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The Mistress of All Masters

By Stephen Gjertson

This article was originally published in The American Society of Classical Realism – Salon 1992, exhibition catalog, Heritage Art Gallery, Alexandria, VA. 
Footnotes are inserted into the text within brackets.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Police Verso, 1872. Oil on canvas, 38 x 58 3/4. Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, Arizona.

Foundations are important. Everything that is made or thought is as sound or as valid as its foundation. If the foundation is weak or wrong, whatever is built upon it will ultimately collapse. Throughout history nature has been the undeniable foundation of the visual arts. The visible world has provided the basic raw material for the artists of every epoch, be their work primitive, symbolic, decorative, or expressive. The controversies that raged in art history seem to be more philosophic than artistic and deal with the definition of nature, how it should be interpreted by the artist and to what moral use the arts ought to be put, if any. The greatness of a work of art depended upon how well nature was perceived, put into concrete form and used to express profound and enduring thoughts.



Leonardo da Vinci, Self-Portrait, red chalk. Turin, Royal Library.

Generally speaking, in the ebb and flow of art history, the masterpieces of Western art were produced when artists had a passion for the study and imitation of the natural world. Such study transcended controversy and normally led to an increase in technical skill and to a sophisticated sense of harmony and order. Periods of artistic decline were brought about when artists neglected the study of nature and began imitating the work of other artists or after periods of cataclysmic cultural collapse, such as the fall of the Roman Empire. Renewal and revitalization of the arts usually occurred as artists returned to the diligent study of nature, sought to increase their perception of it and to perfect their skill in imitating its subtle splendors. Leonardo recognized this recurring cycle and summed it up by saying that, “Those who take for their standard anyone but nature, the mistress of all masters, weary themselves in vain.” [Jean Paul Richter, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1970, Vol. 1, p. 332.]

Joseph DeCamp, Sally, c. 1907. Oil on canvas, 26 x 23. Worcester Art Museum.

The nineteenth century was a time of artistic revitalization. The renewed study of nature began with Jacques-Louis David’s reaction against the artificialities of much eighteenth-century art. It was continued by the best academic artists and was culminated in the study of light and color by the Impressionists. This animated artistic activity rivaled the Renaissance in the intensity of its vision and the variety of its application. The French academic painters of the nineteenth century were perhaps the most rigorously trained artists to ever work from life. Far from being fettered by conformity to artistic and aesthetic doctrines that stifled individual creativity, the best of these masters were a remarkably diverse and brilliant company of artists. They worked in a wide variety of styles and employed methods that were acquired from their study of nature and the great painters of the past. Their training was an amalgamation of the Bolognese academy and the older apprenticeship system, both of which stressed the importance of drawing and painting from life. Building on this foundation, individuals were encouraged to study the great traditions of ancient and modern art. Their styles developed as they were inspired by nature, the kindred spirits they found in the past and present, and their own personality.

William McGregor Paxton, Mr. Charles Sinkler, 1928. Oil on canvas, 37 1/4 x 33. Private collection.

By contrast, the twentieth century has been a period of unprecedented artistic and cultural decline. Nature was first exaggerated to a degree that would have been considered intolerable in even the most decadent periods of the past, and then eradicated completely as an artistic foundation. With this foundation destroyed, the house of art collapsed into a mountain of rubble. The perverse nihilism and negativity that has been reigning in the art world since the 1940s has prevented an art based on nature from being taken seriously, and the proponents of the former have tended to calumniate the practitioners of the latter. Nevertheless, within the maelstrom of artistic and cultural confusion, where the negative, ugly, bizarre, enigmatic, and incompetent are often mistaken for the profound, there are many individuals whose hearts and imaginations are stirred by that elusive and compelling “mistress of all masters.” The artists represented in this exhibition are among them. Like the best artists of the past, they seek to build their art on the solid foundation of nature, harmony, and order. The particular link to the past for many of these artists comes through William McGregor Paxton, a Boston artist who studied in Paris with Jean-Léon Gérôme during the early 1890s. Paxton had a love of line and form inspired by Ingres and developed under Gérôme. This was united with an exceptionally fine eye for observed color value relationships and a love for the great 17th century impressionist Johannes Vermeer. By talent and temperament, Paxton was a true impressionist. His work was firmly rooted in “the way things looked” to his sensitive and discerning eye. This is demonstrated in his subjects: portraits and small interiors.

R. H. Ives Gammell, Tammuz, 1931. Oil on canvas, 41" in diameter. Private collection.

Paxton’s insistence on refined impressionist seeing and color truth, and his emphasis on sound drawing and proportion was imparted to his pupil, R. H. Ives Gammell of Boston. During a time when serious representational painting was considered anathema, Ives Gammell, freed by financial independence from the necessity of earning a living, created an art based on the close observation of nature, literature, myth, and psychology that was both profound and unique. Gammell was interested in the imaginative and decorative tradition of painting akin more to that of Paxton’s teacher, Gérôme, than to that of Paxton himself. He was also a learned, diligent, and sometimes eccentric teacher who stressed the importance of impressionist seeing and its application to imaginative painting, with which he was personally involved.

Richard Lack, Medea, 1970. Oil on canvas, 60 x 29. Private collection.

One of the most significant pupils of Ives Gammell is Richard F. Lack. He established and taught at Atelier Lack in Minneapolis for almost twenty-five years. Lack’s interest and expertise in both impressionist and imaginative painting, plus the broad range of his technical knowledge and skill, made him a crucial figure in transmitting the perception and skills necessary to practice these art forms. Having nature as one’s “supreme guide” is no guarantee of artistic excellence, however, for us or anyone else. Countless mediocre amateurs and professionals claim such a creed. Galleries and art magazines are filled with second-rate representational art, poorly done from life, from slides or from photographs. Nevertheless, when used as a guide by talented and well trained individuals it is capable of inspiring an almost limitless variety of interpretation and expression.

This richness and diversity may be seen in the best work done during all periods, from ancient art to the present time. As in past centuries, the artists here represented are inspired by nature, other artists and their own personal vision. They, too, are interested in a wide variety of subject matter and methods. Their training has given them an artistic language of visual perception and technical methods that may be adapted and modified as necessary. Each artist’s style and their choice and range of subject matter reflect that individual’s personal perception and temperament. Where they rank as artists will eventually depend upon what they have to say and how well they say it.

Modernism has collapsed because its foundation was weak, but its destructive legacy lives on. Unrestricted freedom of expression and freedom from all norm and rule have led to educational degeneration and cultural chaos, especially in the visual arts. When future historians judge the artistic vicissitudes of the twentieth century, I believe that the often unheralded but positive things will endure. Profundity will lie within the realm of representational and conceptual truth, harmony, beauty, and technical skill. As in the past, an art built upon this foundation will transcend temporary aberrations and will ultimately stand.

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