Art Theory – Exhibition Of Compound Operations

Reference has already been made in a preceding chapter to the practicability of comprehending in the same composition, a variety of opposite excellences as regards the general qualities of the art itself.* A question of a corresponding kind, although very different in its actual nature, but of equally great importance, demands our attention here ; which is, whether it is possible to exhibit in the display of character and emotion, the contemporaneous operation of various feelings and endowments. The opinion of Sir Joshua Reynolds on both these points, has been adverted to, in which he denies that a compound character of this sort can in either case be effectively represented.

It appears to me, however, with all due deference to the high, and, indeed, almost absolute authority of Sir Joshua Reynolds, that that great painter and admirable critic on art was clearly erroneous in laying down as a fixed and unvarying principle, that a mixed character or passion cannot be represented in the same individual face or figure by painting.* I would suggest, indeed, that an essential distinction may, and ought here to be drawn between those different characters, and endowments, and qualities, and passions which are consistent and compatible together, and those which are inconsistent and incompatible; inasmuch as the former may be, and in nature are exhibited together, although this is never the case with regard to the latter. For instance, intelligence of character and the passion of terror, age and astonishment, youth and fear, may be well represented in any one person; although it may be impossible to depict in the same individual age and youth, fear and unconcern, malice and amiability.

But it is even possible for a person to be affected with both grief and joy at one time; as in the case of two announcements of great importance, but of an entirely opposite nature, reaching him at the same instant, when these two feelings might be seen contending together to obtain the ascendency over him. And if a person is so excited, a representation of him in art ought thus to portray him. If it fails to do so, the art is at fault. But if it be said that this is too difficult a process to achieve well, this I admit ; but I still deny that the difficulty of the undertaking actually dispenses with the propriety of its performance. In some cases, indeed, the outward effects produced by strong emotions of opposite kinds, whether of joy or grief, are strikingly similar.

Because, therefore, some qualities, such as youth and age, or some feelings, such as tranquillity and rage, are, as already observed, incompatible, and cannot be together co-existent; it surely does not follow that all these different qualities, and characters, and passions, must be unfitted to be represented at once. One feeling and character may indeed, and probably will be always predominant ; but it is not necessary that this should be so to the exclusion of all the rest. Strong excitement, to a certain extent, destroys individuality of character, by merging in the one vehement passion which obtains the whole mastery over the soul, all the impulses of the mind ; but the latter, as already observed, retains its original traits in the violence of those impulses. So far, indeed, from the representation of a mixed passion being an impossibility, it appears to me that pure unmixed passion is but very seldom excited, and this it is consequently most difficult to express. It is, probably, very rarely, if ever, that one passion or emotion is called forth without the agitation of another, so dependent are they on each other. And if this be the case, surely the representation ought strictly, and as far as is attainable, to agree with the reality.

In the expression of the countenances of persons gifted with extraordinary virtues or endowments, the delineation both of character and passion is contemporaneously exhibited; it may happen, however, that in certain cases the manifestation of the character is modified by the passion, and the manifestation of the passion by the particular character possessed by the individual.

In Shakespeare’s description of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, especially in certain of his most powerful and effective scenes, a mixed passion is that which animates them both, as will be remarked in the quotations which follow,* illustrative of this part of my subject, particularly in the dagger scene. Terror, cruelty, ferocity, weakness, force, courage, ambition, firmness, irresolution, hardness, remorse of conscience, and even some glimmerings of natural affection, may all of them, and all of them at once, be observed contending together. So also in ‘ Romeo and Juliet,’ t the mixed feeling of passion for Romeo, and anguish and resentment at the death of Tybault by his hand,—of love for him, and fury against him,—the former unconquerable, the latter unrestrainable,—are very finely and wonderfully brought out: —

” O serpent heart, hid with a flowering face ! Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave ? Beautiful tyrant ! fiend angelical ! Dove-feathered raven ! wolvish—ravening lamb ! Despised substance of divinest show ! Just opposite to what thou justly seem’st, A damned saint, an honourable villain !— O nature ! what hadst thou to do in hell, When thou didst bower the spirit of a fiend In mortal paradise of such sweet flesh? — Was ever book containing such vile matter, So fairly bound? O, that deceit should dwell In such a gorgeous palace ! ”

Moreover, in architecture and in music, it is very seldom that one feeling or sentiment only is excited or suggested by the composition; and this is the case also with regard to acting, costume, and gardening. Indeed, in composition in each of these arts, the difficulty is undoubtedly far greater of representing or suggesting a character, or sentiment, or emotion which is entirely single or unmixed, than of describing one which is compounded or mixed; and, probably, in this respect, these arts serve but to reflect truly the real operation of every other art.