Union Of Opposite Excellences In The Same Work Of Art

A question of deep interest and of considerable importance here arises, whether opposite and even contrary excellences belonging to different styles, such as sublimity and grandeur and beauty, and close resemblance to nature, may be all united in one and the same artistical composition.

Sir Joshua Reynolds in his concluding discourse appears to lay it down as a general principle that this cannot be effected, inasmuch as excessive attention to one branch of excellence must necessarily cause the neglect of certain others ; and that the full development of one particular merit would counteract the exhibition or effect of another; that even the correct and perfect imitation of nature is incompatible with high efforts in art, and destroys the grandeur of their effect ; that the different principles by which each point of excellence is attained are so contrary that they are quite inconsistent; and that it is as impossible for them to exist together, as for the most sub-lime ideas and the lowest sensuality to be coexistent in the same mind. That brilliant and harmonious colouring are unfitted for the simplicity of heroic works, which require grave colours ; that their union can only make a composite style, more imperfect than either; that the great style is contaminated by any meaner mixture, although, and however, the lower may to a certain extent be improved by borrowing from the grand. These remarks apply equally to all the arts alike.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, however, admits that some excellences bear to be united, and are improved by union ; although others are of a discordant nature, and the attempt to join them consequently only produces a harsh jarring of incongruous principles. He refers here to the bad effect of attempting to combine contrary merits in a single figure. The summit of perfection Sir Joshua Reynolds concludes to be the assemblage of contrary qualities, but mixed in such proportions that no one part is found to counteract the other.

It has been further objected to the union of the grand and the beautiful in the same composition, that the former addresses itself to the mind, the latter only to the senses or the feelings. This principle is, however, liable to exceptions, as both are addressed to the senses and feelings alike ; and although different faculties and emotions may be. excited by these different causes, and may each be excited together, yet they do not thwart the exercise of each other. It may also be said that the attention to higher excellences is distracted by the display of inferior merits, as these may be more captivating.

All, however, that can be fairly contended for on this subject is, that these different excellences, if they are entirely and essentially opposite, should be judiciously and harmoniously blended together, as we see in nature. Although not of them-selves absolutely incompatible, they may doubtless be made so by their mode of treatment; as we might render incongruous a landscape view by introducing a sunshine and a storm, or a calm and an agitated sea into the same composition. In regard to the distraction of the mind by inferior excellences from higher merits, Longinus sublimely observes that “as the lesser lights of heaven are palled in the surrounding effulgence of the sun, so the artifices of rhetoric become invisible amidst the splendour of sublime thoughts.” In the most perfect works of art, however, the most extensive union of opposite merits is discernible. The Elgin marbles, which are the nearest approach to perfection in art, afford the best examples in illustration of the truth of my theory. And in Raphael, in Homer, in Virgil, and in Milton, we have the finest and most satisfactory instances of the union together in. the same composition of contrary excellences. Grandeur and beauty, and pathos, and even satire are here found conjoined. The same may also be said of the efforts of some of the greatest orators both in ancient and modern times.

Minute attention to the details of ornament, and to exactness in mechanically portraying the various subordinate objects in the composition, such as we see effected in some of the paintings of the Dutch school, and in certain modern works of the pre-Raphaelites, cannot but be considered as a real merit in itself, and as an intrinsic excellence in the performance; and it can only be correctly regarded as a demerit when attention to this inferior and subordinate point has been allowed to engross an undue share of attention, so as to prevent proper care being devoted to higher and more important, and more intellectual objects. On the other hand, the neglect of these minute details cannot but be admitted to be a defect, although it may be overlooked, and to a large extent compensated for by the attention bestowed on higher matters. Thus also, in the character of a man, we disregard minor failings when he is adorned by great virtues ; although these lesser defects may still be vices, and the overcoming them would be very meritorious, provided that in so doing he did not disregard more important duties.

On the whole, the only true and correct theory appears to me to be this : that there are in art different excellences to be attained, the exclusive observance of certain of which ordinarily characterizes a particular school of art ; that as each art represents only some out of several of the qualities which every subject or object in nature possesses, so each style combines a few only out of the many merits that art itself em-bodies. Thus style is to general art, what art is to general nature. From this, we might infer that the union of all the excellences of the different styles into one composition, will be like the union of all the representative constituent qualities of one object in nature into one artistical subject.

In works of nature, moroever, it is no uncommon thing to see opposite, and what, indeed, might otherwise be considered incompatible excellences, united in the same subject. Here, however, contrary merits, so far from detracting from, contribute by the contrast to the effect of each. other.

The preference of a near imitation of nature to a high soaring into the regions of grandeur, is unquestionably erroneous. But this in no degree proves that a near imitation of nature, amounting even to deception, is an inferior attainment, or is to be neglected.

There is, therefore, no real reason why, as in nature, opposite merits should not be in a corresponding manner united in a composition in art. Our inexperience of having seen the thing done, is no proof of our inability to do it. The representation in any art is certainly not the less perfect because several instead of one or two excellences only are attained, unless these are contradictory and inconsistent. But in nature many different excellences, however opposite, harmonize and are consistent. Nor is any object in nature less grand, because it is seen to be nature. It appears, therefore, clear that the more true to nature is any representation in art, of whatever style, the more perfect it is as a work of art. The error alluded to has arisen from the attention in certain works of art to minor excellences, having been supposed to have occasioned a neglect of higher objects, which it was thought ought to have alone engaged, or were alone sufficient to engage and engross, the whole soul of the artist.