Page images
PDF
EPUB

presence of genius, than in that where Titian died, and where his magnificent bust still seems to look with regret upon his unfinished works.

From Titian down to the first decline of art and its revival at Bologna towards the close of the sixteenth century, we do not remember a painter of landscapes on record, unless, perhaps, some of the works of Bassano may be so classed, for want of a better name to give to such heterogeneous assemblages. It is true that the extraordinarily long life of Titian extended through the greater part of this period; with the exception of Lionardo da Vinci, he was the oldest of the great painters, and Tintoretto alone survived him to connect the two great periods of painting.

In the eclectic school of Bologna, under the Carracci, landscape-painting rose to the rank of a distinct department of art. Annibale himself, and his followers, Domenichino, Guercino, and Albani, were the first, excepting Paul Brill, and perhaps other Flemings, whose works have very little merit, to make the landscape the principal and the figures but accessories. Domenichino and Guercino, however, had devoted themselves so much more to history, that the detail of their compositions in such subjects was very imperfect, though the general design and color were often masterly. It may in consequence be observed, that their best landscapes are those which are subordinate to the figures. It required a deeper study of the requisites of that kind of painting than they had found time for, to be able to depend upon inanimate nature alone for the light and shadow, the color and the sentiment, of the picture; this last quality is what they principally aimed at, and in this they were eminently successful, perhaps more so than is possible for an artist who makes the natural landscape his exclusive study. Of the landscape of Rubens, the contemporary of the scholars of the Carracci, we have already spoken ; it was not learned in that school, but is entirely of Flemish origin and character.

This brings us to the peculiar period of this branch of art, beginning with Nicolo Poussin, who may be called the father of it. This was in the first half of the seventeenth century, more than a hundred years after Raphael. Contemporary with Nicolo, and probably all in some degree, certainly one of them, very deeply indebted to him for their excellence in the art, were the three great landscape-painters, Gaspar,

Claude, and Salvator. These are the old masters more particularly spoken of by this author with such contempt, and who have been before thought to have carried their art almost to perfection. After a careful examination of their works, repeated after the lapse of many years, and uninfuenced, as we believe, by their reputation, we venture to state our own opinion of their merit. They were evidently far inferior in genius to the old masters of history. The causes which enlisted those great men in the pursuit of art had already ceased to exist. Those who would otherwise have followed in their track had already, by the force of circumstances, been diverted to other occupations. Art was no longer the channel through which burst the impatience of genius ; it had found more attractive issues. The quiet spirits who loved speculation more than action became the artists of the day, and sought their inspiration in the solitude of nature and not in the turbulent workings of human passions.

Nicolo Poussin had rather a profound knowledge than any deep feeling of art, either in history or landscape. The first he painted on a diminutive scale, and principally on classical subjects, - strong both against any claim to the enthusiasm that produces great works. It is a just remark of this author, that a grand style can be formed only upon subjects of present interest. Such were the Gospel history and the legends of the church in the time of the earlier painters; and such were not the Greek and Roman histories in that of David and his school. Nicolo's landscapes, too, were not the free overflowings of a love of nature, but the labored productions of one who was too great a critic to be a poet. We respect rather than love him, and for his sake alone we should not enter these lists. His brother-in-law and pupil, Gaspar, was a very different artist.

We know little about him personally, except that he had such an affection for his instructor as to have adopted his name, and submitted reverently to his teaching. In the classical drapery and antique attitudes of his shepherds, reclining like Tityrus and Melibæus in the shade, we recognize the mind if not the hand of his master'; but we see in the landscape the free and simple lover of nature loitering on the sunny hill-sides of Tivoli and Frascati. Of all the old painters, Gaspar in his designs is, in our judgment, at the same time the most natural and poetical. He does not, like Salvator, plunge you into a wilderness overhung by dank and dismal rocks and blasted trees, reflected in dark standing pools ; nor, like Claude, put nature to school under a great landscape-gardener ; but he seems to have gone out among the mountains with an honest purpose of gathering his materials from nature. He selects some point, generally by the side of an unfrequented road or the winding shore of some still water, from which he sees hills and woods chase each other behind distant towers and towns, until they slope down to the level sea, or break like waves at the foot of some blue chain of mountains. There he selects and condenses the choicest parts into one harmonious whole, with a skill in the management of his lines that has never been approached. For the harmony of lines, one of the most difficult and inexplicable beauties of art, he seems to have had an instinct, like that of Titian for color. In his most complicated designs, nothing can be changed without essentially injuring the composition. With the richest variety he joins an entire unity of purpose and feeling throughout the whole. There is a perfect probability about his seene ; his roads and streams never wind but to avoid some accidental obstruction, his buildings are appropriately placed, and his ground is broken as if the same natural causes had operated throughout. His eye was thoroughly trained, not by science, but by observation ; perhaps he could not have explained — certainly not so well as this author does why a form was right or wrong; but he felt it much better, and his feeling was a better guide than knowledge.

His skies are not good, simply as skies ; but we should hesitate before pronouncing them to be defects in the general arrangement. Great compromises must be made in landscape. With nothing better than white and yellow paint to express light with, it is necessary to use them with great economy. Nature can dress her landscape in the most vivid or the most delicate tints, and put directly over them the burning hues of sunset or the intense blue and white of noon. The artist has but the same earthy colors with which to express all this. If he attempts to imitate the splendor of the sky, he must expend upon it the whole power of bis palette, and then he must proportionably lower the tones of all the rest of the picture. If he does this truly, he can represent nothing on earth brighter than a dim twilight. If he begin with the earth, he must again exhaust his palette, and

then nothing is left for the sky. There must be a sacrifice of one or the other. To divide the deficiency equally between them would leave nothing which could fitly represent either. It was for this reason, and not from ignorance or incapacity, that the old masters of landscape apparently neglected their skies, or made them unnaturally deep in color to subdue their light ; and this also is the reason of the greater beauty of the skies which come in occasionally as backgrounds of the old historical pictures. These, the author says, “ look as if they were painted by angels ” ; but remove the same sky, which looks so bright and beautiful over the deep shadows and opaque lights of architecture, figures, and draperies, to the open landscape, and either its beauty will disappear, or it will extinguish the landscape. In this difficulty, the sky, as ordinarily the least important part in the composition, must be sacrificed. When we look at the natural landscape, the earth is the object of principal interest ; the sky is but the beautiful frame that sets it off. There are skies, indeed, that absorb our whole attention, but they cannot be painted ; and we have seen many skies so beautifully represented, that they destroyed the effect of the picture.

It must always be remembered that the legitimate object of landscape, as well as of other painting, is to transmit to the mind of the spectator the thoughts and feelings of the artist, and not merely to give a recognizable image of the scene that suggested them. A failure in the first can never be atoned for by any excellence in the last. And in this consists that excellence which has given to Gaspar and Salvator their great fame. Although we would not apply the harsh and contemptuous language that abounds in this book to him who cannot so feel this excellence in them as not to forgive their want of minute accuracy, we must think his mind is either naturally insensible, or has been subject to the influence of a very bad system. We look at their landscapes as we do at nature, not to criticize the parts, but to enjoy the whole. We admit that it would have been better, if they had been more accurate ; and we should have been under great obligations to this author, if he had pointed out their deficiencies with a proper sense of their merits ; but to denounce them in the manner he has done is to do the greatest possible injury to art. “ Respect for the ancients,” he says, “is the salvation of art”; and it is so, because to

overturn all long-established opinions upon it is to destroy all faith in it. The author may succeed in convincing some minds that the old masters are unworthy of their admiration, but he cannot transfer it to Turner and Fielding ; if he can show that the art which has been reverenced for two centuries is almost worthless, he can hardly expect to elevate to its place that which has never secured more than a partial regard in its own day. The inference will be, that art is nothing permanent or real ; that it is founded on no principle, but, like the fashion of our garments, or the decoration of our houses, is a caprice of the time.

What we have said of Gaspar leaves us little to say of Salvator. Different as they were in genius, their faults and their merits are of the same general kind. They selected different forms of nature, because they delighted in different emotions. We read their respective characters distinctly in their works. The author complains of the want of variety in their compositions, and praises Turner for never repeating the same idea. We think this but an equivocal kind of commendation. If a general character does not run through all the works of an author or an artist, it is because he impresses his own strongly upon none of them. It was reserved for Shakspeare alone to be great without leaving a trace of himself in his creations ; and this is true of him only as a dramatist.

Salvator approached the confines of the sublime without ever actually reaching it. But that he was governed by no love of it is one of the most extraordinary assertions in this book. He seems, on the contrary, to be always reaching after it, and yet to come short of that measure of it which we feel in other arts. The defect, we think, was in the art, more than in the man. We have already stated our doubts whether mere landscape-painting admits of the full development of the feeling ; and Salvator never attempted the union of the physical and moral sublime, to which the nearest approach, if not the only successful example of it, in painting, is the Peter Martyr of Titian. Salvator had the sentiment in a high degree, and as much in color as in form. He seems to have been sensible of the inadequacy of his vehicle ; he left few pictures to which he had given the whole power of which he seems to have been capable. minds us in this of Michael Angelo, who abandoned most

He re

« PreviousContinue »