A Celebration of Women Writers

"Art-Isms." by Miss Annette Cole.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 600-602.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 600] 



"Isms" and "idiosyncracies" are not synonymous terms, and yet for the past century, especially in art expression, any erratic or revolutionary idea has received the appellation of an "ism." When the human mind became unshackled in the great upheaval of universal freedom, we find, particularly in the theological world, that thought moves in concentric circles, animated by a strong initial or projective force, and this central idea was denominated an "ism." Constant evolution of thought changes the ideal or standard. So creeds wear out or become de mode. Art canons are also very transitory in their nature and formula, requiring very close observation to keep pace with the latest expression. The question is asked, Why should we be troubled with so many perplexing isms? Or is there a logical historical and chronological development, so we may grasp the significance of these seemingly obscure, indefinite terms which, like the will-o-the-wisp, are ever eluding our mental grasp. The reply is in the affirmative. It is not necessary to go farther back than the beginning of our century to compass the thought or begin the study of the isms of modernite. We can not philosophize deeply upon the causes which introduced the new word Romanticism. Politically, in this nineteenth century movement, man asserted his freedom as an individual in proportion to the idea of his own responsibility, and also his liberty of interpreting life after his own methods, which changed the whole current of thought and action and revolutionized social and intellectual life. Hence Individualism is only another expression for Romanticism.

Germany led the van in the literary world, particularly in the novel, poetry and drama. Nerder was a reformer, but Goethe, influenced by the subjective philosophy of Fichte, most emphatically announced the individual. Then England followed, and Burns, Scott and Shelley opposed the classicism of Addison, Pope and Johnson. In France, the reign of Napoleon and the Revolution burst the bars, and the people opposed king-craft, convention and tradition. "Every man can be a law unto himself," was the spirit which now animated the thinking world. Victor Hugo was the great leader in France, although Madame de Stael and Béranger forecast the change. No other canon of criticism was tolerated than this: "The work, is it good or bad?" Art reflected more intensely the spirit of the age in her representations and interpretations. Romanticism in art was a reaction against the formal and cold classicism of the latter part of the eighteenth century, and the fossil ideas of Mediævalism. In 1812 the German artists, Cornelius, Overbeck, Veit, Schadow and others, impelled by the new impulse, went to Rome and formed a brotherhood, and in conscientious isolation [Page 601]  remained unshorn, and thus received the title of Nazarenes. They were also called "The Church Romantic Painters" and "The Old School." They even donned their kitchen aprons to attend to the culinary department. In their art labor they wrought diligently. For what? To purify art by drawing their inspiration from the revered old masters of Italy; and, returning, they transplanted the seed in the soil of the fatherland, and not only revealed to it the significance of natural life, but imbued it with a moral element which still dominates German art. This religious phase of Romanticism found expression in England under the name of pre-Raphæliteism, which was a conscientious striving after truth and purity of conception. Entirely idealistic in aim but realistic in method, evincing absolute fidelity to detail. But the strong individuality or personality of Millais, Rosetti, Collinson, and one or two others, did not allow them to remain many years an organized brotherhood. Who shall say pre-Raphæliteism has not served to perpetuate sincerity and a nobler aim in art, and also a more thorough mastery of technic?

With one notable exception, we must go to Europe to study the master-pieces of that noted group and their followers. In France, Gericault and Delacroix were the exponents of the heroic phase of Romanticism, while Scheffer alone represented the religious. Delacroix was the most strongly individual and dramatic in his conceptions. He drew his inspiration from Dante, Byron, Scott and Shakespeare. The school of Fontainebleau or Barbizon is another marked phase or illustration of Romanticism. We all know how sincerely Diaz Dupre, Daubigny, Corot, Rosseau and Millet sought to reinvest landscape with truth and feeling, and if we carefully study their pictures we can not fail to observe how marvelously each has impressed his own individuality and character upon his work. But now the vision of the artist grows more sensitive and acute, and he says, "This world is visible to me only in proportion as I annihilate myself and seek to interpret life just as I find it," and thus we have Realism. Themes may be chosen from life, and the whole aim may be to render objectively, but how can an artist sever his individuality and his art? Contrast Courbet with Meissonier, Morot with Fhermitte, LePage with Bonnot, and decide as to the possibility of the proposition. After due consideration is Realism more than a training-school for Idealism? Many critics of the present time think we ought not to employ the word "idealism," arguing that there is, and never was, but one true ideal, and that is in Greece. This is philosophically true; yet every age has its ideal, or may have. There are artists gifted with strong imagination, their minds teeming with poetic conceptions and subjectively must find utterance. If art is imagination, then it is the province of the idealist to create ideal standards of excellence, beatific visions of truth and goodness. Quite relevant to this thought is the present innovation upon the usual conventional manner of representing Christ. Is it sacrilegious to represent the Redeemer of the world as a Son of Man, clad in ordinary garments, walking and living among men? We will not assume the responsibility of approbation or condemnation. Every heart must pronounce its own dictum. Perhaps Skredsvig, the Norwegian artist, in his work, entitled "The Son of Man," has struck a keynote to a chord which shall long vibrate in the heart of mankind. What is more pathetic than the absorbing devotion of the woman who feign "would lay all at her Master's feet," expressed in the act of bringing her rugs and adjusting them with the utmost care, and then bordering the way His feet must pass with vases of precious flowers. Yes, the simple faith of those humble people is sure of a benediction. Idealism should, we believe, receive not only the sanction but the enthusiastic approval of all who sincerely desire the elevation of mankind.

What about Impressionism, called in playful derision the "new lavender school?" It is often abused and misunderstood as an appellation. This is a scientific age, and many artists are only endeavoring to grasp heretofore unsolved problems in light and atmosphere. They claim no moral purpose and surely we find none. Yet if conscientiously they are with keener vision penetrating deeper into the realms of nature, to render more subtle and evanescent beauty, giving us glimpses of the intangible, who [Page 602]  should say their aim is an ignoble one? We can not but think the exploitation has been made too public. Many of the experiments upon canvas should have been left in the atelier, "face to the wall."

Mr. George Moore, the new English critic, may throw some light upon this subject. His definition of Impressionism in the most modern sense is "a rapid noting of illusive appearance." Therefore, be sure to seek illusions. Then there is a theory that whatever the artist is painting, his retina must still hold some sensation of the place it has left. For instance, if a person leaves a brilliantly lighted salon, going out of yellow, he would see the other primary colors, blue and red; in other words, he would see violet. This theory happily furnishes a solution to the mysterious ultra violet shadows seen in Bésnard's "Two Ponies Harnessed by Flies," and Tarbell's "Girl and Horse." These artists had been for a long time rambling in the fields in the golden sunlight of an October day, and were true to the impressions left upon the retina when they painted the shadows. The transmutation is not complete in Dannat's "Spanish Girl." "The Iphigenia," in the harbor of Toulon, painted by the Parisian artist, Eugene Dauphin, is, we think, the most exquisite example of Impressionism in the French section or in the Art Palace.

But the great pendulum of this ism is now swung to the utmost limit of the realistic arc, and already we hear ominous sounds from afar.

The Independents, Incoherents and Les Inquiets claim attention. Allow me to offer just one word of consolation to the earnest artseer. When the "ism" is not obvious, call it Incoherentism or Inquietism, and you will be a la mode.

We sincerely hope that this grand reunion of international artistic effort will have a tendency to obliterate or converge all lines or isms, including American Alienism, into one broad Loyalism. This is the great hope for American art. Is there a lack of patriotism? No!

Have not our artists quick appreciation and adaptation? There are doubtlessly now living artists whose keen artistic sensibilities and powers will enable them to mount on eagles' wings of sublime genius. Circumstances have compelled many to meet commercial demands, or they have sought an artistic atmosphere away from the feverish existence of American life. Art has been considered too much a diversion or a luxury of the rich. Artists need more than the necessary commission; they require appreciation to stimulate them to their best efforts. Loyalism must permeate our picture markets. Art study must form part of the curriculum of more of our colleges and universities. Kindergarten must teach lisping lips to revere the names of our Turner, Johnson, Homer, Millet, Gifford, Vedder, Richards, Melcher, Sargent and Whistler. All our artists' names should become household words. Then with an unswerving loyalty to truth, beauty and lofty ideals as a centrifugal force, and a conscientious striving after perfect technic as a centrifugal force, art in America will rise Phœnix-like from its aspersions and become not only a grand conservative element of peace and prosperity in our glorious Republic, but will hasten the day when the kingdoms of this earth shall acknowledge but one ruler–the Eternal One, the Creator of all that is good, true and beautiful.

[Page 600] 

Miss Annette Cole is a native of Johnstown, N. Y. Her parents were Frederick S. Cole and Phoebe Cole, of Connecticut. She was educated in the Albany Normal School, New York, and in Cambridge, N. Y.; has traveled in England and Scotland, and extensively on the Continent. Her special work has been in the interest of art, literature, history and music, devoting twelve years to the study of art, and firmly believing that the multitude must be brought to art, since art can not reach the multitude. She has written many works in manuscript. Her profession is that of art teacher. In religious faith she is Methodist Episcopal. Her postoffice address is No. 4204 Calumet Avenue, Chicago, Ill.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Leslee Covington.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom