ARTISTS ON THE EDGE: THE RISE OF COASTAL ARTISTS' COLONIES, 1880-1920
Amsterdam University Press. 408 pages. $59. ISBN 978-90-8964-251-6
Reviewed by Jim Burns
There is currently a fair amount of interest in the history of artists' colonies. The idea of specific locations, usually on the coast or in attractive country areas, where painters and others congregated, seems to intrigue people, and it's useful when curators are thinking about organising exhibitions. I've seen several, large and small, devoted to St Ives and Newlyn, and the number of books with St Ives in the title appears to increase year by year. I'm not condemning this activity and personally find it all fascinating. It may be that there's an element of nostalgia involved in some of the interest. People perhaps look back to a time when things seemed to be less institutionalised. And it could be that the heyday of artists' colonies produced paintings that are, on the whole, easy to look at, by which I mean that they're based on a realistic, if sometimes romanticised, view of the world. Looking at them we see landscapes, seascapes, people working in fields or on the quayside, and mostly small towns or villages which appear to have an atmosphere of security and continuity about them.
It's a simplification, of course, to suggest, as I appear to be doing, that what was in paintings before 1880 didn't deal with the matters referred to. But there may be a general point to be made in saying that a lot of art prior to the late-19th Century often used religious, historical, and classical imagery that required a degree of knowledge or explanation to bring out its qualities. And some art after 1900, as it moved towards abstraction and other experimental areas, likewise couldn't be easily understood. There's a sly comment in Brian Dudley Barrett's book when, discussing the rise of a series of modern movements, he remarks: "The art market was almost back to its original position, whereby the canvas needed someone educated to explain its meaning or purpose." In contrast, a great many of the painters mentioned in his survey stuck to orthodox styles, even if they sometimes varied their subject-matter or showed an awareness of innovations in the use of colour and how they dealt with the effects of light. The main thrusts in the push towards radical changes came from the cities, and you can't imagine Cubism, for example, coming from an artists' colony of the kind that Barrett deals with. One or two individuals stand out in terms of being adventurous and he refers to Jan Toorop, who was something of a livewire and liked to keep up with the latest trends.
Not all colonies were the same in the way that they functioned and the artists they attracted. Barrett makes the point that they have to be seen in the "wider context of the modern movement." And it may be necessary here to say that his detailed analysis largely concentrates on coastal colonies in Denmark, Germany, and Holland, with minor asides for Newlyn, Concarneau, Staithes, and a few other places. Artists often moved from one colony to another, not just in the same country but internationally. But he does devote a chapter to Barbizon, which wasn't a coastal colony but had a major impact in that it set the style for what came later. He says: "The School of Barbizon is commonly cited as the precedent for artists' villages, though independent inquiry into the unspoilt countryside was already common across Europe by mid-century." He does add that none of the artists linked to two major colonies, Worpswede (Germany) and Skagen (Denmark), had visited Barbizon, "although it would have been difficult to avoid knowledge of that 'Mecca for Realism' prior to their own experiments in rural social creativity."
Why did artists choose to gravitate towards colonies around this time? Individuals had gone into the countryside or to the coast in search of fresh ideas about what to paint, but it wasn't until Barbizon that groups of them chose to move to places where they could live together in some sort of community, loose as it may have been. Barrett argues that "the rise of these groups was entirely in keeping with the changing social, philosophical and economic conditions of the era, and was in many ways predictable." And he later says: "Ideological notions of a rural Arcadia may have inspired a few urban artists to leave for the countryside, although money matters were never far away from the minds of the majority of participants. They were all looking for a competitive edge."
Economic pressures within the art profession probably caused many artists to look for new subjects they could exploit. There is a suggestion that coastal colonies, as opposed to those inland where the pace of change was slower, experienced rapid alterations to the way of life they represented as railways brought them into contact with the wider world and tourism developed. What were once villages largely operating around fishing became holiday destinations as access to them eased and, in some cases, they could even be reached by day-trippers. How did the artists who had gone there hoping for traditional dress, customs, etc., to paint respond to the changes? They certainly didn't all begin to produce pictures showing new sights (trains, steamers instead of sail, people relaxing on the sands), at least not at first, and continued presenting an idealised view of coastal life. Dealers and their customers wanted to see fishermen and their women, though with much of the hard work, poverty, and danger either toned down or eliminated altogether. An occasional hint of tragedy could creep in as recognition that men were lost at sea, but it was usually done in a sentimental way. Walter Langley, an English painter based in Newlyn, had socialist leanings and did try to invest his canvases with some social significance, but he had to mostly cater for the middle-class market if he wanted to sell and buyers didn't want to be disturbed too much.
Art markets earlier in the 19th Century had largely been dominated by what Barrett describes as "the traditional Academy-Salon system," whereby established institutions, essentially an arm of the State, were the outlets for painters wanting to display and sell their work. The escalation in the number of artists in the 19th Century (Barrett notes that were "over 4,000 registered painters by the early 1860s" in Paris) meant that it was increasingly difficult for young painters, and many older ones, to reach possible buyers. But from mid-century it started to become obvious that innovations in printing, the rise of journalism as newspapers and magazines proliferated, and the surge in the number of people who could afford and wanted to buy paintings, were beginning to have an effect. There arose what Barrett refers to as "the Dealer-Critic System" as a replacement for the "Academy-Salon System." Did artists' colonies develop in response to this new marketing process as painters realised that it gave them greater freedom to survive outside the old framework for marketing their work? This new market, like the old one, naturally made its own demands, but I doubt that they were too much of a problem in many cases. Most artists have no great desire to break new ground and simply want to sell their work. So, they're happy to produce what the market wants.
With this in mind it's clear that moving to a colony as they spread across Europe could be a sound career move for some artists. The better colonies became known as places where dealers and critics could discover new talent. Also, the large numbers of newspapers and magazines catering to a public insatiable for news and entertainment meant that journalists were always on the lookout for good stories. Novelists, too, could get in on the act, colonies often providing colourful material. An example, though it's not mentioned by Barrett, can be quoted in connection with Concarneau on the Brittany coast where there was an active colony. An American writer, Blanche Willis Howard, based her novel, Guenn: A Wave on the Breton Coast, published in 1883, on the relationship between the painter Edward Simmons and a local girl he used as a model. In real life it doesn't appear that there was anything to the relationship beyond painting, but Howard dramatised it to make it seem more complex than it was. The book was successful and drew artists and tourists to Concarneau. Stories about artists' colonies, even if they weren't as colourful as Howard's novel, were always good copy and even serious art magazines liked to feature articles about them. There may have been advantages to the publicity if it stimulated interest in the work of the artists, but there were drawbacks if it encouraged the wrong kind of visitors.
I've perhaps annoyed Barrett by moving into the anecdotal because he's at pains to stress that he considers too many earlier studies of colonies have focused on personalities and entertaining stories. He set out to be much more analytical and contextual, and wants to show how and why artists thought it worthwhile gathering in colonies and how those colonies took different directions when arriving at arrangements that enabled them to function successfully. They were not Utopian colonies of the kind set up by political activists and which often aimed to be self-sufficient or at least operate at some distance from the wider society. A few artists were socialists but most were more concerned to get on with their own work. They usually tried to get along with the locals, sometimes by helping to set up schools or starting schemes to alleviate poverty. But the aim of many artists was to develop and sell their work in an atmosphere where they could count on some support, such as constructive criticism and advice about marketing. And they enjoyed the fruits of success if it came their way. Barrett documents what happened when artists were successful: "It is also surprising how quickly the Worpswede pioneers separated once success came their way, and how each retreated into rather conventional-looking homes and detached villas." They were not usually life-long bohemians, if they had ever been bohemians at all.
One of the factors that Barrett looks at closely is the 19th Century rise in plein-air painting. There had been artists who painted in the open before the Impressionists helped widen the idea, and painters at Barbizon worked out-of-doors before finishing their canvases in their studios. But by the 1880s, and the rise of colonies, it had become a standard practice to paint outside. There were still attacks on it, often because it was said that the paintings "appear merely sketched out and in no sense complete," or because they pictured "ordinary daily life." Such criticisms came from conservative voices in the art establishment, but the fact was that the new audience for realism (or something near to it) in painting liked what they saw, provided it wasn't too raw, and they had the money to buy it. It's Barrett's contention that "the grass-roots development of pleinairism, as seen in the growth of many rural artists' colonies, implied a fresh, open and more democratic movement that took a wholesome view on all kinds of experimentation."
Add to this the fact that a lot of plein-air paintings were relatively small for practical reasons - they had to be carried around and large canvases would easily blow over if a wind got up - meant that they could be transported to dealers in cities where there was a demand for art that could be hung in middle-class homes. Barrett is astute when he talks about practical matters, such as the development of the paint tube and the role it played in encouraging artists to work outdoors. Before tubes paint had to be carried in pigskin or bladder containers which were "troublesome, inefficient and dirty." Once paint tubes were available it became easier to have a selection of colours in another useful innovation, travel paint boxes. Add to these the manufacture of easels, chairs, and parasols for protection against the elements, and leaving the studio wasn't a problem. Amusingly, a minor trend started with "painters painting painters painting" as they hunted around for subjects they thought would have an appeal.
It's noted that "Realism or Naturalism, Social-Realism or Romanticism - they all came together under the parasol of pleinairism at Skagen's artists' colony," and this ties in with his observations about colonies not being centres for the advocacy of a particular artistic aim. A variety of styles co-existed, at least within the boundaries referred to above, and many artists were happy to alternate between easel painting and magazine illustrations. Rapid developments in printing were of benefit and combined with greater access to outlets to enable them to earn much-needed money. They weren't all in a position to make a living from paintings alone and local circumstances sometimes affected sales. When he discusses colonies in Germany, Barrett says: "Many of Germany's wealthiest collectors had a penchant for the international juste-milieu that was Impressionism, as they saw it as uncomplicated, uncontroversial and un-political. Just as in other countries in this study, most of the nouveau-riche actually preferred artwork devoid of social comment." And he adds dryly that they wanted subjects "distant from their own source of wealth," and preferred "the bourgeois comforts of late-Impressionism, exemplified by Manet." At Worpswede, "the vast majority of its artists produced purely uncontroversial landscape pictures devoid of social criticism."
Their attitude is easy to understand. They wanted to sell their paintings so produced what the market wanted. In any case, I doubt that many painters were really interested in using their work for social commentary of a political kind. If they had been they surely would have gone to industrial towns and cities. It can be argued that in choosing to paint in the countryside or along the coast, though avoiding the grimmer scenes even there, they were making a form of protest against the modern world, but I find it hard to accept this. I suspect that most of them knew just what to do to find a market for their work. I'm put in mind of the Glasgow Boys exhibitions in Glasgow and London in 2010 where it was noticeable that, with a couple of minor exceptions, none of the paintings had any scenes that showed the industrial world of Scotland. And this at a time when Glasgow was a major centre for shipbuilding and related activities and there was plenty of poverty around. I recall a picture which had a railway-station, though the people on the platform looked polite and well-dressed, and another in which a couple of factory chimneys could be seen in the distance, but that was it. The Glasgow Boys were associated with an artists' colony at Cockburnspath in Scotland, and their work was popular in Germany and widely exhibited and publicised there.
One of the interesting facts about the German colonies is that they don't seem to have attracted many foreigners. But German artists did visit colonies like Katjwik and Volendam in Holland. Both were very active communities and Barrett looks at them closely. Volendam, in particular, sustained a large and lively group of painters, partly thanks to a sympathetic and enterprising innkeeper who welcomed them and helped with useful contacts in the local community, language difficulties, and so on. Barrett is keen to stress that an inn, especially one with a friendly owner, was central to a colony. They did vary from place to place, with German innkeepers not being noted for their helpfulness, something which could be ascribed to the artists not being seen as useful to local economies. There may have been other reasons, including a suspicion of outsiders and especially foreigners who might try to bring in new ideas. It wasn't only the innkeepers who were unfriendly and in Holland the village elders in Volendam at first resisted the notion of opening a hotel, or allowing strangers to stay overnight, but were eventually persuaded to change their minds by the innkeeper. He seems to have been someone who liked artists and what they did, as well as realising how they could bring business to the area. Three of his daughters later married artists.
Barrett provides information about the nationalities of the artists who lived in or visited the various colonies. There were a lot of Americans, at least in those in France and Holland, and American painters were generally busy in Europe. Barrett gives a figure of 5,000 American artists in Montparnasse in 1910, which is rather startling. They turned up at Barbizon, Grez-sur-Loing, Pont-Aven, Concarneau, Giverny, Volendam, St Ives, and elsewhere. In Giverny the main hotel registered almost 700 Americans in its first twelve years. There's a gallery at Giverny which, until recently, was run by the Terra Foundation and had special exhibitions of American artists who had worked in France. Like so many other artists who functioned in colonies their paintings, judging from those I saw over a number of years, were competent, colourful, and largely focused on attractive scenes in the countryside, on the coast, in gardens or perhaps along a river. None of them that I can recall had much to say about the lives of the locals, nor did they suggest that the artists had any interest in what was going on in Paris and elsewhere, other than with regard to artistic trends and even then the interest didn't extend much beyond Impressionism.
One of the reasons why Americans went to Pont-Aven was because a law had been passed restricting access to L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts to those fluent in French. But it was more than probable that a lot of artists settled in, or visited, the colonies like Volendam or Egmond or Concarneau just because they were, to use a contemporary phrase, where the action was. Barrett says that they brought "new enthusiasm, a commercial awareness and realistic attitudes to modern publishing and advertising methods, seen in the high number of illustrators amongst their number." They were usually financially solvent, too, which helped local economies and were also noted for their outgoing natures and companiable ways which helped create a "friendly atmosphere."
It's apparent that a whole series of reasons led to the creation of artists' colonies in the late-19th Century. One was certainly the reaction against the academicism of art, with training in the established institutions failing to excite young artists. Another was the enthusiasm for plein-air painting with its desire to find new subjects so that the classicism insisted on by academics and conservative commentators could be challenged. Technical initiatives, such as the paint tube, played a part, as did the extension of rail and road systems which made it easier to get to places on the coast while also being able to stay in touch with dealers. The rise in the number of newspapers and magazines which drew attention to new trends, and the spread of literacy which increased the audience for those publications had an effect. And the replacement of the Academy-Salon method of selection by the Dealer-Critic system meant that there was a greater tolerance of fresh ideas. It could also be said that there were increasing numbers of people who wanted to be artists, even if many of them never fully achieved their ambitions. Do we really know how many unsuccessful painters spent time in a colony?
I mentioned earlier that Barrett didn't set out to write a popular or anecdotal history of the colonies. But he does refer to one or two incidents, albeit briefly, and liking anecdotes myself I can't resist using one of them. It concerns the painter Christian Krohg and the poet Hans Jaeger and the mistress they shared, Oda Lasson. Both Krohg and Jaeger were involved with an anarchist group in Christiania (Oslo) called The Bohemians, and both wrote books which caused a scandal. Jaeger was imprisoned because of the contents of his book, From The Christiania Bohemia, and while he was inside Krohg and Lasson decided to get married and head for the colony at Skagen. Jaeger was incensed, claiming that Lasson had broken a pact with him in which she'd agreed to kill him if she ever broke off their relationship, and when he was released from prison he set off in pursuit of the couple. They left Skagen and Jaeger eventually lost interest and returned to Christiania. To complete the story, Lasson later had an affair with the Norwegian poet, Jappe Nilssen, who fell into a depression when she ditched him. His depressive state was said to have inspired Munch's painting, Melancholy. I've culled most of these details from Michael Jacobs' The Good and Simple Life: Artist Colonies in Europe and America (Phaidon, 1985), which Barrett rightly describes as a more-anecdotal survey than his book. I've got to admit that, for myself, reading about the antics of Krohg and company can be a useful antidote to accounts of painters settling into bourgeois respectability, though obviously the quality of the work any painter produces is what counts, not the way they lived. Still, I can't help thinking that a factor in the existence of colonies could be the kind of people they attracted. The late-19th Century saw a surge of interest in bohemianism, in cities as well as elsewhere, and this could also have tied in with new movements in other areas, such as politics where Utopian ideas thrived. Hundreds of people must have visited the colonies, even stayed in them for a time, without leaving a record as successful artists, and we can only hazard guesses at their motives for being there.
Brian Dudley Barrett has written a stimulating book and he thankfully keeps clear of academic jargon while still managing to be penetrating in his analysis of the rise of artists' colonies. He can be a little repetitious, as when he tells the reader twice what Robert Louis Stevenson said about innkeepers having a duty to extend credit to impoverished artists, or that Millet was not involved in decorating the hotel at Barbizon. Something else he repeats is R.A.M.Stevenson's comment that: "any writer could tell you that they found those colonies more suited for the study of the human heart than for that of rocks and trees," which rather suggests that sometimes anecdotes and personalities might have a place in accounts of life in the colonies. This may be a writer's point of view, of course, because human behaviour is what writers thrive on, and only recently I heard a well-known British sculptor declare during a radio discussion that he thought novels and histories which revolved around aspects of the lives of artists were distractions from their work.
Artists on the Edge is well-researched and has sufficient relevant illustrations to complement the text. Some poor proof-reading has resulted in a number of typographical errors, though they're mostly of a minor kind. The book has a valuable bibliography, but I'd like to draw attention to one omission, not to fault Barrett (the book may not have been available to him when he was writing his) but because it does have useful information about how an important colony functioned. David Tovey's St Ives (1860-1930): The Artists and the Community: A Social History (Wilson Books, 2009) is worth consulting when looking at the history of artists' colonies.