Saturday, April 23, 2011

Making It More Like: Tarbell

Edmund Tarbell . Reverie, 1913

RH Ives Gammell, who wrote The Boston Painters ( 1900-1930) had high regard - both personally and artistically - for Edmund Tarbell, a man who was considered by many to be the finest painter of his time. He writes:

"The last time I talked with Ned Tarbell we were standing side by side during the preprandial* ceremonies of a club dinner. His face was ravaged by the illness which would soon carry him off, but his mind was alert and, as we raised our cocktail glasses together he toasted, "Well, here's hoping I can make one that really looks like it before I'm through." Those words from the lips of a dying painter attest his untiring struggle to communicate the delight he took in aspects of the visible world and his deep-seated conviction that a painter's function was to 'draw the Thing as he see It for the God of Things as They are,"** although Kipling's fine but hackneyed verses would have been inconceivable on his lips. When I heard these words read at Tarbell's funeral a few months later I wondered whether they would have pleased him in that context, for he was not literary.

Edmund Tarbell
Three Sisters, A Study in June Sunlight

Although he was not literary, he had a rare perception of beauty, which is the poetry of painting. It was this indefinable quality which caused his fellow painters to regard Edmund C. Tarbell as the head of the Boston School, even to name him the most eminent American painter of his generation - which not a few proclaimed him to be. Edmund Tarbell at the top of his form painted pictures which are permeated by a unique blend of rare qualities in which carefully ordered composition, lovely color schemes exquisitely rendered and subtle depictions of the interplay of light and atmosphere combine to delight the eye. These visual impressions are put on canvas with a personal touch which makes every inch of the painted surface treasurable. He loved to reiterate that he was only trying to "make it like," an oversimplification which takes account of neither his initial selection nor his individual way of seeing "it," a way which was no one else's.

Oh, the little more, and how much it is!
And the little less, and what worlds away!
~ Robert Browning, By the Fireside

A Short Bio
Edmund C. Tarbell (called Ned as a boy), was born at West Groton, Massachusetts in 1868 and raised by his paternal grandparents. As a youth, Tarbell took evening art lessons from George H. Bartlett at the Massachusetts Normal Art School. Between 1877 and 1880, he apprenticed at the Forbes Lithographic Company in Boston and because of his natural talent entered the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, studying under Otto Grundmann. He matriculated in the same class with two other future members of the Ten American Painters, Robert Reid and Frank Weston Benson.

In 1883, his fellow student Benson and Edmund Tarbell continued their studies in Paris as pupils of Lefebvre and Boulanger. What this exactly means is more thoroughly discussed in the blog on Cecilia Beaux' experience at l'Academie Julian. To summarize, Lefebvre and Boulanger would come in once a week, pause momentarily at each student's easel to say a few words, and then rattle away in their carriage till the following week.

(This - I think - is not an entirely bad thing although it is not the type of education that we are used to. It provides space for the student to develop his own critical processes using the principles that his teacher sets briefly before him. This takes a fair amount of self-motivation and effort, and requires the student to be fully engaged with his lessons.)

The most valuable painting instruction which Tarbell received in Paris was in an afternoon painting class taught by William Dannat who had first studied in Munich then under Bastien-Lepage.

Tarbell studied in Europe about five years, then returned to Boston where he married and joined the teaching staff of the Museum School in Boston - along with his friend Frank Benson. When the director, Otto Grundmann, died unexpectedly the following summer, Tarbell and Benson took full charge of what had become a nationally renowned art school. It was to flourish under their direction for twenty-three years.

My Daughter Josephine

Tarbell was a popular teacher. He gave his pupils a solid academic art training. Before they learned to paint, they had to render plaster casts of classical statues. So pervasive was his influence on Boston painting that his followers were dubbed "The Tarbellites."

After he left the school in 1913, he co-founded The Guild of Boston Artists, and served as its first president through 1924. In 1919, he was selected as principal of the art school at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC which he led until 1926. In 1927, he was elected as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In his latter years, he and his wife spent their summers in New Castle, New Hampshire and their winters in Boston. He regularly went to the Tavern Club for lunch, capping the meal with a game of billiards, at which he excelled. Exalted by virtually every award in the bestowal of his fellow artists, well remunerated by the sale of his pictures, represented in the leading art museums of the United States, Edmund Tarbell's sundown was splendid and serene. When the Depression reduced the pressure of his portrait commissions, he told me how glad he was at long last to paint the pictures he had never found time to carry out. He had the satisfaction of knowing that those whose opinion he valued most, which is to say of the painters most knowledgeable in their art, placed him at the very summit of contemporary painting."

"Making It More Like"
This phrase was Edmund Tarbell's motto and one of the sayings passed down to the students of RH Ives Gammell. It refers to part of the methodology used by Boston School painters. As they begin their work, they make the drawing and painting as correct as possible the first time, then as the work proceeds, continue to make it more right...and more right...and more right!

* Mr. Gammell's Vocab Word of the Day: Preprandial - Done or taken before dinner or before the main course, ex. a preprandial glass of sherry

** When Earth's Last Picture Is Painted, 1892 by Rudyard Kipling

When Earth's last picture is paint...ed and the tubes are twisted and dried,
When the oldest colours have faded, and the youngest critic has died,
We shall rest, and, faith, we shall need it -- lie down for an aeon or two,
Till the Master of All Good Workmen shall put us to work anew.
And those that were good shall be happy; they shall sit in a golden chair;
They shall splash at a ten-league canvas with brushes of comets' hair.
They shall find real saints to draw from -- Magdalene, Peter, and Paul;
They shall work for an age at a sitting and never be tired at all!

And only The Master shall praise us, and only The Master shall blame;
Andd no one shall work for money, and no one shall work for fame,
But each for the joy of the working, and each, in his separate star,


  1. Along the way, I have been making up a book list that may interest you. Tom Dunlay discovered a site online which has free downloadable publications for boston painters and has also passed on some of Mr. Gammell's required reading along with other favorites. Carl Samson, Richard Luschek and Mark Norseth have passed on other great reads. I'm always open to suggestions.

    1. Thank you, Mark. I am always glad for more info and resources!

    2. I will visit here often, now that I know what you provide for us. This is wonderful!

  2. I am glad that you've enjoyed - and hopefully, will enjoy, these entries!

  3. Thank you Linda, you always have such interesting information, and I love Tarbells' work He was a star,