Wednesday, January 19, 2011

When Your Art Goes out of Fashion

I have been learning so much about the history of American painting form David A Cleveland's new book, A History of American Tonalism: 1880-1920.

One of the things I've learned is that despite what I had read before, Luminism and Tonalism were not merely third and fourth generations of The Hudson River School.  One might be able to argue that for Luminism, but definitely not for Tonalism.

John Frederick Kensett, below, Lake George, 1869

The simplified (and incorrect) explanation one usually reads is that Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand and Frederic Edwin Church were the founders of the first truly American landscape painting style, The Hudson River School, with Cole designated the Founding Father.  Then came a second generation, Albert Bierstadt, Sanford Gifford, Jasper Cropsey. Next came a development known as Luminism typified by John Frederick Kensett and finally, The Hudson River School  morphed in Tonalism with artists like George Inness and John La Farge.

 Albert Bierstadt, The Sierras Near Lake Tahoe

Frederic Edwin Church, The Heart of the Andes

That last part is truly incorrect. Tonalism was a new aesthetic that challenged The Hudson River School and vied for the distinction of being THE truly American painting style. Tonalism was fueled by a number of things including the influence of the French Barbizon School and German Romanticism on American artists studying abroad. Those influences were taken and melded into a set of deeply held American outlooks and values. Tonalism was birthed and blossomed in Boston and was part of the larger Transcendental movement that included Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman and Dickinson. It was also part of the liberal Protestant and abolitionist movement with Henry Ward Beecher at the forefront. At the same time in New York, The Hudson River School remained the dominant style, and it would take New York two decades to catch up to Boston in embracing the Tonalist aesthetic.

I think you can see the vast difference between the Hudson River School paintings above and the tonalist works, here and below.

During this transitional time there were many bitter arguments among art critics in New York and Boston. Tonalist painters had a difficult time selling their work in New York and Hudson River School artists had a difficult time finding patrons in Boston.

In the end Tonalism became the dominant style, not because it is "better" but because it more accurately reflected the mood of the country during and after the Civil War. It spoke to the hearts and minds of people in a way the optimism and excitement of Manifest Destiny portrayed in the Hudson River School paintings no longer did.

Today I came across an excellent article written by Paul G. Stein on a blog Called Hudson River School  Stories via ARTFIXdaily that poignantly captures with a very personal historical anecdote the struggles going on it the art world at this time and how it affected individual artists. 

I quote at length here but urge you to go to the original blog and read the whole thing....nota bene: The parenthesis are mine, for clarification

A poignant moment in their (The Hudson River School's) decline was captured in the diaries of artist Jervis McEntee, which are online and browsable at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. It is the kind of first-hand historical account that was previously accessible only on microfilm, but is now increasingly available on the Internet.

American landscape artist William Louis Sonntag (1822-1900) had arrived at the National Academy of Design in New York on April 2, 1877, to see the one and only painting he submitted to the annual spring exhibition. It was, by tradition, the most important venue of the year and an important sales opportunity for American artists.

Sonntag would not have known where to find his painting. The Hanging Committee, at the time an appointed group of three artists, was in charge of placement.

Prime spots were "on the line", at eye level, in the main galleries. As an established artist, a full member of the Academy for almost sixteen years and a member of the Academy’s governing council, Sonntag would have scanned the line, expecting to recognize his 30 by 50 inch landscape somewhere through the milling crowd (an example of Sonntag's art is shown above, courtesy Questroyal Fine Art).

Not spotting it, he might have stepped from room to room. Perhaps there was a moment when he thought, “Where could it be?”

Then he saw it—high above a door. In effect, a cast-out.

I can imagine Sonntag, rooted to the floor, clutching his hat in front of him with both hands, mindless of the surrounding bustle, staring up at his forlorn painting.

Sonntag had titled his landscape "Deserted," not thinking it would embody the term.

Other artists were nearby, including Jervis McEntee. "His eyes filled with tears as he saw it," McEntee wrote that night in his diary, back in his Tenth Street studio.

"This year the new men
(the Tonalists) have fairly carried the exhibition and the world by storm," declared an art critic in Scribner’s Monthly that June.  Fresh, young, European-trained painters had sailed back to the States, and in 1877 they found a sympathetic hanging committee ready to move aside some of the old to make way for the new.  McEntee wrote, "There was a general feeling of indignation among the [older] Artists, even among those whose pictures are well hung."

It was heartbreaking to read this. How many of us have felt that same anguish when we walk into an exhibition and expect to see our own work "on the line" and find it shunted into a corner or hung next to the fire extinguisher! Whether it is simply your local art society show or a national venue when you are confronted with this situation it can , in fact, make you cry.

This is a reminder to me that art, and what is popular, or liked by the judges is above all a subjective thing. It is a painful truth also that art, and artistic styles go in and out of fashion. Some artists are rejected because they see too clearly and their visionary capabilities put their work  far ahead of its time and some are mired in the past unable to embrace and reflect the changes around them.

For anyone who has ever had the unfortunate experience of being embroiled in the politics of art leagues or art societies you will note with interest that the 1877 exhibition mentioned above generated some unpleasant political moves by the members. First, it should be noted that three years earlier John La Farge (a tonalist) pleaded with the National Academy Hanging Committee for artistic diversity in the exhibitions. So in the 1877 show the hanging committee gave prominent spots on the wall to a number of Paris and Munich Trained non-members of the academy including William Merritt Chase, Frank Duveneck  and J.Alden Weir. This would account for poor Sonntag finding his painting stuck above a door!!

 J. Alden Weir, The Spreading Oak

Frank Duveneck, Beechwoods at Polling

William Merritt Chase, October

The older members of the Academy were dismayed and alarmed, and immediately put into place and "eight foot rule" giving academy members the right to hang two paintings and eight feet of hanging space on the line in annual exhibitions. They also blackballed from membership many of the new Tonalist artists who were considered "modern" or "progressive" and the older Hudson River School artists wrested control of the hanging committee to enforce the rules.

Clarence Cook writing in the Ne York Tribune called the academy's behavior "an act of contempt" especially the academy's staunch refusal to admit Robert Swain Gifford to its membership.

Robert Swain Gifford, Twilight

Fortunately today, with over a century separating us from the bitter divide between The Hudson River School and the Tonalists I am free to draw inspiration and learn from them both. 


Joan Cole said...

Jan, You never fail to teach me something that I can apply to my own art career. Your post today about the conflict between the Hudson River School painters and the Tonalists is no different. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and oh the conflicts which arise. If only this type of discord were not inevitable given all the different "eyes" in the world.

Jan Blencowe said...

Hi Joan,

Yes, different "eyes" see the world differently.

To go back and read what art critics were writing about both schools would make your hair stand on end!!

And it's very enlightening to read about the squabbles and fights in the art societies of old. In an odd way it's reassuring to know that it's a perfectly normal part of art.