Whatever rules may be laid down for our direction in any of the arts, nature alone affords us a complete code of the purest principles, and also a perfect example of their application, one, moreover, which is at once striking and satisfactory. And, as in nature perfection is everywhere seen, alike in the loftiest and the lowliest objects; so in imitating or describing nature, no pains can be too great, no amount of observation can be misapplied. We never can devote too much care in the study of that which we never can equal, much less excel.
Moreover, in art, as well as in material subjects, there is a sort of chemical affinity, so that those representations of trans. actions which vividly and immediately affect the mind, attach themselves at once to the heart. Such is the portrayal in natural and familiar tokens of those scenes which we have ourselves witnessed, and been excited by, and which appeal more directly and more powerfully to the feelings than the most vigorous efforts of the imagination. Sympathy is, after all, the connecting link between nature and art.
A correct and effective imitation of nature is of important use, even in those higher walks of art whose chief merit does not consist in attaining a near resemblance to real objects. Truth in representing nature adds much to the force of the description of every kind, and causes it to appeal to the minds of all. Of this was Michael Angelo so deeply convinced that, in his painful study of the anatomical figure, he was in the habit of going to the fish-market to observe the form and colour of the fins and the eyes of fish ; and whatever in nature constituted a part of his composition he learnt from its source.* To this close perception and true delineation of nature, it is that Shakspeare owes so much of his power and effect, and that too in his most exalted, and even in his super-natural scenes. Indeed, Shakespeare’s strong hold upon our feelings arises mainly from his correct and powerful representation of nature as she actually appears, so that his descriptions from their life-like reality come home to each of us, and penetrate our inmost souls. Every one sees himself vividly reflected in the image of others which is presented before him, and each motion and operation is closely copied. Milton is grand and sublime and pathetic ; but the beings that he portrays are not those of everyday life; and the feelings which he enunciates fail to find a responsive chord in our own breasts, as in the case of those called forth by Shakspeare.
One perfectly skilled in his art by the study of it in the school of nature, will refer for each principle and means of expressing his thoughts to the various forms and developments manifested by her, just as the scholar does to different authors of eminence for the illustration of particular subjects. His shapes, his colours, his shadows, his exhibitions of passion and feeling will all be drawn from the rich stores of nature.
Nature, indeed, constitutes the only true and perfect model for art. Until art can attain to the complete imitation, or is able to follow the manner of nature, its operation is imperfect. When art goes beyond nature, it degenerates into extravagance.
When it entirely accords with nature, then only is its style perfect. Nevertheless, people in general are not satisfied unless, in representations by art, nature is not only equalled but exaggerated. This is owing to two causes. In the first place, both in nature and in art the most striking ideas please us most on ac-count of their producing congenial excitement in the mind. And, in the second place, more than actually natural vigour is required in a representation, in order to atone for the want of that life and activity which are seen only in the real object.
Exaggeration in representation may consequently thus far be legitimately carried, that the design exceeds in intensity the actual occurrence described, so as to atone for that want of life and reality in the picture which belong only to the actual transaction; but such a performance should never be calculated to excite in the mind sensations more vivid than what the real transaction itself would have called forth. Unless the representation reaches to this point, it is deficient in vitality. Whenever, and so far as it goes beyond it, and thus exceeds nature, it amounts to extravagance, and is consequently unreal and incorrect.
The best and most forcible illustration of extravagance, and of its ill effect in pictorial efforts, is, perhaps, afforded by some of the copies of really great works of art which have been made by inferior or ill-judging artists, in which they have endeavoured to intensify the expression beyond what the original represented, or what real nature would have dictated. This is peculiarly seen in certain copies of Raphael’s very perfect and almost divine ` Entombment of Christ,’ and of G-uido’s exquisite portrait of ` Beatrice Cenci.’ A close comparison of these productions with the originals will serve at once to exhibit the difference between extravagance and distorting nature, and that correct reflection of her image and visage which the two great painters referred to so wondrously accomplished.
Probably, however, the real and true and highest object of painting, and indeed of art in general as regards nature, is not so much to imitate as to interpret her; not so much to reflect her as to teach us how to view her. We should not look at either nature or the picture independent of each other, but should view nature through the telescope of art. While nature serves to supply the choicest beauties to art, art should serve to point out to us the choicest beauties in nature. Art is seldom indeed, to speak correctly and strictly, so much an actual imitation of, as a composition from nature. We do not make use of the gold just as it is found in the mine, but we separate the metal from the ore, and cast aside the dross. Nevertheless, the more perfectly and correctly nature is copied, wherever direct imitation of her is the legitimate aim, the artistical representation will not only be more striking and real, but the more universal will be its application and suitableness to every nation, and to every period of time. For, however people in different countries, and in different ages, may vary from one another, yet human nature is everywhere the same; and is moreover immutable as regards its being ever actuated by the same feelings and passions. The similarities in such a case are, in reality, far more numerous, more essential, and more striking than are the dissimilarities and points of disagreement.
But although the correct imitation of nature is essential to be followed in each of the arts, yet such is not on that account to be considered as the only or highest end and object of art, which should extend beyond this aim in raising and refining our ideas of nature. Art should thus serve to magnify and purify, as well as to reflect nature. A work of art which is limited to the imitation of nature may, indeed, be complete so far as it goes; but its scope is too limited and confined to entitle it to hold the foremost rank in this noble pursuit.
Art, although representing objects to us as more perfect, or, perhaps, to speak correctly and philosophically, as less imperfect than we ever practically find them ; yet it does not represent them as more perfect than they might be, or than particular examples of them of each kind may be seen. It is, however, the prerogative of art to select that which is most perfect, and to exclude all that is imperfect, while nature presents both to us promiscuously. Even the ideal of perfection at which art aims, although higher than nature, is ever regulated by and subservient to nature ; and any departure from nature here, even in the highest effort of this kind, must always be regarded as a great and radical defect in a work of art.
Nature and art have, moreover, a reciprocal corrective effect and influence upon each other as regards matters of taste, re-sort to nature being the surest corrective of art, and art serving often to correct nature, not, indeed, by departing or deviating from, but by restoring her to her due course. And as the principles of design have their origin in nature, so by nature are they regulated, and to her they ever have reference; and consequently, according as they agree with nature in this respect, will works of art command our approval and our admiration.