How To Judge A Picture – Ideas And Subjects

We have arrived at the conclusion that painting is a means of conveying to the world an artist’s ideas, impressions, or emotions precisely as poetry is the poet’s method of revealing to mankind his conceptions and fancies. Be patient with my theories a little longer, for I must try to explain to you the kind of ideas fitted for representation in art. This is necessary, or you will become possessed of the notion that the idea in art is synonymous with the idea in literature ; and this is an error into which you must not fall.

When one talks to the artists about ideas in pictures they immediately think you mean something literary—something that shall tell a story and hold you by the strength of the plot. This misconception is not with the painters alone, but, in fact, with the great majority of people. They seem to draw no line of distinction between the art of painting and the art of novel-writing, erroneously thinking the former but another way of producing the latter. The English and American people in particular, favor the “tell-a-story ” art, and a sentimental Sunday-school tale in paint is the notion of a picture entertained by a large majority of them. It is quite impossible to make people understand that there is such a thing as a literary conception, or a conception fitted for literature, and such a thing as a pictorial conception, or a conception fitted for pictures. There is little use in abusing the painter for not comprehending the field of his art when the poet and the novelist are likewise mistaken in their fields. The artist rambles out of his sphere to usurp the place of the novelist by telling a story, and the novelist goes out of his sphere to paint a picture with words. Let us try to fence off the arts in their several departments.

Ideas of all kinds are conveyed to the mind through the five senses. Three of these senses are not supposed to be aesthetic, or related to the arts, so we will cast them aside. They are the senses of smell, touch, and taste. The senses of sight and hearing remain, and we will confine ourselves to ideas conveyable through them alone. Those ideas which can be well told to the one sense have no reason for being poorly told to the other sense. There are things that beggar description, and they must be seen to be appreciated ; there are sounds the eye cannot take cognizance of, and they must be heard. Let me illustrate this. You, for instance, try to tell one of a certain place where you have been; you try to describe it; you flounder in words, and at last, recognizing your poverty of language, you catch up a scrap of pa-per, draw a few lines, and point to them, saying: “There; it looks like that.” What does this prove but that the ear will not adequately picture forms and that the eye will ? The idea is pictorial, and requires to be told with line, shadow, or color, not with words. Take the face of a friend that you know well, and can you give to a stranger any word-description of that friend’s face whereby the stranger could recognize it ? Certainly not; but you bethink you of a photograph or portrait, it is brought, and the eye immediately conceives the image which the mind through the sense of hearing alone could not grasp. The idea again is pictorial.

Let us illustrate the other side of the case. Here is Childe Harold standing on the Alban Mount giving rein to his majestic thoughts on the enduring might of the ocean. How could it be painted ? A picture might chow a cliff, and a gloomy Byronic-looking man standing upon it, but how could the painter tell you what the man is thinking about ? For all his frowning brow and gloomy look he might be thinking of yacht-racing, bank-stocks, or his own dyspeptic constitution. The idea is literary, and requires language, not form or color. Here, again, is Lady Dedlock seated by the fire uneasily waving her fan, and opposite her is Mr. Guppy trying to extract from her by diplomatic talk her terrible secret. How do you know that they are Lady Dedlock and Mr. Guppy, and why will the picture not answer for Mr. and Mrs. Robinson just returned from a drive? What intimation can the painter give you of any terrible secret ?

From this we may learn that there are certain features of life that must be described to the eye, and other features that must be told to the ear. Those features of which the eye takes chief cognizance, such as form, color, light, belong strictly to painting; while those which relate to abstract life, such as thought, speech, mood, or motive, belong to literature. External appearance can be much better pictured than described, and to do this is the painter’s peculiar province ; but if he goes beyond this, and tries to tell us what his characters have been doing, what they are thinking about, or what they are going to do, he oversteps the boundary of his art. He attempts something that can be better told in literature. The painter can portray what his characters are doing at the moment, and suggest what they anticipate doing the next moment. He may also suggest what they are thinking about at the present time, but this power of suggestion is limited in scope.

An instance in point is this “Missionary’s Story” by Vibert, already mentioned. You understand what the story is, or at least you imagine that the missionary is a returned pilgrim and is telling of all his strange adventures, pointing to his wounds by way of confirmation. But you never got that story from the picture except by a strong stretch of the imagination. You simply looked in the catalogue and read the title, and that gave you a slight foundation upon which to romance. A picture should be its own raison detre, independent of any title whatever. When it requires a titular explanation it leans upon literature—an entirely unnecessary performance. Yet even then the picture under consideration is incomplete. You imagine the romantic side of the missionary’s life, and fancy that he got the wound he is exhibiting while defending the faith in some distant land. I choose, for the sake of argument, to be iconoclastic, and imagine that he came by his wound in an altercation with the footman down stairs, and that he is now before the masters complaining of inhospitable treatment. Now look at the picture and see if it does not tell my story almost as truly as it does yours. Do you not see that, whatever story the picture is striving to tell, it is usurping the place of literature, and saying something to your eye which should be told to your ear ?

Gerome’s tulip picture is another case in point.

You do not understand it, nor do you like it, because you fail to understand why that man is standing there among the flowers. Were the title a little more definite perhaps you would under-stand it better ; but, as I have observed before, a painter should not paint his meaning in the catalogue with the letters of the alphabet. The meaning should be in the picture, not the title. Both pictures are bad, for in each case the motive is literary, not pictorial.

On the contrary, paintings that are strictly pictorial, and are beautiful in themselves independent of any title, exist by the thousands. The ancients almost always painted them (look at the Prophets and Sibyls in the Sistine again, the Crucifixions, the Descents, the Madonnas, and the Saints), and the moderns, especially the French, do likewise. The peasant figures of Millet, Breton, Israels, Frere, the dramatic pieces of Delacroix, the Eastern scenes of Decamps, Marilhat, and Fromentin, Corot’s landscapes, Clay’s sea pieces, Meissonier’s horsemen, even Fortuny’s armor and silks, Desgoffe’s china, and Vollon’s pumpkins, are all pictorial, and by any other names than those in the catalogue would look quite as beautiful.

Perhaps, then, it is unnecessary to further exemplify the limitations of painting. It cannot adequately tell a story, recite an epic, or depict a drama, but must confine itself to giving a view of the appearance of things at the living moment. In other words, it must be picturesque and cannot effectively be literatesque. With the under-standing, then, that it is the painter’s province to set forth only pictorial conceptions and impressions, let us look about and see what conceptions usually find expression in painting, and what subjects they are generally portrayed in. And I wish to begin here by abusing that which is simply funny, pretty, vulgar, or low in art.

The burlesque and the ludicrous have no place whatever in serious painting. It may make you smile to see bears, monkeys, mice, rabbits, cats, and other animals dressed in men’s clothing aping humanity, but allow me to say to you that it is not the proper aim of painting to make people smile. Black and white drawings of such things in our comic papers are well enough-in fact, enjoyable and healthy—but to paint them on canvas is a degradation of art akin to the appearance of the low comedy man in the sleep-walking scene from Macbeth. If you will look at the “Angelus ” of Millet long enough you will realize that art may make people weep, but is no end-man’s medium for the production of horse-laughter. For myself I have little admiration for the comic scenes of life—the funny monk, the grotesque negro, the ” smart ” child, or the piquant soubrette but you will understand that this is perhaps a prejudice on my part. I cannot see that the comic has any more place in painting than in sculpture or architecture. It is much too earnest an art for jest, however light. But there are others who think differently.

Pass by the funny, at least, as quite unworthy of attention, and also, as a rule, the insipid.. The pretty head in art is not unlike the pretty head in nature. There is generally little in it. Our mod-ern ” ideal ” heads are merely weak imitations of some things that have been seen somewhere, some-how, by the artist, and reproduced from memory. Their worst fault is that they are quite devoid of character, and for that reason hold low rank in art. In their way they are pleasing enough, and do no harm, but they are not great. The works of Bouguereau and Henner have been spoken of already as illustrating this type. To. be sure, these artists compensate for lack of character by strength in other features, but that is no argument for the pretty or the insipid.

Again, the paintings of the Impressionists, believers in paint for eccentricity’s sake, will often show the absolutely inane without even the decorative effect of prettiness. They, too, have virtues of technical skill, but these do not wholly make up for their vices of choice. You may remember the “Pink Woman with Parrot” and the ” Boy with a Sword,” by Manet, shown in the Bartholdi Loan Collection some years ago. The painting displayed in them was excellent, but the thinking would have disgraced a sixteenyear-old school-boy. The subjects were absolutely silly, and the woman and boy characterless idiots. About the only idea in the language of these artists is one regarding the dexterity of their fingers. Mentally compare the face of the woman by Manet with the face of the Delphic Sibyl by Michael Angelo, and you will see the difference between an artist of no imagination and one whose mental strength was even greater than his skill as a draughtsman. The portrait heads by Rembrandt, Franz Hals, Holbein, and Velasquez, however wrinkled or irregular in feature, when compared with the pretty or inane portraits of a Carlo Dolci or a Manet quickly prove how vastly superior and more beautiful is a characteristic face than one that is simply symmetrical in outline or stupid in its brilliancy of paint.

The low finds its way into art quite as often as the inane, and for it we are indebted to those who have been taught that what is painted is nothing as compared with how it is painted. It is not an uncommon performance for some of our so-called realists to drag in a wretched mendicant from the street and paint him just as he may be found. If it is not a beggar or a tramp, then it is something of a kindred nature—a boot-black, a rag-picker, a hog’s head on a chopping-block, a bar-room, a pig-sty, or a slaughter-pen. The artists find their warrant for the use of such material in some of the masterpieces of Dutch art. They point with pride to Jan Steen, Adriaan Brouwer, and even Rembrandt, and it must be admitted that many excellent pictures with just such subjects have been painted. Rembrandt’s picture in the Louvre representing nothing but a ” Dressed Beef ” has been often instanced as a proof that the subject of a picture is of no consequence provided it is well painted. But the method of reasoning is delicious in its fallacy. Let us apply it. Rembrandt was clever enough to make a picture out of a slaughtered ox ; ergo, slaughtered oxen are the best materials out of which to make pictures. The ” Dressed Beef ” is a tour de force of painting and color, that is all; and the works of Steen, Brouwer, and others of their ilk, succeed by virtue of splendid technique and a fresh manner of painting. Because a man of genius can conjure beauty out of ugliness, as a magician transforms a turnip into a rose, is no argument in favor of either ugliness or turnips. Regnault’s “Execution without Judgment,”* Fortuny’s “Butcher,”t and the horrors of Goya at Madrid are all beautiful, yet not because of their subjects, but rather in spite of them.

Let us, as a general rule, disregard the pretty, the inane, and the low in art, always, of course, making allowances for other excelling virtues. It would seem as though there were plenty of good art-material in the world, even in the common-place, without resorting to the insipid or the repellent. An idea of a yellow pumpkin and an iron pot may not be the loftiest conception in the world, but it is not unpleasant, and when it is treated so artistically as it has been by Vollon * may be called beautiful—very beautiful. This may be true of fruits, flowers, game, rugs, draperies, china, brasses, armor, bric-a-brac, and objets d’art in general. Such things are not great in them-selves, nor, as a rule, are those who paint them. The man of imagination can find little use for such materials; yet inasmuch as there are hundreds of good painters who are ”devoid of imagination, and must ” realize ” only what they see, it is perhaps better that they choose such subjects. Skill of hand, good grouping, color, and an artistic feeling, such as we have noted in Vollon, or such as may be seen in the Dutch, French, or Spanish schools, may elevate such work very far above decoration. There is a good deal in the doctrine of “paint for paint’s sake,” or of art in the artist. Baudry’s-line of the human form, Fortuny’s walls and marbles, Madrazo’s silks and satins, Zamacois’s color, may each, of themselves, be sufficient to make a picture. To be sure such themes may be but pretexts to show the artist’s power, and not his passion ; but then let us be thankful for what we can get. We live in a very practical age, and the standard of merit is what one can do, and not what one can contemplate or think of doing.

In the same category with the bric-a-brac-Dres, den china-fancy costume pictures, we should place those which seek only to convey an idea of “nature as she is” regarding studio interiors, drawing-rooms, taverns, streets, groups, animals, landscape. Lest you misunderstand, I wish to explain this last sweeping remark immediately. The simple forms that we all alike see in nature are no better for the reproduction upon canvas. A facsimile is not an improvement on the original. But when our artist adds to some natural beauty that which I have called his artistic feeling—his artistic view or treatment—then his picture is increased in value. This I have just explained by the instance of Vollon and others, and may further exemplify it in the art of Bouguereau, who has the poorest conceivable imagination, and is utterly devoid of sympathy and sentiment, yet draws the human figure with an artistic power wonderful to behold. A feeling for color, an enthusiasm, a fiery dash with the brush, rescue much of Fortuny’s slighter work from the commonplace ; and the simple painting of faces, clothes, woods, and walls in Leibl’s interiors * often makes us forget the slightness of his theme. These men are great technicians, and whatever they may do, howsoever slight it may be, you will find that they work with the sense and feeling of true artists.

When in addition to this painter’s sense or feeling our artist begins to see things in nature that we do not, and place upon canvas what he alone sees, his picture is still more increased in value. He becomes an interpreter of hidden beauty, a revealer of unknown truths, a translator of an unwritten language. And now we come to look upon him as the possessor of what is called ” poetic feeling.” There is something of the poet in him; he sees farther, deeper, and truer than other men ; and, not content with external form, he strives to bring forth the spirit of nature. You will note that now nature is being added to. The subjective element of thought or poetry in the man is corning in for recognition, and proportionately as this increases does his art advance and become stronger. This poetic feeling or peculiar view of nature may be seen in many of our American artists, especially among the younger landscape painters. (Yes, there are many excellent artists in America, and I would not advise you or any one else to sneer at them. They are not sneered at in Paris, and if you will read the leading art periodicals of Europe you may conceive a new and lofty respect for your fellow-countrymen.) It is very noticeable in the landscapes of Daubigny, Dupre, Corot, Diaz, and others of the French school, in the peasant figures of Millet, Breton, and Israels, and in the Eastern pieces of Decamps, Marilhat, and Fromentin.

In another work* I have called this poetic feeling an unconsciously conceived idea, a vague perception indistinctly seen and suggestively realized; and such I believe it to be. It has its origin, no doubt, in the peculiar manner in which the painter views nature, or in the effect which nature may produce upon his emotional temper, or in both together. He sees or feels something that surpasses his complete description, and which he can only faintly indicate in his picture. The art which gives us this suggestion only of hidden meanings is about as high as the average of genius ever attains, though there is a higher art which comes upon earth only with the birth of Shakespeares and Michael .Angelus. But we should not be dissatisfied or ungrateful for the art which shows us only poetic feeling. The great artists come too rarely for us to treat the less ones lightly. Raphael painted many good pictures, but only one ” Sistine Madonna,”* and so Corot painted much morning light, but only one great ” .Danse des Amours ” and only one “Orpheus.” The difference between their many ordinary productions and their few masterpieces lies mainly in this that the latter convey great conceptions clearly outlined, while the former only suggest ideas of less importance.

The highest art of all, then, is that which consists in the expression of one grand idea with such force that every other thing is forgotten in its contemplation. This is the superlative of art, and this is the sublime. If you will study Turner without the Ruskin commentary, you will see somewhat of this in his suns and clouds. Mr. Ruskin tells you that he is great because he knew about the cleavages of rocks, spears of grass, sticks, stones, and trees, and that he was a great painter for one reason—because he painted these objects “true to nature ;” but, with all respect for Mr. Ruskin, I beg of you not to believe any such thing. It would not be less erroneous to say that Shakespeare was great be-cause he made a pronoun agree with its noun in gender, number, and person, or that Milton was sub-lime because he knew how to beat out the accent of an heroic line. People are not great by reason of small accomplishments, but because of great conceptions and revelations; and this is the case with Turner. His paintings are in some instances quite sublime, because they tell the grandeur and glory of the sun and the clouds, and for no other reason whatever. To be sure, he was an artist who knew composition and drawing, but his detail and literal truth to nature were misfortunes rather than benefits to him. They trammeled his thought and hampered his rendering of it. A great deal of the art of Michael Angelo is sublime because of the majesty of power with which he infused every thing he touched, from the little wax models a few inches high in the Kensington Museum to the statue of Moses, stern, silent, and severe, upon his chair of stone. Rubens’s ” Christ on the Cross,” at Munich, of which I spoke some time ago ; the “Dead Warrior,” attributed to Velasquez, in the National Gallery in London, and some of the work of Raphael and Leonardo may also be instanced as sublime art or its affinity. In modern times Delacroix came near to it in a number of pieces, like the ” Shipwreck of Don Juan ;” * Rousseau bordered upon it in his great landscapes, like “The Hut;” t and it is questionable if Millet did not reach it. Regnault and Fortuny might have achieved it had they lived, for their works showed phenomenal power; but, unfortunately, they were both cut down in early years, like half-blown flowers.

This, then, is the object of all expressive art: to convey by a symbolic language to people’s minds through their eyes conceptions, impressions, ideas, or emotions of pictorial beauty. Sometimes these emanating from a master-mind are overpowering in their force, and are thus sublime, but oftener they come only from a sensitive mind and are simply poetic, suggesting certain moods and states of feeling. Oftener still the idea which the painter seeks to convey is merely one regarding some natural beauty of field, or valley, or mountain, or perhaps some pretty color-grouping of china, silks, or bronzes which please us by the artistic manner of their treatment. But, as we have already suggested, these minor beauties should not be despised. It is true that occasionally a brilliant comet moves majestically across our orbit, absorbing our wonder and admiration, but because we may have seen a comet we should not be forever after blinded to the beauty of the steadfast stars. Let us admire where admiration is due, nor cast aside the daisy because it is not like the rose. Each beauty of the world is an individual beauty, to be judged by its own nature, time, and surroundings, and not by comparison with other beauties. This is equally true of the artist. Listen attentively to what he may say, and judge him by his own speech and thoughts.