Artists Advocate a Return to Classics by Robert Stacy McCain

Home / Articles

Artists Advocate a Return to Classics

by Robert Stacy McCain

Published on 1 January, 2002

Reign of modernism will end in 21st century, critics contend

Art in the 21st century will draw its inspiration from traditions that were largely neglected during modernism's 20th-century heyday, say artists, critics and collectors who advocate a return of classical ideals. "I look at modern art as very much like what happened with communism - it was an idea that was a house of cards and couldn't work", says Allan Banks , president of the American Society of Classical Realism and vice chairman of the American Society of Portrait Artists.

"A lot of the rubbish that we've been handed (in the 20th century) has pretty much played itself out", Mr. Banks says. "I think you're finding generations of (artists) who are really interested in getting back to discipline and tradition."

While American artists are enjoying this return to tradition — Mr. Banks says leading portrait painters now report being "booked two and three years advance" — public tastes have likewise turned toward the traditional.

There is renewed interest in 19th-century artists such as The Pre-Raphaelites — a movement begun in England in 1848 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and others — as well as later Victorian painters like John William Waterhouse and neo-classical artists like Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema .

Canadian artist Jonathon Bowser says such artists were long ignored by educators.

"Those Victorian painters were swept under the rug — we didn"t learn about them in art school," Mr. Bowser, who specializes in landscapes and fantasy paintings in a style he calls "mythic naturalism."

Mr. Bowser says he believes "art should speak to the universal human condition. Modernism, by definition, cannot be universal, because if you"re not conversant with the lexicon, you"re not invited to the debate.""

Nothing exemplifies art's turn toward tradition as much as the revived interest in William-Adolphe Bouguereau , the 19th-century master of the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris.

Bouguereau's carefully finished mythological scenes and romantic genre paintings were attacked as "sentimental" by admirers of the Impressionists, and later critics relegated him to the role of a villain in the story of modern art's triumph.

Modern critics are unreserved in their scorn for Bouguereau. The New York Times denounced him as "bland and boring" when his paintings were exhibited in Hartford, Conn., in 1984. Six years ago, the Christian Science Monitor sneered at Bouguereau's work as "official art" that was mostly "purchased by rich, undereducated Americans."

But his work has risen sharply in value in recent years. Bouguereau's painting At the Fountain, displayed for years in an Evanston, Ill., library, was appraised at $100,000 in 1992. Auctioned last year by Sotheby's, it sold for $900,000. An auctioneer from Sotheby's called the Bouguereau a "show stopper."

Critics may still sneer but, as the London Daily Telegraph admitted in 1997, "Bouguereau is among the few painters who has become ever dearer ... as the rest of the market slumps."

Among the collectors of Bouguereau's work is actor Sylvester Stallone. In May, Bouguereau's Charity sold for $3,528,000 — the most ever paid for one of his paintings, eclipsing the $2.6 million paid for his Alma Parens in 1998.

Among Bouguereau's most enthusiastic admirers is collector and critic Fred Ross.

Bouguereau is "the greatest painter in the history of the world," says Mr. Ross, a New Jersey businessman who has founded the Art Renewal Center, dedicated to encouraging artists in what he calls the "humanist" tradition.

"We have to go back to where art was at its peak and build from there," says Mr. Ross, who locates that peak prior to the 20th century: "Real art is about life. Modern art is art about art. It's about "pushing the envelope." It's about time somebody stamped that envelope "return to sender.""

The revival of traditional art owes much to Boston painter R.H. Ives Gammell , who trained dozens of artists before his death in 1981. Mr. Gammell felt the need to pass along the tradition he had absorbed from his mentor, William Paxton , who had been a student of Jean-Léon Gérôme , who in turn studied under the French master Jacques-Louis David .

Mr. Gammell "woke up one day and realized that this tradition was not being passed on," says Mr. Banks, who studied under Mr. Gammell. "He took it upon himself to teach a handful of students at a time and worked with them from scratch."

Those efforts, along with Mr. Gammell's 1946 book, Twilight of Painting, helped spur a traditionalist movement that has grown steadily in recent decades, though with little recognition from established art critics. The hostility of art critics is a pet peeve of traditionalists.

"We have put our artistic culture into the hands of philistines and I"m just trying to find a jawbone of an ass," says Mr. Ross, referring to the Israelite hero Samson's feat against the original Philistines.

Though most people prefer traditional art, the opinions of critics prop up the reputation of modern art, he says.

"Real people will reject modernism every time, if they"re given a context that justifies the feelings they've always had," Mr. Ross says, likening modern art's critical hegemony to "the emperor's new clothes."

One artist who bemoaned the influence of modernism in art was the late sculptor Frederick Hart .

"Art is a dying force in public life," said Mr. Hart, whose Ex Nihilo at the National Cathedral is perhaps his most famous work. "It is now in the world of art as a cult, where you have to know the peculiarities, the rites, and that makes art meaningless to the vast majority of people."

It is not corporations, but a generation of enthusiastic young amateurs who have created a burgeoning Internet universe devoted to promoting traditional art.

Iian Neill experienced "the iron grip of modernism" while an art student.

"A couple of years ago ... I realized that fine — and unjustly maligned — artists like Bouguereau, Gérôme and Alma-Tadema were excluded from our art galleries, museums, textbooks and university courses due to the iron grip of modernism," says Mr. Neill, an Australian whose Renaissance Café site features an extensive gallery of works by 19th-century artists.

Alan Linh Do of Frederick, Md., set up his Web site devoted to English painter John William Waterhouse after he became "hooked" on the artist's portrayals of Arthurian legend.

"I am hoping to help revive the interest in classical art through Waterhouse," says Mr. Do, a recent graduate of Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Last year, he visited England to view the paintings of Waterhouse and other Victorian artists. "These works are classics and unbelievably stunning up close. I was extremely emotional when I saw those of Waterhouse," Mr. Do says.

Valerie L. Criswell, an Internet consultant from South Carolina, "first became aware of the Pre-Raphaelite art movement when I took a course on Victorian history while in college," she says.

"There are close ties between historical periods and the art that is born from them," Mrs. Criswell says of the inspiration for her Nouveau Net site. "The fusion of Victorian ideals into Pre-Raphaelite art captivated me."

"The art clearly demonstrates the Victorians" struggle between religious morality and innate human sensuality."

The combination of Internet technology and traditional art has proven potent, according to Mr. Banks.

"Now we are seeing, with the computer, we are finding that a lot of (traditional artists) are able to communicate," says the painter, who notes he has received inquiries from artists as far away as Spain and Taiwan. "I think it's going to be a major factor in bringing people together."

"The Internet is the greatest thing," agrees Mr. Ross, whose Internet connection allowed him to reach as far as Australia to hire Mr. Neill to design the Art Renewal Center's Web site.

Mr. Ross says he hopes to revive the 19th-century tradition of the Paris salons, "a competition between the greatest artists in the world."

He is working with sponsors, galleries and museums to develop a series of annual salons he hopes to begin as early as next year.

"My goal," Mr. Ross says, "is to build this as the focal point upon which a movement for renewal can be built."

Reprinted with the kind permission of The Washington Times, and was originally printed on Sunday, the 29th of October, 2000.

Robert Stacy McCain is an American conservative journalist, writer, and blogger. McCain is a former assistant national editor and reporter for The Washington Times and co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of the 2006 book Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party. He is proprietor of the blog, The Other McCain.