The Action, Movement And Composition Of The Figure
( Originally Published 1913 )
When a few pages back I spoke of the movement of the figures I was using the word as artists understand it. They do not mean by it that the figure is represented as moving its limbs or body. For this they use the word " action." They speak of the action of the figure. But when they talk of " movement " they refer to the way in which the action is expressed. They mean that one, continuous stream of energy winds in and out through all the undulations of the action. Thus, in the figure of Moderation: the action consists in the fact that she is seated, with her legs extended to one side, while her body turns in the opposite direction, and while the hands are stretched out in the direction that the body faces, the head is turned away. If you compare the action of this figure with that of either of the others, you will see how much more complicated it is; how many more windings it makes. And an artist would say that this figure has a fine movement, because through all the windings or undulations of action one can feel a continuous stream of energy; so that every part of the figure contributes exactly its natural share to the action, and the lines of the figure, from the toe to the hand that holds the bit, flow continuously and harmoniously. The only way in which you can see for yourself how fine the movement is, is to study it very carefully, and by degrees you will begin to discover how wonderfully the flow of movement is expressed. It may help you, if you put yourself into the same position, that is to say, make your own body represent this action. At first it may seem a little awkward, but presently, as you adjust your body to the actions, you will find that it seems easy and natural, for you will have secured a perfect poise. And, after all, it is the perfect poise in the action of this figure of Moderation that helps to make the movements so fine.
Now turn to the figure of Prudence. Here the action is much simpler. The body faces in the same direction that the legs extend. But it leans back a little. If you try the action yourself, you will find it difficult, for the stretching out of the legs makes you wish to bring your body forward, so as to make the balance easy. But Raphael, knowing this, has made Prudence prop up her body, as it were, by leaning its weight on her left arm. Do you see how this forces up her left shoulder ? The representation of this and the drawing of the arm make us feel what a pressure of weight downwards the hand has to support. Artists, you will find, usually make some one part of the figure carry the chief weight. Sometimes they may paint a standing figure in which the weight passes straight down through the figure and is supported evenly by the two feet, like a column bearing down on to its base. But, more often, they make one leg carry the chief weight, or, as in this figure, one arm. Then it becomes very interesting; first, to study the part of chief muscular strain, and secondly, to note how all the other parts of the action harmonise with it. For example, in this figure of Prudence, although the arm sustains the chief pressure, a considerable amount must bear down through her trunk 1 on to the seat. But, if we compare her trunk with that of Moderation, I think we shall feel at once that the latter is supporting the greater weight. In fact, the point of greatest muscular action in the figure of Moderation is at the base of the trunk.
But to return to Prudence. We have noted that the left shoulder is raised higher than the right. Now observe the inclination of the head as it leans gently forward on the neck to gaze into the mirror and the easy action of the arm that holds the light mirror. Equally easy and without effort is the action of the legs. In fact, except for the firm quiet pressure on the arm, the whole figure suggests a gracious repose. Not only is the expression of the face sweetly meditative, but the same feeling, as the artists would say, of exquisite repose pervades the en-tire figure. You should learn to look for this in pictures. Do not be satisfied only with a beautiful face; but expect to find the beauty and the same kind of beauty expressed in the action and movement of the figure. For it is in this expression of feeling that an artist shows his skill.
Compare the feeling in the figure of Moderation. It is no less marked, though the feeling expressed is a different one. It is also quiet and gracious, but it does not suggest repose. Corresponding with the flexible, winding movement, the feeling is rather one of reaching out, as if in pleading or tender invitation. However, it is often very difficult to explain in words just what the feeling of a figure expresses; and perhaps it is better not to try to do so. The main thing for you is to get the habit of feeling the feeling.
Now let us study the feeling of Firmness. Like that of the central figure, it suggests repose ; but a repose not so much of gracious meditation, as of strength and force. In a moment, if need be, this figure would rise to its feet, thrill with alertness and put forth its strength. Meanwhile, as it sits, the line of pressure is straight down through the center of the trunk, and it is the lower muscles of the back that are supporting the chief weight. One shoulder is raised, not however, because it has to bear any pressure as in the case of the central figure, but simply because the trunk inclines a little toward the puma. Observe, though, that the head is held erect over the central line of the figure. If it were not, the feeling of firm strength in the figure would be lessened. On the other hand the face is turned to one side, in order that by its contrast of direction the movement of the whole figure may be more effective.
For, I wonder if you have noticed that the movement in every case presents a chain of contrasts and repetitions. Start, for example, with the left foot of Firmness, and move your finger over the direction of the figure ; first up the calf of the leg to the knee ; then off toward the right to the hip ; then leftward up the body, then again to the right at the slope of the shoulders; then slightly to the left up the neck, and lastly note the face turned to the right. You will have found that your finger has described a series of zig-zags. If you start with the other foot, the figure will equally present a series of zig-zags, though some differ from the former ones.
Similarly, if you begin with the foot of Prudence, your eye travels up to the knee; then horizontally toward the lap; next up the slight backward slope of the body; then in the opposite direction, when you reach the neck and head. The contrasts in the figure of Moderation are so marked, that I am sure you can make the zig-zag for yourself.
I have used the word zig-zag because I want you to feel how marked the contrasts are, and to realise that it is by means of these contrasts that an artist composes his figures. The zig-zag, however, in the actual figure has rounded angles; it is indeed rather a series of alternate curves to right and left, some-what like the curves described by a skilful and graceful skater, cutting figures on the ice. And it is this series of curves that give the effect of rhythm as well as harmony to the figures in this picture. For, as you may have seen for yourself, the principles on which an artist composes a single figure are the same as those he uses in the composition of several figures into one picture. He relies upon repetitions and contrasts to produce a balance, which because of its rhythm of parts shall ensure a harmonious whole.
The only difference in the case of the picture is that the composition is made up, not only of figures, but of the empty spaces of the background also. As artists would say, the composition is an arrangement of full and empty spaces ; and its beauty depends upon the harmony and balance between them. In the Jurisprudence, for example, it is remarkable how the space filled by the figure of Prudence, corresponds in size and even in its wedge shape to the empty space formed by the upper and lower step of stonework. For the rest, the quantity of space occupied by the other two figures seems to be about equal to the empty spaces around them, though the latter, instead of being solid masses are broken up and distributed. But you will notice, how large a stretch of empty space is left at the top of the lunette, so that the eye is drawn upward and the dignity of the whole decoration thereby elevated. Note also, what a quiet impressive spot the head of Prudence makes against the background of the sky. There is, as it were, nothing to disturb its gracious repose. This device of setting a figure against the background of the sky, Raphael may have learned from one of his masters, Perugino. At any rate, both employed it, with beautiful effect.
You may often see in nature the beauty of this effect; when, for example, on the top of some rising ground a tree, or a figure, or a church spire, stands against the sky. If the object is motionless, it seems to become more impressive because of the vastness of the sky. Or, should the objects be children at play (I can remember a picture of this), then their sport seems to take on more joyousness, freedom, and buoyancy, from the vastness of the sky.
And now, a short description of the way in which this decoration was painted. It is what is called " fresco," an Italian word that means " fresh." The name is used because the painting is done while the plaster of the wall is still fresh, that is to say, not " set " or dry. The following is the process. The wall was first covered, as in our houses to-day, with a coat of rough-cast plaster, which was allowed to dry thoroughly. In the meanwhile the artist had prepared full-sized drawings of his figures. As soon as he was ready, a thin coating of smooth-finish plaster was spread over such portion of the lunette as he could paint in a day. Upon this the drawing was placed and an assistant would go over all the lines with a blunt-pointed tool, pressing hard enough on the paper to leave a mark in the plaster underneath. There, when the paper was removed, appeared the figure, enclosed in grooved lines. Then the artist set to work and laid in the color, using paint that was mixed, not with oil, but with water to which some gluey substance was added. The plaster, you remember, was still damp, but since it contained plenty of cement, dried or " set " quickly, and as it dried, the paint dried with it, and became a part of the plaster. When it was done, the artist, if he wished, could add a few decisive strokes. The following day another portion of the lunette would be treated in the same manner and so on until the whole was painted. It is a method, you see, that left the artist no chance of fumbling over his work. He had to make up his mind beforehand exactly what he meant to do, and to do it quickly. Hence, with an artist so skilled as Raphael, the work has the extra charm that belongs to what has been done easily and fluently. You know how much pleasanter it is to listen to an easy, fluent speaker than to one who hesitates and corrects himself continually. So, too, in a work of art, the feeling that it has grown easily under the artist's hand adds to our enjoyment of it. It seems to be a spontaneous expression of himself.