Relations to Modern History
IT may be regretted that a division of topics according to different arts seems to detract from that general view of one given century as a whole and of a series of sequent centuries, each massed in contrast with the others, which it should be our main effort to create. On the other hand, there is a certain cumulative result in such a treatment, which with each new art demonstrates the repetition of the same essential facts for a given time.
Each art, whether sculpture, painting, or architecture, exhibited in fifteenth century Italy the same simplicity, the same reserve, the same faithful striving after proportion and scientific accuracy. Each art in the early sixteenth century showed the same transcendent mastery of means as applied to ends, the same culmination of power and mass, the same triumphant self-assertion of a new-born modern civilization. Each art in the seventeenth century exhibited a similar striving for effect, a similar exaggeration of the picturesque quality, a similar disposition to exalt the means above the end and the parts above the whole.
If our parallel breaks for this century when extended to Dutch painting, it holds throughout the whole of Europe otherwise, and will even hold for Dutch painting if we stretch the limit into the eighteenth century when this art lost every element of its earlier vitality and power. In the eighteenth century England took the place in art, but not in the same high degree, which had in the sixteenth century belonged to Italy, and which had in the seventeenth century belonged to Holland, Spain, and Flanders.
In all these arts we take the same general point of view regarding these gradual changes, that art as a whole filled a larger place in daily use and thought before printing substituted a new means of expression, before modern national states obliterated the rivalries and ambitions of civic communities, before the enlargement of the general field of science tended to specialize the individual, to dwarf the symmetry of character and the wide personal experience which are the best education for the artist in design.
In the large dimensions of our great modern countries it may be possible for a musical composer or a great author to keep in touch with an entire nation. Bret Harte, Dickens, ,or Whittier, or the composers of those street ballads of our day which we affect to despise and which will go down to history as some of our greatest and purest efforts of art; Beethoven, Mozart, and Mendelssohn such men may still claim a hold over an entire nation or even an entire civilization, for the power of music is not fettered by the bond of language. But our numbers are too large and our distances too great for a painting, statue, or building to master the admiration of a whole nation. The book or the musical composition is susceptible of multiplication and diffusion; not so the work of art which is seen. At first hand, it can only be known in one example.
It may be added that our culture is too complex and the eyes of most of us too dull. The artist is, and always will be, the spokesman of his audience. His inspiration and success will correspond to the enthusiasm and the interest of that audience. It is only a World’s Fair which is also a Columbian celebration that can revive the conditions and results which we know in the early Renaissance for the arts of design as regards work done for the admiration, enjoyment, and appreciation of an enormous multitude of people.
Once more, then, it is our duty to say that the history of Renaissance art has a double meaning for our time. First and foremost it means and represents modern civilization at large. In this sense it is representative for things and facts which cannot be seen but which it may, nevertheless, imply the science, industry, comforts, and manners which have spread from Italy for all modern history.
In this sense Renaissance art has been perpetual. The science of our builder will go back to it, however the external form may change, and even this external forni, as we have seen, has been perpetuated in architecture. A Rembrandt, a Reynolds, or a Rousseau may abjure every outward trait of Italian art and still owe every stroke of his brush to its inspiration. So likewise the modern sculptor cannot sever his connection with the time which revived the study of anatomy and the science of form.
On the other hand, when the arts of design are considered in and for themselves we must still in each art confess the general superiority of the early Renaissance to ourselves.
In certain cases it must be admitted that our modern American sculptors push it hard. With adequate patronage it is difficult to say how far they might not go in rivalry or in superiority; whereas in painting it is difficult to see how later time can equal the Renaissance, unless the sane subject matter could be revived; for an art must ultimately be judged by its subject matter, and no subject matter can be imagined equal to that which the Bible subjects once offered for painting. All, however, that can be asked of any art or of any century is that it be true to itself and to its opportunities.
( Originally Published 1894 )
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