A Talented young painter, who was just beginning to make his mark, drifted into my studio one day and threw himself into a chair in gloomy silence. He smoked morosely for five minutes, while I went on with my painting. Finally he broke the silence. “Have I told you,” he said, “that I mean to give up art, to quit the whole bally business ? Well ! it is a fact. I have had the offer of an excellent berth in my father’s office, and I am going to accept it.”
“‘Why! why ! ” I cried, “what is all this coil ?”
“That is precisely what I am unable to explain,” he replied. “I have simply lost my grip. I have forgotten how to paint, and that is all there is to it. I am in first-class shape physically and my brain-box doesn’t show any unusual cracks; but for the past two months my work has been going from bad to worse. Every canvas is just a little more like punk than the preceding one. At first I gritted my teeth and worked all the harder; but the harder I worked the worse my things became. It’s no use. I throw up the sponge.”
I dropped my palette and grasped him by the hand with an enthusiasm which must have appeared to him somewhat misplaced. “My dear fellow,” I cried, “I congratulate you. f your pictures had not already shown you the consummate painter, you have just given the most incontrovertible proof of the fact. You are simply soaked in temperament. Get down on your knees, my boy, and thank your lucky stars for that. f the pendulum has swung unconscionably low at present, you may rest assured that it will swing all the higher on the return stroke. The only man who never doubts himself, who plugs stolidly on to his goal, deviating neither to right nor to left, is the man who is born wholly without temperament. If he never falls to any depths of despair, neither does he rise to any heights of glory ; and if he is never supremely miserable, on the other hand he is never supremely happy. He is simply the good, honest bromide; the very salt of the earth, if you will, and its balance-wheel; but never by any conceivable possibility could he be an artist. Your present depression is simply the price that you pay for the immense joy which is yours during the full tide of creative production. So take your medicine like a man. Also take a drink if you need it, but let us hear no more of this drivel about giving up art.”
As artists grow older, and after a dozen repetitions of the same experience, they come to regard this recurrent waxing and waning of the divine flame as a normal condition of their being; and presently they recognize the fits of depression as periods of incubation, out of which they are apt to emerge with added strength, with some new light on difficult problems that have long harassed them. They also discover that these off times can be very profitably employed in many waysin absorbing the great literature of the world for instance, a pleasure for which they have scant leisure at other times; in studying the great masters of painting and delving after the secret of their greatness; and last, but not least, in simple physical relaxation and recuperationtramps across the hills or bouts on the golf-links the eye always open and the mind passively but delightfully receptive.
One of our very greatest painters, who is now gone, never learned this important lesson. When the flame burned low, and work lagged, he drank coffee to stimulate his tired nerves. When even this failed to rouse the exhausted energies he had recourse to alcohol, and when finally the great work was completed the painter was often launched upon a spree of a fortnight’s duration. It thus happens that a man who temperamentally disliked alcohol, who was normally one of the gentlest and soberest of men, has gone down in history as a roysterer and a dipsomaniac. He burned himself out before his time; but in thus recklessly using up his vital energies, he produced a series of wonderful pictures that will remain for all time one of the chief glories of our day. In the final summing up, when reputations are resorted and re-classed, he will be given his true place ; and it will be the place of a great if a mistaken hero.
But most of us have now grown wiser. In either literature or art it is no longer considered necessary unduly to burn the midnight oil or to wear the hair long. And when the inevitable fits of temperamental depression are upon us we have learned that the only thing to do is to keep a level head, to see things in their true proportions, and to trust in the Lordto be a philosopher, in a word. I do not mean a philosopher of the cold and aristocratic Nietzsche type, nor a pessimist like Schopenhauer, but a genial, sane, and whole-souled optimist like Socrates. All true philosophers are levellerslevellers up as well as down. A condition of affairs which might loom portentous and threatening to the man in the street, such an one would receive with a smile of gentle humor, for he would see through the disguise and know it as a harmless humbug; while something else which to the ordinary mortal might appear a mere triviality he would lift gravely into a place of high honor, divining its fundamental seriousness and importance.
These regularly recurring fits of depression seem to depend in no wise upon the state of the bodily health. In Robert Louis Stevenson and Theodore Robinson we have examples of wonderful temperamental resilience coupled with wretched physical condition.
In fact, as a noted painter once said to me, “These semiinvalids neither need nor deserve our commiseration, for in reality the beggars have the advantage of us. Their nerves are always sensitive and keyed to pitch, while we husky chaps have to flog ours up to the point. We must dig painfully through the outer layers of flesh and muscle before we can get at the spirit, while the invalids are all spirit. Personally, I know that my best work is always done the morning after a spree, when I come to the studio a bit shaky and with the nerves all on edge.”
Although this highly immoral statement was evidently made largely with a view to picturesque effect, it did, nevertheless, enunciate a truth that has generally escaped attention ; for it is quite true that (given sufficient strength to drag the body about) physical weakness is not an insuperable bar to success in art. Very frail men and very frail women have achieved distinction in various artistic callings. This, however, applies more particularly to the sedentary arts, such as writing, musical composition, and certain lines of craftswork: for the painter, and especially the landscape painter, must sometimes cover miles with his legs in the course of his day’s work. We all know also that a robust physique is essential to success on the operatic stage.
Nor do the spells of depression of which we are speaking appear to derive in any way from the dominating and conscious portion of our brainsthe part which under great physical or emotional strain sometimes loses its balance ; for there are cases of artists who have become insane and have still remained great artists. A noted example of this kind was the Spaniard Goya. The character of his subjects was affected by his loss of mental control, naturally. They became ghastly and often incoherent. This was what might have been expected. But the fundamental temperamental quality of his art remained great to the end. The temperamental man, dwelling deep down below the surface, had not been affected by the storm which had played havoc with the surface nature.
We are therefore forced irresistibly to the conclusion that temperament resides in the emotional, in other words, in the sub-conscious nature of man. When the temperamental energy gives out, and the artist loses his grip, the strong probability is that he has, with-out knowing it, overworked the subconscious servant; and if this ever-faithful helper fails to respond to the demands made upon him, it is through no unwillingness to serve the master, but because of utter exhaustion and inability to react.
If therefore we regard these periods of temperamental depression as incomprehensible, it is because we have come to look upon the conscious, reasoning part of our intelligence as the sole source of mental energy, whereas it is only one factor in the complicated organism which we know as the human ego. If we cared to push still further our re-searches along this same line, we might claim that above and beyond both the conscious and the subconscious natures of man lives the animating and controlling essence from which both must draw their power, and which, for lack of a better nomenclature, we call the human soul. But this is the job of the psychologist, not of the artist.