Art Theory – Animal Feelings

The animal passions emotions and excitements by which any person is agitated, may be represented in the same mode as that by which we describe his endowments and qualities.

It must, however, here be borne in mind that the more apparent and visible any emotion or passion is as regards its effects or operation, the more easy it is of imitation. Thus grief and anger may be counterfeited without difficulty by a skilful actor or cautious observer; but affection and love, which lie too deep to be seen on the surface, cannot be either described or represented with the same facility.

There is, nevertheless, not a feeling of joy however vivid, nor of sorrow however poignant; of mirth how buoyant it may be, nor of grief however piercing, that has not its corresponding chord in artistical melody, which may not be touched, and which will not echo to the full its sympathies. Thoughts and emotions are here as well, and as truly and forcibly developed, as figures are described;’ and characters and qualities are in all respects as correctly delineated as are landscape views.

In all persons of whatever character, or race, or sex, the feeling of pain, and the different emotions, are manifested in the countenance in a similar manner. This is the universal language of nature, which forms indeed a medium of communication, not only between men, but between all the members of animated creation. It is to this catholicity that art owes its power of speaking intelligibly to all alike.

Passion not only excites, but, to a certain extent also, invigorates the soul. Many of the greatest actions have been achieved when the mind was thus stimulated ; and it is then that from its profoundest depths its dormant volcanoes burst forth, and exhibit their powers. Both poetry and eloquence, especially in their loftiest flights, are the offspring of passion.

Passion, meaning rage, has been denominated “a short madness.” All the passions, however, more or less distort and blind the soul, and cause it to see objects differently from what it does in its calmer moments. The waters which are wont ordinarily to reflect the image so faithfully, when agitated cause the shadow itself to be disfigured and confused. This is to be borne in mind, both with regard to the representation of objects excited by passion, and as to the effect which such representations are intended to produce by calling forth corresponding passion in those to whom they are ad-dressed. In these cases some departure from the strict rule of nature is allowable ; and, indeed, the rule itself is relaxed even by nature its founder and its source. Exaggeration and distortion to a certain extent here take the place of regularity and order.

Thus, passion causes disorder and confusion in the mind, and consequently in the utterance of the thoughts. But passion and feeling, so far from confounding all individuality of character, serve rather the more strongly to develope it; they magnify rather than diminish its manifestations. Water is not less the ocean because agitated by storm, but its power and character are only more fully displayed.

One very strong passion may, nevertheless, occasionally be so great and so overwhelming in its intensity, as not only to swallow up all the others, but to leave hardly anything besides of individual character perceptible in the person represented. Yet still the dark outline of the natural disposition and feelings is seen through the cloud of passion which envelopes it. The emotions and expressions are moreover ever tinctured by the character of the individual mind from which they spring.

A certain disorder of style may sometimes be fairly resorted to to exhibit intense passion, such as the transposition of words in oratory, and the irregular disposition of figures in an historical composition. So sudden transitions and abrupt terminations may produce the same effect. This is well displayed in the agitation of Macbeth as described by Shakespeare, denoted by broken ejaculations and disconnected exclamations.

It is, nevertheless, wholly erroneous to suppose that the display of passion is incompatible with the expression of beauty, as tending necessarily and invariably to distort the latter, inasmuch as beauty is equally existent although thus excited. It may be thrown into the shade instead of shining in the sun; but it is still visible, and its shadows are even deeper. In many cases, indeed, the suffering and passion of beauty, both heighten and develope it; in poetry and eloquence this is certainly the case. Beauty and passion are in reality no more actually incompatible than are repose and grandeur. The passion does not destroy, by giving animation to the beauty. Each, indeed, should aid and give effect to the other. Moreover, the passions and emotions vary as much as regards their qualities as do the principles of the picturesque ; some, such as anger and terror, inclining to force ; others, such as love, to softness ; some, like melancholy, to mildness ; and others, such as laughter, to hilarity ; corresponding with grandeur, beauty, pathos, and ridicule, in art. They constitute, in many cases, the operations of the mind caused by these principles.

Passion is, nevertheless, not only the effect, but it is the originating cause, the moving spring and the soul of eloquence, and in fact of poetry, and every other art. The representation of character and emotion must, of course, appeal not to the eye only, but to the feelings and the intellect. The feelings, how-ever, may be much moved, and even the imagination excited, without the mind being vigorously affected.

The representation of the most violent passion is not always the most striking to the spectator. Activity and real strength are often found to be very different. The excitement of the emotion is, moreover, regulated by principles as certain as those of the limbs.

Animals afford splendid examples as regards the development of passion. And here both the living animal should be studied from nature, and also the best representations of character and emotion in them, as exhibited by art. Astonishment, grief, pain, and terror, which are the only passions evinced in animals, are more boldly and vigorously displayed in them than they are in man. Admiration, veneration, love, mirth, are peculiar to man, and not only diversify the character of the features, but also that of the other emotions.

In some of the boar-hunts, and other pieces of this kind, by Sneyders, there is as much character, and expression, and feeling, and passion, exhibited in the countenances and attitudes of the animals, as though they were human beings. Perhaps, indeed, as regards the gestures they assume, they display more real passion than is ever evinced by man. This power of describing animal character and feeling appears to be the characteristic and the forte of Sir Edwin Landseer; although it is to be observed that his expression is generally passive, while that of Sneyders is in most cases intensely active, which is, of course, more difficult to portray, and more effective when successfully accomplished.

Poetry is more successful in displaying the softer and less visible emotions and passions, than is the case with painting ; but it is not so vigorous or direct in its mode of representation generally, especially as regards those feelings which are the most robust, and the most directly manifest. An illustration of this is afforded by the following passage in Homer, where, in the description of the horses of acides weeping at the loss of their charioteer, who had fallen beneath Hector’s fury, much exquisite fine feeling is displayed. So warm is the affection of these animals, that they refuse to move either for blows or en-treaties, but stand, like pillars at a grave, over the body of their master, their heads drooping down, tears flowing from their eyes, and their manes disordered :–

“Meantime, at distance from the scene of blood, The pensive steeds of great Achilles stood; Their godlike master slain before their eyes, They wept, and shared in human miseries. In vain Automedon now shakes the rein, Now plies the lash, and soothes and threats in vain; Nor to the fight nor Hellespont they go, Restive they stood, and obstinate in woe : Still as a tombstone, never to be moved, On some good man or woman unreproved Lays its eternal weight ; or fix’d as stands A marble courser by the sculptor’s hands, Placed on the hero’s grave. Along their face, The big round drops coursed down with silent pace, Conglobing on the dust. Their manes, that late Circled their arched necks, and waved in state, Trail’d on the dust beneath the yoke were spread, And prone to earth was hung their languid head.”

In some descriptions in poetry of passion and feeling, the vigour is much heightened by comparing the person so affected to an animal whose excitement in this respect is more manifest, and apparently more intense, than is ordinarily seen in the case of man. Thus, Homer compares the grief of Pelides, lamenting over the death of Patroclus, to the grief of a lion whose whelps have been stolen out of the thick forest, and who wanders distressed through the valleys trying to trace them out : —

” Stern in superior grief Pelides stood ; Those slaughtering arms so used to bathe in blood Now elasp’d his clay-cold limbs : then gushing start The tears, and sighs burst from his swelling heart: The lion thus, with dreadful anguish stung, Roars through the desert, and demands his young ; When the grim savage, to his rifled den Too late returning, snuffs the track of men, And o’er the vales and o’er the forest bounds ; His clamorous grief the bellowing wood resounds. So grieves Achilles ; and impetuous vents To all his myrmidons his loud laments.”

But although the exhibition of character and feeling is more open and more vivid in animals than in man, especially in the case of pictorial representation ; yet there is much greater complexity and variety, both of disposition and passion, in the case of men than there is in animals ; and corresponding with this circumstance the human face admits of considerably more changes than those of animals are capable of undergoing. In-deed, the diversity in the development of character possessed by the countenance of man is almost infinite ; and this extends not only to mental differences and emotion, but to the exhibition of health, disease, youth, age, sex, and all their varieties of each kind.