Art Theory – Repose

A condition of repose is ordinarily regarded as in contrast to one of action, and thus considered is merely negative in its nature. It is, nevertheless, occasionally, although not often, to a certain extent also positive, and of itself actually affecting to the mind, and productive of results quite independent of the action with which it may be contrasted. At all events it is more positive in its nature than is still life, although by no means so positive or characteristic as vital action. Thus, the quietude or repose of the sea after a storm, of a man after exertion, of armies after a battle, are instances of repose which strike us mainly from their negative quality, their absence of action, their contrast with the previously existing condition of the same subjects. But the repose exhibited by a statue, or a placid lake, is of a positive nature, and owes but little or nothing to any contrast which their anterior condition presents.

Repose is, however, generally advantageous, not only to afford rest to the mind, and to prepare it for acting with vigour, but also to set off by the contrast the more exciting parts of the representation. As the stillness which precedes the outburst of a storm seems to increase its fury, so a pause in any great effort in eloquence adds much to its effect. Silence will thus, on apt occasions, suggest more than the utmost endeavours of eloquence can accomplish.

Repose, too, is, in many respects, and on many occasions, as affecting as action. Our pursuit of art should, moreover, not be confined only to the grand, and striking, and sublime, nor yet to what is exquisitely beautiful and affecting. And we should admire nature as we see her in her tranquil repose, as well as in the moments of her passion, and her terrible emotions.

It must, however, be acknowledged that although repose is in its nature as positive and as real as action, yet as availed of in art, it is mainly efficient when contrasted with action.

Architecture, sculpture, and gardening are, perhaps, alike from their character, and from the material in which they exist, of all the arts most directly and entirely favourable for inculcating ideas and feelings of repose. These arts, indeed, incline us naturally and immediately to inaction, as poetry, and eloquence, and music, and the drama do to action. Costume, too, is more directly and generally adapted for repose than for exertion. Nevertheless, some kinds of costume, such as armour, appear to be best and peculiarly fitted for action; while other kinds, such as female and indoor dresses, seem best qualified to suggest ideas of repose. But as the first-mentioned of these arts, that of architecture, is, in certain cases, to some extent, although but indirectly fitted for the representation of action, while sculpture, gardening, and costume are more peculiarly adapted to represent repose; so in poetry, and eloquence, and music, and acting, may repose be depicted, and occasionally with great effect in each of them. As an illustration of this, I may mention that Homer, who is so successful in describing action, is no less perfect in his pictures of repose, as in that very admirable one of the night scene at the tent of Diomede, where not only is the mighty hero himself portrayed as deep in slumber with his companions around him, but his spear and shield, and all the active implements of warfare, are also represented as lying inert. Here, indeed, we have not merely the absence of action, but the actual positive presence of repose. The glittering of the armour, which is compared to the lightning of Jove, and the wild bull’s hide on which the hero lies, serve, nevertheless, to create ideas associated with the fierceness of his character; while the rich tapestry beneath his head, conduces to mark the dignity of his condition :

” Without his tent, bold Diomed they found All sheath’d in arms, his brave companions round: Each sunk in sleep, extended on the field, His head reclining on his bossy shield. A wood of spears stood by, that, fix’d upright, Shot from their flashing points a quivering light. A bull’s black hide composed the hero’s bed ; A. splendid carpet roll’d beneath his head.”