Friday, February 17, 2012

Howells on Pyle on Art

This little exchange between W. D. Howells and his (unnamed) friend Howard Pyle appeared in Howells’ “Life and Letters” column in Harper’s Weekly for March 21, 1896, and was reprinted with the title “The What and the How in Art” in Howells’ book Literature and Life (Harper & Brothers, 1902):
Not long ago I was talking about pictures with a painter, a very great painter, to my thinking; one whose pieces give me the same feeling I have from reading poetry; and I was excusing myself to him with respect to art, and perhaps putting on a little more modesty than I felt. I said that I could enjoy pictures only on the literary side, and could get no answer from my soul to those excellences of handling and execution which seemed chiefly to interest painters. He replied that it was a confession of weakness in a painter if he appealed merely or mainly to technical knowledge in the spectator; that he narrowed his field and dwarfed his work by it; and that if he painted for painters merely, or for the connoisseurs of painting, he was denying his office, which was to say something clear and appreciable to all sorts of men in the terms of art. He even insisted that a picture ought to tell a story.


James Gurney said...

Pyle's view reminds me of that of Asher Durand, as expressed in "Letters on Landscape Painting": "When [execution] becomes conspicuous as a principle feature of the picture, it is presumptive evidence, at least, of deficiency in some higher qualities."

Both Pyle and Durand were suspicious of a show of technique, and both believed that the chief goal of the artist was to see beyond the veil of the senses.

Ian Schoenherr said...

Quite so - Pyle also said (in a 1902 speech):

"If by means of his technique the artist may convey an echo of the delight that inspires his effort, then he has succeeded and is, in the degree of his success, a greater or a lesser artist. If he fail to convey such an expression he is no artist in the higher sense, no matter how much technical cleverness he may display in covering a canvas with paint. If the thought which he has conveyed is one that fits the emotional experience of many other human beings, then the picture representing such a thought is both broad and profound. If the work interests only because of its technical brilliancy or its technical beauty then, I take it, the Art so represented is both narrow and shallow."

kev ferrara said...

Here's Inness on the same tack: When Leighton painted the walls at Kensington the excellent workman so forgot the end in view that the story has to be hunted out,— here is a work with an intent outside of itself as a use, and that intent was to show his skill,—this is bad art, in which an impression is made upon the spectator involving an intent not in order with the one assured. The artist was not one with his subject; without inspiration he was in the sphere of twaddle. This is that very honest and highly respectable kind of humbug in the art world which we are apt to fall into more or less, against which the impression is a protest.