Joseph R. DeCamp
1858 - I923
I had been sent to him by William Sergeant Kendall an eminent Philadelphia-based painter now unjustly forgotten, under whose guidance I was beginning my studies. Kendall wanted me to show examples of my work to the man whom he considered to be the best-trained painter then residing on this side of the Atlantic. I was seventeen at the time and I still vividly recall his friendly, “Come on down, son,” as I stood at the head of a stairway descending from an entrance balcony to the studio below. Momentous episodes of that caliber etch themselves indelibly in the minds of aspiring young painters and today, more than sixty years later, I can still picture DeCamp reaching into a portfolio for some photographs of paintings by Velasquez. First he selected the celebrated bodegone representing an old woman cooking eggs, and pointed to the rigorous insistence with which each detail had been worked out. Then he took up the Rokeby Venus and said with a characteristic sweep of his long fingers across the broadly modelled forms, ”But before he got through he made them like this."
That painterly application of the stern motto, "Ad astra per aspera," presents the man together with his artistic creed. It epitomizes the incorruptible integrity of his approach to Nature as the touchstone of the painter’s art, his reverence for Velasquez as Nature's consummate interpreter and his direct, down-to-earth way of instilling in a boy's mind what he believed should be the guiding principle of his future studies. Every member of the Boston group proclaimed the same gospel but DeCamp’s way of doing it was the most colorful and compelling.
Joseph Rodefer DeCamp was born in Cincinnati in 1858. He began his art studies when he was fifteen by attending an evening class taught by Thomas S. Noble at the McMicken School of Design, an institution which subsequently became the Art Academy of Cincinnati. Two years later young DeCamp left high school and worked full time at the McMicken.
In view of the almost ineradicable effect which his first systematic teaching has on a painter’s future development we would like to know more about Thomas Noble. The very fact that DeCamp became one of the best draftsrnen of his day speaks well for his capability as an art instructor. The pupil himself assured me that after two years of study he could draw as correctly as he ever came to do. ”Of course,” he added, "you never cease trying to improve your interpretation of form. That struggle never ends." William Paxton, another first-class draftsman, gave me a similar time estimate of his own evolution. Now both these painters knew what they were talking about so we lesser folk who fared very differently must take it as truth. Paxton’s first teacher was Dennis Bunker, a pupil of Gérome. So we may assume that Noble was no ordinary pedagogue. Born in 1835, he “studied in New York and Paris" and later held the post of director at the Art Academy of Cincinnati until 1904. These scanty details indicate that he was not an inconsiderable figure. It was still unusual for an American of his generation to study in Paris and he was there during the eighteen fifties when Couture's atelier was in flower and the towering figure of Ingres dominated the art scene. To have prepared Joseph DeCarnp for his career is a substantial contribution in itself.
Then in 1878 DeCamp was off to Munich. Cincinnati painters had been Munich oriented by Duveneck, as we have seen, and this probably explains the young Joe's choice of the German city rather than Paris at a time when the glittering capital, recovering from the Franco-Prussian War, was once again the world's chief magnet for art students. On his arrival he worked for a short time under Diez. But by the spring of 1879 he, too, had been drawn into Duveneck’s orbit and was painting under the tutelage of that thirty-one year old prodigy. A little band of earnest disciples had gathered around him in the village of Polling, near Munich, using the rooms of a disaffected convent for studios and painting landscapes about the countryside. As the summer ended most of them followed their leader to Florence. There they continued their studies for two winters, spending the hot months in Venice. At that point Duveneck was persuaded to go to Paris and the little class broke up. Whereupon three of the pupils, DeCamp, Ross Turner and Charles Mills, moved south to Rome for the winter. In the spring DeCamp and Turner sailed for America by way of Naples.
This unusual curriculum proffered an experience of Europe very different from the training undergone by most young American painters who went abroad to study in those days. The "Duveneck Boys" formed a small coterie of talented young men united by a common objective under the guidance of a brilliant painter who, despite his limited intellectual outlook, was an artist to the finger tips. Through their teacher's connection with the Boots the boys had access to the cosmopolitan social world of Florence and Venice to which several of them, like Julian Story and John Alexander, were related by family connections. The situation offered ample opportunities for self-education and the acquisition of worldly wisdom. But DeCamp remained untouched by the historical and literary associations which invest the very stones of European cities. DeCamp had no taste for literature though he read avidly for information along certain lines. Nor did he acquire the veneer of cosmopolitan manners which Americans who reside abroad for any length of time so readily assume. He, on the contrary, deliberately clung all his life to certain homespun traits which exerted a charm of their own and underlined the essential probity and worth of the man.
But he was thoroughly alert to everything which related directly to picture painting. As he could draw quite correctly when he arrived he was better prepared than his classmates to assimilate Duveneck's rare faculty for expressing form with paint, something very different from coloring a carefully established drawing and which presupposes a power of discernment not many painters ever attain. All his life DeCamp considered this essentially painterly quality to be a major asset of the painter's self expression. Time and again as we strolled together through the Louvre he would pull up before a Hals, a Rembrandt, a Fragonard, a Géricault or some other master, major or minor, to expatiate on how the artist had "made it out of paint." The feat may indeed contribute an exhilarating fillip to a passage intrinsically fine. But, perhaps overprized during the eighties and nineties, this strictly ancillary quality contains the seeds of decadence. Unless its flourishes are underpinned by very strong draftsmanship, spirited brushwork slips into mere bravura which only emphasizes the vacuity of a second-rate painter's statement. The slapdash techniques which became prevalent everywhere during the first quarter of the present century prepared the way for the sheer incompetence of the nineteen thirties. DeCamp himself, however, had the requisite mastery and he abandoned Duveneck's varnish-rich medium for a more stable mix of oil and turpentine which he handled with a dexterity comparable to his master's. To this he added a perception of color which the older man never attained.
Art writers have detected a Whistler influence in DeCamp’s painting, one critic going so far as to assert that in Venice he had actually studied with the painter of symphonies and nocturnes. The two had roomed in the same pensione for a time but young DeCamp had cordially disliked his sharp-tongued neighbor without caring much for his pictures. Whistler once made a helpful suggestion about a study the boy was working on and invited him upstairs to his improvised studio. Young Joe, never inhibited by diffidence, asked the middle-aged celebrity why it was that he never modelled his faces in light and shade. "Oh! I used to do that!” Whistler had retorted and pulled out an early canvas. To the student it looked like an inferior Courbet. DeCamp later concluded that Whistler's incapacity to master chiaroscuro had forced him to create the art of crepuscular flatness which brought him fame. When he told me this he also paid his respects to Whistler’s exquisite taste and to the charm of many of his pictures. If memory serves, these remarks were made to me in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts before the "Little Rose of Lyme Regis"!
After an interval spent in Cincinnati we find DeCamp director of the Art Department at Wellesley College in 1884. There he taught for nearly two years. The fact that he boarded with his old comrade Charles Mills and his sister in Dedham throughout that entire period suggests that "Millsie" had played an important part in securing for his former fellow student the job which brought him east to the Boston area where he would remain for the rest of his life. For, in the fall of 1885, he moved into the city itself and taught at the Museum School on Copley Square, until 1888. Otto Grundmann was still instructing there and Dennis Bunker was doing the same thing at the neighboring Cowles Art School. We know from Bunker’s letters that the two younger artists were in the habit of drawing from the nude model in a studio housed in the not distant Mechanics' Building, then a sprawling landmark on Huntington Avenue. One would like to know what that talented pair learned from one another. In age only two years apart, they were very unlike in temperament and intellectual scope. One reflected Gérome's teaching and the culture of France whereas the other had returned from abroad a rnidwesterner scarcely touched by his contact with Europe. When I knew DeCamp, Bunker was a dim figure to me, so I never asked him about his dead colleague.
As these studies focus on painting I include only biographical material which relates to the artistic evolution of the painters under consideration. A fire which destroyed the contents of DeCamp’s studio in 1904 was just such an event because it established him as a painter of portraits. On the following day the poor man walked into the St. Botolph Club lounge and announced that all his paintings had been destroyed. “I have a family to support," he told them. "I'll paint anybody’s portrait for $100.00." Partly out of friendliness, several men took him up at once and were delighted with what they got in return. Soon the demand for DeCamp portraits was so great that they commanded the top current market price and their vogue never declined. The masterly rendering he made of Theodore Roosevelt for Harvard University in 1908 is the finest presidential portrait since Gilbert Stuart’s "Athenaeurn" head of George Washington. After Vinton’s death in 1911 DeCamp had no rival on this side of the Atlantic in the field of masculine portraiture. Like Vinton, he failed to capture the feminine clientele, perhaps because his friend Tarbell had pre-empted it in Boston. DeCamp enjoyed lamenting the fatality which forced him to devote his talents to depicting solemn dignitaries bedecked in their best black suits. “I say to them," he wrily complained, "I would love to paint you looking like Ajax. But you must resemble Ajax a little bit before I can do it."
Although fashionable ladies did not turn to DeCamp for their portraits he painted many admirable pictures of women posed for by members of his family, friends or hired models. The superb head of his daughter, ”Sally,” has not been surpassed in our century as a finely interpreted characterization wherein form, light, atmosphere and the subtlest gradations of hue have been captured in their just relationship to one another; a formidably difficult achievement which is perhaps the ultimate goal of impressionist painting. The objective whose pursuit united the Boston Painters was precisely that, namely to convey sensitively the overall impression made by a chosen subject on the artist's eye. Each of them approached it in his or her individual fashion. "Sally” is one of the triumphant successes.
In the spring of 1919, while representatives of the victorious Allies were gathered in Paris to draw up the Treaty of Versailles, the United States government delegated a group of painters to portray the major participants. John Sargent was asked to depict the assembled notabilities but, being himself committed to paint a huge canvas memorializing British generals, he recommended Joseph DeCamp for the task. As I recall it, DeCamp reached Paris in April. I happened to be on duty there myself at the moment and he naturally appreciated my familiarity with the resplendent capital he had only known as a transient visitor. The war was over and my military duties were nominal. I was therefore able to spend a good deal of time piloting my former mentor through the gradually reopening museums while he waited for the overworked statesmen to give him sittings.
The boy from Ohio who always lurked under the Bostonized exterior of this honest artist was clearly bewildered by the surface glitter of the assemblage gathered on a serious errand in the world’s most beautiful city slowly recuperating from a hard-won conflict. I had warned him that he might have difficulty getting his subjects to pose for him. He assured me that he had accepted the assignment with the proviso that he would not undertake the painting unless he was given sufficient cooperation to ensure an artistically creditable result. But he was naively confident when he arrived that these mighty political figures laboring to shape the future course of history would sacrifice several hours of their crowded schedules in order to figure before posterity in a work of art. He discovered his error after several frustrating weeks and returned home with the sketched-in project now at the Smithsonian Institute. I reveal this facet of the episode as another sample of the artistic integrity which characterized Joseph DeCamp and his Boston associates.
In the history of painting DeCamp will stand with the honorable company whom we regard as its continuators, the painters who assimilated and maintained the great functional traditions of their craft and upheld its high standards of execution. He had returned from Europe in 1884 exceptionally well-equipped to practice as well as to teach newly developed methods perfectly adapted to attain the objectives which were attracting the vast majority of painters at that time, artistic goals which we now denote collectively as Impressionism, actually perennial, but which had at that time just been completely renovated and greatly extended by plein air study. Although he contributed nothing new to the art form itself he put new ideas to good service by painting excellent canvases which carry the stamp of his strong personality.
And yet his classroom instruction seems in retrospect inexplicably sterile. He headed the painting department at the Massachusetts Normal Art School where he was supported by a very strong teaching staff. Idolized by his pupils and dedicated to his task, he expounded the soundest doctrine and demonstrated excellent methods but he developed no painters comparable to the little band of competent craftsmen who emerged from the Museum School. I had no experience of DeCamp’s classroom instruction but I have discussed it with painters who did. I incline to think that the predilection for dexterous brushwork which was so apparent in his talk may well have led his young disciples to skirt perilous slopes. Yet this very teacher described to me the visit of a former pupil who had become a successful portrait painter in New York. The young man had brought a recently completed canvas for his master to criticize. “I told him,” DeCamp related, "that if he ever brought me another picture like that I’d kick a hole in it.” He could not abide flipness or superficiality. But his way of praising true virtuosity could have been misunderstood by his pupils.