In the production of a work of art of either kind, there are two efforts to be accomplished which are in their nature wholly distinct and independent. 1. The object or subject to be delineated is conceived in the mind of the artist. 2. It is executed or completed according to the conception of it.
Unless the first is done adequately, the second is of little avail. Many are able to effect the second who are incompetent to perform the first, and many effect the first who are unable completely to perform the second. The conception may, however, in most cases be expected to exceed the performance, inasmuch as the efforts of the mind are considerably more active and more extensive than those of the body.
Different persons differ, of course, very much, both as to the actual nature of the ideal of perfection which they form in their minds, respecting which they may be influenced by character, taste, habit, and many causes; and also as to the extent to which their ideal of perfection is carried. Nor is this limit, as regards the ideal of perfection, stationary in any one mind ; but, on the contrary, it rises higher and higher according as he advances in cultivation, and as his taste is expanded and improved.
Perfection in human works must, indeed, almost always be relative instead of absolute. Even where we suppose it to be absolute, it is regulated and limited by the capacity of our minds to form ideas of perfection, and is merely in relation to the highest idea of it which they can produce. In general, and, indeed, in almost all cases, perfection has direct reference to the degrees of it which have been attained by other efforts or works with which we compare the subject of our criticism. In this sense, the Elgin Marbles may be said to be absolutely perfect, as reaching the highest standard which our minds have formed. Other works are only relatively perfect, being perfect in comparison with other efforts of the same class.
The union should, moreover, be as close, as absolute, and as imperceptible from its intimacy, between conception and execution in a picture, as between soul and body in a living man; the one imparting intellect and vitality to the material portion of his being, the other affording substance and reality to that part of him which is immaterial and invisible. The two should be blended together so as to form one individual production, but which is rendered imperfect by the absence of either of these essential portions of its being, and is equally dependent upon both of them for existing in a complete and efficient manner.
The true, proper, and legitimate course to be adopted in designing a pictorial work, so as to render it striking and effective as an intellectual effort, appears therefore to be not to commence the execution of it before the definite and entire conception of it is formed in the mind; but which many are apt to do, and to trust to chance for the accomplishment of their design. On the contrary, an imaginary picture of the whole subject should first be conjured up, which, when complete, should be sketched, and ultimately transferred to the canvas. It may, moreover, happen that we conceive very noble ideas of an object or scene, but represent it in a picture or poem in a manner very inferior to our conception of it ; which is owing to our not following out our own idea, but trusting to mere chance in the execution. We are dependent in such case not on the mind but on the hand. The value of high intellectual cultivation in order to conceive the design in the mode here stated, is of course of paramount importance. In the other arts, in poetry, in eloquence, in architecture, and in music, we frequently fail in a corresponding manner, in carrying out what we have conceived.
Indeed, not only a painter, but a sculptor as well, and above all an architect, as also a poet too, should conceive adequately and clearly in his mind the plan of the whole work, before he commences the embodiment of his ideas, even upon paper. By this means full range is allowed to his invention, and his genius is not fettered by any deficiency in manual skill, which may impede the correct impression of the image which it had designed.
It is not servile imitation even of nature, but original reproduction, at which the student of art, who aspires to soar high in his noble vocation, should ever aim. He should also study models of excellence, not for the mere purpose of copying them exactly, but in order to imbue his mind fully with the sublime ideas with which those were inspired who achieved these great works. When his own mind is saturated with these noble conceptions, and is trained to act as theirs was habitually wont to exert itself, he should endeavour to produce original efforts, rivalling, if not excelling these splendid masterpieces of art.
The grand axiom, indeed, which requires to be kept constantly in view for attaining excellence in all the arts is, that, as already inculcated, we ought never to be content with merely copying the models, however perfect, which are set before us, but our aim must be ultimately to exceed them. They serve well as guides to direct us to certain points; but we are not blindly to follow them, or to receive without examination all that they teach. We may imitate with advantage their peculiar excellences, while we correct the blemishes by which their beauties are obscured.
A really great work of art should, moreover, be calculated to please not only artists, but men unskilled in the technical principles of art. Rules, indeed, as already observed, are adapted, in most cases, not so much to ensure excellences as to prevent defects. They are rather mechanical than intellectual in their rank and nature. A work of art may be satisfactory to a mere artist from its strict conformity with the rules of art; but it may be wholly destitute of genius, as not possessing any merit beyond its consonance with these principles. On the other hand, it may be displeasing to a mere artist as violating certain rules, while it affords much pleasure to a man of taste and cultivation, from the genius and intellectuality that it displays. Shakespeare’s productions afford instances of the latter kind, and an ordinary prize poem may serve as an example of the former. In the approval, however, of a perfect work of art, principles of each class ought to be taken into account.
Shakspeare has, indeed, been cited as an example of the violation of certain rules of art, and yet as attaining the highest perfection in art which has ever been reached. But this, if it be true, proves not the propriety of dispensing with those rules, but the power and the splendour of that genius which could so burst through all ordinary trammels, and so dazzle the minds of his readers, that his defects are obscured by its glory. On the other hand, there is doubtless no writer who has afforded so copious and so complete an illustration of the use, and application, and value of rules of every variety for the regulation of art, as has Shakspeare.
The perfection of artistical design appears to be this: to unite, as we see in nature, with the freedom and with the absence of all apparent affectation and formality, a grace and energy and vigour, which a proper observance of the principles of art contributes largely to ensure. Our object must be, not to supersede nature, but to direct it to assume its own regular and most perfect form.
Some artists, like Leonardo da Vinci, conceive in their minds so high a standard of perfection, that they despair of ever attaining it. Others appear to have no standard of this sort, beyond that of a very humble order of mediocrity, and which consequently they have no difficulty in reaching, but which is hardly worth attaining. This remark is equally applicable to poets, and orators, and architects, and musicians, and to actors also, as it is to painters and sculptors.
Occasionally the subject to be represented in a work of art is so noble in its nature, as of itself to excite the sublimest ideas. At other times a matter of comparatively trivial importance forms the theme for an extremely effective artistical production. Indeed, the very barrenness of the subject or incident for a great picture, or poem, or oration, may occasionally serve more than anything else to prove the fertility of the artist’s genius. As fire is struck out of the dull rock, so some of the noblest efforts of art have been descriptive of very ordinary topics.