How To Judge A Picture – Drawing And Form

It is a common mistake of ours to suppose because we see therefore we are all-seeing, and because we know therefore we are all-knowing. Our senses tell us something and we at once jump at the conclusion that they tell us every thing.

Let us stand still a moment and listen to the distant sounds incessantly breaking the air like the roar of the ocean. People talking, windows rattling, carriages rumbling, bells clanging, whistles blowing. Here in the heart of the city, the sounds continue to fall hour after hour, day after day, yet the brain is indifferent and pays no heed to what the ear keeps telling it. Doubtless in this city of New York there are a hundred thou-sand men who daily light their cigars and cigarettes by the flame of alcohol burners in restaurants and cigar shops. While the tobacco is igniting every one of them looks steadily into the flame of the burner for some seconds. The flame originally is bluish, but as soon as the tobacco touches it it changes to purple, owing to the presence of potash in the latter. How many of the hundred thousand in the course of all their cigar-lighting experience ever noticed it ? Every hour of our lives we are placed in analogous positions. What we know and appreciate is but as a fillip to the great unknown. Here in the gallery the retina of the eye keeps photographing again and again countless beauties to which the brain is wholly indifferent. We are viewing pictures, looking at brilliant conceptions of form and color, seeing poetic fancies knocked off at white heat ; yet passing unseen a thousand flashing jewels which for all our appreciation of them might as well be in the “deep bosom of the ocean buried.”

What knowledge have we wherewith to decide the good or bad drawing of this or that picture? What do we know about form, and what do we know about nature? Let us put Mr. Ruskin’s question, ” How many ribs have we?” No answer. How are the muscles of the right arm distributed ? How many bones in the hand ? What is the shape of the collar-bone? Still no answers. We are not anatomists. Let us question regarding landscape. What is the difference between an oak leaf and a maple leaf ? between the trunk of the oak and the trunk of the elm ? In what way do the branches of the pine grow? Are grasses and green leaves dimmed or brightened by clouds in the sky ? Under what conditions do the emerald greens of the ocean appear ? Again we find that we are not naturalists; and did we continue the questions regarding humanity, towns, cities, the earth, the air, the sea, or the sky, as to their constituent parts and different appearances, the answers would still be vague and unsatisfactory.

So we know nothing positively; we have no exact knowledge, but in its place casually obtained impressions. It behooves us then to be very careful in passing criticism on other people’s study. Still, let us follow our impressions. It is not absolutely indispensable that we be scientists or anatomists. Good judgment and a sense of proportion with practice will teach us to note palpable falsehoods, and, for the rest, it is not necessary that we should look for pin-points of error with a microscope.

I cannot tell you in a few sentences any rules of drawing that would be of service to you in judging of pictures ; and even should I devote several chapters to the subject, you might learn something of theory but little of practice. You have a general impression of how the human figure looks, and if you would see it correctly drawn you would do well to study closely the works of Bouguereau, Gerome, Baudry, or Cabanel, among the moderns, and almost any of the Florentines, Romans, or Venetians among the ancients. We of to-day, who hide our nakedness under a mask of clothing, have gained from occasional glimpses of our own bodies, perhaps, only a poor idea of the human form ; but a study of the artists I have named may give some idea of the way we would have looked had nature been allowed to take its own course. Sometimes these artists make an elbow or a neck look queer by false shading, but that is trifling compared to the real truth and beauty, and at times even grandeur, with which they invest the nude form.

You possibly fancy that when clothes are put upon the figure the necessity for drawing and modeling vanishes, but such is not the case by any means. To make pictorial people that bear a re-semblance to life, and are not manikins, it is necessary that the artist should thoroughly under-stand the human form and be capable of drawing it. Clothes of any kind make but little difference, for the appearance of form must be shown under them. In one sense they hide the figure, and in another sense they reveal it. A little picture by John La Farge called “A Woman Sleeping,” exhibited at the Academy of Design a year or more ago, will illustrate my meaning to perfection, for in the figure there is the sense or feeling that the body is there, though hid-den by a dress. To be sure, costume offers an opportunity to many artists of shirking labor, which they make the most of by painting what is nothing more nor less than a studio dummy. It consists of a head, two hands, and two feet, projecting from what is supposed to be a body, but which is nothing in reality but an antique garment. In other words, there is no drawing under the clothing, no unity, no proportion, no life. It is well to keep a sharp lookout for the studio dummy, for he is a very prevalent person in commercial pictures, and the number of times that we accept him as a bona fide type of the genus homo is simply astounding.

Drawing in landscapes is not supposed to be so vitally important as in figure-pictures—a statement which always stirs up the blood of the landscapists—yet it is worthy of more consideration than is usually given it. Every thing in nature has its peculiar form, and though the trunk of a tree may grow in any one of a thousand shapes, and thus leave more latitude for the choice of the artist than the trunk of a man, yet, nevertheless, it requires good drawing to make it appear natural and graceful. This is true again of a bank, a cloud, a mountain, a river, or a brook-side. It will be harder for you to put your hand upon a certain feature of a landscape and say, “That is wrong,” than it will be in the human figure ; yet, as with the figure, practice and the observation of nature will make you capable of recognizing gross errors ; and for small defects, you are not to put your hand on them, nor notice them at all, unless they are so numerous as to hurt the picture.

The object of this talk is not to give you a start on the road toward hypercritical criticism, so that some day you will be able to grumble and pick petty flaws in works of art; but rather to aid you in distinguishing that which is palpably false from that which is generally true, and that you may thus better appreciate the true. As a rule, in technical matters we would do well to remember that the artist is an expert where the picture viewer is at best only a tyro; and that if we have studied the human form, the trees, the mountains, the rivers, and the clouds, the artist has done so likewise, not for a day or a week, but for a life-time–studied them not casually, but with a student’s eye, learning their form for a fixed purpose.

The perfection of drawing is a very fine thing, and we soon learn to recognize it by the consciousness that the impression received from the artist is true. And when that stage of knowledge is arrived at, a hint of an exactly opposite nature is required. There is such a thing as too perfect drawing in a picture, paradoxical as it may sound to say so. Things of life, a flower, a tree, a man, have the power of motion either passively or actively. Look to it that your artist by his exact lines has not made them incapable of motion. In other words, beware of hard, stiff figures looking as though made of marble, like the figures of Mantegna. The academic line may be correct in every point, and yet leave you but the outline of a stone statue. Immobility was the stumbling-block of David and Ingres, and you may see where it trips their followers, Cabanel, Gerome, and even Bouguereau occasionally. To give the appearance of life and motion artists often purposely distort the drawing—at least it will appear so to you—and in order to explain this I shall have to ramble a little to one side.

It is the attempt of every true artist to paint, not reality, but the appearance of reality. I have spoken of this before, and I now wish to emphasize it still further. You know if one whirls a torch, with one end of it in a glow of coals, rapidly around the head we will see a ring of fire. Is there a ring, or does it only appear so ? The wheel of a wagon in rapid motion seems to be a bewildering maze of spokes. Is it so in reality ? A shooting star passing across the sky appears to leave a train of light behind it even after it has disappeared. Again, is this really the case ? The explanation is simple. The retina of the eye retains the impression of the object for a short space of time after the reality has vanished. Could the appearance of whirling the torch be made apparent without the ring of fire ? or the wagon-wheel in motion without the blended spokes? or the shooting-star without its trail of light ? Paint the reality, and what would be the effect? The torch, the wheel, the shooting-star would be respectively standing still and not moving.

Now let us look at these Arab horsemen of Fromentin. The horse of this falcon-flier going at full speed has been criticised because, forsooth, the body is too long and the hind-quarters are stretched out behind instead of being compactly knit together. You yourself think it out of drawing, and, to tell the truth, it does look a little peculiar when we take the animal apart, and examine him piece by piece. But stand back and see the effect of the whole. Is not the motion, the life, the fire, the dash, superb? Could any thing give us a better impression of the swiftness of flight? But this is only appearance again, and not reality. You know how a running horse actually runs and jumps, for you have seen the Muybridge instantaneous photo-graphs of him—and a most unnatural, ungraceful combination of contortions he is. Now imagine this falconer astride of a horse painted after an instantaneous photograph, and could there be any thing more ridiculous ? It might be reality, but it would not be true to nature, as we see and know her, and it certainly would not do for art. At the races, when the horses are on the home-stretch, they are put to their greatest speed. It is then that the gilded youth in the checked suit speaks of them as “stretching out and hugging the ground.” We know what he means. The faster the horses go the more they appear to lengthen out, because the retina of our eye deceives us by retaining the vanished parts of the horse. You will now see why Fromentin’s horses are said to be badly drawn ; but I hope you will agree with me that the criticism is captious and ill – founded. The artist sought to convey the idea of swift flight, and he succeeded most admirably.

A similar objection has been brought to some of the figures of Blake and Michael Angelo. That they are out of drawing and distorted as compared with the immovable model is most true, and Blake and Michael Angelo knew it very well at the time, but chose to ignore the real for the apparent truth. Blake’s idea was to suggest motion, and if you will look at the long-limbed, uncanny figures in his illustrations of Europe you will see how well he carried out that idea. As for Michael Angelo, his line is like the mighty wave of a sea. It carries us along with the resist-less idea of power. To be sure, we can make rules for the waves, as for all things. They should be of a certain height, breadth, weight, they should flow so far, and ebb so much, and the rule for general use may be true and practicable ; but when genius comes men and laws and yard-sticks are all swept away by the first breaker.

Blake and Michael Angelo and Fromentin were right. The perfect drawing of the Venus of Milo would not give the appearance of a living woman. The line would be too rigid. The human figure is ever moving, swaying, respiring, absorbing. It is never still as marble except when lifeless. The nudes of Henner or Diaz or Millet in which the outlines are blurred or lost will give a good idea of what I mean. They live and breathe in the atmosphere of their surroundings; they are placed in atmosphere, and not against it ; they move and are moved by a physical life. Something of a similar nature will be found in almost all the work of Correggio, in Titian, in Delacroix, in John La Farge. In deed, the more familiar we become with both nature and art the keener will we appreciate the truth that there is something more in drawing than the crowding of flesh-notes into an outline of a human figure. It is well, then, that we should not rely too much upon the academic line, for it may be true to reality and anatomy, yet false to art and the apparent; it may keep the word of promise in the letter, yet break it in the spirit; it may destroy life by immobility, and beauty by conventionality.

In landscape we have already instanced how all things move and sway either by an active or passive force, and the same caution against the too Procrustean line is applicable here. Landscape is not a piece of embroidery cast upon a background of the sky, but a consistent mass blended together by a natural affinity. Once more the saying is true that there are few lines in nature. A wind, a cloud, a ray of light may make them come and go like the scenes of a. magic lantern. Yet it is very hard for us to realize that nature is not immovable. We get an impression that she is a fixed fact—no one knows how—and we retain it—no one knows why —with all the tenacity of ignorant obstinacy even when our superiors, the artists, try to show us a different way of looking at her. You are ready to find fault with Corot, Rousseau, Diaz, and Daubigny because the leaves of their trees are not drawn and finished so that you can see each one, You think that Mr. Ruskin is right in railing at the “blottesque style,” and that such foliage as they produced never was seen in this world. Well, all rests with those who see. It may be as you think, but it argues something that these men after looking at foliage all their lives thought they saw it blurred and swaying instead of rigid and immovable like the needles of a Christmas-tree. To paint foliage they took the appearance of the whole in mass, not the appearance of the part in detail. They painted precisely what they saw, not what they knew to exist. Botanical knowledge of leaves and their growth is not half so much needed in landscape-painting as clear eyes to catch momentary impressions. And the strongest impression one receives from foliage is that of a transparent movable mass of color and light and shade. Comparatively speaking, it has no drawing. A chair, a building, an animal may be chiefly remarkable for line, but how do we recognize a snow-bank, a cloud, or a bunch of leaves? Certainly not by line, but rather by qualities such as color, lightness, transparency, shadow inequalities. If one should take up a rose and exclaim, ” What a perfect form!” we would think the exclamation a strange one. We would expect to hear something like, ” What lovely color ! how delicate, light, and fluffy!” A mass of foliage moving or having the power of motion and reduced to picture size will appear to be nothing but color and broken lights and shades. Especially is this true if the sight be focused upon one central feature, such as light. In such a case, as we have already attempted to set forth, the foliage, if at the sides, would be obscure and indistinct. Look at a word in the center of a page of type, and how distinctly can you see the words at the bottom or top ? Does not distinctness vanish into uncertainty in an ever-widening circle from the center of vision ?

Again, if the question of the truth or the falsity to nature be entirely thrown out of consideration, we shall see that it is necessary for art’s sake that details be suppressed. Leaves, grass, sticks, weeds, are not the most important things in landscape. The less is not entitled to so much consideration as the greater; and to heighten the value of the latter the former must be subordinated. There is a law of concentration in painting as in the drama which requires the sacrifice of the inferior for the glory of the superior. It was spoken of before, and we shall soon have occasion to speak of it again.

The perfect line in landscape is even worse in its effects than in the figure. It renders nature rigid, statuesque, immovable, which she never is ; it constrains the genius of the artist within certain conventional boundary lines, whereas his model is unconstrained, and capable of a thousand moods; it centers the attention upon nature’s external form, so that the internal spirit, the deeper, nobler, truer part of her, lacks interpretation and is lost. You have heard the saying of the School of Fine Arts that ” form is absolute.” Take the saying, which is more absolute than the form, with a grain of allowance. If it were literally true the painter’s occupation would be gone, for the camera is more absolutely perfect than the hand of any artist, past or present. There is something more in art than accuracy, and something more in painting than form and line. Color is an element, motion is an element; life, zest, power, thought, feeling, passion, all enter into the problem; and, lastly, there is the individuality of genius, which is often more absolute in its sway than all the other considerations put together. Blake, Michael Angelo, Millet, Corot, Rousseau, Troyon, all possessed this last quality, and when we are in the presence of their works we are quite willing to throw aside all rules and accept simply their say-so in place of them. For such is the strength of individuality, the power of genius, that it pushes aside the conventional barriers set up to restrain it, and its very defiance of rule, looked upon at first with disapproval, finally becomes a rule of action for others to follow.