William Anderson Coffin (1855-1925), was a Yale educated art critic who worked for such publications as Harper's Weekly, The New York Post, and Scribner's Magazine. Unlike modern art critics, however, Coffin was also a working landscape and figure painter, who, like many of his fellow Americans, trained in the grand tradition in the studios of Paris. This dual role of critic and creator gave Coffin a perspective on the works he reviewed which was as strongly influenced by the technique employed in making a work of art, as it was by content and intention of the finished picture.
Although Coffin had seen examples where art dealers and critics had raised the reputations of undeserving artists and paintings, he felt that posterity would invariably see through such smokescreens. He felt that the true measure of a piece of artwork would eventually be decided by artists themselves.
It is incontestable that all lasting celebrity in painting has come to such works as have received it from artists, that all works in the world's art that endure obtain recognition of their merit from the artists' fellows, either their contemporaries or those who followed, that, in other words, the collective judgment of artists settles questions of art just as the collective judgment of scientists settles those in science. The Titians, Velasquezes, Holbeins, and Rembrandts hold their high place in the world's art because, first of all, they are unassailable from the technical point of view.¹
In the article, "A Word About Painting," which appeared in the April 1894 issue of Scribner's Magazine, Coffin gave several warnings about distressing trends he was witnessing in the art world. His main concern was the introduction of the vague notion of "art" used to describe nebulous feelings about artworks, when earlier in history, technique and the clear expression of an idea were the criteria for judging success in a piece. Though he saw, at the time, novelty and sensationalism winning out over sobriety and skill, he did not believe that the centuries-held principles of art would be overthrown. "There is no reason to fear that the standard of educated taste will ultimately be lowered by the ignorant likings of the parvenu."²
I have enjoyed reading Coffin's century-old thoughts on art, and will be sharing several of the author's quotes on Underpaintings during the next few weeks.
63¼ X 43 in.
oil on canvas
Melchers, a contemporary of Coffin, was one of the American painters who the author
held up as an example of an artist with good underlying draughtsman skill.
The key of the whole situation is in this—without good drawing and construction there can be no good painting. Drawing is the backbone ; and if it is neglected, no matter what other qualities may be present, painting becomes colored mush. No amount of adornment of any but a perfect skeleton will produce anything but deformities; form, construction, line, are the foundations of all good work. . . . the tendency manifest in some quarters to rely too much on other qualities for a pleasing ensemble will lead in a measure to the suppression of the importance of form, and that a school of art that is wanting in this essential cannot rise to the highest point. ³
And in any picture, no matter what the subject, or what the size, or what the color scheme may be, unity and harmony of ensemble are to be looked for, and if they are absent the picture may well be passed by. Portrait, nude, genre picture, historical composition, landscape, or still life, every kind of painting to be good must bear on its face the evidence that the painter has learned how to see before attempting to give his thought to the world; and, be the subject what it may, every painter whose picture is worth looking at twice has had something to say, and, while employing the means of expression approved by the masters of his art, has said it with some individual force that makes it a creation of his own.⁴
¹Coffin, William, "A Word About Painting," Scribner's Magazine, Vol. 15, No. 4, April, 1894, pp. 501-502.
² ibid., p. 499.
³ ibid. p. 502.
⁴ ibid. p. 504.