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A PICTURE AND ITS PAINTER.
MR. JOSEPH JOHNSON,
Anths of "The Philosophy of Life;" “Benjamin Franklin;"
A favors artist, Agostino Caracci, discoursing one day on the excellency of the ancient sculptures, was profuse in his praise of the Laocoon, and observing that his brother Annibale never spoke, nor seemed to take any notice of what he said, reproached him as not enough esteeming so masterly a work. He then went on describing every particular of that noble relic of antiquity. Annibale turned himself to the wall, and with a piece of charcoal drew the statue as exactly as if it had been before him. The rest of the company were surprised; and Agostino, silenced, confessed that his brother had taken a more effectral way than himself to demonstrate the beauties of that wonderful piece of sculpture. “The poet paints with words, the painter speaks with works" —said Annibale.
This, then, is an artist's definition of his art** works." And that which he desires in the spectator who looks upon them, is, understanding. An untutored savage may be struck with admiration at the sight of a picture by Raphael or Michael Angelo. A child may be amused by the contortions or false attitudes of an unskilful performance. But neither of them will be able to give any just idea of the causes in which consist either the beauty of the one, or the deformity of the other. 6 All that constitutes true beauty, harmony, refinement, grandeur," says Hazlitt, “is lost upon the common observer. But it is from this point that the delight, the glowing raptures of the true adept commence. The refinements not only of execution but of truth and nature are inaccessible to unpractised eyes. The exquisite gradations in a sky of Claude's are not perceived by such persons, and consequently the harmony cannot be felt. Where there is no conscious apprehension, there can be no conscious pleasure. Wonder at the first sight of works of art may be the effect of ignorance and novelty ; but real admiration and permanent delight in them are growth of taste and knowledge.” Any one, therefore, expressing a distaste for pictures, has reason to suspect that he does not possess the requisite knowledge, or skill, needed to appreciate them. It does not follow, however, that because a man should express a dislike for canvas pictures, he has no love for pictures at all. He may have quite a picture gallery in his own mind in which he may disport himself with exquisite satisfaction, in which he may have pictures of some piece of land which he hopes to make his own, of some house which he tells you he has “got his eye upon," of some eminence to which he craves to attain, of some fancied good which he desires to achieve. These pictures may be terrible distortions—the off-shoots of a prurient imagination, but they are pictures nevertheless. Castle building of this sort is a sad effeminating occupation. A sober knowledge of the laws of the mind would have a strong tendency to prevent this utter waste and neglect of the mental powers. But this is ever the question—knowledge, that makes the difference between man and man. It seems a coutradiction, but it is not the less true --that a man without knowledge is not a man! He may have the form of a man, just as you may have the form of a watch with all its beautiful mechanism in confusion; but so long as its parts remain disconnected, or in disorder, it is not a watch.
When we say, therefore, that a man has no taste for pictures; we should be more correct in saying, "he has no knowledge of pictures." This knowledge, possessed in perfection by artists, is the reason why they are such enthusiastic admirers of paintings by the old masters. They see beauties which are unseen, because unknown, by the ordinary observer. To like pictures, to acquire taste and discrimination in their selection, is the result of industry and perseverance in the attainment of certain laws or principles. These once attained, and the pleasures of a picture gallery are enhanced to an almost unlimited extent. These principles are few in number, and are easily impressed upon the mind. They may be thus enumerated : the idea; detail; unity and concentration; arrangement; expression; colour; style; form; chiaroscuro. Now, in order to the better understanding of these terms, let us imagine ourselves artists, about to build up or paint a picture; when, if we do not see their importance before we have finished our task-our painting will be a daub, and not a picture, of anything in heaven or upon the earth, and the sooner it is consigned to the "tomb of all the Capulets," the better.
The first thing, then, we have to consider, is the subject of the picture—the idea. The picture is intended when finished to excite attention and admoiration; the idea, therefore, must be worthy of the care intended to be bestowed upon it. There may be a very faithful delineation of nature ; but that selection of nature may be very meagre and common place; the result will be a meagre and common place picture. A true artist is a poet-painter; as a poet is a word-painter. One conveys his glowing thoughts to the canvas; the other gives life and
immortality to the teemings of his brain, through the medium of verse. No poem will excite in us raptures, the theme or subject of which is low and common-place, however elaborately finished the versification may
be; neither do we care for pictures the subjects of which do not interest the mind and sway the feelings, although the execution may be faultless. The subject of any picture should be such as to evolve or create thought, represent principles, and enlarge the life of the onlooker. “ Tongues" should be found in the trees of a picture as in the trees of the forest,“ sermons” in the stones
, and "books" in the running brooks. Dutch pictures and interiors like those of Ostades are valued as curiosities; they are not objects of much loving affection. The artist who devotes his talents to their imitation, dissipates his powers, and has certainly mistaken his mission if not his vocation.
Having selected the subject, the next consideratiou is the detail of the picture-that is, the manner in which we intend to treat it. Of course we have now and always to say—the true manner is the manner of nature; and that the end to be attained by the artist is so forcible a presentation of nature, that the spectator will partially realise the sensations which the natural scenery would create. This object is attained, to some extent, in various ways. It is left to the artist to select that which in his judgment will lead most surely to the end desired. Of late it has become fashionable to exalt the man. ner styled the Pre-Raphaelite, which consists in the most laboured detail. With a few exceptions the painters of this school have not succeeded in producing many striking pictures. In the general
, they arrest attention but do not please. Nature is copied too servilely.
" -- if those charms too closely we define,
In looking upon that natural scenery, we know that it is made up of minute objects, and that those objects have each a form and are each perfect; but the painter's task is not to paint their portraits, but to so blend them in the mass as to produce the harmony which they certainly present to the eye in nature. "We will suppose Titian's bunch of grapes," says Sir Joshua Reynolds, "placed so as to receive a broad light and shadow. Here, though each individual grape on the light side has its shadow and reflection, yet altogether they make but obje broad mass of light; the slightest sketch, therefore, where this breadth is preserved, will have a better effect, will have more the appearance of coming from a master-hand ; that is, in other words, will have more the characteristic and generale of nature than the most laborious finishing, where this breadth is lost or neglected.” The truth of this criticism was apparent in many of the Pre-Raphaelite pictures exhibited at the Manchester Art Treasures Exbibition. In the genre subjects the artists had remembered that the human hair is not a solid mass, but is composed of single hairs which they had, in order to be true to nature, painted separately. The result is an appearance very much like clotted sand. In this instance, therefore, the eye is not deceived; the artist is subjected to an infinity of trouble, and a very lame result is attained. It has been said truly that in a storm at sea it is impossible for the eye to take in the details of any one wave or mass of foam as they rush past; we see only spray, the drifting vessel as a mass of dark amid the grey gloom of the scudding clouds overhead, with here and there a sea-gull as a speck of white; all of which can be expressed in art without the finish of a Dutch interior, if that were either possible or desirable to delineate.
The next matter of consideration in our picture is the unity and concentration of the subject. This