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Child-life in Art

IV.

THE CHILD-LIFE OF THE STREETS.


When I was a beggarly boy,
And lived in a cellar damp,
I had not a friend nor a toy,
But I had Aladdin’s lamp;
When I could not sleep for cold,
I had fire enough in my brain,
And builded, with roofs of gold,
My beautiful castles in Spain!
Lowell.


CHAPTER IV.

THE CHILD-LIFE OF THE STREETS.

Ragged, dirty, and unkempt; untrained in all the pretty graces of refinement; deprived of all the fostering care of the home, how can the children of the street afford the artist any subjects for his canvas? Because, in spite of deprivation and poverty, they possess the imperishable treasure of a happy heart; and happiness is the true secret of the beauty of childhood. The child’s buoyant vitality is proof against any disadvantages in his external surroundings; for his horizon is limited to the present. Yesterday’s hunger is quickly forgotten in to-day’s plenty; the fatigue of the morning’s toil vanishes in the evening’s frolic; even the wounds of a cruel blow are readily healed by a friendly word. Unconscious of any disparity between himself and others, he is equally contented with his lot, whether his clothing be velvet or rags, whether his play-ground be a royal park or the streets of a great city.

The artistic possibilities of street material lay long undiscovered through the first centuries of the Art Renaissance, when the subjects were chiefly religious and mythological. It is then to Murillo and his matchless pictures of the beggar boys of Seville that we may attribute the real origin of this department of genre painting. Murillo had himself known something of poverty and homelessness. Left an orphan at the age of eleven, he was thrown entirely upon his own resources at nineteen, his equipment for life being a few years’ apprenticeship in the studio of his uncle, Juan del Castillo. In the years of hard work that followed, he laid the foundations of a career destined to be one of the most notable in the history of art.

beggar boys.—murillo.

There was held one day every week, in a large public square of Seville, an open-air market called the Feria, at which meat and fish, fruit and vegetables, old clothes and old iron, were heaped upon stalls or piled upon the pavement for the examination of customers. Last but not least of all the commodities here displayed were paintings, offered for sale by the artists themselves, who were supplied with brushes and colors to adapt the details to the purchasers’ taste. It may be imagined that these pictures of the Feria were not works of high art, nor was there much stimulus to artistic talent in their production. Nevertheless, it was in this business that the young Murillo began his career; and it was in this way, doubtless, that he came to observe closely, and to store up in his artist’s memory the picturesque effects among the children who swarmed in the sunny square. Perfect types of glowing health were these nut-brown sons and daughters of Andalusia, enjoying life with the indolence and simple merriment characteristic of a southern race. It was Murillo’s delight to portray them in their happiest moods. Sometimes they are playing games on the pavement, as in the Dice Players; again, they are feasting upon the luscious native fruits, as in the celebrated pictures of the Munich Gallery. With what delicious enjoyment do the little vagabonds poise above their open mouths a cluster of purple grapes or a slice of rich melon! Their ragged garments scarcely suffice to cover them; their arms and legs are bare; their abundant dark curls have known no combing, and they are undeniably dirty. And yet they are perfectly charming. The rich tints of their sunburned skin; the dark liquid eyes of the Spanish race; the beautiful curves of their plump necks and shoulders; the free grace of their attitudes,—all combine to make them picturesque and attractive.

The dirt is rendered with an unsparing realism which, in a few instances, is carried beyond the limits of good taste. Such is the case with El Piojoso of the Louvre, which represents a little beggar removing vermin from his body, and which Mr. Ruskin has severely denounced. Another picture in Munich, and one at St. Petersburg, belong to the same class; but these may be considered exceptions to the rule. The general statement holds true, that the real motif of Murillo’s beggar-boy pictures is the simple, natural enjoyment which may render attractive, and even beautiful, the most unlovely surroundings.

The artist shows a fine insight into human nature in his appreciation of the companionship between the street boy and the small dog. The famous Beggar-boy of the Hermitage Gallery at St. Petersburg is a capital example. The boy, standing by a wall, with a basket of fruit in his hand, turns to smile at his dog, with a perfect expression of good comradeship. In several other paintings, where the boys are eating, a little dog stands by, watching the tempting morsels enviously, with the hope of getting a share in due time.

England is especially rich in examples of Murillo’s street scenes. Besides the well-known picture in the National Gallery, there are three fine works at Dulwich College,[15] and many others scattered through the galleries of private collectors. This fact may be the reason that Murillo was first popularly known in England for this class of subjects, rather than for his religious art.

One of Murillo’s most ardent admirers among modern English artists is Mrs. Henry M. Stanley, first known in the art world as Dorothy Tennant. She gayly avers that the most interesting object to her, when as a small girl she was taken for her daily walk, was “some dear little child in tatters.” The small young lady’s interest in street children was something more than philanthropic; it was intensely artistic. As soon as she could wield a pencil, she began to make ragamuffin pictures, and to dream of a career as the “champion painter of the poor.” Gifted with a keen sense of humor, she was quick to see the happy side of a life whose exterior is apparently one of misery; and it was this side which she determined to portray. Murillo’s happy beggar boys were her ideal; Hogarth’s work also commanded her admiration. Following in the footsteps of these great predecessors, she sought for her models “the merry, reckless, happy-go-lucky urchin; the tomboy girl; and the plump, untidy mother, dancing and tossing her ragged baby.”

Such subjects would naturally be more difficult to find in London than in Seville; and one could not walk about the streets of the bleak northern metropolis without seeing many little waifs whose pitiable condition contrasts sadly with the jocund poverty of Murillo’s Andalusian beggars. Thus it is that, in spite of the most cheerful intentions, Mrs. Stanley has often produced pictures full of pathos. The wan little violinist, sitting on the edge of his poor bed, and clasping his sister in his arms, is a sad little figure. Another picture, that brings tears of sympathy to our eyes, is the hungry-looking boy, also a violinist, gazing wistfully into the window of a pastry-cook’s, where a placard proclaims that hot dinners are five-pence. Equally pathetic is a scene inside the same shop, where a little waif is held, fainting, in the arms of the proprietor, while other children gather round to see.

london street arabs.—dorothy stanley.

It is a relief to turn from these to the subjects which are the artist’s most characteristic field, and to enjoy with her the romps and pranks of the street Arabs. A clever picture of this class is the big boy using a smaller one as a wheelbarrow, the small boy’s arms supporting the machine, and his legs furnishing the handles. Of kindred nature is a sort of double pick-a-back, or pyramid, in which three ragged urchins are enjoying themselves hugely in the attempt to carry out so remarkable a feat. In the line of gymnastics, also, is the really admirable painting exhibited at the New Gallery in 1890, which portrays three delicious youngsters turning somersaults over a rail, while a little girl at each end looks on admiringly. The original of the little chap hanging head downward may have been the “Boy Taylor,” of dragon fame, of whom the artist writes in her “Street Arabs.” Having once figured in a circus as a green demon, or dragon, his experience made him very quick at catching attitudes; and, proud of his powers of endurance, he begged Mrs. Stanley to paint him standing on his head, assuring her that he preferred that position to any other!

Larger pictures of merry street life are a company of young people dancing to the music of a hand-organ, a group of children playing blind-man’s buff, and so many others that the description would become tiresome. Many of these were made to illustrate children’s stories in “Little Folks” and the “Quiver,” while others adorn the collections of fortunate possessors. All of them illustrate admirably the artist’s firm conviction that “no ragamuffin is ever common or vulgar.”

The sympathetic interest and enthusiasm which Mrs. Stanley has shown for the London street Arab finds an interesting parallel in the work of Marie Bashkirtseff. Though Russian by birth, Mademoiselle Bashkirtseff passed the greater part of her short life in France, and, belonging to a wealthy and distinguished family, was educated amidst all the luxuries and gayeties of fashionable Parisian life. But the girl’s indomitable spirit was not to be hindered by the bonds of social restraint, and she devoted herself to art with an almost passionate intensity. Struggling constantly against the inroads of a fatal disease, and cut down on the very threshold of life, she produced but few works to show to the world what heights she was capable of attaining. Of these, the two which rank first, and which are best known to her admirers, are studies of the Paris gamin.

Jean and Jacques was exhibited at the Salon of 1883, and not only won the high praise of many eminent artists, but also received “honorable mention” from the committee. The picture is described in the artist’s journal as “two little boys, who are walking along the pavement, holding each other by the hand; the elder, a boy of seven, holds a leaf between his teeth, and looks straight before him into space; the other, a couple of years younger, has one hand thrust into the pocket of his little trousers, and is regarding the passers-by.”

Scarcely had this picture been completed, when another street scene suddenly flashed upon the imagination of the ambitious young painter, and she straightway set to work upon it. The result was The Meeting, exhibited at the Salon of 1884. It represents a group of six boys, standing at a street corner, engaged in plotting some mischief. From the oldest, a school-boy of twelve, to the little fellow in a pinafore, they are intent, eager, alert; absorbed in the scheme which they are discussing. They have sometimes been criticised for being ugly; but as the artist wittily says, “One does not see such miracles of beauty among the little boys who run about the streets,” and the models were chosen for the expressiveness of their faces.

The painting met with instantaneous approval, not only from eminent artists, but from the public, whose judgment on such subjects is even more conclusive. All the leading periodicals obtained permission to engrave it, and it became the talk of the hour. The signature, “M. Bashkirtseff,” left the sex of the artist an open question, and there were those who could not believe that it was the work of a woman, and a young one at that.

the meeting.—marie bashkirtseff.

Mademoiselle Bashkirtseff found great amusement in visiting the exhibition, watching the people look at her picture, and laughing in her sleeve to imagine their amazement should they know that the elegantly dressed young lady sitting near it was the artist.

The sequel is full of pathos. In spite of all the praises heaped upon it, The Meeting did not receive a medal. To the ambitious young girl the disappointment was most humiliating, and with characteristic sincerity she did not try to conceal her indignation and chagrin. Justice came at last, but all too late. When the bright young hopes were stilled in the quiet of death, the picture was honored with a place in the Luxembourg, where it hangs to-day, an admirable representation of that most interesting genus, the Paris gamin.

The American street boy is a distinct type: his ambition is to rise in the world. Wealth, fame, and power may be his, if he will but labor to attain them, and to this end he throws himself ardently into the building of a career. For a certain portion of the day he is a man of affairs. Dashing through the net-work of wheels, in the thickest traffic of crowded thoroughfares, jumping on and off moving cars and carriages, pushing his way with untiring zeal, he shows a reckless daring and a dauntless energy which are unmatched among any other people. His duties done, he is a gentleman of leisure. He may amuse himself now as he pleases, and his recreations show the same versatility displayed in his business enterprises. Possessed of a lively imagination and a keen sense of humor, he is never at a loss for a source of fun. He is as generous as he is mischievous, always willing to share his good things with his companions. Altogether, he is an interesting and attractive figure, and it is no wonder that he has long since made his appearance on the canvas.

castles in spain.—john g. brown.

Probably the most conspicuous painter of American street subjects is John George Brown, of New York. A resident of this city for more than forty years, Mr. Brown has made it his life-work to study the character and customs of the poorer classes of children. Newsboys and boot-blacks are his special friends, and among them he finds many fine examples of the best characteristics of human nature.

The Wounded Playfellow shows how easily the street boy’s sympathies are touched by the suffering of an animal. A little urchin carefully holds a dog in his arms, while another deftly binds a bandage about the poor creature’s broken leg. A third boy and a small girl are the interested spectators. The intense and eager interest with which the entire group regard the operation is admirably portrayed.

The natural bent of Young America towards politics and oratory is seen in the Stump Speech, an oil painting which was exhibited at the Columbian Exposition.

Mr. Brown uses water colors, as well as oils, for a medium of expression, being the president of the Water Color Society, which he helped to found. An example of this kind of work is his picture called “Free from Care.” A bright-faced boot-black stands leaning against a wall, with one thumb thrust in his trousers pocket, and a general air of having thrown aside business responsibility for a good time.

Equally “free from care,” and happy in this privilege, is the boy, seated on a box, blowing soap-bubbles. His simple delight in this innocent pastime, and the almost dreamy look with which he watches the fairy bubble, show a hitherto unsuspected vein of poetry in the street-boy nature.

The boot-black appears ordinarily in the most prosaic light, as a practical individual, whose chief concern is the struggle for daily bread. But this is only half the truth. Under his rough exterior he hides a heart keenly responsive to beauty. His youthful imagination is, in Lowell’s happy phrase, a veritable Aladdin’s lamp, with which he transforms the meagreness of his surroundings into the splendid luxuries of a castle in Spain.



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