To the bewildered lady who said, as she looked at Turner’s sunsets, ” But, Mr. Turner, I never see anything like this in a real sunset!” the painter answered gravely, “No, madam? Don’t you wish you did?”
For the enjoyment of a masterpiece an understanding is necessary of the principles of Art, of its history, and of its aims. Just as the appreciation of Nature’s grandeur demands the capacity for depth of feeling, to save one from the pettiness of such a remark as that of the untraveled young girl, who said, when, viewing Niagara for the first time, “How pretty!” The wild expression – of untamed power, the beauty of light and color, the tones of thunder, all were lost on the girl. So the artist’s rarest effects, the gleam he has striven for and caught
“The light that never was on sea or land”
these may be unseen if one knows nothing of the subject, if one does not share in the painter’s triumph of skill, in his simplicity of expression, in his portrayal of beauty.
This little book deals with the principles of art criticism, including the somewhat recent subject of the relation of Poetry and Painting, exemplified, for instance, by the English Pre-Raphaelites. The leading schools are reviewed and illustrated by carefully chosen pictures. Three from the Florentine Renaissance School present a Leonardo, a Luini, and a Botticelli ; and there are two from the Venetian School. It was Ruskin who said, Luini is, perhaps, the best central type of the highly trained Italian painter. . . . He joins the purity and passion of Angelico to the strength of Veronese.” . . . The Flemish School is suggested in a Rubens portrait, and the Realistic Dutch School by a Rembrandt and a Vermeer, the one now in Germany and the other in Holland. Of the Natural Classic French School of Barbison we have a Corot and a Millet, the latter in the Louvre, Paris. The Corot represents the most valuable picture in the well-known Corcoran Gallery of Washington, D. C. From the English Portrait School there is a highly prized Romney, to be seen in the National Gallery of Art, Washing-ton, also a famous Reynolds, in the National Gallery of London. The Romantic British School is represented by a Burne-Jones, in the National Gallery, London, and a Watts, now in the White House, at Washington. The American Landscape School is shown by its leading exponent, Inness, and another phase of the American School in the picture by Elizabeth Nourse, one of the bestknown women painters of America. Thus the attempt has been made to include the cities which have important art collections, in America as well as in Europe, and to direct the student’s attention to them.
The purpose of Art is twofold: to excite pleasure by awakening emotion, and to give the artist self-expression. The merit of a picture lies, in general, not so much in what it represents as in how it is painted. As a basic quality in art, as in life, Simplicity may be named. This precludes the possibility of “painting the lily” and leads to the omission of all unessential details.
With Simplicity as a fundamental must be closely associated Beauty. In the words of Lord Leighton, ” Art must be lovely, a delight to the eye.” Was it not Goethe who said: ” Beauty is a welcome guest everywhere”? But how shall we define Beauty? The School of Raphael painted the artist’s conception of heavenly beauty; the Dutch School pictured beauty in realism, the homely scenes of domestic life, in wonderful richness of color; the early British School was eloquent in portraiture, the later School in Romantic themes; the French School offers still another expression of artistic beauty. Each of these must be considered.
“All nature is but art, unknown to thee,”
writes Pope. But all Art is not mere imitation of nature, though that has been often taught, from Aristotle down. Art is the expression of deep feeling, sincerity, sympathy, the Divine nature what Emerson calls the “Over-soul, Plato’s ” face behind the face “it is the inner meaning, the reality beneath what appears to the eye.
Whistler explains this well, in the famous Ten o’Clock Lecture: ” Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist 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 bring forth from chaos glorious harmony.”
There is, indeed, an affinity between music and painting. Works of art are to be taken seriously, as Beethoven said of his symphonies: “My compositions are not intended to excite the pretty little emotions of women; music ought to strike fire from the soul of a man.”
Art is Self expression, the expression of the Highest, the only Real Self. Inness was happy when he evolved this metaphysical definition: Art is the endeavor on the part of Mind (Mind being the creative faculty) to express, through the senses, ideas of the great principles of unity.” And again he said: ” Art is an essence as subtle as the humanity of God, and, like it, is personal only to love, a stranger to the worldly-minded, a myth to the mere intellect. . . A work of art does not appeal to the intellect. It does not appeal to the moral sense. Its aim is not to instruct, not to edify, but to awaken an emotion. Its real greatness consists in the quality of this emotion.”
Whistler complains that too often in our modern teaching the effort has been made to interpret art by literary methods, to analyze, dissect, synthesize and reconstruct great pictures by the same methods applied to literary masterpieces. But these methods of literary vivisection are out of place in the interpretation of great literature; how much more so when applied to the subtleties of painting! Literature and painting are made to be enjoyed; the artist has expressed his best, has suffered, no doubt, in its birth through the picture or the poem; we enjoy as we enter into his experience according to the depth of our own nature. I can-not interpret a picture for you, then; nor would I attempt to tell you what you should think of a literary production. But it may be possible to deepen your experience of life, and thus the picture or the poem may mean more to you.
If your study of art becomes a real enjoyment to you, a growing inspiration throughout your life, it will lead you to see beauty, not only in pictures, but everywhere in the pools of water, for example, along the street, with their lovely reflections, after a shower. As the poet says: ” In the mud and scum of things, Something always, always sings!”
It is this universal beauty which the artist feels and tries to express, the ever consciousness of Perfection.
As a further hint, one may be safe in following Ruskin’s advice: “No one can tell you beforehand what to accept, or what to ignore; only remember always, in painting as in eloquence, the greater your strength, the quieter will be your manner, and the fewer your words; and in painting, as in all the arts and acts of life, the secret of high success will be found, not in a fretful and various excellence, but in a quiet singleness of justly chosen aim.”