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.
Textures and Qualities
“The word textures in art is applied to the rendering of the peculiar qualities of any and all objects that are shown in a painting, whether they be silks, clouds, trees, or human beings. In nature there is a difference in material appearances, and all forms are distinguished one from the other by some peculiarity of makeup. To represent nature as she appears is an object of the painter, and he must represent her truly even though he has nothing but a brush and a few poor pigments where with to reproduce the likeness of the universe. By way of illustrating the meaning of textures, let us suppose three bricks of the same size, one of gold, one of wood, and one of baked clay. placed in a row before us. The size, form, outline, or drawing will not mark them apart. The color may and does distinguish them somewhat, but we can easily imagine a red clay brick painted on canvas so smoothly that it would look as though molded of glass, or a gold brick rendered so flabbily that it would look as though carved out of a pumpkin. With color it is necessary to give textures and qualities, and the three bricks have distinct peculiarities in these respects. For instance, the one of clay has rough surfaces and edges, is hard, porous, and reflects little or no light; the one of wood is of softer material, possesses grain and fiber, is not hard in outline, and though smooth in surface, shows very little sheen; the one of gold is solid, metallic, heavy, has a smooth exterior, no veins or pores, and has a good deal of luster. These are the features whereby we distinguish the bricks apart in nature, and good art requires that these distinguishing features appear in a painting of them.”
“The severest test of the textures of a picture is to shut out with your hand part of an object from the rest of the picture, and then ask yourself of it: ‘Does that look like flesh, or wood, or stone, or cloth?’ The answer will not always be satisfactory.”
Surprisingly, Dyke does not think much of William Bougureeau as a painter. “Look at the flesh, does it look like flesh or oiled tissue-paper? Has it life and blood in it? Is it transparent? Is it pliable? Make no mistake, he is one of the most perfect draughtsmen that ever lived; but he cannot paint.” Dyke goes on to say that he believes Jules Breton renders flesh as it should be in all the glow and flush of young healthy life. The color and texture are as they appear in nature. Breton is an admirable technician in almost every respect. For texture painting pure and simple, Jan Steen and Frans Hals have never been surpassed. Among the moderns Alfred Stevens, Jean Gerome, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Fortuny y Carbo, and William Merritt Chase produce realsistic effects of texture and quality.”