Picture Composition – The Critical Judgment Of Pictures

” With the critic all depends on the right application of his principles in particular cases. And since there are fifty ingenuous critics to one of penetration, it would be a wonder if the applications were in every case with the caution indispensable to an exact adjustment of the scales of art.”—Lessing’s


ART is a middle quality between a thought and a thing—the union of that which is nature with that which is exclusively human.”

For the every-day critic much of the secret lies in the proposition Art is Nature, with the man added ; nature seen through a temperament. Nature is apparent on the surface of pictures. We see this side at a glance. To find the man in it requires deeper sight.

If a painter of portraits, has he painted the surface, or the character ? Has he gone halting after it, or has he nailed it : has he won with it finally ? Is he a man whose natural refinement proved a true mirror in which his sitter was reflected or has the coarse and uneven grain of the artist become manifest in the false planes of the character presentation ? With respect to portraits less than other subjects, can we expect to find them reflections of the artist’s personality. But some of the ablest, while interpreting an-other’s character, frequently add somewhere in it their own. The old masters rarely signed, feeling that they wrote themselves all through their works.

The sure thing regarding the great portraitist is that he is a man of refinement. This all history shows.

Is our artist a genre painter : then does his mind see small things to delight in them, or to delight us—if this, he is our servitor or little better,—does he go at the whole thing with the sincerity of an artistic purpose and somewhere place a veritable touch of genius, or only represent one item after another until the whole catalogue of items is complete, careful that he leave behind no just cause for reproach ? Has the man dignified his subject and raised it to something above imitative art, or does he clearly state in his treat-ment of it that imitation is the end of art ?

Is he a painter of historic incident ; then does he convince you that his data are accurate, or allow you to conjecture that his details are make-shifts ? Is the scene an inspiration or common-place? Has he been able to put you into the atmosphere of a bygone day, or do his figures look like models in hired costume and quite ready to resume their own clothes and modern life ?

Is he a painter of flowers ; then is he an artist or a botanist ? Is he a marinist ; then, as a landsman has he made you feel like one, or has he painted for you water that can be walked on without faith ? Has he shown you the dignity, the vastness, the tone, and above all the move-ment of the sea ?

Is he a landscape painter ? Then is he in a position to assert himself to a greater degree than they all? The farther one may remove himself from his theme, the less of its minutiæ will he see. The process of simplification is individual. What he takes from nature he puts back out of himself. The landscape painter becomes an. interpreter of moods, his own as well as nature’s, and in his selection of these he reveals himself. Does he show you the kingdoms of the world from some high mount, or make you believe they may be found if you keep on moving through the air and over the ground such as he creates ? Does he make you listen with him to the soft low music when nature is kindly and tender and lovable, or is his stuff of that robust fibre which makes her companionable to him in her ruggedness and strength ?

As the hidden forces of nature control man yet bend to his bidding—electricity, air, steam, etc.—so do the open and obvious ones which the painter deals with. They dictate all the conditions and yet somehow—he governs. The different ways in which he does this gives to art its variety and enables us to form a scale of relative values.

The work of art which attracts us excites two emotions; pleasure in the subject; admiration for the artist. Exhibitions of strength and skill claim our interest not so much for the thing done, which often perishes with the doing, as for the doer. The poet with a hidden longing to ex-press or a story to tell, who binds himself to the curious limitations of the Italian sonnet, in giving evidence of his powers, excites greater admiration than though he had not assumed such conditions.

It is the personal element which has established photography and given it art character. Says J. C. Van Dyke, ” a picture is but an auto-biographical statement ; it is the man and not the facts that may awaken our admiration ; for, unless we feel his presence and know his genius the picture is nothing but a collection of incidents. It is not the work but the worker, not the mould but the moulder, not the paint but the painter.”

Witness it in the work of Michel Angelo, in both paint and marble. How we feel the man of it in Franz Hals, in Rembrandt, in Rubens, Van Dyck, Valasquez, Ribera and Goya, in Watteau and Teniers, in Millet and Troyon, in Rousseau and Rico, in Turner, Constable and Gainsborough, in Fildes and Holl, in Whistler, in Monet, in Rodin and Barnard, in Inness, in Wyant and Geo. Fuller.

Like religion, art is not a matter of surfaces.

Its essence is to be spiritually discerned. It is the spirit of the artist you must seek ;—find the man.