Lectures on Art
In treating on Art, which, in its highest sense, and more especially in relation to Painting and Sculpture, is the subject proposed for our present examination, the first question that occurs is, In what consists its peculiar character? or rather, What are the characteristics that distinguish it from Nature, which it professes to imitate?
To this we reply, that Art is characterized,—
First, by Originality.
Secondly, by what we shall call Human or Poetic Truth; which is the verifying principle by which we recognize the first.
Thirdly, by Invention; the product of the Imagination, as grounded on the first, and verified by the second. And,
Fourthly, by Unity, the synthesis of all.
As the first step to the right understanding of any discourse is a clear apprehension of the terms used, we add, that by Originality we mean any thing (admitted by the mind as true) which is peculiar to the Author, and which distinguishes his production from that of all others; by Human or Poetic Truth, that which may be said to exist exclusively in and for the mind, and as contradistinguished from the truth of things in the natural or external world; by Invention, any unpractised mode of presenting a subject, whether by the combination of entire objects already known, or by the union and modification of known but fragmentary parts into new and consistent forms; and, lastly, by Unity, such an agreement and interdependence of all the parts, as shall constitute a whole.
It will be our attempt to show, that, by the presence or absence of any one of these characteristics, we shall be able to affirm or deny in respect to the pretension of any object as a work of Art; and also that we shall find within ourselves the corresponding law, or by whatever word we choose to designate it, by which each will be recognized; that is, in the degree proportioned to the developement, or active force, of the law so judging.
Supposing the reader to have gone along with us in what has been said of the Universal, in our Preliminary Discourse, and as assenting to the position, that any faculty, law, or principle, which can be shown to be essential to any one mind, must necessarily be also predicated of every other sound mind, even where the particular faculty or law is so feebly developed as apparently to amount to its absence, in which case it is inferred potentially,--we shall now assume, on the same grounds, that the originating cause, notwithstanding its apparent absence in the majority of men, is an essential reality in the condition of the Human Being; its potential existence in all being of necessity affirmed from its existence in one.
Assuming, then, its reality,—or rather leaving it to be evidenced from its known effects,—we proceed to inquire in what consists this originating power.
And, first, as to its most simple form. If it be true, (as we hope to set forth more at large in a future discourse,) that no two minds were ever found to be identical, there must then in every individual mind be something which is not in any other. And, if this unknown something is also found to give its peculiar hue, so to speak, to every impression from outward objects, it seems but a natural inference, that, whatever it be, it must possess a pervading force over the entire mind,—at least, in relation to what is external. But, though this may truly be affirmed of man generally, from its evidence in any one person, we shall be far from the fact, should we therefore affirm, that, otherwise than potentially, the power of outwardly manifesting it is also universal. We know that it is not,—and our daily experience proves that the power of reproducing or giving out the individualized impressions is widely different in different men. With some it is so feeble as apparently never to act; and, so far as our subject is concerned, it may practically be said not to exist; of which we have abundant examples in other mental phenomena, where an imperfect activity often renders the existence of some essential faculty a virtual nullity. When it acts in the higher decrees, so as to make another see or feel as the Individual saw or felt,—this, in relation to Art, is what we mean, in its strictest sense, by Originality. He, therefore, who possesses the power of presenting to another the precise images or emotions as they existed in himself, presents that which can be found nowhere else, and was first found by and within himself; and, however light or trifling, where these are true as to his own mind, their author is so far an originator.
But let us take an example, and suppose two portraits; simple heads, without accessories, that is, with blank backgrounds, such as we often see, where no attempt is made at composition; and both by artists of equal talent, employing the same materials, and conducting their work according to the same technical process. We will also suppose ourselves acquainted with the person represented, with whom to compare them. Who, that has ever made a similar comparison, will expect to find them identical? On the contrary, though in all respects equal, in execution, likeness, &c., we shall still perceive a certain exclusive something that will instantly distinguish the one from the other, and both from the original. And yet they shall both seem to us true. But they will be true to us also in a double sense; namely, as to the living original and as to the individuality of the different painters. Where such is the result, both artists must originate, inasmuch as they both outwardly realize the individual image of their distinctive minds.
Nor can the truth they present be ascribed to the technic process, which we have supposed the same with each; as, on such a supposition, with their equal skill, the result must have been identical. No; by whatever it is that one man's mental impression, or his mode of thought, is made to differ from another's, it is that something, which our imaginary artists have here transferred to their pencil, that makes them different, yet both original.
Now, whether the medium through which the impressions, conceptions, or emotions of the mind are thus externally realized be that of colors, words, or any thing else, this mysterious though certain principle is, as we believe, the true and only source of all originality.
In the power of assimilating what is foreign, or external, to our own particular nature consists the individualizing law, and in the power of reproducing what is thus modified consists the originating cause.
Let us turn now to an opposite example,—to a mere mechanical copy of some natural object, where the marks in question are wholly wanting. Will any one be truly affected by it? We think not; we do not say that he will not praise it,—this he may do from various motives; but his feeling—if we may so name the index of the law within—will not be called forth to any spontaneous correspondence with the object before him.
But why talk of feeling, says the pseudo-connoisseur, where we should only, or at least first, bring knowledge? This is the common cant of those who become critics for the sake of distinction. Let the Artist avoid them, if he would not disfranchise himself in the suppression of that uncompromising test within him, which is the only sure guide to the truth without.
It is a poor ambition to desire the office of a judge merely for the sake of passing sentence. But such an ambition is not likely to possess a person of true sensibility. There are some, however, in whom there is no deficiency of sensibility, yet who, either from self-distrust, or from some mistaken notion of Art, are easily persuaded to give up a right feeling, in exchange for what they may suppose to be knowledge,—the barren knowledge of faults; as if there could be a human production without them! Nevertheless, there is little to be apprehended from any conventional theory, by one who is forewarned of its mere negative power,—that it can, at best, only suppress feeling; for no one ever was, or ever can be, argued into a real liking for what he has once felt to be false. But, where the feeling is genuine, and not the mere reflex of a popular notion, so far as it goes it must be true. Let no one, therefore, distrust it, to take counsel of his head, when he finds himself standing before a work of Art. Does he feel its truth? is the only question,—if, indeed, the impertinence of the understanding should then propound one; which we think it will not, where the feeling is powerful. To such a one, the characteristic of Art upon which we are now discoursing will force its way with the power of light; nor will he ever be in danger of mistaking a mechanical copy for a living imitation.
But we sometimes hear of "faithful transcripts," nay, of fac-similes. If by these be implied neither more nor less than exists in their originals, they must still, in that case, find their true place in the dead category of Copy. Yet we need not be detained by any inquiry concerning the merits of a fac-simile, since we firmly deny that a fac-simile, in the true sense of the term, is a thing possible.
That an absolute identity between any natural object and its represented image is a thing impossible, will hardly be questioned by any one who thinks, and will give the subject a moment's reflection; and the difficulty lies in the nature of things, the one being the work of the Creator, and the other of the creature. We shall therefore assume as a fact, the eternal and insuperable difference between Art and Nature. That our pleasure from Art is nevertheless similar, not to say equal, to that which we derive from Nature, is also a fact established by experience; to account for which we are necessarily led to the admission of another fact, namely, that there exists in Art a peculiar something which we receive as equivalent to the admitted difference. Now, whether we call this equivalent, individualized truth, or human or poetic truth, it matters not; we know by its effects, that some such principle does exist, and that it acts upon us, and in a way corresponding to the operation of that which we call Truth and Life in the natural world. Of the various laws growing out of this principle, which take the name of Rules when applied to Art, we shall have occasion to speak in a future discourse. At present we shall confine ourselves to the inquiry, how far the difference alluded to may be safely allowed in any work professing to be an imitation of Nature.
The fact, that truth may subsist with a very considerable admixture of falsehood, is too well known to require an argument. However reprehensible such an admixture may be in morals, it becomes in Art, from the limited nature of our powers, a matter of necessity.
For the same reason, even the realizing of a thought, or that which is properly and exclusively human, must ever be imperfect. If Truth, then, form but the greater proportion, it is quite as much as we may reasonably look for in a work of Art. But why, it may be asked, where the false predominates, do we still derive pleasure? Simply because of the Truth that remains. If it be further demanded, What is the minimum of truth in order to a pleasurable effect? we reply, So much only as will cause us to feel that the truth exists. It is this feeling alone that determines, not only the true, but the degrees of truth, and consequently the degrees of pleasure.
Where no such feeling is awakened, and supposing no deficiency in the recipient, he may safely, from its absence, pronounce the work false; nor could any ingenious theory of the understanding convince him to the contrary. He may, indeed, as some are wont to do, make a random guess, and call the work true; but he can never so feel it by any effort of reasoning. But may not men differ as to their impressions of truth? Certainly as to the degrees of it, and in this according to their sensibility, in which we know that men are not equal. By sensibility here we mean the power or capacity of receiving impressions. All men, indeed, with equal organs, may be said in a certain sense to see alike. But will the same natural object, conveyed through these organs, leave the same impression? The fact is otherwise. What, then, causes the difference, if it be not (as before observed) a peculiar something in the individual mind, that modifies the image? If so, there must of necessity be in every true work of Art—if we may venture the expression—another, or distinctive, truth. To recognize this, therefore,—as we have elsewhere endeavoured to show,—supposes in the recipient something akin to it. And, though it be in reality but a sign of life, it is still a sign of which we no sooner receive the impress, than, by a law of our mind, we feel it to be acting upon our thoughts and sympathies, without our knowing how or wherefore. Admitting, therefore, the corresponding instinct, or whatever else it may be called, to vary in men,—which there is no reason to doubt,—the solution of their unequal impression appears at once. Hence it would be no extravagant metaphor, should we affirm that some persons see more with their minds than others with their eyes. Nay, it must be obvious to all who are conversant with Art, that much, if not the greater part, in its higher branches is especially addressed to this mental vision. And it is very certain, if there were no truth beyond the reach of the senses, that little would remain to us of what we now consider our highest and most refined pleasure.
But it must not be inferred that originality consists in any contradiction to Nature; for, were this allowed and carried out, it would bring us to the conclusion, that, the greater the contradiction, the higher the Art. We insist only on the modification of the natural by the personal; for Nature is, and ever must be, at least the sensuous ground of all Art: and where the outward and inward are so united that we cannot separate them, there shall we find the perfection of Art. So complete a union has, perhaps, never been accomplished, and may be impossible; it is certain, however, that no approach to excellence can ever be made, if the idea of such a union be not constantly looked to by the artist as his ultimate aim. Nor can the idea be admitted without supposing a third as the product of the two,--which we call Art; between which and Nature, in its strictest sense, there must ever be a difference; indeed, a difference with resemblance is that which constitutes its essential condition.
It has doubtless been observed, that, in this inquiry concerning the nature and operation of the first characteristic, the presence of the second, or verifying principle, has been all along implied; nor could it be otherwise, because of their mutual dependence. Still more will its active agency be supposed in our examination of the third, namely, Invention. But before we proceed to that, the paramount index of the highest art, it may not be amiss to obtain, if possible, some distinct apprehension of what we have termed Poetic Truth; to which, it will be remembered, was also prefixed the epithet Human, our object therein being to prepare the mind, by a single word, for its peculiar sphere; and we think it applicable also for a more important reason, namely, that this kind of Truth is the true ground of the poetical,—for in what consists the poetry of the natural world, if not in the sentiment and reacting life it receives from the human fancy and affections? And, until it can be shown that sentiment and fancy are also shared by the brute creation, this seeming effluence from the beautiful in nature must rightfully revert to man. What, for instance, can we suppose to be the effect of the purple haze of a summer sunset on the cows and sheep, or even on the more delicate inhabitants of the air? From what we know of their habits, we cannot suppose more than the mere physical enjoyment of its genial temperature. But how is it with the poet, whom we shall suppose an object in the same scene, stretched on the same bank with the ruminating cattle, and basking in the same light that flickers from the skimming birds. Does he feel nothing more than the genial warmth? Ask him, and he perhaps will say,—"This is my soul's hour; this purpled air the heart's atmosphere, melting by its breath the sealed fountains of love, which the cold commonplace of the world had frozen: I feel them gushing forth on every thing around me; and how worthy of love now appear to me these innocent animals, nay, these whispering leaves, that seem to kiss the passing air, and blush the while at their own fondness! Surely they are happy, and grateful too that they are so; for hark! how the little birds send up their song of praise! and see how the waving trees and waving grass, in mute accordance, keep time with the hymn!"
This is but one of the thousand forms in which the human spirit is wont to effuse itself on the things without, making to the mind a new and fairer world,—even the shadowing of that which its immortal craving will sometimes dream of in the unknown future. Nay, there is scarcely an object so familiar or humble, that its magical touch cannot invest it with some poetic charm. Let us take an extreme instance,—a pig in his sty. The painter, Morland, was able to convert even this disgusting object into a source of pleasure,—and a pleasure as real as any that is known to the palate.
Leaving this to have the weight it may be found to deserve, we turn to the original question; namely, What do we mean by Human or Poetic Truth?
When, in respect to certain objects, the effects are found to be uniformly of the same kind, not only upon ourselves, but also upon others, we may reasonably infer that the efficient cause is of one nature, and that its uniformity is a necessary result. And, when we also find that these effects, though differing in degree, are yet uniform in their character, while they seem to proceed from objects which in themselves are indefinitely variant, both in kind and degree, we are still more forcibly drawn to the conclusion, that the cause is not only one, but not inherent in the object. The question now arises, What, then, is that which seems to us so like an alter et idem,—which appears to act upon, and is recognized by us, through an animal, a bird, a tree, and a thousand different, nay, opposing objects, in the same way, and to the same end? The inference follows of necessity, that the mysterious cause must be in some general law, which is absolute and imperative in relation to every such object under certain conditions. And we receive the solution as true,—because we cannot help it. The reality, then, of such a law becomes a fixture in the mind.
But we do not stop here: we would know something concerning the conditions supposed. And in order to this, we go back to the effect. And the answer is returned in the form of a question,—May it not be something from ourselves, which is reflected back by the object,—something with which, as it were, we imbue the object, making it correspond to a reality within us? Now we recognize the reality within; we recognize it also in the object,—and the affirming light flashes upon us, not in the form of deduction, but of inherent Truth, which we cannot get rid of; and we call it Truth,—for it will take no other name.
It now remains to discover, so to speak, its location. In what part, then, of man may this self-evidenced, yet elusive, Truth or power be said to reside? It cannot be in the senses; for the senses can impart no more than they receive. Is it, then, in the mind? Here we are compelled to ask, What is understood by the mind? Do we mean the understanding? We can trace no relation between the Truth we would class and the reflective faculties. Or in the moral principle? Surely not; for we can predicate neither good nor evil by the Truth in question. Finally, do we find it identified with the truth of the Spirit? But what is the truth of the Spirit but the Spirit itself,—the conscious I? which is never even thought of in connection with it. In what form, then, shall we recognize it? In its own,—the form of Life,—the life of the Human Being; that self-projecting, realizing power, which is ever present, ever acting and giving judgment on the instant on all things corresponding with its inscrutable self. We now assign it a distinctive epithet, and call it Human.
It is a common saying, that there is more in a name than we are apt to imagine. And the saying is not without reason; for when the name happens to be the true one, being proved in its application, it becomes no unimportant indicator as to the particular offices for which the thing named was designed. So we find it with respect to the Truth of which we speak; its distinctive epithet marking out to us, as its sphere of action, the mysterious intercourse between man and man; whether the medium consist in words or colors, in thought or form, or in any thing else on which the human agent may impress, be it in a sign only, his own marvellous life. As to the process or modus operandi, it were a vain endeavour to seek it out: that divine secret must ever to man be an humbling darkness. It is enough for him to know that there is that within him which is ever answering to that without, as life to life,—which must be life, and which must be true.
We proceed now to the third characteristic. It has already been stated, in the general definition, what we would be understood to mean by the term Invention, in its particular relation to Art; namely, any unpractised mode of presenting a subject, whether by the combination of forms already known, or by the union and modification of known but fragmentary parts into a new and consistent whole: in both cases tested by the two preceding characteristics.
We shall consider first that division of the subject which stands first in order,--the Invention which consists in the new combination of known forms. This may be said to be governed by its exclusive relation either to what is, or has been, or, when limited by the probable, to what strictly may be. It may therefore be distinguished by the term Natural. But though we so name it, inasmuch as all its forms have their prototypes in the Actual, it must still be remembered that these existing forms do substantially constitute no more than mere parts to be combined into a whole, for which Nature has provided no original. For examples in this, the most comprehensive class, we need not refer to any particular school; they are to be found in all and in every gallery: from the histories of Raffaelle, the landscapes of Claude and Poussin and others, to the familiar scenes of Jan Steen, Ostade, and Brower. In each of these an adherence to the actual, if not strictly observed, is at least supposed in all its parts; not so in the whole, as that relates to the probable; by which we mean such a result as would be true, were the same combination to occur in nature. Nor must we be understood to mean, by adherence to the actual, that one part is to be taken for an exact portrait; we mean only such an imitation as precludes an intentional deviation from already existing and known forms.
It must be very obvious, that, in classing together any of the productions of the artists above named, it cannot be intended to reduce them to a level; such an attempt (did our argument require it) must instantly revolt the common sense and feeling of every one at all acquainted with Art. And therefore, perhaps, it may be thought that their striking difference, both in kind and degree, might justly call for some further division. But admitting, as all must, a wide, nay, almost impassable, interval between the familiar subjects of the lower Dutch and Flemish painters, and the higher intellectual works of the great Italian masters, we see no reason why they may not be left to draw their own line of demarcation as to their respective provinces, even as is every day done by actual objects; which are all equally natural, though widely differenced as well in kind as in quality. It is no degradation to the greatest genius to say of him and of the most unlettered boor, that they are both men.
Besides, as a more minute division would be wholly irrelevant to the present purpose, we shall defer the examination of their individual differences to another occasion. In order, however, more distinctly to exhibit their common ground of Invention, we will briefly examine a picture by Ostade, and then compare it with one by Raffaelle, than whom no two artists could well be imagined having less in common.
The interior of a Dutch cottage forms the scene of Ostade's work, presenting something between a kitchen and a stable. Its principal object is the carcass of a hog, newly washed and hung up to dry; subordinate to which is a woman nursing an infant; the accessories, various garments, pots, kettles, and other culinary utensils.
The bare enumeration of these coarse materials would naturally predispose the mind of one, unacquainted with the Dutch school, to expect any thing but pleasure; indifference, not to say disgust, would seem to be the only possible impression from a picture composed of such ingredients. And such, indeed, would be their effect under the hand of any but a real Artist. Let us look into the picture and follow Ostade's mind, as it leaves its impress on the several objects. Observe how he spreads his principal light, from the suspended carcass to the surrounding objects, moulding it, so to speak, into agreeable shapes, here by extending it to a bit of drapery, there to an earthen pot; then connecting it, by the flash from a brass kettle, with his second light, the woman and child; and again turning the eye into the dark recesses through a labyrinth of broken chairs, old baskets, roosting fowls, and bits of straw, till a glimpse of sunshine, from a half-open window, gleams on the eye, as it were, like an echo, and sending it back to the principal object, which now seems to act on the mind as the luminous source of all these diverging lights. But the magical whole is not yet completed; the mystery of color has been called in to the aid of light, and so subtly blends that we can hardly separate them; at least, until their united effect has first been felt, and after we have begun the process of cold analysis. Yet even then we cannot long proceed before we find the charm returning; as we pass from the blaze of light on the carcass, where all the tints of the prism seem to be faintly subdued, we are met on its borders by the dark harslet, glowing like rubies; then we repose awhile on the white cap and kerchief of the nursing mother; then we are roused again by the flickering strife of the antagonist colors on a blue jacket and red petticoat; then the strife is softened by the low yellow of a straw-bottomed chair; and thus with alternating excitement and repose do we travel through the picture, till the scientific explorer loses the analyst in the unresisting passiveness of a poetic dream. Now all this will no doubt appear to many, if not absurd, at least exaggerated: but not so to those who have ever felt the sorcery of color. They, we are sure, will be the last to question the character of the feeling because of the ingredients which worked the spell, and, if true to themselves, they must call it poetry. Nor will they consider it any disparagement to the all-accomplished Raffaelle to say of Ostade that he also was an Artist.
The Death of Ananias (1515)
We turn now to a work of the great Italian,—the Death of Ananias. The scene is laid in a plain apartment, which is wholly devoid of ornament, as became the hall of audience of the primitive Christians. The Apostles (then eleven in number) have assembled to transact the temporal business of the Church, and are standing together on a slightly elevated platform, about which, in various attitudes, some standing, others kneeling, is gathered a promiscuous assemblage of their new converts, male and female. This quiet assembly (for we still feel its quietness in the midst of the awful judgment) is suddenly roused by the sudden fall of one of their brethren; some of them turn and see him struggling in the agonies of death. A moment before he was in the vigor of life,—as his muscular limbs still bear evidence; but he had uttered a falsehood, and an instant after his frame is convulsed from head to foot. Nor do we doubt for a moment as to the awful cause: it is almost expressed in voice by those nearest to him, and, though varied by their different temperaments, by terror, astonishment, and submissive faith, this voice has yet but one meaning,--"Ananias has lied to the Holy Ghost." The terrible words, as if audible to the mind, now direct us to him who pronounced his doom, and the singly-raised finger of the Apostle marks him the judge; yet not of himself,—for neither his attitude, air, nor expression has any thing in unison with the impetuous Peter,—he is now the simple, passive, yet awful instrument of the Almighty: while another on the right, with equal calmness, though with more severity, by his elevated arm, as beckoning to judgment, anticipates the fate of the entering Sapphira. Yet all is not done; lest a question remain, the Apostle on the left confirms the judgment. No one can mistake what passes within him; like one transfixed in adoration, his uplifted eyes seem to ray out his soul, as if in recognition of the divine tribunal. But the overpowering thought of Omnipotence is now tempered by the human sympathy of his companion, whose open hands, connecting the past with the present, seem almost to articulate, "Alas, my brother!" By this exquisite turn, we are next brought to John, the gentle almoner of the Church, who is dealing out their portions to the needy brethren. And here, as most remote from the judged Ananias, whose suffering seems not yet to have reached it, we find a spot of repose,--not to pass by, but to linger upon, till we feel its quiet influence diffusing itself over the whole mind; nay, till, connecting it with the beloved Disciple, we find it leading us back through the exciting scene, modifying even our deepest emotions with a kindred tranquillity.
This is Invention; we have not moved a step through the picture but at the will of the Artist. He invented the chain which we have followed, link by link, through every emotion, assimilating many into one; and this is the secret by which he prepared us, without exciting horror, to contemplate the struggle of mortal agony.
This too is Art; and the highest art, when thus the awful power, without losing its character, is tempered, as it were, to our mysterious desires. In the work of Ostade, we see the same inventive power, no less effective, though acting through the medium of the humblest materials.
We have now exhibited two pictures, and by two painters who may be said to stand at opposite poles. And yet, widely apart as are their apparent stations, they are nevertheless tenants of the same ground, namely, actual nature; the only difference being, that one is the sovereign of the purely physical, the other of the moral and intellectual, while their common medium is the catholic ground of the imagination.
We do not fear either skeptical demur or direct contradiction, when we assert that the imagination is as much the medium of the homely Ostade, as of the refined Raffaelle. For what is that, which has just wrapped us as in a spell when we entered his humble cottage,—which, as we wandered through it, invested the coarsest object with a strange charm? Was it the truth of these objects that we there acknowledged? In part, certainly, but not simply the truth that belongs to their originals; it was the truth of his own individual mind superadded to that of nature, nay, clothed upon besides by his imagination, imbuing it with all the poetic hues which float in the opposite regions of night and day, and which only a poet can mingle and make visible in one pervading atmosphere. To all this our own minds, our own imaginations, respond, and we pronounce it true to both. We have no other rule, and well may the artists of every age and country thank the great Lawgiver that there is no other. The despised feeling which the schools have scouted is yet the mother of that science of which they vainly boast. But of this we may have more to say in another place.
We shall now ascend from the probable to the possible, to that branch of Invention whose proper office is from the known but fragmentary to realize the unknown; in other words, to embody the possible, having its sphere of action in the world of Ideas. To this class, therefore, may properly be assigned the term Ideal.
And here, as being its most important scene, it will be necessary to take a more particular view of the verifying principle, the agent, so to speak, that gives reality to the inward, when outwardly manifested.
Now, whether we call this Human or Poetic Truth, or inward life, it matters not; we know by its effects, (as we have already said, and we now repeat,) that some such principle does exist, and that it acts upon us, and in a way analogous to the operation of that which we call truth and life in the world about us. And that the cause of this analogy is a real affinity between the two powers seems to us confirmed, not only positively by this acknowledged fact, but also negatively by the absence of the effect above mentioned in all those productions of the mind which we pronounce unnatural. It is therefore in effect, or quoad ourselves, both truth and life, addressed, if we may use the expression, to that inscrutable instinct of the imagination which conducts us to the knowledge of all invisible realities.
A distinct apprehension of the reality and of the office of this important principle, we cannot but think, will enable us to ascertain with some degree of precision, at least so far as relates to art, the true limits of the Possible,—the sphere, as premised, of Ideal Invention.
As to what some have called our creative powers, we take it for granted that no correct thinker has ever applied such expressions literally. Strictly speaking, we can make nothing: we can only construct. But how vast a theatre is here laid open to the constructive powers of the finite creature; where the physical eye is permitted to travel for millions and millions of miles, while that of the mind may, swifter than light, follow out the journey, from star to star, till it falls back on itself with the humbling conviction that the measureless journey is then but begun! It is needless to dwell on the immeasurable mass of materials which a world like this may supply to the Artist.
The very thought of its vastness darkens into wonder. Yet how much deeper the wonder, when the created mind looks into itself, and contemplates the power of impressing its thoughts on all things visible; nay, of giving the likeness of life to things inanimate; and, still more marvellous, by the mere combination of words or colors, of evolving into shape its own Idea, till some unknown form, having no type in the actual, is made to seem to us an organized being. When such is the result of any unknown combination, then it is that we achieve the Possible. And here the Realizing Principle may strictly be said to prove itself.
That such an effect should follow a cause which we know to be purely imaginary, supposes, as we have said, something in ourselves which holds, of necessity, a predetermined relation to every object either outwardly existing or projected from the mind, which we thus recognize as true. If so, then the Possible and the Ideal are convertible terms; having their existence, ab initio, in the nature of the mind. The soundness of this inference is also supported negatively, as just observed, by the opposite result, as in the case of those fantastic combinations, which we sometimes meet with both in Poetry and Painting, and which we do not hesitate to pronounce unnatural, that is, false.
And here we would not be understood as implying the preëxistence of all possible forms, as so many patterns, but only of that constructive Power which imparts its own Truth to the unseen real, and, under certain conditions, reflects the image or semblance of its truth on all things imagined; and which must be assumed in order to account for the phenomena presented in the frequent coincident effect between the real and the feigned. Nor does the absence of consciousness in particular individuals, as to this Power in themselves, fairly affect its universality, at least potentially: since by the same rule there would be equal ground for denying the existence of any faculty of the mind which is of slow or gradual developement; all that we may reasonably infer in such cases is, that the whole mind is not yet revealed to itself. In some of the greatest artists, the inventive powers have been of late developement; as in Claude, and the sculptor Falconet. And can any one believe that, while the latter was hewing his master's marble, and the former making pastry, either of them was conscious of the sublime Ideas which afterwards took form for the admiration of the world? When Raffaelle, then a youth, was selected to execute the noble works which now live on the walls of the Vatican, "he had done little or nothing," says Reynolds, "to justify so high a trust." Nor could he have been certain, from what he knew of himself, that he was equal to the task. He could only hope to succeed; and his hope was no doubt founded on his experience of the progressive developement of his mind in former efforts; rationally concluding, that the originally seeming blank from which had arisen so many admirable forms was still teeming with others, that only wanted the occasion, or excitement, to come forth at his bidding.
To return to that which, as the interpreting medium of his thoughts and conceptions, connects the artist with his fellow-men, we remark, that only on the ground of some self-realizing power, like what we have termed Poetic Truth, could what we call the Ideal ever be intelligible.
That some such power is inherent and fundamental in our nature, though differenced in individuals by more or less activity, seems more especially confirmed in this latter branch of the subject, where the phenomena presented are exclusively of the Possible. Indeed, we cannot conceive how without it there could ever be such a thing as true Art; for what might be received as such in one age might also be overruled in the next: as we know to be the case with most things depending on opinion. But, happily for Art, if once established on this immutable base, there it must rest: and rest unchanged, amidst the endless fluctuations of manners, habits, and opinions; for its truth of a thousand years is as the truth of yesterday. Hence the beings described by Homer, Shakspeare, and Milton are as true to us now, as the recent characters of Scott. Nor is it the least characteristic of this important Truth, that the only thing needed for its full reception is simply its presence,--being its own evidence.
How otherwise could such a being as Caliban ever be true to us? We have never seen his race; nay, we knew not that such a creature could exist, until he started upon us from the mind of Shakspeare. Yet who ever stopped to ask if he were a real being? His existence to the mind is instantly felt;--not as a matter of faith, but of fact, and a fact, too, which the imagination cannot get rid of if it would, but which must ever remain there, verifying itself, from the first to the last moment of consciousness. From whatever point we view this singular creature, his reality is felt. His very language, his habits, his feelings, whenever they recur to us, are all issues from a living thing, acting upon us, nay, forcing the mind, in some instances, even to speculate on his nature, till it finds itself classing him in the chain of being as the intermediate link between man and the brute. And this we do, not by an ingenious effort, but almost by involuntary induction; for we perceive speech and intellect, and yet without a soul. What but an intellectual brute could have uttered the imprecations of Caliban? They would not be natural in man, whether savage or civilized. Hear him, in his wrath against Prospero and Miranda:
"A wicked dew as e'er my mother brushed
With raven's feather from unwholesome fen,
Light on you both!"
The wild malignity of this curse, fierce as it is, yet wants the moral venom, the devilish leaven, of a consenting spirit: it is all but human.
To this we may add a similar example, from our own art, in the Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Who can look at this exquisite little creature, seated on its toadstool cushion, and not acknowledge its prerogative of life,—that mysterious influence which in spite of the stubborn understanding masters the mind,--sending it back to days long past, when care was but a dream, and its most serious business a childish frolic? But we no longer think of childhood as the past, still less as an abstraction; we see it embodied before us, in all its mirth and fun and glee; and the grave man becomes again a child, to feel as a child, and to follow the little enchanter through all his wiles and never-ending labyrinth of pranks. What can be real, if that is not which so takes us out of our present selves, that the weight of years falls from us as a garment,—that the freshness of life seems to begin anew, and the heart and the fancy, resuming their first joyous consciousness, to launch again into this moving world, as on a sunny sea, whose pliant waves yield to the touch, yet, sparkling and buoyant, carry them onward in their merry gambols? Where all the purposes of reality are answered, if there be no philosophy in admitting, we see no wisdom in disputing it.
Of the immutable nature of this peculiar Truth, we have a like instance in the Farnese Hercules; the work of the Grecian sculptor Glycon,—we had almost said his immortal offspring. Since the time of its birth, cities and empires, even whole nations, have disappeared, giving place to others, more or less barbarous or civilized; yet these are as nothing to the countless revolutions which have marked the interval in the manners, habits, and opinions of men. Is it reasonable, then, to suppose that any thing not immutable in its nature could possibly have withstood such continual fluctuation? But how have all these changes affected this visible image of Truth? In no wise; not a jot; and because what is true is independent of opinion: it is the same to us now as it was to the men of the dust of antiquity. The unlearned spectator of the present day may not, indeed, see in it the Demigod of Greece; but he can never mistake it for a mere exaggeration of the human form; though of mortal mould, he cannot doubt its possession of more than mortal powers; he feels its essential life, for he feels before it as in the stirring presence of a superior being.
Perhaps the attempt to give form and substance to a pure Idea was never so perfectly accomplished as in this wonderful figure. Who has ever seen the ocean in repose, in its awful sleep, that smooths it like glass, yet cannot level its unfathomed swell? So seems to us the repose of this tremendous personification of strength: the laboring eye heaves on its slumbering sea of muscles, and trembles like a skiff as it passes over them: but the silent intimations of the spirit beneath at length become audible; the startled imagination hears it in its rage, sees it in motion, and sees its resistless might in the passive wrecks that follow the uproar. And this from a piece of marble, cold, immovable, lifeless! Surely there is that in man, which the senses cannot reach, nor the plumb of the understanding sound.
Let us turn now to the Apollo called Belvedere. In this supernal being, the human form seems to have been assumed as if to make visible the harmonious confluence of the pure ideas of grace, fleetness, and majesty; nor do we think it too fanciful to add celestial splendor; for such, in effect, are the thoughts which crowd, or rather rush, into the mind on first beholding it. Who that saw it in what may be called the place of its glory, the Gallery of Napoleon, ever thought of it as a man, much less as a statue; but did not feel rather as if the vision before him were of another world,—of one who had just lighted on the earth, and with a step so ethereal, that the next instant he would vault into the air? If I may be permitted to recall the impression which it made on myself, I know not that I could better describe it than as a sudden intellectual flash, filling the whole mind with light,--and light in motion. It seemed to the mind what the first sight of the sun is to the senses, as it emerges from the ocean; when from a point of light the whole orb at once appears to bound from the waters, and to dart its rays, as by a visible explosion, through the profound of space. But, as the deified Sun, how completely is the conception verified in the thoughts that follow the effulgent original and its marble counterpart! Perennial youth, perennial brightness, follow them both. Who can imagine the old age of the sun? As soon may we think of an old Apollo. Now all this may be ascribed to the imagination of the beholder. Granted,—yet will it not thus be explained away. For that is the very faculty addressed by every work of Genius,—whose nature is suggestive; and only when it excites to or awakens congenial thoughts and emotions, filling the imagination with corresponding images, does it attain its proper end. The false and the commonplace can never do this.
It were easy to multiply similar examples; the bare mention of a single name in modern art might conjure up a host,—the name of Michael Angelo, the mighty sovereign of the Ideal, than whom no one ever trod so near, yet so securely, the dizzy brink of the Impossible.
Of Unity, the fourth and last characteristic, we shall say but little; for we know in truth little or nothing of the law which governs it: indeed, all that we know but amounts to this,—that, wherever existing, it presents to the mind the Idea of a Whole,—which is itself a mystery. For what answer can we give to the question, What is a Whole? If we reply, That which has neither more nor less than it ought to have, we do not advance a step towards a definite notion; for the rule (if there be one) is yet undiscovered, by which to measure either the too much or the too little. Nevertheless, incomprehensible as it certainly is, it is what the mind will not dispense with in a work of Art; nay, it will not concede even a right to the name to any production where this is wanting. Nor is it a sound objection, that we also receive pleasure from many things which seem to us fragmentary; for instance, from actual views in Nature,—as we shall hope to show in another place. It is sufficient at present, that, in relation to Art, the law of the imagination demands a whole; in order to which not a single part must be felt to be wanting; all must be there, however imperfectly rendered; nay, such is the craving of this active faculty, that, be they but mere hints, it will often fill them out to the desired end; the only condition being, that the part hinted be founded in truth. It is well known to artists, that a sketch, consisting of little more than hints, will frequently produce the desired effect, and by the same means,—the hints being true so far as expressed, and without an hiatus. But let the artist attempt to finish his sketch, that is, to fill out the parts, and suppose him deficient in the necessary skill, the consequence must be, that the true hints, becoming transformed to elaborate falsehoods, will be all at variance, while the revolted imagination turns away with disgust. Nor is this a thing of rare occurrence: indeed, he is a most fortunate artist, who has never had to deplore a well-hinted whole thus reduced to fragments.
These are facts; from which we may learn, that with less than a whole, either already wrought, or so indicated that the excited imagination can of itself complete it, no genuine response will ever be given to any production of man. And we learn from it also this twofold truth; first, that the Idea of a Whole contains in itself a preëxisting law; and, secondly, that Art, the peculiar product of the Imagination, is one of its true and predetermined ends.
As to its practical application, it were fruitless to speculate. It applies itself, even as truth, both in action and reaction, verifying itself: and our minds submit, as if it had said, There is nothing wanting; so, in the converse, its dictum is absolute when it announces a deficiency.
To return to the objection, that we often receive pleasure from many things in Nature which seem to us fragmentary, we observe, that nothing in Nature can be fragmentary, except in the seeming, and then, too, to the understanding only,--to the feelings never; for a grain of sand, no less than a planet, being an essential part of that mighty whole which we call the universe, cannot be separated from the Idea of the world without a positive act of the reflective faculties, an act of volition; but until then even a grain of sand cannot cease to imply it. To the mere understanding, indeed, even the greatest extent of actual objects which the finite creature can possibly imagine must ever fall short of the vast works of the Creator. Yet we nevertheless can, and do, apprehend the existence of the universe. Now we would ask here, whether the influence of a real,--and the epithet here is not unimportant,—whether the influence of a real Whole is at no time felt without an act of consciousness, that is, without thinking of a whole. Is this impossible? Is it altogether out of experience? We have already shown (as we think) that no unmodified copy of actual objects, whether single or multifarious, ever satisfies the imagination,--which imperatively demands a something more, or at least different. And yet we often find that the very objects from which these copies are made do satisfy us. How and why is this? A question more easily put than answered. We may suggest, however, what appears to us a clew, that in abler hands may possibly lead to its solution; namely, the fact, that, among the innumerable emotions of a pleasurable kind derived from the actual, there is not one, perhaps, which is strictly confined to the objects before us, and which we do not, either directly or indirectly, refer to something beyond and not present. Now have we at all times a distinct consciousness of the things referred to? Are they not rather more often vague, and only indicated in some undefined feeling? Nay, is its source more intelligible where the feeling is more definite, when taking the form of a sense of harmony, as from something that diffuses, yet deepens, unbroken in its progress through endless variations, the melody as it were of the pleasurable object? Who has never felt, under certain circumstances, an expansion of the heart, an elevation of mind, nay, a striving of the whole being to pass its limited bounds, for which he could find no adequate solution in the objects around him,—the apparent cause? Or who can account for every mood that thralls him,—at times like one entranced in a dream by airs from Paradise,—at other times steeped in darkness, when the spirit of discord seems to marshal his every thought, one against another?
Whether it be that the Living Principle, which permeates all things throughout the physical world, cannot be touched in a single point without conducting to its centre, its source, and confluence, thus giving by a part, though obscurely and indefinitely, a sense of the whole,—we know not. But this we may venture to assert, and on no improbable ground,—that a ray of light is not more continuously linked in its luminous particles than our moral being with the whole moral universe. If this be so, may it not give us, in a faint shadowing at least, some intimation of the many real, though unknown relations, which everywhere surround and bear upon us? In the deeper emotions, we have, sometimes, what seems to us a fearful proof of it. But let us look at it negatively; and suppose a case where this chain is broken,—of a human being who is thus cut off from all possible sympathies, and shut up, as it were, in the hopeless solitude of his own mind. What is this horrible avulsion, this impenetrable self-imprisonment, but the appalling state of despair? And what if we should see it realized in some forsaken outcast, and hear his forlorn cry, "Alone! alone!" while to his living spirit that single word is all that is left him to fill the blank of space? In such a state, the very proudest autocrat would yearn for the sympathy of the veriest wretch.
It would seem, then, since this living cement which is diffused through nature, binding all things in one, so that no part can be contemplated that does not, of necessity, even though unconsciously to us, act on the mind with reference to the whole,—since this, as we find, cannot be transferred to any copy of the actual, it must needs follow, if we would imitate Nature in its true effects, that recourse must be had to another, though similar principle, which shall so pervade our production as to satisfy the mind with an efficient equivalent. Now, in order to this there are two conditions required: first, the personal modification, (already discussed) of every separate part,—which may be considered as its proper life; and, secondly, the uniting of the parts by such an interdependence that they shall appear to us as essential, one to another, and all to each. When this is done, the result is a whole. But how do we obtain this mutual dependence? We refer the questioner to the law of Harmony,—that mysterious power, which is only apprehended by its imperative effect.
But, be the above as it may, we know it to be a fact, that, whilst nothing in Nature ever affects us as fragmentary, no unmodified copy of her by man is ever felt by us as otherwise.
We have thus—and, we trust, on no fanciful ground--endeavoured to establish the real and distinctive character of Art. And, if our argument be admitted, it will be found to have brought us to the following conclusions:—first, that the true ground of all originality lies in the individualizing law, that is, in that modifying power, which causes the difference between man and man as to their mental impressions; secondly, that only in a true reproduction consists its evidence; thirdly, that in the involuntary response from other minds lies the truth of the evidence; fourthly, that in order to this response there must therefore exist some universal kindred principle, which is essential to the human mind, though widely differenced in the degree of its activity in different individuals; and finally, that this principle, which we have here denominated Human or Poetic Truth, being independent both of the will and of the reflective faculties, is in its nature imperative, to affirm or deny, in relation to every production pretending to Art, from the simple imitation of the actual to the probable, and from the probable to the possible;—in one word, that the several characteristics, Originality, Poetic Truth, Invention, each imply a something not inherent in the objects imitated, but which must emanate alone from the mind of the Artist.
And here it may be well to notice an apparent objection, that will probably occur to many, especially among painters. How, then, they may ask, if the principle in question be universal and imperative, do we account for the mistakes which even great Artists have sometimes made as to the realizing of their conceptions? We hope to show, that, so far from opposing, the very fact on which the objection is grounded will be found, on the contrary, to confirm our doctrine. Were such mistakes uniformly permanent, they might, perhaps, have a rational weight; but that this is not the case is clearly evident from the additional fact of the change in the Artist's judgment, which almost invariably follows any considerable interval of time. Nay, should a case occur where a similar mistake is never rectified,—which is hardly probable,—we might well consider it as one of those exceptions that prove the rule,—of which we have abundant examples in other relations, where a true principle is so feebly developed as to be virtually excluded from the sphere of consciousness, or, at least, where its imperfect activity is for all practical purposes a mere nullity. But, without supposing any mental weakness, the case may be resolved by the no less formidable obstacle of a too inveterate memory: and there have been such,—where a thought or an image once impressed is never erased. In Art it is certainly an advantage to be able sometimes to forget. Nor is this a new notion; for Horace, it seems, must have had the same, or he would hardly have recommended so long a time as nine years for the revision of a poem. That Titian also was not unaware of the advantage of forgetting is recorded by Boschini, who relates, that, during the progress of a work, he was in the habit of occasionally turning it to the wall, until it had somewhat faded from his memory, so that, on resuming his labor, he might see with fresh eyes; when (to use his expression) he would criticize the picture with as much severity as his worst enemy. If, instead of the picture on the canvas, Boschini had referred to that in his mind, as what Titian sought to forget, he would have been, as we think, more correct. This practice is not uncommon with Artists, though few, perhaps, are aware of its real object.
It has doubtless the appearance of a singular anomaly in the judgment, that it should not always be as correct in relation to our own works as to those of another. Yet nothing is more common than perfect truth in the one case, and complete delusion in the other. Our surprise, however, would be sensibly diminished, if we considered that the reasoning or reflective faculties have nothing to do with either case. It is the Principle of which we have been speaking, the life, or truth within, answering to the life, or rather its sign, before us, that here sits in judgment. Still the question remains unanswered; and again we are asked, Why is it that our own works do not always respond with equal veracity? Simply because we do not always see them,—that is, as they are,—but, looking as it were through them, see only their originals in the mind; the mind here acting, instead of being acted upon. And thus it is, that an Artist may suppose his conception realized, while that which gave life to it in his mind is outwardly wanting. But let time erase, as we know it often does, the mental image, and its embodied representative will then appear to its author as it is,—true or false. There is one case, however, where the effect cannot deceive; namely, where it comes upon us as from a foreign source; where our own seems no longer ours. This, indeed, is rare; and powerful must be the pictured Truth, that, as soon as embodied, shall thus displace its own original.
Nor does it in any wise affect the essential nature of the Principle in question, or that of the other Characteristics, that the effect which follows is not always of a pleasurable kind; it may even be disagreeable. What we contend for is simply its reality; the character of the perception, like that of every other truth, depending on the individual character of the percipient. The common truth of existence in a living person, for instance, may be to us either a matter of interest or indifference, nay, even of disgust. So also may it be with what is true in Art. Temperament, ignorance, cultivation, vulgarity, and refinement have all, in a greater or less degree, an influence in our impressions; so that any reality may be to us either an offence or a pleasure, yet still a reality. In Art, as in Nature, the True is imperative, and must be felt, even where a timid, a proud, or a selfish motive refuses to acknowledge it.
These last remarks very naturally lead us to another subject, and one of no minor importance; we mean, the education of an Artist; on this, however, we shall at present add but a few words. We use the word education in its widest sense, as involving not only the growth and expansion of the intellect, but a corresponding developement of the moral being; for the wisdom of the intellect is of little worth, if it be not in harmony with the higher spiritual truth. Nor will a moderate, incidental cultivation suffice to him who would become a great Artist. He must sound no less than the full depths of his being ere he is fitted for his calling; a calling in its very condition lofty, demanding an agent by whom, from the actual, living world, is to be wrought an imagined consistent world of Art,—not fantastic, or objectless, but having a purpose, and that purpose, in all its figments, a distinct relation to man's nature, and all that pertains to it, from the humblest emotion to the highest aspiration; the circle that bounds it being that only which bounds his spirit,--even the confines of that higher world, where ideal glimpses of angelic forms are sometimes permitted to his sublimated vision. Art may, in truth, be called the human world; for it is so far the work of man, that his beneficent Creator has especially endowed him with the powers to construct it; and, if so, surely not for his mere amusement, but as a part (small though it be) of that mighty plan which the Infinite Wisdom has ordained for the evolution of the human spirit; whereby is intended, not alone the enlargement of his sphere of pleasure, but of his higher capacities of adoration;—as if, in the gift, he had said unto man, Thou shalt know me by the powers I have given thee. The calling of an Artist, then, is one of no common responsibility; and it well becomes him to consider at the threshold, whether he shall assume it for high and noble purposes, or for the low and licentious.