Edmund C. Tarbell, N.A.
The last time I talked with Ned Tarbell we were standing side by side during the preprandial ceremonies of a club dinner. His face was ravaged by the illness which would soon carry him off, but his mind was alert and, as we raised our cocktail glasses together, he toasted, ”Well, here’s hoping I can make one that really looks like it before I’m through." Those words from the lips of a dying painter attest his untiring struggle to communicate the delight he took in aspects of the visible world and his deep-seated conviction that a painter's function was to "draw the Thing as he see It for the God of Things as They are," although Kipling's fine but hackneyed verses would have been inconceivable on his lips. When I heard these words read at Tarbell’s funeral a few months later I wondered whether they would have pleased him in that context, for he was not literary.
He was not literary, but he had a rare perception of beauty, which is the poetry of painting. It was this indefinable quality which caused his fellow painters to regard Edmund C. Tarbell as the head of the Boston School, even to name him the most eminent American painter of his generation which not a few proclaimed him to be. True, his work was Occasionally uneven in quality and declined perceptibly during his last years, both traits being characteristics of aging but unflinching impressionist painters. The psychic tension required to observe, analyze and render in paint the jolt given to the esthetic sense by something seen cannot at all times be maintained at its necessary pitch by any mind and every man’s sensibilities are numbed by advancing years. But Edmund Tarbell at the top of his form painted pictures which are permeated by a unique blend of rare qualities in which carefully ordered composition, lovely color schemes exquisitely rendered and subtle depictions of the interplay of light and atmosphere combine to delight the eye. These visual impressions are put on canvas with a personal touch which makes every inch of the painted surface treasurable. He loved to reiterate that he was only trying to ”make it like," an oversimplification which takes account of neither his initial selection nor his individual way of seeing ”it," a way which was no one else’s.
Oh, the little more, and how much it is!
And the little less, and what worlds away!
Edmund C. Tarbell was born at West Groton, Massachusetts, but he was Boston-bred and educated at the English High School of that city. There too, at some point of his adolescence, he worked for the Forbes Lithograph Company. But he displayed so much aptitude while learning the lithographer’s craft that his family transferred him to the school recently opened by the Museum of Fine Arts. So it became his rare good fortune to develop his visual habits under the supervision of that Otto Grundmann whose exceptional qualifications for the task we have already reviewed. Tarbell never ceased to extoll the teaching he received from this German painter who had learned his art in Flanders. The sitter for one of Tarbell’s last portraits recorded the aging master's tribute to his first instructor and the account indicates that it was he who had directed the talented lad along the very lines most congenial to his native bent and in so doing had irnplanted the central tenet which subsequently accounted for the most distinctive feature of the Boston School. The opportunity to validate his personal inclination during his most malleable years is perhaps the greatest godsend which can befall a young painter endowed with a strong artistic potentiality.
In 1883, accompanied by his fellow student Frank W. Benson, Edmund Tarbell crossed the Atlantic to continue his studies in Paris. Biographical notices invariably list both painters as pupils of Lefebvre and Boulanger, which, officially speaking, of course they both were. But the assertion merely signifies that the two young men drew, and perhaps also painted, from the nude model in the large class officially criticized by those two celebrated Frenchmen. During that particular decade this was the atelier most favored by American art students who reached Paris without any other directives in mind. We have no evidence that either of these two New Englanders found the experience very rewarding. Tarbell was an entertaining raconteur and I have often chuckled over his account of how Lefebvre and Boulanger would arrive at the Académie Julian on two mornings of each week in a four-wheeler hermetically sealed against the inclemencies of French weather. The two renowned teachers would then pause momentarily before the easel of each pupil to say a few words before rattling away in their closed conveyance. Both artists were far more distinguished than their lineal successors who criticized when I attended the same atelier some thirty years later but the ritual remained unchanged. Lefebvre in particular had been an outstanding figure, a member of the Institut de France and past-master of a type of drawing which we have been taught to sneer at today but which future centuries will surely regard as one of the great efflorescences of European art. However, all the classes at Julian’s were much too large to permit the close contacts and interchanges between instructor and pupil which are indispensable for effective art teaching, even when no language barrier existed. Tarbell went on to describe an incident which epitomizes the quandary which accentuated the generation gap among painters at that critical historical moment.
He happened to be in the studio of a comrade one afternoon when Monsieur Lefebvre dropped in to criticize a canvas the young man was working on from a posing nude model. Picking up the palette and mixing a tone, the master quickly brushed in a hue which, to Tarbell’s amazement, unerringly matched the color of the posing girl's flesh. “Now will you tell me,” Tarbell concluded with a rhetorical question, ”Will you tell me why in the world the man who could do that went to work and painted the chalky nude holding up a hand mirror in the Luxembourg?" He was referring to the then celebrated picture entitled “la Vérité.” I held my peace, but my own long preoccupation with symbolism as well as with mural painting had taught me that, had he painted impressionistically, to use a word he would not have understood in our sense of it, Lefebvre would have ended up with the picture of an unclad woman, which was not his purpose at all. His aim in this instance was to depict the female figure in a manner susceptible of suggesting the remoteness and dignity of a symbol. This withdrawal from everyday reality necessitates adopting a calculated color scale for the fleshtones and generalizing the structural forms of the body, esthetic devices which Lefebvre utilized extremely knowledgeably, although perhaps not triumphantly in this instance. Now, these objectives are alien to the impressionist endeavor which, as we have noted previously, aims to report the immediate impact of something seen and observed by the painter in its envelopment of light and atmosphere. Both ideals have suscitated great works of art, but each should be judged by its own criteria with the painter’s specific intent in mind.
Now, a painter is obviously free to choose between these two mutually incompatible goals and his preference is usually determined by his native inclination. But whenever professional leadership fails to recognize these options and explain them to its disciples the scope of art itself narrows rapidly and disastrously. Lefebvre demonstrated in the young Tarbell's presence that he, a master of the academic tradition, so-called, had also learned how to handle the phase of painting which his pupil wanted to learn. But the latter’s way of narrating the incident reveals all too clearly that he did not catch that significance at the time and had not thought it through forty-five years later. As a matter of fact, few painters of Tarbell’s generation gave any consideration to this important dichotomy and dismissed the academic objectives impatiently out of hand.
I have dwelt on this episode because it spotlights one of the most restricting consequences of the impressionist dispute. An anti-academism preached by Courbet, Degas and Whistler, all of whom caustically derided pictures carrying literary connotations, was exaggerated into something verging on anti-intellection by the predominantly impressionist generation of painters who succeeded them and who, in pursuit of their chosen ideal, resolutely turned their backs on a preponderant portion of the world's greatest art. Their immediate goal cannot be faulted, but their sectarian leadership rapidly proved counter-productive.
Tarbell's own interest concentrated on a few very great masters headed by Velasquez, Vermeer and Chardin. His art also reflects the influence of Ter Borch, Metzur, Alfred Stevens, Degas, Monet and the Japanese masters of Ukiyoye, these last being exceptionally well-represented in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Although his attention flagged noticeably when certain other prestigious names were cited he did not lapse into the Olympian silence wherewith Benson closed conversations about kinds of painting which lay outside his scanty bit of ground. Both men were drawn by a sure instinct to the nutriment on which their art prospered and rarely strayed into other pastures. I daresay that some painters actually derive strength from this sort of single-mindedness which allows them to concentrate undistractedly on their chosen course. In the case of the Boston Painters their total dedication to a single facet of their art, major facet though it was, limited the effectiveness of their teaching, diminished their stature as cultural leaders and lent substance to the charge of narrow-mindedness leveled at them by their detractors, most of whom were artistically far more myopic themselves.
The most valuable painting instruction which Tarbell received in Paris was given by William T. Dannat (1853 - 1929) at an afternoon painting class whose existence I did not hear about until it was no longer possible for me to question my elderly mentor on the subject. This unjustly forgotten American artist's career was apparently cut short by failing health after a brilliant start. His ”Quartette”, which for many years I admired on the walls of the Metropolitan Art Museum, was a masterpiece whose reported disintegration is most regrettable. The canvas created a sensation in the Salon of 1884, shortly after Tarbell reached Paris, so it was only natural that some American art students, dissatisfied with the criticisms dispensed chez Julian, should have turned to this dazzling compatriot, still in his early thirties, for counsel. He had much to teach the bewildered boys for he had first studied in Munich with Munkacsy (1844 - 1909), a formidable executant flawed by dubious taste and a lethal addiction to bitumen, a deleterious pigment probably responsible for the sad condition of ”Quartette.” Dannat mitigated the less desirable elements of the Hungarian’s teaching by working subsequently under the direction of Bastien-Lepage back in Paris and the latter’s cleareyed perception of light and color becomes apparent in Dannat's later pictures. The two formative teachers in Tarbell’s career would therefore seem to have been Otto Grundrnann and William Dannat.
Tarbell’s European sojourn spanned about five years but it was interrupted by a trip home, made to consolidate his betrothal to the young woman who had been his boyhood flame and who would become his wife shortly after he had returned for good in the fall of 1888. When the Museum School opened for the autumn semester of 1889 he and Frank Benson both figured on Otto Grundmann's teaching staff. And so, when the latter died unexpectedly in the course of the following summer, his two former pupils, who by that time were artists of well-recognized merit, were perfectly prepared to take full charge of what had become a nationally renowned art school. It was to flourish under their direction for twenty-three years, as we shall see. Their resignation from the faculty in 1913 will be reviewed in the chapter dealing with Frank Benson.
In 1917 Edmund Tarbell moved his family to Washington where he took charge of the Corcoran School of Art. He taught there for five successive winters, assisted by two young painters he had brought with him from Boston, Richard Meryman who had been his own pupil at the Museum School and S. Burtis Baker, a product of DeCamp's teaching at Normal Art. I never heard anything said about this enterprise which, rather surprisingly, left no imprint on American painting. This oblivion tends to substantiate the view that Tarbell’s undeniably rare gift for teaching was operative only when addressed to advanced pupils who had been prepared to receive his message by preliminary instruction administered by men of the caliber of Paxton, Hale and Benson, as they had been at the Museum School.
During the Washington years he had invariably returned to spend the summer at New Castle, New Hampshire. After 1922 he made that delightful community his headquarters for the remainder of his life but maintaining an apartment in Boston during the winter months. In the city his studio was on Dartmouth Street and he regularly went to the Tavern Club for lunch, capping the meal with a game of billiards, at which he excelled. Exalted by virtually every award in the bestowal of his fellow artists, well remunerated by the sale of his pictures, represented in the leading art museums of the United States, Edmund Tarbell’s sundown was splendid and serene. When the Depression reduced the pressure of his portrait commissions he told me how glad he was at long last to paint the pictures he had never found time to carry out. He had the satisfaction of knowing that those whose opinion he valued most, which is to say of the painters most knowledgeable in their art, placed him at the very summit of contemporary painting.
For, although the imposing nobility of the Judge Hammond portrait and the haunting beauty of ”Reverie” can hold picture lovers spellbound, only the experienced eye of the practitioner can measure the extent of their accomplishment. The masterly balance of the lights and dark, the exquisite perception and truth of the tonal relationships and the broad vision which unifies them are the major constituents that rank these paintings among the finest canvases painted in this century. No one since Velasquez has handled these elusive qualities as successfully and yet the pictures in no sense ape the mighty Spaniard. Only Edmund Tarbell could have painted them.