THE BOSTON SCHOOL (An incomplete essay by Paul Ingbretson)
Introduction: The Method is the School
“To discard the working methods evolved by the impressionist masters is to greatly reduce the scope of painting as an art.” - R. H. Ives Gammell
“No great man is separable from his technique, and the difference between two great men lies largely in a difference of technique, for technique is truly the language of the eye... If this be granted, then technique is as important to an art as the body to man. Both of them appear and act for two hidden questionable partners, sentiment and soul...Technique, then, is the indivisible organic body of a man's conceptions, and cannot be rightly apprehended when studied in fragments.” - From Velasquez by R. A. M. Stevenson
Numerous things have been written in the past thirty or so years referencing the Boston School. It has been credited with being the progenitor of the modern atelier movement of realist painting, while it is also darkly associated with the advent of bad education and “Modernism.” Strangely, it is arguably responsible for neither. As with the Boston School, the atelier movement training is based on the observation of nature. That training does not appear to differ much, in theory at least, from what Tarbell et al underwent at the old Boston Museum School within the first couple years of their study there, or what was being taught at Cowles, or the Pennsylvania Academy, or Art Student's League. The Boston School leadership of the Museum School (and the works of their students Gertrude Page, Gretchen Rogers and Leslie Thompson alongside them) suggests the same simple realist painting training that might have come from almost anywhere at the time, if better than most.
Whatever they taught at the Museum School, the approach of its teachers to making paintings in their own studios could hardly have been more different from my own teacher, R. H. Ives Gammell's. Their definition of impressionism, presumably at least as broad as his, encompassed solid drawing as well as color-value based light effects. Yet Gammell's way of working was not impressionistic in the Boston School sense at all. In this writer's opinion, he simply sought to work the better qualities of impressionist color into a French academic way of working.
Many will ask, “Isn't that exactly what they were doing? Isn't that what makes the Boston School so special?” Well, yes and no. While they did combine their good basic drawing training with impressionist light and color they did not do it Gammell's way. Rather than putting their new wine into an old wineskin they saw, as did other well-known painters of the day, that the successful combination of impressionist color and light with drawing and painting wet-into-wet would require rethinking the entire approach; an approach that found them working more like Velasquez or Chardin than Gerome or Bougeureau or their previous teachers at the Museum School or the Academe Julian. In their search for the new unity of approach necessary to their ambition they found, almost in concert, the Boston School approach. It is far closer to the way of Carolus-Duran as described in Kenyon Cox's Concerning Painting than the later outline based approach of Gammell.
When Gammell said to me, “All I ever wanted was to paint one like Tarbell” it was clear that he meant the look and the magic of a Tarbell painting which is part and parcel of the Boston School approach. (By the way, in my humble opinion anyone today claiming the "Boston School" label should not only be teaching academic drawing and impressionist color, but the unified approach of its practitioners, Boston School painting understood as a process.) In the interest of full disclosure, anything else should be called "Gammell School" or "the new realism," or something else entirely. I should add that even though Gammell studied very briefly with the main exponents of the Boston School, it is clear that that education could not possibly have reached the point where he would have been given in a useful or understandable way the working methods of Tarbell or Benson. Unlike these men, Paxton, with whom Gammell did study at great length, is simply not the main actor. It is their work and not his that defined the Boston School.
Among my purposes in writing about the Boston School is to bring awareness to categorical differences between simple realism (or what Stevenson in his Velasquez called "primitive realism" and primitive drawing) and Boston School, or truly impression-based painting and drawing. I would like thereby to encourage representational artists and students of painting not to overlook the real contribution of the school itself, its special value, and to offer those who love its orientation a chance to explore it more deeply. Theirs is truly a deep well, not to be overlooked by the wise. At the very least, a better understanding of it will help artists understand their own chosen approach better.
Of course, I honestly believe that the ability to render what you see before your eyes - not just the drawing of proportion and gesture and form, but the light effects, the color relations, and the visual impression as a whole on its own orderly terms - is the basis of a sound education in the arts, period. No systematic teaching is as comprehensive as that of the Boston School when incorporated with the logic of its approach, its method, which Gammell reminds is essential to its way of thinking. Unfortunately Gammell's overly broad definition of impressionism necessitates the inclusion of all methods ever used to articulate visual truth, without allowing for the dramatically different methods of different times and the necessary differences in their results. The work of Da Vinci or Bouguereau, considered impressionistic as being based on observations from life, are wrongly implied to share common methodologies with those of the Boston School itself.
Though Boston School painters considered the information offered in a Boston Museum School education to be crucial to the success of any painter, their own personal working methods were simply not those of their school years, not those of the academies in which they studied in several particulars, and certainly not those of Da Vinci or Bouguereau. Further along in this essay we will focus on their work. We'll consider their working maxims and other conversations, and in particular the lay-in of their pictures, in an attempt to clarify the sound reasons for working as they did. We'll also differentiate their approach from other representational, or even what Gammell might have called “impressionist” painters. We will then demonstrate and discuss the advantages of their way of working from life, particularly for any painters who share their interests and goals.
These considerations are based on almost 50 years of living around, looking at, and copying the actual work of Tarbell, Benson, DeCamp, and even Paxton, exploring in practice their approach. The conclusions are also a product of directly working with R. H. Ives Gammell in the Fenway Studios and having been involved in his discussions about the Boston School. My intention is not to sell the work of the Boston School per se, but simply to aid an understanding of it.
THE BOSTON SCHOOL (An incomplete essay by Paul Ingbretson)