WASHINGTON is eager for beauty. With perhaps two or three exceptions however, or in fact with only one really marked exception, the city does not class as artistic acquisitions the bronze figures that throng the streets. They are interesting, but they are not art; the most marked exception being the monument to McClellan, placed at the head of the Connecticut Avenue slope, on the heights. It is most admirably done. It is highly spirited. The general is seated on his horse, on top of the usual granite base, and with an unusual effectiveness of attitude to supplement the commanding situation. You understand why it is so good when you learn that it is a MacMonnies: and I do not remember another MacMonnies in the city.
Nor, although there are superb examples of the art of St. Gaudens in Boston, New York and Chicago, do I remember any statue by him here with the exception of that at the grave of Mrs. Henry Adams, out in the suburbs, for which St. Gaudens was privately commissioned.
Congress has had in the past a general habit of skipping first class painters or sculptors, and has loved to give its commissions to mediocre men of political influence. This feature, however, has recently been changed in highly important degree, and Congress has entered an era of almost lavish artistic spending, mostly in architectural effects and in choosing the very best architects in the country, with most gratifying results.
One is rather disturbed to find that a general of the caliber of McClellan is given a prominent position and the best of sculptors, for he is not nowadays believed to have done anything to justify his ephemeral popularity. It is amusing to remember that Nathaniel Hawthorne, after personally meeting Mclellan and being highly impressed, wrote angrily that he believed the general to have been held back for two weeks by wooden cannon. But Hawthorne was far from being a judge of military men, and, by comparison with his statements, one comes to wonder if McClellan may not have been a rather capable general after all. And his men loved him.
No other American city has so many paintings and sculptures in and about public buildings or in other places open to public inspection. But, in the narrower sense, of works of art formally exhibited in galleries, Washington is not as yet to be compared with other great cities. But this need is now recognized and there is such planning along this line as will in time produce an adequate National Gallery.
A custom mistakenly tolerated has been that of permitting private individuals or families to put up on public property, at their own expense, monuments and memorials of their own relatives. An Art Commission passes on all private or public de-signs, for public places, but it has not aways decided competently.
It gives a very wrong impressiion to the rising generation to see, for example, President Buchanan honored by a large and impressive memorial such as has recently been planned and such as the Government has decided to permit. His weakness and misjudgment did so much injury to the nation, that he ought not to be commemorated as a great patriot. But when it was found that his niece Harriet Lane, who had become Harriet Lane Johnson, had left money for a costly memorial to her uncle, the plan was accepted. In this case the design for a huge memorial was approved, largely because Harriet Lane had been so prominent as mistress of the White House for her bachelor uncle and because she had made a great impression upon the English.
Although St. Gaudens was not called upon, as he should have been, to do a great deal of sculpture in Washington, there was such a surplusage of commissions in other places that he could afford to look tolerantly upon the developments of art in the National Capital. He declared himself as rather liking the General Scott monument, by H. R. Brown. “The figure is unusually excellent, and so is the horse,” he wrote. “It is really a swell thing.” Now and then he loved an informal expression. And then comes the little sting of a conclusion: “But it is too bad that the General is too big for the animal!”
As to the equestrian of General Thomas by Ward, St. Gaudens seems to have been in two minds, or in fact, of several. “It is spirited,” he said, and then, rather maliciously, “From some points of view admirable.” And he finishes with what seems a veiled hit: “The horse is unusually good.”
An association which stands with growing effectiveness for the gathering of art in Washington is the Arts Club. As the late James Bryce wrote from his English home, charmingly named Hindleap, Forest Row, Sussex, to a leading member of the Club: “I am delighted to hear of the efforts which your club is making to interest your fellow citizens in the further development of that love of Art and Beauty which Washington is so well fitted to in-spire.” These words so well express a growing and highly important general feeling in Washington, that it is a pleasure to set them down.
And Bryce continues, in a view of wise encouragement : “Many things continue to make Washington a focus of art life and art thought. Its Art Collections are certain to grow apace, and the comparative absence of manufactures and commerce leaves men’s minds free to occupy themseves with pursuits which refine taste, and open up new sources of pleasure.”
The Arts Club is charmingly housed in an old-fashioned house on I Street, number 2017, on the way from the White House to Georgetown. It is a residence of unusual width, and the beautiful lunette-topped Colonial doorway instantly attracts the attention of the passer by.
Before the Revolution the land upon which the house now stands was known by the homely name of “The Widow’s Mite,” and as time passed, was successively owned by military officers, members of Congress, and other prominent men.
The house, three stories in height, has delightful windows and dormers and was the home of James Monroe when he was President Madison’s Secretary of State. When the British invaded the city, one of the excited President and Cabinet conferences was being held here, only to be broken up by news of the swift approach of the enemy, whereupon, so the story goes, Madison galloped on horseback through the halls of the house itself to escape; although another story has it, that it was a British soldier who went galloping through the generous sized hall.
The building is delightfully comfortable through-out, and is steadily doing an increasing work, not only for art but for highly intelligent social life.
What has long been looked upon as practically the only definitive repository for art, has been that of the Corcoran Gallery. This was endowed by the philanthropist Corcoran, a trifle over half a century ago, “to be used solely for the purposes of encouraging American genius in the production and preservation of works pertaining to the Fine Arts, and kindred objects.” In the eighteen nineties it was found that a new building was needed and the present gallery was built. Through its being a foundation of such high aims, and through its so long being the only foundation of its kind in the city, .it long ago acquired a high reputation in the public mind.
The Art Gallery is on Seventeenth Street at New York Avenue and looks out toward the White House grounds. It is an extremely good-looking building, in spite of the not very successful bulge of a wing that contains a hemicycle auditorium.
The entrance to the art gallery, which is by far the principal part of the building, is up a few easy steps with a colossal bronze lion on either side. The building has a glass roof slanting sharply up-ward. The structure is of white Georgia marble on a lower section of pink granite. There are some windows on the first floor, but the second story rises in a solid white wall.
On entering the building you find yourself con-fronted by a white marble grand staircase, fifteen feet in width, leading to the second story, where you see that the great skylight is supported by thirty-eight fluted monoliths. The building is divided into a number of galleries and is admirable for its purposes.
On the whole the collection is far from the highest order, although there are a few exceptions to this. The Greek Slave, by Powers, used to be generally talked about, as among the remarkable sculptures of the world; but taste changes. Here and there in the world some superb example appears of such unquestioned skill that it stands for centuries as a model; which the Greek Slave has already ceased to do. Long before the founding of the gallery Corcoran gave a great ball to both houses of Congress, at which he displayed this statue with the highest honor. It is remembered that General Sam Houston, arrayed in blue coat, brass buttons and ruffled shirt, gave the Greek Slave interested examination!
The statue entitled “The Last Days of Napoleon” has not high standing as a work of art, and yet it has a sort of haunting effect through its representing the feelings of a man who has been utterly humbled after ruling the world.
A Corot in the gallery was the first painting by this artist for which a fairly large sum was paid. It is the Ramasseur de Bois, an unusually large painting for Corot, and it shows a dark forest and a blue sky flecked with gray. It was bought for fifteen thousand dollars, whereas until then the highest Corot price had been nine thousand. But directly facing the distinguished Corot there hangs a landscape so without merit as to give the whole room a jarring note.
There are some military pictures by Detaille, vivid in their blue and red and hazy with mist.
Your shoulders involuntarily straighten as his regiment passes by.
There are several portraits of prominent American statesmen by Thomas Sully. There is a cast of the remarkable Joel Barlow, so closely associated ‘with the city of Washington. It is by Houdon, and shows Barlow with a queue, a bald head, a tuft over his forehead, an assertive tip to his head, and a sort of general alert aplomb. He looks like the kind of man who would naturally be sent to talk to Napoleon!
As the principal gallery of a great city the Corcoran Gallery is markedly thin, and the thinness is not improved by the abundance of Barye bronzes and pictures of sentimentality.
The Freer Collection is of extremely high promise. It is in a positively exquisite building.
The collections of graphic arts are beautifully taken care of in the National Capital. The Library of Congress, in its Department of Prints, offers wonderful opportunity to study the finest examples; and with generosity gives the opportunity to all. With the great resources of a Government collection, it has been ardently carried to liberal dimensions as to quantity and fine choice as to quality. There are entire floors of pavilions and galleries on one side of the Library given over to exhibitions, and every-thing not in plain sight is opened quickly for inspection and use.
To supplement this, the Smithsonian Institution has in its old castellated building on the Mall, elaborate exhibitions of the various processes of picture making.
Those who feel the appeal of one thing in one special place, and one in another, instead of finding everything gathered and classified as if with a business card index in one museum, will be satisfied in this city; as, in Paris, the student goes, refreshed, from the Louvre to the Luxembourg, from the Luxembourg to the Carnavalet.
These things have individuality, when you go to the Smithsonian for one, to the Freer for another, to the Print Department up on the hill for another.