Woman in Art/Chapter 10 - Wikisource, the free online library
Rosa Bonheur in collaboration with M. Dubuf
Personality of the Impersonal. Spirit Beauty.
Children love fairy tales. Primitive folk had tradition or folk-lore for mental food. They loved, in fact they created, the myth. The Norsemen peopled their sagas and myths with imaginary beings; not gods and goddesses done in marble, as did the Greeks, theirs were nature-made, such as dainty ethereal wraiths, fleeting as morning mist, brilliant as the sun-kissed dew. Their whispers were the breezes, their laughter rippled with the waterfall; they lived in the trees; hid under the ferns; supped with bee and butterfly from honey-laden flowers. They are the imagined souls of things that live under the heavens; they bring joy to humans who believe in them, and look for them because they are the first children of nature.
A few artists have painted with the delicacy of color and touch that suggests the ethereal. Woman's form idealized has served such art, expressive of the invisible.
Can you see Love? Love centers in the babe, the child. Then let the child represent love. So came the boy Cupid to human fancy and our vocabulary.
In the French salon of 1899, M. Gussier exhibited a canvas representing "Cupid and Psyche." Psyche, mid the deep grass, stands native before the Creator as the flower of the field. She is unconscious of the little god of Love following not far away. Both figures are as lovely and pure as the flowers and leaves that partially veil their beauty. As one looks at the painting it is with bated breath, expecting the vanishing of such elusive loveliness.
Of the many painters who have essayed the subject of Life, in various mediums with varying degrees of success, Eva Withrow seems to have given from her imagination a most elusive presentation of the subjective. The young girl in the attitude of going forward extends her hand is if feeling her way through a curtain of mist, the left having caught a wave of the filmy uncertainty; she has thrown the arm over her head, which is slightly lifted as she gazes earnestly into the future. A lamp at her feet burns the incense of life and wreathes its vapor all about her. A bubble, symbolizing the brevity and uncertainty of life, floats above her. An ephemeral feeling pervades the picture, or rather an atmosphere of the spiritual.
You cannot see the voice, nor the saucy echo sent back from the hill slope or rocky wall; yet in an art production we may see "Echo" in harmony with her leafy environment. As light and sound waves meet, they have seemed to produce the translucent figure from the brush of a sympathetic artist, Seifert. He felt his subject or his skill could not have produced it.
One more example of fancy and illusiveness that links the spirit of the himan with that of nature,—"A Woodland Sprite" at home in the embracing arms of an old oak that nourishes the mystic mistletoe, and keeps the secret of the Sprite.
Akin to these evanescent beings, another lover of nature portrayed the oneness of soul with the spirit of the trees. The spirit of the woman is in touch with æolian voices of the pines; she wouldand hold them to the rhythm of her heart. So do voices of nature—God-endowed—give unspeakable tones to soulful memories. The art of Douglas Volk assists the appreciation of this beautiful relation of the human heart to nature voices; but there needs must be the listening ear.
In the more difficult medium of marble, Mr. Daniel C. French has delicately expressed "The Spirit of Life." The soul of the artist has animated his hand—has animated the stone with vim and vigor, till the young girl, her foot on the fountain of life, responds to life. The golden bowl, of the elixir of life is held to her utmost height, and the wings symbolize the fleetness of existence.
Elihu Vedder has been a daring painter from his youth up. His imagination is boundless. Woman has been the motif and vehicle whereby his fancy has roamed the universe. Astronomy interests more people than in former years, yet few artists dip the brush for the romance of the stars. Mr. Vedder has done it many times, reaching the helium light of suns by his helium speed of thought, drawing them earthward to serve his art. When his fertile imagination led him to depict "The Fates Gathering In The Stars," he essayed a subject of cosmic breadth on something less than a three-by-four-foot canvas. The color scheme is perfect to the subject; ashen grays garb the Fates, and their girdles of flame red, metallic green, and gaseous blue, flung afar, gather remote suns and derelict worlds to their abode in the everlasting darkness of cosmos.
The artistic claims no originality for the Fates of mankind in the cosmic world. It is an age-old fact, that destiny rests in the power of the feminine element; but Mr. Vedder has been the most original symbolic painter in modern art.
Consider "The Pleiades," the seven beautiful daughters of Atlas transformed into a sisterhood of stars. Not being of the earth earthy, their forms can afford to be perfect, their raiment of mysterious color and light, spun by centripetal force from off the ethereal fabric of the stars. Perpetual action is in the cloud-wreathed elements in which and of which the sisters are a part, while gravity stays their lightsome feet seemingly on the brink of abysmal space.
To descend to the earth of humans again, let us take a glimpse of the subjects and ideals of three or four modern painters of the nude. As in the brilliant fifteenth century we find a group of gifted artists born within a given decade, so we find in the second decade of the nineteenth a galaxy of art-endowed boys born to enrich the art of their native France with a far different yet beautiful art expression. It was a large group working out various ideas in the civilized world that helped to make the past century of marked interest and progress in the history of human development.
Our subject designates four as illustrative.
Alexander Cabanel (1823-1889) was thoroughly imbued with the instinct and perception of art, developed from an early age by a thorough knowledge of the theories and science of art. At the age of fourteen he was offered the professorship of drawing in the College of Pons; and six years later his native town gave the means for his art education in Paris. At twenty-two he won the Prix de Rome, and so on through his sixty-five years he had prizes and honors heaped upon him. But his highest awards are considered to be his pupils, many of whom form the next elevation in French art.
One of his most exquisite productions he called "The Birth of Venus." The goddess reclines on the crest of a pale green wave; one arm over her head gleams on the abundant hair that as wisp-like drapery floats about her beautiful limbs. The eyes are looking directly at you from under half-closed lids. Little loves hover about her, as do soft yellow butterflies over a pond lily opening to the sun. It is a masterpiece that adds to the Luxembourg and French art.
The Metropolitan Museum in New York has a superb portrait from Cabanel's easel, painted in Paris where Miss Catherine Lorillard Wolfe gave him sittings for her portrait about the time she presented her large and valuable gallery of paintings to that institution.
In that collection is another painting, oriental in type, from the hand of Cabanel. "The Shulamite" presents a queenly woman garbed in truly oriental colors and costume, her black waving hair wreathing her earnest, upturned face, strong in features and rich in color. A fine Hebrew type, poetic of her race and time. It was painted to order for Miss Wolfe from the Song of Solomon: "Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away."
The three pictures cited from the same artist present woman in three ages of world development, Greek, Hebrew, and American.
William Adolph Bouguereau (1825-1905) has been called preeminently the painter of flesh. Said Benvenuto Cellini, "The important point in art is to create the nude figure," and more than one writer has attributed the attainment of this high art to Bougereau. Flesh is full of colors, absorbed light, and invisible moisture. Many can paint flesh color, but that is as far as they can get. "That substance, unctuous, white, uniform, without being pale or faded, it is this mingling of red and blue, of imperceptible moisture, which forms the despair of the colorist."
Bouguereau received his early instruction, as did Cabanel, at the College at Pons, and in both pupils drawing was manifestly thorough.
It was at the Columbian Fair at Chicago in 1893 that the American public, at least, had the opportunity of knowing the exquisite work of this master. The portrait of M. Carnot, at that time President of France, occupied a prominent space in the French Department of that spacious art building of magnificent Greek architecture. On one side the portrait (by Cabanel) was a masterpiece by Bougereau, exquisitely depicting "Whisperings of Love." Against a refined background of woodland and a suggestion of sculptured marble, a slightly veiled figure was listening to whisperings of a bevy of ethereal little loves. The radiating of light and life from the unctuous quality of flesh reached the most distant observer in the spacious gallery. The luminousness and delicacy of the ensemble seemed heightened in effect by the deep richness of tones and dignity of pose portrayed in the splendid portrait.
Nature alone, it seems, formed the environment for "The Bathers," as they have stepped from the tremulous, blue-green sea to the sand and rocks of the friendly shore. The two bathers form one of the most beautiful and perfect paintings of the nude we have.
Many charms have been bestowed upon womanhood by nature, and it is within her power to add many more; the cultivation of the spirit, mind, and soul, purity and unselfishness, reflect the inner thought-life, and such beauty radiates like sunshine.
A third painter of our group portrays a life-long influence of one particular factor of feminine loveliness. We are all more or less familiar with the luxurious red hair that Jean Jacque Henner loved to paint. The effect of that hair on the mind of the artist made him play all his painted nocturnes to the dominant red hair. His first success came when a young man. He was a born draftsman and colorist, and in competition with other students was to paint "Adam and Eve Finding the Body of Abel." For the figure of Eve he secured as a model a very beautiful young Jewess with a wealth of red-gold hair. The painting gained for him the Prix de Rome, and to that type he adhered ever after—more than forty years, till his name became attached to that shade of red gold.
Painting of the nude was his special study, and twilight his hour for the delicate tints and shadows that made him famous, the hour when things of earth are being folded in the purple mists of evening. He used to say, "In that hour the white pallor of the human body seems to have absorbed all the daylight and to be giving it forth again." Five colors made his palette complete. In the young girl "Spirata," the spiritual maid seems thought-intent on the meaning of life, or listening to deep whispers in her own soul.
Magdalenes, nymphs, reclining maidens, madonnas, or bathers, all furnished opportunity for Henner's skill; whether it was a mural, a portrait, a nude, or a Sappho, equal care was lavished upon his subject.
In the Luxembourg is a picture of unusual charm, an exceptionally beautiful nude. The artist, Jules Joseph Lefebvre (1834-1912), there pictured his ideal of the "Naked Truth," or "La Verite." Truth is pure, so is the standing maiden holding her discriminating mirror before humanity. Light radiates from the luminousness and texture of the flesh so wonderfully painted. The fable has it that Truth emanates from a well, and the background of rocks indicates the nearby depths. Abundant hair falls about her impressive, almost stern face. "The superb figure, in attitude and resolute expression, impresses one with a strong sense of the divinity of a nature that even in all the stolidity and strength of the figure 'might soar but yet remain' to reflect upon a darkened world the light from her mirror."
The female form has been used to impersonate many beauties of nature that are far from the human. An instance, also by Lefebvre, he has called "The Dew." It is a transparency, a figure hardly retaining form as she floats on the mist of the morning as ephemeral as the dew itself, a spirit caught unawares by the Dawn as she scatters o'er leaf and flower the jewels of Day's natal hour.
As woman has been chosen by man to exemplify Truth, let her beware that she portray Truth to all the world she knows. Lefebvre was a young man just returning from his pensionate at Rome when he painted "La Verite," and it seems to have set the criterion for his future in subject, character, and technique. It is so pure one can look at it as into the corolla of an Easter Lily. It recalls these lines by Shelley:
"Spirit of beauty,
Thy light alone—like mist o'er mountains driven,
Or music by the night wind sent
Through strings of some still instrument,
Or moonlight on a midnight stream,—
Gives grace and truth to life's unquiet dream."
The more delicate the whispers of life to life, the more of truth and harmony; the more thrilling the beauty, the more deeply is the soul touched, and the higher is it lifted to meet inspiration. Delicate and deep of soul is the mind that could produce so calm and steadfast a Truth as the clear-eyed woman who looks out from her fountain home, holding her mirror to her utmost height.
We note in the work of these four painters advancement in technique, in delicacy that indicates spiritual perception, refinement of thought,—and the ideal has resulted.
We are all conscious that the phenomena of nature produce in the mind, through the senses, various effects on the spirit. Douglas Volk painted a picture he called "The Song of the Pines." It illustrates what has been said. First, there is harmony in composition. The soulful young woman, standing in a forest with uplifted face, is listening to the music of the pines.
Aeolian tones escaping on the breeze
Are wafted—are they not?—to unseen leas
In that fair realm where praise is gathered in,
And wafted to that upper realm akin
To where the Holiest of heaven abides,
And listens to the music of the spheres
And harmonies of Nature's wordless psalm.
'Tis Nature music thrills with holy calm,
Soft fingered by the leafage of the boughs:
Sight, sound, and color play upon the heart—
The heart responds with praise, with song, with art.
Then there is the harmony of color tones: a simple robe the deepest shade of autumn's wine, and deeper shades of sable at her throat, a throat that holds at poise the beauteous head as seen against the rich green foliage of the trees; a glimpse of heaven's blue between the stalwart stems, and a hint of its reflection in an intervening lake.
Most subtle is the harmony of spirit given by the trees in whispers to the spirit of a human soul.