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Bold Brush email
sent August 17, 2021
[no author listed other than the Boldbrush team]

One of the great attractions of art is its timelessness. A great work of art transcends fashions and trends – it’s great forever. One of the things I discovered to my surprise when I went to art school was that a large amount of that timelessness carries into the practice and life of the artist. If you look back into art history, the motivations, lifestyle, and practices of artists haven’t changed so very much, even though nations, cultures, and technologies have. I recently came across an article written nearly one hundred and fifty years ago, in 1880, that reminded me of this.

Titled “Young Artist’s Life in New York”, it was published in the January 1880 issue of Scribner’s Monthly, a popular New York magazine featuring a mix of reporting, agricultural how-to, fiction, and slice-of-life, with plenty of black-and-while illustrations reproduced using the latest technology. As a young artist in New York today, I was curious to see how the young artist’s life of 1880 compared with my own, and it was a pleasant reminder that in a swiftly turning world, some things don’t change. And for the things that did change, it’s an instructive exercise to consider how they changed and why. The article was written by New York art critic William H. Bishop, pleasingly well-researched, and illustrated by members of the Salmagundi Club, a young art club that was making a splash in 1880 New York with their high spirits, revolt against the establishment, and wildly successful ‘Black-and-White’ exhibitions, which were garnering the attention of the New York publishing world as well as the art world.

The author was interested in describing the day-to-day existence of the young artists, many of whom had moved to New York from other parts of the country to study art, leaving family and careers behind. Like many art students today, these students faced financial hardship, difficulty finding work, and the challenge of finding personal inspiration amidst tedious drawing exercises and long working hours. But like the art scene of today, Bishop describes a group of people who are both fun-loving and tireless workers, practical jokers who are also relentlessly practical about finding ways to pursue their art. I loved his description of the typical artist’s attitude: “There is nothing heavily oppressive in the daily conduct of affairs, though the underlying purpose is serious. Indeed, the art-student is inclined to a practicality and sometimes to an incorrigible levity of speech which makes it appear to be his direct purpose to disillusioning those who may have been inclined to sentimentalize about his exceptional position in our common-place life.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself. His description of the sketch groups that formed outside of school, another feature of artist life I am very familiar with, could also be from today (with the exception of the model fees!):

“An improving diversion outside the schools is the social sketch clubs, which from time to time flourish and fall into decadence. A congenial circle meets one evening a week from eight o’clock till ten, at the houses of members in turn, or at some one which offers peculiar advantages; the model is placed in a corner, often on a small improvised platform, and the ordinary chandeliers serve well enough for purposes of illumination. Others hold morning sessions for three hours. At one which we have particularly in mind there were sometimes volunteer but generally paid models — make-believe fisherman, brigands, sultanas and dairy-maids, and real newsboys, coachmen, flower-girls and walking advertisements. At the ruling rates of payment for this kind of professional service,– fifty and seventy-five cents an hour, –the assessment of cost was not over ten cents to each person.” Having both drawn and modeled at such gatherings many times, I can attest that these groups, though they do form and disband quickly, remain ‘improving diversions’ down to the present day.

One significant difference between the art scene today and then is New York’s place in the art world. Back in 1880, the United States had only just celebrated its hundredth birthday and was still trying to establish a cultural identity independent of Europe’s. The ateliers of France, Germany, and Italy were still revered as ‘the’ place to go, and, in the days before color reproduction, the European tour was the only option for the serious student who wanted to study the work of the Masters. Mr. Bishop complained that the American art student sometimes carried this European admiration to a fault, even down to choice of subject, saying the American student “has not discovered, for instance, the picturesque capabilities of New York, which has a glow of color and an irregularity of outline with which neither London nor Paris can compare; for New York has made more of the arrangements for purely modern life than any other city in the world. Brow-beaten as the student naturally is by the traditional American reverence for foreign parts, perhaps it would not be fair to expect the discovery from this source.” Compare that with today’s New York, which is not only the artistic capital of the United States but stands shoulder-to-shoulder with London, Paris, and Rome, cities that in its early days were only distant role models. And is itself, with its charming avenues and magnificent skyline, the model and subject of inspiration for countless works of art. Mr. Bishop would be proud. We’ve come a long way and it was in the 1880s that the groundwork was being laid for New York’s artistic autonomy.

At that time the majority of serious American students were still traveling to Europe at some point in their career to study in the established schools of Paris, London, and Munich, and it was these students, returning to America with a greater depth of education and experience, who built the New York art scene into the unique identity it carries today. Bishop describes the energy of the students newly returned from Europe: “They are graduates of Paris and Munich, and are the main supporters of the new “American Art Association.” They have lived long enough in Europe to see something of its commonplace side, and are content to discuss it chiefly from the point of view of its comparative practical advantages⦠Their talk, when it is not jocose, is of a practical character by preference. They discuss technical points, the manner of this and that artist, new methods of laying paint with a palette knife instead of brush, and the disproportion in this country of the artist’s expenses to his returns. The newest arrival complains that he finds $400 and $600 the ruling rates for studios, while he could have had the best in Munich for less than $200. Their position as pioneers in a new period of art development, and the prospective results, are touched upon. The American subject, the simple, the nude, the historical in art, such a one’s new propositions in perspective, all come in for a share of attention.” A conversation like this might be heard in any modern-day New York drawing group, and it’s both comforting and stimulating to think about the artistic revolutions brought about through just such conversations in the past 150 years.

Highly thorough in his survey, Bishop touches on the actual living conditions of the young artist as well, and here again it’s not significantly different from today – I, for one, have experienced three to a studio and if we still used coal boxes would not be remotely surprised to see it doubling as both lounge and bed. “The studio of the poorer class is sleeping room, and generally more or less kitchen as well. Disregard of conventional forms sometimes reaches the point of actual squalor. Here in one costing fifteen dollars a month, three persons are sleeping, two on a lounge–which also serves as a coal box–and one on a shelf conveniently placed at night on trestles. Coffee is drunk from a tomato can. A chop or steak is cooked by lowering it down with a wire through the top of an ordinary cylinder stove. The collection of dust-covered clothing, old boots and shoes, withered ferns, half dry sketches, plaster busts, groceries, books, and oil-cans, presided over by a battered lay figure in a Roman toga and slouch hat, would do little violence to the ideal of symmetry in a rag and bottle shop.”

So much for a taste of life as a New York art student in 1880. As an example of what it felt like to be in the New York art scene, Mr. Bishop closes his article with a vivid description of the Salmagundi Club, which at that time had been in existence for just nine years and counted about thirty members. The Salmagundi Club still exists to this day, with over a thousand members now, scattered across the country and united by technology and the U.S. postal service. Although the Club is different in some respects, being now an established organization –it has a president and board and official title and a brownstone house all its own– it has not changed as a gathering-place for artists to work, play, and exercise friendly competition.

In 1872 a knot of rather the most irregular young fellows of the irregular kind described was in the habit of gathering at the studio of a confrere, now a successful sculptor. He did his own cooking, like the others, but it was genuine cooking. It reached lofty flights of soups and oyster-pie undreamed of by the rest. Neither improvident nor niggardly, he had something like a tangible hospitality regularly to offer. Once a dance was given at which a paid fiddler was employed. A sort of sketch class was formed in time which brought in all kinds of random subjects from the street. Some minor actors and newspaper men who had come once were pleased to return again to the evening assemblies. Fencing and boxing went on in one corner and declaiming in another, while the fine arts pursued their way as best they could.

The five original members increased to twenty. The plan first adopted is still pursued; designs are prepared on a given subject and brought down to a meeting each week for display and criticism.

The boisterous early surroundings were adverse, however, and after the first year, upon the departure for Europe of some of the leading spirits, the club suspended. Three years ago, several of these having returned, it was reorganized on a much more serious basis, and became the Salmagundi club, brought favorably into public notice by its recent “Black and White” exhibitions. It was gathered in now some thirty members, and included an array of talent of no common order. The work shows a vast improvement over that of the early period, yet so great is the range of subject for which illustration is required by the increasing demand, that it will be long before the occupation of the club is gone.

The Salmagundi convenes at nine of Friday nights at the studio of a young marine painter in Astor Place. The appurtenances are somewhat dingy, and there is a mellow atmosphere of smoke in the room. A long table, spread with a white cloth and having shining pots of chocolate and coffee upon it, makes a cheerful high light in the center. A mixture of the two, the Italian mischio, has been adopted as a happy solution of the refreshment problem. The pots are the peculiar emblem of the club.

The members are gathered from occupations, each of which would furnish an entertaining special study. The marine painter has lately been daring shipwreck on the coast of Labrador, and his room is full of trophies of the sea. The specialty of this one is animals in quiet pastures; of that, men and animals in violent action. The latter keeps a bull-dog to worry the garments used in his military pieces into semblance of having passed through a campaign. He resorts to stable-yards to perfect the details of the motion he has first noticed in the street or the park. The illustrated paper artist is there, too. HIs is a career of universal adventure. He takes down the leading points of a fire at night, with the end walls tumbling uncomfortably near him. He is waist-deep in snow at the Port Jervis ice-gorge, or in water at the Mill River disaster. There are labor-saving inventions to help him, but this merely increases the scale of his rapidity. It is necessary now that the cut of the boat-race or the inauguration ceremonies should be on the news-stands the day the event occurs. By an occasional inadvertence it is there the day before!

With such experiences to draw from, it would seem that the designs need not lack variety. The easy traditions of the past are continued in an absence of formality in the proceedings. Red-tapeism is made odious. Public sentiment was at one time opposed to a president, a constitution, or even a title. The official business consists merely in balloting for the choice of the next week’s subject. Suggestions are handed in and recorded on a list, which the chairman reads as a preliminary. “Yes or No,” “Spring,” “Idolatry,” “Silence,” “Blood,” “Homeward-Bound,” give an idea of their character and scope. “The Lay of the Forsaken Heart,” attributed to a diffident member, has long been passed without adoption, and is now cursorily disposed of as “the Lay.” A member with an especial penchant for horrors is distinguished as “Calamity” —.

The submitted designs, tacked upon the wall, are turned to with a lively attention. The remaining possibilities in the theme, after each has drawn from it what seemed to him its most striking aspect, are a matter of general curiosity and an enlarging experience on each occasion. The sketches are of all shapes and sizes. Careful finish is not a requirement, the conception being the important thing. They are done in chalk and charcoal, distemper, oil, pencil, India ink, pen and ink, any and every material, but not often in colors. Among the most interesting is the manner in which the ideas of the sculptor first take form. On another evening of the week the designs are placed before the Art Students’ League, for a formal exposition by a professor of the principles of design exhibited in them. With all this the once happy-go-lucky Salmagundi Club may well flatter itself on having become one of the most improving agencies in the whole artistic community.

And the fact that the same can be said of the Salmagundi Club one hundred and fifty years later, in a vastly different New York, is a prime example of the timelessness of the artists’ life.

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