A Cathedral Singer by James Lane Allen


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Page 1

At the rear of the cathedral, across the roadway, stands a low stone
wall. Just over the wall the earth sinks like a precipice to a green
valley bottom far below. Out here is a rugged slope of rock and verdure
and forest growth which brings into the city an ancient presence,
nature--nature, the Elysian Fields of the art school, the potter's field
of the hospital, the harvest field of the church.

This strip of nature fronts the dawn and is called Morningside Park.
Past the foot of it a thoroughfare stretches northward and southward,
level and wide and smooth. Over this thoroughfare the two opposite-moving
streams of the city's traffic and travel rush headlong. Beyond the
thoroughfare an embankment of houses shoves its mass before the eyes,
and beyond the embankment the city spreads out over flats where human
beings are as thick as river reeds.

Thus within small compass humanity is here: the cathedral, the hospital,
the art school, and a strip of nature, and a broad highway along which,
with their hearth-fires flickering fitfully under their tents of stone,
are encamped life's restless, light-hearted, heavy-hearted Gipsies.

* * * * *

It was Monday morning and it was nine o'clock. Over at the National
Academy of Design, in an upper room, the members of one of the women's
portrait classes were assembled, ready to begin work. Easels had been
drawn into position; a clear light from the blue sky of the last of
April fell through the opened roof upon new canvases fastened to the
frames. And it poured down bountifully upon intelligent young faces. The
scene was a beautiful one, and it was complete except in one particular:
the teacher of the class was missing--the teacher and a model.

Minutes passed without his coming, and when at last he did enter the
room, he advanced two or three steps and paused as though he meant
presently to go out again. After his usual quiet good-morning with his
sober smile, he gave his alert listeners the clue to an unusual
situation:

"I told the class that to-day we should begin a fresh study. I had not
myself decided what this should be. Several models were in reserve, any
one of whom could have been used to advantage at this closing stage of
the year's course. Then the unexpected happened: on Saturday a stranger,
a woman, came to see me and asked to be engaged. It is this model that I
have been waiting for down-stairs."

Their thoughts instantly passed to the model: his impressive manner, his
respectful words, invested her with mystery, with fascination. His
countenance lighted up with wonderful interest as he went on:

"She is not a professional; she has never posed. In asking me to engage
her she proffered barely the explanation which she seemed to feel due
herself. I turn this explanation over to you because she wished, I
think, that you also should not misunderstand her. It is the fee, then,
that is needed, the model's wage; she has felt the common lash of the
poor. Plainly here is some one who has stepped down from her place in
life, who has descended far below her inclinations, to raise a small sum
of money. Why she does so is of course her own sacred and delicate
affair. But the spirit in which she does this becomes our affair,
because it becomes a matter of expression with her. This self-sacrifice,
this ordeal which she voluntarily undergoes to gain her end, shows in
her face; and if while she poses, you should be fortunate enough to see
this look along with other fine things, great things, it will be your
aim to transfer them all to your canvases--if you can."

He smiled at them with a kind of fostering challenge to their
over-confident impulses and immature art. But he had not yet fully
brought out what he had in mind about the mysterious stranger and he
continued:

"We teachers of art schools in engaging models have to take from human
material as we find it. The best we find is seldom or never what we
would prefer. If I, for instance, could have my choice, my students
would never be allowed to work from a model who repelled the student or
left the student indifferent. No students of mine, if I could have my
way, should ever paint from a model that failed to call forth the finest
feelings. Otherwise, how can your best emotions have full play in your
work; and unless your best emotions enter into your work, what will your
work be worth? For if you have never before understood the truth, try to
realize it now: that you will succeed in painting only through the best
that is in you; just as only the best in you will ever carry you
triumphantly to the end of any practical human road that is worth the
travel; just as you will reach all life's best goals only through your
best. And in painting remember that the best is never in the eye, for
the eye can only perceive, the eye can only direct; and the best is
never in the hand, for the hand can only measure, the hand can only
move. In painting the best comes from emotion. A human being may lack
eyes and be none the poorer in character; a human being may lack hands
and be none the poorer in character; but whenever in life a person lacks
any great emotion, that person is the poorer in everything. And so in
painting you can fail after the eye has gained all necessary knowledge,
you can fail after your hand has received all necessary training, either
because nature has denied you the foundations of great feeling, or
because, having these foundations, you have failed to make them the
foundations of your work.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Tue 16th Jul 2019, 12:42