The Pleasing Quality Of Art
( Originally Published 1896 )
"All art is nature better understood."
The love of nature is a characteristic of the Christian heart.- Ruskin. God made the country, man made the town.- Cowper.
" What was ever so dainty a hue ? Who can tell, is it green, is it blue? Look, little girl, At this beautiful pearl Hid in the nest of the robin!"
The word "art" is used in two popular senses, one as distinct from nature, and the other from science. By art we generally mean everything which we would distinguish from nature. We say that a thing is natural or artificial. The poet Pope writes of one:
" Blest with each grace of nature and of art."
All of the phenomena of the universe which men do not make or originate, but find existing independently of themselves we call Nature; and all that men add by their own study, forethought, dexterity, and exertion, we familiarly designate as Art.
The above distinction between nature and art is not wholly arbitrary, for John Stewart Mill well observes that "Art is as much Nature as anything else, and everthing which is artificial is natural - Art has no independent powers of its own: Art is but the employment of the powers of Nature for an end." Men can only take advantage of the elementary substances and forces which they find and make them subservient to their needs and purpose, but the wisest scientist can neither create nor annihilate a single molecule of matter. Man himself is a natural product. Mr. Mill further says, "Even the volition which designs, the intelligence which contrives, and the muscular force which executes are themselves powers of nature." Shakspeare has written:
Over that art
" There is an art
Nature herself is the most skillful and ingenious of artists. Look at the bee's honey comb, the spider's web, the beaver's dam, the bird's nest, the tarantula's hinged and beveled door to its silken-lined home in the ground! A steam engine is artificial, a steaming eternally puffing geyser is natural. A floating sea-weed and a mighty battleship are governed by the. same natural laws.
Works of art may be nature tamed and domesticated. A wild flower we call natural, but is not the door-yard flower natural, too, and also the field corn and wheat which man raises by the so-called arts of agriculture? Dr. Johnson declared art to be the power of doing something which is not taught by nature or by instinct. Yet man's best works of art are those wrought under Nature's teachings or in closest imitation of nature.
All art is "nature better understood." The source ,of all true art is nature. The highest and most captivating of all art is that of naturalness. That most exquisite and graceful design-the capital of the Corinthian pillar - which for so many centuries has charmed the civilized world, owes its origin to a basket being "unintentionally placed over the root of an acanthus, the spring leaves and stems of which growing up, covered it in so elegant a manner as to attract the notice of Callimachus, who, struck with the idea and novelty of the figure, modelled from it the Corinthian capital," There is an intimate connection between art and nature. He is the true artist who copies nature's models. Dryden sings:
" By viewing Nature, Nature's handmaid, Art,
The question is asked whether the function of art is simply to imitate nature, or may it seek modes of pleasurable effect wider than those supplied by natural objects? There may be no harm in covering up by the garnishes of art, the uncomely and coarse defects of nature. It is well to improve and finish up nature perhaps into more attractive states. A landscape scene hardly seems complete without 'a cozy cottage nestled . among the vines and trees. A vine may be trained, a hedge fence may be improved by an occasional trimming. The gardener and farmer would soon find everything " running wild " and deteriorating on their hands without constant attention to the "arts" of the horticulturist and agriculturist. The advantages of the stock-breeder's art will hardly be questioned, and it is wonderful to behold what cultivation has done in the improvement of many varieties of fruits and flowers.
Shelling sets the beauty of art far above that of nature. Hegel agrees with him and holds that art makes up the deficiencies of natural beauty by bringing the idea into clearer light, by showing the external in its life and spiritual animation. A writer in the Atlantic Monthly says, " He who accepts nature as the supreme authority, from which no appeal can lie, may be a scientist, but never an artist. To the latter she offers suggestions, but lays down no law. When what she brings him suits his purposes, he builds it in; when not, which is the general case, he hammers it into his own shape. Her facts are accidents, and what he wants is the very truth, the ideal." Another ventures the assertion that the enemy of art is the enemy of nature on the ground that art is nothing more than the highest sagacity and exertion of human nature.
It cannot well be denied that art may in some things assist, if not improve upon nature; but man needs to proceed cautiously and reverently when he presumes to regard himself a better artist than the Great Artist and Supreme Architect of the universe.
A professor's wife, who occupied herself sometimes with assisting her husband in making casts of interesting objects of geology and natural history, also for her own pleasure made sometimes flowers and fruits, of wax and other materials, and notwithstanding she had be-come quite a successful expert in this line, she found that almost always her efforts were criticised by her friends. Once, at a tea-party, she passed a large apple around, and stated her confidence that this time she had been quite successful in her imitation of nature's product; but her friends were, as usual, not of her opinion. One criticised the shape, saying that it would be more natural if it were not so globular; another criticised the colors, and said that it was better than other imitations, but she had not quite hit that natural, in-describable peculiarity which distinguishes the natural apples from mere imitations. Almost every one had some fault to find. After the apple had passed round and came in her hands again, she ate it, without saying anything. Her friends had been criticising a real apple, but never afterward criticised her imitations of fruit."
Alen, like the fabled Icarus, have made themselves ridiculous in their futile attempts to fly like birds, and worse than ridiculous by such cruel and uncomely acts as "docking" short the horse's tail, as if thereby to add to the beauty of this noble animal. Women have proved themselves equally foolish in their vain efforts to acquire a more shapely form by adding a camel's hump to the back and to enhance the beauty of the human face divine by the application of enamels and artificial hues; while both men and women have not added to the dignity of the race by their devotion to the silly art of the dancing-master. Some one has said that " walking is an art, dancing is a fine art," but is not the modern dance rather the devil's artifice? The dancing-master thinks to improve on nature by teaching people to shuffle and skip about like monkeys, ridiculously turning their backs and faces to each other in a score of different ways, heating their blood in a close room, exhausting their spirits and unfitting them: for life's sober duties. How much more healthful both physically and morally, how much more real, natural beauty and grace in the delightful romp and play of the boys and girls on the village green than in all the baneful arts and tricks of the professional dancing master! Monkeys can be easily taught to dance, and if dancing is a fine art, then we must give the prize to a, pair of monkeys that we saw in a San Francisco museum, going "gracefully" through all the rounds and mazes of the dance.
The rhythmical movements of the dance are pleasing and fascinating to the lighter-minded people. The savage and half-civilized all make much of the dance. The modern dance - what is it but a relic of barbarism! The rhythmic impulse is first seen in the savage which blindly stirs him in the war-dance when he yells and whoops and stamps' his feet, keeping time with his hands. According to the best authorities, dancing was one of the ruling passions of the primitive races when man was but little above the brute. Prof. Colvin, adopting the views of Herbert Spencer, says, " The father of dancing was that savage who first clapped hands and leaped and shouted in time at some festival of his tribe." The same author continues: "From the savage leap, or rudimentary expression of emotion by rhythmical movements of the body, has descended every variety of dancing, from the stately figures of the tragic charms of the Greeks to the kordax of their comedy or the cancan of modern Paris." Even Cicero, a pagan writer, said: "Nemo fere saltat sobrius, nisi forte insanit,"- hardly will a sober person dance, unless perchance he is insane.
The gay Lord Chesterfield, in a letter to his son, characterized dancing as "in itself a very trifling, silly thing, one of those established follies." Away with the foolish, senseless, low, and debasing amusement! It is not a fine art but now a coarse Satantic artifice that would locate the brains in the heels. We dismiss the subject with a quotation of the venerable Bishop Pierce's estimate of dancing: "I confess I have no patience with it, no toleration of it. I think it is the silliest, the most nonsensical amusement that rational beings, so called, ever engaged in. It is heathenish in its origin-a pas-time of savages -is a part of idolatrous worship-lewd, sensual and obscene. This is its history. It appeals to the lowest instincts of humanity, and is the chosen sport of the vilest and most imbruted of our race. The slum of society everywhere revel in it. * * * It is wicked, vile in its origin, yet worse in its lower associations, and worst of all in its last analysis. It has been refined, polished, I grant, but it cannot be dignified nor elevated. The venom of the serpent is in it. The taint of its birth, the virus of its constitution, is ineradicable. It is evil, only evil, and that continually."
The pleasures of the gambling horse-race, prize fights, boxing exhibitions, and certain brutal athletic contests are low, sensual, and demoralizing, very much like the bloody shows of the ancient amphitheatres, where the shedding of human blood became an art and amusement. We would not denounce any athletic sport which really trains and strengthens the human body, and there may be an innocent and profitable training and development of horses in competition, but we must pronounce the average modern horse-race to be a gross abuse of nature's noblest animal and a vile gambling in foaming, trembling, quivering, over-strained, and often ruined horse-flesh. In ancient Greece, no one thought of making a bet at the Olympian games. It is doubted whether racing improves the breed of horses, but it certainly deteriorates the breed of men. It is pretended that foot-ball is a fine art, but is it not now rather a coarse art?
If we may believe the daily papers, it would seem that forgery, swindling, bribery, and lying have in this age become arts, and it is hinted that political lying and stealing are now reduced to a fine art among the professionals. Pope. says, " An honest man is the noblest work of God," but an Eastern clergyman said recently in a sermon that God had not had a job in that city for twenty-five years. There may be a cold avarice of art as of gold. Self-restraint is a noble art; proper economy, too, but many people never learn it. In cooking we need more art, then less dyspepsia will follow. In preaching and singing we need more art and heart, too. It is an art to hear properly as well as to speak. Pre-meditated gesture is an art, so is studied eloquence, yet it is claimed that, the highest attainments of extemporaneous oratory are sometimes liable to be more like the luxuriousness of nature than the artificial regularity of a park. Natural gifts and graces, as of conversation, eloquence, courtesy, politeness, must not be confounded with the arts, although these spontaneous traits may all become art when by study, training, and discipline they are perfected into high attainments and thorough accomplishments. Art is acquired and premeditated. A beautiful, appropriate, and neatly-fitting garment is artistic, because it shows forethought and skill. The ordinary movements of some persons are marked by freedom, grace, and artless beauty. They have natural aptitudes for certain actions that exhibit beauty with-out the forethought of art.
The hard thing to find is a human nature that is truly natural. Artlessness and innocence are not to be confounded. In childhood these may hardly differ, but in manhood an artless person is not always innocent. It is wise to discriminate between artless and artful people. It is well to give the latter a wide berth.
There is an innocent and pleasurable art in dress, in manners, in conversation. We judge too much by external and artificials. An article, as silver or women now-a-days, may have an artificial value that is greater or less than its intrinsic value. It is possible to be so artificial as to have no sense - no sense of art. In choosing a wife one needs to beware of what art has done. Men are not wholly artless, and women have their arts to win men. Some of these arts are suspected by old bachelors to be false - false hair, false complexion, false smiles, false tones, false shapes, and nameless faults.
The people of this age are sacrificing their feelings as well as health to tyrannical fashions. A distinguished physician and health author attributes civilized woman's weakness to her cultivated deformities. The beauty of nature is very simple as contrasted with the formality and trickery of false art. Natural simplicity is one of the elements of the highest art.
It has been truly said that progress in art implies the study of nature - God's works in nature. We have no sympathy with those who criticize a work of art as too natural. Even Plato made the mistake of saying that art is more accurate than nature. It is safer to follow natural principles than human authority. There is an appearance of care and finish, a precision of form and delicacy of color about objects in nature that cannot be equaled by the human touch.
" Who can paint
There is a softness, a simplicity about nature's coloring that man's cunning fails to produce. Imagine a man trying to paint the rainbow or the evening star so as to deceive the sense of sight. Who could paint the haze-clothed heights and purple depths of Yosemite? Fancy the best artist attempting to imitate the exquisite coloring of certain plumage of birds or the delicate hues of precious stones, the sparkle of the diamond, or to carve the scales of a fish. Magnify under the micro-scope the most perfect artificial flowers, and how coarse and uncomely they are ! No artist can hope to equal nature in his effort to portray the beauty of the motion of waves and wavelets. The painted scenes in a theatre are "viciously and falsely painted throughout, presenting a deceptive appearance of truth to nature, conveying no accurate knowledge of anything, and, in all its operations on the mind unhealthy, hopeless, and profitless." So, too, with the artistic acting on the stage - how unreal, unsatisfactory, sentimental, and often sickening ! Love really felt is a genuine pleasure; love disinterested and merely displayed by the feigning lover, as in the theatrical play, is an art. "Did you study your art here, or abroad?" And the Poster Desiguer replied, "Art ? I wouldn't dare study it. I might spoil my style."
Cowper said, " God made the country, man made the town," and another adds, "God made the family, man made the casino, the theatre, the dram-shop, and the ball-room." There is a beauty in nature, in wildness which man, alas! sweeps away in his ruthless mutilations of virgin forests and natural scenery. " The painter looks for beauty out where nature reigns undisturbed amid her imperfections,- where the aisles are made by the deer going to his lick; where the trees are never trimmed save by the lightning or the hurricane; where the wild-rose bushes spread their branches and the vines trail themselves at liberty; and where the lake looks up into the faces of trees centuries old, and hems itself in with thickets of alders and green reaches of flags and rushes, and throbs to the touch of the mountain breeze, while on it bosom
` The black duck with her glossy breast Sits swinging silently. "
There should be a natural beauty about all architectural forms. What is wanted in this age is a reaction from the unnatural and false to the natural, and not altogether unlike what occurred in Europe when Gothic architecture especially appropriated the elements of natural beauty. Ruskin says, "Whatever is in architecture fair or beautiful, is imitated from natural forms. An architect should live as little in cities as a painter. Send him to our hills, and let him study there what nature understands by buttresses, and what by a dome."
No architect ever devised forms not found on the granite side walls of the wonderful Yosemite valley-peaks, obelisks, towers, spires, minarets, turrets, pinnacles, and cathedral forms. It is a natural gallery of wonders-an excellent school of art and design where one may go and finish his education. So if the artist wants to behold pure pictures, let him take his stand amid the sublimities of Yosemite. What a chance is here afforded to study combinations of light and shade on the rugged faces of the bold granite cliffs and wall! The shadow scenes of the valley are among its most striking features. You have feelings all your own as you ride along under the heavy shadows which these mountain walls throw over you - shadows now slowly creeping up the lofty eastern wall, like a smile on a human face, as the setting sun is draping the highest summits with a purple veil of hazy ether. By moon-light these dreadful precipices have an indefinite vastness, a weird spirituality, as we witnessed, one night at twelve, the light from a full moon we could not see, when it "silvered the cornices and brightened the dusky front" of the western wall, "as if wizards were painting their way down without stage or scaffold.
The water scenery of the Yosemite- who can describe it, especially in early springtime when the wall-like sides are embroidered with numerous graceful water-falls half-a-mile high, lcaping over the sharp edge of the mountain as if from the very sky, and as the breezes and zephyrs sway and play with them in their long and steep descent, assuming endless forms of inexpressible beauty, now resembling an avalanche of snowy rockets, and now meandering downward and floating gently like the white steam from a locomotive .on a frosty morning. Delicate rainbows span. the foot of every fall -arching its billowy mist and foam with a halo of superlative glory.
Intimate communion with Nature, especially where she has done her best and built up her works on the grandest scale, gives one a keener sense of mightier being than he could ever elsewhere attain. How ntterly insignificant man feels in the presence of such scenes! How suggestive of the Infinite! Here you feel that you are in the very presence of Jehovah and the devout soul whispers, "It is good to be here." It did our soul good as, far from the abode of man, we viewed and meditated upon those stupendous objects of God's handiwork - the mammoth trees of California. As we came into their awful presence, with uncovered head we stood for a time mute, wrapped in wonder and awed into solemn reverence. One thought, one feeling, one emotion -that of vastness, sublimity, profoundness,. pervaded our whole soul.
Oh the impressive depth of this far-off forest stillness, this display of the power, majesty, and glory of God! Our guide said to us as we turned away from these never-to-be-forgotten Sequoia groves that have. stood there for thousands of years and were in their glory when Nebuchadnezzar was on his throne and Solomon built his temple and Caesar crossed the Rubicon, " Tell your people to come and see the big trees and hear God preach his own sermons." He who holds sweet and reverent communion with Nature will ex-claim, " Great and marvellous are thy works, Lord God_ Almighty:"
It would be hard to uproot the love of Nature from. men's hearts without uprooting also the love of Nature's God. The greatest of art critics says, " It remains an indisputable truth that the love of nature is a characteristic of the Christian heart, just as the hunger for healthy food is characteristic of the healthy frame." Is it urged in reply that infidel and immoral and unprincipled writers and artists have shown a certain love for nature? Yes, we answer, it was the one redeeming element left in their diseased and depraved minds. One very low down may call for pure water to cool his parched tongue. There are few men so weak and reckless and vicious that they are at all times devoid of all natural religion; but their glow of love for nature's works is hardly more than an abortive spasm utterly unlike that steady, pure, and wholesome warmth of affection which the Christian artist feels for God's glorious material universe.
The wild scenes of nature are inspiring, and we believe that the Creator intended that the mind and soul of man should receive from external nature exalted ideas and divine inspirations, and would have us feel as we walk through her grandest galleries, that this is holy ground. What is the universe of God's works itself but an infinite art gallery-beautiful to inspect and elevating to the soul ! If I wanted to see God and feel His presence, I would leave the city with its museums and art-galleries, and I would go out and hear His voice in the breeze whispering through the forest trees, in the ripple of the brook, or in the hollow roar of the stormy ocean. I would see Him in his love for the beautiful in the shining dew-drop, the exquisite snow-flake, the delicate sea-moss, the variegated flowers, the metallic crystal, the silvery spray, the burnished sun-set, the glowing stars. Would I be overwhelmed with a consciousness of God's mighty creative skill and power ? I would look through the microscope at the infinity of minuteness beneath my feet or through the telescope at the infinity of magnitude above my head. Turn your mighty telescopic eye upon that nebula in the constellation Orion which your natural eye never beheld, and you will exclaim:
There's not a scene to mortals given
While the fresh country air, green grass and gardens may regale the animal natures of men, yet a devout and noble soul takes true delight in the grander and sublimer scenery - mountains, oceans, clouds, starry heavens. " Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." Men without faith or piety stand nowa-days, throwing out their scientific bait to catch a Deity. Is it any wonder that they get no bite? He that doeth His will shall know of this doctrine. To the truly converted and devout soul tbe flowers are sweeter, the fields are greener, the woods are pleasanter, the birds are merrier, the mountains are grander, the skies are clearer, the stars are brighter, and everything above, beneath, and around, looks lovelier than before.
" He warms in the sun, refreshes in the breeze, Glows in the stars and blossoms in the trees."
A true love of God's works will beget in the soul a sympathy with those works themselves. There is no doubt but that God meant that his natural works and matcrial creation should influence our hearts. David says, " When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon, and the stars which thou hast ordained, what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man, that thou visitest him?" It is the fool, that is, literally, the wicked man, that saith in his heart, "There is no God," and the saying is trite that the undevout astronomer is mad. Arc we not to bc "wise as serpents, harmless as doves," and is there not also an exhortation to "go to the ant, thou sluggard, consider her ways, and be wise?"
The Bible abounds in natural imagery and expressions by which God would touch men's hearts by the power of nature over them. Can any one deny the potent influence of natural history on man's heart as he reads the sublime metaphors in Job, in Isaiah, and portions of the Psalms? It has been truly said that the magnificent allusions to natural scenery throughout the book of Job are calculated to touch the heart to -the end of time. Jesus taught constantly in parables - illustrating the hidden mysteries of his kingdom of grace by references to corresponding objects in nature .and to familiar facts among men. Indeed, how can spiritual truth and the relations of the human soul be illustrated so as to be understood by finite man except by representations and analogies drawn from the natural creation?
As we have beheld landscapes, mountains, mighty -impending rocks, sunsets, the stormy ocean, that had their power over our hearts, so we have seen pictures and read descriptions of such scenes that were affecting :and thrilling to the heart in a remarkable degree. The human heart is susceptible of a high state of sensibility excited by natural scenes and objects, and also by vivid delineations of them under the touch of some master-hand. Who can describe the exquisite delight he feels in looking upon delicate carvings as well as faithful paintings of the noblest natural form!
Christian art always kindles an intense interest in God's natural works. It was Christianity that transformed " cold and lifeless pagan ornamentation into vivid imagery of nature." Mr. Ruskin tells us that all noble ornament is the expression of man's delight in God's work. If this be true, then should not ornamentation be an imitation of natural objects?
We doubt whether there should be any ornament without meaning, especially in the service of religion, and adornments should be representations of some natural object. Do we object to ornamenting God's house-His sanctuary? How can we thus object when we read in his Word of the elaborate and costly decorations of His ancient temple, every detail of which was built according to His divine command? Have we any account that God has changed in his essential nature, in his evident love of the Beautiful ? Who made this beautiful world and keeps it clothed in the delightful and ever varying scenery of the seasons ? We must believe that God loves beauty and is pleased with proper adornment when we see that He has painted the windows of the East and West at the sun's rising and setting, and has heaped varigated stones upon each other in Nature's vast quarries, gracefully fashioned the leaves in his first temples, carpeted the fields with in-numerable flowers of every hue, and sprinkled the dust with gold. Mrs. Hemans sings:
"There's beauty all around our paths,
The God of nature evidently intends to delight man by the color of some objects and by the form of others. There is in nature an infinite invention and variety of form, color, and disposition or arrangement. Did we ever see two sunsets exactly alike ? Did we ever find two roses or two violets or two human faces exactly alike in every detail ? We read that some of the ornaments divinely ordered to be carved on Solomon's temple were imitations of the lily, some of the palm, and others of the pomegranate. Monotony in nature and in art is death. It is death that never changes.
By cultivating and patronizing a true and noble art we may lead others to look at nature and to love her works, and thus to think upon, worship, and enjoy the great God of nature. Art should be a faithful expression of nature.
True art reproduces the beauty of nature in a true and beautiful manner. When you stand before a picture, statue, or work of art, how are you going to judge of it? By what rules? First, you are to observe if it expresses truth; second, beauty.