Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Rollover text informationAmerican Experience Logo
Murder of the Century
The Film & More
Special Features
Primary Sources
Teacher's Guide

spacer above content
Primary Sources: Stanford White, The Artist

June 25, 1906 was a Monday -- and the last day of architect Stanford White's life. Read this commentary published soon after White's murder on the role of artists in American society.

The Artist in Our World

The Nation, July 5, 1906

The follies of the time and his own frailties did everything possible to undo the great artist in Stanford White, but, fortunately, did not wholly succeed. The pleasure-house which was the scene of his murder remains an imposing monument to his genius; a few more fine buildings testify to the playfulness and exuberance of his inspiration. Many structures of his firm (McKim, Mead & White), the credit for whose work was rather indiscriminately given to the member most in evidence, bear the sign manual of his taste. Yet a review of the work definitely assignable to him shows that it is small in comparison with his powers and with the impression he made upon his colleagues. In actual creative quality, probably only Richardson among American architects was his equal. In physical force he was indomitable. Once he rode all night over the roughest of mountain trails to keep an appointment which he was in danger of missing because he had gone from New York to New Orleans to witness a prize-fight. Why was it that, with the energy and knowledge of the great architects of the Renaissance, and with a wealthy patronage fairly rivaling that of the Medici princes and popes, his work seems so incomplete and episodical?

Severe moralists will find the cause in his devotion to pleasure. Many another great artist, however, has been overmastered by the flesh, with no apparent detriment to his art. His colleagues explain that he was in a sense misplaced, being by temperament and gift rather a painter and decorator than an architect. But this does not really explain anything. It is the essence of genius to make its own opportunities, and his was genius of a high order. An achievement that would be creditable for a smaller man, is confessedly inadequate for him. Surely, then, we have to do with a capital case of unutilized or even perverted energies. He seems to have been in a large degree the victim of the society which he sought above all else to please, to which he was the titular arbiter of taste.

His own aesthetic standards were the highest; but insensibly, as he sold his taste to a wealthy but half-trained society, he condescended to their ignorance and vanity. The time that he should have given to creative design, he spent in despoiling French and Italian country houses of their fittings and furnishings, and he adorned many an American mansion with irrelevant plunder of this sort. Enormously profitable as an incident to his profession, this traffic was naturally congenial to a passionate collector of every sort of art. The fallacy, it is noted that the shiploads of antiquities he furnished to his plutocratic clients contained very few objects above respectable mediocrity, while he himself, one of the most-talked-of collectors of our time, has left personal accumulations inferior to those of amateurs of far smaller wealth and opportunity. In other words, he offered the tragic spectacle of a taste gradually adjusting itself to that of its market. Though immensely the superior of his world, he was content to be its purveyor. His career, as you choose to regard it, is that of a magnificent condottiere in architecture, who won brilliant skirmishes, but avoided the laborious operations of sieges and great campaigns; or of an aesthetic major domo to an opulent world, whose especial vanity was the possession of fine works of art. Stanford White gave his clients quite as good as they deserved or wanted, but meantime, in such brokerage, he wasted precious days that should have seen a succession of his own masterpieces.

We have thus dwelt upon this remarkable career because it is typical: it illustrates with singular and pathetic emphasis the defects of art patronage among us. It is, we believe, the business of the artist to please his public, but it is also his privilege to educate his patrons. In the great periods of art the painter and his patron have met on something like equal terms; in fact, the man who pays the money has been very willing to learn from the artist. Between the two classes, under these circumstances, there is a lively and profitable interchange of ideas. Such was the case in the courts of Philip of Burgundy, the Emperor Maximilian, of Charles the Fifth, the Medicis, Sforzas, D'Estes, Louis the Fourteenth; such was the case in the republics of Athens and Florence, and in the Venetian oligarchy. But the artist in America who today addresses himself to his natural patrons in the wealthiest classes, meets either a disheartening indifference or a more positively demoralizing vanity.

Possibly, indifference is the more sinister attitude. There is no greater enemy of the artist than the man who, while he fills his house with objects of art, as he fills his greenhouses with orchids, or his stables with thoroughbreds, neither knows nor loves the splendid things his money buys. To the artist, appreciation is the breath of life. For him to be in the position of merely giving a money's worth is suicidal; to be habitually and consciously giving less is artistic death in life. Yet this is the danger that constantly threatens the artist in a day of indiscriminate accumulation. It was a danger that diverted and diminished the career of the artist we have lost. With the arrogance that pretends to know, Stanford White was able to cope. To the vanity that did not care but could pay lavishly he became a victim.

His career points the difficulty of the middle way that the artist must follow to succeed. A generation earlier or later, we are fain to hope, the flowering of such a genius would have been more normal, and the fruit more abundant. Our age has tended to debase the artist to its own standards, or to shut him up in the musky atmosphere of adoring cliques. The frittering away of genius, as illustrated by the apparently successful career of Stanford White, is an exhortation to all true artists to master that most difficult art of being in the world, but not of it.

previous | return to primary sources

Site Navigation

Murder of the Century Home | The Film & More | Special Features | Primary Sources
Gallery | Teacher's Guide

American Experience | Feedback | Search | Shop | Subscribe | Web Credits

© New content 1999-2003 PBS Online / WGBH

Exclusive Corporate Funding is provided by: