Men I Have Painted/John Malcolm Swan
JOHN SWAN stands in a niche by himself. His Art is precious, like a jewel, to be handled lovingly in the seclusion of a cabinet of treasures, not exposed to the vulgar in the glare and blare of artificiality for ostentation's sake.
He loved Art for its cunning and its craft, and with deft and skilful fingers lingered long over the making of it, full of the joy of creating. At times he could be swift and impress movement and thought upon paper with a magic stroke of his crayon or chalk. Just as Manet and Monet sought for light, Swan aimed for movement, watching always for feline grace and charm in the animals that can purr as well as scream and bite.
The suppleness of the cat tribe roused in him every artistic instinct, and Barye himself has not translated into bronze or stone the majestic poise of the kings of the jungle with more intuitive skill.
His line is full of serpent-like undulations, breaking, disappearing, blurring; it is played upon as a chord in music is vibrated subtly by the musician who moves you. Line is to drawing what a strophe is to music, a phrase to prose, rhythm to poetry—it is God-given and never acquired.
Swan was a fine draughtsman, in the best sense, for his very imperfections were full of unconscious beauty. There is nothing more unpleasant than good drawing, so-called, which sweeps around a contour unerringly like a rigid wire, moved by a mechanical spirit that repels imagination. It is comparable only to a portrait that looks as if the epidermis had been removed. Before such an image one can only say, "This is a man with the bloom rubbed off." Why emulate a technique that only Van Eyck has mastered? In his really miraculous painting in the National Gallery, John Arnolfini and his Wife, the fine art lies in the face of the man, shadowed under the great hat; all the rest is just perfect mechanism and inimitable.
There are but few artists who have had tactful fingers—Rodin Whistler, Swan, Zorn. Many have had a bold fist, as Swan called it; the greatest of these is Peter Paul Rubens, that Prince of Painters whose comprehensive sweep includes all styles, all subjects, and whose achievement cannot be estimated or measured.
Swan was one of a trio of true artists, one of three minds bent upon the same ideal, the only ideal because it is the true, because it is Nature. He was happy in his friends. In Alfred Gilbert he found the bold and aspiring genius; in Onslow Ford the gentle and tender artist; and in a shrine of his own, a recluse in the hidden glades of the classic resort of the muse, there was that mysterious oracle, Matthew Maris, with whom he often sought to commune.
Swan was absent-minded, or perhaps it would be more correct to say, since his work was always uppermost in his thoughts, that he was present-minded. He took no count of time. I have never seen him look at a watch, and, like myself, he perhaps never carried one.
He would come in the morning to make me "a short call," stay on for lunch, linger over a cigar and glass of port until tea steamed in the pot, forget himself in the mazes of an abstract theory until dinner was served, be deaf to the stroke of midnight, and at last, as the clock struck two, slowly and reluctantly descend the steps to the garden and the outer door, ending his argument with a "Do you follow me?" to which I would yawningly reply, "No, I am going to bed."