Nature And Art
( Originally Published 1896 )
Naturalness is what we are to look for first, and if a work of art is true to nature-to natural forms, the second quality or beauty will generally appear. The perfection of beauty is perfect truth. The merit of Greek art is that it was natural and right; but it was beautiful because it was true. It had "sincere and innocent purpose, strong common sense and principle," and there would follow from these a strength and grace. There are forms in marble, like the matchless creations of Phidias, in which all that is coarse is omitted, and there are only represented the two essential qualities of truth and beauty. A work of art is noble for the truth and beauty it contains. Many artists reverse this true order, and aim at beauty first and truth second. It should not be art for art's -sake-for mere artistic pleasure, but art for truth's sake. The sphere of true art is in the domain of sound belief and reality. The imagination may have a pure and rightful play, but the imaginative artist should strive to keep as near the truth as possible.
Principles of beauty are desirable, but principles of truth are essential. That is a spurious beauty whose attractiveness has tempted men to despise truth and sincerity. A work had better be right than beautiful, if it cannot be both. We do not deny that some kinds of art are beautiful that are not very natural, as certain ancient wall-painting, vase-painting, and glass-painting; but the real pleasing quality of art depends on its fidelity to truth. There is an intrinsic beauty in truth that the honest soul admires and loves at sight. We want in art-representations what is intensely and uncompromisingly true. Ruskin observes that there is an absolute right and wrong in all art, and whatever is done for display is invariably wrong. Portrait painters are prone to flatter. Cromwell insisted on having the wart on his face painted in his portrait, against the wish of the artist who feared for his own reputation.
There is much work in art open to the charge of false-hood. Truth may be distorted just as gold may be twisted into all manner of unseemly shapes. A lie de-serves no consideration. Stab it at once. A picture may tell the truth, a half truth, or a lie. It may conceal the truth, exaggerate, be as large as lifc and "twice as natural." A picture is true when it states certain facts or tells us faithfully the shape and color and size of objects, and we experience pleasure from the scene because of its apparent existence. Every artist-be he painter, sculptor, architect, or poet, who violates truth in his productions, in the treatment of his subjects, dishonors his profession. Alas, how the glorious arts have been debased by unworthy artists! The amount of falsity, pretense, concealment, sham and shoddy in architecture in the poor material or labor employed, is the curse of the age. View the works of the old masters, the relics of Grecian and Roman architecture and art,-compare their purity, honesty, and fidelity with the corruptions of modern times!
Many a Christian church building by its architecture and decorations deceives inside and outside-is a standing falsehood. The motto seems to be, Pat on a fine face and bold front, if there is not so much behind it. We must make this criticism of the famous Strasburg Cathedral, though its marvelous facade has the most beautiful rose window in the world. The beauty of some churches seems to be all on the outside-only disappointment comes over you as you enter them. Some-thing of this feeling is experienced after you have surveyed the matchless exterior of the Milan Cathedral. The outside of certain other structures hardly does justice to their beautiful interior, as is true of St. Peter's at Rome and the private houses of Damascus.
Dishonesty, fraud, or willful deception in any department of art is despicable. Real ornaments are admissible, fallacious ones-machine-made carvings and sculptures, are execrable. Mr. Ruskin, writes, " Exactly as a woman of feeling would not wear false jewels, so would a builder of honor disdain false ornaments." Does some one ask, Should iron or stone or brick ever be painted, or should wood ever be bronzed? We may reply that pretense is always wrong whether it be in human character or in designing surfaces. Legitimate art forbids any form or material to be deceptively represented. To paint brick or plaster or wood, and "point" or block it so as to imitate stone is gross deception. "Marbled" pine is contemptible to behold. We doubt the propriety of ever treating soft wood so as to make it resemble iron or bronze, or of painting or graining it so as to deceive one into believing that it is hard wood. There is now too much furniture that was quarter-sawed" only by the deceitful art of the grainer. Let the painting be honest,-that is, convey the impression that it is painting, no matter what the material that is covered. Colors are not objectionable, but they must be genuine, fast colors.
There is no wrong or dishonesty in painting a ceiling to look like the sky, because there is no deception - no danger that any one will mistake it for the sky. A gilded picture frame, or cornice is admissible, because no deceit is intended or understood; but gilded jewelryis intended to deceive, and therefore to be condemned. Only cheap people will wear cheap " washed " jewelry as ornaments merely, with no regard to utility.
Common usage has made some "false expedients" tolerable, but there are nice discriminations and fine lines of propriety to be observed. We are not much in favor of whitewashing brick or stone or iron. It may sometimes be good for cleanliness, but not for deception.
Paint and plaster conceal much bad building in these times, and we would suggest as a text for all the preachers St. Paul's words -"The hidden things of dishonesty." There is many a " shell ". of a building founded on fraud, where numerous people work or congregate, that ought to be condemned. Travelers would never enter many railroad coaches if they knew that they were the frailest shells and shams. If properly built with steel frames, they would never " telescope." Wooden posts in buidings made to look firm and strong like iron are artful deceptions. A pillar should never be made to appear stronger than it is, when one clearly sees that the weight above calls for a firm support, or when the beholder does not understand its importance. There is a certain necessary and harmless deception in art, as in the structure of a building when the architect seeks to convince the beholder of the security and firmness of a building which might not be apparent, though true. There may be thus an honest appeal to the immagination. It may be well not to know some things, but too often the dangerous deceiver has sought to cover up his artful tricks by quoting
" Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise. In matters of art there are many nice questions of conscience. The artist and the artisan should have a conscience and they should put conscience into their work. A carpenter or contractor or architect who will cheat in his work will cheat in his accounts and other matters. Why not build an honest house, if we cannot build one expensive or finely artistic ! False forms of art abound everywhere which mean false artists and dishonest workmen. If one wants a house built or any kind of work done now-a-days, he must watch it to a finish. Not to be trusted must be written over too many offices and trading houses. We hear much now about " honest money "- why not hear more about honest ways of getting money? Men are honest for
pay or policy, so cats are too honest to touch meat out of reach. It is better never to send a dog to fetch meat, or to allow Judas to carry the bag.
Some artists are hardly more than craftsmen-in the work for the trade or money there is in it. There are many temptations to both artists and artisans to become false-lack of appreciation, poor pay, overproduction, and the multitude of mechanisms and new inventions. Let us pay a fair price and have a genuine article.