The determination of the precise period at which art attains the meridian of its glory in any particular age or nation, is probably a point more difficult to decide upon than might at first appear, and the different arts seem in this respect to some extent to vary according to the peculiar qualities and characteristics of each. As a general principle, it may, how-ever, be laid down that the period of the highest perfection in art, the most complete condition which it ever reaches, is that when its productions unite with the true representation of nature, the power to excite the noblest and most refined ideas and sensations of which the subject is capable, and effect both in the most correct manner, in strict accordance with the principles of art. In this case there should be such an amount of civilization diffused throughout the nation as will ensure a complete and accurate knowledge of the principles and the capabilities of art generally ; while there should correspondingly exist such an amount of vigour and freedom in the national mind and feeling, as will prevent the debilitation and over-refinement of the taste of the people, and ensure that boldness and originality being displayed in artistical design, which are characteristic of a period when the degenerating effects of luxurious refinement have not prevailed ;which latter is as deleterious to art, as it is to every other exalted and ennobling intellectual pursuit.
The extensive cultivation of art, when this is followed upon a correct theory, generates in the mind, as it were, a kind of artistical conscience, which is stricken or disturbed by the slightest violation of any of the principles of taste, in a manner corresponding with that in which the moral conscience is excited by any departure from the principles of ethical propriety. In the case of the intellectual, as well as in that of the moral conscience, a feeling of pleasure or one of pain accompanies the observance of each artistical performance, according as it is conformable to or at variance with the rules of taste.
With regard to the arts in general, more especially those of painting and poetry, we find that a very high state of civilization, or rather refinement, is not that which is most favourable for the production of works in the highest style ; and that the arts are oftener used for the noblest purposes, and to produce great epic compositions, before the nation in which they are cultivated has reached an extensive degree of polish, or the arts themselves have been refined or softened down, when the more exquisite graces are attended to. Thus, in the efforts of Massaccio and Michael Angelo, who in their respective schools were the early practisers in, or restorers of the art of painting, we find more vigour and grandeur than in the performances of those who flourished at a later period, when the style of those respective arts had become tuned and subdued. Homer, although he flourished in a comparatively rude age, displays more sublimity, and his style possesses greater energy than is found in the works of any of his refined followers, although Virgil in beauty may be in some respects his superior. It appears difficult at first sight to account for this ; it will be found, however, upon examination to be mainly owing to the state of cultivation of those living in such an age, who are more attracted by striking and bold representation, than by the refined and beautiful productions, which please those of a more civilized era ; and also from the different manner of study among those in the less refined periods, as compared with the mode adopted among those of later times. In the former, when there are but few works of art to serve as models for imitation, men contemplate and study, and are led to follow nature, and to make her alone their guide, and from her to imbibe those sublime ideas, and to infuse into their works a portion of that spirit of grandeur and majesty with which she is endowed ; moreover, they are not in such an age allured to forsake the more unpolished but more magnificent style which they have chosen to follow. During a refined period, instead of imitating nature, they copy only the inanimate and comparatively immaculate representations of her, their copies from which are probably as inferior to the originals, as the originals themselves are to nature; their aim is diverted from the study of the sublime and grand to that of the graceful and beautiful, and more generally attractive style. Indeed, the most striking works which were produced either by painting or poetry have been brought forth in a comparatively rude age, when these arts were only in their youth, as it is then alone that direct transcripts from nature are effected by them; it is at such times only that their immediate and. paramount object is to excite the passions. At later periods of their growth, refinement and beauty, and the softer graces, divert the attention from the main grand object to be attained, and cause the waters, which until then rushed along in one powerful torrent, to expand into a wide and soft flowing stream.
The arts at an early age, when their capacities are first developed in full force, but before these arts have become extensively refined, moreover, often display not only greater vigour but greater originality than at a later period. Their flight is bolder, and they are unfettered by the authority of example. This is the case alike in poetry, painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and also eloquence. In some early works in painting and sculpture the imagination and depth of thought are more remarkable than what are exhibited at a later period, when greater mechanical skill has been attained, as in the former case, intellectual expression was mainly aimed at; in the later age it was made subservient to refinement and manual dexterity. Even a close imitation of nature herself, at least so far as regards common and vulgar and every-day objects, and the resemblance to them, has been found to derogate from productions of art of the former kind; rudeness, and even deformity, in some early efforts in art, has contributed somewhat to their grandeur and imaginative effect. What the highest skill could not produce, the very want of skill has attained.
The same defects as regards mere attention to mechanical skill and accuracy, and a want of vigour and originality, are observable at certain stages of their career in the arts of poetry and eloquence, as are experienced in painting and sculpture. In many cases this is occasioned by studying copies of nature, instead of copying from nature ; and in some instances the petty trivialities and puerilities into which the greatest artists fall, but which are real blemishes in their performances, have been admired and copied even more than their highest excellences which but few can fully appreciate, while all can understand the former.
A very refined age has been shown not to be favourable to a full development of grandeur in design ; it may also be doubted whether it is favourable, or even more favourable, to the full development of beauty. In both cases that vigour is wanting which leads to the attainment of both these characteristics alike. Hence, in the present age, high polish, prettiness, and elegance, rather than extreme or genuine beauty, are what we see mainly exhibited in artistical design of each kind. We in reality approach no nearer to the beauty of Raphael, than we do to the grandeur of Michael Angelo.
From the practice which in later periods of the growth of the arts is pursued of adopting copies from nature instead of nature herself as the model for imitation, and holding them up as examples from which ideas of excellence are to be derived, the notions of the copyists are necessarily limited to these productions ; while those of the original composers of great works of art, how inferior soever they may be to nature, are limited only by the ability of the geniuses who executed them, to gather their ideas from nature’s boundless store, and to select therefrom such as they deemed most worthy of retention. Their minds thus became ennobled, and were enriched with a vast con-course of sublime sentiments, too numerous to give expression to, or to employ in substantial forms. It consequently happens that when the arts have long been established in any nation, and different styles have been developed, instead of boldly striking out into the vast expanse of nature through which their illustrious predecessors roamed, and gathering from every object and every incident fresh stores for imagination and description; the followers of art content themselves with sharing in the re-fuse of those spoils which others have laboriously amassed, and with exploring only those coasts which the enterprise of more intrepid adventurers has discovered.
The true use to be made by students of art of the great works of their predecessors is not, as already observed, to copy their style, or adopt them as actual models, but to refer to them as guides, resorting to nature alone as the real and only model. Our own defects, indeed, may oftentimes be best pointed out by the examination of these noble efforts, by which it will be seen how they attained to a closer imitation of nature than we have done, and how they avoided errors into which we have fallen. We are not, however, to copy or imitate even them, but only nature through them. We are to regard them not as the haven which is to be our ultimate aim, but merely as beacons to warn us of danger, and to guide us on to nature, our only true destination. Hence, these great works of art, even the very highest, should be availed of by students of art as we apply telescopes, not to supersede the use of our natural eyes, but where required to aid these organs; and not to dispense with, but to enlarge the sphere of our observation also. Thus should these grand masterpieces be mainlyresorted to as a means of viewing and illustrating nature as a mirror wherein her image being reflected, may be better and more accurately observed; as we resort to this mode of studying the planets, whose glare is thus diminished; and by this method should we be not diverted from, but directed to the observation of nature. We must not, therefore, be content merely and always to follow these great masters. Our aim should be to follow nature only, although in their track ; and we ought not to rest satisfied until we have surpassed them in the pursuit.
The imitative arts have suffered much more than the ideal by this system of adopting art rather than nature as the object of imitation, and the standard of perfection ; as in the case of the former, the style, and indeed the spirit and manner of the works imitated has been literally copied, and indeed adopted wholesale by the copyists, without reference to nature ; while in the ideal arts the general design of them has been primarily formed from nature, and recourse only had to existing works and systems for carrying out their principles.
As an age of comparative barbarism is that which is most favourable to the finest displays as regards the effective description of character and passion, both in painting and sculpture, because the naked figure is then most frequently visible, and acts of heroism are more often witnessed; so is such an age most favourable for the like efforts in poetry, especially of the tragic kind, because the soul is as it were then more naked to display its own workings, and is more forcibly impelled and less restrained. So also as regards deeds of terror, which in a more refined and civilized age are but seldom enacted, and are ever carefully concealed from our view.
Too strict an attention to the niceties and the harmony of the design, which in a very refined age attract notice, are in-compatible with the grandeur and freedom of conception characteristic of the epic style. If, moreover, we are to regard the highest walk in painting as fitted to represent human nature, the study of both of them ought to be ever closely and inseparably united.
Probably no work in any of the arts has ever attained absolute perfection, although in nature we see many objects which are perfect, not only as regards their main practical purposes. but their artistical qualities. Those of the greatest genius, who have produced the most stupendous performances which by inferior artists have been looked upon as models of excellence, have regarded their own works as imperfect, because their gaze extended to regions beyond the height which they were able to attain, a vast expanse which no eye but theirs had reached, and the complete survey of which even they could not effect. To the humbler plains of mediocrity a vast multitude advance. Some reach the higher ground around the pinnacles of the mountain. But very few indeed ascend the upper regions, and of these hardly one ventures to scale the summit.
The arts seem, however, to be almost always in a state of fluctuation. The tide of this vast ocean is generally either ebbing or flowing. Mathematics, on the other hand, may be stationary; and when once they have reached a certain point, they establish themselves there without any fear of receding.
Mr. Hume, in his Essay on the `Rise of the Arts,’ lays it down as an axiom that “when the arts and sciences come to perfection in any state, from that moment they naturally or rather necessarily decline, and seldom or never revive in that nation where they formerly flourished..” That any art, or other pursuit, when it has reached the highest perfection of which it is capable, can proceed no farther, and unless it continues stationary mast decline, is as certain as that when any person has ascended the summit of a mountain he must either remain stationary or descend. But, in the first place, a condition of actual perfection has, I believe, never yet been attained by the arts, either in ancient or modern times. And, in the next place, although the arts may not go on advancing from the point of comparative excellence at which they have arrived, they may remain stationary, as was the case with the arts in Greece and Rome for a considerable period, although no particular pre-eminent genius in them appeared. Their decline has been mainly owing to over-refinement, which generates decay; and this over-refinement, perhaps, almost necessarily arises when they cease to advance, and is caused by the innate vigour which can no longer find vent to exert itself in a natural and legitimate progression, developing itself in that direction. Moreover, as in the human body, so in the arts, all their energies become spent and worn out by time, and they fall into decrepitude.
It might, moreover, be naturally expected from the nature of things, that when any particular art has reached a high degree of perfection it would thenceforth decline, inasmuch as its ordinary professors not being able to rival the grand works which they see produced by its leading followers, degenerate at once into servile imitators. Genius becomes, as it were, blinded by the dazzle of its own splendour, and loses its way in the maze which its own powers have created.
The non-revival of the arts in nations where they have once flourished, has, nevertheless, been in most cases caused by the non-revival of the nations themselves, who fell with the arts.