« PreviousContinue »
Violations of physical laws, however, are not in our author's judgment necessarily faults. It depends in a great degree upon the person who commits them. Of all that later generation of old masters which comprehends the landscape-painters, Rubens is the only one of whose landscapes he speaks with respect. Now we think that no one, who has examined the works of the two, can fail to have formed the opinion that Turner is indebted to Rubens for his peculiar system. It is the system of a great colorist carrying the whole force of a paletie set for flesh, and gorgeous draperies, and jewels into the broad fields of air and earth. Color runs riot over the landscapes of Rubens. Every thing is in joyous motion, like the fresh-breaking waves of the sea.
He never seems willing to part with the successive hues of earth, but often runs his horizon up until he loses all perspective. Turner never commits this fault; but his daring use of color upon subjects which, to other artists, have seemed not to admit of it, his substitution of color for light, we might almost say his absolute manufacture of light, we think he owes to an attentive study of Rubens. In this particular of the use of color for light, the author does gross injustice to Turner, and betrays his own poverty of eye, when he praises him for adopting white for the highest light and black for the deepest shade. Nothing can, to our judgment, be less characteristic of Turner, who is, both by nature and by system, a great colorist. What led us to make these remarks was the very different manner in which the author speaks of Rubens and of Claude, when they both paint physical impossibilities. Of Rubens he says, in the offensive slang in which much of this <book is written, that the licenses taken by him are as bold
as his general statements are sincere,”. that in one of his landscapes the horizon is an oblique line, in another, many of the shadows fall at right angles to the light, and in another, a rainbow is seen by the spectator at the side of the sun. ". These bold and frank licenses,” he
says, are not to be considered as detracting from the rank of the painter ; they are usually characteristic of those minds whose
grasp ture is so certain and extensive as to enable them fearlessly to sacrifice a truth of actuality to a truth of feeling." And again : 66 I have before noticed the license of Rubens in making his horizon an oblique line. His object is to carry the eye to a given point in the distance. The road winds
to it, the clouds fly at it, the trees nod to it, a flock of sheep scainper towards it, a carter points his whip at it, his horses pull for it, the figures push for it, and the horizon slopes to
If the horizon had been horizontal, it would have embarrassed every thing and every body.” Now this may be a good parody on the history of A Apple-pie ; but as sober criticism, it is very ridiculous.
But let us see what our author thinks of these licenses, when taken by those who happen not to be in favor with him. In another part of the book, in describing a landscape of Claude, he says that “the setting sun casts a long stream of light upon the water obliquely from the side to the centre of the picture.” It is true that this is a thing impossible, because the stream of reflected light is always a continuation of the perpendicular line from the sun to the horizon. But Claude, whatever his other faults may have been, cannot be accused of not having studied the effect of the setting sun on water, as his pictures abound with it ; this, however, is attributed at once to his ignorance : “But if this had been done as a license, it would be an instance of most absurd and unjustifiable license, as the fault is detected by the eye in a moment, and there is no occasion nor excuse for it.” Now, so far from this mistake or license, be it which it may, being so palpable as to be detected by the eye in a moment, we doubt if half the world now knows that it is wrong; and the author himself states, in a note on the very same page, that it has been defended as a truth by a man of much taste and information, and also in a recent publication. But we imagine that a rainbow by the side of the sun, shadows at right angles to it, and a slanting horizontal line, would be detected by any eye, and would hardly find a defender as “ truths of actuality.” So true it is that one man may steal a horse, where another may not look over a hedge.
Besides this inconsistency as to obvious departures from nature, it is impossible to find in this book any fixed principle on the subject of what is called the truth of nature. Who can tell what are the author's notions of the propriety of minute detail in subordinate parts, on comparing such passages as these ? After praising Titian for painting every stamen of the wild roses in the foreground of his Ariadne, and Raphael for expressing every leaf and blossom of the colewort in that of his Miraculous Draught of Fishes, he says,
appears, then, not only from natural principles, but from the highest of all authority, that thorough knowledge of the lowest details and full expression of them is right even in the highest class of historical painting ; that it will not take away from nor interfere with the interest of the figures"; and much more to the same purpose ; and that Sir Joshua Reynolds is false in principle, when he praises Titian because, in the foreground of the Peter Martyr, the plants are discriminated just as much as was necessary for variety, and no more. Yet, in another place, he says, that, if we paint a piece of drapery as part of the dress of a Madonna, i all ideas of richness or texture become thoroughly contemptible, and unfit to occupy the mind at the same moment with the idea of the Virgin. The conception of drapery is then to be suggested by the simplest and slightest means possible, and all notions of texture and detail are to be rejected with utter reprobation, because they draw the attention to the dress instead of the saint, and disturb and degrade the feelings,” &c.; and that “all that Sir Joshua Reynolds has said on the subject of the kind of truths proper to be represented is perfectly just and right.” Now what difference can there be between these two cases of the flowers in the foreground and the drapery of the saint, both being mere accessories to the principal figure ? Surely, if minute finish and detail are objectionable in either, it would seem to be in the flowers, which are removed from the figure, rather than in the drapery, which is a part of it. And how can Sir Joshua Reynolds be both right and wrong in this same opinion ?
Another strange inconsistency in this book is, that the general and most labored charge against the old masters is, as we have already stated, a want of truth; that they do not truly represent the natural appearances of sky, mountains,
rocks, trees, earth, or water; and yet they are repeatedly ? said to have no other object in view in their painting than
deception. Now we do not say that deceptive painting is necessarily true; on the contrary, it is almost always untrue. But it is incompatible with that want of minute detail, that preference of general to specific resemblance, which is one of the principal forms in which the want of truth is here stated. The charge of aiming at deception is, moreover, taken by itself, one of the most grossly unfounded that could be made. We can hardly
believe that any one who could prefer it against Salvator or Gaspar had ever seen their works. As applied to Claude, though more plausible, it is equally unjust. The prevailing defect in the two former is just the reverse of this. It is the want of sufficient attention to the specific character of objects; and if the author has convinced us of any thing, it is of this. Claude carried imitation as far, perhaps, as it is possible in landscape ; yet the idea of deception in one of his pictures, we believe, never before entered into any one's mind. What is the meaning of the phrase? We have seen flies and water-drops in flower-pieces, and even the flowers themselves, so minutely painted as to be almost mistaken for reality. This is deceptive painting, and a very petty business it is. But how is this to be attempted in landscape ? What hope could an artist have, if he desired it, that his canvas of perhaps four feet by three should be mistaken for the wide face of nature, that his trees, at most two feet high, should really pass for giant pines and sturdy oaks, — his cliffs, which overhang their base perhaps six inches, for alpine precipices ? Besides, the attempt at deception must necessarily destroy all imagination of grandeur. Trees would be made to look like real shrubs, and crags like real pebbles. Not that there cannot positively be any such thing, where the representation is of less than the size of nature ; we have seen minute interiors in which that folly was carried to great perfection. By means of a partial light, they are made to look more like models than pictures. But this is obviously impossible in landscape, and we never saw one that had the least appearance of such a design. We have seen, too, a great deal of labor worse than wasted in foregrounds, by giving to plants and pebbles a minute finish wholly inappropriate to the distance of the picture, and which is sure to put all the rest of it out of keeping by the impossibility of carrying it further out under the broad light of heaven. But it is the want of this very finish, and not the excess of it, that is here repeatedly charged against these artists. What the author means by accusing them of aiming at deception we have tried in vain to comprehend, either from any thing he has said, or that we have observed, or can imagine. It seems to us to be only a desperate attempt to escape from difficulties in which he felt himself involved by his rambling and inconsistent course of censure.
We do not propose to remark upon all the merely untenable and extravagant general propositions laid down by the author; but there are two, which he supports by such odd reasons, that we will state them briefly as specimens of the kind of logic which satisfies his mind. He denies the doctrine of Sir Joshua Reynolds, and of all other writers on the subject, that the truth sought to be expressed by art should be, not particular, but general truth ; that is, that a picture should not be a collection of portraits of particular persons or particular things. Now this doctrine is undoubtedly just. Nature, in her vast extent and variety, can afford to mark every face and every object with a strong individuality, which, in the limited space and unvarying character of a picture, would soon become very tiresome. The artist, therefore, is obliged to resort to a general expression of the class, instead of the individual; and this, when it seeks the beautiful, is what is called the ideal. A man, nay, even a woman,
with a very large nose, may notwithstanding be beautiful, because we see it sometimes in profile, and sometimes in front, and sometimes not at all ; but in a picture such a feature would be a continual and disagreeable mark for the eye. We should be, like Sancho, always looking at that great nose. And the same thing would be true, though in a less degree, of a rock or a tree; we should soon become weary of the sameness of any very marked individuality. But all this our author denies, maintaining that particular truths are more important, and therefore more proper to be painted, than general ones ; and he thus reasons it out syllogistically :--
“If I say that all men in China eat, I say nothing interesting, because my predicate (eat) is general. If I say that all men in China eat opium, I say something interesting, because my predicate (eat opium) is particular. Now almost every thing, which (with reference to a given subject) a painter has to ask himself whether he shall represent or not, is a predicate. Hence, in art, particular truths are usually more important than general ones.'
Now the utter absurdity of this argument is, that the fact that all men eat in China is uninteresting, not because it is a general fact, but because every body knew it before ; and the fact that all men in China eat opium, if true, would be interesting only to those who did not know it before. So it is not the particularity, but the novelty, of the fact that