As the principles of design, including those of delineation, have been considered as mainly and strictly applicable to single figures and individuals viewed by themselves independently; so, as already observed, those of composition may be deemed to relate generally and properly to figures in groups, and to the disposition of them as regards their relation one to another. The disposition of figures must, however, necessarily in many respects, be governed by rules wholly different to those which regulate the individual formation and construction of these figures separately, although based on the same principles. The effect of the representation often, indeed, depends as much upon the proper disposition, as upon the actual nature and constitution of the figures which compose it.
The disposition of figures in a composition is nearly analogous to the disposition of words in a sentence; and the leading considerations which in each case direct the arrangement, must be the perspicuity and force, and pleasing effect and general result of the whole. In this respect, we must in both cases regard alike the independent and essential quality and character of each figure and word by itself; and also the effect produced upon each, and upon the whole, by their several relations with, and particular position in regard to the others. Like the elements in the constitution of picturesque orders, some of these figures will be passive, others active. Some will stand independent by themselves, and some are important only as auxiliary to certain others. Some represent things real and animate, others those which are lifeless and inert. Some are absolutely essential for the completion of the composition; while others might be well, and perhaps advantageously dispensed with. Moreover, as certain chemical compounds are of but little value by themselves, and depend almost wholly for their own effect upon those with which they are mixed; so is it also very often with regard to figures in a composition, which are as much dependent on those about them, as they are on themselves, for’ the result they may occasion. In music, too, a single note may produce but little effect, while joined with others it may be of the most powerful nature. Thus also of a word which contributes to eloquence in an oration, or of colour which contributes to beauty in a painting. As in the case of the general principles of design already referred to, so also with respect to the proper distribution of the figures in a composition, nature is the best guide, and affords an example in nearly every scene she presents, where the harmonious and effective disposal of the different characters and groups may be observed.
With respect to some points, however, there are certain axioms or rules to be kept in view with regard to artistical composition, which proceed quite beyond any of the principles of design, although they may be somewhat analogous to, and have their germ in them. This is the case with the axiom now about to be propounded, which is one of the first that is necessary to be observed in relation to the disposition of the figures in a composition, and which consists in the division of them into principal and subordinate ; the former of these being the leading hero in the piece, and to whom all the others bend, of which we have many forcible examples in different renowned artistical compositions.
The principal figure in the piece is indeed to the subordinate what the face is to the rest of the body, in which respect composition is strictly analogous to delineation. Such figure may be distinguished alike by its height, by the light which falls upon it, or by the particular part of the composition which it occupies. Although it should at once appear and strike the eye, the mode of its doing so is a matter of no moment. Every figure should be complete as regards itself, though incomplete as regards the whole composition. Moreover, the different figures should, by their proper disposition, not only aid the effect of the entire piece, but that of each other also. In painting, the examples which serve to illustrate this principle are numerous, and may be seen in every great work of this kind. In eloquence and poetry, how much depends on the due disposition of the ideas and metaphors excited or described ! They owe nearly as much to their appropriate placing, as to their individual character. This is one of the main tests of the skill of the highest composers in each art. Shakespeare is very successful in this respect, and throughout his plays the due distribution of the figures or characters who compose the piece is admirably preserved. In architectural composition, the proper regulation of the several parts of the building, is analogous to the disposition of the figures in a composition in painting. In acting, the placing of the performers proceeds upon principles closely analogous to those observed with regard to compositions in painting. And in gardening also, corresponding rules are obviously and easily applicable as regards the laying out of the grounds, and the disposal of various objects, whether in the shape of trees, or borders, or rocks, or pieces of water.