(1.) The endowments, whether of mind or body, and whether natural or acquired, possessed by any person, are most important to be portrayed in this branch of the arts. Ideas of these may be conveyed either by description, as of the bodily appearance or conduct of an individual; or by an expression of them through his own declarations in a poem or an oration; or by a representation of his figure, when painting is the art which is resorted to.
According to Socrates, the human form is the most perfect of all forms. But above all ” the human face divine,” especially when illumined by the celestial ray of intelligence, and the fire of the soul, is of all objects not only the most perfect, but the most striking and the most glorious. And by the ex-pression of the countenance it is that the endowments of the soul are reflected and represented.
In some of the works of the Greeks there seems to be a sort of immortality, a divine principle of life, which no mutilation can wholly destroy, no adverse circumstances entirely extinguish. Thus in the Elgin Marbles, shattered and defaced as is their outward frame, with scarcely a limb unbroken, or a feature which is not injured, such is the vigour of their style, and so brilliant was the celestial spark which animated them, that their grace and beauty and intellectuality still display themselves in their ruins, which are, unhappily, all that re-main. And, indeed, doubtless the highest prerogative of the artist is the one which resembles that of the Divinity himself, the power of giving life to his productions; for this, moreover, have the greatest geniuses in art been mainly distinguished.
No nobler examples, indeed, of the power of exhibiting both character and emotion are afforded than by some of the figures in the Elgin Marbles, and the horses as well as the men are thus highly endowed; the very stone appears to be rendered animate, every feature lives, every limb throbs.
Both character and emotion, whether represented through the countenance or the figure, should, conformably with the principles of composition already enunciated, have as it were a centre,a leading feature, to which all the other points in the composition should both be subordinate and tend. Every attitude and every action should be appropriate to the purpose sought to be attained. This is alike the case whether character or emotion are to be depicted. The group of the ‘Laocoon’ will afford an apt illustration of this principle, where the main cause of its effect is the uniformity and concentration in one purpose, as regards the end of all the emotions which it excites.
In the characters with which some of his angels are endowed, Raphael has shown what may be accomplished by art in this respect; the countenances are not merely lovely but divine. The union of intellect and of feeling and beauty of the highest order is here accomplished. Features, attitude, grace, action, figure, all combine to aid the effect. His angels are not only superhuman but they are celestial also; and they are not only celestial but superhuman. Their very emotions and passions and actions, as well as the character of their countenances, be-token, too, their high nature, and their distinction from corporeal personages. Even sex seems to have been merged in their celestiality; and beings possessing the highest and purest qualities, are created by the artist’s power. Nor in the expression and character which this great painter has given to persons intended to represent real men, has he been less successful, as evinced by the numerous exquisitely drawn countenances and figures depicted in the cartoons, each true to nature and to their own individual qualities. In the portrayal of beings of a higher order than the common race, care should be taken to endow them with character in all respects suitable to their exalted station. Attitude and propriety of figure will sometimes essentially aid in the foregoing respects. Truth to nature forms as it were the climax which crowns the whole.
There is, moreover, to a certain extent an expression and a character too, not only in the face, but in the form and figure, which serves to correspond with, and to carry out the expression of the countenance. In the works of Michael Angelo, not merely the features of the persons represented display their peculiarities of character and emotion, but also their bodies and limbs and gestures, each essentially contribute to this end.
The artists of our day being so much limited in the exhibition of the naked figure, which afforded such extensive scope to the ancients in the display of their skill, and being also less aided by drapery, should rely more exclusively upon expression and character for the manifestation of their powers, and the full development of their genius. Thus, instead of being driven from a higher position to take refuge in a lower, are they expelled from a lower walk only to ascend to that exalted rank where those of the most sublime genius have excelled, and to shine in which is the most noble and the most intellectual attainment to which the artist can aspire. This alone ought to raise and dignify modern art, and to atone for many of the deficiencies under which it is supposed to labour.