Recently I came across an essay by R.H. Ives Gammell on social media that was shared by contemporary artist Carl Samson. For those of you that may not be aware, Robert Hale Ives Gammell (1893 – 1981) was an American artist and educator that painted symbolic images that reflected his study of literature, mythology, psychology, and religion. Many would claim that he is best known for his sequence of paintings based on Francis Thompson’s poem “The Hound of Heaven”–but I would argue that he is actually best known for his 1946 book of art criticism, Twilight of Painting, in which he argued that modern art, with its emphasis on abstraction, undermined the tradition of European craftsmanship.
Mr. Samson shared the following essay with this caption: “Here is an essay I stumbled on in my files this morning. Few today write about painting as R.H. Ives Gammell did. The clarity of his analysis, born of his own practice as a painter, combined with a first rate intellect is rare if not non existent today.”
I’ll hold my opinion till the end.
(Shown: H. R. Ives Gammell in his studio along with several work sample details.)
“Truth Versus Verisimilitude”
William Paxton, astute painter that he was, liked to quote an anonymous French artist, the name having escaped Paxton’s memory, who averred that what really mattered-in painting was “verisimilitude rather than truth” – this being my attempt at a literal translation of the phrase. But the somewhat esoteric utterance calls for citation in its native tongue, "En peinture ce n’est pas la verite qui compte, mais le vraisemblaince." The dictum is memorable in that it formulates a pivotal tenet of representational painting as the art was practiced by European cultures from the incipience of the Italian Renaissance well into the nineteen-fifties. Since then its caliber has deteriorated to the vanishing point. Today’s would-be practitioners who seek to revive the aims, ideals and methods which vitalized the noble art of the past, would be well-advised to ponder the wisdom latent in the aphorism to which I am calling attention.
The dictum in question could very properly be freely translated as follows: “The kernel of the representational painter’s art lies in his capacity to convince the viewer rather than in his recording of factual truths.” The coiner of the French maxim, who could well have been the formidable Edgar Degas himself, would in all likelihood have repudiated the implication of trompe l’oeil illusionism which haunts both of my English synonyms for veracity. Unabashed optical trickery has regularly been disdained by front-rank artists unless the deception was justified by exceptional circumstances. Recently the all too obvious dependence of most of our contemporary figurative painters on photography has vividly sundered their efforts from painting originated by exceptionally fertile minds equipped with eyes expertly sensitized by first-rate teachers and backed up by a vast arsenal of laboriously acquired professional skills.
But, once a painter has been ensnared by the blandly mechanical distortions of a camera, he can only extricate himself from their deceptive toils with the utmost difficulty. Therein lies the cogency of this inquiry. A painter investigates visual phenomena to discover esthetic factors which will exalt his heartfelt messages and give his pictures lasting status as works of art. Our present quest seeks to ascertain the nature of the visual truths which further this purpose.
The probing mind of Degas gave it much thought and all his comments deserve thoughtful consideration. But the reader must bear in mind that they were usually promulgated off the cuff in the give and take of small talk, an activity wont to stimulate his notorious proclivity for paradoxical gibes. Furthermore, he should also remember that Degas grew up in an era when every student attending a reputable atelier was enjoined to register shapes with all the exactitude that he could muster. This relentless early training established the firm foundation of Degas’ superlative draftsmanship, as is shown by his numerous extant early drawings. Later on the artist’s alert intellect addressed the subtler aspects of pictorial representation in a manner which baffled and misled many who had not benefited by similar early studies. His capricious temperament turned the magisterial artist into a faltering preceptor. I corresponded with a man who had been a devoted disciple of the aged Degas for twelve years, Jean-Charles Duval by name.
He gave me a detailed account of his master’s perplexing failure as a teacher and guide and told me that the towering genius was conscious of his discomfiture in this field and lamented it bitterly. I would describe his dilemma in these terms.
As the maturing Degas’ strong individualistic drive asserted itself, his analytic mind became increasingly committed to weighing, in every form of representational picture-making, the esthetic role enacted by convincing portrayals of visual experience. He was well aware that such depictions constitute the most eloquent instrument of self-expression at a painter’s disposal but he also realized that they acquired pictorial viability only when conjoined in a felicitous interplay of visual truth and abstract patterning, elements which his colleagues underplayed. Like all impressionists, he also fully appreciated how very markedly the contours of objects within a painter’s chosen field of vision alter the degree of their comparative sharpness whenever the artist changes his optical focus. Unless he has a firm grasp of this basic optical law, even a very proficient craftsman unwittingly juxtaposes visually incompatible statements and thereby perpetrates visual solecisms avoided by all knowledgeable impressionists.
For the latter stoutly maintain that the full splendor of the apparent world can only be captured by rendering with scrupulous care the general aspect of his chosen scene exactly as it appears to the trained eye of one who has learned to take in the spectacle of his choice in its entirety at a single glance. An even more stringent optical law ordains the perception of color relations. These rigid principles underpin the intrinsically austere kind of picture-making which we currently designate as impressionism, an art form of which Degas was a past master with strong idiosyncratic preferences which often were conspicuously at variance with the aims and working methods of his fellow exhibitors. He obviously chuckled as he underscored his divergences, smacking his lips after each telling gibe. He would urge his colleagues to seek their new approaches along the paths of draftsmanship. “I am colorist with my line,” he would cryptically announce. (Je suis colorist avec la ligne.) And, again paradoxically, this bewildering pioneer of painting towers among the supreme colorists in every connotation of the word while his station among the very greatest draftsmen has been universally recognized since the eighteen-seventies by knowledgeable painters.
The alerted reader should now be prepared to tap rewardingly the vessel of pictorial wisdom incarnate in Edgar Degas. Of course, the measure of his comprehension will be commensurate with his own perceptivity as developed primarily by competent teaching and then rendered more acute by prolonged effective practice. I fail to see how such strictly workaday matters concern art lovers who turn to pictures for enjoyment. Complete comprehension of them is, however, absolutely indispensable for writing valid art criticism.
R.H. IVES GAMMELL
My thoughts on this: While I do consider Mr. Gammell to be a skilled writer (as well as a decent artist)—his content here seems little more than an elaborate exercise in a nebulous " no true Scotsman" fallacy, wrapped in a love letter to Degas. He leaves the gate with a vague notion that is squeezed through a filter of false dilemma and his path gets no better from there.
Consider that the art experience is a very complex aspect of the human condition, and unfortunately this “first-rate intellect” seems to be nowhere near offering the reader anything insightful beyond a verbose glimpse into his own personal preferences.
I’d love ti hear your thoughts on this…