The riddle of Botticelli’s famous ” Primavera” (Spring), of which our detail shows The Three Graces,” is left unsolved in Rossetti’s charming sonnet:
“What masque of what old wind withered New Year? the Graces circling near, ‘Neath bower linked arch of white arms glorified “What mystery here is read Of homage or of hope? But how command Dead Springs to answer? And how question here These mummers of that wind withered New Year?”
In this symbolical picture, of which the allegory is, however, unknown, Botticelli is believed to have perpetuated the memory of Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci. This fair lady of the Medici Court, so tradition says, inspired Botticelli’s three allegorical pictures: “The Birth of Venus ” (Uffizi, Florence), “Mars and Venus ” (National Gallery, London), and that other facing this chapter, the pageant of ” Spring ” (Accademia, Florence). After painting these three beautiful scenes, it is surmised from the undraped Simonetta as his model, Botticelli painted no more from the nude. And Simonetta, who lived so little while longer, is further commemorated by Lorenzo de’ Medici: ” Night came, and I, with a friend most dear to me, went communing about the loss we had all suffered. While we spoke, the air being exceedingly serene, we turned our eyes to a star of surpassing brightness, which, towards the west, shone forth with such a luster as not only to conquer all the other stars, but even to cast a shadow from the objects that intercepted its light. We marveled at it for a while; and then, turning to my friend, I said:` There is no need for wonder, since the soul of that most gentle lady has either been transformed into yon new star or has joined herself to it.’ ”
It may be that Botticelli’s three pictures of Simonetta symbolize her life in youth, in love, and in marriage. In any event, Botticelli offers peculiarly fine illustrations of the principles of composition, always so perfectly understood and expressed by him.
Like Leonardo, Botticelli possessed the rare, gift of representing movement, rhythm, in his painting. This is, possibly, the first element of composition. It is the quality which gives life to painting. Everything else depends upon that. Art is not imitation of nature, even though painting must be expressed in an ordered arrangement of light and shade, of color and line. It is the rhythm of a picture which gives it unity; every object be-comes a harmonious part of the whole, it stands in distinct relation to the ensemble. As Millet said, ” A work should be all of a piece, and people and things should be there for an end.”
Some objects, of course, must be subordinated, while others are treated in a way to give them special interest. It may even happen that subjects of little importance or beauty in themselves, such as an ugly old woman, when seen through the loving eyes of the artist and painted with deft strokes of his magic brush, will ac-quire a new and wondrous value, so that one would fain sit all day and look at such pictures. This is true of the Frans Hals portraits, to which the painter gave marvelous life and character.
Composition depends, in the main, upon two things : the subject treated and the artist’s individuality; and further, the second is of much greater importance to the success of the picture than the first. The foundation of art, Ruskin maintains, is ” moral character. Of course art-gift and amiability of disposition are two different things ; for a good man is not necessarily a painter, nor does an eye for color necessarily imply an honest mind. But great art implies the union of both powers; it is the expression, by an art gift of a pure soul. If the gift is not there, we can have no art at all; and if the soul and a right soul, too is not there, the art is bad, however dexterous.”
In discussing this question with a class of students, they asked, ” But is it not true that artists have not always been moral? ” And the answer was developed, to which they assented, that the artist is not to be judged by conventional standards; that mere sex-morality does not cover the question, but further, that the artist must jealously guard his spiritual vision if he is to do truly great work.
Here Ruskin is again helpful: ” A great Idealist never can be egotistic. The whole of his power depends upon his loving sight and feeling of his own existence, and becoming a mere witness and mirror of truth, and a scribe of visions always passive in sight, passive in utterance, lamenting continually that he cannot completely reflect nor clearly utter all he has seen not by any means a proud state for a man to be in.” And furthermore: ” No vain or selfish person can possibly paint, in the noble sense of the word. Vanity and selfishness are troublous, eager, anxious, petulant: painting can only be done in calm of mind. No forced calm is enough. Only honest calm natural calm. . And lastly, no false person can paint. A person false at heart may, when it suits his purposes, seize a stray truth here or there; but the relations of truth, its perfectness, that which makes it wholesome truth, he can never perceive. . . You cannot find a lie; you must make it for yourself. False things may be imagined, and false things composed; but only truth can be invented.”
Dependent, therefore, though the picture is, upon light, shade, and atmosphere, it must have a yet deeper quality of the love of truth in the artist’s character. ” He who loves not God, nor his brother,” says Ruskin, once more, “cannot love the grass beneath his feet, nor the creatures which live not for his uses, filling those spaces in the universe which he needs not.”
This principle of art was clearly felt by Inness, who wrote, ” Rivers, streams, the rippling brook, hillsides, sky and cloud all things that we see will convey the sentiment of the highest art if we are in the love of God and the desire of truth.”
The need for the seeing eye in composition, and in the appreciation of pictures, as well, made a deep impression upon Whistler, differently as he and Ruskin viewed art. In the ” Ten o’Clock ” he pictures the holiday crowd going forth in the glaring light of a glorious London day, “while the painter turns aside to shut his eyes. . . . And when the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili, and the warehouses are palaces in the night, and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and fairy land is before us then the wayfarer hastens home; the workingman and the cultured one, the wise man and the one of pleasure, cease to understand, as they have ceased to see, and Nature, who, for once, has sung in tune, sings her exquisite song to the artist alone, her son and her master her son in that he loves her, her master in that he knows her.” And we all remember that it was this mystic twilight charm that Whistler loved to paint.
In studying the composition of a pic ture, then, one must be in a sympathetic attitude, accepting so far as possible the painter’s viewpoint and his feeling in making the study. Intelligent appreciation is much better than carping criticism, especially if one be a beginner in art-criticism. As Maeterlinck advises, ” Admiration, of all things in the world, is the most helpful to us.”
One must, however, carefully cultivate the taste by study, and by looking at the best pictures, and guard against accepting in art, as in life, the cheap, the popular, and the tawdry. It might be a good test to ask oneself what three great pictures one has seen. To a Romantic critic, the choice might be Raphael’s ” Madonna of the Chair,” in Florence; the so called ” Night Watch ” of Rembrandt in the Rijks Museum, Amsterdam, and in the British National Gallery Whistler’s ” Old Battersea Bridge,” with its London fog and mist and evening shadows. In the lines of drawing certain principles are expressed. First is the perpendicular, a line of dignity and severity, which characterizes the early Italian portraits. This is observable in those stiff primitive Madonnas ascribed to Cimabue, and in the later ones of his pupil Giotto painted, nevertheless, with all the adoration of the devotee.
The horizontal is the line of landscape; it suggests repose, solemnity. Compare the beautiful Inness, ” September Afternoon” (p. 116).
Third and last, mark the flowing or waving line used in the expression of beauty and grace. This is especially appropriate for the human figure, and a better example could scarcely be found than the Botticelli facing this chapter (p. Io), ” The Three Graces ” graceful indeed with the clinging yet flowing drapery, white arms arched upward, mobile limbs, and eloquent faces movement, grace, and beauty all combined.
In Italian works, especially the Madonna groups, we find the pyramidal composition, the Madonna at the apex, thus focusing attention. Another favorite form is the oval composition, or the circle, as in Raphael’s ” Madonna of the Chair,” or Botticelli’s ” Coronation of the Virgin,” called also ” The Madonna of the Magnificat.” The latter is also known as the ” Rose,” because its composition suggests the opening petals of a rose. Again, we observe the arch, as in Correggio’s well known ” Coronation of the Virgin.” And finally, the diamond shape, in which figure the picture of the Sistine Madonna is composed. This Raphael has been called, rather unanimously, the most beautiful picture in the world.
Landscape motives we may find in variety almost too numerous to name. There is in modern composition a freedom which was unknown to the earlier painters, bound, as they were, somewhat like the classic writers, by traditions of their art. It is well that modern art has thus emancipated itself, and perhaps this growth in freedom may be traced to Mil-let, as a conspicuous example of the reformer. His realistic-romantic painting, the so-called naturalistic-classical school, was at first rejected by eyes yet blinded with the unforgotten glamour of a vanished French court, but it came to be appreciated at length by popular judgment, which sometimes, in art as in poetry, sees more deeply than do the critics.
With Millet, and the Barbison School, began the modern freedom, significant in literature no less than in painting, and obvious in social life as well. This formerly beneficent movement was but just now about to become, unfortunately, in the erratic liberty and license of the post-impressionist and futurist schools, decidedly decadent, even degenerate, when, happily for art, and for literature equally, there opened in Europe the great modern war. Tragic though it seems, this struggle is destined to give us new and redeemed schools of painting and poetry, after the terrible conflict has ceased. Looking backward, we may see that such has been the result of previous strife. And, with Ruskin, ” when once you have learned how to spell these most precious of all legends, pictures and buildings, you may read the characters of men, and of nations, in their art, as in a mirror; nay, as in a microscope, and magnified a hundredfold; for the character becomes passionate in the art, and intensifies itself in all its noblest or meanest delights.”
To know what is bad in painting, is not difficult. Such pictures, like the architecture called ” Victorian,” show only too plainly the effects of poor composition, lack of unity, weak drawing or over-drawing, exaggerated coloring, and they are sure to want that feeling or sympathy which always marks the work of the true artist. Only glance at such poor models, however; do not let them destroy your perception of what is good.
In every town or city and how much more so in the country one may find always a truly beautiful scene-landscape, building, or picture. Study this well, and learn its elements of repose and strength, and you will be the better prepared to eliminate the weak and inferior, the badly drawn, the falsely colored, and the superficial.
But do not hasten to condemn because of differences of opinion. Even the judges are often nonplused in selecting the proper pictures for an exhibition. To a student asking his advice whether to submit his picture to the Academy, the English painter Millais replied, ” Certainly 1 by all means send it.” What was the young artist’s chagrin when it was rejected. He came again to Millais and asked, ” Why do you think they did not hang my picture? There are so many worse on the walls.” ” How can I tell? ” replied the master, almost fiercely. “They wouldn’t hang mine if I wasn’t a member.”
To guard against the sentimental in art, as in life, is another warning, for both critic and painter. Sentiment has been called the life and soul of fine art, but sentimentalism is quite a different thing, and always to be avoided. The sentimental represents, perhaps, the weakness of personality. Self-restraint in the artist is necessary, in order that his personal ego may not dominate the picture. Individuality is a strong quality and gives character to painting, but personality is essentially sentimentalism. One form of the sentimental is, attempting the Impossible. Can Art express man’s ideal of God the Father? The Infinite cannot be limited to finite form. On the other hand, what good object can be attained by picturing the gross, the vulgar, the animal, the sensational, in a word, the material?
Art can be true. only as it suggests the spiritual, the Infinite. As a well-known American woman painter says, in Art, the power of the senses is raised to the power of spirit.” And here is the crux of criticism, for if the spiritual vision be sufficiently great, the artist’s fingers must draw aright in picturing it, even as Fra Angelico painted his lovely Madonnas, in the old monastery of San Marco, in Florence, often on his knees. ” Science is to know, and Art to do.”
What of the medium oil, water color, crayon, charcoal, pen and ink in which the picture is expressed? It should be invisible; only the picture and its message should stand forth. Though this may not be true in all great pictures, it may be safely applied as a general principle of art criticism. In dress, the more perfect the clothing, the less attention it attracts; it serves only to emphasize the beauty of the individual.
To consider too closely the parts of a picture, without reference to the whole, is another fault in both critic and painter, The ensemble, the effect of unity, is the great impression to be given. ” Strength at the center, flexibility at the circumference,” says Miss Cecilia Beaux. Sketches are, therefore, often so pleasing, because ‘here is about them a large, free quality, full of suggestiveness, which the painter is in danger of losing if he at-tempt to complete the picture in too great detail.
In judging a picture, consider the epoch in art which produced it. Does it speak of the Renaissance, or is it from the nineteenth century? The religious age is characterized by a purity, a simplicity, and a sincerity, for which we must not look to-day, although it may be that tomorrow, when the new Idealism shall arise from the present stress, tomorrow, it may be, painting will return again to that early, but, alas! so long lost, truth.
As one studies pictures, one grows in appreciation of them and accumulates what Herbert Spencer calls ” a stock of maxims by which his practice is regulated. Trace such maxims to their roots, and they inevitably lead you down to psychological principles.” Perhaps they go even deeper, and arise from spiritual purposes within. Such rules of judgment come to be an inherent part of our training and experience. They cannot be learned by a brief course of reading; they must be gained as the result of intellectual and spiritual growth.
Art, perhaps more than any other expression of human emotion, makes a universal appeal. In Spencer’s view, surely an unbiased one in this province, Without painting, sculpture, music, poetry, and the emotions produced by natural beauty of every kind, life would lose half its charm. So far from regarding the training and gratification of the tastes as unimportant, we believe that in time to come they will occupy a much larger share in human life than now.”