AN ARTIST AT WORK
For the Examiners Club
by the artist's daughter, Isabella Halsted]
I found I was to give a talk here, I asked one of our members what
I should talk about. Said he: "Tell us what a portrait painter
thinks about and does when he is at work. We don't know at all".
So here goes, and if I use the word "I" too often, it
is because I remember what Professor Lebaron Briggs wrote on the
margin of my daily theme: "Nobody is interested in what 'one'
does or thinks, tell us what you do and think".
I could convey to you the excitements, the temptations, the satisfactions
of an artist's life. It is full of adventure, disappointments and
assuagements. The artist at his worst is an exhibitionist, at his
best a seeker after truth, and never satisfied with what he has
found or accomplished. What are his motives, what makes him become
an artist? A desire to set down in his own sight, so that he can
enjoy them again, the sensations he had when he was impressed with
what he calls beauty. The wish to have his work admired leads to
exhibitionism and to conceit in his achievement. To balance this
is a true reverence for the beauty he sees, a humbleness before
Nature, a wish to be the servant of beauty.
makes an artist? The normal human being looks at things for utilitarian
purposes; he has elements of the artist in him if he takes pleasure
or pain from the appearance of things and only secondarily notices
what may be called their utilitarian qualities. The normal human
being enjoys repetition. He is comfortable with the familiar. The
artist enjoys the repetition of line or form in a design-perhaps
for the same reason? The primitive man, when he was an artist, as
you remember, made designs on his pots full of repetition.
much does the layman, as I will call him, appreciate why he enjoys
what he calls the beauty of a tree, or even a pretty face? It all
lies really in the matter of design. The tree has symmetry, either
obvious or irregular; again, all its leaves are the same shape,
but with enough difference to destroy monotony. If the pretty girl,
the curve of whose nose is the reverse of her chin and her jawbone,
but is the repetition of the curve of her eyebrow, has curls in
her hair which repeat the curve of her nose, so much the more is
the pleasure of the sight of her.
Western World thinks of pictures as representations, as subject
matter, which, if it is familiar, gives pleasure; if not, does not
please so much. But no picture is really good which has not the
element of design.
I had finished a portrait not long ago the artist who had lent me
the studio looked at it a good while, then made comments on it as
a picture, and finally said: "And it is a good likeness, too,"
evidently not the most important part of it. But who, of the lay
world, who knows the sitter, does not first speak of the likeness?
Of course we all know Sargent's description of a portrait: A likeness
in which there is something wrong with the mouth. I think a portrait
must be a likeness; I take that for granted. But no portrait will
live which does not have a fine pictorial design, regardless of
painter, as much as a landscape painter, should be a maker of pictures.
No portrait that is not interesting aesthetically has stood the
test of time. It should please, interest and move the observer by
its design, as a piece of music does. It should have a pattern of
shapes and areas and lines, of gestures and masses and contrasts
of light and dark, of harmonies and contrasts of color. It should
have, not a facsimile of the person represented, but a description
of him or her made with intense emotion. The matter of design, I
rather think, is chiefly an intellectual proceeding, but when it
comes to the delineation of the sitter, then the artist must become
almost an emotional actor. It is not that he tries to imagine what
sort of a person his sitter is, but he must feel in his whole nervous
system the gesture of the sitter's body, the grasp of a hand, the
curve of a mouth.
painter for his own satisfaction is an observer. He must make himself
so sensitive to his visual impressions that his feelings of pleasure
and pain are affected. This habit has a marked effect on the artist's
character. He may become so much in the habit of letting himself
be moved by what he sees that he becomes cowardly and shrinks from
unpleasant experiences. He is a poor kind of help in a sickroom.
On the other hand he is made happy and moved to an ecstasy of feeling
akin to a religious experience by something in the visible world
that the layman perhaps never even sees.
not scornful of the layman; I am one half the time. I can go my
way like a layman and can understand why he acts as he does. I can
look at the harmonies of color on my plate and not see them; they
are only things to eat. I have arranged flowers at home as if I
were painting a picture, and then can go out to dinner and never
see the centerpiece my hostess has arranged with such taste and
care because I am interested in what my neighbor is saying and what
she may think of me. I am reacting to life as a human being is intended
by nature to react, not as an artist who by some natural idiosyncrasy
and by cultivation has learned to act as he does.
artist must see everything as a picture. His picture must be made
by choosing among the innumerable characteristics of what he is
looking at those he is going to use to make his picture. He may
emphasize the color and hardly make any form at all. He may make
the form in monochrome. We are all familiar with the convention
of the black and white. Why not accept any other convention? A red
chalk drawing of a landscape with trees is accepted, why not a head
done in green chalk? When an artist makes a landscape where objects
are only suggested with swift strokes he may be painting with all
his might, all his soul wrapped up in trying to state the particular
beauty he sees which can be suggested in no other way. It is called
a hasty sketch but it is really a greater work of art because it
has more spirit than the care-taking finished large painting he
may make from it.
has made his picture and the ideal layman who looks at it should
be moved as the artist was moved. He should take it for granted
that the artist knows his job as well as the doctor knows his, but
how is the layman, preoccupied with business and life, to do this?
I don't know, but at least he should humbly try. Probably one of
the best ways to learn is to become an amateur artist, and to become
accustomed to describing sensations vis-a-vis to nature by symbols;
for after all the shapes an artist puts on canvas or paper are symbols
to describe what he feels. In what is called modern art a new set
of symbols is used. I think we should take for granted they are
sincere expressions and learn them in order to enjoy the pictures.
I understand to be the Academic procedure is the copying of the
aspect of the subject, all the accidents of light and shade, everything,
just as an unthinking camera would do. To imitate nature, however,
is to make use of the principles by which objects seem to be made
and recreate an image according to the laws of nature. Imagine a
white candle with the lights shining on it from two sides and in
front, so that there is no shadow or shading on it. If you copy
it faithfully as it looks, you will succeed in making a flat oblong
white shape. If you imitate nature using what your two eyes tell
you about that candle, you will make it look round by artful means,
by putting lighter and darker areas upon your oblong shape. A portrait
should be a re-presentation of the sitter. The person in the picture
should exist in the world of Art, not in our world in a mirror.
The illusion of space in the background should be designed in depth
as much as it is designed vertically and horizontally. The illusion
of solidity of the figure should be obtained by artful means based
on the phenomena of light and shade and color on form. In that way
the artist can make the illusions of existence in space, whereas
if he copied what was before him he would find certain forms camouflaged
by accidental reflections, so that they are flattened out, as in
the example of the candle.
diverge here by asking if this making the illusion of form in space,
which is expected as a matter of course in most of Western art,
is perhaps only a parlor magician's trick? When a Japanese or Chinese
was first shown such a picture, he touched it with his finger, saying,
"You can't fool me. That is only a flat canvas." I am
fascinated by this illusion when I see it in a Rembrandt, or Hals,
but a great Chinese painting appeals to a more subtle and rare and
finer perception in me.
the sitter comes into my studio and there begins the adventure I
have looked forward to with so much excitement and such great hopes.
Here is my chance to compete with the great men whose pictures I
have pored over-who are my heroes. That challenge, as well as the
challenge to create life is one of the chief incentives. If the
sitter is a friend, I have preconceived ideas about him, a multitude
of them. If he is a well known person I have preconceived ideas
about him. If he is a total stranger, the first impression his looks
and his presence makes upon me probably will dominate my portrait.
My habit of making myself sensitive to the present moment comes
to the fore. In any case I treat the sitter as a new experience.
I move him around the studio looking at him in different lights,
looking for the salient characteristic shapes. The vividness of
the likeness depends on the forcefulness with which the salient
characteristics of form and color are described in the portrait.
I watch for what may be a characteristic pose all the time looking
for the elements in that pose, perhaps a crossed leg repeating the
diagonal line of a shoulder against a light background, perhaps
the tilt of a head echoing in the reverse direction the gesture
of a hand, or the slant of the body. As I said, all this is half
impersonal, half having much to do with the man's character.
Girdler, the steel magnate, came to be painted. What I had read
about him gave me the idea that he was a rough, overbearing person,
and so I was delighted when he sat down, crossed his knee and grabbed
it with his hand like a claw, with all four fingers extended. By
putting a table behind him I could get his other hand to repeat
the action on the edge of it, and so I had a repeat of abstract
design and what I thought was a gesture descriptive of the man.
At his first rest, he walked about the studio and said: "This
is the most disorderly room I ever saw." When we said goodbye
at the end of the last sitting, be said: "I'll never get myself
into this sort of thing again." Perhaps if I had known him
longer I should have done him differently; but the portrait as a
portrait would have been no more vivid.
quality of a caricature to an extremely subtle degree, which may
be more pleasantly called emphasis, is very important in portrait
painting. I remember President Eliot asking me why I did not measure
his height exactly. "Because", said I, "I want people
to say 'What a tall man!'"
I am to tell what goes on in this artist's mind I must give examples.
There was the case of Calvin Coolidge. When he stood before me I
saw a commonplace Yankee face, with features not salient, with nothing
for my mind to grasp. Making myself impersonally sensitive to my
first impression gave me nothing like a President of the United
States. You can judge whether I was an honest man or not. Tarbell
had painted him the way he appeared in a mirror. I said to myself
"I am painting a former President". By arranging him in
strong light and shade I found he had more nose than had at first
appeared. I found he had evident cheekbones, and so I emphasized
these characteristics. His mouth looked narrow and set. I didn't
slight that characteristic, and by emphasizing the slight oblique
set of his eyes (presumably inherited from an aboriginal American
ancestor) I made a man who looked like Calvin but also like what
I thought was a man of some force.
decided on a possible pose, next I make pencil sketches to enforce
it on my mind. Then I make an oil sketch of the head and another
of the pose. I make this sketch of the head as forceful and simple
as I can, with no detail, but the large relations of light and shade
and the mass of the head. This may look to some like a caricature.
But often it has (though not so much like in detail as the finished
portrait) so much vitality that it is liked by the sitter in after
years better than the finished one. That is because vitality is
the most important attribute, after design, in a portrait.
react very differently to these sketches. Some of you remember Professor
Joseph Beale of the Law School, not a handsome man, far from
it. He was intensely interested in all my processes, including the
caricature sketch of his head. That helped me to make one of my
best portraits. It went easily. Another gentleman in a high position,
a scholar and a brilliant man, on seeing the study of his head,
said: "I was willing to sit to you, supposing you were going
to make a dignified portrait, but if you do a thing like this, I
will not!" I finally made him see my point of view, but all
that didn't help the portrait!
are many influences which make me paint portraits. There is a certain
amount of exhibitionism of wishing admiration from one's fellow
men. I imagine I would rather paint purely to please myself. I said
to Professor Kilpatrick, teacher of pedagogy, as I started his portrait:
"Now, for the hundredth time I am going to try to paint to
please only myself." "You can't do that," said he,
"Why not?" "Because you are using a means of communication."
I am sorry to say he is right; but most of the time, at my best,
I am only interested in making the best work I can in order to fulfill
the challenge. For there is a great challenge. To create a sensation
of life. To do a first rate job, to vie with the great and splendid
painters of the past, to try to make beauty, and to try to find
new ways of doing it. You remember Justice Holmes used to say that
one should do a job as well as one could, and then not advertise
far, I have spoken only of painting men. How about portraits of
women? A newspaper critic in New York, writing of an exhibition
of my portraits, once said I was good at business men and academic
sitters, but when it came to women, "No; he makes them look
good, and not dangerous". As I think back, I can't remember
any woman portrait at that particular show except that of old Miss
Lizzie Putnam, who was certainly one of the saints of the earth.
But if emphasis of peculiarities is necessary to making a likeness,
how is a painter to emphasize the feminine beauty that Nature has
already put in the woman? It is there already in its perfection.
Think of all the portraits of beautiful women that artists have
tried to make. How much finer and more moving are the plain women
by Rembrandt. And look at the magazine cover girls. Sir Thomas Lawrence
came pretty close to them. And can you imagine Lord Nelson throwing
away his reputation for a woman who was only Romney's version of
Emma Hamilton? Emma was a good deal more than that, I wager. So
often what is called beauty is only nature's way of continuing the
human race. The beauty the artist sees in a woman's face may be
far more dependent on what her spiritual nature has done to that
back I was telling about experiences with sitters. Perhaps I can
entertain you with more. Painting the portrait of Mr. Justice Holmes
was one of the exciting experiences. He was very old but very vital
with a face of great architectural beauty animated by a gallant
spirit. He would change suddenly from mischievous ribaldry to an
earnest, statement far up in the region of ideals. He asked me to
stay to lunch one day and after he had been rested by having his
secretary read to him Confessions of a Chorus Girl, the conversation
at table between him, Felix Frankfurter and Professor Cohen was
so far above my head I couldn't possibly reach it. Another time
not so long after he had handed down the dissenting opinion on the
Rosika Schwemmer case, quoting the Sermon on the Mount, when he
heard his secretary and me congratulating the world on what the
League of Nations had just done toward peace, he said, "You
young fellers don't know what you are talking about. Once in a cavalry
charge a Reb slashed at me. I pointed my pistol against his chest.
The damned thing didn't go off. I wish to Hell I'd killed that man".
Did I put an extra twirl in his cavalryman's moustache after that?
of the very pleasantest commissions was naturally enough the portrait
of Bliss Perry, and the more difficulties I got into on the shadow
side of his face the better I liked it for he had to keep coming
until it was right, and that meant hours of pleasant talk.
every one could have as much training in drawing and painting and
learning to see as he has in reading and writing and arithmetic;
for all around us all the time are millions of combinations of form
and color and subtle relations of one to another, all of which to
the understanding mind make beauty. It is all there for the taking.
The portrait painter is especially blest, for his interest in people
brings him close to his fellow man. It may bring him temptations
to feel a false superiority. "Here is this great man before
me but I am his master here with my brush and palette to depict
him as I want to." That is comforting to the inferiority complex.
The more the portrait painter is humble before the wonders around
him, the nearer he can come to seeing the beauty that the fine nature
can give to what is casually known as a plain face he can finally
perhaps come into real communion with the spirit of his fellow man.