Picture Composition – The Living Principle

IF there be a basis of reliance for continuous life and consequent value, a search for the living principle must be made in those works which the world will not let die. And this labor will be aided by the exclusion of such as have had their day and passed. Although the verdict suggested in the fostering care of the people or in its lack, may be wrong, as future ages may show, yet for us in our inquiry in the twentieth century this jury is our only court of appeal and its dictum must be final.

We command a view of the long line of art unfolding as a river flows, in winding course from meagre sources, and through untoward obstructions into a natural bed which awaits it, now deep and swollen, now slender, now graceful, now turbid, here breaking into smaller threads stretching into opposed directions, here again uniting and deepening, and we mark in all of its variety of course and depth, the narrow line of the channel. A slender line there is touching hands through all generations from the painters of the twilight of Art to the painters of the present who have seen all of its light and for whom too much of its brilliancy has proved bewildering. The history of art is perforce full of the chronicles of unfruitful effort and the galleries as replete with unprofitable pictures. Our ardent though rapid quest will, unaided by the catalogue, discover for us the real, and sift it free of the spurious if we have settled with ourselves what art is and what its purpose. If we hold to the present popular notion that art is imitation, the results will come out at variance with the popular opinion of five centuries. If, on the other hand, we delegate to its proper place fidelity to the surface of nature, we must of necessity seek still further for its essence. This is subjective and not objective.

To make apparent a statement the edge of which strikes dull from much use in purely philosophical lingo, let us take the case of a picture representing a laborer with his horse. The idea for the expression of which the few elements of field, man and beast, are employed is Toil. Whether then the man and beast be in actual labor or not, the dominant idea in the artist’s mind is that they are or have been laboring; that that is what they stand for, that idea to be presented in the strongest possible way. ” The strongest possible way” is the question to be debated. Individual artists interpret this as suits their temperament, the jury therefore sits in judgment upon the temperament as the exponent of ” the strongest possible way.” With the idea of toil in mind one artist is moved to present its unadorned force, careful not to weaken the conception by the addition of anything superfluous or extraneous to the idea. Its force is therefore ideal force and the presentation appeals to and moves us on this basis. Another will see in the subject of a landscape, a man and a horse, an opportunity presented of detail and of surfaces and will delight in expressing what he knows to do cleverly. Under this impulse the dexterity of his art is poured forth ; the long training of the workshop aids him. He paints the horse and makes it look not only like a real horse, but a particular one. The bourgeois claps his hands exclaiming, ” See it is unmistakably old Dobbin, the white spot on his fetlock is there and his tail ragged on the end ; and the laborer, I know him at once. How true to life with side whiskers and that ugly cut across the forehead and his hat with the hole in it. The field too is all there, the stones, the weeds, the rows of stubble, nothing slighted. And the action of the light too, what a relief the figures possess, how like colored photographs they stand out, clear, sharp and unmistakable.”

A third artist, without sacrificing the individual character of the horse will yet represent him in such a way that one feels first the idea of a laboring horse and afterward notes that he is a particular horse, and in like manner with the man of the picture. This artist’s conception lies mid-way between the two extremes and in consequence expresses greater truth than either. He poises himself on the magic line spanning the chasm between these opposing walls, supported by the balancing pole of the real and ideal, lightly gripped in the centre.

But to return to the first in the spirit of nature-love and truth to prove if it be worthy. Judged on this scale does it stand? Coordinately with the idea of toil, does it violate the laws of the universe ; do the surfaces thereof reflect the light of day ; is the color probable ; is the action possible? If under this scrutiny the work fails, its acceptable idealistic expression cannot save it.

It is here that the idealist pleads in vain for the painters of the groping periods of art, or for the pre-Raphaelites of the nineteenth century, who in their spirit beg that we accept their unctuous will for the deed completely wrought. When however they do fill the condition of natural aspect in its fundamental essence, in its condition of non-violation of physical law, when, uncompromised by such discrepancy, the presentment of the idea is complete and this alone engages us, the work by virtue of its higher motive takes higher rank in the scale of art than that in which the idea has been delegated to a place second to the shell which encloses it. It is the art which fulfills both requirements with the idea paramount that has survived in all ages. The reverse order is not sustained by the history of art. Mark the line from the early masters to the present, do you not find the description includes “the idealists” who could paint? The list would be a long and involved one, taking its start in Italy with Botticelli, Giotto, Fra Angelico, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Michael Angelo, Andrea del Sarto, Fra Bartolomeo,

Titian, Giorgione, and extending thence to our own time inclusive of Millet, Corot, Watts, Turner, Blake, Rousseau Mauve, Puvis de Chavannes and Ryder—men of all complexions in art, and typical of many more quite as diverse in their subjects and modes of expression but who place the idea, the motive, the emotion, the type, before the thing depicted. For them the letter of the law killeth, but the spirit giveth life. This of course raises issue with the naturalistic school—a school which believes in rendering Nature as she is, without rearrangement, addition, substraction or idealization ; a school presuming the artist to be a copyist, and founded not on the principles of design, but the love of nature.

Says W. J. Stillman in his impassioned polemic on ” The Revival of Art ” : ” The painter whose devotion to nature is such that he never leaves or varies from her, may be, and likely is, a happier man than if he were a true artist.

To men of the other type, the external image disturbs the ideal which is so complete that it admits no interference. To them she may offer suggestions, but lays down no law.”

The complaint of Turner that Nature so frequently put him out contains for us what it should have expressed to Ruskin, the real attitude which he held toward nature, but which Ruskin in his enthusiastic love of nature did not, or would not perceive. What the master artist saw and utilized in nature were forms for his designs and sentiment for emotional expression. Yet the recorder of his labors followed after, verifying his findings with near-sighted scrutiny, lauding him with commendations for keen observation in noting rock fractures, the bark of trees, grass, or the precise shape of clouds, undismayed when his hero neglected all these if they interfered with his art.

The point of the argument as stated by the idealists can be understood only save through the element in our nature from which art draws its vitality. Its deduction is thus bluntly ex-pressed; ” the nearest to nature, the farther from art,” an apparent paradox paralleled by the epigram, ” the nearer the church, the farther from God.”

Both of them, out of their hollow clamor, echo back a startling truth : Not form, but spirit. Thus did Rembrandt work for the spirit of the man and the art to be got from the sitting subject. Thus did Millet reveal in his representation of a single toiler the type of all labor. Thus did Corot stop, when he had produced the spirit of the morning, knowing well his nymphs would have vanished if the mystery of their hiding-places was entirely laid bare, nor ever come to him again had he exposed the full truth of form and feature.

It is the touch of poesy which has glorified these works and those of their kind, the spring of the unwritten law yielding preeminence to the emotional arts. Impulse is the life of it it dies when short tethered by specific limitations.

On this basis the way seems opened to settle the changeful formulas of taste ; why the rejection of what for the moment has held the pinnacle of popular favor ; why, for instance, the waning of interest in the detailists of the brilliant French-Spanish School, the school of Fortuny, Madrazzo, Villegas, Rico, or of the work of Meissonier, who as a detailist eclipsed them all. A simple analysis of their work in toto will prove that their best pictures are those in which a sentiment has dominated and in which breadth and largeness of effect is strongest. Thus Meissonier’s ” Return of Napoleon from Moscow,” is a better picture than his “Napoleon III surrounded by his staff in Sicily,” which latter is only a marvellous achievement at painting detail in the smallest possible size, and lacks entirely the forceful composition of mass and light and shade of the former. Thus does the ” Spanish Marriage ” of Fortuny outclass his ” Academicians Choosing a Model,” which besides lacking the reserve force of the former has its source in flippant imagination ; and so may the many other shifts of time and tide in the graphic arts be measured and chronicled upon the basis of the emotions and the formative touch of the poetic, upon the sequence of the artist’s regard for the ideal and the real, and the degree of his approach toward either. The concensus of the ages regarding finish, dexterity, cleverness, and chic is that in the scale of art they weigh less than the simple breadth of effect which they so frequently interrupt. The school of Teniers with all of its detail was preservative of this.

It is on the question of detail and the careful anxiety concerning the surface that the art instinct avoids science, refusing her microscope in preference for the unaided impression of normal sight. The living art of the ages is that in which the painter is seen to be greater than his theme, in which we acknowledge the power first, and afterward the product. It is the unfettered mode allowing the greatest individualism of expression ; it is, in short, the man end of it which lives, for his is the immortal life.