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He really seems to forget that this Dutch sea was painted by one of those two painters whose best works he still persists in pronouncing so cold and valueless, that he knows not how to address those who like such painting, nor what their sensations are respecting the sea.
We want no better, though we should like a little heartier, praise of a sea storm, than he has given to this picture; and being admitted to be so good, we think it might be " studied with profit, as a proof” that this author is a very inconsistent and prejudiced critic.
His inconsistencies arise partly from carelessness and a passionate impatience of revisal, and partly from his laboring to make out a case rather than to find out the truth. We do not charge this to any worse motive than prejudice. We have no doubt that he has a very earnest, though very ill-considered, conviction of the truth of his cause ; and if he had not been afraid to give his book an honest and cool revision, his asperities and extravagances might have disappeared under the influence of his better judgment. But standing, as they do, uncorrected after two editions, they ought entirely to destroy our reliance upon the mere opinions of the author, because they show a state of mind wholly unfitted for the task he has undertaken. He proposes to overthrow the judgment of centuries and of all civilized nations upon a question which, so far as it is one of fact, must yet depend on mere opinion ; for resemblance to nature, though a fact, cannot be proved, but is chiefly a question of pure taste. Now, before we can have any confidence in the result of such an inquiry, we must feel that it is pursued in perfect good faith ; in that good faith which includes freedom from violent prejudice and passion, as well as from intention to deceive. Certainly, no opinion, whether upon a point of fact or of taste, is too old to be questioned; but things that the world has long acquiesced in are entitled to a strong presumption of their correctness, and nothing more so than a mere question of taste.
Facts are handed down from generation to generation, often without examination, and as they stand on evidence, posterity frequently gains new means of correcting them. But in matters of taste, every generation passes a fresh judgment upon the whole case, and after long concurrence of opinion, they should be questioned with great modesty. The whole early Roman history has been in our own days pronounced to be
fabulous, and no one impeaches the learned author of presumption ; but it would be a very different thing to deny the genius of Shakspeare or Milton. And to begin, or even to end, the most ingenious argument to the point, by calling them fools and blockheads, would be mere impudence, and would only show the author to be a very unfit person to enter upon any such inquiry. There is abundance of talent in this book to insure it a careful consideration, however fearlessly, if modestly and fairly, it might have examined established opinions. But it does no such thing. It does not consider them worth examining. It simply asserts, dictates, and dogmatizes in a very heated and clever style ; heaps epithets of contempt upon the works and understandings of the old masters, and treats all who differ from the author as absolute idiots; and if it treats them with any respect, it is that due to honest, hopeless, helpless imbecility.” It makes great pretensions, indeed, to demonstrating these opinions in a manner “which ought to involve no more reference to authority or character than a demonstration in Euclid.” But there is not, and from the nature of the case there cannot be, a word of demonstration in the whole of it, — taking the word, as he uses it, in the sense of proof. The subject is obviously all a matter of taste and judgment. Even the question of mere fidelity of imitation is notoriously one of opinion only, in which we continually hear people differ in judging of the same work of art. A fact agreed on or a fact proved is itself a proof of opinions or of other facts ; but a fact asserted is no proof of any thing. Now the difficulty with this author's facts is, not only that they are neither admitted nor proved, but that many
of them are absolutely untrue.
For example, the old landscape-painters are loudly and repeatedly condemned as having been convicted of a want of the truth of nature because they made the trunks of their trees taper from the ground to the lowest branch, and their branches from fork to fork ; whereas the author states, as an unquestionable fact, that a tree in its natural growth never tapers at all, but simply divides its bulk as it throws off branches. He states the fact thus : — “ Neither the stems nor the boughs of any of the ordinary trees of Europe taper, except where they fork.
Wherever a stem sends off a branch, or a branch a lesser bough, or a lesser bough a bud, the stem or the branch is on the instant less in diameter by the exact quantity
of the branch or bough they have sent off, and they remain of the same diameter, or, if there be any change, rather increase than diminish, until they send off another branch or bough. This law is imperative and without exception,” &c. Now this is what the author calls demonstration, and so far as it goes, which is little enough if true, it sounds very like it, to those who believe the fact to be as stated. But the weakness of the proof is simply the falsehood of the fact. It is not true, that, either universally or generally, trees do not taper in their trunks and branches, but quite the reverse.
Let any one, if he does not already know by daily observation and cannot see it the moment he looks, measure fifty trees, and he will hardly find one that does not taper ; not regularly, indeed, because many accidents give irregular and highly picturesque forms to trees; but he will find the law of the natural growth of a tree to be, that from the time it leaves the ground it begins to taper, and tapers out to its extremities. Near the ground, it diminishes rapidly ; near the insertion of the lowest branches, it frequently increases as rapidly, but still gradual diminution is the general law.
We speak of this fact with confidence, because we have for this purpose, unnecessary as it may seem, observed and measured a great number of trees, and we confess, without any fear of provoking a repetition of the author's shining remark on that subject to another of his critics, that some of them were birch-trees. If he had contented himself with objecting to the unnatural degree in which those particular trees of Claude and Gaspar which he specifies are made to taper, we should have agreed with him, that it was faulty in taste ; but nothing less than a charge of violating a universal law of nature satisfies his eagerness in fault-finding. Yet he does not quite venture to leave the matter as he has stated it; and as he knows that every eye which looks at nature will detect the error, and that any one may see it even in the engravings of Turner's illustrations so often cited in this book, he admits, that as branches and buds put forth and decay, they give a slight and delicate appearance of tapering to the trunk, and a much greater one to the branches, leaving only slight excrescences to denote the cause of it. Now the fact is not true even thus modified, for trees do ordinarily taper where there are no excrescences whatever to mark decayed branches. And if it were not so, does not the admission take away the whole force of the objection? If the tree appears to taper, it should be painted tapering, whatever be the cause of the appearance, or rather of the fact.
This may seem too trifling a matter to be pursued at such length, but it is a specimen of the kind of assertion that runs through the whole book, and which is called demonstration. It consists of the denial of the truth of the works of the old masters, and the assertion of that quality in Turner's, in a great variety of particulars. Now this is perhaps the most difficult, though not, as it is here discussed, the most important, question in art. What is truth? There are certain physical and scientific truths involved in painting, about which there can be no dispute. But that truth which consists in mere resemblance must for ever be liable to question. Resemblance, especially in landscape, can never be perfect ; or at most, only in a few subordinate objects. If any one does not see that the sky in any one of its phases, its unfathomable depth of blue, or its glorious company of clouds, or the sea, or even the most insignificant rivulet, cannot be truly painted, let him look attentively at a tree, - one of our wide-spreading, low-drooping elms, for example,
and say whether all the skill that could be learned, and the labor that could be bestowed, in the compass
any one life, could imitate with exactness its complexity of form and mystery of color, its thousand arms branching in every directión, yet all preserving the same specific character of departure and of tendency, its mass of foliage of perhaps a hundred feet in depth, and yet so loose that the light sparkles through the very centre, and the birds pass without rufiling a feather. The human face, in all its variety of expression, presents not half the difficulty of execution.
Now as this, and all other principal objects in landscape, cannot be imitated exactly, the attempt to give a greater degree of resemblance to insignificant things, such as stones and flowers, would only defeat the purpose of the artist, by making us more sensible of the deficiency where it is more important. “ As selection and generalization,” says Mr. Eastlake, “ are the qualities in which imitation, as opposed to nature, is strong, so the approach to literal rivalry is, as usual, in danger of betraying comparative weakness." A stone, a flower, or the trunk of a tree in the foreground may, by the exercise of a very ordinary kind of dexterity, be so imitated that the deception shall be almost perfect. But every good artist - NO. 138.
would purposely avoid any such degree of resemblance, because it would be impossible to carry it through the picture ; and the deficiency is never felt, even in the roughest sketch, if all parts have the same degree of finish, “and could imitation be carried to absolute perfection, we should only be reminded that life and motion were wanting.” Resemblance, then, is necessarily imperfect throughout the picture. But how much of it is necessary, or even admissible, to constitute the truth of art, is obviously a very difficult question. Now on this it becomes no man to dogmatize ; it is a question of taste and feeling as well as of judgment, and can be settled only by a wide and long consent.
And to make the little more or the little less of this resemblance the criterion of art is just the mistake made by the author now under consideration. He denies the merit of the old landscape-painters because they are not “ true to nature,”
because their clouds are not such as he sees daily pass over his head, — because their mountains have not the outline which geology requires, and their rocks have not the proper indications of their mineralogical class, - because their trees ta per too much in the trunks, and do not form their heads in geometrical curves. Now all this may in a degree be true, and yet those works may deserve all that ever has been claimed for them; because they may have excellences infinitely more important than this " truth of nature.” If they have not, we give them over to the author's condemnation, and not even the most perfect fidelity to this truth ought to save them. If there be nothing better in landscape-painting than this kind of likeness-taking of clouds, rocks, and trees, it is of very little importance who does it best ; – it is not worth doing at all,
except as a gentleman may fancy to have his prospect painted, as he would his dog or his horse ; in all which cases he is but adorning his house with a better kind of upholstery. This is
Art is nature, but it is something more and better than nature,
as much better as the work of a creative mind is better than the work of accident. For the purpose of pictorial composition all natural effects are but accidents ; and though sometimes we think we see them so perfect that art could add nothing to their excellence, yet every artist knows that nature never made a landscape from which something should not be taken away, or to which something should not be added, to present in its most perfect form the prevailing sentiment of the scene.