Who were these Boston Painters? Why is so little now known about them? Today's reader is fully justifed in raising such questions about a group of artists who have been lost sight of for many years. But answers to the query are readily at hand in the art periodicals covering the first quarter of the present century, throughout whose pages names of Boston painters, reproductions of their work and praise of their accomplishment are omnipresent. It is even more enlightening to leaf through catalogues of the national exhibitions then held annually by the National Academy of Design in New York, by the Pennsylvania Academy in Philadelphia and, after 1907, biennially by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, where the best painting currently being done in the United States was to be seen.
Names of artists with Boston addresses continually figure among the prize winners and account for a conspicuously large number of the pictures accepted by the juries appointed to pass on the entries. Only canvases which met the high critical standards of painters who had attained professional eminence were hung and therefore to have his entry accepted often sufficed to establish a young artist's reputation. To have one’s picture reproduced in the catalogue was a signal honor for which the Boston painters frequently qualified and the little photographs demonstrate the superior quality of their work. These exhibition catalogues now provide the most revealing record available of American painting during the period.
The second question, however, cannot be so easily disposed of because the origins of the long eclipse undergone by these once nationally prominent Bostonians are intricately concealed. The first seeds of the bitter dissensions which ultimately submerged their renown were sown at the century's turn during sessions of these very exhibition juries of which I have spoken.
The early controversies turned on the conflicting criteria whereby the relative merit of paintings may be determined. That capital issue has been so obfuscated by the art criticism of the last fifty years that the professional viewpoint which prevailed among painters before 1900 or thereabouts has been lost sight of and is scarcely comprehensible to the general reader today. Inasmuch as the artists with whom this book is concerned continued to be its most sturdy champions until the end of their days, I hope to make their outlook understood in the following chapters.
Initially, jury deliberations centered on the strictly pictorial merits of the paintings submitted. The professional stance was, "We are here to judge how well a picture achieves its artistic purpose without regard to our own personal reactions to the objectives chosen by the artist. Is the job sufficiently well done by painterly standards, to be included in this exhibition? That is the question we are here to decide upon.” And up to that time there had been substantial agreement among painters who had mastered their difficult craft as to what constituted a good professional job and on what grounds their criteria could reasonably be considered valid.
But during the closing years of the nineteenth century, in the wake of the impressionist schism, the following interrelated developments were beginning to transform the very nature of the art itself. First, the polemics engendered by that dispute discredited as “academic" the severe professional training on which the survival of painting as a fine art depends. Then, once this formidable bulwark had been sufficiently eroded, when the available know-how of painting had been reduced to a trickle and the public inured to the debased quality of what by that time passed for acceptable picture-making, manipulating pigment became the pastime of innumerable persons ranging from grammar school children to octogenarians who had not the slightest understanding of the noble but inaccessible art they were unconsciously and blissfully caricaturing. And, finally, when all authority based on extensive training and prolonged working experience had been eliminated, art critics, museum men and kindred experts imposed themselves on the public as tastemakers, arbiters and explicators of an art of which they had no practical experience and had demonstrated no well-founded comprehension. And that is where we stand today.
The little group of painters working in Boston during the first quarter of this century represented the best-trained segment of the profession domiciled in America. By then they were surpassed by only a few isolated great figures in Europe, survivors of a vanishing generation already long past their prime. These Bostonians stoutly defended the old standards of execution and in so doing antagonized a younger association of painters residing in New York and Philadelphia. The leading dissidents were talented men, more or less adequately schooled in their own particular ways of painting pictures, but none had undergone a thorough and comprehensive professional training. Misunderstanding the nature of a discipline they had never experienced, they persistently derided the older instruction and substituted something else in its stead, a kind of locker-room pep talk about art which made a tremendous appeal to their disciples, several of whom have recorded their masters’ words for posterity. The stated objectives, and especially the subject matter, of the loquacious painters contrasted sharply with those favored by the Bostonians.
Outside of the profession itself the choice of subjects was seen as the divisive issue. The Boston painters had found their inspiration in the mores of a leisure class and the enchanting New England landscape. The Ash Can School, as the name implies, featured the life of city streets, often underscoring its sordidness and squalor grotesquely. These subjects can provide admirable artistic material, as they have since before Rembrandt, but the painters in question seldom depicted them with distinction of form, color or composition and commonly failed lamentably in all these respects. Yet the subjects were timely and became even more so during the lean years that followed.
By awakening the nation's social consciousness the Great Depression endowed things proletarian with a halo of moral superiority which brought the Ash Can School center stage and relegated the Bostonians to the wings. In the nineteen thirties they were ridiculed for their cult of beauty and condemned for their knowledgeable workmanship which a rising generation of art students was being taught to despise as academic. Sneered at as the Genteel School by a new group of art writers, relegated to museum storerooms or "deaccessioned" by an influx of new curators who were taking over art museums throughout the land, the Boston painters were shoved into a temporary oblivion from which they are only now beginning to emerge.
This is the background against which I propose to reexamine the contribution made by these Boston-based artists; their origins, their objectives, their teaching and the pictures which they gave to the world. As their story unfolds it will become increasingly apparent that the group discussed in the following chapters as the Boston Painters by no means comprises all the noteworthy artists working in Boston between 1900 and 1930. The title is a generic one for many years applied by knowledgeable persons to the artists here described. It connoted a certain kind of painting characterized by very clearly stated and identifiable objectives and ideals which was practiced by a number of more or less closely associated artists working in the Boston area.
THE BOSTON PAINTERS 1900 - 1930
R. H. IVES GAMMELL
Edited by Elizabeth Ives Hunter