A Text-Book on the History of Painting by John Charles Van Dyke was published a century ago. Today it offers the modern reader not only potted, period critiques of important artists, but also a remarkable insight into how aesthetics change from generation to generation. John Charles Van Dyke’s assessments of some work will surprise today’s reader, especially his attitudes towards some contemporary artists who received rather hostile reactions from some quarters when their work was first exhibited.
The book deals with the European tradition. It makes no excuses for this. At the time, non-European art was perhaps less well known in Western critical circles. Perhaps also, it was regarded as somehow inferior, perhaps also merely because it was not European in origin. But Van Dyke does offer us a working distinction that excludes most non-European art from his survey, that of the difference between observation and expression. Only that which aims at expression, for van Dyke at least, is worthy of the label “art”. Somehow ancient Egyptian art makes it into the oeuvre, probably because it was also represented in museums that were close at hand and accessible.
Two painters in particular illustrate the difference in treatment between van Dyke’s age and our own, El Greco and Alma-Tadema. El Greco is hardly mentioned as a figure in sixteenth century Spain, his achievements apparently being regarded as rather localised on Toledo. Thus a figure now regarded as a unique stylist and visionary hardly figures in this text. Alma-Tadema, whose academicism and detail might today offer summary and epitome of the staid Victorian England that toyed euphemistically with the erotic is also dismissed. And one of the few English painters to be raised to the peerage, Frederick Leighton, also did not impress Professor Van Dyke. Neither, it seems, did Albrecht Durer.
Central to Van Dyke’s aesthetic is a judgment as to whether the painter not only represents, interprets and expresses, but also constructs a painting. Mere reality is never enough, it seems, life requiring the skill of an editor or architect to render its experience communicable. It is interesting to reflect on how much or little we still value this aspect of aesthetics in today’s painting.
Some of Van Dyke’s observations will at least entertain. Franz Hals, we learn, lived a rather careless life. William Blake was hardly a painter at all. A Dutchman is attributed with the faint praise of being a unique painter of poultry. Matthew Maris is criticised for being a recorder of visions and dreams rather than the substantial things of earth, while Turner is dismissed as bizarre and extravagant, qualities that today might enhance rather than diminish his reputation.
But Van Dyke’s book remains an interesting, informative and rewarding read, despite its distance from contemporary thinking. He is especially strong in his summary descriptions of the different Italian schools of the late Gothic and Renaissance eras. It is more than useful to be reminded of how independent these city states were at the time and how little they managed to influence one another. A Text-Book on the History of Painting by John Charles Van Dyke remains, then, an essential read for anyone interested in the history of art. Much has changed, but then there is much that has not.