It would be difficult, and would probably be attended with no satisfactory final result to institute a strict comparison between the effects that are produced on the mind by works of nature, and those produced by works of art. Nor can it be questioned that the works of nature are in every respect more perfect than are works of art, and are, therefore, in general more affecting to the mind. The beauties, as well as all the works of nature, are doubtless more exquisite and more astonishing than those of art, as the Being who called them into existence is in all His attributes far above the greatest artistical genius; and the more strictly we scrutinize the former, the more complete is our admiration of them. Nevertheless, it must, I think, be acknowledged that works of art of an extraordinary degree of excellence are calculated yet more to excite in our minds the most vivid sensations. This may appear at sight a paradox. We must, however, bear in mind that, as regards the effect of works of art, especially those in painting and sculpture, they have one circumstance attached to them which contributes greatly to aid their power; that is, the pleasure derived from seeing correct representations of nature effected by art. The excellence of the imitation constitutes a considerable addition to, and indeed very often the main portion of the pleasure which we derive from viewing the artistical effort. The representation of a man or an animal, or of a landscape even of an ordinary kind, and in which we are not particularly interested, if the imitation of nature was well effected, would create in us strong emotions of pleasure ; although the mere observance of these objects in nature would in nowise affect us. In the former case a feeling of wonder and admiration at the skill displayed in the execution, would be caused in addition to that which the object from its beauty or variety might serve to excite within us ; and would, indeed, probably constitute, if the imitation of nature were its principal aim, the chief cause of our emotion.
Works of art are, moreover, in general expressly adapted and designed to please, and to astonish us. In the composition of them, every expedient is resorted to, to give effect and vigour to the representation ; displeasing and commonplace objects are carefully excluded, and those of an attractive and agreeable nature are studiously introduced.
It is, probably, in many cases mainly to the operation of the reason or judgment, by its strong approval of the correctness or skill of the performance, that we owe the pleasure which we derive from many works of art, which are merely imitative in their scope and object, or whose aim is to effect a close resemblance to nature. Certain of these works are not perhaps agreeable in themselves, and represent objects altogether unattractive, and which could excite no pleasure so far as taste alone is concerned ; but the judgment, nevertheless, greatly approves of them as successfully attaining the end designed as correct imitations, whereby the mind is highly gratified. A person of but little taste may consequently be an excellent judge of, and will be highly delighted by a merely imitative work in painting. In works of nature we often discover not the whole beauty or scope of the design; our limited faculties are indeed too narrow to comprehend it.
Works of nature are not of themselves necessarily, or always better adapted to call forth poetical ideas, than are works of art. Each work, indeed, whether of nature or of art, depends in this respect entirely on its own inherent independent powers or qualities. Thus some mountains are highly picturesque, others not at all adapted to excite feelings of this kind ; some statues are extremely graceful, others barren as regards any qualities of this nature.
Longinus says that, “in works of art it is exact proportion that wins our admiration ; but in those of nature, grandeur and magnificence.” This is, however, obviously incorrect, as in many objects of nature proportion pleases as much as in works of art; while grandeur and magnificence delight equally whether produced by nature or by art.
One great advantage which nature possesses over art in representing any particular scene, consists in the circumstance already alluded to, that while in artistical efforts only one art is resorted to, to portray a subject, as a man or a landscape, in nature all the arts are as it were made use of in each case for the representation of the same scene; as painting and sculpture for its form and colour, poetry and eloquence for its speech, architecture for the edifices in the composition, music for its sound, acting for the motion, and gardening for vegetation. And the more arts are availed of together for any representation, the more complete and the nearer to nature it is.
All forms in nature are either directly or indirectly allied to painting, sculpture, and architecture ; all colours to painting, all sounds to poetry, eloquence, and music ; all motions to acting, all landscapes to gardening, and both form and colour to costume.
A work of art, as a painting, a statue, a poem, in which high excellence exists, should have the effect of not only making us admire the work of art itself, but through the re-presentation effected our admiration of nature should also be excited. It should serve as a telescope, so that by this means we may see nature more perfectly, and discern beauties and excellences which in viewing her unaided we did not perceive. The art used in the work should be so far concealed that it should appear to sink into nature herself, to be the result not of art but of nature.
Perhaps the surest test of excellence in a work of art of any kind is the durability of its reputation, and the universality of its approval by mankind. By this criterion have been tried the works of Homer, Virgil, Demosthenes, Cicero, Shakspeare, Raphael, Michael Angelo, which, like the Alpine ranges or the sublimest prospects in nature, exist through all time as the most perfect models of their kind, and to which all mankind alike do homage. Differences in education, in capacity, in feeling, occasion no change as to the opinion pronounced on their transcendent sterling and resplendent merits, and age only invigorates instead of wearing out their lustre. Meretricious excellence, like a tawdry flower, may delight us for a day, but it then fades and is for ever forgotten.