Art Theory – Vital Action

Motion, so far as it has relation to artistical composition, is of various kinds. But of all the different kinds of motion, that which may strictly be termed vital action, is the most important, as the most nearly allied to nature, and the correct and truthful representation of which is the most difficult to be effected in artistical composition. Moreover, as many of the objects described by art are not only visible but animated; so the representation of them should not only be clear and vigorous, but itself endowed with life. This is mainly attainable in painting and sculpture by their attitudes and apparent motions, which denote them to be necessarily animated in order to effect such actions.

Action, like expression, should, moreover, be natural ; it should be that of the street, where people walk unobserved, not that of the stage, where they are conscious of being watched, and constrain each motion accordingly.

A perfect imitation or representation of real animated nature, is, however, beyond the reach of pictorial art. The utmost that we can do is to seize upon some of her most striking characteristics, and transplant them to the canvas. Few persons have even the capacity to observe nature, and to see her as she really is ; the blaze of glory which encompasses her face veils it from all vulgar gaze; and even of those who are permitted to view her, but a very small number are qualified to record what they see and feel. Nor are the elements of art, how-ever availed of, fully adapted to this end. As we cannot imitate nature directly and simply, we have recourse to adventitious aids to supply by effect and vigour the animation and spirit possessed by the reality, which must necessarily be more or less wanting in the representation. This is especially the case in the arts of painting, sculpture, and poetry. In re-presentations by painting, or descriptions by poetry or eloquence of some inanimate scene, the idea of it may be conveyed with considerable force and truth, inasmuch as vitality, which is here wanting, is of all things the hardest to counterfeit, either in art or in reality, especially by inanimate means. And the more animated and active any scene is, the more difficult it is adequately to represent it in art. A verdant landscape, replete with vegetable life, is less easy to portray than a dead rock ; and the working of passion and feeling in the human countenance, than an inanimate portrait. Indeed, in this kind of painting the skill of the artist is tested by the fact whether he endows it with life and action, or with the outward semblance only ; whether he penetrates to the soul, or only reaches the surface ; whether he depicts the mere features, or conveys to us the real image of the mind. As works of art are ad-dressed not only to the senses but to the soul, so they should not merely represent living objects, but, like them, be endowed with animation ; and not with form alone, but also with character and spirit. Poetry, eloquence, and music are in several respects fully adapted for the representation of vital action, more especially through the descriptions of it which they are capable of affording. Music, indeed, in many ways describes, and in a direct manner, vital action, both by representing the motions of living beings, and by imitating their cries. An illustration of this is afforded by Handel’s oratorio of ‘Israel in Egypt,’ where the sounds produced by the motions of the frogs and flies is directly and very effectively imitated.

In acting alone, however, vital action as well as motion, is capable of being fully represented; and here, indeed, it exists in reality. Its defect is not that it is not real, but that it is not always true to nature.

Architecture and gardening are, of course, wholly inadapted in a direct manner alike for motion and for vital action. Indirectly, however, the former, if not the latter of these operations, is, to a certain extent, represented by these arts where fountains or running streams constitute a part of the composition. Costume represents vital action so far as it serves to afford to the frame which it covers the free opportunity for this exercise.