Reflections on a Boston School Impressionist Education and the Absoluteness of Relatives in Art

        A similar relativity must be maintained in the degrees of sharpness whereby the apparent shapes in the field of vision are defined. Even a slight error of judgment in either of these areas may jeopardize the truth conveyed in a painting. The entire operation calls for a very perceptive eye, consummate draftsmanship and, above all, a firm intellectual grasp of the problem involved....comparatively few painters have carried it through even passably well.
                                     R. H. Ives Gammell


        It is essentially characteristic of the perceptual form that each single factor in the perception should have its meaning only in relation to all other factors; that all sizes. relationship of all lights and shades, all colors, etc., have only relative values. Everything depends on reciprocal relationships; everything influences the value of everything else. When we speak, therefore, of a total impression, we refer to the effect produced by the co-operation of all the factors in the perceptual form. Since the visual projection makes possible this conception of factors co-operating to form a unity, it follows that the single parts of which it is made up can have no meaning in themselves alone, but gain their significance only through that peculiar connection which constitutes their total unity. Accordingly, whenever in tracing the effect of a certain total appearance we are able to conceive the form of the object, it is because of the relationships existing between the various factors of the appearance. Hence if we try to represent pictorially our idea of form with the hope of producing a satisfactory total appearance we cannot succeed by translating kinesthetic ideas, piece by piece, into visual factors and then adding them together into one total appearance. In such a process we should not be considering at all the effects of the single factors as conditioned by their relations to the whole, but should be working, rather, as though each factor were perceived as isolated. We do not here deny the power of the spectator or of the artist as spectator to see at a glance everything represented on one canvas. We wish, rather, to emphasize the necessity of properly relating the parts of a picture in the process of composition.
                                     Adolf Hildebrand

        It has been observed that you can't pick your relatives and it is no less true in impressionism. For example, in laying in a painting you have a few initial anchoring points you may pick: Locations for top and bottom, or the extents of the lightest light and darkest dark. But after that, like it or not, you are their servants. After that, everything is relative to those choices and, of course, to all others in their turn.
        Of the more troubling conversations arising out of the anti-impressionist mindset presently troubling representational painting are allegations that impressionism a) led to, or encouraged poor education and b) led to, or encouraged the "moral relativism" of the age. The latter is a direct condemnation of impressionism originally expressed by Tolstoy. The former, sadly, may be attributed to Gammell himself. By indicting impressionism as a whole he indirectly implicates the men of the Boston School, his own teachers. To me this is a staggering misapprehension of the situation on both counts.
        In simple terms, Boston School impressionism requires more and not less education and discipline than run-of-the-mill photographic object painting. The Boston teachers, even by Gammell's own admission, provided as good a basic education as anyone anywhere in his day. The fact that there were so few practitioners of the kind of painting he wanted to do does nothing to diminish their commitment to teaching the traditional solid basics of drawing, painting and composition.
        The paucity of artists alive and running independent ateliers that could transmit the 'secrets' of salon paintings attests to to a loss of favor for that kind of work at the time. Put simply, it had run its course for the time being. Maybe it was, ironically, the photographic look of it that drained it of its magic as much as anything. For the moment the world was electrified by the more life-like impressions of certain artist' sunlit realities, more so than the stilted and over-stylized portrayals of ancient myths which meant nothing to them. The fact that the ignorant public couldn't differentiate between skilled impressionist craftsmen and hack imitators doesn't implicate either the craftsmen or their vision.
        Furthermore, indictments of a perceived moral relativism couldn’t be more misguided. For that matter, moral and religious language are much more easily lent to Impressionism’s defense than its condemnation. DeCamp’s entreaty that his students "paint straight and true like a Christian” wasn't any less an expression of his sincere love for all aspects of visual truth than it was a reflection of his religious background. The two could hardly have been thought to be in conflict. The particulars of one's religious faith aside, to be an impressionist is to be held spellbound before the light of the natural world and to endeavor to render it with the faith and honesty such love requires. This was a mindset shared as much by Gammell as any student of realism today. (Funny the irritation at the focus on light among apparently Christian moralizers. Didn't God Himself call forth light on the very first day?)
        However, the idea that in a painting all is in some sense "relative" is old news. Very old indeed, as it forms the very foundation of all aspects of good painting. I have in my studio a photographic enlargement of a note Gammell wrote and handed to me, stating that we paint visual facts not actual ones. The only visual facts are the apparent color, angles, proportions in relation to each other when reduced to two dimensions. When DaVinci talks about aerial perspective, he is demonstrating a relative truth: that the distant objects to our eyes appear less colored and less contrasty compared to things right before us. That is relative truth, as is all visual truth. That things appear smaller in perspective than similar things closer to the viewer demonstrates the relative nature of size to the viewer. To what does the word "relationship" attest but the apparent sizes, the sizes as they appear to this eye as they relate to other sizes?
        In fact the only absolute in painting is that everything is relative. Once you have settled on what is brightest in value or chroma, every value and chroma you make must be right in relation to that. Even when painting life size portraits in sight-size settings, the only actual size is the one which lies on the picture plane itself. Everything behind it will appear, and will therefore be drawn, smaller than actual. And all in front will appear larger to the eye. In other words, everything is subject to the relative size things appear to take in relation to each other from your viewing point.
        To cite another instance: consider the issue of relative values to actual values when doing a cast drawing. Thinking that by using the actual value of the white of the cast and its silhouetting dark note one can actually paint comparable effects of light, even in a classic studio setting, is demonstrably silly. It is ludicrously so under the open sky (as the wisdom that “one must be able paint the sun with the yolk of an egg” serves to remind.) 
        Where, then, is there room for moral condemnation of impressionism among people today, when it is merely the extension of the immutable laws of vision adduced and verified for centuries? I am afraid the reason for all this is to justify salon style painting techniques or - even more foolishly, the unfortunate use of absolutist based sight-size methods - as the only legitimate ways for representing reality truthfully. All others lead to perdition or modernism which is apparently, far worse.
        If you must have a fall guy for the chaotic state of representational art, instead of looking at artists who create truth out of color relations, like Monet, you might look at those who actually chose to randomize it: to bring chance into the equation. Acknowledged as the father of modern painting, Wassily Kandinsky, who was born to a wealthy Odessa family within a couple years of Benson and Tarbell, shared a common interest with Gammell in using painting to express non-visual ideas. He has far more in common with Gammell type imaginative painting than he has with impressionism and its love of the visual world for its own beauty. His drawing skills in any classic sense are non-existent, while his pernicious influence on the education of the artist is everywhere. And everyone agrees that he is the father of modern art. Rather than impressionism then, and I say this in only a partially tongue-in-cheek manner, perhaps it's reasonable to wonder whether, or to what extent, imaginative painting should be held responsible for modern art.

 Wassily Kandinsky, Composition IV, 1911

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition IV, 1911

 Claude Monet, Wheatstacks (End of Summer) 1890-1891

Claude Monet, Wheatstacks (End of Summer) 1890-1891