The painter Elihu Vedder was the rarest of magicians. He did his wizardry in the open light of day.
Vedder, who was born in 1836 and died in 1923, was famous for a time, but has long been out of fashion. His art has been dismissed as semi-academic kitsch by those who chose tochampion the triumph of modernism. But that fog is lifting now. As it clears we can peer past the surface of his style and see again that Vedder had a special, complex vision.
He was a master of his art, which can be seen starting tomorrow at the National Collection of Fine Arts. He learned, when he was young to conjure the unknowable. He knew the lair of the sea serpent, he saw Lazarus arisen and heard the whisper of the sphinx. Most ghosts walk at midnight and flee, at dawn, toward darkness, but Vedder cast a binding spell on the spirits that he summoned. He saw and paintd them in reason's strong bright light.
"I have a strong tendency to see in things more than meets the eye," he said.
More than 300 of his fine and eerie pictures are included in the exhibition, "Perception and Evocations: The Art of Elihu Vedder."
Americans have long been moved by the macabre. The tales of Edgar Allen Poe, the headless horseman riding, and the Rider's shadowed paintings of waves, winds and witches were as popular in their time as are horror flicks today. The chills they deliver are almost always wrapped in mists and clouds and vapors.
But Americans also like the clear, the sharply focused vision. We like ghost-free TV sets, glasses that aren't smudged, and the precise art of Eakins.
Those two quite different strains, the dreamy and the definite, the imagined and the seen, are often thought in conflict as in Faulkner vs. Hemingway, or Olitski vs. Eakins.
But in Vedder's Haunting paintings that conflict disappears. "Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of Vedder," writes Joashua C. Taylor, the NCFA's director and the mind behind this show, "is his refusal to take sides, to admit that the perceptual and the visionary were at odds with each other.
Though Vedder was born in New York and spent his childhood in Cuba, where his father was a dentist, he learned to paint in Europe and lived in Rome most of his life. He left New York at 20, in 1856, and soon arrived in Florence. In Italian politics, and art, it was a time of revolution.
The nation, long a hodge-podge of independent states, was being unified at last. It was the age of Garibaldi, and the fire of the time lent a special heat to the new Italian art.
Vedder might well have hung out with the esthetes in Fiesole, instead he spent his time with the new Italian painters in the downtown cafes.
They were called the Macchiaioli, from the Italian word for "spot." "They were enflamed," writes Taylor, "by the idea of natural truth as an antidote to repeated artistic formulae." But their "truth" was not John Ruskin's truth. That compelling English writer urged his many followers, among them the pre-Raphaelites, to cram their work with minutely observed detail, to paint every leaf of every branch, and every blade of grass. Vedder and his colleagues chose, instead, to summarize, to present the truth of nature through patches of bright color.
Often they would wander the countryside of Tuscany painting what they saw. But Vedder, when he looked, did not see the present only. Long dead monks and hermits wander through his landscapes. He imagined on the streets of Florence the victims of the plague. His ability to see the vanished in the present, the mysterious in the real, unifies his show.
His sea serpent lies coiled on a sun-bright sandy dune. Nothing lends it scale, yet we know that it is huge. A sphinx, almost as large, lies half-buried in the desert, an Egyptian's ear pressed against her stone-cold lips. The viewer cannot hear that ruin's windy whisper, but he has no doubt of the desolation it portends.
Vedder often shows us the time before, or during, or just after death. An alchemist lies fallen at the moment of discovery, an old man stands beside a graveyard's gate. Vedder drew his images from what he called his "moods." The same mysterious faculty that would let him "see as realities most delightful things" would also in his mind "create images of horror indescribable."
The women that he painted are not merely mortal, but members of the sisterhood of naiads, nymphs and crones. In visions Vedder saw "the Soul of the Sunflower," "The Guardian of the Sunflower," "The Soul in Bondage," "Luna" - and then, in his straightforward manner, portrayed these beings in paint.
He had some success. On his visits to New York his work was much applauded. He did magazine covers, Christmas cards, and a famous set of wondrous illustrations for Fitzgerald's "translation" of the "Rubaiyat" of Omar Khayyam. It was Vedder who designed the Columbian Medal for the Chicago Exposition of 1893. Vedder was well paid for his allegorical murals in the 1890s, and a number of his paintings remain on the walls of the Library of Congress here.
But he outlived his fame. "I am through with this world," he wrote, "how can I send my things to exhibitions with all this modern art?"
That "modern art" has taught us to see the surfaces of paintings, and to value blankness more than the odd and complex content that Vedder all his life poured into his art.
In old age he abandoned painting and turned, instead, to verse, publishing three volumes of mysterious verse:
What scheme imagine? What devise
To find your way amid these lies?
You wander by a dubious light
While all around reigns hopeless night.
How came you there, you do not know;
Nor whence, nor where, nor why, you go.
"Perception and Evocations: The Art of Elihu Vedder" will travel to the Brooklyn Museum after closing at the National Collection of Fine Arts on Feb. 4.