ALL works of art are equally subject to rule, though in all of them this may not equally appear. Every animal frame is alike supported and moved by bone and muscle and sinew, although in some bodies this is much more obvious than it is in others. As in a perfectly formed natural frame the causes of its operation are concealed from our view; so in a corresponding manner in a work of art, should the action of its regulating principles be thrown into shade by the splendour of the effect resulting from their complete adaptation.
The leading principles by which art in general is mainly regulated are of two distinct kinds, and may be defined as those by which we delineate or describe different objects and subjects with efficiency, so as distinctly, forcibly, adequately, and with propriety to represent them; and those by which we describe objects, or subjects, so as to affect the mind with various exalted and refined emotions and excitements corresponding with their own nature. The former we may aptly term the principles of delineation, the latter the principles of the picturesque. Both are included in the principles of design. The reason is the main director of the principles of delineation. Taste of those of the picturesque.
In the case of art, as in all other pursuits, rules have their appointed use, but they cannot serve for purposes beyond their legitimate sphere of operation. In works of real genius, indeed, attention to rule is only subservient and contributory to the perfection of the whole. In works without genius, attention to rule constitutes their sole merit. Works of genius are appealed to in support of rules, because from their success the advantage of rule is deduced, and its importance is illustrated. In works of no genius, instead of their supporting the rule, it is resorted to, to support them. In the one case, they give life and energy to the rule. In the other, it gives life and energy to them. In the one case, rule merely controls ; in the other, the rule of itself originates the action of the machine.
Rules may, moreover, no doubt, be very serviceable in aiding us to avoid defects; but they can never prove available to enable us to attain by their means alone real excellence. Genius only can confer this capacity, which is quite beyond the reach of teaching of any kind. And this principle is applicable alike and equally to painting, poetry, sculpture, architecture, eloquence, and each of the arts.
Some individuals, nevertheless, appear not merely to prize rule on account of its advantageous application to art, but to value art only according as it serves to exemplify the rule. Such persons are so wedded to rule, the sole object of which is to produce grand artistical results, that they can admire the exhibition of the rule, while they disregard the result that it produced.
As many people are able to take great delight in the loveliness and fragrance of flowers without knowing anything of botany, and to luxuriate in the woods, although entirely ignorant of the natural history of trees ; so the most ecstatic charms may be conveyed by music, where the persons so affected know nothing of its technical rules or scientific practice ; and the beauties of architecture may be extensively admired by those who have never learned the principles by which the art is regulated. Indeed, in the case of each of the arts, whether painting, poetry, architecture, or music, the satisfaction derived from observing that a work of art is strictly con-formable to the rules prescribed, is quite distinct from the pleasure which is produced by the tasteful qualities of the work. The latter is, indeed, an emotion of a far higher order than the former.
It is in fact as impossible to form a great painter or poet merely by rule, out of a person who is not by nature capacitated to excel in these arts, as it would be to teach a blind man to describe the beauties and glories of nature around him. In each case the defect is the same,inability to perceive what he is required to portray. As regards the restraint which rules are said to impose upon genius, it may here be observed that restraint is of two kinds ; that which hinders all motion and exertion, and that which causes it to proceed only in accordance with certain principles. The first is the restraint of the chariot whose wheels are broken; the other is the restraint of a carriage on a railway, which cannot move except in the direction of its rails, but when so moving its speed is greatly accelerated by its being so placed. This latter kind of restraint is exactly that which the. principles of delineation and of design in general impose on each of the arts, and by which the followers of them are prevented from pursuing a course which would in reality retard the accomplishment of the end they have in view; while they are, on the other hand, aided in adopting a proper line, and their progress in this direction is rendered both sure and expeditious.
It is here, however, to be premised that great judgment and caution are required not only as to the correct framing, but as to the right use of these various principles. Applying, as we sometimes see done, the rules of criticism exclusively or peculiarly suitable to one kind of art to another of a totally different order, is as absurd and as erroneous as it would be to supply hay and corn to carnivorous animals which feed entirely on flesh. The food may be good and wholesome of its sort, and may be ministered in great abundance to the hungry animals ; but so long as it is in its quality essentially different from that on which nature has fitted them to thrive, they can never be expected to adopt it as their aliment.
The principles of design, of whatever kind, are all deducible from nature, and one and all derive their origin from this source alone, as I shall endeavour to point out in some of the succeeding sections.
In one sense, all these principles may be said to be fluctuating. In another sense, they may all be said to be fixed.
They all fluctuate as regards their strict, and are all fixed as regards their general application. Nature alone in the use of these principles appears to effect the happy medium of steering between extravagance on the one side, and inanimation or insipidity on the other.
The establishment of correct principles of design is on every account of the highest importance. They are like roads to lead us straight on our way. However swift our progress, unless it is in the direction of our object, we can never hope by this means to reach the goal. And the more thoroughly any one is imbued with the principles of his art, the more perfect may we expect his practice in it to be. These principles should serve as a chart in all emergencies. They may indeed some-times, and with advantage, be relaxed, or even departed from; but this must be always at the risk of him who ventures to dispense with their observance. And those only who possess sufficient strength, by the innate genius or vigour of their own minds, to do without them, should venture on so perilous an experiment. To work regardless of principle is, as it were, to fight without armour, or it may be compared to sailing without a compass.
Many of these principles may, however, be regarded as rather of a negative than a positive nature. Their main object, like a code of laws, is not so much to promote virtue as to prevent vice. Although the strictest observance of these rules can never of itself produce a great intellectual work of art; yet neither, on the other hand, can a truly great work of art be accomplished without regard to them. They form, as it were, the root of the tree, of which the higher excellences of genius are the fruit. Without the former the latter cannot exist. Without the latter the existence of the former is useless and unproductive. Thus rules, although they may entirely fail to confer excellences, may be quite efficient to correct defects. Excellences can spring only from the gift of nature. Defects may arise from the perversion of nature, and so admit of correction by rule, the application of which will not prove a violation, but merely a restoration of her authority.
In many cases, moreover, the illustration of a principle may be more forcibly effected by a negative example, than by one which is positive; by pointing out the evil arising from certain deficiencies, instead of demonstrating the good resulting from certain excellences. Thus Dante, whose beauties are many and great, affords nevertheless frequently a striking example of the result arising from a violation of the principles of art. In many of his representations, he is too gross and too material for the sublime and celestial topics with which he aspires to deal, in which respect he is far inferior to Milton, as also where he attempts the supernatural in imaginative description. Great violations of the rules of taste also occasionally occur in his poem, and many of his similes are poor and mean. Nevertheless, as a whole, with all its defects, the work of Dante must be pronounced to be an effort of great and original genius, and of stupendous imaginative power. In reality, indeed, the more lofty and grand is any attempt in art, the more liable is it to defects and blemishes, as is observable in the case not only of Dante, but of Milton, and also Shakspeare ; as, on the one hand, the artist is here mainly dependent on his own genius, and on the other hand, he has not here the aid of nature to guide him, as is the case in all his efforts of an ordinary kind. The more exalted is the sphere in which he seeks to soar, the greater are the perils which he has to en-counter; and on this very account, the greater also is the necessity for those rules which may contribute to his protection.
The manual dexterity with which the practical performance of art of any kind is effected is, however, quite distinct from the intellectual merit of the piece. A painting may imitate nature very servilely, a poem may rhyme in the most exact manner, or the skill in execution of a musical performance may astonish the most accomplished in the art; and yet as regards real intellectual power, true beauty, or grandeur, they may be altogether destitute of excellence. Precisely, indeed, what grammar in speech is to eloquence, delineation in painting is to picturesque representation. So also a map of a country, or a builder’s drawing for the elevation of an intended edifice, may be very perfect as regards the observance of the principles of delineation, while they are wholly wanting in picturesque qualities, or high intellectual characteristics. For whatever artistical merit works of this class possess, they are indebted rather to reason than to taste. Perfection in the latter only raises it to the rank of art. The first is the body, the latter the soul of the piece. A combination of the two constitutes the living intellectual being. The first without the second forms but a mere inanimate frame.
But then again, a work of art which possesses great merit, on account of the picturesque qualities with which it is endowed, may lose a large share of its excellence from a want of attention to, or a violation of the principles of delineation. This is analogous to the case of a very sublime soul being united to a deformed or diseased body.
Each of these two opposite principles should be, therefore, resorted to, to aid and to add to the effect of the other. The truth and force with which nature is imitated, which is attained by observance of the principles of delineation, should increase the intellectual beauty and power of the work, which is attained by the observance of the principles of the picturesque.
The consideration, adverted to in a former chapter, that the excitement of the mind in an agreeable or gratifying manner forms the origin and the foundation of each art, ought ever to be kept in view as a leading principle of design in art of either kind, so that every performance may be calculated to delight, as well as to excite us. The principles of design, including those of delineation, are to be deduced in each of the arts from the practice observable in leading works, and which the greatest masters in them have pursued. The rules of art are to be drawn from the productions of art, and not the productions of art formed from the rules. Nature herself, as she is seen to exist, first supplied and taught the principles of art, and from her inexhaustible mine the richest stores may be drawn. God gave these principles to nature, and nature gives them to man.
These rules can consequently be completely enunciated alone by an attentive and acute observation of the works of nature, and of those of art which most nearly vie with them. They are the results of actual experience only; the precious fruits of severe toil in this rich and very fertile field.