Art For Art Sake – Part 3

The painting of today, you will thus observe, like the poetry, shows deep love for nature per se, independent of human association ; and whatsoever subject the artist may choose, be it landscape, genre, still-life, or figure-piece, if he be a true artist, he will prove himself the one to whom nature reveals her finer phases. For, as Mr. Whistler has said,

“He is her son and her master, her son in that he loves her, her master in that he knows her.” Her lover ever, he sees beauty in her countless forms and faces, in her myriad hues and colors, in her shifting moods and aspects, in her fraction of a part, in her unit of a whole. For him the heap of straw upon the barn-floor turns to gold in the sunlight, the china plate becomes luminous with light as the white sun seen through a mist, the rose is a wonder-harmony of the most delicately blended hues, the Sevres vase is a round, opalescent mirror, receiving and refracting a thousand tints and shades. For him fruit and silks and skies glow with color ; morning, noon, and twilight produce different atmospheres ; mountains, buildings, human beings, flow in graceful lines ; the sunlight falls like Danae ‘s golden shower ; the moonlight sleeps in silver across the land and sea. In nature—nature alone—he seeks his inspiration, and in studying her many works he discovers new and unknown features. Perhaps he sees a beauty in the falling rain, travelling over hill and valley ; in the wind, sweeping the foam on the crest of a breaker ; in the grayish-white effect of the dew on the grass in the early morning ; in the sudden rush of light up the heavens that comes with the rising moon ; in the burst of a sun-shaft through storm-clouds. If he does, why should he not paint it? To be sure such subjects and such ideas are not the greatest imaginable, but when artistically handled they should have more than a bric-a-brac interest for us. To have known genius is no good reason for despising simple talent ; nor is it worth while to discard one art because we happen to have been educated on another art. If we look at this modern art from a modern point of view and place ourselves en rapport with our time, we shall find it worthy of consideration. And it has not yet been concluded that these subjects form the outermost rim of the painter’s ideas.

The portrayal of such beauties of nature as may be found in weather-stained barns, vases, china plates, cloud-effects, and atmospheres make up one kind of art—perhaps the art most frequently met with—but it has not been said nor intimated that there was no other kind. There is something more than I have described, something more of idea, but not of the kind for which the “average per-son” sighs. The only limit thus far imposed upon painting is that its conceptions shall be pictorialIy beautiful. Within that boundary the range is wide enough for any genius, however great. The artist may paint the sunlight on the floor in his room, or the sun itself ; a pool in the street, or the great ocean ; a water-lily as La Farge, or a forest as Dupre ; the face of his wife as Rembrandt and Rubens, or the face of a madonna or a sibyl as Raphael and Michael Angelo. For ideas while being pictorially beautiful may be small or great, weak or powerful, commonplace or sublime. And this brings me to the brief consideration of another element of the modern picture. Heretofore we have spoken of natural beauties discovered and revealed to us by the artist through ideas of form and color, or their modifications. But it is necessary to consider the change which a scene in nature may undergo in the course of its absorption and regeneration in the artist’s brain. It is necessary to consider the more emphatic subjective element of the artist in his art.

Coleridge has suggestively said that painting is of ” a middle quality between a thought and a thing—the union of that which is nature with that which is exclusively human.” The definition is a good one, for painting is of a dual nature. It is not the literal scene from life that we care for, else we might content ourselves with a photograph. It is not the material facts of earth or sky or sea upon canvas that afford us pleasure, else we might get these perhaps by a glance out of the. window and so not need their imitation. What we seek for in every great picture is nature combined with the human element. The artist, his manner of seeing, his manner of thinking, his manner of telling, becomes an important factor in the picture of which we needs must take account. The facts of nature—and when I use nature in this connection I do not mean landscape alone, but all things, whether animate or inanimate—the facts of nature, to possess a serious interest for us upon canvas, require to be heated with poetic fire, transfused, and newly wrought in the crucible of the painter’s mind.

It is not worth while to say with Mr. Ruskin that the individuality of the artist should be utterly swept out of the canvas in favor of the truths of nature as they are ; nor is it necessary to intimate, as M. Veron does, that these truths of nature are inferior to the individuality of the artist. Both views are rather extreme, though perhaps for the production of great art Veron is nearer right than is Mr. Ruskin. We may take the mean course and say that for a middle quality of art, which I shall attempt to classify hereafter, the two should go together. Nature, yes ; but nature tinctured by the peculiar view, thought, or feeling of her interpreter, or, as Alfred Stevens the painter has put it, ” Nature seen through the prism of an emotion.” Daubigny’s pictures of the Seine and the Marne have no great hold upon us because of their special truth to locality, nor are they great works because of their general fidelity to nature. They simply represent the poetic ideas of Daubigny about such natural beau-ties as river banks, silver skies, and evening atmospheres. In other words, they are landscapes plus Daubigny—” the union of that which is nature with that which is exclusively human.” This is true again of most of the work of that now famous French school of landscape painters known as the “men of 1830,” whom Daubigny succeeded. Corot’s landscapes contain as much of Corot as of Ville d’Avray. They are merely ideas of white light, misty air, breathing expanding trees as seen, felt, loved, and worshipped throughout a long life by as sincere a lover as nature ever possessed. And it is because his landscapes are distinctly Corotesque landscapes that we like them. The paintings of Decamps, Rousseau, Diaz, are all precious to us for a like reason. Each artist has his peculiar view; each is a poet after his own kind, telling truly and sincerely what he sees and thinks to be beautiful in nature ; each is possessed of an individuality that pervades his art and turns the canvas, one into the bright light and life of the Orient, one into the volume and mass of earth, air, trees, and skies, and one into the depth of woodland foliage lit up by broken lights and the reflecting surfaces of woodland ponds.

The work of Millet so aptly illustrates this poetic art, this nature stamped by the impress of man, that I must call your attention to his fine picture of “The Sower.” I have spoken of this picture before, but, simply for the sake of variety, I will not now discard it for a newer and poorer illustration. The peasant of Millet, considered historically or ethnographically, is not essentially different from the peasant of any one of Millet’s hundred imitators ; but after being brooded over and thought over in the painter’s mind, he became an entirely different person. He became endowed with poetry and art, because looked at from a poetic and artistic point of view. The dusk of evening, with its warm shadows, falls about the Sower ; the heavy air, which the earth seems to exhale at sunset, enshrouds him ; luminous color-qualities form his background ; a rhythm of line, a swinging motion give him strength and vitality. It was thus the artistic eye of Millet saw him. In the twilight sky, in the deep-shadowed foreground, we see that the Sower works late ; in the sweat and dust upon his face and the hat crowded over his brow we see that he is weary with toil ; in the serious eyes looking out from their deep sockets we see the severity of his fate ; yet the strong foot does not flinch, the swinging arm does not falter, the parched lips do not murmur. His life is but a struggle for bare existence, a battling against odds, but how noble the struggle how strong the battle ! A type of thousands in the humble walks of life bearing patiently the burdens laid upon him, though the world has long neglected him, and fame has never honored him, yet he is no less a man, a brave man, a hero. It was thus the poetic mind of Millet conceived him.

Here in this picture of the Sower we have a good instance of that something “between a thought and a thing ” which Coleridge took to be the aim of art. Here we have the idea in art, but it will be observed that it is quite different from the narrative ideas of literature. It is not a statement of fact, but a suggestive impression ; not a realization of absolute nature, but a hint at those deep meanings which will not bear realization—those meanings which a sensitive soul may know and feel, and yet be able to ex-press only in part. For the idea in art is at the best not like a clear-cut intellectual thought, but rather like a sympathetic sensation or an emotional feeling. Yet call it what we choose—emotion, feeling, thought, or idea—it is about the only mental conception that painting is capable of conveying or revealing. Without it one may produce art admirable by virtue of novelty, color, form, skill of hand—the verve of the artist ; with it one may produce a higher art, speak a nobler language, serve a loftier purpose. For what one simply sees in nature and portrays as it is seen may be good art, but what one thinks or feels about what one sees produces much better art.

Yet there is still a third, a higher quality of painting. For poetic feeling is as wide as poetry itself, and may be lyrical, sentimental, epic, or sublime. There are grades and degrees of poetic conceptions rising from mediocrity to lofty heights, and as a painter’s observation is dull or keen, as his feeling is indifferent or passionate, as his mental capacity and imaginative power are weak or strong, so may his art be of a commonplace nature, or of that kind which breathes the mystery and awe of prophetic things from the vault of the Sistine.

Sublime art is so rarely seen, though we often hear the adjective applied indiscriminately to pictures that have the flavor of age about them, that it is scarcely worth while to more than mention it here, especially as I do not treat of it hereafter. It is not produced by equal parts of the subjective and the objective elements, but rather by a predominance of the subjective. To attain sublimity in painting, the thought must be so all-absorbing that it overawes form; it must carry us away with its sudden revelation of might ; it must present to us the individual strength of its producer so vividly that in its contemplation we forget the forms of the picture. A good example of this in literature is the epitaph written by Simonides for the monument above the three hundred at Thermopyhe : ” Thou who passeth by say at Lacedmmon we lie here in obedience to her laws.” Here the form or language is very little, but the idea of self-sacrificing heroism is very great.

A parallel sublimity in painting has been rarely, if ever, seen. The man who came the nearest to it was Michael Angelo. The unfinished marble of “Day” in the Medici Chapel is a climax of great art, and the great mystery-haunted Prophets, Sibyls, and Genii on the Sistine ceiling are its counterparts. Some others, like Palma Vecchio, Titian, Veronese, and Rubens, have bordered upon sublimity, and a number of others, like Blake, Delacroix, and in America, John La Farge, have barely fallen short of it.

It is scarcely to be regretted that sublimity is not a more frequent quality of art, for perhaps if it were common it would cease to be sublime. Gold gathers unto itself value from its scarcity, as sublimity in art from its rarity. Both are admirable things, but the success of the sublimity-hunter and that of the gold-seeker are not essentially different. Perhaps, then, we would better take warning and not try to test every picture for sublimity lest disappointment stare us continually in the face. It were wiser for us to learn the appreciation and enjoyment of commoner beauties, and if, in the course of our life-time, we chance to meet with rare ones we may en-joy them all the more from never having known them before.

The attempt to classify different styles of painting under general heads is not usually attended by happy results, but for the purpose of recapitulation I shall try to place modern art and modern art ideas under three heads :

First. The art which discovers and reveals to us beauties of nature by artistic ideas of form, color, light, shade, atmosphere, and their kind.

Secondly. The art which is a union of natural beauties with the artistic and poetic ideas of the artist.

Thirdly. Sublime art wherein the idea or individuality of the artist is predominant over all forms.

The third class of art is, as I have intimated, rarely seen. The second class is commoner than the third, but by no means common. Its exponents are such men as Delacroix, Corot, Millet, Troyon, who are justly considered the great modern masters: Some-thing will be said of these men and of their art, but not a great deal concerning the poetic side of it, for I shall speak more of the painter than the poet. The first class contains the great bulk of work not only in modern times but in all times. From it painting rises to higher planes. It is the initial class for all artists of whatever rank, and in one sense they never get beyond it. The masterpieces of the schools, whether ancient or modern, were considered by their producers, first, for their quality of line, color, light, or shadow—in short, for their purely sensuous painter’s element—and, secondly, as vehicles for the conveyance of poetic, religious, or other ideas. As I have attempted to show you, this first kind of art is not the greatest imaginable, but it is that which we shall see the most of, and should perhaps know the most about. Its study would naturally lead us to consider the artistic treatment of natural beauties by means of color, tone, light, values, composition, drawing ; and perhaps we would better begin our study by speaking of color and the different methods of its use among modern painters.