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11.1: Victorian into Modern- Exploring the Boundaries between Mind and World

  • Page ID
    232330
    • Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts
    • Washington University in St. Louis, University of Rochester, Stanford University and Harvard University
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    In 1870 American historian and author Henry Adams, at the time a young diplomat, was summoned to Tuscany where he witnessed the death of his "gay and brilliant" sister "after ten days of fiendish torture" from lockjaw following a cab accident that had bruised her foot. Art, literature, and religion, he wrote nearly forty years later (1907), merely veiled the horror of death; confronted with the reality, "the human mind felt itself stripped naked, vibrating in a void of shapeless energies." The entire edifice of culture, with its progressive pieties and quest for meaning, seemed to Adams, for a time at least, to mask a chaos at the heart of things.

    Later, Adams faced another personal loss. In 1885 his beloved wife, with whom he had shared his life's work, committed suicide by drinking developing fluid used in her photography. Childless and prone to depression, Marian Hooper Adams, known as Clover, had turned to photography as a creative outlet in which her considerable talents might not be confined by her gender. The shock of Clover's death was such that, even decades later, Adams excised from his autobiography the twenty years covering their marriage and her suicide, never mentioning his wife. In 1888, he sought out his friend Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) to sculpt a memorial to Clover, to express his longings for meaning in the face of loss.

    The memorial to Clover Adams in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C. (p. 356), presides over an intimate space, originally landscaped to obscure it from the common view of passersby. Seated on a rock bench, back upright against a classical plinth, is a bronze figure. Right arm raised, its spread fingers barely graze the chin in a gesture of contemplation. The fine-boned face, with its classical features and full lips, is shadowed by the drape that shrouds the head and cascades down in gracefully severe folds, revealing little of the body beneath. The eyes are lowered, or perhaps closed, and seem internally focused rather than turned outward to engage the world beyond the self. This interiority is virtually unknown in the sculpture of the later nineteenth century. Saint-Gaudens's figure models meditation: its downcast eyes shun exchange with others.

    Adams had asked Saint-Gaudens to reach beyond traditional sculptural motifs. In response, Saint-Gaudens spurned the allegorical mode that characterized most neoclassical sculpture (in which identifiable attributes carry specific meanings-scales for justice, laurel branch for fame) in favor of imagery in which meaning is indeterminate. Each viewer is thus free to arrive at the significance of the work through his or her own experience. Though today the figure appears feminine, its original intention was to transcend sexual division. Clover herself suffered from the limitations imposed upon her by her gender. Adams later wrote to his friend Theodore Roosevelt that Saint-Gaudens had wanted "to exclude sex, and sink it in the idea of humanity. The figure is sexless."1

    Figure 11.1: JOHN LA FARGE, The Great Statue of Amida Buddha at Kamakura (known as the Daibutsu), from the Priest's Garden, c. 1887. Watercolor and gouache on off-white wove paper, 19¼ x 12½ in (49 x 31.8 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of the family of Maria L. Hoyt, 1966.
    Figure 11.1: JOHN LA FARGE, The Great Statue of Amida Buddha at Kamakura (known as the Daibutsu), from the Priest's Garden, c. 1887. Watercolor and gouache on off-white wove paper, 19¼ x 12½ in (49 x 31.8 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of the family of Maria L. Hoyt, 1966.

    The work's symbolic program thus united the opposing realms of male and female, an impulse that extended to another organizing opposition of Adams's generation: that of East and West. While evoking Michelangelo's monumental sibyls on the Sistine Ceiling, Saint-Gaudens's enigmatic figure goes beyond the classical language of the Renaissance and embraces Asian forms. Adams had visited Japan with his friend John La Farge (1835-19rn) , their itinerary including some sacred sites of Buddhism. Adams reported that as Saint-Gaudens puzzled out his memorial, his studio was filled with images of the Buddha and of Kwannon, the all-merciful maternal figure whose love offers refuge from the isolation of the self (fig. 11.1) .

    Bridging male and female, East and West, Saint-Gaudens' s memorial to Clover Adams expresses deep yearnings for unity. "Beyond pain, and beyond joy," in Saint-Gaudens's words,2 the Adams Memorial resists the fixed meanings and absolute truths that had guided artistic allegory in previous generations. Even while looking backward across history, it anticipates the ethical and spiritual explorations of the century that lay ahead.

    Framing the Discourse

    Victorian

    IN ITS NARROWEST DEFINITION, the term "Victorian" refers to anything occurring during the reign of Queen Victoria in the United Kingdom (1837-1901). But it has come to denote any one of a series of cultural, artistic, and social qualities that characterized middle-class society in the United States and Britain. The Victorian is often positioned as the cultural order against which modernists rebelled in the early twentieth century.

    The Antimaterialist Impulse: Symbolism and Tonalism

    American novelist Henry James (1843- 1916) observed that "In the mansion of art there are many rooms." In the final years of the nineteenth century, such pluralism acquired new relevance. In place of settled notions, American art was undergoing a "crisis of faith" in the evidence of the senses, and fundamental shifts in attitudes about the role of imagination in the artistic process.

    In the same years when American Impressionists pursued their untroubled sunlit vision, another, very different art emerged that explored the shadowy, twilight experience of nature, resonating with interior moods and states of emotion. These Tonalists and Symbolists used paint to explore a world in retreat from hard fact and empirical measures of meaning. They emphasized internal states in a philosophic retreat from naturalism. They believed in art as a refuge from science, technology, and an increasingly regulated social existence. In the sciences, the compulsion to order, measure, dissect, and catalogue the natural world was leading to the growing conviction that the human mind itself- the instrument of knowing- resisted full understanding. This crisis of faith in the rationality and orderliness of both mind and world turned artists in new directions; many questioned sensory evidence, investigating the extrasensory or spiritual dimensions of experience. In the Symbolist approach, art was the zone of encounter between the material-paint and canvas-and the immaterial-the realm of suggestion, imagination, and escape from the constraints of the body and of nature.

    The terms Symbolism and Tonalism describe tendencies shared by a wide range of artists rather than distinct movements. "Tonalism" was used by the art historian Wanda Corn in 1972 to describe the soft focus and muted light and color effects of artists drawing away from the intense heightened palette of Impressionism. Tonalists accordingly preferred weather conditions-fog and winter and times of day- dawn and dusk- when both nature and the city were veiled by atmosphere or muted light. Precise description-associated with an empirical approach to the world- was repudiated in favor of "visionary" states, reverie, and introspective awareness. Avoiding detail, Tonalism aspired to unity of effect. Using a restricted range of hue, Tonalism's subtle tonal harmonies and veils of color offered a refuge from the sensory overload of urban life. It encouraged aesthetic withdrawal rather than confrontation. In its withdrawal from modern life it was "antimodern"; but in its turn toward subjective experience over objective authority it anticipated modernism.

    Tonalism traced its inspiration to James Abbott McNeil! Whistler, whose influence was assimilated by many American artists in the last two decades of the century, and whose insistence on the imagination's superiority to nature also contributed to the Symbolist movement. Whistler diluted his paints to the consistency of india ink. Washed onto unprimed canvas, they sank into it, creating veils of color that dematerialized the paint surface and encouraged subjective engagement with the image. Tonalism had roots as well in the French mid-century landscapes of the Barbizon-an artistic colony near Paris that anticipated the later-nineteenth-century taste for a domesticated, homely nature of wistful moods and emotional suggestion.

    Figure 11.2:GEORGE INNESS, Scene at Durham, an Idyl, 1882- 5. Oil on canvas, 40 x 30 in (101.6 x 76 .2 cm). Collection of Frank and Katherine Martucci.
    Figure 11.2:GEORGE INNESS, Scene at Durham, an Idyl, 1882- 5. Oil on canvas, 40 x 30 in (101.6 x 76 .2 cm). Collection of Frank and Katherine Martucci.

    GEORGE INNESS. George Inness (1825--94), the leading landscape artist of the 1880s and 1890s (fig.11.2), realized this shift toward a more subjective mode of landscape painting in which the experience of nature was filtered through mood, memory, and association. Inness's loose handling and tonally unified palette blurred the specific details of the landscape. He wrote that "The greatness of art is not in the display of knowledge, or in material accuracy, but in the distinctness with which it conveys the impressions of a personal vital force ."3 Inness's soft, modulated colors and restful imagery appealed to audiences whose nerves were stretched taut by the experience of modern life. In place of discrete particulars was a unity of effect that seemed to still the frenetic succession of impressions in the late-nineteenth-century city. From the late 1870s on, Inness looked toward a more domesticated form of landscape imagery that ran through such European movements as the Barbizon School. Drawn to the low light of sunset and dusk, and the transitory effects of cloud-streaked skies, Inness painted the flat marshy and forested scenery of his New Jersey home. His landscapes show a long-domesticated nature, where the human response is muted and elegiac. Drawing back from overt symbolism, they also allowed more room for private associations. His paintings carry the consolations of a civilized nature-remote from the more charged moments of natural fullness and energy that characterized the mid-century, yet deeply infused with a sense of human presence and spiritual reverence.

    Figure 11.3: WILLARD METCALF, May Night, 1906. Oil on canvas, 39½ X 36⅛ in (100.3 x 92 cm). Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
    Figure 11.3: WILLARD METCALF, May Night, 1906. Oil on canvas, 39½ X 36⅛ in (100.3 x 92 cm). Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

    WILLARD METCALF. Tonalism comes together with Symbolist themes of private experience in a painting by Willard Metcalf (1858-1925), May Night (fig. 11.3). The diaphanous figure of a woman appears mesmerized by the ghostly apparition of an imposing classical facade , whose luminous white columns radiate an unearthly light. While the intensity of dark shadows cast by the trees on the lawn suggests a full moon, and therefore offers a commonsense explanation for the scene, the painting suggests mystery and implies a narrative. The woman is drawn trancelike toward the seated figure of a man beneath the columned porch, her movements dictated by some inner mind-driven compulsion. Moonlight here serves as visual metaphor for the transforming powers of imagination upon the hard facts of the real. In the Symbolist mode, the world outside the self is mysteriously aligned with the world of imagination. Symbolism-the last gasp of nineteenth-century romanticism-was a prelude to those aspects of modernism that emphasized the mind's way of knowing, over and against naturalistic vision. Symbolist works retreated altogether from the world of objects into a "temple of the mind," to borrow the title of a work by Albert Pinkham Ryder.

    ALBERT PINKHAM RYDER. The mystic, unworldly art of Ryder (1847-1917) proved especially resonant for later artists searching for a visionary tradition to anchor their own turn from modernity. Ryder was famous in his own lifetime for his eccentric and reclusive habits, haunting Manhattan in the small hours of the morning, hanging on for years to paintings he had promised to patrons as he obsessively repainted them. By all counts, Ryder's best works were little masterpieces of jewel-like color perfectly coupled with melancholy themes of loss and spiritual yearning. His work was the very antithesis of the daytime world of business and money; he drew his subjects from the operatic legends of Siegfried and the Rhinemaidens in Wagner's Ring Cycle (Wagner was widely performed in New York at the end of the century), from the Bible, and from his own mind.

    Figure 11.4: ALBERT PINKHAM RYDER, Toilers of the Sea, 1883-4. Oil on wood panel, 11½ x 12 in (29.2 x 30.4 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
    Figure 11.4: ALBERT PINKHAM RYDER, Toilers of the Sea, 1883-4. Oil on wood panel, 11½ x 12 in (29.2 x 30.4 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

    Toilers of the Sea (fig. 11.4) combines the marine subjects Ryder loved with the theme of the voyaging self, alone in a universe filled with spirit. Ryder struggled to coax the materiality of paint into an expression of the transcendental, using whatever he had at hand-including shoe blacking- to achieve the luminous and enchanted effects he saw with such intensity in his imagination. Today his paintings, encrusted with darkened and cracked pigment, have lost their luminosity-ghosts of their former selves. With their bold forms and open-ended narratives, however, they appealed to modernists from Marsden Hartley to Jackson Pollock.

    Cultural Contexts

    THE PRIVATE WORLDS of imagination, memory, and subjective experience presented a compelling alternative to older forms of public and institutional authority. Bolstering this shift toward the subjective basis of artmaking was a new awareness of the role of the body in producing vision. Experimental artists on both sides of the Atlantic began to emphasize the medium of perception-the eye-over the thing perceived. The shifting and unstable conditions of light and other contingent factors themselves became the subject of art. In contrast to primary attributes which exist in the object-hardness, shape, volume- color and light are secondary perceptual attributes that exist as a result of the human sensory apparatus of vision itself. What shaped visual (and other forms of) experience, in short, was the perceiving subject.

    A number of cultural influences paralleled-and perhaps contributed to-this aesthetic "paradigm shift." Among these was the "new psychology" pioneered by the American philosopher William James (1842-1910). In work published in the 1890s, James redefined the nature of human thought in a manner that blurred the boundaries between the perceiving subject and the object of perception, between mind and world. James understood perception to be a product of environment-mental and physical-rather than a matter of grasping an unchanging reality. Both world and mind were in a constant state of flux , in endless interaction with one another.

    James's new psychology articulated ideas already being explored in the visual arts in the final decades of the century. In the early 1860s, several decades in advance of other artists, John La Farge painted a series of floral landscapes in which the flowers themselves are seen

    less as discrete objects than as elements in a visual fi eld defined by subtly modulated color (Flowers on a Window Ledge, fig. 11.5). Here, the measured spaces of earlier American painters give way to a blurred field of vision, in which foreground and background blend into one another optically. There are no firm contours anywhere in the image; as with Impressionism, which he in some ways anticipated, La Farge eliminated black chiaroscuro in favor of opalescent colored shadows. The entire image shimmers as if to capture the subtle quality of vision energized by light. The contemporary scholar Henry Adams has argued that James's new perceptual psychology was itself influenced by his youthful encounter with the art of his friend La Farge.

    Figure 11.5: JOHN LA FARGE , Flowers on a Window Ledge, c. 1867. Oil on canvas, 24 X 20 in (61 x 50.8 cm). Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Anna E. Clark Fund.
    Figure 11.5: JOHN LA FARGE , Flowers on a Window Ledge, c. 1867. Oil on canvas, 24 X 20 in (61 x 50.8 cm). Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Anna E. Clark Fund.

    Trompe l'Oeil: "The Real Thing"?

    Skepticism about all philosophical systems offering closed truths was part of a broader mood of questioning and doubt that seeped its way into many areas of cultural life in the United States at the end of the century. Among the more fanciful expressions of this skepticism was the vogue for trompe l'oeil (in French, "fool the eye") paintings. Despite their intense visual realism, these paintings engage by deceptiveness.

    The tradition of trompe l'oeil goes back practically to the origin of art, in playful forms of heightened illusionism that tricked the viewer into confusing the two-dimensional image with the three-dimensional reality. Trompe l'oeil painting often works by simulating a doorway, cupboard, or wall surface, as in Charles Willson Peale's Staircase Group (see fig. 5.32). Heightening awareness of the fictitious nature of painting, it also prompts delight in the devices by which the illusion of life is achieved.

    Figure 11.6: JOHN HABERLE, Changes of Time, 1888. Oil on canvas, 23 ¾ x 15 ¾ in (60.3 x 40 cm). Manoogian Collection, New York.
    Figure 11.6: JOHN HABERLE, Changes of Time, 1888. Oil on canvas, 23 ¾ x 15 ¾ in (60.3 x 40 cm). Manoogian Collection, New York.

    JOHN HABERLE. John Haberle's (1856-1933) Changes of Time (1888) (fig. n.6) is a wondrous feat of illusionism, in which a range of currency bills appears to be pinned to a wood cabinet door, complete with a key that dangles from a keyhole, teasing the viewer to "unlock" the mysteries that lie hidden beneath the surface of appearances. (Three nails, however, secure the door from our prying natures.) Yet the painting betrays its own promises at every turn, like the currency whose value, though boldly asserted, is notoriously unreliable. (The printing on the freshly minted bill at the center of the painting reads "This certifies that there have been deposited in the Treasury of the United States FIVE SILVER DOLLARS.") Bearing the images of various presidents, from Washington to Grant to Lincoln, Haberle's frayed and yellowed currency implies that the nation's public figures-like the values they represent-are susceptible to the ravages of time; their images toy with the idea of graven idols, bearing feet of clay. A snapshot of a Victorian beauty is pinned to the edge of the cupboard, a suggestion of lost love and transitory hopes. A magnifying glass is nailed amidst the scraps of old money, tantalizingly set upon a legible piece of newspaper clipping whose snatches of phrase-"]. Haberle . . . remarkable piece of imitation of nature ... and a most deceptive trompe l'oil"- refer the viewer back to the artifice of the painting itself Haberle puns here as well on oil (as in painting) and oeil (the French word for "eye"), implicating oil painting in the deceptions of vision. As if to "nail" the point down, Haberle's magnifying glass is cracked. We the viewers see the crack, rather than the surface behind the transparent glass. Haberle comments her~ on the collapse of painterly illusionism-the window-into-space model of painting since the Renaissance. His trompe l'oeil-the art of illusion reveals the essential nature of painting itself, as a lie or fiction of truth. Yet barred from any further access to something beyond, the viewer is left with this fiction as the only available truth. The quest for ultimate or absolute meanings here is playfully subverted.

    Paper currency formed one of the recurring elements of trompe l'oeil painting. A flat object on a flat surface, currency challenged illusionism. As a medium of wealth and exchange, its value fluctuated. As national currency, paper money also blurred the boundaries of public and private: although engraved with presidents and other symbols of the nation, money was an object that excited personal ambition. By referring value back to the self, the desire for money called into question shared public values. By revealing the deceptions of art, trompe l'oeil paintings also subverted the idea that art had a special hold on truth. Like paper money, these paintings suggested that art has value only when people believe it does. And once that confidence is gone, art-like money-is no more valuable than "the paper it's printed on." Trompe l'oeil playfully taught its viewers to distrust appearances, a valuable lesson for city dwellers surrounded by swindlers who presented themselves as something other than what they were. Much popular entertainment, from Phineas T. Barnum on, turned on the thrill of discovering the mechanics of deception, of having revealed to one's eyes the tricks by which one was fooled. Audiences were genuinely delighted by the success of the illusion. Finally, many trompe l'oeil painters trumped claims about the truthfulness of photography by painting photographs into their work and deceiving the viewer into thinking they were "real." In doubtful times, notions of the real appeared increasingly fictitious.

    Late Homer, Early Modernism

    The great challenge facing American artists at the turn of the century was, as art historian Bruce Robertson has phrased it, "how to assimilate modern European art without losing their own voice." Winslow Homer (1836-1910) was perceived in his lifetime as an American "authentic," a native painter who turned his back not only on the fashions of European painting, but on the distractions of modern urban life in favor of the "essential" American experience. By mid-life Homer was already a myth; his private life blurred indistinguishably with his paintings. In 1883 he retired to Prout' s Neck, Maine, where, according to legend, he "scared off visitors with a gun" and spent his isolated hours painting the mystical power of the ocean and the shore in collision.4

    In fact, Prout's Neck was an active tourist resort during the summer, and Homer spent most of his time with his family, who lived nearby. He was also a frequent visitor to Boston and New York. But the ruggedness of his paintings in his late phase-the solitary lives of the fishermen and women he portrayed, the elemental power of the Maine coast-worked to convince his audience (and perhaps Homer himself) that his subject was nothing less than the American soul itself.

    To contemporary eyes, this vision of Homer as an isolated genius seems naive. What we recognize today is how profoundly Homer assimilated a range of influences. Homer responded to Japanese prints with the same passion that had once characterized his response to photography. Japonisme helped Homer liberate his art from its own narrative tendencies and allowed him instead to concentrate ever more intently on surfaces, pattern, and decoration.

    Figure 11.7: WINSLOW HOMER, Right and Left, 1909. Oil on canvas, 28¼ X 48 in (71.7 x 121.9 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
    Figure 11.7: WINSLOW HOMER, Right and Left, 1909. Oil on canvas, 28¼ X 48 in (71.7 x 121.9 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

    RIGHT AND LEFT. For Homer, as for so many other turn-of-the-century artists, "flatness was the stylistic mechanism that released his art from the obligation to descriptiveness and illusionism and equipped it to register feeling and assert meaning."5 For Homer, that meaning concerned the ability of the imagination to match nature's power. One year before his death, Homer painted Right and Left (fig. 11.7), an image of two ducks hovering above a green sea. Their splayed symmetry, derived from Japanese prints, exemplifies the simplification of form, planar composition, flattening of space, and arrested motion that characterize Homer's later work. Such formal concerns hold our attention until we notice the diminutive forms of two hunters in a boat beneath the wing and leg of the ascending duck. The serenity of the painting-its quality as a modern still-life-is shattered by the pessimism that suddenly emerges. The ducks do not hover abstractly before the viewer. They have been shot in flight; the bird to the right has already begun its plunge to the ocean. Right and Left sets the formal beauty of the birds against the sudden violent cessation of life.

    That contrast is the key to the painting. Homer establishes a dialectic between beauty and death that hinges on the question of point-of-view. We observe the plight of the birds from a disembodied stance. We are in the air, with the ducks, empathetically witnessing their terrible beauty precisely because we do not share the hunter's perspective. We might read Right and Left as a meditation on Homer's own relation to the world. His withdrawal from the New York art scene allowed him a perspective and distance that cast the world in a new light. Homer imagines the beauty of the ducks only after ascending metaphorically to their height, viewing them outside time and nature.

    But, as Homer suggests in Right and Left, there is a price for such perspective. To see the world's symmetries, the viewer must first give up his place in the world (on the boat). Art is born from worldly withdrawal. The powerful formal beauty of Right and Left- among Homer's most aesthetically satisfying works-is hard-won, achieved through renunciation, the act of giving up the world for the permanence of form.

    Homer was an extraordinary social critic who viewed society with a clear head and a sense of compassion that his contemporaries often lacked. Nevertheless-influenced in the final decades of the century by the Aesthetic Movement of writers and painters who espoused the cause of art for art's sake- Homer shared with them a sense of the canvas as a world of its own, defined by its flatness, its decorative possibilities, and its painterly nature. The act of painting, rooted in the condition of nature and of the cycles of life and death, ultimately finds meaning through the power of the artist to endow nature with a formal order, despite the profound limits mortality imposes on artistic ambition. While sharing much with the outlook of this generation, Homer's belief in the power of the artist, informed by the resources of culture and history, represented yet another inquiry into the nature of pictorial truth- as ultimately removed from nature-that was such a defining feature of these decades.