Counteracting Influences Affecting Art, Both Past And Present

We have now, after tracing the origin and progress of the arts in this country, and examining their present condition, to inquire into the leading causes which have retarded, and do still retard our advancement here, and prevent us from rivalling those great nations who have preceded us in the same pursuits.

Although the moderns are in general decidedly and essentially inferior to the ancients in the production of works of art; yet, as I observed before, they are in many respects superior to them in taste, t and in the correctness of the principles which regulate it, which has probably progressed and matured itself correspondingly and contemporaneously with the advancement of civilization, and with the growth of soeciety and of the world. It appears, therefore, very extra-ordinary that this acknowledged inferiority in the production of works which are the efforts of taste mainly, should exist. But exist it undoubtedly does, and it is, moreover, extensive and well established. It is important therefore here to inquire, as far as we can, into the leading causes which have contributed to occasion this deficiency.

Among the various reasons assigned for our inferiority to the ancients in the production of works of art, the following three have been alleged as the principal :-1. That our climate does not favour our out-of-door life. 2. That it is unsuitable for the development of national genius. 3. That art and religion are not intimately blended together in this country.

(1.) As regards the first of the causes, it may be remarked that although the naked form has afforded the model for many beautiful works of art, yet they are not all of this description; and the noblest of Raphael’s are not only not naked, but represent in-door life, such as the cartoon of ‘Paul Preaching.’ More-over, in the days of Raphael Michael Angelo and Rembrandt, this objection would have prevailed as strongly as in our day. Even in the lowest walk of the arts of painting and sculpture, the representation of elegant flowing draperies, we are unable to equal, or indeed to approach the ancients. With all our superiority in mechanical skill beyond what they possessed, we seem to lack the genius to direct that skill, in the design of common and ordinary forms which in grace and beauty might rival theirs, and of which even nature furnishes abundant types.

The unpicturesque nature of modern drapery has, indeed, been considered very deleterious as regards its influence on modern art. But models of flowing drapery are easily formed, and it requires only the capacity to adapt them to our designs. Allowing, however, the utmost for the influence of such a cause, it can have but a very limited operation. Expression and feeling, in which we most fail, cannot at all suffer from this circumstance. Again, it is said that we have no models in nature. But surely the human countenance, which is as barely exposed now as it was in the rudest ages, affords us models from nature of the most valuable kind in the development of character and emotion.

(2.) If climate influences materially the taste of a people, and the style of art that prevails in a particular nation, its taste will doubtless remain the same so long as the climate continues unchanged; and the style of art ought moreover to accord with the character of the climate. On the contrary, however, we find that in the same climate taste is ever in a state of fluctuation, and that every variety of style is exhibited there. Climate can therefore only collaterally influence either taste or style.

If our climate is uncongenial to men of genius in painting and sculpture, why should it be congenial to poets and orators ? Surely the same height or variation in the thermometer which injuriously affects the temperament of the one, must prejudice also that of the other.

In colour, which is said to be in many ways prejudiced by the English climate, we are allowed in certain respects peculiarly to excel.

(3.) As regards the third of the causes assigned for the inferiority of art at the present day, in the circumstance that art and religion are not in our age intimately blended together, there appears to be no reason why religion and art should not be as friendly to one another, as intimately united, and as conducive to each other’s welfare in our own time, as in that of the Greeks. And the subjects afforded by Christianity are as noble, and in every way as well adapted for artistical representation, as were those of paganism.

No less an authority than the great painter Barry,* has endeavoured to prove that the introduction of superior art into England was prevented by the change of our religion from Popery to Protestantism. But if this was the case, how is it that anterior to the Reformation we had no distinguished painters in this country, and that the arts have made the greatest progress since that period? In Roman Catholic countries, moreover, the decline of art has been as extensive as in our own, and in none more than in Italy ; while on the other hand, Rembrandt flourished in protestant Holland.

Art in the present age, in this country more especially, has, no doubt, been largely influenced by that which influences the general tone of thought, and reasoning, and feeling, in each department of philosophy, and poetry, and literature, the strong and decided material bias of the age, a bias which induces us to regard with indifference whatever is intellectual and imaginative and unseen, and to value only what is real and apparent, and gross and visible. Hence, in painting, character and emotion and expression are almost entirely neglected; and the production of mechanical effects with respect to light and shade and tints, and the exhibition of dexterity in representing material forms, only are considered. As in philosophy, and in common life as well, we forget altogether the soul, and think merely of the body ; so we disregard and neglect the noble ends to which art can serve, and care only about the means of attaining that end, as though they were actually of more importance than the very end itself.

Indeed, if the principles advocated in certain quarters be correct, it must follow that not only those pictures, but those parts of pictures that are the least intellectual, which admit nevertheless most extensively of the achievement and display of mechanical effect, are chiefly entitled to our attention and admiration. Thus, in the cartoons of Raphael, we are quite in error in admiring the almost divine expression of the countenances, and the noble delineation of character and emotion both in the features and in the attitudes of the persons repreesented; but what we should mainly observe and venerate are the graceful folds of the drapery, the texture of the robes with which these august personages are adorned, and the skill and minuteness with which the hair of their heads is depicted on the canvas !

It has been said that beauty was a principle of the religion of the Greeks. But surely grandeur and sublimity and imagination of the loftiest kind, are equally a principle of Christianity, and are also equally favourable to art of the highest order. Indeed, one very important and essential ad-vantage which modern and Christian art obtains over that which was ancient and pagan, is the incomparably far nobler and more sublime notions entertained of the Deity, and of all His attributes, in our day, than in the ages gone by. And as in the grandest epic compositions, whether in poetry or painting, the Deity is introduced or referred to as the leading and governing spirit, or influence, by which the whole performance is directed; it will necessarily follow that the more magnificent are the endowments with which this being is gifted, the more exalted must be the character of the entire piece, which borrows from this, as from a sun in the centre of its system, all its dignity and its glory. And although in representations of the present day a God does not openly and visibly appear to take part in and to regulate every transaction, as in the sublime descriptions of Homer and Virgil; yet the consciousness that He on all occasions is everywhere present, and does direct them throughout their movements, unseen though He is by mortal eye, even the more raises our ideas as to the infinity of His omnipotence and omniscience, and adds essentially and largely to the sublimity of the scene.

Barry also says, in the work already quoted, that it is a misfortune never entirely to be retrieved, that painting was not suffered to grow up amongst us at the same time with poetry and the other arts and sciences, while the genius of the nation was yet forming its character in strength beauty and refinement. In this regret every lover of art must join. At the same time, the assertion accounts for nothing as regards our actual deficiency in this respect.

The unmusical inharmonious character of the English tongue, has been often referred to as a reason why we should produce no grand works in poetry or eloquence; and yet how fully has the genius of our great poets and orators overcome these sup-posed insurmountable obstacles. Surely that of our painters and sculptors ought to exert itself with corresponding force.

Some have attributed the want of expression in the pictorial compositions of the English school to the phlegmatic character of the English, who are seldom roused to exhibit those strong passions which the painter might copy. But although the lower feelings are less displayed than in a barbarous age, yet the higher endowments of the mind, and the expression of intellectual character, which it is most important for a painter to depict, are more fully developed than ever ; and it is, indeed, much to be feared that there is no very lamentable lack of brute passion also !

Human nature is the same in the nineteenth as it was in the ninth century ; and man has feelings and tastes and passions in England identical with those which actuated him in Greece and Rome. Although a particular quality in any one race may be more favourable to the production, or to promote the due estimation of art than that possessed by another; yet it should be borne in mind that many of these different qualities counter-act or counterbalance one another, and that deficiencies in one respect are often more than compensated for by superior endowments in another.

It has also been said that an age which gives occasion to but few great events, calls forth but few great works of art, which are representative or commemorative of those events. And it will perhaps be contended by some that heroic painting and heroic poetry, indeed, heroic artistical productions of any kind, can be produced only in an heroic age, when the achievements in question are actually in progress ; that the same noble and energetic spirit which actuated their performance, should inspire also their narrators; that for a people to produce works of a sublime and epic character, the times in which they live, and the scenes which they witness, should be of this character. This was indeed peculiarly the case with the classic ages of history, the days of Homer and Demosthenes, and Virgil and Phidias, from which our own age doubtless varies much.

Nevertheless, the age and the nation in which such enter-prises are read and thought of and held up to admiration, must on many accounts be as favourable for their representation as those in which they actually took place ; more especially as the achievers of the mighty deeds described were not the persons who celebrated them by artistical performances. Besides which, deeds of heroism are not the only topics that rouse the efforts of the epic muse. Sacred and other scenes, the knowledge and the veneration of which are common to all ages alike, equally with those which are heroic, serve as the subject of the noblest productions in each branch of art. Moreover, deeds of heroism in war are effected in our day as well as in the ancient times. In addition to this several of the transactions of a civilized class which we witness, are in many respects as suitable for artistic representation of each kind, and as provocative of artistic and picturesque emotions, as were those more thrilling and ex-citing scenes of woe and bloodshed enacted during the earlier and ruder ages of society. Indeed, many as may be our disadvantages, we have much to compensate for them ; and surely, the events of the past are enough to serve for artistic efforts of each kind. In the next place the great triumphs of skill and of mind which distinguish the present age, are doubt-less as worthy of representation as are the feats and the con-quests of mere animal force and brute power.

It has been further urged that we of this country are too warlike to foster art. But after an uninterrupted peace of thirty years, surely this argument must also fail.

The strong commercial spirit of this nation has also been asserted to be inimical to art. But commerce, like science, in many respects aids rather than retards art, as art ought to re-fine not to check commerce.

Some have contended that our form of government is inimical to art. But being of that mixed character which unites the ad-vantages of both monarchy and republicanism, especially as regards the patronage of art, it surely ought not to be thus considered. Poetry and eloquence, which are equally liable with painting and sculpture thus to suffer, have not experienced any discouragements on this account.

Mr. Hume, in his essay on the ‘ Rise of the Arts,’ seems to intimate an opinion that nations, like soils, become in time exhausted, and that the arts consequently require fresh soils to nurture them. Surely, however, in the case of this country the soil can hardly be said to be exhausted, so little having been as yet actually grown upon it; although it may require fresh tilling or fresh manuring or draining to render it more nutritious, or that certain noxious weeds should be removed.

The leading and essential cause of the decline of the arts of each kind in a nation which has attained a high degree of civilization, is that extreme attention to minute and meretricious ornament and mechanical execution already alluded to, to the neglect of the nobler, and the grand intellectual efforts of which the art is capable. This is observable alike in poetry eloquence and music, as well as in painting and sculpture and architecture ; and that dire intellectual disease which we call luxury, is in each case the canker worm that lies at the root, and produces all the mischief. Hence it comes that effect is preferred to grandeur, prettiness to boldness, delicacy to vigour, and high finish and mechanical dexterity to expression and character and general intellectual excellence.

To such an extent, indeed, have attention to and admiration of mere manual dexterity been allowed to have the preference over, and to usurp the place of intellectual merit and feeling and imagination, that certain modern critics have actually treated the latter as something quite beyond the province of art, and as though mechanical skill was the very end and only legitimate ultimate aim of art itself, instead of being merely a means to that end, which consists in calling forth ideas of grandeur and beauty and of an imaginative character. As well might we consider smooth and correct versification to be the only end of poetry, as mere manual dexterity the real end of painting. Nevertheless, so far, in these days of degenerating criticism, has the argument for confining art to the humblest walk, for limiting it to this narrow and contracted sphere, and for excluding from its province all that is grand and noble and sublime and imaginative been carried, that one art critic,* —one, too, who is entitled to speak with official authority on the subject,—goes to the length of condemning, and that in no measured terms, modern sculpture, particularly the sublime productions of Flaxman and Canova and Thorwaldsen, on the sole and express ground that they have not abandoned the pursuit of the classic, and have not given up the representation of scenes of poetic imagination and historical interest, especially those which the poets of old so vividly described; and have not been content to aim at the representation only of ordinary every-day scenes and common objects in nature.

The warbling of a brook, the chirp of a bird, the tints of a ray, and the budding of a daisy, are, no doubt, of themselves subjects which are directly calculated to produce very lovely ideas in the mind; but can we compare them in point of intellectuality or pathos or sublimity with the descriptions of the workings of the soul, the rage of tempestuous passions, the various joys and sorrows, the hopes and the agonies that excite and distract mankind, the operations of which have been so powerfully portrayed, and so graphically described by the pencil of Raphael and Michael Angelo, and the pen of Milton and of Shakespeare, of Chaucer, of Spenser, and of Pope ? And yet we are now deliberately and distinctly taught that the former are more worthy of our attention than are the latter !

It is also contended by some that the present and not the past is ” the true region of all historical art.”

Scenes long passed away have, however, undoubtedly a far higher poetical interest, and appeal much more powerfully to the imagination, and to all the nobler faculties and efforts of the mind, than do those which are familiar and near. It is difficult if not impossible to invest present transactions with any very sublime interest, or to confer upon them the air of dignity and grandeur which may be infused into the description of persons and scenes that are distant. Indeed, this very distance and difference from our own age with reference to the events represented, bestow on them a grandeur and a dignity somewhat analogous to what distance does on mountain or landscape scenery, but which it is impossible to give to, or to infuse into representations with which we are every day familiar, or which come near to our own time.

One cause for our deficiency in works of art of great excellence in this country, has been assigned to be the number of productions of this character from other countries, and of ages gone by, by which our artists have become dazzled; and it has been asserted* that this was the real reason why the ancient Romans never succeeded in establishing a school of art. To a certain extent, however, it must be acknowledged that the possession of these noble examples of what art is capable, must be of great use to our artists, at any rate up to a certain point. That the existence of such works would have the effect of discouraging men of real genius, is not much to be apprehended ; but it may be inferred that they would endeavour to excel, instead of merely imitating their models ;—as was, indeed, the case with Raphael and Michael Angelo, Flaxman and Wren, Milton and Shakespeare, in their respective arts.

But it might be asked by some, why, if owing to the change of circumstances and in the wants of the age, certain of the arts, or certain styles in them, are superseded, new forms of them do not arise out of these various exigencies, more especially as science greatly aids their practical development ? As regards the origin and invention of the arts, the state of early society was considerably more favourable for such efforts than is a highly civilized condition, as men saw far more of nature than they now do. And again, in using natural materials, as in constructing buildings out of trees or caves, they were led to imitate natural objects. In our day, each material is so altered by arbitrary appliances, that nothing of its original natural beauty remains.

As regards the invention of new styles, the scientific manner of using materials allows but little scope for suggestions to arise, as during the early period of the arts. In the primitive stages of architecture, imitations were effected of trees and foliage ; in later periods, the mode of dovetailing the wood formed the type. This, indeed, affords a fair illustration of the operation of the system.

Many new styles, indeed, have arisen ; but no styles possessing beauty. Form, as to the whole, has perhaps as much deteriorated, as ornament as to details has become profuse. We have produced no new styles in grand architecture of late years but in domestic architecture, such as designs of lamps earthenware vessels and household furniture, our taste for the ornamental is daily developed. Art is by this means domesticated, and familiarized to all. Although this is in many respects to be commended, yet the approval must nevertheless be accompanied with the fear that art may thus become vulgar, and will lose its influence. Idols erected for adoration, degenerate by common usage into toys.