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The work now laid before the public originated in indignation at the shallow and false criticism of the periodicals of the day on the works of the great living artist to whom it principally refers. It was intended to be a short pamphlet, reprobating the matter and style of those critiques, and pointing out their perilous tendency, as guides of public feeling. But, as point after point presented itself for demonstration, I found myself compelled to amplify what was at first a letter to the Editor of a Review, into something very like a treatise on art, to which I was obliged to give the more consistency and completeness, because it advocated opinions which, to the ordinary connoisseur, will sound heretical. I now scarcely know whether I should announce it is an Essay on Landscape Painting, and apologize for its frequent reference to the works of a particular master; or, announcing it as a critique on particular works, apologize for its lengthy discussion of general principles.
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PREFACE TO THE FIRST EDITION.
PREFACE TO THE SECOND EDITION.
PREFACE TO THE THIRD EDITION.
PREFACE TO NEW EDITION.
§ 7. From Claude.
§ 3. The clouds of Salvator and Poussin.
§ 13. Their excessive appearance of transparency.
§ 19. Why unpardonable.
It is allowed by the most able writers on naval and military tactics, that although the attack by successive divisions absolutely requires in the attacking party such an inherent superiority in quality of force, and such consciousness of that superiority, as may enable his front columns, or his leading ships, to support themselves for a considerable period against overwhelming numbers; it yet insures, if maintained with constancy, the most total ruin of the opposing force. Convinced of the truth, and therefore assured of the ultimate prevalence and victory of the principles which I have advocated, and equally confident that the strength of the cause must give weight to the strokes of even the weakest of its defenders, I permitted myself to yield to a somewhat hasty and hot-headed desire of being, at whatever risk, in the thick of the fire, and began the contest with a part, and that the weakest and least considerable part, of the forces at my disposal. And I now find the volume thus boldly laid before the public in a position much resembling that of the Royal Sovereign at Trafalgar, receiving, unsupported, the broadsides of half the enemy's fleet, while unforeseen circumstances have hitherto prevented, and must yet for a time prevent, my heavier ships of the line from taking any part in the action. I watched the first moments of the struggle with some anxiety for the solitary vessel,—an anxiety which I have now ceased to feel,—for the flag of truth waves brightly through the smoke of the battle, and my antagonists, wholly intent on the destruction of the leading ship, have lost their position, and exposed themselves in defenceless disorder to the attack of the following columns.
If, however, I have had no reason to regret my hasty advance, as far as regards the ultimate issue of the struggle, I have yet found it to occasion much misconception of the character, and some diminution of the influence, of the present essay. For though the work has been received as only in sanguine moments I had ventured to hope, though I have had the pleasure of knowing that in many instances its principles have carried with them a strength of conviction amounting to a demonstration of their truth, and that, even where it has had no other influence, it has excited interest, suggested inquiry, and prompted to a just and frank comparison of Art with Nature; yet this effect would have been greater still, had not the work been supposed, as it seems to have been by many readers, a completed treatise, containing a systematized statement of the whole of my views on the subject of modern art. Considered as such, it surprises me that the book should have received the slightest attention. For what respect could be due to a writer who pretended to criticise and classify the works of the great painters of landscape, without developing, or even alluding to, one single principle of the beautiful or sublime? So far from being a completed essay, it is little more than the introduction to the mass of evidence and illustration which I have yet to bring forward; it treats of nothing but the initiatory steps of art, states nothing but the elementary rules of criticism, touches only on merits attainable by accuracy of eye and fidelity of hand, and leaves for future consideration every one of the eclectic qualities of pictures, all of good that is prompted by feeling, and of great that is guided by judgment; and its function and scope should the less have been mistaken, because I have not only most carefully arranged the subject in its commencement, but have given frequent references throughout to the essays by which it is intended to be succeeded, in which I shall endeavor to point out the signification and the value of those phenomena of external nature which I have been hitherto compelled to describe without reference either to their inherent beauty, or to the lessons which may be derived from them.
Yet, to prevent such misconception in future, I may perhaps be excused for occupying the reader's time with a fuller statement of the feelings with which the work was undertaken, of its general plan, and of the conclusions and positions which I hope to be able finally to deduce and maintain.
Nothing, perhaps, bears on the face of it more appearance of folly, ignorance, and impertinence, than any attempt to diminish the honor of those to whom the assent of many generations has assigned a throne; for the truly great of later times have, almost without exception, fostered in others the veneration of departed power which they felt themselves, satisfied in all humility to take their seat at the feet of those whose honor is brightened by the hoariness of time, and to wait for the period when the lustre of many departed days may accumulate on their own heads, in the radiance which culminates as it recedes. The envious and incompetent have usually been the leaders of attack, content if, like the foulness of the earth, they may attract to themselves notice by their noisomeness, or, like its insects, exalt themselves by virulence into visibility. While, however, the envy of the vicious, and the insolence of the ignorant, are occasionally shown in their nakedness by futile efforts to degrade the dead, it is worthy of consideration whether they may not more frequently escape detection in successful efforts to degrade the living,—whether the very same malice may not be gratified, the very same incompetence demonstrated in the unjust lowering of present greatness, and the unjust exaltation of a perished power, as, if exerted and manifested in a less safe direction, would have classed the critic with Nero and Caligula, with Zoilus and Perrault. Be it remembered, that the spirit of detraction is detected only when unsuccessful, and receives least punishment where it effects the greatest injury; and it cannot but be felt that there is as much danger that the rising of new stars should be concealed by the mists which are unseen, as that those throned in heaven should be darkened by the clouds which are visible.
There is, I fear, so much malice in the hearts of most men, that they are chiefly jealous of that praise which can give the greatest pleasure, and are then most liberal of eulogium when it can no longer be enjoyed. They grudge not the whiteness of the sepulchre, because by no honor they can bestow upon it can the senseless corpse be rendered an object of envy; but they are niggardly of the reputation which contributes to happiness, or advances to fortune. They are glad to obtain credit for generosity and humility by exalting those who are beyond the reach of praise, and thus to escape the more painful necessity of doing homage to a living rival. They are rejoiced to set up a standard of imaginary excellence, which may enable them, by insisting on the inferiority of a contemporary work to the things that have been, to withdraw the attention from its superiority to the things that are. The same undercurrent of jealousy operates in our reception of animadversion. Men have commonly more pleasure in the criticism which hurts than in that which is innocuous, and are more tolerant of the severity which breaks hearts and ruins fortunes, than of that which falls impotently on the grave.
And thus well says the good and deep-minded Richard Hooker: "To the best and wisest, while they live, the world is continually a froward opposite; and a curious observer of their defects and imperfections, their virtues afterwards it as much admireth. And for this cause, many times that which deserveth admiration would hardly be able to find favor, if they which propose it were not content to profess themselves therein scholars and followers of the ancient. For the world will not endure to hear that we are wiser than any have been which went before."—Book v. ch. vii. 3. He therefore who would maintain the cause of contemporary excellence against that of elder time, must have almost every class of men arrayed against him. The generous, because they would not find matter of accusation against established dignities; the envious, because they like not the sound of a living man's praise; the wise, because they prefer the opinion of centuries to that of days; and the foolish, because they are incapable of forming an opinion of their own. Obloquy so universal is not lightly to be risked, and the few who make an effort to stem the torrent, as it is made commonly in favor of their own works, deserve the contempt which is their only reward. Nor is this to be regretted, in its influence on the progress and preservation of things technical and communicable. Respect for the ancients is the salvation of art, though it sometimes blinds us to its ends. It increases the power of the painter, though it diminishes his liberty; and if it be sometimes an incumbrance to the essays of invention, it is oftener a protection from the consequences of audacity. The whole system and discipline of art, the collected results of the experience of ages, might, but for the fixed authority of antiquity, be swept away by the rage of fashion, or lost in the glare of novelty; and the knowledge which it had taken centuries to accumulate, the principles which mighty minds had arrived at only in dying, might be overthrown by the frenzy of a faction, and abandoned in the insolence of an hour.
Neither, in its general application, is the persuasion of the [Page xvii] superiority of former works less just than useful. The greater number of them are, and must be, immeasurably nobler than any of the results of present effort, because that which is best of the productions of four thousand years must necessarily be in its accumulation, beyond all rivalry from the works of any given generation; but it should always be remembered that it is improbable that many, and impossible that all, of such works, though the greatest yet produced, should approach abstract perfection; that there is certainly something left for us to carry farther, or complete; that any given generation has just the same chance of producing some individual mind of first-rate calibre, as any of its predecessors; and that if such a mind should arise, the chances are, that with the assistance of experience and example, it would, in its particular and chosen path, do greater things than had been before done.
We must therefore be cautious not to lose sight of the real use of what has been left us by antiquity, nor to take that for a model of perfection which is, in many cases, only a guide to it. The picture which is looked to for an interpretation of nature is invaluable, but the picture which is taken as a substitute for nature, had better be burned; and the young artist, while he should shrink with horror from the iconoclast who would tear from him every landmark and light which has been bequeathed him by the ancients, and leave him in a liberated childhood, may be equally certain of being betrayed by those who would give him the power and the knowledge of past time, and then fetter his strength from all advance, and bend his eyes backward on a beaten path—who would thrust canvas between him and the sky, and tradition between him and God.
And such conventional teaching is the more to be dreaded, because all that is highest in art, all that is creative and imaginative, is formed and created by every great master for himself, and cannot be repeated or imitated by others. We judge of the excellence of a rising writer, not so much by the resemblance of his works to what has been done before, as by their difference from it; and while we advise him, in his first trials of strength, to set certain models before him with respect to inferior points,—one for versification, another for arrangement, another for treatment,—we yet admit not his greatness until he has broken away from all his models, and struck forth versification, arrangement, and treatment of his own.
Three points, therefore, I would especially insist upon as necessary to be kept in mind in all criticism of modern art. First, that there are few, very few of even the best productions of antiquity, which are not visibly and palpably imperfect in some kind or way, and conceivably improvable by farther study; that every nation, perhaps every generation, has in all probability some peculiar gift, some particular character of mind, enabling it to do something different from, or something in some sort better than what has been before done; and that therefore, unless art be a trick, or a manufacture, of which the secrets are lost, the greatest minds of existing nations, if exerted with the same industry, passion, and honest aim as those of past time, have a chance in their particular walk of doing something as great, or, taking the advantage of former example into account, even greater and better. It is difficult to conceive by what laws of logic some of the reviewers of the following Essay have construed its first sentence into a denial of this principle,—a denial such as their own conventional and shallow criticism of modern works invariably implies. I have said that "nothing has been for centuries consecrated by public admiration without possessing in a high degree some species of sterling excellence." Does it thence follow that it possesses in the highest degree every species of sterling excellence? "Yet thus," says the sapient reviewer, "he admits the fact against which he mainly argues,—namely, the superiority of these time-honored productions." As if the possession of an abstract excellence of some kind necessarily implied the possession of an incomparable excellence of every kind! There are few works of man so perfect as to admit of no conception of their being excelled,[A]—there are thousands which have been for centuries, and will be for centuries more, consecrated by public admiration, which are yet imperfect in many respects, and have been excelled, and may be excelled again. Do my opponents mean to assert that nothing good can ever be bettered, and that what is best of past time is necessarily best of all time? Perugino, I suppose, possessed some species of sterling excellence, but Perugino was excelled by Raffaelle; and so Claude possesses some species of sterling excellence, but it follows not that he may not be excelled by Turner.
The second point on which I would insist is that if a mind were to arise of such power as to be capable of equalling or excelling some of the greatest works of past ages, the productions of such a mind would, in all probability, be totally different in manner and matter from all former productions; for the more powerful the intellect, the less will its works resemble those of other men, whether predecessors or contemporaries. Instead of reasoning, therefore, as we commonly do, in matters of art, that because such and such a work does not resemble that which has hitherto been a canon, therefore it must be inferior and wrong in principle; let us rather admit that there is in its very dissimilarity an increased chance of its being itself a new, and perhaps, a higher canon. If any production of modern art can be shown to have the authority of nature on its side, and to be based on eternal truths, it is all so much more in its favor, so much farther proof of its power, that it is totally different from all that have been before seen.[B]
The third point on which I would insist, is that if such a mind were to arise, it would necessarily divide the world of criticism into two factions; the one, necessarily the largest and loudest, composed of men incapable of judging except by precedent, ignorant of general truth, and acquainted only with such particular truths as may have been illustrated or pointed out to them by former works, which class would of course be violent in vituperation, and increase in animosity as the master departed farther from their particular and preconceived canons of right,—thus wounding their vanity by impugning their judgment; the other, necessarily narrow of number, composed of men of general knowledge and unbiassed habits of thought, who would recognize in the work of the daring innovator a record and illustration of facts before unseized, who would justly and candidly estimate the value of the truths so rendered, and would increase in fervor of admiration as the master strode farther and deeper, and more daringly into dominions before unsearched or unknown; yet diminishing in multitude as they increased in enthusiasm: for by how much their leader became more impatient in his step—more impetuous in his success—more exalted in his research, by so much must the number capable of following him become narrower, until at last, supposing him never to pause in his advance, he might be left in the very culminating moment of his consummate achievement, with but a faithful few by his side, his former disciples fallen away, his former enemies doubled in numbers and virulence, and the evidence of his supremacy only to be wrought out by the devotion of men's lives to the earnest study of the new truths he had discovered and recorded.
Such a mind has arisen in our days. It has gone on from strength to strength, laying open fields of conquest peculiar to itself. It has occasioned such schism in the schools of criticism as was beforehand to be expected, and it is now at the zenith of its power, and, consequently, in the last phase of declining popularity.
This I know, and can prove. No man, says Southey, was ever yet convinced of any momentous truth without feeling in himself the power, as well as the desire of communicating it. In asserting and demonstrating the supremacy of this great master, I shall both do immediate service to the cause of right art, and shall be able to illustrate many principles of landscape painting which are of general application, and have hitherto been unacknowledged.
For anything like immediate effect on the public mind, I do not hope. "We mistake men's diseases," says Richard Baxter, "when we think there needeth nothing to cure them of their errors but the evidence of truth. Alas! there are many distempers of mind to be removed before they receive that evidence." Nevertheless, when it is fully laid before them, my duty will be done. Conviction will follow in due time. I do not consider myself as in any way addressing, or having to do with, the ordinary critics of the press. Their writings are not the guide, but the expression, of public opinion. A writer for a newspaper naturally and necessarily endeavors to meet, as nearly as he can, the feelings of the majority of his readers; his bread depends on his doing so. Precluded by the nature of his occupations from gaining any knowledge of art, he is sure that he can gain credit for it by expressing the opinions of his readers. He mocks the picture which the public pass, and bespatters with praise the canvas which a crowd concealed from him.
Writers like the present critic of Blackwood's Magazine[C] deserve more respect—the respect due to honest, hopeless, helpless imbecility. There is something exalted in the innocence of their feeblemindedness: one cannot suspect them of partiality, for it implies feeling; nor of prejudice, for it implies some previous acquaintance with their subject. I do not know that even in this age of charlatanry, I could point to a more barefaced instance of imposture on the simplicity of the public, than the insertion of these pieces of criticism in a respectable periodical. We are not insulted with opinions on music from persons ignorant of its notes; nor with treatises on philology by persons unacquainted with the alphabet; but here is page after page of criticism, which one may read from end to end, looking for something which the writer knows, and finding nothing. Not his own language, for he has to look in his dictionary, by his own confession, for a word[D] occurring in one of the most important chapters of his Bible; not the commonest traditions of the schools, for he does not know why Poussin was called [Page xxii] "learned;"[E] not the most simple canons of art, for he prefers Lee to Gainsborough;[F] not the most ordinary facts of nature, for we find him puzzled by the epithet "silver," as applied to [Page xxiii] the orange blossom,—evidently never having seen anything silvery about an orange in his life, except a spoon. Nay, he leaves us not to conjecture his calibre from internal evidence; he candidly tells us (Oct. 1842) that he has been studying trees only for the last week, and bases his critical remarks chiefly on his practical experience of birch. More disinterested than our friend Sancho, he would disenchant the public from the magic of Turner by virtue of his own flagellation; Xanthias-like, he would rob his master of immortality by his own powers of endurance. What is Christopher North about? Does he receive his critiques from Eaton or Harrow—based on the experience of a week's birds'-nesting and its consequences? How low must art and its interests sink, when the public mind is inadequate to the detection of this effrontery of incapacity! In all kindness to Maga, we warn her, that, though the nature of this work precludes us from devoting space to the exposure, there may come a time when the public shall be themselves able to distinguish ribaldry from reasoning, and may require some better and higher qualifications in their critics of art, than the experience of a school-boy, and the capacities of a buffoon.
It is not, however, merely to vindicate the reputation of those whom writers like these defame, which would but be to anticipate by a few years the natural and inevitable reaction of the public mind, that I am devoting years of labor to the development of the principles on which the great productions of recent art are based. I have a higher end in view—one which may, I think, justify me, not only in the sacrifice of my own time, but in calling on my readers to follow me through an investigation far more laborious than could be adequately rewarded by mere insight into the merits of a particular master, or the spirit of a particular age.
It is a question which, in spite of the claims of Painting to be [Page xxiv] called the Sister of Poetry, appears to me to admit of considerable doubt, whether art has ever, except in its earliest and rudest stages, possessed anything like efficient moral influence on mankind. Better the state of Rome when "magnorum artificum frangebat pocula miles, ut phaleris gauderet equus," than when her walls flashed with the marble and the gold, "nec cessabat luxuria id agere, ut quam plurimum incendiis perdat." Better the state of religion in Italy, before Giotto had broken on one barbarism of the Byzantine schools, than when the painter of the Last Judgment, and the sculptor of the Perseus, sat revelling side by side. It appears to me that a rude symbol is oftener more efficient than a refined one in touching the heart, and that as pictures rise in rank as works of art, they are regarded with less devotion and more curiosity.
But, however this may be, and whatever influence we may be disposed to admit in the great works of sacred art, no doubt can, I think, be reasonably entertained as to the utter inutility of all that has been hitherto accomplished by the painters of landscape. No moral end has been answered, no permanent good effected, by any of their works. They may have amused the intellect, or exercised the ingenuity, but they never have spoken to the heart. Landscape art has never taught us one deep or holy lesson; it has not recorded that which is fleeting, nor penetrated that which was hidden, nor interpreted that which was obscure; it has never made us feel the wonder, nor the power, nor the glory, of the universe; it has not prompted to devotion, nor touched with awe; its power to move and exalt the heart has been fatally abused, and perished in the abusing. That which ought to have been a witness to the omnipotence of God, has become an exhibition of the dexterity of man, and that which should have lifted our thoughts to the throne of the Deity, has encumbered them with the inventions of his creatures.
If we stand for a little time before any of the more celebrated works of landscape, listening to the comments of the passers-by, we shall hear numberless expressions relating to the skill of the artist, but very few relating to the perfection of nature. Hundreds will be voluble in admiration, for one who will be silent in delight. Multitudes will laud the composition, and depart with the praise of Claude on their lips,—not one will feel as if it were no composition, and depart with the praise of God in his heart.
These are the signs of a debased, mistaken, and false school of painting. The skill of the artist, and the perfection of his art, are never proved until both are forgotten. The artist has done nothing till he has concealed himself,—the art is imperfect which is visible,—the feelings are but feebly touched, if they permit us to reason on the methods of their excitement. In the reading of a great poem, in the hearing of a noble oration, it is the subject of the writer, and not his skill,—his passion, not his power, on which our minds are fixed. We see as he sees, but we see not him. We become part of him, feel with him, judge, behold with him; but we think of him as little as of ourselves. Do we think of Æschylus while we wait on the silence of Cassandra,[G] or of Shakspeare, while we listen to the wailing of Lear? Not so. The power of the masters is shown by their self-annihilation. It is commensurate with the degree in which they themselves appear not in their work. The harp of the minstrel is untruly touched, if his own glory is all that it records. Every great writer may be at once known by his guiding the mind far from himself, to the beauty which is not of his creation, and the knowledge which is past his finding out.
And must it ever be otherwise with painting, for otherwise it has ever been. Her subjects have been regarded as mere themes on which the artist's power is to be displayed; and that power, be it of imitation, composition, idealization, or of whatever other kind, is the chief object of the spectator's observation. It is man and his fancies, man and his trickeries, man and his inventions,—poor, paltry, weak, self-sighted man,—which the connoisseur forever seeks and worships. Among potsherds and dunghills, among drunken boors and withered beldames, through every scene of debauchery and degradation, we follow [Page xxvi] the erring artist, not to receive one wholesome lesson, not to be touched with pity, nor moved with indignation, but to watch the dexterity of the pencil, and gloat over the glittering of the hue.
I speak not only of the works of the Flemish School—I wage no war with their admirers; they may be left in peace to count the spiculæ of haystacks and the hairs of donkeys—it is also of works of real mind that I speak,—works in which there are evidences of genius and workings of power,—works which have been held up as containing all of the beautiful that art can reach or man conceive. And I assert with sorrow, that all hitherto done in landscape, by those commonly conceived its masters, has never prompted one holy thought in the minds of nations. It has begun and ended in exhibiting the dexterities of individuals, and conventionalities of systems. Filling the world with the honor of Claude and Salvator, it has never once tended to the honor of God.
Does the reader start in reading these last words, as if they were those of wild enthusiasm,—as if I were lowering the dignity of religion by supposing that its cause could be advanced by such means? His surprise proves my position. It does sound like wild, like absurd enthusiasm, to expect any definite moral agency in the painters of landscape; but ought it so to sound? Are the gorgeousness of the visible hue, the glory of the realized form, instruments in the artist's hand so ineffective, that they can answer no nobler purpose than the amusement of curiosity, or the engagement of idleness? Must it not be owing to gross neglect or misapplication of the means at his command, that while words and tones (means of representing nature surely less powerful than lines and colors) can kindle and purify the very inmost souls of men, the painter can only hope to entertain by his efforts at expression, and must remain forever brooding over his incommunicable thoughts?
The cause of the evil lies, I believe, deep-seated in the system of ancient landscape art; it consists, in a word, in the painter's taking upon him to modify God's works at his pleasure, casting the shadow of himself on all he sees, constituting himself arbiter where it is honor to be a disciple, and exhibiting his ingenuity by the attainment of combinations whose highest praise is that they are impossible. We shall not pass through a single gallery of old art, without hearing this topic of praise [Page xxvii] confidently advanced. The sense of artificialness, the absence of all appearance of reality, the clumsiness of combination by which the meddling of man is made evident, and the feebleness of his hand branded on the inorganization of his monstrous creature, is advanced as a proof of inventive power, as an evidence of abstracted conception;—nay, the violation of specific form, the utter abandonment of all organic and individual character of object, (numberless examples of which from the works of the old masters are given in the following pages,) is constantly held up by the unthinking critic as the foundation of the grand or historical style, and the first step to the attainment of a pure ideal. Now, there is but one grand style, in the treatment of all subjects whatsoever, and that style is based on the perfect knowledge, and consists in the simple, unencumbered rendering, of the specific characters of the given object, be it man, beast, or flower. Every change, caricature, or abandonment of such specific character, is as destructive of grandeur as it is of truth, of beauty as of propriety. Every alteration of the features of nature has its origin either in powerless indolence or blind audacity, in the folly which forgets, or the insolence which desecrates, works which it is the pride of angels to know, and their privilege to love.
We sometimes hear such infringement of universal laws justified on the plea, that the frequent introduction of mythological abstractions into ancient landscape requires an imaginary character of form in the material objects with which they are associated. Something of this kind is hinted in Reynolds's 14th Discourse; but nothing can be more false than such reasoning. If there be any truth or beauty in the original conception of the spiritual being so introduced, there must be a true and real connection between that abstract idea[H] and the features [Page xxviii] of nature as she was and is. The woods and waters which were peopled by the Greek with typical life were not different from those which now wave and murmur by the ruins of his shrines. With their visible and actual forms was his imagination filled, and the beauty of its incarnate creatures can only be understood among the pure realities which originally modelled their conception. If divinity be stamped upon the features, or apparent in the form of the spiritual creature, the mind will not be shocked by its appearing to ride upon the whirlwind, and trample on the storm; but if mortality, no violation of the characters of the earth will forge one single link to bind it to the heaven.
Is there then no such thing as elevated ideal character of landscape? Undoubtedly; and Sir Joshua, with the great master of this character, Nicolo Poussin, present to his thoughts, ought to have arrived at more true conclusions respecting its essence than, as we shall presently see, are deducible from his works. The true ideal of landscape is precisely the same as that of the human form; it is the expression of the specific—not the individual, but the specific—characters of every object, in their perfection; there is an ideal form of every herb, flower, and tree: it is that form to which every individual of the species has a tendency to arrive, freed from the influence of accident or disease. Every landscape painter should know the specific characters of every object he has to represent, rock, flower, or cloud; and in his highest ideal works, all their distinctions will be perfectly expressed, broadly or delicately, slightly or completely, according to the nature of the subject, and the degree of attention which is to be drawn to the particular object by the part it plays in the composition. Where the sublime is aimed at, such distinctions will be indicated with severe simplicity, as the muscular markings in a colossal statue; where beauty is the object, they must be expressed with the utmost refinement of which the hand is capable.
This may sound like a contradiction of principles advanced by the highest authorities; but it is only a contradiction of a particular and most mistaken application of them. Much evil [Page xxix] has been done to art by the remarks of historical painters on landscape. Accustomed themselves to treat their backgrounds slightly and boldly, and feeling (though, as I shall presently show, only in consequence of their own deficient powers) that any approach to completeness of detail therein, injures their picture by interfering with its principal subject, they naturally lose sight of the peculiar and intrinsic beauties of things which to them are injurious, unless subordinate. Hence the frequent advice given by Reynolds and others, to neglect specific form in landscape, and treat its materials in large masses, aiming only at general truths,—the flexibility of foliage, but not its kind; the rigidity of rock, but not its mineral character. In the passage more especially bearing on this subject (in the eleventh lecture of Sir J. Reynolds), we are told that "the landscape painter works not for the virtuoso or the naturalist, but for the general observer of life and nature." This is true, in precisely the same sense that the sculptor does not work for the anatomist, but for the common observer of life and nature. Yet the sculptor is not, for this reason, permitted to be wanting either in knowledge or expression of anatomical detail; and the more refined that expression can be rendered, the more perfect is his work. That which, to the anatomist, is the end,—is, to the sculptor, the means. The former desires details, for their own sake; the latter, that by means of them, he may kindle his work with life, and stamp it with beauty. And so in landscape;—botanical or geological details are not to be given as matter of curiosity or subject of search, but as the ultimate elements of every species of expression and order of loveliness.
In his observations on the foreground of the St. Pietro Martire, Sir Joshua advances, as matter of praise, that the plants are discriminated "just as much as was necessary for variety, and no more." Had this foreground been occupied by a group of animals, we should have been surprised to be told that the lion, the serpent, and the dove, or whatever other creatures might have been introduced, were distinguished from each other just as much as was necessary for variety, and no more. Yet is it to be supposed that the distinctions of the vegetable world are less complete, less essential, or less divine in origin, than those of the animal? If the distinctive forms of animal life are meant for our reverent observance, is it likely that those of vegetable life are made merely to be swept away? The latter are indeed less obvious and less obtrusive; for which very reason there is less excuse for omitting them, because there is less danger of their disturbing the attention or engaging the fancy.
But Sir Joshua is as inaccurate in fact, as false in principle. He himself furnishes a most singular instance of the very error of which he accuses Vaseni,—the seeing what he expects; or, rather, in the present case, not seeing what he does not expect. The great masters of Italy, almost without exception, and Titian perhaps more than any, (for he had the highest knowledge of landscape,) are in the constant habit of rendering every detail of their foregrounds with the most laborious botanical fidelity: witness the "Bacchus and Ariadne," in which the foreground is occupied by the common blue iris, the aquilegia, and the wild rose; every stamen of which latter is given, while the blossoms and leaves of the columbine (a difficult flower to draw) have been studied with the most exquisite accuracy. The foregrounds of Raffaelle's two cartoons,—"The Miraculous Draught of Fishes" and "The Charge to Peter,"—are covered with plants of the common sea colewort, (crambe maritima,) of which the sinuated leaves and clustered blossoms would have exhausted the patience of any other artist; but have appeared worthy of prolonged and thoughtful labor to the great mind of Raffaelle.
It appears then, not only from natural principles, but from the highest of all authority, that thorough knowledge of the lowest details is necessary and full expression of them right, even in the highest class of historical painting; that it will not take away from, nor interfere with, the interest of the figures; but, rightly managed, must add to and elucidate it; and, if further proof be wanting, I would desire the reader to compare the background of Sir Joshua's "Holy Family," in the National Gallery, with that of Nicolo Poussin's "Nursing of Jupiter," in the Dulwich Gallery. The first, owing to the utter neglect of all botanical detail, has lost every atom of ideal character, and reminds us of nothing but an English fashionable flower garden;—the formal pedestal adding considerably to the effect. Poussin's, in which every vine leaf is drawn with consummate skill and untiring diligence, produces not only a tree group of the most perfect grace and beauty, but one which, in its pure and simple truth, belongs to every age of nature, and adapts itself to the history of all time. If, then, such entire [Page xxxi] rendering of specific character be necessary to the historical painter, in cases where these lower details are entirely subordinate to his human subject, how much more must it be necessary in landscape, where they themselves constitute the subject, and where the undivided attention is to be drawn to them.
There is a singular sense in which the child may peculiarly be said to be father of the man. In many arts and attainments, the first and last stages of progress—the infancy and the consummation—have many features in common; while the intermediate stages are wholly unlike either, and are farthest from the right. Thus it is in the progress of a painter's handling. We see the perfect child,—the absolute beginner, using of necessity a broken, imperfect, inadequate line, which, as he advances, becomes gradually firm, severe, and decided. Yet before he becomes a perfect artist, this severity and decision will again be exchanged for a light and careless stroke, which in many points will far more resemble that of his childhood than of his middle age—differing from it only by the consummate effect wrought out by the apparently inadequate means. So it is in many matters of opinion. Our first and last coincide, though on different grounds; it is the middle stage which is farthest from the truth. Childhood often holds a truth with its feeble fingers, which the grasp of manhood cannot retain,—which it is the pride of utmost age to recover.
Perhaps this is in no instance more remarkable than in the opinion we form upon the subject of detail in works of art. Infants in judgment, we look for specific character, and complete finish—we delight in the faithful plumage of the well-known bird—in the finely drawn leafage of the discriminated flower. As we advance in judgment, we scorn such detail altogether; we look for impetuosity of execution, and breadth of effect. But, perfected in judgment, we return in a great measure to our early feelings, and thank Raffaelle for the shells upon his sacred beach, and for the delicate stamens of the herbage beside his inspired St. Catherine.[I]
Of those who take interest in art, nay, even of artists themselves, [Page xxxii] there are an hundred in the middle stage of judgment, for one who is in the last; and this not because they are destitute of the power to discover, or the sensibility to enjoy the truth, but because the truth bears so much semblance of error—the last stage of the journey to the first,—that every feeling which guides to it is checked in its origin. The rapid and powerful artist necessarily looks with such contempt on those who seek minutiæ of detail rather than grandeur of impression, that it is almost impossible for him to conceive of the great last step in art, by which both become compatible. He has so often to dash the delicacy out of the pupil's work, and to blot the details from his encumbered canvas; so frequently to lament the loss of breadth and unity, and so seldom to reprehend the imperfection of minutiæ, that he necessarily looks upon complete parts as the very sign of error, weakness, and ignorance. Thus, frequently to the latest period of his life, he separates, like Sir Joshua, as chief enemies, the details and the whole, which an artist cannot be great unless he reconciles; and because details alone, and unreferred to a final purpose, are the sign of a tyro's work, he loses sight of the remoter truth, that details perfect in unity, and, contributing to a final purpose, are the sign of the production of a consummate master.
It is not, therefore, detail sought for its own sake,—not the calculable bricks of the Dutch house-painters, nor the numbered hairs and mapped wrinkles of Denner, which constitute great art,—they are the lowest and most contemptible art; but it is detail referred to a great end,—sought for the sake of the inestimable beauty which exists in the slightest and least of God's works, and treated in a manly, broad, and impressive manner. There may be as much greatness of mind, as much nobility of manner in a master's treatment of the smallest features, as in his management of the most vast; and this greatness of manner chiefly consists in seizing the specific character of the object, together with all the great qualities of beauty which it has in common with higher orders of existence,[J] while he utterly rejects the meaner beauties which are accidentally peculiar to the object, and yet not specifically characteristic of it. I cannot give [Page xxxiii] a better instance than the painting of the flowers in Titian's picture above mentioned. While every stamen of the rose is given, because this was necessary to mark the flower, and while the curves and large characters of the leaves are rendered with exquisite fidelity, there is no vestige of particular texture, of moss, bloom, moisture, or any other accident—no dew-drops, nor flies, nor trickeries of any kind; nothing beyond the simple forms and hues of the flowers,—even those hues themselves being simplified and broadly rendered. The varieties of aquilegia have, in reality, a grayish and uncertain tone of color; and, I believe, never attain the intense purity of blue with which Titian has gifted his flower. But the master does not aim at the particular color of individual blossoms; he seizes the type of all, and gives it with the utmost purity and simplicity of which color is capable.
These laws being observed, it will not only be in the power, it will be the duty,—the imperative duty,—of the landscape painter, to descend to the lowest details with undiminished attention. Every herb and flower of the field has its specific, distinct, and perfect beauty; it has its peculiar habitation, expression, and function. The highest art is that which seizes this specific character, which develops and illustrates it, which assigns to it its proper position in the landscape, and which, by means of it, enhances and enforces the great impression which the picture is intended to convey. Nor is it of herbs and flowers alone that such scientific representation is required. Every class of rock, every kind of earth, every form of cloud, must be studied with equal industry, and rendered with equal precision. And thus we find ourselves unavoidably led to a conclusion directly opposed to that constantly enunciated dogma of the parrot-critic, that the features of nature must be "generalized,"—a dogma whose inherent and broad absurdity would long ago have been detected, if it had not contained in its convenient falsehood an apology for indolence, and a disguise for incapacity. Generalized! As if it were possible to generalize things generically different. Of such common cant of criticism I extract a characteristic passage from one of the reviews of this work, that in this year's Athenæum for February 10th: "He (the author) would have geological landscape painters, dendrologic, meteorologic, and doubtless entomologic, ichthyologic, every kind of physiologic painter united in the same person; [Page xxxiv] yet, alas, for true poetic art among all these learned Thebans! No; landscape painting must not be reduced to mere portraiture of inanimate substances, Denner-like portraiture of the earth's face. * * * * * Ancient landscapists took a broader, deeper, higher view of their art; they neglected particular traits, and gave only general features. Thus they attained mass and force, harmonious union and simple effect, the elements of grandeur and beauty."
To all such criticism as this (and I notice it only because it expresses the feelings into which many sensible and thoughtful minds have been fashioned by infection) the answer is simple and straightforward. It is just as impossible to generalize granite and slate, as it is to generalize a man and a cow. An animal must be either one animal or another animal; it cannot be a general animal, or it is no animal; and so a rock must be either one rock or another rock; it cannot be a general rock, or it is no rock. If there were a creature in the foreground of a picture, of which he could not decide whether it were a pony or a pig, the Athenæum critic would perhaps affirm it to be a generalization of pony and pig, and consequently a high example of "harmonious union and simple effect." But I should call it simple bad drawing. And so when there are things in the foreground of Salvator of which I cannot pronounce whether they be granite or slate, or tufa, I affirm that there is in them neither harmonious union nor simple effect, but simple monstrosity. There is no grandeur, no beauty of any sort or kind; nothing but destruction, disorganization, and ruin, to be obtained by the violation of natural distinctions. The elements of brutes can only mix in corruption, the elements of inorganic nature only in annihilation. We may, if we choose, put together centaur monsters; but they must still be half man, half horse; they cannot be both man and horse, nor either man or horse. And so, if landscape painters choose, they may give us rocks which shall be half granite and half slate; but they cannot give us rocks which shall be either granite or slate, nor which shall be both granite and slate. Every attempt to produce that which shall be any rock, ends in the production of that which is no rock.
It is true that the distinctions of rocks and plants and clouds are less conspicuous, and less constantly subjects of observation than those of the animal creation; but the difficulty of observing [Page xxxv] them proves not the merit of overlooking them. It only accounts for the singular fact, that the world has never yet seen anything like a perfect school of landscape. For just as the highest historical painting is based on perfect knowledge of the workings of the human form, and human mind, so must the highest landscape painting be based on perfect cognizance of the form, functions, and system of every organic or definitely structured existence which it has to represent. This proposition is self-evident to every thinking mind; and every principle which appears to contradict it is either misstated or misunderstood. For instance, the Athenæum critic calls the right statement of generic difference "Denner-like portraiture." If he can find anything like Denner in what I have advanced as the utmost perfection of landscape art—the recent works of Turner—he is welcome to his discovery and his theory. No; Denner-like portraiture would be the endeavor to paint the separate crystals of quartz and felspar in the granite, and the separate flakes of mica in the mica slate,—an attempt just as far removed from what I assert to be great art, (the bold rendering of the generic characters of form in both rocks,) as modern sculpture of lace and button-holes is from the Elgin marbles. Martin has attempted this Denner-like portraiture of sea-foam with the assistance of an acre of canvas—with what success, I believe the critics of his last year's Canute had, for once, sense enough to decide.
Again, it does not follow that because such accurate knowledge is necessary to the painter that it should constitute the painter, nor that such knowledge is valuable in itself, and without reference to high ends. Every kind of knowledge may be sought from ignoble motives, and for ignoble ends; and in those who so possess it, it is ignoble knowledge; while the very same knowledge is in another mind an attainment of the highest dignity, and conveying the greatest blessing. This is the difference between the mere botanist's knowledge of plants, and the great poet's or painter's knowledge of them. The one notes their distinctions for the sake of swelling his herbarium, the other, that he may render them vehicles of expression and emotion. The one counts the stamens, and affixes a name, and is content; the other observes every character of the plant's color and form; considering each of its attributes as an element of expression, he seizes on its lines of grace or energy, rigidity or [Page xxxvi] repose; notes the feebleness or the vigor, the serenity or tremulousness of its hues; observes its local habits, its love or fear of peculiar places, its nourishment or destruction by particular influences; he associates it in his mind with all the features of the situations it inhabits, and the ministering agencies necessary to its support. Thenceforward the flower is to him a living creature, with histories written on its leaves, and passions breathing in its motion. Its occurrence in his picture is no mere point of color, no meaningless spark of light. It is a voice rising from the earth,—a new chord of the mind's music,—a necessary note in the harmony of his picture, contributing alike to its tenderness and its dignity, nor less to its loveliness than its truth.
The particularization of flowers by Shakspeare and Shelley affords us the most frequent examples of the exalted use of these inferior details. It is true that the painter has not the same power of expressing the thoughts with which his symbols are connected; he is dependent in some degree on the knowledge and feeling of the spectator; but, by the destruction of such details, his foreground is not rendered more intelligible to the ignorant, although it ceases to have interest for the informed. It is no excuse for illegible writing that there are persons who could not have read it had it been plain.
I repeat then, generalization, as the word is commonly understood, is the act of a vulgar, incapable, and unthinking mind. To see in all mountains nothing but similar heaps of earth; in all rocks, nothing but similar concretions of solid matter; in all trees, nothing but similar accumulations of leaves, is no sign of high feeling or extended thought. The more we know, and the more we feel, the more we separate; we separate to obtain a more perfect unity. Stones, in the thoughts of the peasant, lie as they do on his field, one is like another, and there is no connection between any of them. The geologist distinguishes, and in distinguishing connects them. Each becomes different from its fellow, but in differing from, assumes a relation to its fellow; they are no more each the repetition of the other,—they are parts of a system, and each implies and is connected with the existence of the rest. That generalization then is right, true, and noble, which is based on the knowledge of the distinctions and observance of the relations of individual kinds. That generalization is wrong, false, and contemptible, [Page xxxvii] which is based on ignorance of the one, and disturbance of the other. It is indeed no generalization, but confusion and chaos; it is the generalization of a defeated army into indistinguishable impotence—the generalization of the elements of a dead carcass into dust.
Let us, then, without farther notice of the dogmata of the schools of art, follow forth those conclusions to which we are led by observance of the laws of nature.
I have just said that every class of rock, earth and cloud, must be known by the painter, with geologic and meteorologic accuracy.[K] Nor is this merely for the sake of obtaining the character of these minor features themselves, but more especially for the sake of reaching that simple, earnest, and consistent character which is visible in the whole effect of every natural landscape. Every geological formation has features entirely peculiar to itself; definite lines of fracture, giving rise to fixed resultant forms of rock and earth; peculiar vegetable products, among which still farther distinctions are wrought out by variations of climate and elevation. From such modifying circumstances arise the infinite varieties of the orders of landscape, of which each one shows perfect harmony among its several features, and possesses an ideal beauty of its own; a beauty not distinguished merely by such peculiarities as are wrought on the human form by change of climate, but by generic differences the most marked and essential; so that its classes cannot be generalized or amalgamated by any expedients whatsoever. The level marshes and rich meadows of the tertiary, the rounded swells and short pastures of the chalk, the square-built cliffs and cloven dells of the lower limestone, the soaring peaks and ridgy precipices of the primaries, having nothing in common among them—nothing which is not distinctive and incommunicable. [Page xxxviii] Their very atmospheres are different—their clouds are different—their humors of storm and sunshine are different—their flowers, animals and forests are different. By each order of landscape—and its orders, I repeat, are infinite in number, corresponding not only to the several species of rock, but to the particular circumstances of the rocks' deposition or after treatment, and to the incalculable varieties of climate, aspect, and human interference:—by each order of landscape, I say, peculiar lessons are intended to be taught, and distinct pleasures to be conveyed; and it is as utterly futile to talk of generalizing their impressions into an ideal landscape, as to talk of amalgamating all nourishment into one ideal food, gathering all music into one ideal movement, or confounding all thought into one ideal idea.
There is, however, such a thing as composition of different orders of landscape, though there can be no generalization of them. Nature herself perpetually brings together elements of various expression. Her barren rocks stoop through wooded promontories to the plain; and the wreaths of the vine show through their green shadows the wan light of unperishing snow.
The painter, therefore, has the choice of either working out the isolated character of some one distinct class of scene, or of bringing together a multitude of different elements, which may adorn each other by contrast.
I believe that the simple and uncombined landscape, if wrought out with due attention to the ideal beauty of the features it includes, will always be the most powerful in its appeal to the heart. Contrast increases the splendor of beauty, but it disturbs its influence; it adds to its attractiveness, but diminishes its power. On this subject I shall have much to say hereafter; at present I merely wish to suggest the possibility, that the single-minded painter, who is working out on broad and simple principles, a piece of unbroken, harmonious landscape character, may be reaching an end in art quite as high as the more ambitious student who is always "within five minutes' walk of everywhere," making the ends of the earth contribute to his pictorial guazzetto;[L] and the certainty, that unless the [Page xxxix] composition of the latter be regulated by severe judgment, and its members connected by natural links, it must become more contemptible in its motley, than an honest study of roadside weeds.
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