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THE CENTURY MAGAZINE
SARGENT AND HIS PAINTING.
WITH SPECIAL REFERENCE TO HIS DECORATIONS IN THE
HE first question to be asked about a work tive?» This may be answered in one sense when the work is seen detached from its setting, as on the walls of an exhibition gallery. It may be more completely and decidedly answered when the work is looked at in place. We may have a good room with bare walls -a well-proportioned room. If the painter decorates it he must take care that it remains good in this sense. Not much more than this may be required of him, except that the subject of his work be appropriate to the uses of the room, and that the treatment be in accord with the architectural environment. He may even enhance architectural effects, but the first point is to beautify. Within certain architectural limitations he has a wide field in which he may exercise his decorative fancy.
Sargent's work in the Boston Public Library fills only one end of a hall, and consists of a frieze, a lunette, and an arched ceiling. All the rest of the hall is bare. The walls, which are of a very light yellowishgray tint, have an effect that can only be described as garish, lighted as they are by skylights in the ceiling high above the floor. If these walls, now bare, were covered
with temporary hangings of dark, quiet tints, the decorations would appear to far better advantage. The pictures cover such a small
even from a near, and consequently unfavorable, point of view, it is impossible to avoid the damaging effect of their harsh surroundings. With their present environment, the pictures might well be compared to a fine ruby set in a plaster brooch. Mr. Sargent's work suffers in this respect as the work of Puvis de Chavannes or Edwin A. Abbey does not. The pictures by Abbey are suitably framed by the dark-colored wainscoting and other woodwork in the delivery-room. The yellow marble of the splendid stairway and corridor, as well as the prevailing general tint of that part of the walls not intended to be decorated, were taken account of, of course, by Puvis de Chavannes when he painted the beautiful composition, «The Muses Welcoming the Genius of Enlightenment.» When his work in the stairway is finished there will still be large wall-spaces undecorated. How admirably the composition now in place fits its surroundings, how complete in itself it is, we need only walk up the steps and through the corridor to appreciate. It does not obtrude, it does not distort the architectural proportions, and it harmonizes in the most subtle
1 See THE CENTURY for February, 1896. Copyright, 1896, by THE CENTURY Co. All rights reserved.
and delicate way with everything that comes in sight when looked at from any point of view. There may be in the work certain portions—one or two heads of the muses, perhaps -that do not seem to be as good as the average of Puvis's work, and the white of the robes seems a little cold and harsh when looked at piece by piece, lacking in the tender quality of color that characterizes other work by the great artist; but as a whole it is the acme of successful decoration, simple, beautiful, and absolutely fitting.
Where Mr. Sargent has had a somewhat similar problem to solve he also has succeeded. The color of the stone floor in Sargent Hall is permanent. So, too, I take it, is the color of the wall below the frieze. The composition of the prophets is admirably colored to unite the wan effect of what is below it with the brilliant tints of the lunette and arch. The transition is made easily and without a jar. It is only when we look above that we feel the sharp and disagreeable contrast with the rest of the room. There can be no doubt whatever that when the work, which includes the decoration of the entire room, is completed, the pictures now in place will gain immeasurably in general effect.
Let us now consider them by themselves. The frieze begins at the height of the door in the end wall, over which is placed a figure of Moses, modeled in relief, and colored. There are five painted figures on each side of the Moses, and four on each of the side walls, all representing Hebrew prophets.
In the ceiling are depicted the gods of polytheism and idolatry. A dark figure of the goddess Neith, the All Mother, treated almost as a flat mass, stretches over the entire arch from base to base, and serves as the groundwork of the composition. This figure typifies the eternal forces to which the first religious instincts in mankind may be attributed. The head of Neith appears in the upper right-hand portion of the arch of the ceiling; her hands reach down to the cornice on one side, her feet to that on the other. The firmament is her body; a golden zodiac forms her collar or necklace; a serpent with silver scales is coiled around her neck; an archer, caught in the huge folds of the serpent, represents the forces of warmth and summer struggling with those of cold and winter, typified by the serpent.
The story is a development of the primeval myth of the eternal conflict between the sun and the dragon, in which the sun is conquered in the winter months, but conquers during the summer.
In the Phenician mythology Tammuz (the sun), a beautiful youth beloved by the goddess Astarte (typifying the productive forces of nature), was but by the intercession of Astarte he was allowed slain on Mount Lebanon by a boar (the dragon); to spend a portion of each year on earth. Annually the river Adonis, which rises in Mount Lebanon, ran red with his blood, the signal for a period of lamentation for his death, which was changed to rejoicing when he revived, and the river again flowed clear. From this story the familiar myth of Venus and Adonis was developed.1
In the decoration the archer in the serpent's coils on one side of the zodiac drives it back with his arrows far enough to reveal the signs of the six warm months. On the other side he is depicted lifeless in the serpent's strangling folds, and the six cold months are covered up. The figure of Astarte, the lover of Adonis, or Tammuz, occupies the lower right-hand portion of the ceiling. The left-hand portion shows the giant figure of Moloch, with the head of a bull, and four arms, seated on his throne. The sun is over his head; at his feet are the figures of the Egyptian trinity, Osiris, Isis, and Horus, the father, mother, and son. With two of his hands he crushes human victims, in a third he holds a dagger, and in the fourth the Assyrian disk. Five golden lions about his knees typify the heat of the sun and its destroying force. From the sun itself, however, radiate long golden beams, each terminating in a hand holding a seed between the thumb and finger, symbols of life-giving power.
In the lunette the Jews, represented by a group of twelve nude figures, are shown in subjection to the Egyptian and the Assyrian, typified by figures of Pharaoh and the Assyrian king. Behind the one is a heap of dead captives, the male sphinx of Egypt, and the goddess Pasht, with the head of a lioness, the body of a woman, and great wings of black and gold. Behind the other is the Assyrian lion trampling on the slain, and an Assyrian god, with the body of a man and the head of a vulture. Over and above all, dominating the mighty rulers, their gods and symbols, is Jehovah, whose hands stretch out from the clouds and restrain the oppressors. His face is veiled by a group of cherubim with crimson wings, who fly before him. The lunette, thus showing the overwhelming of the heathen oppressors, unites by its subject and by its. middle position in the decoration the ceiling and the frieze.
1 Handbook of the New Public Library in Boston. Compiled by Herbert Small, with contributions by C. Howard Walker and Lindsay Swift.