Man, as is also the case with certain animals, from his earliest childhood has a natural propensity to imitate what he sees passing around him, and the various objects and actions to which his attention is directed. From his being inclined to this pursuit before education has exercised any influence or bias over his mind, it is, moreover, evident that the propensity in question is an essential part of his very nature. Those, too, of all nations and in all ages, are alike prone to exercise imitation.
Our pleasure in and proneness to imitation extends not only to ideas connected with works of art, but to general actions and conduct. And not only is man fond of the act of imitating, but he is pleased with successful efforts of this nature, which never fail to afford delight to his mind. Although animals as well as man derive pleasure from imitation, yet they never appear to experience any gratification from works produced by this effort, which is a purely intellectual operation.
Imitation ought not, however, to be confounded with mere copying, which it indeed comprehends, but is of a far more extensive signification. The one relates to a style, the other to an object. By the one we effect a resemblance of something; by the other we create objects of a similar class to those which we see. We imitate a painter’s peculiar manner ; we copy his particular picture.
But imitation is not the end of art, it is only its mode of operation; it is, however, the originating cause of many of the arts. On the other hand, although the power of imitation is thus fertile in inventing arts, it tends to, and indeed occasions barrenness as regards originality in their career, and as regards each effort in them, by leading the mind to confine itself to this exercise of imitation which it is conscious of being capable to so large an extent, to the neglect of original efforts.
It is, indeed, this love of imitation rather than of invention, which is the main obstacle to the progress of art at each stage. Imitation is preferred to invention, because the former is like following a beaten and known path. The pursuit of invention is like entering on an unknown untried course through wild forests, and over terrific crags and passes.
Every object has several specific outward qualities, or distinguishing characteristics by which it is known or perceived, such as colour, form, sound, size, motion, and the like. The aim of the various arts appears to be to represent to us these different objects, not by each art producing a general imitation of all these different qualities, or characteristics, but only by each art effecting an exact imitation of some or one of them, and leaving the others to be represented by other arts. Thus, painting imitates the colour and in part the form of an object, sculpture the form only, music the sound. The objects themselves, as seen in nature, alone exhibit all these various qualities or characteristics combined together.
Eloquence owes much to imitation of nature, as does poetry to a certain extent, in many of its efforts; so also does music. Acting, too, originates here; and most of us will have remarked how prone children are to imitate the action and manner and tones of those about them.
The power of delineating form originates in certain faculties of the mind of which it is conscious, and which it is sometimes early led to exert. This imitative power is one of the constituent endowments which contribute to make a great painter, but it is one of them only. A development of it does, therefore, evince talent to a certain extent; but it may be the power only of perceiving with nicety, and drawing with correctness, while taste and imagination are wanting. On the other hand it is not impossible that the possession of these two latter endowments, and a sort of innate perception of what art is capable through their operation, may urge on the youthful genius to cultivate his capacity of delineation; and thus the early manifestation of skill in this respect may be regarded as a proof of his general artistical capability. Certain, too, it is, that persons who have early manifested mere mechanical skill, have been found to be peculiarly gifted with the other powers that constitute an eminent artist. On the other hand, some great artists in the highest walk have existed who, in mechanical dexterity, were even be-low the generality of their order. Nevertheless, the enthusiasm which genius inspires is one of the surest tokens of its existence, and one of the best proofs of its capacity.
The power of imitation is principally derived from the extensive possession of the faculty which enables us to receive ideas of different objects with facility and clearness, by whatever name it be denominated; and from the faculty of taste being in a large degree possessed along with it. By means of the former of these faculties the Mind obtains an acquaintance with the general, ordinary, and most striking features and ideas of the object or subject to be delineated or described; and by means of the latter, it effects this description in an harmonious and apt and suitable manner.
The reason, too, aids in the imitative process; indeed, unless the reason directs the mode of imitation, it maybe erroneous and inefficient, and not the excellences only, but the very defects and deformities of any subject or object will be imitated. Some are apt to imitate not what is most meritorious, but what is most striking or most easy to effect.
The senses of seeing and hearing, as already pointed out, are applicable in the study of art, and they also mainly aid us to judge whether any imitation is efficient or not. It is not, however, necessary for artistical purposes that our senses should be actually deceived by the representation of nature placed before them. Imitation, not illusion, is all that is aimed at in a work of art.
The sensation occasioned by the contemplation of a work of art arises in many cases mainly from our admiration of the success with which an imitation, amounting sometimes almost to an illusion, is effected in the representation of a particular object by means wholly different to those by which the object itself is made to appear. A real counterpart of a natural object would excite no such emotion, as another horse or tree just like the one we have drawn ; nor would the reflection of it in a mirror, although an artificial exact representation of it might cause both wonder and pleasure. In works of art, indeed, the feeling of admiration and that of pleasure are produced by two totally different causes. The admiration results from the skill exhibited in the success of the representation, which a scientific production would equally effect with one of art. The pleasure or gratification results from the inherent beauty in the scene or object portrayed, and which an object in nature, equally with one in art, is calculated to produce. Art is only more likely to produce it than nature, because in art beauty is directly and mainly aimed at, which is not the case in nature.
The most perfect imitation, which is allied to painting, is that which we see effected by nature in the representation of objects in a mirror, where on a flat surface every visual quality is exactly portrayed, alike as to colour, shape, perspective, and even motion. A camera obscura is the most complete mode of imitation after this, although its exactness in representing appears to fail just in proportion as science or art takes the place of nature in effecting the imitation. After the camera obscura is the photographic delineation, which on the same account is less perfect still ; and then follow the various kinds of pictorial imitation and representation. How far any of these natural imitations led to the invention of imitation by art, will be inquired in the succeeding chapter.
It is not in general, however, so much actual imitation as representation that is generally attempted in art. We do not aim so much to copy, as to create associations in the mind as regards certain leading ideas of the object or scene portrayed. Imitation, nevertheless, occasionally implies a general copying of the object as regards all its various qualities embraced by the art resorted to. In representation we copy merely those of them which will be sufficient to produce a likeness as regards certain of its qualities only, such as form or colour, so as to create associations in the mind connected with it. Where, as in the case of ladies’ head-dresses, objects in nature, such as fruit and flowers and leaves, are directly imitated, this operation is, of course, strictly and purely so far imitative. Here, however, it is not the art as a whole which is imitative, but only its accessories or auxiliaries that are so.
In treating on art, we ought, therefore, to distinguish at once the difference between imitation and representation. While the former consists in many cases in an actual exact copying of any object as regards all its visible qualities, the latter is effected by affording a mere general idea of its characteristics as a whole. Thus, a landscape may be imitated in painting, but poetry cannot be strictly said to do more than represent or describe such a scene, although we talk, somewhat erroneously indeed, of imitation in poetry also. The imitation, how-ever, in the painting is but partial, as of colour and of form. But in the poem there is nothing that is actually imitated.
In representation, we effect a description by creating in the mind associations of ideas similar to those excited by the object represented. In imitation we reproduce certain of the same ideas. In copying, we reproduce the whole of them.
As works of art are occasionally pleasing to the mind from the mere circumstance of their nearly imitating or resembling nature; so works of nature are occasionally pleasing, from their near resemblance to works of art. Thus, the elegant and regular pendent fringes of the larch owe much of their agreeable effect to this fact, which is also the case with certain flowers.
In the formal artificial style of gardening in fashion in this country during the last century, when the trees and hedges were cut close so as to resemble figures of men and animals, and the borders were laid out in regular shapes like the patterns on a carpet,the real, and perhaps the only pleasure was produced by the singular manner in which nature was made, unwillingly forced indeed, to assume the garb of art. The gratification in this case was, however, very different from that occasioned by a work of great beauty in either nature or art, and was caused not by the picturesque appearance, but by the dexterity of the performance. We find, indeed, that whenever the resemblance to art in the natural object assumes an artificial or unnatural character, this at once detracts from its effect, as we see in the case of some flowers of very tawdry hues, and in that of certain plants whose leaves are variegated, as also in the brilliant and varied plumage of some foreign birds, which, although the spontaneous productions of nature, are so different to what we are accustomed to observe, that we can hardly persuade our-selves they are not artificial. In works of art, the resemblance to nature should be in those points, and in those only, which are agreeable and elevating, and not in matters which are offensive or displeasing.