In his 1889 book, “How to judge of a picture”, John C. Van Dyke thoroughly describes how to properly assess a painting. I know, the title is weird, particularly with that preposition “of” stuck in there, but, that’s the correct title. John Charles Van Dyke (1861-1931) was an American art historian and critic. He was a professor of art history at Rutgers College, and was also elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1908. He authored two series of books related to art, the first were critical guide books, the second covered the history of art in America. The purpose of this blog, and others to follow, is to share with you some helpful guidelines, offered by Mr. Van Dyke, that will help us critique our own work and the work of others. We will not agree with everything, but all his comments are worth serious consideration before rejecting them out of hand. Remember, this was written in the 1880’s. The ability to effectively critique art, or anything else for that matter, requires a significant amount of factual knowledge and understanding, otherwise what is offered as a critique is really nothing more than an emotional reaction. Mr. Van Dyke is helping us gain that knowledge and understanding.
This is the final excerpt from John Charles Van Dyke’s book, “How to judge of a picture.” You may not have agreed with all of his opinions, I haven’t, but I think you will agree that he has definitely given us helpful advice in critically analyzing paintings, particularly our own. Hope you enjoyed the series.
Style and Individuality
“An artist’s style is simply his way or manner of saying things, and in this each painter may vary from his neighbor. There is no one inflexible law that can be laid down as a guide for them all. In this age of individualism almost every artist originates a style of his own, and the correctness of incorrectness of it is very much dependent upon whether it pleases or not.”
“To a great extent, style consists in the manner of putting on paint (though it may also relate to drawing, coloring, or composition), and in this the connoisseur, the amateur, and the artist take a vivid interest.”
Van Dyke further points out that our like or dislike of an artist’s work often rests upon us. I think his explanation will evoke at least a smile. “If you yourself are insipid, doubtless you will fancy the Madonnas and Magdalenes of Guido and Carlo Dolci, and the sweet children of Meyer von Bremen; if you are robust and strong of mind you cannot fail to like the great Velasquez.” So, take that!
“Judge each man by his own methods, and, again let me say, look for the artist’s meaning.”
“The first move in the examination of a picture is to look to the work of the fingers – the drawing, coloring, massing, painting. If it is bad, there is little use to examine further. The artist may be a deep thinker, a poet of imagination, a creator of no mean ability; but if he knows not how to express himself of what use are his talents, his thoughts, his imaginations? A thorough knowledge of the language of art is a prerequisite to expression. If, therefore, this prerequisite is shown to be in the possession of the artist the next move is to find out what he wishes to say. You may not like his thoughts, you may not agree with his views of life and nature, but at any rate give him the benefit of a few moments consideration.”
“Lastly, it is perhaps unnecessary to suggest that you look for that quality in a picture which you will almost certainly feel whether you will or no – the individuality of the artist. People differ mentally as they do physically. No two are precisely the same, and some we like and some we dislike, and the reason of it is simply that their individuality is pleasing or displeasing to us. This characteristic, which marks every one apart from his fellow man, is apparent in all art as in all life. The individual is particularly constituted, with certain faculties, powers, emotions, motives, and his thoughts, moods, deeds, expressions, are modified by his peculiar make-up. Something of the man, whatsoever he may be, finds its way into his work and tinctures the whole. This is individuality, and when in art it is so strong that it commands us, it is sometimes called genius.”
“In a certain sense a picture is but the record of an artist’s life, the autobiography of the man. All the power of Michelangelo’s art which so impresses us is but the power of his personal character, and the grandeur of Rousseau’s landscapes is only the record of Rousseau’s lofty mind. Study the canvas closely, and in it you will find the man. It is chiefly the man, his views and ideas, that make the canvas glow with life, and not the bare facts – the alphabet which he uses in speech.”