The Feeling For Beauty
( Originally Published 1913 )
Some of you, I expect, collect photographs of pictures in connection with your history studies. These portraits of the principal characters and pictures, illustrating great events, places, costumes, and modes of living of the period, add greatly to the interest of your reading. They bring the past time vividly before your eyes.
But it is not this view of pictures that we are going to talk about in the present book. I shall have very little to say about the subjects of pictures—partly because you can find out for yourselves what subjects interest you; but mostly, because the subject of a picture has so very little to do with its beauty as a work of art. For it is this view of a picture, as being a work of art, that I shall try to keep before you.
I remember seeing the photograph of a picture hanging in a place of honor on the wall of a girl's room ; and I asked her why she had chosen this particular one out of many that she had. You see that in order to help anyone, you have to try to get into their minds, and find out how their minds are working; and as much of my work is with girls and boys, I try to get from them hints as to the best way of helping them. Well, this girl, let me tell you, bubbled over with life and fun, swam like a fish and climbed trees like a squirrel ; but she had her thoughtful moods, when, as often as not, she would lay out her collection of photographs of pictures on the floor, and not only look at them, but think about them, And I have no doubt that she was in one of those moods, when she chose out this particular print and hung it on her wall, in order that she might see it often.
So I asked her why she had chosen it, and she said : " Because I liked it." I asked her why ? " Oh, I don't know," she said. Now that is just the sort of girl or boy for whom I am writing this book. Not that I think that girl would have liked her picture any better for knowing why she liked it. Then, " What is the good," you ask, " of writing a book to help her to know ? " A very shrewd question and quite to the point.. Let me try to answer it.
When the girl said she did not know why she liked the picture, I think she meant that she could not put into words what she felt. It was the feeling with which the picture filled her that made her like it. I could understand what she meant, because I remembered an experience of my own. The first time that I saw Raphael's Disputes, which decorates a wall in one of the rooms of the Vatican in Rome, I had set out with my guidebook, intending to study all the paintings by Raphael that decorate these rooms. I entered the first room and, I suppose, looked round the walls and saw three other paintings; but all I recall during this visit was the Disputes. I sat down before it and remained seated! I do not know how long, but the morning slipped away. What I thought about as I looked at the picture I cannot tell you. My impression is that I did not think at all; I only felt. My spirit was lifted up and purified and strengthened with happiness. Returning to my hotel, I read about the picture in the guidebook. It appeared that one of the figures represented Dante. I had not noticed it, and as I read on I found out other things that I had missed; that, indeed, the whole subject, so far as it could be put into words, had escaped me. I had no knowledge of what the painting was about; only I had felt its beauty.
Since then I have studied the picture and discovered some of the means that Raphael employed to arouse this depth of feeling, and the knowledge has helped me to find beauty in other things.
So, to go back to my girl friend, I would not disturb the beauty of her feeling with teachy-teachy talk, any more than I would talk while beautiful music was being played. But, suppose in a simple way I could make her understand that I, too, felt the beauty of the picture; and, as I have learned a little how to express feeling in words, should try to tell her how I felt the beauty. Might it not add to her pleasure, if she discovered that I was putting into words some of the feeling that she herself had, and perhaps suggesting other beauties that she had not felt
Well, that is what I hope to do for you in this book, to put some ideas into your head, that will lead you to look for and find more and more beauty in pictures and in nature and in life. Ideas, mark you, not words. We shall have to use words, but words are of no account, unless they make you feel the idea contained in them.
I say feel; and you will notice I have used these words, feel and feeling, several times already. I have done so because I want to impress upon you that the enjoyment of beauty, whether in pictures or any other form, comes to us through feeling. It may lead to thinking, and perhaps should, but it does not begin with thinking or reasoning, as does, for ex-ample, algebra or geometry. Nor can we, as we say, " get it down fine," in the way we do with the Latin declensions. When you have learned them thoroughly, you know them once and for all, and you know about them just what every other girl and boy who has learned them knows. With feeling it is otherwise. What you feel is different to what I feel; we can never feel alike. No two people can. So I am not going to tell you what you ought to feel about pictures ; nor am I going to try and persuade you to like one and not like another. Therefore, this book would not be much help to you in passing an examination about pictures, if anything so foolish could be supposed. But I hope it may start your imagination off in a great many new directions, and help you to discover more and more of beauty not only in pictures, but in life.
For we should study pictures not solely for their own sake, but also as a means of making our lives fuller and better. If you ask me what is the most beautiful thing in the world, I shall not say art, although I am writing about pictures—but life—its fullness of possibility and abundance of opportunity. Especially young life ; the lives of you girls and boys, who, as yet, have so few mistakes to regret, so much to look forward to of promise and fulfillment. What you will make of those lives of yours may depend a little upon schools and teachers, pa-rents and friends, money and health, and many other things, but most of all upon your own wills. I won-der if you have read the life of Robert Louis Steven-son ?
He had only such education as many other boys of his time had, little or no money, and very poor health. But what a deal he made of his own life and how he helped the lives of others ! What a fellow he was for fun, and how he loved wisdom; a great worker and a greatly conscientious one; not satisfied unless his work was the very best that he could make it. And the reason was that he loved beauty as well as wisdom; and in his life and writings, because in his own inward thoughts wisdom and beauty went hand in hand. I know of no better example of the full life ; of a life made the most of, in the best and truest sense, with gladness and strength for itself and for the lives of others. While his body sleeps on an island mountain, overlooking the vast beauty of sky and ocean, his spirit stays with us.
The secret of the fullness of Stevenson's life was that, so far as in him lay, he left no portion of the garden of his life uncultivated. There were no waste places, every part was fruitful. He did the best that he could for his poor, weak body; kept his intellect bright with learning, his fun alert with hope, his friendships warm with sympathy; and kept his life and work sweetened and purified and strengthened by the love of beauty. He was in a high sense in love with life—his own life, the lives of others, and life in art and nature, and the abundant harvest of his garden is the love that countless men and women and children bore him and still maintain.
Such fullness of life is rare. Boys and girls, and for that matter men and women, cultivate some part of themselves, and let the rest go to waste. And the part which is most apt to be overlooked is the sense of beauty. We train our bodies and our minds, but neglect those five senses, which are just as much a part of us. It is true that men train their senses for the practical purposes of business: the watch-maker, for instance, his delicacy of touch; the tea producer, his senses of taste and smell; the mariner, his senses of sight and sound. But business, though necessary, is not everything. We do not confine the exercise of our bodies and minds to work and business, but use them also for enjoyment, and train them for this purpose. Do we not learn to swim, play ball and tennis, and practice other bodily exercises for the pure enjoyment of them ? Or in our leisure moments busy our brains with study of bees, machinery, history, all kinds of difficult subjects not as work, but as a relief from work ? We call them our "hobbies," and indulge them for pleasure, and find that the pleasure improves our health and spirits, and in the end even makes us do our necessary work better, and so find more pleasure in that also. For it is in what we know best and can do best that we really take most pleasure. And though life cannot be all pleasure, yet pleasure, rightly understood, should be one of the chief aims of life. And one of the chief sources of pleasure is to be found in the beauty that reaches our minds through the senses, especially through the senses of sight and sound.
Let me illustrate in a simple way how one child will gain pleasure from her senses while another doesn't. Both have their five senses in working order —smell, taste, touch, sight, and sound—and have been in the woods gathering flowers. They reach home. One throws her handful down on a sofa, table, or chair, or the nearest bit of furniture, and goes off to do something, or it maybe nothing, leaving the flowers to wither and become an untidiness. What made her gather them? Perhaps, because she is full of health and had to run about and do some-thing; perhaps, because she has not quite gotten over the fondness that most of us had, as babies, for breaking and tearing things. It amused her to break the big stems and tear off the vines or pull up the little plants. Or possibly she was really attracted by the beauty of the flowers, but soon tired of them, and went off to other things.
Not so, however, with her companion. She spreads a paper on the table, lays out her flowers, brings one or two vases, and settles down to the pleasure of arranging them. She picks up a flower, and while she waits to decide in which vase it shall be put, see how delicately she handles it ! You can tell in a moment she has a feeling of love and tenderness toward the flower. She puts it in a vase, and then her eye travels over the other flowers to decide which shall bear it company. What color, what form of flower will match best the first one ? And while she is making the choice almost unconsciously she sniffs the fragrance of that spray of honeysuckle. Well, she lingers so long over the pleasure of arranging her flowers that we have not time to stay and watch the whole proceeding; but presently, when we come back, we find the vases filled and set about the room where they will look their best; this one in the dark corner with the wall behind it; another on the window sill, so that the light may shine through the petals of the flowers. And we think to ourselves what taste the girl has ! For (have you ever thought of it?) we use the word taste, which originally de-scribed only the sense of tasting things with the tongue, in order to sum up a finer use of the senses of sight and sound.
And this finer use of the senses, such as Stevenson cultivated, so that his life and works are beautiful as well as wise and good, we too may cultivate, and it is the object of this book to help us do it. I call it a guide to pictures, but I want to make it much more than that—a guide for the wonderful organs, your senses, that they may grow more and more to feel the beauty that is all about us in nature and in life, as well as in pictures and other works of art. So beauty is really our subject, beauty in nature and in art. The two are separate, though united as twin sisters.
As I write, many of you are enjoying your summer vacations, face to face with nature. The health of the mountains or the sea is in your blood; your bodies know the joy of active movement; your minds are filled with the interest of new scenes and adventures, of sports and fun with friends. But every once in a while I think it likely that your happiness is increased by something beautiful you have seen in nature. Perhaps even now, as you read these words, there comes to' you the memory of some sun-set, or moonlight on the water, of early morning mist creeping among the tree tops, or I know not what of nature's beauty, suddenly revealed to you because you were in the mood to receive it.
You were in the company of a friend, and you drew your arm closer through his or hers, and both were the happier for the beauty that was before you and had entered into your hearts. Or perhaps you were alone, and the eagerness came over you to make some record of your joy—in a letter to a friend or in some poem for no eyes but your own. You felt the need to give utterance to your joy in nature's beauty. You had in you a little of the desire that stirs the artist.
And this brings us to the other kind of beauty, which is not of nature, though it is of nature's prompting—the beauty created by the artist. We are going to study the work of artists who create beauty in pictures. But do not make the mistake some people do, of thinking that it is only painters who are artists. An artist is one who fits some beautiful conception with some beautiful form of expression. His form of expression, or as we say, his art, may be sculpture, painting, or architecture ; or some handicraft, as of metal or porcelain or embroidery; or it may be music, the composing of music or the rendering of it by instrument or voice ; it may be acting or some forms of dancing; it may be poetry or even prose. The artist, in a word, is one who not only takes beauty into his own soul, but has the gift of art that enables him to communicate the beauty to others by giving it a form or body. If he be a musician, he gives it a form of sound; if a painter, a form visible to the eye.. It is his power of creating a form for the beauty which he feels that makes him an artist. And in its various forms—poetry, music, painting, sculpture, architecture, and the rest—art is man's highest expression of his reverence for and joy in beauty.