross whose merit was no less spiritual; two copies of Murillo and Rafael which my Father, in the fervour of conversion, presented to the Mother Superior; and a picture of St. Elizabeth of Hungary that adorned the Convent parlour, where we all felt it belonged, such a marvel to us was its combination of brilliantly-coloured needle-and-brush work.
Illustrated books there must have been in the ill-assorted hodge-podge of a collection in the Library from which we obtained our reading for Thursday afternoons and Sundays. But though I doubt if there was a book I had not sampled, even if I had not been able to read it straight through, I can recall no illustrations except the designs by Rossetti, Millais, and Holman Hunt, made for Moxon's Tennyson and reproduced by the Harpers for a cheap American edition of the Poems, a copy of which was given to me one year as a prize. Little barbarian as I was, I disliked the drawings of the Pre-Raphaelites because they mystified me—the Lady of Shalott, entangled in her wide floating web, the finest drawing Holman Hunt ever made; the company of weeping queens in the Vale of Avalon, in Rossetti's harmoniously crowded design—when I flattered myself I understood everything that was to be understood, more especially Tennyson's Poems, many of which I could recite glibly from beginning to end—and did recite diligently to myself at hours when I ought to have been busy with the facts and figures in the class books before me. Most people, young or old, dislike anything which shows them how much less they understand than they think they do.
Of the history of art I was left in ignorance as abject, the next to nothing I knew gleaned from a Lives of the Artists adapted to children, a favourite book in the Library, one providing me with the theme for my sole serious effort in drama—a three-act play, Michael Angelo its hero, which, with a success many dramatists might envy, I wrote, produced, acted in, and found an audience of good-natured nuns for, all at the ripe age of eleven.
When I left the Convent for the holidays and eventually "for good," little in my new surroundings was calculated to increase my knowledge of art or to teach me the first important fact, as a step to knowledge, that I knew absolutely nothing on the subject. In my Grandfather's house, art was represented by the family portraits, the engraving after Gilbert Stuart's Washington, the illustrated lamp shade, and the Rogers Group. My Father, re-established in a house of his own, displayed an unaccountably liberal taste, straying from the Philadelphia standard to the extent of decorating his parlour walls with engravings of Napoleon he had picked up in Paris—to one, printed in colour, attaching a value which I doubt if the facts would justify, though, as I have never come across it in any collection, Museum, or Gallery, it may be rarer and, therefore, more valuable, than I think. Other fruits of his old journeys to Paris were two engravings, perhaps after Guys, of two famous ladies of that town, whose presence in our prim and proper and highly domestic dining-room seems to me the most incongruous accident in an otherwise correctly-appointed Philadelphia household. When I think of Napoleon replacing Washington on our walls, I suspect my Father of having broken loose from the Philadelphia traces in his youth, though by the time I knew him the prints were the only signs of a momentary dash for freedom on the part of so scrupulous a Philadelphian.
It is curious that illustrations should have as small a place in my memory of home life as of the Convent. The men of the Golden Age of the Sixties had published their best work long before I had got through school, and in my childhood books gave me my chief amusement. But I remember nothing of their fine designs. The earlier Cruikshank drawings for Dickens I knew well in the American edition which my Father owned, and never so long as I live can I see the Dickens world except as it is shown in the much over-rated Cruikshank interpretations. Other memories are of the highly-finished, sentimental steel-engravings of Scott's heroines, including Meg Merrilies, whom I still so absurdly associate with Crazy Norah. Another series of portraits, steel-engravings, as highly-finished and but slightly less insipid, illustrated my Father's edition of Thiers' French Revolution through which, one conscientious winter, I considered it my duty to wade. And I recall also the large volumes of photographs after Rafael and other masters that, in the Eighteen-Seventies, came into fashion for Christmas presents and parlour-table books, and that I think must have heralded the new departure the Centennial is supposed to have inaugurated.
If I try to picture to myself the interior of the houses where I used to visit, art in them too seems best represented by family portraits no more remarkable than my Grandfather's, by the engraving of Stuart's Washington, or of Penn signing the Treaty with the Indians, or of the American Army crossing the Delaware, all three part of the traditional decoration of the Philadelphia hall and dining-room, and by a Rogers Group and an illustrated lamp shade. The library in which a friend first showed me a volume of Hogarth's engravings I remember as exceptional. But I have an idea that had I possessed greater powers of appreciation then, I should have a keener memory now of other houses full of interesting pictures and prints and illustrated books, which I did not see simply because my eyes had not been trained to see them.Certainly, there were Philadelphia collections of these things then, as there always have been—only they were not heard of and talked about as they are now, or, if they were, it was to dismiss their collecting as an amiable fad. Mr. John S. Phillips had got together the engravings which the Pennsylvania Academy is to-day happy to possess. People who were interested did not have to be told that Mr. Claghorn's collection was perhaps the finest in the country; J. was one of the wise minority, and often on Sundays took advantage of Mr. Claghorn's generosity in letting anybody with the intelligence to realize the privilege come to look at his prints and study them; but I, who had not learned to be interested, knew nothing of the collection until I knew J. Gebbie and Barrie's store flourished in Walnut Street as it hardly could had there not been people in Philadelphia, as Gebbie once wrote to Frederick Keppel, who collected "these smoky, poky old prints." Gebbie and Barrie have gone, but Barrie remains, a publisher of art books, and there are other dealers no less important and perhaps more enterprising, who prosper, as one of them has recently assured me they could not, if they depended for their chief support upon
Philadelphia. But Philadelphia gives, as it gave, solid foundations of support, with the difference that to-day it takes good care the world should know it.
A few Philadelphians collected pictures. One of the show places, more select and exclusive than the Mint and Girard College, for the rare visitor to the town with a soul above dancing and dining, was Mr. Gibson's gallery in Walnut Street, open on stated days to anybody properly introduced, or it may be that only a visiting card with a proper address was necessary for admission. The less I say about the Gallery the better, for I never went to Mr. Gibson's myself, though I knew the house as I passed it for one apart in Philadelphia—one where so un-Philadelphia-like a possession as a picture gallery was allowed to disturb the Philadelphian's first-story arrangement of front and back parlours. The collection can now be visited, without any preliminary formalities, at the Academy of Fine Arts. Mrs. Bloomfield Moore was still living in Philadelphia and she must have begun collecting though, well as I knew the inside of her house in my young days, I hesitate to assert it as a fact—which shows my unpardonable blindness to most things in life worth while. I never, as far as I remember, went anywhere for the express purpose of looking at paintings. I had not even the curiosity which is the next best thing to knowledge and understanding. I have said how meagre are my impressions of the old Academy on Chestnut Street. It is a question to me whether I had ever seen more than the outside of the new Academy at Broad and Cherry Streets before I met J. To go to the exhibitions there had not as yet come within the list of things Philadelphians who were not artists made a point of doing. Altogether, judging from my own recollections, Philadelphians did not bother about art, and did not stop to ask whether there was any to bother about in Philadelphia, or not.
Their indifference was their loss. The art, with a highly respectable pedigree, was there for Philadelphia to enjoy and be proud of, if Philadelphia had not been as reticent about it as about all its other accomplishments and possessions. I have a decided suspicion that I have come to a subject about which I might do well to observe the same reticence, not only as a Philadelphian, but as the wife of an artist. For if, as the wife of a Friend, I have learned that only Friends are qualified to write of themselves, as the wife of an artist I have reason to believe it more discreet to leave all talk of art to artists, though discretion in this regard has not been one of the virtues of my working life. But just now, I am talking not so much of art as of my attitude towards art which must have been the attitude of the outsider in Philadelphia, or else it would not have been mine. As for the genealogy of Philadelphia art, it is, like the genealogy of Philadelphia families, in the records of the town for all who will to read.
In the very beginning of things Philadelphia may have had no more pressing need for the artist's studio than for the writer's study. But it was surprising how soon its needs expanded in this direction. English and other European critics deplore the absence of an original—or aboriginal—school of art in America, as if they thought the American artist should unconsciously have lost, on his way across the Atlantic, that inheritance from centuries of civilization and tradition which the modern artist who calls himself Post-Impressionist is deliberately endeavoring to get rid of, and on his arrival have started all over again like a child with a clean slate. Only an American art based on the hieroglyphics and war paint of the Indians would satisfy the critic with this preconceived idea. But the first American artists were not savages, they were not primitives. They did not paint pictures like Indians any more than the first American architects built wigwams like Indians, or the first American Colonials dressed themselves in beads and feathers like Indians. Colonials had come from countries where art was highly developed, and they could no more forget the masters at home than they could forget the literature upon which they and their fathers had been nourished. If years passed before a Philadelphian began to paint pictures, it was because Philadelphians had not time to paint as they had not time to write. The wonder really is that they began so soon—that so soon the artist got to work, and so soon there was a public to care enough for his work to enable him to do it.
In a thousand ways the interest of Philadelphians in art expressed itself. It is written large in the beauty of their houses and in their readiness to introduce ornament where ornament belonged. The vine and cluster of grapes carved on William Penn's front door; the panelling and woodwork in Colonial houses; the decoration of a public building like the State House; the furniture, the silver, the china, we pay small fortunes for when we can find them and have not inherited them; the single finely-proportioned mirror or decorative silhouette on a white wall; the Colonial rooms that have come down to us untouched, perfect in their simplicity, not an ornament too many;—all show which way the wind of art blew.There was hardly one of the great men from any American town, makers of first the Revolution and then the Union, who did not appreciate the meaning and importance of art and did not leave a written record, if only in a letter, of his appreciation. Few things have struck me more in reading the Correspondence and Memoirs and Diaries of the day. But these men were not only patriots, they were men of intelligence, and they knew the folly of expecting to find in Philadelphia or New York or Boston the same beautiful things that in Paris or London or Italy filled them with delight and admiration, or of seeing in this fact a reason to lower their standard. The critics who are shocked because we have no aboriginal school might do worse than read some of
these old documents. I recommend in particular a passage in a letter John Adams wrote to his wife from Paris. It impressed me so when I came upon it, it seemed to me such an admirable explanation of a situation perplexing to critics, that I copied it in my notebook, and I cannot resist quoting it now.
"It is not indeed the fine arts which our country requires," he writes, "the useful, the mechanic arts are those which we have occasion for in a young country as yet simple and not far advanced in luxury, although much too far for her age and character. . . . The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take place of, indeed to exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain."
John Adams and his contemporaries may not have had American grandfathers with the leisure to earn for them the right to study art, but they did not ignore it. All the time they felt its appeal and responded to the appeal as well as busy men, absorbed in the development of a new country, could. They got themselves painted whenever they happened to combine the leisure to sit and a painter to sit to. When a statesman like Jefferson, who confessed himself "an enthusiast on the subject of the arts," was sent abroad, he devoted his scant leisure to securing the best possible sculptor for the statue of Washington, or the best possible models for public buildings at home. Much that we now prize in architectiure and design we owe to the men who supposed themselves too occupied with politics and war to encourage art and artists. They were not too busy to provide the beauty without which liberty would have been a poor affair—not too busy to welcome the first Americans who saw to it that all the beauty should not be imported from Europe. "After the first cares for the necessaries of life are over, we shall come to think of the embellishments," Franklin wrote to his London landlady's daughter. "Already some of our young geniuses begin to lisp attempts at painting, poetry and music. We have a young painter now studying at Rome."In this care for the embellishments of life, of so much more real importance than the necessaries, Philadelphia was the first town to take the lead, though Philadelphians have since gone out of their way to forget it. The old Quaker lady in her beautiful dress, preserving her beautiful repose, in her beautiful old and historic rooms, shows the Friends' instinctive love of beauty even if they never intentionally, or deliberately, undertook to create it. For the most beautiful of what we now call Colonial furniture produced in the Colonies, Philadelphia is given the credit
THE HALL AT CLIVEDEN, THE CHEW HOUSE
by authorities on the subject. Franklin's letters could also be quoted to show Philadelphians' keenness to have their portraits done in "conversation" or "family" pieces, or alone in miniatures, whichever were most in vogue. Even Friends, before Franklin, when they visited England sought out a fashionable portrait-painter like Kneller because he was supposed the best. Artists from England came to Philadelphia for commissions, artists from other Colonies drifted there,—Peale, Stuart, Copley. Philadephia, in return, spared its artists to England, and the Royal Academy was forced to rely upon Philadelphia for its second President—Benjamin West. The artist's studio in Philadelphia had become a place of such distinction by the Revolution that members of the first Congress felt honoured themselves when allowed to honour it with their presence—in the intervals between legislating and dining. The Philadelphian to-day, goaded by the moss-grown jest over Philadelphia slowness and want of enterprise into giving the list of Philadelphia "firsts," or the things Philadelphia has been the first to do in the country, can include among them the picture exhibition which Philadelphia was the first to hold, and the Pennsylvania Academy which was the first Academy of the Fine Arts instituted in America. Philadelphia was the richest American town and long the Capital; the marvel would be if it had not taken the lead in art as in politics.