« AnteriorContinuar »
hopeless for an artist to excel in both branches; he is therefore obliged to devote himself exclusively to the one or the other; and his nature becoming subdued to what it works in, like the dyer's hand,' he soon ceases to be capable of adequately recognising, much less valuing, the equal worth of the branch that he has voluntarily laid aside. But this makes it all the more necessary and important for the critic to keep before his readers or his pupils the necessary interdependence of the various sides of art; to show them not in their opposition but in their connection, not as rivals but as brothers; and to maintain and make manifest the truth, that the greatest art is neither that of figure nor that of landscape, but that which gives the fullest expression to the various sides of man's nature, which helps on the world most by showing that not only are lofty thoughts, vivid conceptions, and high imaginations suitable to the domain of art, but that there is inextricably entwined with things which we are apt to consider commonplace, painful, or trivial, threads of beauty, nobility, and meaning that we might otherwise pass unheeded.
The following are some of Mr. Poynter's deliverances on the subject:
It is not to be supposed that the Florentine and Venetian painters, who painted the landscape of their backgrounds with such exquisite perception of the very essence of its beauty, never painted landscape pure and simple for lack of appreciation; it was because they felt it to be an imperfect form of art, which should rely simply on its power of recalling impressions. Titian has left us pictures of almost pure landscape, but they are rather in the nature of a diversion from his other and more serious work, being painted but occasionally out of the fulness of his delight in the beauty of his native mountain scenery.
.. Modern art, on the other hand-I mean that part of it which is modern in spirit-aims at nothing more than recalling the impressions which all of us who have a few shreds of poetic sensibility receive from the more obvious beauties of nature, and in this way makes an appeal to a wide circle of sympathies, though, as I have already noticed, those sympathies may be of the shallowest kind. In rendering what is purely beautiful it finds its expression in that school of landscape painting which has reached its highest point in some of Turner's best works, its lowest in the mass of still-life, flower, and fruit painting of which I supposed (sic) William Hunt is the most refined and skilful exponent.
It is not difficult, then, to see the reason why landscape painting is necessarily put in the second rank of art; for even if the impressions recorded be of the highest beauty, still it is but a record and an imitation, though still an imitation which may come under the head of Fuseli's second definition as being 'directed by judgment and taste;' and it is one most difficult of accomplishment, requiring artistic skill of the highest order, on account of the subtle and fleeting effects which it is the delight and glory of the landscape painter to recall. And of the same nature as this highest form of landscape is the more elevated kind of portrait painting, which aims at recording not only the features and costume, but all the nobler characteristics of the subject, taking, however, a second place, as being a recording and not a creative art. Lower than this must be placed what is called still-life painting and that kind of landscape which is of the matter of fact portrait kind.
Many other quotations might be given of a similar kind, but these are sufficient to show that Mr. Poynter holds the view of landscape painting that we have attributed to him. Let us now endeavour to see how far this view is just.
Stripped of its rhetorical ornaments and the irrelevant portions of the argument, our first quotation means simply this: the Florentine and Venetian painters felt pure landscape to be an inferior kind of art, and the implied inference is, that it therefore was so. Now, it must be noticed that this is a pure assumption on the part of our author, and one moreover which will not bear examination. All true painting is but a reflection, more or less perfect, of the sources of emotion and feeling prevalent at the time. That pure landscape did not in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries receive the attention it does in the nineteenth, shows no more than that the general feeling of appreciation of natural beauty in those days was comparatively feeble, and the appreciation of human beauty especially strong; and that this is the case is a wellknown fact, ascertainable from the records of the time. So far is it from being the case that the artists of that time must have had due appreciation of landscape beauty and deliberately rejected it, that we can affirm boldly that such appreciation was in their time an absolute impossibility, and the only marvellous thing about the matter is that there is shown, even at that period, a far stronger bias towards landscape than had ever been previously known, and that this bias is most marked in the best men. When we think of what painting was from 1300 A.D. to 1500, we find that almost its chief characteristic was the endeavour to get more and more nature into its pictures, till in the work of Titian and Giorgione it can hardly be said that either figure or landscape entirely predominates.
But even had the Florentines and Venetians despised landscape, would it therefore by any means follow that they were right in doing so, and still less we should be right in following their example? Surely this by no means follows. Unless the race progresses according to some theory of involution rather than evolution, we should vainly endeavour to return to the theories of art held by the old Italians. If, after three hundred years of added civilisation, we have to refuse added light, because the painters of old did not possess it, we had better, as far as art is concerned, have had no civilisation at all. If art is anything, its theories must accord with our fullest knowledge and most vital feelings, and if this admiration of landscape be one of them, it is of infinitely little consequence what was thought on the matter by the dweller on the marshes of the Adriatic, or under the shadow of Giotto's tower.
But there is another misleading statement to be noted in these paragraphs from Mr. Poynter-namely, the assertion that landscape painting is necessarily put in the second rank of art, because it is, but a record and an imitation. From this we will leave out the word record,' as it applies equally to both figure and
landscape. We might say of any picture in the world that it was 'merely a record,' the question being of what the record is made. Think, then, of the assertion that landscape painting is merely an imitation. In what is it an imitation more than figure painting? Not in its subject matter, for in the last, as in the first, there are forms which have to be delineated, the only difference being that in landscape the forms are infinite, whereas in figure they are determinate. But perhaps Mr. Poynter would answer us that it is in the power of the figure painter to create, by arrangement of his models, something which as yet has had no existence. But is not that possible in landscape also? We will not refer to the landscape compositions of Claude (which, by the way, Mr. Poynter praises greatly), though they certainly form good examples of a species of landscape art which is by no means an imitation of nature, but take the most typical of modern landscape painters, Joseph Mallord William Turner; and it seems superfluous to ask whether his pictures are merely an imitation. In what sense of the word is the 'Old Téméraire' an imitation, or 'Childe Harold's Pilgrimage,' or the 'Ulysses and Polyphemus'? Listen to Mr. Thackeray's description of the first-named of these works:
I must request you to turn your attention to as noble a river piece, by J. M. W. Turner, R.A.-the Fighting Téméraire -as ever figured on the walls of any academy or came from the easel of any painter. The old "Téméraire' is dragged to her last home by a little skilful, diabolical steamer. A mighty red sun amidst a host of flaring clouds sinks to rest on one side of the picture, and illumines a river that seems interminable and a countless navy that fades away into such a wonderful distance as never was painted before. The little demon of a steamer is belching out a volume (why do I say a volume? not a hundred volumes could express it) of foul, lurid, redhot, malignant smoke, paddling furiously and lashing up the water round about it; while behind it (a cold, grey moon looking down on it), slow, sad, and majestic, follows the brave old ship, with death as it were written on her. . . . It is absurd, you will say (and with a good deal of reason), for Titmarsh, or any other Briton, to grow so politically enthusiastic about a four-foot canvas representing a ship, a steamer, a river, and a sunset. But herein surely lies the power of the great artist. He makes you see and think of a great deal more than the objects before you; he knows how to soothe or intoxicate, to fire or depress, by a few notes, or forms, or colours, of which we cannot trace the effect to the source, but only acknowledge the power. I recollect some years ago, at the theatre at Weimar, hearing Beethoven's Battle of Vittoria,' in which, amidst a storm of glorious music, the air of God save the King' was introduced. The very instant it began every Englishman in the house was bolt upright, and so stood reverently until the air was played out. Why so? From some such thrill of excitement as makes us glow and rejoice over Mr. Turner and his 'Fighting Téméraire,' which I am sure, when the art of translating colours into poetry or music shall be discovered, will be found to be a magnificent national ode or piece of music.
No one will suspect Mr. Thackeray of any tendency to enthusiasm or undue susceptibility; and it must be remembered that when
he wrote the above, this picture was only one of the year's productions exhibited at the Royal Academy. The bold verdict he pronounced has since been endorsed by the almost unanimous opinion of all Englishmen. No one has hitherto been bold enough to say in so many words that this picture is a mere work of imitation. Probably Mr. Poynter himself would deny that he considered it to be so; yet, if his theory of the rank and scope of landscape be correct, the conclusion is one from which he cannot escape.
Still more erroneous is his statement that portrait painting even of the more elevated kind is merely a recording and not a creative art. Creation in art does not imply that its subject must be entirely new, or that it must represent something which no man has ever seen. In Mr. Thackeray's description of the Téméraire,' the elements of that great picture are perfectly simple and commonplace-a river, a steamer, a ship, and a sunset. The penetrative insight into the combined pathos, interest, and beauty of the scene, and the great power of genius which has swept into one splendid whole each scattered element and combined them into a perfect poem-in fact, the creative power of the picture is one which may find full scope for its exercise in portrait painting, and, as a matter of fact, has found it in all portraits by great masters. Not to mention great artists of bygone times and other countries, a sufficient example of this may be found in the portraits by Mr. Watts, R.A., which are yearly exhibited on the walls of our Academy. Often as this artist fails in reaching his ideal, there is, nevertheless, the stamp of creative genius impressed upon his work, as surely as it can be found in those of the great Italian artists. No one, we should think, who had the slightest claim to be considered a judge of art could look at, for instance, the portrait of Herr Joachim and call it merely a work of imitative art. Recording' it may bein the sense that all great pictures are records of how genius can transfuse natural fact-but 'recording' in the sense of imitation (which is clearly the only sense in which Mr. Poynter's words can be understood) it is not, nor are any worthy portraits.
Take a drop of water and, by help of the combined lantern and oxyhydrogen microscope, cast its image upon a whitened screen. You see, instead of a globule of transparent brightness, myriads of organisms moving about restlessly. If they were not there, no amount of magnifying power would have made the difference; nevertheless a moment before, whilst your unaided eyes explored the water, they were not there for you. The microscope has created them in one sense of the word. The genius of a portrait painter is to his sitter's character, as written upon his features, as is the microscope to the water. It shows life of a kind that we never suspected, depth of feeling and emotion that we could not perceive; and at its very highest it shows us THE MAN, not as under one trivial phase of emotion or another, but his whole personality, his capacities for good and evil, with (as Charles Kingsley says, with pardonable exaggeration)
traces of every passion and emotion that has passed over him throughout his life.
The reason for Mr. Poynter's low opinion of the merits both of landscape and portraiture is a double one. In the first place he wishes to prove the intrinsic superiority of the Italian school, which, as we have said above, was mainly a school of figure painting; and in the second place he has a dislike almost amounting to a mania for what is commonly called 'realist landscape,' which is, in untechnical phraseology, landscape in which each detail has been painted to the utmost of the artist's power. This anti-pre-Raphaelite bias is as strong within him as is his excessive estimate of Michelangelo, and goes far to vitiate the value of his teaching. Throughout these lectures we are continually meeting with disparaging reference to these poor substitutes for photography, in the shape of elaborate studies from nature, which some of our artists give us under the name of realism; or, again, to the Modern Spirit' which finds expression in admiration of the more obvious beauties of nature, or in an appeal to wide-spread and shallow sympathies. But we may surely ask in the face of such statements why it is we want any art at all? According to Mr. Poynter, for one person who can appreciate the beautiful proportions of Michelangelo's Slave' there are a hundred who can feel the glory of a sunset or the exquisite tints of an anemone.' Well, leaving for a moment out of consideration the truth of this assertion, would it not be best for us to please the hundred and neglect the one, rather than the reverse? After all, art was made for man, not man for art; and why should we seek to train artists to an absolute perfection of accurate form if it be the case that such perfection can only be appreciated by .one person out of every hundred? Here it is that this doctrine reveals its greatest fallacy—namely, that art is something apart from and above life, not the most vivid exponent of life in its every phase. This is the point where (though from another cause) we think Mr. Ruskin has for once failed to see the truth; and when he condemns so utterly Dutch art he appears to have forgotten its real motive power, one which George Eliot has described very beautifully in the following well-known passage, which, despite its length, we feel sure that our readers will pardon our quoting in its entirety :
It is for this rare, precious quality of truthfulness that I delight in many Dutch paintings which lofty-minded people despise. I find a source of delicious sympathy in these faithful pictures of a monotonous, homely existence, which has been the lot of so many more among my fellow mortals than a life of pomp or of absolute indigence, of tragic suffering or of worldstirring actions. I turn without shrinking from cloud-borne angels, from prophets, sibyls, and heroic warriors, to an old woman bending over a flowerpot or eating her solitary dinner, while the noonday light, just softened, perhaps, by a screen of leaves, falls on her mob cap, and just touches the rim of her spinning-wheel, and her stone jug, and all those cheap common things which are the precious accessories of life to her. Or I turn to that village wedding, kept between four brown walls, where an awkward brideNo. 608 (No. CXXVIII. N. S.)