Friday, July 11, 2008


For the last two centuries, the art of the western world has been driven by the concept of individual expression. But it hasn’t always been so. Other notions have prevailed.

Hamilton Easter Field, in his 1913 book The Technique of Oil Painting made the case for another conception of the creative enterprise. He identified greatness in art, music and literature not with personal expression, but with impersonality:

“Impersonality is in no way the antithesis of personality, but its fulfillment. As a great man gets bigger and broader he drops a lot of his prejudices and meannesses, and his heart, like that of St. Francis, goes out in sympathy to all manner of men, to the birds of the air, and even to inanimate nature, until he gets to feel in harmony with the universe. Gradually he has passed beyond the personal into the impersonal. Whatever the hand of such a man finds to do will bear the stamp of his breadth of vision. It will remain personal because it will be true to his inmost self. It will, however, also be impersonal, because the man has so broadened in character that in his work he no longer expresses the emotions of one man, but those of mankind."

Is this just a rhetorical flourish or a genuinely fresh way for artists to think of their work? Is impersonality desirable, or even possible in our age of navel-gazing and psychoanalysis? Haven’t all the great works of art history, from Rembrandt’s self portraits to Beethoven’s symphonies been founded on a deep level of introspection and inner discovery?

What Field seems to be advocating is a way seeing beyond the limits of the self into the collective experience. Many of the greatest works of art have come from enigmatic individuals like Shakespeare, Vermeer, and Homer, about whom we know very little. And perhaps it doesn’t matter. The miracle of their work is that the range of their emotional expression seems to extend beyond the scope of a single person’s life. Each of these creators looked into themselves, but in so doing, they saw beyond themselves.

You can read Hamilton Field’s entire book online (it’s short, at 84 pages) Link
Thanks, Jason

I found another expression of this idea in a letter from Australian painter Charles Conder to his good friend Tom Roberts, after a couple of blissful summers they spent painting together in Heidelberg, 1888-1890: "I feel more than sorry that these days are over, because nothing can exceed the pleasures of that last summer, when I fancy all of us lost the ego somewhat of our natures, in looking at what was Nature's best art and ideality."

--from Australian Impressionism by Terrence Lane.


Arco Scheepen said...

I think this is a very true thing to say about the 'larger-than-life' artists. I also believe it to be a bit 'amoral' for private persons to 'own' for instance paintings and never show them to the public. I think that there are works of art that should belong to 'humanity', and are of too high 'value' (not monetary) to keep away from the public ** ends rant mode **

Jason Peck said...

Hi James,

I really liked your last sentence, I really think you summed up impersonality in one memorable sentence. In fact I think I will get out my calligraphy pens and put this on paper and frame it. " Each of these creators looked into themselves, but in so doing, they saw beyond themselves, by James Gurney ".

There are so many hidden gems out there, like that of Hamilton Field’s book. We all know of The Painter in Oil, by Daniel Parkhurst, but how many of us know of Charles Moreau-Vauthier's, The Technique of Painting, another hidden gem. These books are full of the answers artist today seek, especially relating to the techniques and thoughts of the art world of another century.

One of my favorite Quotes from Hamilton Field’s book. Of Greatness, " No man has to be a great painter to have a place in the world. We cannot all of us have Raphaels or Rembrandts in our living rooms, but we can have good honest works by lesser man. Do not be ashamed to be a lesser man".

Thanks again for sharing this with everyone.

Unknown said...

I'm adding this to my list of favorite quotes, thanks for sharing. I continue to learn so much from your posts.

Erik Bongers said...

Though I didn't really know the painting that was given as an example in this post, I immediately thought : "Ah...must be a Vermeer".

Vermeer is in fact a great example of "personal style" as he as been imitated so often that his style has become a painting cliché itself.

No matter how truthful a painter has been to nature, with a trained eye, a viewer can recognize an 11th painting after having seen 10 of the artist's work.
One can often recognize 'influences' and the era in which it has been painted.

So clearly 'impersonal' doesn't exist, just as an 'objective' painting doesn't. Each painting is the result of a number of choices, be it subject, framing, light, size, etc...

I don't believe in 'bigger-than-life' things or persons or art, but I don't think that artistic "navel-staren" (=Dutch) should be countered with 'impersonal art' as I think latter is an illusion.

I believe a healthy dose of relativation will do.

Erik Bongers said...

On the matter of introspection.

I tend to simplify things.
Probably my background in computers, but to me the Mind just follows the principle "Input->Processing->Output".
Or, the way I really like to put it : "Our mind is a sponge that fills up with impressions and at given times we squeeze the sponge and we call that process 'creative expression' and the dripping result 'art'."

Obviously all Minds are different and absorbe diffent impressions, or even the same impressions but in a different ways. And we all 'sqeeze' differently too.

How does 'introspection' come into play here? To try to stick with my sponge metaphor, we first examine the content of our sponge before sqeezing it very conciencly and deliberately.

So I don't think that introspection is really 'discovering' things within, but rather 'recalling' things while browsing our little grey cells. A bit like browsing our attick and carefully selecting objects to bring down, clean up and give a new place and meaning in our home.

Dianne Mize said...

"A way of seeing beyond the limits of the self into the collective experience." That's hitting the nail on the head and I'm so glad to find somebody out in this internet jungle whose thinking is in this direction. The quote from Field is by no means "rhetorical flourish" and it most certainly describes where genuine art comes from. Thank you James.