Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Words of Wisdom: James Jackson Jarves


James Jackson Jarves reading.

James Jackson Jarves was a newspaper editor and art critic who was among the first Americans to see the value in collecting the paintings of the Italian Renaissance and the drawings of the Old Masters.   Though he apparently had a good eye for art, his tastes were ahead of his time, and when he encountered financial difficulties, he was forced to sell his personal art collection.  Cornelius Vanderbilt purchased Jarves' assembled drawings, which included  nine Michelangelos, two Raphaels, nine Rembrandts, and several other works by Titian, Tintoretto, and Leonardo da Vinci, a collection significant enough to earn Vanderbilt a place on the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  His painting collection, however, was harder to dispose of;  the Met declined to purchase the works when they were offered for sale.  Yale University eventually took possession of a large portion of the Italian paintings for only $22,000 when Jarves defaulted on a loan from the school, and much of the remainder of the collection was purchased by Liberty Holden, who donated the works to the Cleveland Museum of Art.  Of course, today, such works are considered treasures, and museums count themselves lucky to have them in their possession.

Jarves' writings on art, beginning with his primer, Art Hints, published in 1855, helped influence the formation of American art collections, develop a national art-taste, and foster a popular interest in art history among his countrymen.  In his books, he defined art as an "increasingly-naturalistic progression of objects which edify and re-enforce morality,"¹ and was dismayed by works such as Manet's Olympia, whose flat treatment of the figure represented a regression in aesthetics.  To him, art served a higher purpose, and, like fellow critic John Ruskin, felt that it deserved state support.

Though out-of-date now, Jarves' writings are still interesting for learning the point of view of a 19th century critic.

Art has much to hope in her future from England and the United States.  Their political institutions, diffused education, wealth and mental activity, are so many guarantees for its rapid development.  On the other hand, in the zeal of commercial activity, the haste of production, the impatience of realization, and the despotism of fashion, there is danger to Art.²

... on man alone is bestowed the genius which gives birth to Art.³

Art is universal.  It unites mankind in common brotherhood.  As a missionary of civilization, its message is both to heart and mind.  Distinctions of tongue or boundary lines disappear before the power of truths, which, like the rainbow, charm by the beauty of variegated hues, or, combined with light, illumine the universe.
Moreover, Art is the connecting link in the chain of great minds.  Through its language, thought appeals to thought, and sympathy echoes feeling.⁴

True Art has two legitimate divisions, high Art and common Art.  The former includes all work which renders the spirit ; which appeals for its interpretation to the soul.  The latter comprises merely the faithful representation of natural objects.  Genius guides the first ; for the second, industry and clever imitation are sufficient.⁵


¹ Dictionary of Art Historians.  Retrieved March 28, 2011 from www.dictionaryofarthistorians.org/jarvesj.htm.
² James Jackson Jarves,  Art Hints.  Architecture, Sculpture, and Painting, (Harper and Brothers, Publishers, New York, 1855), p. viii.
³ ibid., p. ix.
⁴ ibid., p. x.
⁵ ibid., p. 66.