Picture Composition – Scientific Sense In Pictures

THE poet-philosopher Emerson declared that he studied geology that he might better write poetry.

For a moment the two elements of the proposition stand aghast and defiant ; but only for a moment. The poet, who from the top looks down upon the whole horizon of things can never use the tone of authority if his gaze be a surface one. He must know things in their depth in order that the glance may be sufficient.

The poet leaves his geology and botany, his grammar and rhetoric on the shelf when he makes his word picture. After he has expressed his thought however he may have occasion to call on the books of science, the grammar and rhetoric and these may very seriously interfere with the spontaneous product. So do the sentries posted on the boundary of the painter’s art protect it from the liberties taken in the name of originality.

” The progressive element in our art,” says the author of ” The Law of Progress in Art,” ” is the scientific element. Artists will not be any more famous for being scientific, but they are compelled to become scientific because they have embraced a profession which includes science. What I desire to enforce is the great truth that within the art of painting there exists, flourishes and advances a noble and glorious science which is essential and progressive.”

” Any one who can learn to write can learn to draw ; ” and every one who can learn to draw should learn to compose pictures. That all do not is in evidence in the work of the many accomplished draughtsmen who have delineated their ideas on canvas and paper from the time of the earliest masters to the present day, wherein the ability to produce the details of form is manifest in all parts of the work, but in the combination of those parts the first intention of their presence has lost force.

Composition is the science of combination, and the art of the world has progressed as do the processes of the kindergarten. Artists first received form ; then color ; the materials, then the synthesis of the two. Notable examples of the world’s great compositions may be pointed to in the work of the Renaissance painters, and such examples will be cited ; but the major portion of the art by which these exceptions were surrounded offers the same proportion of good to bad as the inverse ratio would to-day.

Without turning to serious argument at this point, a superficial one, which will appeal to most art tourists, whether professional or lay, is found in the relief experienced in passing from the galleries of the old to those of the new art in Europe, in that one finds repose and experiences a relief of mental tension, discovering with the latter the balance of line, of mass and of color, and that general simplicity so necessary to harmony, which suggests that the weakness of the older art lay in the last of the three essentials of painting ; form, color and composition. The low-toned harmonies of time-mellowed color we would be loath to exchange for aught else, except for that element of disturbance so vague and so difficult of definition, namely, lack of composition.

In the single case of portrait composition of two figures (more difficult than of one, three or more) it is worthy of note how far beyond the older are the later masters; or in the case of the grouping of landscape elements, or in the arrangement of figures or animals in landscape, how a finer sense in such arrangement has come to art. Masterful composition of many figures however has never been surpassed in certain examples of Michael Angelo, Rubens, Corregio and the great Venetians, yet while we laud the successes of these men we should not forget their lapses nor the errors in composition of their contemporaries.

Those readers who have been brought up in the creed and catechism of the old masters, and swallowed them whole, with no questions, I beg will lay aside traditional prejudice, and regarding every work with reference to neither name nor date, challenge it only with the countersign “good composition.” This will require an unsentimental view, which need not and should not be an unsympathetic one, but which would bare the subject of that which overzealous devotion has bestowed upon it, a compound accumulation of centuries.

The most serious work yet written on composition, Burnet’s ” Light and Shade,” was penned at a time when the influence of old masters held undisputed sway. The thought of that day in syllogism would run as follows : The work of the Old Masters in its composition is beyond reproach. Botticelli, Raphael, Paul Potter, Wouvermans, Cuyp, Domenichino, Dürer, Teniers et al., are Old Masters. Therefore, we accept their works as models of good composition, to be followed for all ages. And under such a creed a work valuable from many points of view has been crippled by its free use of models, which in some cases compromise the arguments of the author, and in others, if used by artists of the present day, would only serve to administer a rebuke to their simple trust, in that practical manner known to juries, hanging committees and publishers.

The slight advance made in the field of painting during the past three centuries has come through this channel, and strange would it seem if the striving of this long period should show no improvement in any direction.

Composition is the mortar of the wall, as drawing and color are its rocks of defence. Without it the stones are of little value, and are but separate integrals having no unity. If the reader agrees with this, then he agrees to throw out of the category of the picture all pictorial representations which show no composition. This classification eliminates most of the illustrations of scientific work ; such illustrations as aim only at facts of incident, space or topography, photographic reproductions of groups wherein each individual is shown to be quite as important as every other, and which, therefore, become a collection of separate pictures, and such illustrations as are frequently met with in the daily papers, where opportunities for picture-making have been diverted to show where the victim fell, and where the murderer escaped, or where the man drowned—usually designated by a star. These are not pictures, but perspective maps to locate events. Besides these, in the field of painting, are to be found now and then products of an artist’s skill which, though interesting in technique and color, give little pleasure to a well-balanced mind, destitute as they are of the simple principles which govern the universe of matter. Take from nature the principles of balance, and you deprive it of harmony ; take from it harmony and you have chaos.

A picture may have as its component parts a man, a horse, a tree, a fence, a road and a mountain; but these thrown together upon canvas do not make a picture ; and not, indeed, until they have been arranged or composed.

The argument, therefore, is that without composition, there can be no picture; that the composition of pictorial units into a whole is the picture.

Simple as its principles are, it is amazing, one might almost say amusing, to note how easily they eluded many artists of the earlier periods, whose work technically is valuable, and how the new school of Impressionism or Naturalism has assumed their non-importance. That all Impressionists do not agree with the following is evidenced by the good that comes to us with their mark,—” Opposed to the miserable law of composition, symmetry, balance, arrangement of parts, filling of space, as though Nature herself does not do that ten thousand times better in her own pretty way.” The assertion that composition is a part of Nature’s law, that it is done by her and well done we are glad to hear in the same breath of invective that seeks to annihilate it. When, under this curse we take from our picture one by one the elements on which it is builded, the result we would be able to present without offence to the author of ” Naturalistic Painting,” Mr. Francis Bate.

“The artist,” says Mr. Whistler, “is born to pick, and choose, and group with science these elements, that the result may be beautiful—as the musician gathers his notes and forms his chords until he brings forth from chaos glorious harmony. To say to the painter that Nature is to be taken as she is, is to say to the player that he may sit on the piano. That Nature is always right is an assertion artistically, as untrue as it is one whose truth is universally taken for granted. Nature is very rarely right to such an extent, even, that it might almost be said that Nature is usually wrong ; that is to say, the condition of things that shall bring about the perfection of harmony worthy a picture is rare, and not common at all.”

Between the life class, with its model standing in academic pose and the pictured scene in which the model becomes a factor in the expression of an idea, there is a great gulf fixed. The precept of the ateliers is paint the figure; if you can do that, you can paint anything.

Influenced by this half truth many a student, with years of patient life school training behind him, has sought to enter the picture-making stage with a single step. He then discovers that what he had learned to do cleverly by means of routine practice, was in reality the easiest thing to do in the manufacture of a picture, and that sterner difficulties awaited him in his settlement of the figure into its surroundings—background and foreground.

Many portrait painters assert that it is the setting of the subject which gives them the most trouble. The portraitist deals with but a single figure, yet this, in combination with its scanty support, provokes this well-known comment.

The lay community cannot understand this.

It seems illogical. It can only be comprehended by him who paints.

The figure is tangible and represents the known. The background is a space opened into the unknown, a place for the expressions of fancy. It is the tone quality accompanying the song, the subject’s reliance for balance and contrast. An inquiry into the statement that the accessories of the subject demand a higher degree of artistic skill than the painting of the subject itself, and that on these accessories depend the carrying power of the subject, leads directly to the principles of composition.

” It must of necessity be,” says Sir Joshua Reynolds, ” that even works of genius, like every other effect, as they must have their cause, must also have their rules ; it cannot be by chance that excellencies are produced with any constancy or any certainty, for this is not the nature of chance ; but the rules by which men of extra-ordinary parts, and such as are called men of genius, work, are either such as they discover by their own peculiar observations, or of such a nice texture as not easily to admit being expressed in words, especially as artists are not very frequently skillful in that mode of communicating ideas. Unsubstantial, however, as these rules may seem, and difficult as it may be to convey them in writing, they are still seen and felt in the mind of the artist ; and he works from them with as much certainty as if they were embodied upon paper. It is true these refined principles cannot always be made palpable, as the more gross rules of art; yet it does not follow but that the mind may be put in such a train that it still perceives by a kind of scientific sense that propriety which words, particularly words of impractical writers, such as we are, can but very feebly suggest.”

Science has to do wholly with truth, Art with both truth and beauty ; but in arranging a precedence she puts beauty first.

Our regard for the science of composition is acknowledged when, after having enjoyed the painter’s work from the art side alone, the science of its structure begins to appear. In-stead of the concealment of art by art it is the suppression of the science end of art that takes our cunning.

” The picture which looks most like nature to the uninitiated,” says a clever writer, ” will probably show the most attention to the rules of the artist.”

Ten years ago the writer took part in an after-dinner discussion at the American Art Association of Paris over the expression ” the rules of composition.” A number of artists joined in the debate, all giving their opinion without premeditation. Some maintained that the principles of composition were nothing more than aesthetic taste and judgment, applied by a painter of experience.

Others, with less beggary of the question, affirmed that the principles were negative rather than positive. They warned the artist rather than instructed him ; and, if rules were to follow principles, they were rules concerning what should not be done. The epitome of the debate was that composition was like salt, in the definition of the small boy, who declared that salt is what makes things taste bad when you don’t put any on.