Defining Forces Behind Art: The Artist

SO far we have been considering the common nature of the arts and the generic sources from which they all spring. Now we are to study those influences which determine the specific characteristics of a masterpiece. It has been shown that the first cause of the unique appeal of each work of art is that the common basis of human experience finds expression only through the medium of the artist’s personality; thus inevitably his character and experience must in some measure stamp themselves upon all that he produces. This is true even of the most objective and imitative work. Let an accident occur and be witnessed by a hundred persons; let each of these write out faithfully an account of what he saw: there would be a hundred varying stories, no two identical. Moreover, a good reader of character could tell something of the quality of the different personalities from the accounts written. To narrate an incident is to give something of the narrator as well as the incident. How much more then when the work is bodied forth from the creative personality of the artist. Take, for illustration, what may be regarded as a purely objective dramatic study—a play that has come to wide fame through musical setting and stage portrayal—Oscar Wilde’s Salome. Here is a study of a phase of human perversity, the type of fascinatingly repulsive woman who represents the most subtle and refined form of depravity in modern life; yet, objective as it is, who would have been interested and able to portray it except the sensitive, strangely gifted, morbid genius, Oscar Wilde? Is it an accident that his thought brooded for many years over the seductively repellent theme be-fore the play was written?

No music lover can mistake the characteristic work of Beethoven for that of Mozart. What makes the difference? To answer, one must turn to the lives and temperaments of the two men. In Mozart’s case one must re-member the sweet, open disposition, the happy home and sunny temper, the genial friendliness and delight in social play, the amazing youthful genius, resulting in an astounding range of compositions in childhood, and concert tours in which his fame as child prodigy was universal, without spoiling his modest and fine character. Absorbed wholly in music, he enjoyed regular and admirable education in his art under the excellent discipline of his gifted father. Struggles and disappointments in the period of young manhood he had to endure, it is true, with difficult financial circumstances (accentuated by his cheerful carelessness) recurring to the end of his brief life. Yet these shadows could not permanently cloud his vivacious spirit ; and he continued to compose with a celerity, sureness and consistent beauty, such as can result only from the highest natural gifts existing in the happiest combination. Can one not then understand why his works uniformly delight and rest us with entrancing melodies, smooth harmonies and a perfect unity of idea and execution?

With Beethoven, on the other hand, one must recall the sad childhood, the tragic home with a drunken father, the early contact with the sordid miseries of life, the temperamental intensity, pride and isolation. His development was slow and painful, carried out by hard effort, and in the face of halting and inadequate public response. Then, when his wonderful genius had overcome the obstacles in his path and arrived at full expression, descended upon him at thirty that frightful curse, the destruction of the very sense of hearing through which he could enjoy his own art. Thus shut off from his kind, proud and solitary as Prometheus upon Caucasus, gnawed ever by the vulture of suffering, going forward in his lonely silence by sheer indomitable will to the creation of his masterpieces—compositions which he, alas ! could not hear except with the inner ear of the soul,—Beethoven achieved that music, smiting in titanic majesty, unparalleled in compelling power and sombre grandeur, born of will and intellect striving with fate. Thus the difference in the music of Mozart and Beethoven is but the expression of the contrast in character and experience of the two men.

Fra Angelico and Fra Lippo Lippi both worked in Florence in the same period—the happy forenoon of renaissance art. They grew up alike under the same general influences in painting ; yet their works are opposite in character. Fra Angelico’s are purely spiritual, lifted away from the earth, each painting being an act of worship; while Fra Lippo Lippi’s are sweetly natural, all of the earth with its sensuous charm, the subjects nominally religious but with really no spiritual significance. What explains the contrast?

Let one recall Fra Angelico’s saintly character and natural call to the monastic life, his early retired years in Tuscany, the removal to Umbria in the fresh responsiveness of young manhood, where he came under the spell of St. Francis and the spiritual aspiration of the middle age, the return to Florence and the eighteen years of brooding in the monastery on the height of Fiesole, overlooking the beautiful Arno valley. Is it any wonder that, when the Medici called him down from Fiesole to Florence to adorn the newly rebuilt monastery of San Marco, he covered its walls with those exquisitely spiritual frescoes: painting in the lunette over a door in the cloister arcade that Christ, welcomed, with human tenderness, as guest by two Dominican brothers, that half-length mystic Christ rising from the tomb; or, in the corridor above, Mary and the Angel of the Annunciation, lifted above the human, the supreme moment given on the background of a bit of monastery garden? Nearly every cell is frescoed with paintings of similar spiritual character. ‘Jere a Christ on the cross, with a group of mourning women and saints of the church gathered about ; there a sweet, deep-eyed Jesus child, on the mother’s lap, looking out and beyond. One readily believes that Fra Angelico knelt in prayer before daring to paint a picture, so entirely is each of his paintings an act of worship, expressing his implicit faith and unworldly aspiration.

With Fra Lippo one must remember the orphaned and vagabond childhood, his early abandonment to the monastic life (for which he had no call) by the surviving relative whose only wish apparently was to be rid of the child’s support, the stories of his romantic adventures, which, even if the wildest of them be disbelieved, sufficiently indicate his character and experience. Let one recall the legend, accepted evidently without question by those who regarded themselves as his descendants, of his carrying away to his home the novice, Lucrezia Buti, who served as his model while painting the. frescoes at Prato, of his union with her from which Filippino Lippi was born. Can-not one then understand why Fra Lippo’s angels are sweet girls from Prato and Florence, why he paints the charm of nature, the faces of monks and worldlings just as they were, why there is no spiritual appeal in all his work, while his demure madonnas seem ever about to break into a laugh as if they too appreciated the absurdity of Fra Lippo Lippi’s attempting to paint madonnas?

Let us take a brief concrete illustration from a field of art, poetry, that may be introduced here. The two masters who divided the leader-ship of English. poetry during the middle of the nineteenth century, each left, fortunately for our purpose, a brief confession of faith in beautiful poetic form, written toward the close of life. Tennyson asked that Crossing the Bar be placed at the end of every complete edition’ of his works, while Browning’s Epilogue to Asolando appeared as the concluding poem of the little book which was published on the day of the author’s death. Thus we are war-ranted in taking these as final confessions of the two masters. Both artists were English-men, contemporaries, subject to much the same influences ; yet compare the two expressions, turning first to Tennyson.


“Sunset and evening star, And one clear call for me! And may there be no moaning of the bar, When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep, Too full for sound and foam, When that which drew from out the boundless deep Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell, And after that the dark ! And may there be no sadness of farewell, When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place The flood may bear me far, I hope to see my Pilot face to face When I have crost the bar.”

Tennyson’s lyric makes its full impression at a single reading. There is no doubt as to its meaning, and this is given with the direct simplicity of the highest art. The imagery is majestic, restrained and entirely clear. The music is so liquid and pellucid that to attempt to set the lyric to music is usually to lower the moving beauty of its melody. The whole poem is an example of art so perfect as to seem spontaneous nature, yet consciously molded in every detail of its construction. This is particularly evident in the music, which depends not only upon the open, liquid sound of the words, but still more on the handling of the meter. The stanzas are all simple quatrains, dominately in iambic measure—the simplest foot in English ; yet with subtle changes producing the most artists effect. The first line, for example, scanned prosaocally would read:

Sunset and evening star;

but it is not that at all. It is :

set and evening star;

really two dactyls and a strong syllable. Note how the change brings out the hinging words, “sunset” and “star,” on which the imagery and meaning of the poem alike depend.

The second line is a regular three-foot iambic; the third a long swinging line of five feet, which we tend to read more rapidly; while the movement slows down again in the closing three-foot, monosyllabic line.

The second stanza begins with the long sweeping five-foot line, followed by a slower three-foot line, again monosyllabic; then once more the five feet; while the last line is irregular in meter like the first in the poem. Scanned as regular iambic, it would be:

Turns again home.

On the contrary it reads :

Turns again home.

making really one dactyl and one strong syllable. With what inexpressible tenderness and impressiveness that hinging word of the whole poem,. “home,” is borne in upon us by the melody, through the slight irregularity of the meter.

Once more the same irregularity occurs—at the beginning of stanza three :

Twilight and evening bell.

Again it is the definitive, image-carrying words of the poem which receive the impressive accent. Don’t think these variations accidental: there are no accidents in art. Often the artist may not be conscious of certain details of his technique ; but he is poet just because he chooses instinctively the melodiously appropriate word and the inevitable meter. With Tennyson, however, preëminently conscious artist, working deliberately for effects after a life-time of technical training, it is hard not to believe that results such as those cited above were planned and consciously molded.

In content the poem expresses the matured faith of Tennyson’s life, attained after battling with doubt in the arena of his century, facing and accepting, if reluctantly, the last generalizations of science, and journeying through the “Divine Comedy” of In Memoriam. It is simply the generic heart of Christianity, freed from limitations of sect and eccentricities of dogma, lifted and voiced in its essential meaning for the soul of man. From the questionings of his own mind and the feverish and clouded struggles of his time, Tennyson turns to rest on the bosom of this faith of so many generations of humanity, and in so doing finds peace.

Now turn to Browning:


“At the midnight in the silence of the sleep-time, When you set your fancies free, Will they pass to where—by death, fools think, imprisoned Low he lies who once so loved you, whom you loved so, —Pity me?

Oh to love so, be so loved, yet so mistaken! What had I on earth to do With the slothful, with the mawkish, the unmanly? Like the aimless, helpless, hopeless, did I drivel —Being—who?

One who never turned his back but marched breast forward, Never doubted clouds would break, Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph, Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better, Sleep to wake.

No, at noonday in the bustle of man’s work-time Greet the unseen with a cheer ! Bid him forward, breast and back as either should be, ‘Strive and thrive!’ cry ‘Speed,—fight on, fare ever There as here!’ ”

One is first of all impressed with the difficulty in reading the poem. It does not yield up its heart at once: one must know in advance something of the situation implied even to understand its meaning. One must think of Browning as speaking to some intimate friend with reference to that friend’s thought of him when death has taken him. Will you pity me, I being who? In the latter half of the poem Browning answers splendidly the question, affirming who he is, and proclaiming what should be the sound attitude toward one who, after fighting straightforwardly, with unfaltering courage and faith, the battle here, has passed on to the next chapter in the unseen.

The imagery is strong and fresh, but involved, passing quickly from one suggested picture to another, with nothing of the calm re-strained vision of Tennyson. The music is any-thing but pellucid, yet music undoubtedly there is. The verse is trochaic (– ), further away from common speech than iambic and more difficult to write. The lines are most irregular in length, varying from the dominant long six-foot line, opening each stanza, to the incisive, short, truncated two-foot line with which each closes. In the entire five-line stanza there are but two lines rhymed—the second and last, both short lines; and the single rhyme thus brings the music of the stanza back into itself, thus clinching the effect. All these elements of fresh, irregular music unite with the virile but often unmelodious words in a strong, inspiring trumpet call. If Tennyson’s music is like the melodious wash of the slow-moving waves of a summer sea upon the sand, this music is like the music of a North Sea storm.

Equally striking is the contrast with Tennyson in thought. Browning’s faith is also in a deep sense Christian, but it does not depend upon the centuries of historic belief and the record of what happened in the past, as Tennyson’s. On the contrary, it springs directly from life. Because life has justified itself in so far as one has struggled toward the best, each chapter of pain or joy, failure or achievement, finding its significance in the growing man who is at each point the net resultant of all his yesterdays, Browning dares to believe that the untried will justify itself also, even in the dark shadow of death at the end of the path, and the unseen that lies past its mystery. His unquestioning faith in immortality springs from his life itself, in his simply daring to believe that the little arc of his experience some-how gives the curve of the infinite circle of God’s truth.

Hence the function of the two men in relation to the modern spirit. Tennyson voiced the weight of despair that came with the discoveries and generalizations of modern science, the stumbling

“Upon the great world’s altar stairs That slope through darkness up to God,”

the wail of the child in the dark and the serene answer of historic faith, achieved through his own struggles in the Gethsemane of suffering. Browning, on the other hand, voiced a range of ideas still beyond us, shining like stars in the heaven of the spirit to guide our path. No wonder Tennyson was the most popular poet of his time; while Browning, losing any large public response for the middle twenty years of his creative life, has still to wait for his full audience.

Thus behind each of these lyric confessions is the whole personality and experience of the artist. It is no accident that Tennyson postponed his personal happiness in marriage for twenty years for the sake of his art; while Browning’s marriage—practically an elopement, under circumstances to which every biological and prudential counsel would have been opposed, but which in this instance was right —was a splendid masculine response to a great call of personal life. Tennyson was sensitive, shy, aristocratic and retiring, looking out from the seclusion of his watch-tower on the world of humanity, and solacing himself with a wonderland of chivalric dreams. Browning was forceful, impetuous, masculine, democratic in sympathy, interested in every phase of man and woman, and living vigorously in the world. Tennyson lived to write; in a profoundly true sense Browning wrote to live. Thus all that the man was, in each instance, is incarnate in the two perfect bits of art.

It will be said that it is the biographies of these men that help us to understand the art. Yes, the principle works both ways; but contrast the revelation of personality in a work of art with what is given in the usual biography. The tendency of biography is to give chiefly external incident, which gossip may seize upon and which is truly interpreted only in relation to the character. “By their fruits ye shall know them,” if you know all the fruit; but to judge the tree by one accidentally rotten apple at the end of the bough is surely unfair ; yet that is what we do constantly in estimating human beings. Art, on the other hand, confesses, not the incident of the life, but the seul of the character, so that we get the confession only when we rise to the plane on which it is given. Thus such an expression of the heart of life can scarcely be misunderstood. We either get it, or fail to get it.

Of Andrea del Sarto, for instance, we have a gossipy biography by Vasari. We know his facile genius, early successes, his timid spirit and the insignificant returns he received for his work. We have the more or less trust-worthy story of his apparently unworthy love affair and marriage, and sad personal life. Vasari ought to have known the incidents with reasonable accuracy, since he worked for a time as pupil in Andrea’s studio.

Put it all aside, and stand in the presence of those strangely elusive paintings that are everywhere in Florence : that Madonna of the Harpies with the sensuously molded body and beautiful oval face, but with no touch of conscious motherhood toward the child in her arms ; that young St. John with the wonderfully lucent eyes, promising to be the masterpiece—the masculine counterpart of the Sistine Madonna, but which, after your hour before it, you sadly acknowledge just misses its aim; that Deposition from the Cross with its play of light and shadow, the wonderful white body of the dead Christ, the restrained sorrowing of the mother and passionate out-pouring of human grief in Mary Magdalen. Go out to San Salvi and study his marvelous Last Supper, strong yet delicate in color, subtle in its psychology, interpreting the inner life with a sensitiveness and appreciation worthy of modern times. Almost every one of the disciples seems asking himself the question, “Could I do it?”; while of all the faces the most powerfully moving is the Judas, who sits at the right hand of Christ. Leaning forward on the balls of his feet, one hand pressed against his breast, the other stretched out in a hopelessly appealing gesture, the face wan and sensitive under the tangled mass of hair : it is the one possible Judas I have seen in a painting. Return to the galleries of Florence and stand once more before the numerous self-portraits of Andrea, painted in profile or half-shadow, the face sensitive and hungry—almost that of his own Judas—the face of a man who, if he loved aright, could be lifted to great heights of achievement, while if his love were misplaced he might be led on and down to ruin. Then at last we understand and may even come to say: I know you, Andrea del Sarto, across the centuries I know your soul. It is something to be understood, is it not—even late-when one is filled with the sense of despairing loneliness and the bitter ache of failure gnaws at the heart? They did not understand you—the people about you, Lucrezia and the rest; but for any man who has put his soul into forms of beauty the day of appreciation will dawn. It is they who, despairing alone, have never been able to sing the song or paint the picture, whose lot is most hard.

Similarly we have a record of Chopin’s outer life. We know his sensitive, melancholy temperament, his struggles and disappointments, something of his love-affairs and the story of his social and artistic success ; but how much deeper is the revelation of the man through his music. When we listen to those strangely moving melodies, those harmonies pushed al-most to discord, those appeals to sad and ten-der sentiment till the very heart strings ache, we come to know the soul of Chopin with all its burden of revelation, its painful struggles, far-reaching hungers and aspirations.