Art - Form And Color
( Originally Published 1913 )
WHEN we began to speak about composition we continually used the words "line and form." Gradually, however, as we left the subject of formal composition and talked of naturalistic composition, we found ourselves substituting the words " colored masses."
It would seem then as if there were a distinction between these two things; that form was on one side of the fence and color on the other. Yet that would contradict our experience ; for we know that every-thing which has a form or shape, visible to the eye, has also color that we can see. And most things that have color are seen to have a shape or form. Not all; for example, when the sky is a cloudless blue, or when we gaze over a distant expanse of sea. Still, as a general experience, color and form are identical. The face of a friend—you recognise it by its color as well as by the form of the features; and, should you have the sorrow of looking upon that face when it is dead, the change in the color would make you recognise the once familiar features as strangely different.
Yet, notwithstanding the identity of form and color, we find a certain separation between the two, when we come to study pictures. The reason is that some artists, are more sensitive to form, others to color. As I have already said, an artist paints only the particular impression of an object which his eye receives. Every eye has its own particular way of seeing. Even the eye, most sensitive to form, will not see it as other eyes will ; nor will any one color seem the same to every eye that is chiefly interested in color. This is only another way of saying that the varieties in nature are inexhaustible. Nevertheless, although no two elm trees are exactly alike, all elm trees are sufficiently similar to be recognised at once as elm trees. So with artists, some group themselves as painters of form ; others, of color. In the old Italian days this distinction separated the artists of Florence from those of Venice. The Florentines--Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, among the greatest were masters of form ; the Venetians, especially in the persons of Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, and Paul Veronese, were masters of color. The one group saw especially the shapes of things, the other saw the world as an arrangement of spots or masses of color.
The Florentines, in consequence of their interest in form, took great pains with the outlines of their figures. The outlines were clearly defined; in the mural paintings the figures were enclosed by an actual line ; and always the figure shows distinctly against the background. For, having drawn the figure very carefully, the artist did not let the color, that was afterwards laid on, lap over the line or interfere with the subtle undulations of the outline. They were in fact, a school of great draughtsmen, who relied principally on the beauty and vigor of the drawing. The Venetians, however, were great colorists, relying on color; and may be spoken of as painters rather than draughtsmen. Yet they too, of course, were masters of drawing. They could represent the action of the figure as well as the Florentines, but unlike the latter, did not care for the clear outline. On the contrary, they softened or blurred the outline slightly, in closer imitation of nature.
If, for example, you look carefully at a tree, you will not find that its shape is enclosed by a hard line. The light creeps round the edges of the trunk and of the masses of foliage in such a way that the outlines are softened or slightly blurred. It is the same with a figure seated in a room; here and there its edges may seem sharply cut out against the background, but in other parts the edges will seem to melt into the background. In other words, as we look at the figure, what we are most conscious of is not its outline, but its mass of color in relation to the other masses of color that surround it.
Now, this distinction, between the way in which the Florentines and the Venetians saw and represented objects, still appears in modern art. In fact, ever since the days of the great Italians there have been artists who relied on drawing and artists who relied on color. For over a hundred years the importance of drawing has been upheld by the great school of art in Paris maintained by the French government. One of its famous teachers, Ingres, used to tell his pupils " form is everything, color is nothing." Perhaps he only meant by this that, as long as they were pupils, the only necessary thing for them to think about and learn to represent was form. Because to draw well is so important for any artist, and it is a thing that can be thoroughly taught and learned. The French school takes as its standard of excellence the perfect forms of classic sculpture and the great works of the Florentine artists. Although the student may be drawing from a living model whose form is not perfect, he is taught to correct the imperfections of this or that part, in order that the figure, as it appears in his drawing, may be as near as he can get it to classic perfection. But color, as we shall see presently, is so much a matter of each person's feeling, that it is impossible to reduce the teaching of it to any method or standard. So perhaps that is what Ingres had in mind. He meant that, for the time being, his students should consider form to be everything, color nothing.
On the other hand it is generally understood that he meant much more than this, that he was telling his pupils what he himself considered to be the whole duty of an artist. Let us try and enter into his point of view.
I can imagine some of my readers saying that the phrase, " form is everything; color, nothing," is nonsense; because color plays so important a part in our enjoyment of sight. Just think what a dreary world it would be, if everything, for in-stance, were a uniform gray ! Quite true, and Ingres probably would have agreed. As a man, he no doubt enjoyed the pleasures of color. But it was as an artist that he was speaking. He was stating what he believed to be the proper subject of his own art.
In the first place he was evidently one of those artists who see the shape rather than the color of things; to whom form makes an irresistible appeal. In the second place—and mark, for this is very important—he was not thinking of how things appear in the actual world, but how they should be represented in art. He was one of those artists who are not interested in naturalistic painting; who do not profess to paint nature. On the contrary, like the great Italians, he only borrowed from nature certain materials in order to build them up into a formal composition of his own creation. He would have told you that he was not representing the works of nature but creating for himself a totally different thing—a work of art,
On the other hand, many artists will reply, that the work of art need not be a totally different thing. That they themselves, like the Dutch of the Seventeenth Century and all the modern painters of the naturalistic composition, combine the two.
It is by representing nature, that they create a work of art.
Here, you see, is a sharp conflict of points of view. One group of artists, loving nature, desires to represent it; the other, perhaps not loving nature less, certainly loves art more. This latter group, therefore, tries to improve on nature, and to use it only for the creation of something that it feels to be different and superior to nature. While the one set of men wed nature to art, the other divorce art from nature. Between the two there is a Great Divide, which no amount of talking can bridge over. The only conclusion to be reached is that there is right on both sides. For the one group, because of the kind of men composing it, its own way is the right way; and for the other, for the same reason, its way. We, as lookers on at the dispute, will do well to learn to see the beauty in both kinds of picture.
You may as well know the names by which the two points of view are known. With one, the naturalistic, we have already become acquainted. The other is called by the artists who practise it the " idealistic." They will tell you that they paint " ideal " subjects. By those, however, who disagree with them, their point of view and method are apt to be called Academic.
The word ideal, used in this sense, has the meaning " more perfect than in real life." When a person says: " The ideal way to spend a summer holiday " we know even before he utters the next words, " would be," that he is going to tell us something that he does not expect to enjoy. It is how he would have things, if he could arrange them ac-cording to his own idea of perfection. Now this is what the artist means when he calls his picture an ideal one.
Personally, I do not like this use of the word, because it seems to imply that this kind of picture is superior to the other. And the artists who paint this kind of picture believe that it is ; we, however, who are simply students of pictures, longing to en-joy the beauty of all kinds of motive and ways of painting, will not admit this. We go back to the fact with which I started this book: that the value of a picture does not depend upon the subject but the way in which the artist has rendered it. Because a. man portrays some noble incident from poetry or the Bible, or invents some scene out of his brain, it does not follow that his picture will represent a higher degree of beauty or a finer imagination than one which only represents some simple scene in nature. I will go further and say that some of the pictures of " still life " 1 by the Frenchman, Antoine Vollon, or our own American artist, Emil Carlsen, exhibit more beauty, yes, and even more imagination than many ambitious figure subjects. Why is this? How can a picture of a pumpkin and vegetables by Vollon, or one of Carlsen's subjects, such as a creamy porcelain vase, and a lemon, and one or two other delicately colored objects on a white tablecloth, show more beauty and imagination than, for instance, an imposing picture like Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware?
The answer is that Vollon and Carlsen exhibit more feeling for beauty and more imagination in matters that especially belong to painting, while Leutze went outside of painting. Let me explain myself. Leutze saw beauty in the heroism of Washington and his soldiers, fighting against tremendous odds for a great cause in the terrible cold of winter. His imagination was kindled by the importance of the cause and the devotion of those who fought for it. It was the facts, as they appealed to his mind, and the ideas that his mind formed about them which he tried to represent. But the special field for the artist, as I have already said, is not covered by his mind but by his eyes. It is with what he can see that he should be first and chiefly concerned —the beauty of the visible world. And his imagination as an artist is chiefly shown in the capacity that his mind has for discovering unexpected beau-ties and rendering them. Thus to ourselves, and even to some artists, a pumpkin may seem but a bright orange mass, with a rough or shiny rind as the case may be; an attractive spot of color and shape, a thing to be admired for a moment and then forgotten. Another artist, on the contrary, sees a great deal more in it. He sees subtle differences of color, according to the way the light falls on it, various delicate differences in the roughness or smoothness of the rind; curiously beautiful accidents of color, as it reflects the colors of other objects near it; mysteries of shadow, some deep and strong, others so faint that an ordinary eye might not detect them. These and other qualities, that his sensitive eyes perceive, create impressions in his brain that fill his imagination, with a sense of beauty somewhat as music does. He cannot tell you why he enjoys it so much, or explain in words the effect it has on his imagination. The whole impression is a vision of his imagination, excited by the sense of sight, and this vision he sets to work to interpret on his canvas, in order that it may be communicated to our eyesight, and, in turn, excite our imagination. We receive from form and color feelings of pleasure that we cannot describe in words but which are not less real on that account. It is an abstract enjoyment, free from any distinct connection with words or facts. On the other hand, in Washington Crossing the Delaware it is the record of facts, presented in the picture, that chiefly interests us. Neither the forms nor the arrangement of color have in themselves any separate abstract quality of beauty.
So, it is not upon the beauty of the things seen by the eyes, but upon the interest of things under-stood by the mind that Leutze depended. He really neglected his own proper field of painting, for that of the writer or orator. Therefore, he put himself at a disadvantage; ism I think you will admit, that a good speaker or writer could describe the incident in a much more thrilling way than the picture does.
But we have strayed somewhat from our point. We were speaking of idealistic pictures, and noted that they are so called because the artist instead of representing nature as it is, corrects it and improves upon it in order to bring it up to what he considers an " ideal" standard of perfection. I mentioned that these pictures and the motive which prompts them are also called " Academic."
The reason is that the school in Paris which teaches these principles of painting is maintained by the Academy of the Fine Arts; and its example has been followed by many other European Academies of painting. So, when we speak of a picture being Academic in character, we mean that its motive and manner of painting follow the rules laid down by the schools. To repeat a word we have frequently used before, they are based on the Academic For. mula. Previously it was the Classic formula of which we spoke. This, you remember was the rule or plan for building up a formal composition, some-times strengthened by the introduction of classic architecture and often representing some scene or story of classic legend. And it is upon this classic formula that the Academic practice is largely based. So when a modern artist paints a picture after the fashion of Raphael's Jurisprudence, we can speak of its manner and motive as being Academic, Classic, or Idealistic. Sometimes, in fact, the meaning of these words is practically the same, but not always.
For at times an Academic painter will choose an everyday subject of ordinary life, yet his picture will not be naturalistic. There are two ways in which he may miss the truth of nature. Either he will try to improve upon the actual facts, or he will leave out the light and atmosphere in which the objects appear in nature. We may find examples of both these contradictions of the natural truth in. Leutze's picture. He was trained in the Academy of Dusseldorf, a city on the Rhine; at a time when that school had abandoned Classical subjects for incidents from history, or scenes from German leg-ends, or what it called genre-pictures of peasant life. But these last were not genre in the sense that the old Dutch pictures were. For the latter reproduced the actual habits and life of the times, where-as the Dusseldorf artists presented fancy pictures in which the peasants were grouped, as if they were taking part in some scene in an opera or other theatrical performance. This artificial treatment appears in Washington Crossing the Delaware.
It is supposed to represent a historical incident. Do you think it has the value of history; that the incident really happened as it is here depicted? The artist, of course, was not present; he was compelled to shape the facts of the incident according to what he had read about them, or, as I rather suspect, according to what his fancy had pictured them. History tells us that the crossing began early in the evening of December 25, 1776, and lasted until four a.m. the following morning. Does this picture represent the dimness of a winter twilight, much less the gloom of night? I might ask the further question, is any kind of natural light suggested in this picture? I feel confident the answer is " no." Leutze probably had no thought of representing this aspect of the truth; the Diisseldorf School paid no attention to the real appearances of light ; or to the effect that light would have upon the appearance of the figures. Their outlines are sharply defined; every figure is rendered with about equal distinctness; no effort has been made to rep-resent them in relation to one another, with varying degrees of clearness and obscurity. A similar artificiality appears in the representation of the ice. It is true the lights and shadows and gleam of the surfaces of real ice have been studied; so that the painting conveys the idea of ice; but this is a very different thing from the painted blocks representing the effects of real ice, as seen in real light.
So we find that Leutze, though wishing to give us a vivid representation of the incident, has neglected a number of important facts relating to the hour of the occurrence and to the conditions of atmosphere and light, as they must have affected the appearance of the scene. He was simply not interested in these matters. Then, what of the point on which he evidently relied — the grouping of the figures in the foreground? It is a ticklish job to pull a boat through a mass of floating ice-cakes.
Do you think that Washington and the flag-bearer would have increased the difficulty and peril by. standing up ? Don't you know that to stand up in a boat even on smooth water is a foolhardy thing to do? It is a frequent cause of accident and loss of life in pleasure parties. On an occasion so serious as this would the leader have been guilty of such folly ? Certainly not. Washington and every man, not actually engaged in navigating the boat, would have been sitting low down, so as to help preserve the balance and offer as little resistance as possible to the wind. Here, then, is another indifference to facts in this so-called historic picture. But Leutze did not care about facts. His motive was to bring out the heroic character of the events. So he made Washington strike a heroic attitude. It is the way in which a popular actor takes the center of the stage and strikes an attitude and waits for the applause. Leutze wanted a central figure around which to build up his composition and, in order to support the central figure, reared another behind it holding aloft the flag. Thus he wins applause, at once, for the star actor and the patriotic sentiment of the scene. In fact his composition is similar in intention and arrangement to the grouping of figures on the stage, of a popular theater. It is theatrical. I do not say dramatic, but theatrical, between which two ideas there is this distinction. When we speak of a scene being dramatic we mean that the action of the plot has been vividly expressed by means that create an illusion of truth—that the characters behave as they might be expected to do in real life under the circumstances. By theatrical, on the other hand, we imply that the behaviour of the actors, instead of " holding the mirror up to nature," is regulated so as to produce an artificial effectiveness. Such a scene we call theatrical, or stagey. And the same words, in my opinion, can be applied to this picture. For Leutze failed to realise, not only that truth may be stronger than fiction, but also that it may be more impressive than artificial effectiveness. The true word spoken in simple earnestness, the true act done simply, often move men's imagination, where loud rhetoric and ostentatious conduct leave it cold. So, too, in a picture, a deeper sentiment may be aroused by simple truth of representation, than by a display of mock heroics.
In this picture, you will observe, we have been discussing the Academic point of view applied to the representation of an incident that really happened. The painter undertook a real subject, but has not rendered it as it would have really appeared to us, had we been there to see the event. This is a charge that can be brought against many so-called historical pictures, and against those smaller ones, the genre pictures, which are supposed to represent incidents of actual everyday life. When painted in the Academic manner they are not true to life, but artificially concocted.
On the other hand, as I have said, many Academic pictures, choosing classical or idealistic subjects, make no pretence of representing life. They try to improve on life by making their forms more beautiful than they actually are in nature; and build up compositions which must not be compared with the way in which people group themselves in real life. In such pictures we do not look for natural beauty but for that of the artist's own invention.
So, to bring the subject to a finish, we must bear, in mind that there are two distinct ways of painting a picture. If the artist has tried to represent nature, we must learn to compare it with nature; if on the contrary, he has tried to paint a subject of " ideal perfection," we must not find fault with its unnaturalness. We may prefer the one or the other kind; but should not let our preference interfere with our judgment of the different merits of each. Until we recognise the " Great Divide " between the Academic and the Naturalistic points of view, we shall not get very far in our appreciation of pictures.