French Art – Classic Sculpture – Style

WHAT do we mean by style ? Something, at all events, very different from manner, in spite of Mr. Hamerton’s insistence upon the contrary. Is the quality in virtue of which—as Mr. Dobson paraphrases Gautier

” The bust outlives the throne, The coin Tiberius”

the specific personality of the artist who carved the bust or chiselled the coin that have thus out-lived all personality connected with them ? Not that personality is not of the essence of enduring art. It is, on the contrary, the condition of any vital art whatever. But what gives the object, once personally conceived and expressed, its currency, its universality, its eternal interest—speaking to strangers with familiar vividness, and to posterity as to contemporaries—is something aside from its per-sonal feeling. And it is this something and not specific personality that style is. Style is the in-visible wind through whose influence “the lion on the flag ” of the Persian poet ” moves and marches.” The lion of personality may be painted never so deftly, with never so much expression, individual feeling, picturesqueness, energy, charm ; it will not move and march save through the rhythmic, waving influence of style.

Nor is style necessarily the grand style, as Arnold seems to imply, in calling it “a peculiar recasting and heightening, under a certain condition of spiritual excitement, of what a man has to say in such a manner as to add dignity and distinction to it.” Perhaps the most explicit examples of pure style owe their production to spiritual coolness ; and, in any event, the word ” peculiar ” in a definition begs the question. Buffon is at once juster and more definite in saying: “Style is nothing other than the order and movement which we put into our thoughts.” It is singular that this simple and lucid utterance of Buffon should have been so little noticed by those who have written in English on style. In general English writers have apparently misconceived, in very curious fashion, Buffon’s other re-mark, ” le style c’est l’homme ; ” by which aphorism Buffon merely meant that a man’s individual manner depends on his temperament, his character, and which he, of course, was very far from suspecting would ever be taken for a definition.

Following Buffon’s idea of ” order and movement,” we may say, perhaps, that style results from the preservation in every part of some sense of the form of the whole. It implies a sense of relations as well as of statement. It is not mere expression of a thought in a manner peculiar to the artist (in words, color, marble, what not), but it is such expression penetrated with both reminiscence and anticipation. It is, indeed, on the contrary, very nearly the reverse of what we mean by expression, which is mainly a matter of personal energy. Style means correctness, precision, that feeling for the ensemble on which an inharmonious detail jars. Expression results from a sense of the value of the detail. If Walt Whitman, for example, were what his admirers’ defective sense of style fancies him, he would be expressive. If French academic art had as little ex-pression as its censors assert, it would still illustrate style—the quality which modifies the native and apposite form of the concrete individual thing with reference to what has preceded and what is to follow it ; the quality, in a word, whose effort is to harmonize the object with its environment. When this environment is heightened, and universal instead of logical and particular, we have the ” grand style ; ” but we have the grand style generally in poetry, and to be sure of style at all prose—such prose as Goujon’s, which in no wise emulates Michael Angelo’s poetry—may justifiably neglect in some degree the specific personality that tends to make it poetic and individual.

( Originally Published 1892 )

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