International Studio, “The Lyricism of Emil Carlsen” by John Steele, October, 1927, volume 88, pg. 53-60
To greet Emil Carlsen, on the occasion of his seventy-fourth birthday (which occurs the nineteenth of October), as the sole survivor of a past generation of American painters is hardly fair. It is true that Carlsen does belong to the generation J. Alden Weir, Chase, Homer, Murphy, and the rest of the great men who came into their rightful heritage at the end of the last century or the beginning of this one. But it is a notorious fact that certain artists mature late, that they keep on growing and developing until long past the three-score-and-ten point. Examples are innumerable. One thinks at once of Frans Hals, of Claude Lorrain, of Dominique Ingres (painting the nudes of his celebrated Bain turc at the age of eight-four or eighty-six); one thinks of Corot, of Monet, of the indefatigable Renior, of the great old men of Japan, all of whom, in their pictures at any rate, had somehow captured the secret of eternal youth. And one of the most recent studies in still-life by Emil Carlsen, lately exhibited at the Macbeth Galleries, surely wins for this distinguished American artist a legitimate place in that high company. His development, as this Spanish Brasero brilliantly illustrates, has not ceased, but has gone on along the line of amazing technical skill, of freedom from formulae, of brilliant technical ease. That still-life conveys to the spectator something of the artist’s enjoyment of his own medium, no less than his delight in the objects out of which this visual music is created.
Nevertheless, the truth remains that Emil Carlsen does paint in the idiom of the past. From first to last in his work there is none of that strident, slangy colloquialism that mars so much of the work of the younger Americans. Gifted and serious as so often they are, nevertheless these men limit the circle of their admirers because they seem in their canvases merely to be talking shop among themselves. Or, again, they tell each other facetious little jokes. We cannot laugh with them because are not “in the know.” Carlsen represents a generation which painted in a manner more tranquil, more dignified, infinitely more restrained. Perhaps these men were a bit too submissive to past standards, too reverential and respectful to the old masters. Yet if their universe were more ordered, more peaceful-a universe which the doubts and the challenging skepticisms of the younger generation could not destroy-it had at least the advantage of insuring the peace and tranquility of the artist’s own soul. And this peace is perhaps the sine qua non of all truly creative effort.
In the quiet studio of Emil Carlsen in New York City there is an atmosphere of the past. This impression is instensifed by the interesting sketches and canvases of his friend Alden Weir, a large unfinished canvas by Chase, and other mementoes of the great ‘nineties. The delicate, exquisitely chiseled figure of Emil Carlsen iteself suggests something of Whistler’s portrait of Carlyle; and the artist himself, in his modesty and serene faith in the past, present and future of American art, arouses the troubling suspicion that perhaps after all men of Carlsen’s generation and ideals may have been nearer the soul of beauty than our destructive, militant moderns, out to destroy our faith in beauty as such, in standards as such, and so determined in their worship of “strength” as the primary virtue of painting that very often they confuse it with brutality, and exhibit not so much real strength as mere overstrain.
With feelings of welcome relief we may seek refuge in the cool sanctuary of Emil Carlsen’s art. In contrast to the warm combativeness of much contemporary American painting, we experience here a distinct lowering of the temperature. There is nothing destructive, nothing dramatic, nothing even “dynamic” in these landscapes. Even the marines are absolutely lacking in that stormtossed, tempestuous quality in which most painters of the marine revel. it is, as a matter of fact, far easier to point out, after a superficial survey, the elements which are so conspiciously lacking in the canvasas of Emil Carlsen than discover those mysterious, subtly concealed qualities which suffuse it with a lyricism peculiarly his own.
Finally it becomes apparent that this artist is fundamentally a poet. Lyricism is his outstanding quality. He is not so much the painter of trees and skies and the dimly lighted interiors of woods and forests, nor of waves and cliffs and clouds as he is of the moods these natural objects inspire in his soul. As Mr. Eliot Clark truly said some years ago: “Carlsen takes objects out of their purely objective environment and reconstructs their aspect in accordance with his aesthetic idea…As a landscape painter his range of subject is limited: his themes are more or less confined to a few color motives. He is not reponsive to the dramatic manifestations of nature, and does not express the emotional quickening in nature’s theatre. He adapts nature to his own use, and his use is largely decorative.”
Lyric, I believe, would be a more appropriate term than decorative to describe Carlsen’s use of the objects of the external world. These landscapes are “composed” much in the same manner in which music is composed-music or lyric poetry. In those charming harmonies of “forest cathedrals,” of young beeches through the leaves of which filters the dim sunlight, one becomes gradually concious that here is no attempt at literalism or naturalism, but a conscious tranmutation of elements, complete elimination of others, the adoption of a definite self-imposed scale of values, all toward the ultimate end of expressing the inner poetry of the artist’s soul. The repetition of so many of these landscapes of the same type and Carlsen’s insatiable delight in certain types of trees and his unfailing rejoicing in skies may be offered as further evidence that he has sought not to depict the wonders of the beauties of external nature-in the manner, for instance, of the late John Sargent in his water-color sketches-as through the symbols of nature to perfect the expression of his own inner beauty. This beauty, it becomes evident, is a static and balanced one. There is no violence in it, not the slightest trace of hatred or irritation, but a sense of contentment-to borrow the words of Eliot Clark-which is the direct emanation of his own being.
It has been a logical and inevitable step from lyricism of Carlsen’s most representative landscapes to the profounder poetry of his religious canvases. These are not in a genre differing from the landscapes or the marines, but rather an intensification of them. It is not surprising to learn that Emil Carlsen considers O Ye Of Little Faith his best picture. In this notable achievement which was awarded a gold medal last year at the Sesquicentennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the figure of the Saviour walking on the waters is the center of interest, though it is relatively small. To the undiscerning observer this canvas might at first glance seem to be a marine with an added figure. But it is the mood of the painter, his almost uncanny ability to transmute the facts of nature into the realm of the supernatural and the divine. He succeeds in awakening our interest in the wonder and the glory of the miracle, by the very power of his own reverence and the sincere profundity of his own religious feelings. Here, as in The Miraculous Draught, another religious painting, he succeeded in a field of painting which has, it must be frankly confessed, baffled the vast majority of contemporary painters and sculptors. Religious painting in our day has been, toborrow the language of business, “a total loss.” Men cannot paint the divine until they have themselves been initiated into spiritual truth. Otherwise it escapes them. For here all their skill, all their virtuosity, if true faith and piety be lacking, can avail them nothing. For if these paintings be indeed themselves of little faith, they can only drag the divine down to the stature of the all-too-human, and the realm of the spiritual down to the immediacy of earth. For this very reason when we search for painting truly religious we turn from the insincere virtuosity of the later Renaissance masters to the youthful sincerity of the Italian primitives.
It is late to praise the still-life painting of this artist, who, although born a Dane in Copenhagen, has become so completely assimulated by American art. Perhaps the most effective tribute to this phase of Carlsen’s art has been already paid to him by Arthur Edwin Bye, who dedicated Pots and Pans, his book on still-life painting, to Emil Carlsen, and described his as “the most accomplished master of still-life painting in America today…With old materials he has given a new interpretation to still-life, a more difficult and more certain accomlishment than can result from experiment with new theories and new processes.”
As in marines and the landscapes, these still-life studies are characterized by simplicity and spaciousness. Perhaps Emil Carlsen inheritys a love of space and open sky from his seafaring Nordic ancestors. Certain it is that one never finds any canvas of his cramped or overcrowded with detail. Unconsciously he seems to recognize that there is an underlying unity that links all phases of his work together, for he is quoted by Arthur Edwin Bye to this effect: “There is no essential difference between a still-life and a portrait. Up to a certain point a portrait is a still-life. Then there must be something added-personality, life. But to a still-life also there must be something added to make it a work of art-call it what you will.”
Because he is a master of still-life, Carlsen has often been compared to Chardin. There is indeed some truth in this resemblance. Both these artists, the Parisian bourgeois of the eighteenth century and the Danish-American of the twentieth, have pursued their careers as artists serenely indifferent to public acclaim and absolutely devoid of social aspirations.
All his life, practically, Emil Carlsen has been a teacher of art. Yet at the end of this long experience, he emphasizes his conviction that all the craft, all the technique, all the skill which the student may acquire in the art schools must remain valueless if he has not been gifted at birth with eyes of his own, a vision of his own, and “something to say.” At seventy-four, Emil Carlsen remains far more tolerant in his outlook toward all artists than many of our younger men. Perhaps because he has sought his peace and happiness in his work, because he never stridently demanded recognition, he has won for himself a distinguished place in American Art.
JOHN SCOTT STEELE
Journalist: born in Belfast, Ireland, 1870; came to the US in 1885; reporter for NY Herald, NY World, NY Times; night editor for NY Commercial; London correspondent for Chicago Tribune; European rep. for Mutual Broadcasting. Died 1947.
– Who’s Was Who in America
WORKS BY EMIL CARLSEN