Perspective And Atmosphere
( Originally Published 1920 )
Perspective is a feature of painting which we are all supposed to know something about. It is the first thing sought after by the great majority of picture viewers, who are determined to find it even if they have to look for it through tin tubes, rolls of paper, or half-clenched hands; but unfortunately it is not always intelligently discerned. Perspective is not distance alone, and a canvas may be able to show great stretches of land or water receding miles away toward the horizon without being good in perspective in the full sense of the word.
If we stand on the rear car of a railway train we see the parallel rails of the track behind us apparently coming together in the distance. The telegraph poles ranged along the side of the road do likewise. The road-bed runs up to the sky, the sky runs down to the road-bed. There is a converging of all objects toward the center, and the whole scene resembles a funnel, the small end of which is the distant union of tracks, poles, earth, and sky. A glance down a long street will show a similar effect. Houses, street, and sky seem to run together into one distant point of view. The old method of studying perspective recommended by the encyclopedias, of looking at a landscape through a pane of glass and imagining that the scene is really painted on the glass, is but another way of attaining the same result. All this is perspective, but only one feature of it—linear perspective. It is caused by the apparent degradation in the size of objects and their grouping as the distance increases. Its effect may be produced on canvas or paper quite easily by even the unskillful, and it is in fact one of the primary accomplishments of the would-be artist.
Perspective in a general way is understood by all, and its existence recognized in pictures so far as the graded diminution of objects is concerned. But there is another feature which we do not always consider, namely, the indistinctness and blurring of lines which increase in proportion with the diminution of size. We may be able to recognize the face of a friend a few yards away from us; at a hundred yards we see the features of the face, but not clearly enough for recognition ; at half a mile we see but three parts of the figure, the head, the body, and the legs; and when a mile from us our friend is but a patch or spot of color on the landscape, scarcely recognizable from a stump or an animal. It is the gradual dissipation of line that we sometimes fail to take into account, and some of the less skilled of the artists seem not wiser than ourselves in this respect. The tendency of the artist is not to paint the man as he appears in the landscape, but to paint him from memory as he knows him really to be. While the figure decreases in size it fails to fall away in distinctness, because the artist seeks by minute painting to render the same features at a distance as close by. This, of course, is an error. Instead of the distance being remote, the landscape looks as though it were made up of diminutive men, trees, and rocks placed side by side with others of larger proportions. The appearance of air or atmosphere is destroyed, and the whole scene looks unnatural —in fact, is so as we see nature. A tree on a far-away hillside will appear to us to have little or no outline or individuality; and the painting of it so that it may be recognized as an oak, a maple, or an elm is neither nature nor art. The tendency again is to paint, not the blurred tree that we see a mile away, but the actual tree that we know close at hand; to allow our memory to deceive our senses. Our knowledge of botanical truth blinds us to art truth. As objects recede they fade in distinctness, until at last lost altogether.
There is still another feature of perspective which calls for quite as serious attention from the painter as either of the ones mentioned. This is the changed appearance of color and light and shade seen at a distance. The change is caused by the air being filled with countless particles of matter, which, reflecting and transmitting certain waves of color, affect the coloring of distant objects. Atmosphere must be looked upon as a kind of transparent fog. In the case of the fog the air is filled with drops of moisture; in sunshine it is filled with minute particles of dust or similar substances. Both of these are interruptions to sight, the former more so than the latter, of course, and both must be allowed for if we would get the appearance of things upon canvas.
Too often, however, we allow ourselves to be deceived by not believing the impression of our eyes ; and where people, like the Impressionists, do trust their eyes, and paint effects in violet, blue, and green, we know with what shrieks of derision the great public receives the vision. To be sure, the Impressionists tell us extravagant things, but they also tell us truthful things, and I am not sure but that one is quite as hard to believe as the other, especially when both are new to us. The tree on the hillside which we have just instanced is known to be covered with green leaves, and with this knowledge our mind affects our sense of sight, and instead of our eyes telling our intellect what the color of the tree appears to be, our intellect tells our eyes that it is green, and the latter are foolish enough to believe it. But if we partially close our eyes, and look for color alone, we shall find we have been deceived, for the tree does not appear green, but bluish-gray. In this case the intervening atmosphere makes it appear as though we were looking through a blue-gray glass, the reflections and breaks in the path of sunlight changing the colors and the lights. This change generally makes in landscape the dark distant objects appear lighter, and the light objects warmer in tint.
Aerial perspective, then, as distinguished from linear perspective, is the effect of atmosphere upon objects, lights, or colors in nature, and is produced by proportionate intensities or depressions of coloring and light. In effect it blurs the outlines and modulates the colors of objects, and its proper use results in sharp line being graded into rough form, and rough form finally disappearing into mere patches and blurs of color, as the distance increases.
I might point out many instances of where perspective of all kinds is poorly indicated ; but perhaps it would be better to instance a case where it is well done, and I know of no better example than Corot offers. Look at his " Lake Nemi " again, and look now for the gradation of objects, the changing of color, and the blurring of outline caused by distance, and you will find them. You think every thing is too much blurred; that those trees were put in with a palette knife, and then rubbed down with a towel before they were dry; and that the whole is not natural. And you are right. It is not nature, but rather the appearance of it only. We shall speak of this here-after. In the meantime look at the face of your friend ; keep your eyes fixed there, and then tell me how much you can see of her hands. Yes, I know you can see them because you know they are there ; but how much of them do you see ? and are they plainly outlined, or only blurs of flesh-color? If you were looking at a portrait of her you would look at the face as you are doing now, and if the hands were painted in the portrait as they appear to you they would be blurred—something I have no doubt you would quarrel with, just as you find fault with the feet and hands of Millet's peasantry because they are not " finely finished," as Bouguereau would have painted them. If you were looking at Corot's landscape as you should, your eyes would be fixed upon the center of light.
But of that more anon. At present we return to our theme of perspective ; and since you are not fond of Corot we will try to instance other masters who excel in it. No ; not Claude, nor Turner, nor Achenbach, nor Bierstadt, nor Richards. Those immense views of mountain, valley, plain, or shore are but one phase of perspective, that phase seen by looking through the large end of an opera-glass, namely, linear perspective. They may be true in point of drawing, but they are false in point of color and atmosphere, and these latter are quite as important as the former. Let us choose examples from artists who have aspired to less and accomplished more. Almost any of the pictures of De Nittis, who has painted the streets, squares, and bridges of Paris and London, will afford us illustrative material. The people who are hurrying along the boulevards on a wet day, the splashing horses, the balancing umbrellas, the falling rain, the heavy atmosphere, are all admirably set forth. And note the effect of this atmosphere upon the faces of the men and women. The first ones coming right out of the canvas are fully and clearly expressed ; the next ones not quite so plainly ; the next grow more pallid ; and so on until in the background, growing still more indistinct, the forms and figures dimly pass like ghosts in shadow pantomime. This is not only true of the people, but also of the horses, carriages, trees, houses, streets—in fact, every thing in the picture.
Decamps and Fromentin, in their Eastern pieces, street scenes, caravan groups, and desert views, have admirably rendered perspective and atmosphere. The "Italian Street " of the former artist, at present owned by M. Secretan of Paris, is a perfect tour de force in point of atmospheric effect. Daubigny, Troyon, Damoye, and Lepine, among the French landscapists, and some of our American artists, Inners, Murphy, Crane, and others who do not attempt to paint the whole earth on one canvas, but are con-tent with a scrap of woodland or meadow, or a country road, are also good in this line. Jules Breton (especially in his "Evening at Finisterre "), Millet, Frere, Israels, Lerolle, and others among the figure-painters excel in it likewise; while Gerome, Cabanel, and Bouguereau seem to have very little sympathy with atmosphere, and show perspective more by gradations of form than of color.
Before leaving this subject let me warn you against the rendering of atmosphere by scumbling the canvas with white, gray, or bluish-gray paint instead of producing the effect by gradations of line and tones of color. It is sometimes, I might say oftentimes, bad. To be sure, there are some scenes that require just such work. In great distances, even in clear weather, the air appears blue, and not only makes the distant mountains appear bluish-gray, but is blue of itself. Again, the mellow haze of Indian summer, the heaviness of a cloudy day, mists, fogs, twilights, all are produced not alone by gradations of form and color but by scumblings ; yet for all that there be some scumblings that produce atmospheres never seen on land or sea—scumblings got up to hide deficiencies of skill, and with the idea of producing not only perspective but that dreamy haziness of atmosphere sometimes mistaken for poetic feeling. It is well to look closely to the scumble, for though it is often used effectively by good artists, it is also a means within the grasp of the tyro and the bungler, and more frequently employed by them.