Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center-part 130

Part 130: L’art pour l’art

The nineteenth century phrase “art for art’s sake” made me think of scenic artists interpreting fine art compositions for the stage. Although “l’art pour l’art” first emerged in French literary circles, the phrase rapidly spread to other countries and became a rallying cry for many artists. There was the perceived threat that the creation of art would become solely subject to utilitarianism. Taking an existing fine art work and retrofitting it for the stage, especially if mass-produced in a scenic studio, is pretty utilitarian. I started to ponder the eventual perception of painting scenery as a “lesser art.” Could this have contributed to the belief that art hung in a theatre was far less significant that that hung on a gallery wall? That backdrops were “just backings?”

Then I thought back to the late-nineteenth century artists who produced scenery for both the theatrical stage and the fine art galleries. There work was praised for both venues. They remained a respected part of the fine art world. I immediately thought of the the 1885 Scene Painters’ Show in Chicago and how the work of scenic artists were received by their peers. I also kept returning to the saying, “imitation is the greatest form of flattery.” This was the case for many art movements as a group of artists emulated a particular style, Scenic artists were also imitating the popular aesthetic, whether it be the Düsseldorf school or some other artistic movement.

The first historical example that I ever encountered of a scenic artist copying a fine art work in its entirety for a drop curtain was at the University of Minnesota Performing Arts archives. I stumbled across a paint-spattered print by Thomas Moran, copyright 1906. On the back of the print was written, “”Reverse and use right half of picture only. No figures. For West.”

“Sunrise in Old Mexico” by Thomas Moran, 1906 print. In supplemental box 1 of the Twin City Scenic Company Collection (PA43), University of Minnesota Performing Arts Archives.
John Z. Wood drop curtain base on “Sunrise in Old Mexico” by Thomas Moran, 1906 print. Inbox 2 of the Twin City Scenic Company Collection (PA43), University of Minnesota Performing Arts Archives.

It matched the drop curtain in the Twin City Scenic Company collection by John Z. Wood. I was so excited to identify the match. This occurred while I was assigning metadata for the scenery collection database and I immediately noted the pairing in the description about each piece. The design for the painted drop curtain was in box 2 and the print had been tucked away in supplemental box 1. The artist for the drop curtain was John Z. Wood, an unknown at the time. I wondered what his scenic art would look like, especially in light of his imitating Moran’s “Sunset in Old Mexico.” It was this encounter that made me first contemplate the eventual division between fine artists and scenic artists.

Initially the scenic artist was also the designer, respected for his creative vision and mechanical genius. David Austin Strong is a great example for nineteenth century American stage design. His painting, in conjunction with stage machinery, created magical effects during many visual spectacles for the stage, such as ‘The Black Crook.” He might have only created the scenery for one act of the production, but his contribution was well noted in the program. If his setting were successful, critics might be herald him as a genius, or note that his work the highlight of the production!

Then there was a shift during the early twentieth century as scenic artists became theatrical manufacturers in a studio setting. They now would make multiple copies of each other’s vision. Scenic artist still designed the compositions to show prospective clients. Then, a new position emerged in the form of a scenic designer and it became his vision that a legion of artists created. Some scenic artists were reduced to simple manufacturers of a painted product, almost as in a factory setting. I think of the same camp scene for the Scottish Rite’s 32nd degree that appeared over and over again across the country.

El Paso, Texas, Scottish Rite Camp scene.
Galveston, Texas, Scottish Rite camp scene.

This mass-production of a painted scene is just one of many factors that I think attributed to the shift. Other factors would include electrical lighting innovations, the emergence of a lighting designer, modern stage design and the onset of the scenic studio system. It seemed like the perfect storm to remove the scenic artist from the initial “vision” for the stage.

What I find fascinating is that during the early through mid-nineteenth century, artists easily shifted from the fine art studio to a paint bridge high above the stage. They could paint a picture, paint a show, paint a carriage, or paint a sign. Possibilities were everywhere. In some ways this might suggest that the establishment of scenic studios offered a position that eventually limited the aspiring artist. A full-time position in a studio would lead to working on a never-ending stream of projects depicting the artistic composition of others. This meant far less time for sketching trips or other artistic projects that would later appear in galleries. Prior to the studio system, artists would have a project, but then there would be a break and they would work on a variety of other artworks. Feast or famine; it is still a problem for those who freelance. A permanent position limits the opportunities for artistic escape.

Thomas G. Moses was just one example of an artist who crossed the line of stage art and gallery art, constantly trying to participate in art shows throughout the country. He joined a variety of groups, including the Palette and Chisel Club (Chicago), the Salmagundi Club (New York), the Laguna Beach Art Association (California) and others. As a young many, he had pondered, “Would I ever be able to paint pictures framed in heavy gold frames, my name on the corner, and hanging in an Art gallery?” Some of his contemporaries eventually made a permanent transition to the world of fine art, but most remained in the scenic studio, reproducing the artworks of others over and over again.

Examining historical scenery collections is a wonderful way to track popular fine art images for the stage and the artists who manufactured them. The Egyptian settings for the Scottish Rite’s thirty-first degree depict many popular fine art compositions, incorporating various aesthetic shifts and changes in painting techniques. It is one of the easiest scenes to identify discrepancy in interpretation, color palette and brush stroke.

David Roberts Temple of Philae, Nubia.
Santa Fe, New Mexico, Scottish Rite.
The Great Collosi of Memnon, Ernst Weidenbach, 1850.
Duluth, Minnesota, Scottish Rite.

To be continued…

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