From Cobb’s Bill of Fare, by Irvin S. Cobb, Illustrated by Peter Newell and James Preston; New York: George H. Doran Company, 1913; pp. 79-110.



Cobb’s Bill-of-Fare


Black and white drawing of a man in a plaid jacket with his jaw dropping open and eyes bulging in amazement while looking at a picture in a gallery.



Cobb’s Bill-of-Fare


IN ART as in music I am one who is very easily satisfied. All I ask of a picture is that it shall look like something, and all I expect of music is that it shall sound like something

In this attitude I feel confident that I am one of a group of about seventy million people in this country, more or less, but only a few of us, a very heroic few of us, have the nerve to come right out and take a firm position and publicly express our true sentiments on these important subjects. Some are under the dominion of strong-minded wives. Some hesitate to reveal their true artistic leanings for fear of being called low-browed vulgarians. Some are plastic posers and so pretend to be something they are not to win the approval of the ultra-intellectuals. There are only a handful of 28 us who are ready and willing to go on record as saying where we stand.

It is because of this cowardice on the part of the great silent majority that every year sees us backed farther and farther into a corner. We walk through miles and miles of galleries, or else we are led through them by our wives and our friends, and we look in vain for the kind of pictures that mother used to make and father used to buy. What do we find? Once in a while we behold a picture of something that we can recognize without a chart, and it looms before our gladdened vision like a rock-and-rye in a weary land.[83] But that is not apt to happen often — not in a 1912-model gallery. In such an establishment one is likely to meet only Old Masters and Young Messers.[84]
If it’s an Old Master we probably behold a Flemish saint or a German saint or an Italian saint — depending on whether the artist was Flemish or German or Italian — depicted as being shot full of arrows and enjoying same to the uttermost. If it is a Young Messer the canvas probably presents to us a view of a poached egg apparently 85 bursting into a Welsh rarebit. At least that is what it looks like to us — a golden buck, forty cents at any good restaurant — in the act of undergoing spontaneous combustion. But we are informed that this is an impressionistic interpretation of a sunset at sea, and we are expected to stand before it and carry on regardless.

Black and white drawing, by James M. Preston, 
 of a family, a couple and their 2 children in Edwardian dress, walking through an art gallery.


But I for one must positively decline to carry on. This sort of thing does not appeal to me. I don’t want to have to consult the official catalogue in order to ascertain for sure whether this year’s prize picture is a quick lunch or an Italian gloaming. I’m very peculiar that way. I like to be able to tell what a picture aims to represent just by looking at it. I presume this is the result of my early training. I date back to the Rutherford B. Hayes School of Interior Decorating. In a considerable degree I am still wedded to my early ideals. I distinctly recall the time when upon the walls of every wealthy home of America, there hung, among other things, two staple oil paintings — a still-life for the dining room, showing a dead fish on a plate, and a pastoral for the 86 parlor, showing a collection of cows drinking out of a purling brook. A dead fish with a glazed eye and a cold clammy fin was not a thing you would care to have around the house for any considerable period of time, except in a picture, and the same was true of cows. People who could not abide the idea of a cow in the kitchen gladly welcomed one into the parlor when painted in connection with the above purling brook and several shade trees.

Those who could not afford oil paintings went in for steel engravings and chromos — good reliable brands, such as the steel engraving of Henry Clay’s Farewell to the American Senate and the Teaching Baby to Waltz art chromo. War pictures were also very popular back in that period. If it were a Northern household you could be pretty sure of seeing a work entitled Gettysburg, showing three Union soldiers, two plain and one colored, in the act of repulsing Pickett’s charge. If it were a Southern household there would be one that had been sold on subscription by a strictly non-partisan publishing house in Charleston, South 87 Carolina, and guaranteed to be historically correct in all particulars, representing Robert E. Lee chasing U. S. Grant up a palmetto tree, while in the background were a large number of deceased Northern invaders neatly racked up like cordwood.

Such things as these were a part of the art education of our early youth. Along with them we learned to value the family photograph album, which fastened with a latch like a henhouse door, and had a nap on it like a furred tongue, and contained, among other treasures, the photograph of our Uncle Hiram wearing his annual collar.

And there were also enlarged crayon portraits in heavy gold frames with red plush insertions, the agent having thrown in the portraits in consideration of our taking the frames; and souvenirs of the Philadelphia Centennial; and wooden scoop shovels heavily gilded by hand with moss roses painted on the scoop part and blue ribbon bows to hang them up by; and on the what-not in the corner you were reasonably certain of finding a conch shell with the Lord’s Prayer engraved on it; and if you held the shell up 88 to your young ear you could hear the murmur of the sea just as plain as anything. Of course you could secure the same murmuring effect by holding an old-fashioned tin cuspidor up to your ear, too, but in this case the poetic effect would have been lacking. And, besides, there were other uses for the cuspidor.

Almost the only Old Masters with whose works we were well acquainted were John L. Sullivan and Nonpareil Jack Dempsey. But Rosa Bonheur’s Horse Fair suited us clear to the ground — her horses looked like real horses, even if they were the kind that haul brewery wagons; and in the matter of sculpture Powers’ Greek Slave seemed to fill the bill to the satisfaction of all. Anthony Comstock and the Boston Purity League had not taken charge of our art as yet, and nobody seemed to find any fault because the Greek lady looked as though she’d slipped on the top step and come down just as she was, wearing nothing to speak of except a pair of handcuffs. Nobody did speak of it either — not in a mixed company anyhow.


Furniture was preferred when it was new — the newer the better. We went in for golden oak and for bird’s eye maple, depending on whether we liked our furniture to look tanned or freckled; and when the careful housekeeper threw open her parlor for a social occasion, such as a funeral, the furniture gave off a splendid new sticky smell, similar to a pant and varnish store on a hot day. The vogue for antiques hadn’t got started yet; that was to descend upon us later on. We rather liked the dining-room table to have all its legs still, and the bureau to have drawers that could be opened without blasting. In short, that was the period of our national life when only the very poor had to put up with decrepit second-hand furniture, as opposed to these times when only the very rich can afford to own it. If you have any doubts regarding this last assertion of mine I should advise you to drop into any reliable antique shop and inquire the price of a mahogany sideboard suffering from tetter and other skin diseases, or a black walnut cupboard with doors that froze up solid about 90 the time of the last Seminole War. I suppose these things go in cycles — in fact I’m sure they do. Some day the bare sight of the kind of furniture which most people favor nowadays will cause a person of artistic sensibilities to burst into tears, just as the memory of the things that everybody liked twenty-five or thirty years ago gives such poignant pain to so many at present.

Even up to the time of the World’s Fair quite a lot of people still favored the simpler and more understandable forms of art expression. We went to Chicago and religiously visited the Art Building, and in our nice new creaky shoes we walked past miles and mile of brought-on paintings by foreign artists, whose names we could no pronounce, in order to find some sentimental domestic subject. After we had found it we would stand in front of it for hours on a stretch with the tears rolling down our cheeks. Some of us wept because the spirit of the picture moved us, and some because our poor tired feet hurt us and the picture gave us a good excuse for crying in public, and so we did so — freely and openly. 91 Grant if you will that our taste was crude and raw and provincial, yet we knew what we liked and the bulk of us weren’t ashamed to say so, either. What we liked was a picture or a statue which remotely at least resembled the thing that it was presumed to represent. Likewise we preferred pictures of things that we ourselves knew about and could understand.

Maybe it was because of that early training that a good many of us have never yet been able to work up much enthusiasm over the Old Masters. Mind you, we have no quarrel with those who become incoherent and babbling with joy in the presence of an Old Master, but — doggone ’em! — they insist on quarreling with us because we think differently. We fail to see anything ravishingly beautiful in a faded, blistered, cracked, crumbling painting of an early Christian martyr on a grill, happily frying on one side like an egg — a picture that looks as though the Old Master painted it some morning before breakfast, when he wasn’t feeling the best in the world, and then wore it as a liver pad for forty or fifty years. We 92 cannot understand why they love the Old Masters so, and they cannot understand why we prefer the picture of Custer’s Last Stand that the harvesting company used to give away to advertise its mowing machines.

Once you get away from the early settlers among the Old Masters the situation becomes different. Rembrandt and Hals painted some portraits that appeal deeply to the imagination of nearly all of my set. The portraits which they painted not only looked like regular persons, but so far as my limited powers of observation go, they were among the few painters of Dutch subjects who didn’t always paint a windmill or two into the background. It probably took great resolution and self-restraint, but they did it and I respect them for it.

[93]I may say that I am also drawn to the kind of ladies that Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds painted.[94]
They certainly turned out some mighty good-looking ladies in those days, and they were tasty dressers, too, and I enjoy looking at their pictures. Coming down the line a little farther, I want to state that there is also something 95 very fascinating in those soft-boiled pink ladies, sixteen hands high, with sorrel manes, that Bouguereau did; and the soldier pictures of Meissonier and Detaille appeal to me mightily. Their soldiers are always such nice neat soldiers, and they never have their uniforms mussed up or their accouterments disarranged, even when they are being shot up or cut down or something. Corot and Rousseau did some landscapes that seem to approximate the real thing, and there are several others whose names escape me; but, speaking for myself alone, I wish to say that this is about as far as I can go at this writing. I must admit that I have never been held spellbound and enthralled for hours on a stretch by a contemplation of the inscrutable smile on Mona Lisa. To me she seems merely a lady smiling about something — simply that and nothing more.

Any woman can smile inscrutably; that is one of the specialties of the sex. The inscrutable smile of a saleslady in an exclusive Fifth Avenue shop when a customer asks to look at something a little cheaper would make Mona Lisa seem a mere amateur as 96 an inscrutable smiler. Quite a number of us remained perfectly calm when some gentlemen stole Miss Lisa out of the Louvre, and we expect to remain equally calm if she is never restored.

Black and white drawing of a thin woman smirking as she touches her hair.  she is behind a couter, and a man is looking at her from the other side.


As I said before, our little band is shrinking in numbers day by day. The population as a whole are being educated up to higher ideals in art. On the wings of symbolism and idealism they are soaring ever higher and higher, until a whole lot of them must be getting dizzy in the head by now.

First, there was the impressionistic school, which started it; and then there was the post-impressionistic school, suffering from the same disease but in a more violent form; and here just recently there have come along the Cubists and the Futurists.

You know about the Cubists?[97] A Cubist is a person who for reasons best known to the police has not been locked up yet, who asserts that all things in Nature, [98]
living and inanimate, properly resolve themselves into cubes. What is more, he goes and paints pictures to prove it — pictures of cubic waterfalls pouring down cubic precipices, 99 and cubic ships sailing on cubic oceans, and cubic cows being milked by cubic milkmaids. He makes portraits, too — portraits of persons with cubic hands and cubic feet, who are smoking cubeb cigarettes and have solid cubiform heads. On that last proposition we are with them unanimously; we will concede that there are people in this world with cube-shaped heads, they being the people who profess to enjoy this style of picture.

Black and white drawing of a painting of a man who is constructed of rectangles in varying shapes and sizes.  The picture is hanging crookedly, too.


A Futurist begins right where a Cubist leaves off, and gets worse. The Futurists have already had exhibitions in Paris and London and last Spring they invaded New York. They call themselves art anarchists. Their doctrine is a simple and a cheerful one — they merely preaching that whatever is normal is wrong. They not only preach it, they practice it.

Here are some of their teachings:

“We teach the plunge into shadowy death under the white set eyes of the ideal!

“The mind must launch the flaming body, like a fire-ship, against the enemy, the 100 eternal enemy that, if he do not exist, must be invented!

“The victory is ours — I am sure of it, for the maniacs are already hurling their hearts to heaven like bombs! Attention! Fire! Our blood? Yes! All our blood in torrents to redye the sickly auroras of the earth! Yes, and we shall also be able to warm thee within our smoking arms, O wretched, decrepit, chilly Sun, shivering upon the summit of the Gorisankor!””

There you have the whole thing, you see, simply, dispassionately and quietly presented. Most of us have seen newspaper reproductions of the best examples of the Futurists’ school. As well as a body can judge from these reproductions, a Futurist’s method of execution must be comparatively simple. After looking at his picture, you would say that he first put on a woolly overcoat and a pair of overshoes; that he then poured a mixture of hearth paint, tomato catsup, liquid bluing, burnt cork, English mustard, Easter dyes, and the yolks of a dozen eggs over himself, seasoning to taste with red peppers. Then he spread a large 101 tarpaulin on the floor and lay down on it and had an epileptic fit, the result being a picture which he labeled Revolt, or Collision Between Two heavenly Bodies, or Premature Explosion of a Custard Pie, or something else equally appropriate. The Futurists ought to make quite a number of converts in this country, especially among those advanced lovers of art who are beginning to realize that the old impressionistic school lacked emphasis and individuality in its work. But I expect to stand firm, and when everybody else nearly is a Futurist and is tearing down Sargent’s pictures and Abbey’s and Whistler’s to make room for immortal Young Messers, I and a few others will still be holding out resolutely to the end.

Black and white drawing of a wild-eyed man lying sideways on a canvas in an overcoat and wiggling his arms and legs with vigor.


At such times as these I fain would send my thoughts back longingly to an artist who flourished I the two where I was born and brought up. He was practically the only artist we had, but he was versatile in the extreme. He was several kinds of a painter rolled into one — house, sign, portrait, landscape, marine and wagon. In his lighter 102 hours, when building operations were dull, he specialized in oil paintings of life and motion — mainly pictures of horse races and steamboat races. When he painted a horse race, the horses were always shown running neck and neck with their mouths wide open and their eyes gleaming; and their nostrils were widely extended and painted a deep crimson, and their legs were neatly arranged just so, and not scrambled together in any old fashion, as seems to be the case with the legs of the horses that are being painted nowadays. And when he painted a steamboat race it would always be the Natchez and the Robert E. Lee coming down the river abreast in the middle of the night, with the darkies dancing on the lower decks and heavy black smoke rolling out of the smokestacks in four distinct columns — one column to each smokestack — and showers of sparks belching up into the vault of night.[103]

There was action for you— action and attention to detail.[104]
With this man’s paintings you could tell a horse from a steamboat at a glance. He was nothing of an impressionist; he never put smokestacks on the 105 horse nor legs on the steamboat. And his work gave general satisfaction throughout that community.

Frederic Remington wasn’t any impressionist either; and so far as I can learn he didn’t have a cubiform idea in stock. When Remington painted an Indian on a pony it was a regular Indian and a regular pony — not one of those cotton-batting things with fat legs that an impressionist slaps on to a canvas and labels a horse. You could smell the lathered sweat on the pony’s hide and feel the dust of the dry prairie tickling your nostrils. You could see the slide of the horse’s withers and watch the play of the naked Indian’s arm muscles. I should like to enroll as a charter member of a league of Americans who believe that Frederic Remington and Howard Pyle were greater painters than any Old Master that ever turned out blistered saints and fly-blown cherubim. And if every one who secretly thinks the same way about it would only join in — of course they wouldn’t but if they would — we’d be strong enough to elect a president on a platform calling for a prohibitive 106 tariff against the foreign-pauper-labor Old Master of Europe.

While we were about it our league could probably do something in the interests of sculpture. It is apparent to any fair-minded person that sculpture has been very much overdone in this country. It seemed to us there should be a law against perpetuating any of our great men in marble or bronze or stone or amalgam fillings until after he has been dead a couple of hundred years, and by that time a fresh crop ought to be coming on and probably we shall have lost the desire to create such statues.

A great man who cannot live in the affectionate and grateful memories of his fellow countrymen isn’t liable to live if you put up statues of him; that, however, is not the main point.

The artistic aspect is the thing to consider. So few of our great men have been really pretty to look at. Andrew Jackson made a considerable dent in the history of his period, but when it comes to beauty, there isn’t a floor-walker in a department store anywhere that hasn’t got him backed clear off 107 the pedestal. In addition to that, the sort of clothes we’ve been wearing for the last century or so do not show up especially well in marble. Putting classical draperies on our departed solons has been tried, but carving a statesman with only a towel draped over him, like a Roman senator coming out of a Turkish bath, is a departure from the real facts and must be embarrassing to his shade. The greatest celebrities were ever the most modest of men. I’ll bet the spirit of the Father of His Country blushes every time he flits over that statue of himself alongside the Capitol at Washington — the one showing him sitting in a bath cabinet with nothing on but a sheet.

Sticking to the actual conditions doesn’t seem to help much either. Future generations will come and stand in front of the statue of a leader of thought who flourished back about 1840, say, and wonder how anybody ever had feet like those and lived. Horace Greeley’s chin whiskers no doubt looked all right on Horace when he was alive, but when done in bronze they invariably present a droopy not to say dropsical 108 appearance; and the kind of bone-handled umbrella that Daniel Webster habitually carried has never yet been successfully worked out in marble. When you contemplate the average statue of Lincoln — and most of them, as you may have noticed, are very average — you do not see there the majesty and the grandeur and the abiding sorrow of the man and the tragedy of his life. At least I know I do not see those things. I see a pair of massive square-toed boots, such as I’m sure Father Abe never wore — he couldn’t have worn ’em and walked a step — and I see a beegum hat weighing a ton and a half, and I say to myself: ”This is not the Abraham Lincoln who freed the slaves and penned the Gettysburg address. No, sir! A man with those legs would never have been president — he’d have been in a dime museum exhibiting his legs for ten cents a look — and they’d have been worth the money too.”

Nobody seems to have noticed it, but we undoubtedly had the cube form of expression in our native sculpture long before it came out in painting.


To get a better idea of what I’m trying to drive at, just take a trip up through Central Park the next time you are in New York and pause a while before those bronzes of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns which stand on the Mall. They are called bronzes, but to me they always looked more like castings. I don’t care if you are as Scotch as a haggis, I know in advance what your feelings will be. If you decide that these two men ever looked in life like those two bronzes you are going to lose some of your love and veneration for them right there on the spot; or else you are going to be filled with an intense hate for the persons who have libeled them thus, after they were dead and gone and not in position to protect themselves legally. But you don’t necessarily have to come to New York — you’ve probably got some decoration in your home town that is equally sad. There’ve been a lot of good stone-masons spoiled in this country to make enough sculptors to go round.

But while we are thinking these things about art and not daring to express them, I 110 take note that new schools may come and new schools may go, but there is one class of pictures that always gets the money and continues to give general satisfaction among the masses.

I refer to the moving pictures.