In the previous chapter we talked about beauty, and noted that there were two kindsbeauty in nature and beauty in art. Let us now look a little more closely into this distinction, so that we may grasp the idea of what a work of art is.
Since what the painter puts onto his canvas is visible to the eye, it will generally represent or suggest some form in nature. So the painter is a student of nature. But not in the same way as the botanist who studies the forms of trees and plants which grow above the ground, or the geologist who explores the secrets of the earth below the ground. These we call scientists or scientific students, because the object of their study is exact knowledge of nature. They ad-dress themselves directly to our intellects and teach us to know the facts of nature accurately ; but the painter appeals first to our sense of sight and helps us to feel more deeply the beauty of the visible world.
Unless we thoroughly grasp this difference we shall never properly understand what painters try to do, nor be able properly to enjoy their pictures.
So here, at the beginning of our talks together, let us look into this difference.
We have said that the painter represents or suggests some form in nature. Sometimes he represents the actual appearance of nature, as when he paints a portrait or a landscape. At other times he suggests the possible appearance of things, which he has never seen but only imagines, as the old Italian painters did when they made pictures of St. George, killing the dragon, or of Christ in the manger, with a choir of angels hovering above. They had never seen a dragon, but from their study of the lizard, which in hot countries like Italy may constantly be seen basking on the hot rocks or darting away at your approach, they imagined a form and painted it so that it suggests an actual creature. So, for their an-gels, they studied the forms and movement of children, as they ran and played, with hair and skirts streaming in the wind; also the wings and the flight of birds, and the appearance of the sky. Nature was, as it still remains, the artist’s teacher. Just in what way he learns of her and uses her lessons, I am going to try and show you. But first let me remind you that nature and art, though so close together that I have called them twin sisters, are quite separate. I do so because many people confuse them together. Frequently you will hear a person say of some view of nature that it is “beautiful as a picture.” Well, very likely it is, but as we shall see, not in the same way. Or some one will exclaim, as he stands in front of a picture, ” It looks like nature.” So it does; and yet it is not really like nature. Why both these remarks are in a small way true, but in the big sense not true, we shall discover, I hope, presently. Meanwhile, suppose we lay the book aside and look out of the window.
Are you living in the country or city ? In either case you are looking out at nature, as the painter understands the word. For, while we who are not painters, when we talk of nature, have in mind the earth and sky and water, and the living things that move therein, as beasts, birds, and fishes, and the forms that live but do not move, trees and flowers and seaweed, for example, and also the chief of living and moving creaturesman; the painter uses the word nature in a wider sense. With him it means everything outside himself, so that it includes things made by man : streets, buildings, chairs, and tablesthe thousand and one objects that man’s brain and handiwork have fashioned out of the materials of nature.
But you are waiting at the window, looking out, perhaps, upon a streeta row of buildings, many people on the sidewalks, carriages and carts, passing before your eyes; or else into the garden of your country home, with its trees and shrubs and flowers, and possibly a view of fields and hills and woods. In each case the woodwork of the window frames in the view. Move slowly backward and you will notice that the view grows smaller and smaller; advance again and the view spreads out farther and farther; step to the left and some of the view on that side disappears, but you will see more toward the other side. Imagine for a moment that the woodwork of the window is a picture frame and you are deciding how much of the outside view you will include in the picture. If you own a kodak and are in the habit of taking pictures, you move the camera or your position until the image in the ” finder ” seems to be about what you wish to photograph. Whether you thus use the ” finder ” or the window frame, you are selecting a bit of nature for a picture.
This should make clear to you one of the differences between nature and art. Nature extends in every direction all round the artist, an unending panorama from which he selects some little portion to form the subject of his work of art. But he carries his selection still farther, for even in the part of nature that he has selected there is so much more than he could ever put into his picture. Take an-other look out of the window. What a mass of de-tails the whole presents ! And, if we fix our eye on any one of its parts, it also is made up of a number of details. It would be impossible for the artist to paint them all. And so, also, if your view from the window is a country scene and you look at one object, that elm, for example. Do you think it would be possible for an artist to paint all the scales of the bark, all the spreading limbs, much less all the little branches and twigs and the countless leaves ?
As the artist cannot possibly paint everything, he must choose or select what he will leave out and what he will put in. Once more, the characteristic of art is selection, while that of nature is abundance. We talk of nature’s prodigality; we say that she is prodigal of her resources, flinging them around as a prodigal or wasteful man flings around his money. You know, for example, how the dandelion scatters its seeds broadcast over the lawn; how the daisies spread over the fields until the farmer calls them the ” white weed “; how the woods become choked with undergrowth and the trees overhead crowd one an-other with their tangle of branches. The lawns and fields must be continually weeded; the woods cleared and thinned. Man, in fact, when he brings nature under the work of his hand, is continually selecting what be shall weed out and what he shall let remain. And so the artist with the work of his handhis work of art.
Suppose we make believe that we are watching an artist as he begins his work of selection. The one over there, sitting under a big, white umbrella with his easel in front of him, will serve our turn. If he will let us look over his shoulder, we shall see that with a few strokes of charcoal upon his canvas he has already selected how much of the wide view in front of him he will include in his picture. It finishes, you see, on the right with a bit of that row of trees that stand against the sky, and on the left with that small bush, so that in between is a little bit of the winding road, with a meadow beyond dotted with cows. He has squeezed some of the paint from the tubes on to his palette, and takes up his brushes. Now watch him ” lay in,” as he would say, ” the local colors “; that is to say, the general color of each locality or part of the scene.
The general color of the sky is a faint blue; of the trees on the right, a grayish green; of the bush on the left, a deeper green; of the meadow, a yellowish green, while that of the road is a pinkish brown, for the soil of this part of the country, we will sup-pose, is red clay. All these local colors he lays in, covering each part with a flat layer of paint so that his canvas now presents a pattern of colored spaces. Yet already it begins to ” look like something.” We can see, as it were, the ground plan, on which the artist is going to build up his picture. But now he must stop, for his paints are mixed with oils and take some time to dry, and he cannot work over the paint while it is sticky.
A few days later we pay him another visit. He has been busy in our absence ;’ the picture looks to us to be finished, and we, begin to compare it with the natural scene in front of us. In nature those trees on the right stand so sharply against the sky that we can count their branches. Evidently the artist hasn’t, for in his picture he has left out a great many of them; indeed, he has put in only a few of the more prominent ones. See, too, how he has painted the trees ; he hasn’t put in a single leaf. Instead he has represented the foliage in masses, lighter in some parts where the sun strikes, darker in the shadows. When -we compare his trees with the real ones, they are not a bit the same, and yet the painted ones look all right; we can see at once that they are maples and in a general way very like the real ones.
The artist hears us talking, and he says : “My business, you see, is not to make real trees ; that’s nature’s business; I’m a maker of pictures, and in them I only suggest that the trees are real. I try to make you feel that these are maple trees “and he points to that part of the picture with his brush” and I hope also to make you feel their beauty. I don’t give you an imitation of nature, but a suggestion of nature’s truth.
” Now see,” he says, ” how I have painted those cows : just a few dabs of brownish red and black and white, showing against the green of the grass. Do they suggest cows to you? ” ” Yes,” we say in chorus.
” Well, I hope they do,” he replies, ” and that you don’t say `yes’ merely to please me. But if you had never seen a cow would you know from these dabs what a cow is really like ?
” I am sure you wouldn’t,” he goes on without waiting for an answer; “and if the farmer gave me a commission to paint his favorite prize cow, I am sure he wouldn’t be satisfied with these dabs. And I should not blame him. No, in that case I should place the cow where I could study it closely: the long, straight line of the back, the big angle of the hips, the strong-ribbed. carcass., and its covering of glossy hair, the mild liquid eyes, and damp nose. These and a great deal more I should paint, if I were near the cow. But look at those cows over yonder.
They are a long way off, and consequently look very small. I can’t see in them the different points that I know a cow has ; to my eyes from where I sit they look as I have painted them. For an artist does not paint what he knows to be there, but what he can see from here.
” Look,” he continues, picking up a tiny pointed brush. ” See what happens, when I paint what I know to be there!” And with quick, deft strokes he proceeds to sharpen the lines of the back of one of his cows in the picture, and give her four very decided legs; to hang a tail; and give her horns; and titivate the head, put in an eye and make the tongue curl round the muzzle.
” Why, it looks like a toy cow ! ” we exclaim. And so it does.
And now, instead of intruding any longer on our artist friend’s time, let us see where our visit to him has brought us.
We have noted that one difference between nature and art is, that nature is inexhaustible in her effects, and that an artist selects from her only some little part to make his work of art. Secondly, that he does not paint the whole of what he has selected, but out of it again selects certain parts ; sufficient not to imitate the original, but to suggest its appearance. Thirdly, that natural truth is not the same as artistic truth ; that while the scientific man studies one thing at a time so that he may know what is there, the artist tries to obtain an impression of the whole scene, and paints each part, of it, not as he knows it to be, but as he can see it from his fixed position.
By this time you can better understand that to say of nature ” It is as beautiful as a picture,” is a loose, way of talking. Nature is beautiful in the endless variety of its effects; a picture, for the one or two effects, choicely selected by the artist. And to say of a picture that it looks like nature is equally inaccurate, for the artist does not imitate nature but suggests it, which, as we have seen, is a very different thing.
However, I should tell you, that some painters do imitate nature. I have seen a picture in which the painter had represented a five-dollar bill, pinned on a board, and so accurately had he imitated the bill and the board that, until you were close to them and passed your hand over the flat canvas, you would not know it was a picture. And there is a story told of a Greek painter, Zeuxis, that he once imitated a bunch of grapes so exactly, that the birds flew down and pecked at it.
But, although it is a fact that a great many people think this exact imitation of nature a very fine thing, they do so because they have not seen many pictures or found out what a work of art really is. I am inclined to think that, by the time you have finished this book, if not sooner, you will look upon such examples of skill and patience as labor in vain, so far as art is concerned.
It is all very well for the conjurer to boast that the quickness of his hand deceives your eye. But the aim of the artist is not deception.