Art Theory – Personal Qualities

The qualities or moral attributes which any one possesses, constitute another main element in his character, and may be represented in the same way as his personal endowments.

In the consideration of the subject of the present section, it should be borne in mind that grace or beauty in a countenance, may be quite independent of its intellectual or moral qualities, as the most virtuous person may be hideously ugly, or the most depraved and wicked extremely handsome, and as such his appearance may be gratifying to the sight.

Probably the surest and most efficient mode of representing correctly the intellectual and moral character of any one, would be, in the first place, to sketch from nature a head which appeared generally suitable for the individual to be portrayed; and then to adapt, as exactly as possible, one by one, the different features according to the character intended, from the assortment of those classified for this purpose, as contained in the proposal in a subsequent section.

Much, both as regards truth and vigour of expression in the representation of the disposition and moral character, may be gained by the observation of animals, and even of creation at large. Each animal has a distinct and forcible expression of its own, and when excited, both its countenance and general action vividly exhibit without affectation the qualities which characterize, and the feelings which agitate it. At different periods, too, of their growth, the various characters of animals, as affected by age and other circumstances, are fully and forcibly developed. And among them the greatest diversity of character-corresponding with that in the human species—is exhibited. In landscape scenery, and especially in vegetation, in clouds, in water, and in mountain views, every variety, both of emotion and character, is also displayed. Possibly, indeed, there is no character, no quality, and no passion in man, but what is here typified and reflected. The gestures, if not the expression of the countenances of animals, may afford many suggestions to the artist, and to the actor as well, in the delineation of those of man, more especially as animals are entirely natural and unaffected in all their actions. The real character is here fully evinced, and is more distinctly marked, and also more diversified than will be found to be the case,—or, strictly speaking, than is outwardly observable—in human nature. In animals, however, the general attitude of the figure, rather than the features, is what serves to characterize them. In man, both character and emotion are mainly developed through the countenance, which is far more expressive than in animals, while the motions of his body are retarded and concealed by clothing.

Some of the most distinguished poets have resorted to the habits and demeanour of animals, for the purpose of adding effect to their description of the personal qualities possessed by their heroes. Thus, Homer t compares Menelaus, while retiring from the dead body of Patroclus, to a fierce shaggy lion, driven unwillingly and sullenly by men and dogs from the fold:

“Slow he recedes, and, sighing quits the dead. So from the fold th’ unwilling lion parts, Forced by loud clamours, and a storm of darts; He flies indeed, but threatens as he flies, With heart indignant, and retorted eyes. Now enter’d in the Spartan ranks, he turn’d His manly breast, and with new fury burn’d, O’er all the black battalions sent his view, And through the cloud the godlike Ajax knew.”

The portrait of Charon, as drawn by Virgil, is very striking and effective, on account of the personal qualities by which he is characterized; and the gloomy shade which the poet contrives to throw over the whole scene, contributes much to heighten the description. Every attribute ascribed to the grim ferryman is, moreover, in strict keeping and harmony with the general representation ;— his terrible look, hoary beard, rude garments, and stern deportment, each alike add to the effect :

” Portitor has horrendus aquas et flumina servat Terribili squalore Charon, cui plurima mento Canities inculta jacet, stant lumina flammâ; Sordidus ex humeris nodo dependet amictus ; Ipse ratem conto subigit, velisque ministrat, Et ferrugineâ subvectat corpora cymbâ, Jam senior; sed cruda Deo viridisque senectus.”

Chaucer’s description of Licurge derives its efficiency also from the same source. The poet depicts him with every characteristic calculated to give force and vigour to the representation, and to develope the qualities by which he is distinguished, alike as regards his appearance, his action, his demeanour, and each attendant circumstance about him :

“Blake was his berd, and manly was his face. The cercles of his eyen in his hed They gloweden betwixen yelwe and red, And like a griffon loked he about, With kemped heres on his browes stout ; His limmes gret, his braunes hard and stronge, His shouldres brode, his armes round and longe.”

So also as regards the description of Emetrius,- which follows :–

“Upon a stede bay, trapped in stele, Covered with cloth of gold diapred wele, Came riding like the god of armes Mars.

His crispe here like ringes was yronne, And that was yelwe, and glittered as the sonne. His nose was high, his eyen bright citrin, His lippes round, his colour was sanguin, A fewe fraknes in his face yspreint, Betwixen yelwe and blake somdel ymeint, And as a leon he his loking caste. Of five and twenty yere his age I caste. His berd was wel begonnen for to spring ; His vois was as a trompe thondering.”

The portrayal of Arcite by the same poet,T is effected, both by the account which he affords of his personal appearance, and also by the information that he gives as to the conduct and demeanour of his hero ; which together constitute a very vivid and moving picture, each aiding the other, and the two uniting their forces to add vigour to the whole : —

” His eyen holwe, and grisly to behold, His hewe falwe, and pale as ashen cold And solitary he was and ever alone, And wailing all the night, making his mone. And if he herde song or instrument, Than wold he wepe, he mighte not be stent.”

In his description of the Nun,* Chaucer heightens his account of her by detailing her good qualities, her delicate manners, and the tenderness of her heart —

“At mette was she wel ytaughte withalle She lette no morsel from hire lippes falle, She wette hire fingres in hire sauce depe. Wel coude she carie a morsel, and wel kepe, Thatte no drope ne fell upon hire brest.

She was so charitable and so pitous, She wolde wepe if that she saw a mous Caughte in a trappe, if it were ded or bledde. Of smale houndes hadde she, that she fedde With rosted flesh, and milk, and wastel brede. But sore wept she if on of them were dede, Or if men smote it with a yerde smert ; And all was conscience and tendre herte.”