The Art Of Michelangelo


IN none of the manifestations of Michelangelo’s genius does he appear greater than in sculpture. For sculpture his preference was so marked that he always turned to it when not actually forced by some one of his taskmasters to build or to paint. In one of his letters he says, ” It is only well with me when I have a chisel in my hand ; ” and he tells us in one of his most beautiful sonnets,—

“The best of artists hath no thought to show ” What the rough stone in its superfluous shell , ” Doth not include.”

Teeming with possibilities, the virgin block seemed to his mind the prison of a captive idea waiting to be set free by the action of his strong hand, with which he dealt blow after blow, until, possessed by a fresh thought, he left the half-revealed image in a state vague as music, and as suggestive to the imagination.

An enemy to tradition in art as well as to a positive imitation of nature, following neither the conventionalists, the realists, nor the worshippers of the antique, he was a great dreamer, who developed man into something more than man, and by the novelty and strangeness of his creations placed him-self out of the pale of ordinary criticism. His defects, which are palpable to all, are surrounded, like the spots in the sun, by a dazzling indistinctness which renders it impossible to examine them closely. Many are the artists who suit our taste better, move our feelings more deeply, and satisfy us a thousand times more than this Titan of a late time; but we know of none, ancient or modern, who leaves a stronger impression of power upon the mind, or who more unmistakably imprinted the stamp of genius upon all that he touched.


SCULPTURE is Michelangelo’s domain. Herein he has no rivals among the moderns. That art was his predilection, and yet it was in that art that he found his greatest torments ; for his was no facile genius, and to such a man sculpture could be no mere distraction. The all-embracing thoughts which stirred within him, and which are echoed in the high poetry of his sonnets, could not be bodied forth within the restricted domain of material form, and his lifelong effort to broaden that domain made the practice of sculpture a continual struggle to him.

It has been said that the sublime is distinguished from the beautiful in that, while the latter expresses the idea of something exalted yet serene, like the fair azure of the sky, the former always connotes the sense of struggle, —a struggle against superior forces, the travail of sentiment and thought in the iron bonds of art. If we accept these definitions, Michelangelo’s works are sublime rather than beautiful. Traces of a fierce struggle with the material is evident in all of them. Power is more strongly expressed than order, and awe is commingled with our admiration. The `Il Pensieroso’ and the ` Moses’ represent the art of sculpture carried to its highest pitch of grandeur, of energy, and of passion.

It is a false and unjust point of view, however, to see in Michelangelo’s work only what his critics have so exclusively considered, —the force, the excess of violence which surprises the mind, the torrent which carries us out of our accustomed commonplaces of thought. There is also a science in them which we must recognize, and admire without reserve. In all his works he exhibits a mastery of the science of movement, the science of anatomy, the science of execution, which humiliates us. The grandeur of his figures, the dignity of their outlines, the monumental character of one and all, is unmatched; and in the art of posing, constructing, and basing a figure, what-ever may be the subject or the action, the student must always bow before Michelangelo as incomparable. His supremacy in the essential and distinctive qualities of sculpture (qualities of which sculptors are so justly jealous), equilibrium, justness of movement, the exact balance of masses, order, — in a word, those which give to Michelangelo’s figures, even the most tormented, an imposing stability which gives them the aspect of something eternal,—these architectonic qualities have not been sufficiently remarked or brought to the attention of students of his work. Because of them, and through them, however, Michelangelo is absolutely classic, the most classic of all modern artists.

And yet, all this said and granted, we must always come back finally to the supreme and distinctive and dominant quality of all— power. Through every one of his works, howsoever incomplete, shines the underlying inspiration, and the spectator may follow the master’s thought through all the baffling obstacles and stormy crises. Through the material veil the idea is always splendidly apparent. The genius of the artist is ever superior to his handiwork.

Such works of art as these are not made only to be looked at, or to pro-duce mere sensual delight. Michelangelo’s sculptures are to be thought over and brooded upon. They propound new questionings to us endlessly ; they torment our spirits ; they evoke and germinate new thoughts. — FROM THE FRENCH.


IT is most difficult to speak of Michelangelo. How is it possible to find just words to tell of the extraordinary beauty of his art and yet to tell also of that excess which mars even the most beautiful of them; to show how the excellent and the detestable elbow one another ?

His type is not altogether unique in art. To unite bad taste and the most sublime beauties is the lot of such ardent souls as his, such violent temperaments, overflowing with activity, and it is also a trait proper to precocious epochs in which too much science leads to exaggeration and forgetfulness of nature. In Michelangelo’s case, both the time in which he lived and the character of his genius jointly conspired to lead him from beauty of style, and to lure him into excesses. There is nothing in his work which can justify the comparison of him to Phidias. If he is to be compare l to any Greek artists, it is to those sculptors of the decadence, the master’s of the school of Pergamos and Rhodes, who carved the `Torso’ and the Laocoon.’

It is a mistake through admiration for great geniuses to blink their faults and to speak only of their glories. The greater a man and :he more he imposes upon our imaginations, the more important it is to discern and to discriminate clearly the qualities in which his genius is most manifest, and in Michelangelo’s case such discrimination is the more necessary because his very defects were for long taken for his merits and therefore imitated.

In an essay upon the architectural works of Michelangelo, Charles Garnier has clearly touched the nature of his genius. ” Michelangelo,” he says, ” even Michelangelo has failed. Too often in seeking for the grand he has found only the tormented, in seeking the original he has found only the strange and even the ignoble.” As if frightened by this dictum, Garnier hastens to add that he judges Michelangelo thus only in his architectural works, and attempts to point out why such reproaches are not just when applied to his painting and his sculpture. The truth is, however, that what Michelangelo was as an architect he was as a painter and sculptor. “Tormented,” ” strange,” were the words written by an architect studying Michelangelo as an architect— do they not seem at least as just when we study the Medici tombs, or, above all, the `Last Judgment,’ which is truly the strangest and most tormented work that has ever been created ? Yet, and in spite of all his defects, Michelangelo remains one of the greatest, if not the very greatest, of all modern artists. Let us see why.

In the first place, from the point of view of technical knowledge of his art he is unrivalled. Nobody has ever drawn better than he drew ; nobody has ever known the human body better. He abused his knowledge without doubt, for in his Medici tombs, and above all in” his ` Last Judgment,’ he has represented attitudes contrary to nature ; but he has represented them always with such impeccable science that it is impossible not to admire even his most violent aberrations. He was, moreover, a marvellous workman. None ever carved stone with more brio, none ever had such a passion for the material side of his art ; and for this reason he will always be the ideal of those of his own calling.

These abilities, however, make up but a small part of his genius. Michelangelo’s true title to glory lies in his thought rather than in the means of its expression. He divorced himself from the Renaissance to join with the great Christian school of a preceding time. He is great because in the vaulting of the Sistine Chapel he recreated the prophets and the sibyls, and impressed them with all the nobility of his own soul. He is great, above all, through his suffering. In the presence of those strange figures of the Medici tombs we hear that cry which man would ever fain stop his ears against, and yet perforce must always listen to hear,— the cry of suffering of the human soul. . . .

If through Michelangelo’s varied work we seek to spell out the mind which conceived it, and seek therein the dominant note, it seems to me that we shall find it to be an immense pride. From such a pride would flow the expression of power, the moral and physical sovereignty of his Virgins, his ` David,’ his `Victory,’ and all the figures of the Sistine ; and as a correlative quality, the rebellion, the revolt, the mighty resistance, which we find in the ` Bound Captive,’ the ` Day,’ and the ` Moses.’ To such a pride, also, we may trace the sources of that great suffering (so deeply are the souls of men of genius susceptible to wounds) which cries out of the `Dawn,’ the `Twilight,’ the ` Descent from the Cross,’ and the ` Last Judgment ‘— sufferings of which the ultimate result is profound misanthropy, disgust with life, and the imperious desire “to see no more, to feel no more.” . . .

Michelangelo has played too important a part in the history of art for even the least details of his work to lack interest. It would be unjust, truly, to say that he lacks invention,— he who created so new a style and endowed with life so many figures,— but nevertheless he repeated himself often. Certain formulas seemed to impose on his thought. Having an idea to express, he demanded nothing from a model, but sought in his own mind for the form which he was to create, and the mirror of his mind seems always to have reflected that form with something of its own idiosyncrasy. Let me subjoin a list of what I may call the ” habits ” of Michelangelo : —

For the general outline of a statue he was accustomed to adopt on one side a long straight line, and on the other a curved and broken one. He liked to hug one arm close to the body, or to throw it behind in such a fashion as to make it practically disappear, and in opposition, to raise the other, and so place it as to form a sharp angle with the body. The arm which is advanced is always of the greatest beauty, but the gesture, too often violent, is not al-ways rational. Of the two legs, he makes one support all the weight of the body, and raises the other ; and to augment this difference, which seemed to please him, he often, and for no logical reason, placed the foot of the raised leg on a pedestal. In his seated figures one leg is advanced and the other usually sharply bent beneath the body. One shoulder is always higher than the other, a characteristic which became more striking in each successive work. If the body is seen three-quarters front, the head is full front. The head is almost always bent forward, and over the hair of his women he throws heavy veils which have something the aspect of helmets.

Too often Michelangelo did not seek to evolve from his subject the ideas which should have led him to a choice of forms. He rather employed the forms which he deemed beautiful in themselves ; and these forms have some-times no link with the idea which he wished to express.- FROM THE FRENCH.


SINCE the period of classic antiquity, no master has been endowed with such eminent plastic talent as Michelangelo. However important his works in architecture and sculpture may be, sculpture was, and remained, his favorite art. Even the purest and greatest of his painted figures, such as the sibyls and prophets of the Sistine Chapel, are plastic in conception.

In order to completely master the human figure, Michelangelo gave up many years of his youth to a more thorough study of anatomy than ever has been undertaken by any other modern master. He, first since the ancients, valued the human form in all its majesty and for its own sake ; and the aim of his endeavor became to exhibit it in all conceivable attitudes and fore-shortenings, to delineate it grandly, freely, and broadly, after the manner of the antique.

But Michelangelo was more — he was an idealist in the strictest sense of the word. In his earliest works he strove after a perfect beauty, such as is expressed in the creations of antique sculpture. Seeking thus for a universal mode of expression, he was forced to wholly abandon the individual conception which had occupied so prominent a place throughout the fifteenth century. What could his age afford to such a Titan ? Christian personages and the spiritual idea which animated them were ill-adapted to an art of which the aim was to glorify the human figure in its pure beauty ; yet antique mythology had died out ; and if, at times, a mythological subject presented itself, the occasions were too rare, and the subject, in spite of all the prevalent enthusiasm for antiquity, too far removed from modern subjective feeling. Still more alien to Michelangelo’s genius was the historical subject, with its exact and individual features. Nothing, therefore, remained to him but the realm of allegory, the vague forms of which offered themselves as ready vehicles for the presentation of his subjective ideas. Allegory, then, presented the only means of outlet, and a dangerous one, to the capricious fancy of the artist. Unfettered subjectivity prevailed in the world of art for the first time. It recognized no subjective bonds in its absolute sway ; it had cast off the leading-strings of tradition and, absorbed in its own profound inspirations, wrestled mightily to produce from them the grandest effect. All Michelangelo’s works betray such a struggle — the struggle of sublime ideas striving to surge up into being from the wonderful depths of his mind, and bearing upon them every mark of the mighty throes which gave them birth.

There can be no calm enjoyment of such works. They irresistibly involve us in their passion, and, whether we will or no, make us sharers of their tragedy. This is the impression which even his contemporaries felt when they spoke of the ” terrible ” in Michelangelo’s works.

In order to procure an adequate expression for these mighty, profound, and yet scarcely definable ideas, Michelangelo soon began to make the human form the manikin of his sovereign will. The fundamental ideal, laboriously produced through an internal conflict, could only become externally available by making the laws of physical organization yield to it. Thus, then, began his sway of idea over form. It became a matter of little importance to the master whether an attitude was natural or unconstrained if only it thrillingly expressed what was surging within his mind ; and so he moulded the human form at will, gave to certain parts exaggerated colossal might, increased the power of the muscles, and neglected other parts (as, for example, almost al-ways the back of the head in his statues), and thus prescribed new laws to the human frame.

In the greatest masterpieces, even among the ancients, small intentional departures from truth are often just the points on which the spiritual effect of the whole depends ; but Michelangelo frequently indulges too far in this poetic license, and falls into exaggeration, and therefore into ugliness. Thus the same Michelangelo who possessed the highest idea of the beauty of the human body at last arrived at a conception of form which, as it were, wilfully avoided the beautiful.

But rude and unpleasing as they sometimes may be, his figures are never petty or ordinary. In these bold forms, grandly outlined and executed with unsurpassable breadth and freedom, he sets before us a higher type of being, in whose presence everything low falls from us, and our feelings experience the same elevation that they do before true tragedy. Lastly, that which ever and ever anew sympathetically attracts us, even to those of his figures which we at first found repellent, is the fact that they are inwardly allied to the best within us, to our own striving after all that is high and ideal. Elevated though they may be above all human measure, they are still flesh of our flesh, spirit of our spirit. Because of this kinship we read into them more than we actually see — and herein lies the mysterious power of modern subjectivity. . . .

Supremely powerful and supremely individual, Michelangelo completely transformed the sphere of plastic art, and assigned new limits to it. During’ his long life he had comprised all its phases, from the naturalistic beginnings of the fifteenth century, through the gradual stages of its development, up to the first symptoms of decline and mannerism. He has been called, and not untruly, the ” Fate ” of modern art ; but it should not be forgotten that he was after all but the agent of an impelling historical movement, and that so much of this movement seems to have been accomplished through him only because he was so supremely great.—