The Meaning And Function Of Painting

THE transition from sculpture to painting is made by easy steps through relief work; and it is possible that it may have been so made historically, thus giving rise to painting. The reclining goddesses of the Parthenon, if completely finished in the round, were planned, as we saw, to be placed against the temple and seen from in front and below. From these to the low relief of the Parthenon frieze is but a step; and it is only another step to the outlining and coloring of figures on a flat surface, and we have painting.

Relief work, indeed, may pass over into the field that is characteristic of painting rather than sculpture. Take a beautiful example of classic work—the small low relief of the Nymph with the Infant Bacchus, found in the forum of Trajan and now in the Lateran collection. The nymph holds the baby Bacchus on her lap, giving him to drink of goat’s milk. The goat browses at her feet. A young faun behind her plays upon pipes of Pan. Above in the background is a hill with a tree upon it, in which is a nest of little birds. A serpent, twined around the tree, threatens the young birds, while the mother bird, fluttering her wings, attempts to frighten the serpent away.

I have described the little work in detail to indicate the great complication of the subject-matter. The forms are all of sculpture, but the spirit is rather of painting. The central figures do not have to be planned for some external environment, as in sculpture, but the setting is fully given in the work itself. A wide range of objects, which could not be presented together in sculpture, is here grouped in such a composition as painting employs, with a considerable use of perspective. On the other hand, the satisfying reality of sculpture in representing forms in the round, is lost, and the effect of the work depends upon some measure of artistic illusion.

Relief work is carried to its farthest point in the last bronze doors made by Ghiberti for the baptistry of Florence—doors that Michael Angelo said were worthy to be the gates of paradise. Here, several scenes are represented, with much use of perspective, in a single panel of the door. Such complication of subject-matter goes beyond what should be attempted in relief work, into the field of painting. In-deed, the combination of scene within scene passes the limits that painting should observe, and reminds one of the quaint portrayal, in the work of early Italian masters, of various scenes of a story in a single painting.

Contrast with such complicated relief work the simple form of painting surviving from ancient times in the Pompeian frescoes. While none of these are masterpieces, they are thoroughly characteristic of the general type of work done by classic painters. Ancient painting never freed itself wholly from the laws and restrictions of sculpture; it was characteristically sculpture reduced to a flat surface. Thus the Pompeian frescoes present chiefly human figures—here a group of gods, there one of bacchanalian revelers, most common of all, decorative rows of dancing cupids. At times one gets the perspective of a room or a bit of formal garden, but the background generally is slight indeed. Thus in range and complication of subject-matter, the reliefs studied go much farther into the field of painting than do these frescoes, and generally as far in use of perspective. In color, however, these frescoes add a new wealth of impression as compared with sculpture. Even the painted statues of antiquity were far less powerful in the appeal of color than these paintings.

Let us turn now to the greatest epoch of painting, the period of the renaissance in Italy. In the Academy of Fine Arts at Venice is one of the masterpieces of Tintoretto, the Adam and Eve. It represents the two beautiful nude figures seated in the garden, at the moment when Eve gives Adam the apple. In one corner, quaintly enough, Tintoretto has portrayed two small figures being driven out of the garden by the angel with the flaming sword. Over the whole painting is a rich, warm wealth of mellow, golden light.

As with sculpture, painting is limited to the portrayal of a single moment of time. The one Tintoretto has chosen is the critical instant of the fall of man, which looks back to the creation and on to the whole history of human life. In his effort to tell more of the story, by painting the little scene in the corner, showing the first important consequence of the action portrayed, Tintoretto, with child-like whimsicality, has transgressed the limits of painting.

The forms represented are all taken from life and nature, but as in sculpture they are lifted with an element of idealism. They are not given by direct imitation, however, but on a flat surface through the illusion of perspective. This method, limiting the artistic satisfaction in complete realization of form, makes it possible for the painter to give the whole environment of his central figures and the lighting over them.

The first effect of the painting on the be-holder is to give direct sensuous pleasure, through the beauty of the bodies, the garden, the warm colors and mellow light. The main conception is definite : it is perhaps less Adam and Eve, than the temptress and the man, universally treated. The aesthetic satisfaction in the harmony of idea and expression, and of the composition of the elements in the whole work, is the same for all who appreciate. Will not the emotion experienced, aside from the sensuous and aesthetic response, depend here, as in sculpture, upon the observer, his attitude toward the biblical story, his experience and knowledge of the relations of men and women?

A more impressive example is given in the great, if marred and forbidding, painting done in Michael Angelo’s old age on the end wall of the Sistine Chapel, long after his painting of the ceiling. Dr. Harris spoke of this Last Judgment as first giving him the key to Dante’s Divine Comedy, since it attempts to portray in a single moment—the moment when the final consequences of good and evil are evident-what Dante works out in the whole of his poem.

Dantesque, the painting is, in somber gloom. The dead rise from the earth, the saints fear-fully enter salvation above, the lost are condemned, and, the devils exult in their prey. Above, in the center, is the terrible Christ, the judge of all the earth, athletic, powerful, threatening with uplifted arm, under which cowers his tender mother, as if in pity for her human kind.

How well this painting illustrates the possibilities of the single moment to which the art is always restricted. With all the complication of figures and situation, it is just one instant that is portrayed; yet, more than any other, it is the moment that looks before and after, gathering up all the past and indicating the eternal future—the moment when good is forever affirmed to be life, and evil, death. Thus the painting gathers up and expresses the whole range of ethical and religious conceptions of mediaeval Christianity, and is a fitting conclusion to the majestic interpretation of human history unrolled on the ceiling of the chapel by the same master hand.

Indeed, the range of conceptions in the Last Judgment, as of figures, is too vast, and tends to overwhelm and confuse one. This, with the marring effect of repainting and the ruin of time, causes one to find less sensuous and esthetic pleasure here than in many other great paintings. The great conceptions are in the work, however, and the student who persists is rewarded, not only by a wealth of thought, but by increasing satisfaction in the masterly expression of the ideas.

What does one feel in the presence of this painting? Is it not evident that the answer will differ according to one’s religious training and belief? Is Michael Angelo’s theology real to you? If so, you will experience one range of emotions. If you look upon that theology as an interesting but obsolete historical phase of thought, then your feelings will be of widely different character. Are you accustomed to pray to the Virgin, or not? Is hell a reality to you, or a figment of the imagination? Do you believe in the resurrection of the flesh and the judgment day? Is it not evident that, as you answer these questions, your emotions in the presence of the painting will be determined?

So with other elements of your experience: are you familiar with the middle age so that you have thought yourself sympathetically into its philosophy of life? Are you a lover of Dante? Do you know Michael Angelo’s relation, as prophet of the afternoon and the sunset, to the masters who led up to him?

Are you familiar with the story of his early life in Florence and the influence of Savonarola upon him? These elements, too, will help to determine the subtle and far-reaching range of emotions you experience before the work of art.

Let us turn now to modern work. In the Louvre is one of Corot’s most beautiful paintings, representing a forest, with a group of dancing figures in the foreground, and over the whole that mystic, indescribable atmosphere—a “light that never was on sea or land.”

Here a definite phase of nature is given clearly, with ideal beauty, for the imagination. Besides the sensuous and aesthetic pleasure in the beauty of color and light, the charm of the composition, and the harmony of expression, most of us find a restful peace in turning from the busy world about us to the calm of nature and the idealized suggestion of human life. This mood, however, results from what we bring to the painting; and I can imagine our two Greeks speculating as to why the artist should have cared to spend so much time representing that forest, with its strange atmosphere, and those curious little idyllic figures.

Since sculpture and painting are alike limited to the portrayal of one moment, it is necessary, as has been suggested, that the moment should be chosen so that the attention can rest in it without strain. That is one reason why landscape painting, portraying nature in repose, is so restful, while many military paintings, which may strike the eye impressively at the first glance, seem theatrical and distress the attention as one studies them. Generally speaking, the bodies portrayed must be in a position that could be sustained more than an instant, in order to produce a satisfying artistic effect. Thus the portrayal of vigorous action is especially difficult in these arts. Sometimes it is success-fully achieved, as, for example, in what is, to me, the greatest painting in the New York Metropolitan gallery—Meissonier’s Fried-land 1807. It portrays, with that marvelous fidelity to detail that marked Meissonier beyond all his contemporaries, Napoleon seated upon his white horse, with his generals and aides massed behind him, while at full gallop and shouting open-mouthed, the Imperial Guard sweeps by. There could scarcely be a portrayal of more intense action : one can almost hear the wild, irregular hoof-beats and the tumultuous sea of cries, “Vive l’Empereur!”; yet the work is one of the few military paintings I could live with, and I have sat before it for an unbroken hour at a time with no distress to the attention and with increasing exhilaration.

What is the key to the paradox? Note that the moment chosen, intense as it is, is not the highest moment of the action. It is the one just before the onrushing troops sweep by the Emperor. Thus the action would reach its climax a little later, and the imagination is led on to fulfill it. This helps to give the peculiar impression of eternity to the action. The guard seems forever sweeping by. The deeper explanation, however, is found in the fact that the intense action of the onrushing cavalry is so wonderfully balanced by the rock-like repose of the figure of Napoleon, with the troops massed behind him. He is the center, not the galloping Guard. Silent, firm, inscrutable, sinister, sphinx-like as if hewn from eternal stone, he is the symbol of utter mastery. He absorbs profoundly the attention, fascinating and eluding, in a different mood, as completely as a Cleopatra. One cannot justly call this a military painting. It is a profound study of a leader’s mastery of the mass ; it is merely incidental, though characteristic of history, that this mastery is portrayed in the military field.

What intense sensuous delight there is in the marvelous grouping of colors, the .play of light, the beauty of the moving and standing horses, the bodies and faces of the soldiers, the shimmer of the very grass blades before the horses’ feet. How smitingly the central conception, with all its associations, is borne in upon the mind. What vital aesthetic pleasure is given by the perfect mastery in expressing the content of thought, and in the satisfying harmony of the whole. What are one’s emotions? Again the answer must be entirely personal, depending upon one’s view of the character and career of Napoleon, one’s attitude toward militarism in the life of mankind. My own feeling has been one of intense admiration, mingled with profound sadness. Is there a greater tragedy in history, more cosmic in scope, than the career of Napoleon? What genius, what mastery, what action, what glorious victories ; but how meaningless the aim and how futile the end of it 01 A cataclysm of the nations, a remaking of the map of Europe, and then —all things reverting to much what they had been, with a solitary prisoner looking mourn-fully out from the rock of St. Helena at the setting sun. Such extravagant expenditure of power, such ghastly waste of life, for—nothing! Is there a greater illustration of the fact that power is always a means and never an end? These moods and reflections, however, are brought by the observer, and are in him rather than in the painting.

One of the most impressive paintings in the Luxembourg is a portrayal, by Bastien-Lepage, of two peasants resting at the noon hour, entitled Les Foins. The man is stretched flat upon his back, in the sleep of exhaustion. His body is thin and ill-fed, in worn clothing, the trousers bagging pathetically at the knees. The woman beside him is seated on the ground, leaning forward on her abdomen, her legs stretched out before her, her wearied arms resting heavily. In her face is the look of dumb, half-wakened hunger for she knows not what, the rendering of which makes Bastien-Lepage, with Millet, a prophet of modern democracy. Behind the two figures, the dull field, in which they have been toiling, stretches monotonously away.

The moment chosen, while one of repose, interprets the whole life of these obscure toilers, representing such a mass of man-kind. The forms are copied from nature, in their dull setting, with such faithful real-ism that the pleasure for the senses is far less than the aesthetic satisfaction in the adequate expression of the given theme. The unifying atmosphere gives a touch of idealism that puts the whole in perspective for the observer’s mind. What of his feelings in the presence of the painting? I can but give mine: each time I have stood before this work it has moved me almost to tears; yet I recall an art-loving friend standing beside me and saying, “Why do you suppose he chose to paint a subject so lacking in beauty?” The point is that one’s emotional reaction depends here, less upon the painting, than upon one’s relation to the larger aspirations of democracy in our time, and upon one’s experience, or the lack of it, in poverty and toil.

To sum up : in sculpture and painting alike a definite conception or range of conceptions, real or ideal, is given. The conceptions are expressed in definite forms, imitated and idealized from nature, and grouped in space relations. In both arts the single work is limited to the representation of one moment of time, and a story can be interpreted only by choosing a moment that looks before and after, and is significant of the whole. In both, the moment chosen must be one in which the attention can rest, and if the action portrayed is too violent and transitory, the mind is usually distressed and the permanent effect of the work marred. In both, the forms are statical and can be re-turned to again and again. In both, color is used, but always in sculpture and usually in painting, subordinated to the more masculine element of form. Both give direct sensuous and aesthetic pleasure; but in both alike, the range of deeper emotions is brought by the observer and associated with the conceptions given in the work, being dependent upon the character, knowledge and experience of the beholder rather than upon the work itself.

The differences between the two arts are deeply significant, but still, less important than these fundamental likenesses. Sculpture, emphasizing more strongly the masculine element of form, realizing it completely in the round, is far more limited in scope than painting, but the most adequate and satisfying of the arts within those limits. Painting, less realistic and complete in directly imitating forms as they are in life, working upon a flat surface and depending upon the illusions of perspective, is immeasurably broadened, as compared with sculpture, in the range and complication of its subject-matter, while it makes far greater use of the relatively feminine, but sensuously and in some measure emotionally appealing element of color. Sculpture, moreover, must plan its creations for an external environment, whether it be the niche and wall of a temple, or the light and shadows of the open air. Painting may give in the work itself the whole surrounding of its central subject, with the play of light and shadow and the unifying atmosphere over the whole.