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The Language Of Painting

( Originally Published 1920 )



BY JOHN C. VAN DYKE, AUTHOR OF "STUDIES IN PICTURES," "ART FOR ART'S SAKE," "THE MEANING OF PICTURES," ETC.

WHAT is the object of any language unless it be to express an idea, a thought, a fancy, a conception of the mind, or an emotion of the heart? If it convey no meaning it is entitled to no serious consideration. There may be some charm about a manner of talking, and there is beauty in the manner of painting, but the higher aim of any language is not to exhibit itself for its own sake, but to express the ideas and meanings of men.

We are here in the gallery examining the technical part of art; we are admiring this light and that color, marking the grouping here, the textures there, studying a piece of drawing, and wondering over a bit of perspective; and we are rightly admiring these technical features as beautiful in themselves, but what is it that we shall take away from the galleries with us? An impression, surely, but will it be one of well-drawn hands, finely-painted clothes, and good color; one of rug texture, jewel brilliancy, and foliage lightness? No; we shall forget about these features. They are not sufficient in them-selves to impress us very deeply. There is a stronger element in the picture, if it be a masterpiece of its kind; and that is the artist's conception, thought, or feeling. We shall carry away the impression of his idea, imagination, or creation; we shall feel the power of his individuality.

How many stanzas of Longfellow's poem of "The Bridge" can you remember ? You do not recollect the words, but you have a distinct remembrance of the poem. Well, what is the impression of it left upon your mind ? Is it not one of profound melancholy at the ebb and flow of life, the come and go, the disappointment, the unfulfilled hope, the final resignation? And what do we now remember of Harvey Birch, the Spy of Washington? What do we know about his dress, lineage, look, talk? We can hardly remember a sentence that he spoke, and we know little or nothing of the dramatic situations in which Cooper placed him. In fact, the artistic efforts used to create the Spy have all been forgotten, but not so the impression of the character. The creation of the novelist still lives in our minds in shadowy form, and in it we see a hero who suffered ignominy in obedience to orders.

You have no doubt seen Millet's picture of "The Sower," yet can you tell me accurately its color, drawing, light, atmosphere, textures? Do you know the position of the right leg; can you say how many oxen there are on the neighboring hill? I doubt if you can, but you remember the picture; you can never forget it. And what is your remembrance? It is that of a shadowy figure at dusk, moving across the fields, with rhythmic motion scattering the grain. He looks gigantic in proportions, a man of sinews, heart, and brain; a man who tills the fields, as God decreed all men should; a man who in a humble sphere is no less a hero than he who sweeps over the same field at the head of cavalry. This is Millet's conception, that is what he is striving to tell you with his colors and shadows, that is what you feel and the impression that you receive. The same thought is apparent in this half-finished picture of "The Spaders." In a short time you will forget all about the half-finish and the charcoal lines, and will retain only the look of those solemn faces and the splendid motion of the figures, just as they who visit the Sistine Chapel at Rome carry away only the impression of the sad-browed Sibyls, the mighty Prophets, of Michael Angelo.

We shall not go far astray then in saying that the stronger part of art is not its language, but the ideas which that language ex-presses ; that it is not so much the technique, brush work, or handling for their own sake, as for the conceptions they can present to us. Let us say at once, then, that what is said is of more importance than the manner of saying; that the chief aim of art is to express ideas, feelings, impressions, or beliefs of the artist; and that the language of art, the drawing, modeling, coloring, and all, are but parts of speech which enable the artist to frame a sentence and convey a thought.

Discard the idea, which you may have received from friends, who are artists perhaps, that the only aim of art is the expression of technical skill. It could be as well maintained that the object of poetry is to display rhythmical words and sentences after the Swinburnian manner, and that poetic ideas are of no consequence. Skill of hand is important-aye, absolutely necessary; but it is the means of saying, not the end or that which is said. I will not say, for the sake of making a point in the argument, that these art-means are not interesting in themselves, nor that Tennysonian and Swinburnian verse is not agreeable, even though it may contain no meaning. To the initiated the manner in which Goya and Velasquez paint a dress, the power with which Rembrandt focusses light, the dash and brilliancy of Fortuny, the strength of Courbet, are almost as pleasing as the great ideas of Michael Angelo and the poetic sentiment of Millet. The skill of the craftsman is admirable, especially to brother-craftsmen; but the work of the hand and the conception of the mind must not bear a false relationship to one another. The thought is greater than the means of expression, but there is beauty in both. Despise neither, but place the former above the latter.

You may be possessed of the idea that the object of a painting is to see how closely the artist can imitate nature-many people have such an idea. I beg of you to discard that likewise. Imitation never made anything worth looking at the second time. The world is indebted to it for nothing. The imitators have all died, like "Poor Poll," without leaving a trace of anything we appreciate or care for. Their labor has been too ignoble and purely mechanical to endure. The painter detailing nature upon canvas line upon line, with no hope, object, or ambition but that of rendering nature as she is, is but unsuccessfully rivalling the photograph camera. The sculptor working in a similar fashion is but emulating the hideousness of the wax figure. No; the object of painting is not to deceive, and make one think he stands in the presence of real Iife. Art is not the delineating of peanuts and postage-stamps in such a realistic manner that you stretch out your hand to pick them up ; not the moulding of bronze and marble so that you start with surprise when you find they are not living. True, painting and sculpture are classed among the imitative arts, and so is poetry; but consider how far removed from reality is poetic language, and consider how wide the gulf between nature and the greatest masterpieces of painting. The idea of imitation is a false conception of art throughout. Painting is a language, and trees, sky, air, water, men, cities, streets, buildings, are but the symbols of ideas which play their part in the conception.

But you may think that though literal imitation is despicable enough, yet a truth to nature is absolutely necessary, and the measure of this truth attained makes a great artist or an inferior one. You may agree with Mr. Ruskin that this truth to nature is the aim of art. Again I beg of you to discard the idea: Truth is not the aim of any of the arts. Their object is to please, not to instruct. If we wish to be taught we shall go to science, which has the one object of finding out the truth. Painting should please us with aesthetic ideas, received through the sense of sight, precisely as poetry should please us with aesthetic ideas received through the sense of hearing; and the value of each depends very much on the quality and quantity of pleasure given. If truth alone were the object of either of these arts it would appear as though Meissonier were greater than Raphael or Michael Angelo, and Pope greater than Shakespeare or Milton. Mind you, I am not quarrelling with the painter's or poet's veracity. Truth is absolutely necessary in painting, just as necessary as color, oil, and paint-brushes; but I would have you discriminate between an accessory and a principle. Truth is quite indispensable in a picture, but, remember, it is the means whereby the language of art is made easily recognizable, and not the end in itself.

But you say: "Of course the plain brutal truth of nature is not the aim of art; it is too realistic. The painter must strive after the ideal; nature must be idealized, heightened, glorified." Now, do you know exactly what you mean by the ideal? Have you ever heard a satisfactory or comprehensible explanation of it? Do you know any one who understands what it means? People talk knowingly of the ideal, of Phidias and Raphael, of Kant and Hegel, but when we come to sift down their meaning to a practical application in modern painting they mean a fair head or figure imitated from the artist's recollections of Greek sculpture; of a figure, city, or landscape formed in the artist's mind by the union of many fancies. Such work is quite worthless, except for decorative purposes, and as serious art has no good reason for existence.

There are others who think they recognize the ideal in another way. When Daubigny, for instance, paints a landscape with a certain haziness of atmosphere and line they call him an idealist, and when Bastien-Lepage paints the same landscape without the haziness they call him a realist. The true idealism of modern times presupposes the existence of a universal perfection in nature and life, toward which mankind aspires, and the painter who comes the nearest to the sup-posed universal, perfection is accounted the greatest artist. Whether this has an existence in fact, as in theory, I have now neither the time nor the inclination to inquire. I quarrelled once with what I conceived to be the false interpretation of the word "ideal" in modern art, but with little result. People will continue to write and talk in a vague way about ideals, and fancy they see and feel them. Perhaps they do; but, as this is a practical talk, I wish to advise you to quietly lay the ideal on the shelf for the first ten years of your picture-viewing experience. At the end of that time you may be able to decide about it for yourself, and you may find that you are capable of enjoying pictures without a blessed thought of ideals of any kind. Do not bother about it under that name, at any rate, but in its place look for the artist's meaning in his picture, strive to find out what he is saying to you; put yourself in his place, and try to see as he sees. In other words, look not for the artist's ideal, but for his idea. The latter you may with practice readily discover; the former you may never recognize, for the ideal is more in the metaphysician's head than in the head of the modern artist.

You have heard somewhat of the necessity for the beautiful in art, and are perhaps now wondering what part it plays in painting and just where it comes in. I will try to explain in a few words my own idea of it, avoiding metaphysics as much as possible. Beauty may be an attribute of things tangible or intangible; that is, in practical illustration it may attach itself to the form and features of a head, and it may also be an attribute of a thought emanating from that head. One set of metaphysicians will tell you that it exists in the features per se, and that beauty is objective; another set is equally certain that it is only in the thought, and that beauty is subjective. If we take a sober view of the matter we shall see that neither is exclusively right. Beauty may belong to either the objective or subjective world.

I cannot here enter into an argument to prove that beauty may be an attribute to external life; moreover, I have written of this at some length in another work. It will not, however, be hard for you to believe that there is a beauty about sunset, mountains, valleys, and animals, independent of man or his thoughts. If loveliness is an at-tribute of the flower, why is not beauty an attribute of higher creations? Our perception or lack of perception of beauty has nothing whatever to do with its existence. The Patagonian Indian and the African Hottentot see no beauty in the forest, but does it follow therefrom that there is none? Whether seen or unseen it is there, and that beauty which is seen by all is usually of a commonplace kind, often portrayed in painting.

It is the object of one kind of art to picture this natural beauty, and when accompanied by some individuality, enthusiasm, feeling, or method in the artist it is not an unworthy aim. Oftener it appears unaccompanied by these latter qualities, and it then sinks to the level of decorative art. It is most frequently portrayed in the human figure. Every exhibition of painting has its numbers of "ideal" heads and figures, which, if we analyze closely, prove to be only the modified portraits of pretty-faced studio models. The pretty model like-wise obtrudes herself under different names upon many compositions, but she never has anything to commend herself but her face. She is generally devoid of character and force, and you could say at a glance that her head never ached with an idea. Look about you in the gallery and you will see her companions. Bouguereau always paints them, Henner is fond of them, Meyer von Bremen loves them, and Gerome does not despise them. They are all pleasant enough in their way, especially to the masses, and it is to their pretty subjects that some artists are indebted for their popularity; but the faces are inwardly empty, the beauty is only skin-deep.

Natural beauty is again represented by the production of the commonplace scenes in landscape with which we are all familiar. They correspond to the studio model, regarding whom we have just been speaking. A familiar scene-a valley, lake, mountain, or brookside chosen, and painted as it is, with lack of thought and want of feeling, painted simply that you may have a facsimile of what you possibly may not possess in reality. Such pictures are good reminders of the places we have visited, like the photographs we buy along the line of travel, and they may not improperly serve to conceal a break in the wallpaper of the drawing-room; but they scarcely add to the world of art.

Somewhat of a change takes place in the character and value of the painting when the natural beauty is not commonplace, but comparatively unknown. For the object of every true artist is in one sense to discover hidden beauty and to reveal it to the world, which, by reason of not possessing the eye of genius, is blind to it. We then have a new beauty, for which we may thank our explorer, the artist. It may be that the hidden beauty lies in a form commonplace, al-most repulsive. There is such a thing as the beauty of the ugly, of which the Germans have written somewhat. Not alone the face of youth is beautiful; age possesses it even in humble life. Did not Rembrandt bring it forth in his aged and wrinkled faces, and Leonardo in his demons? Frere, Millet, Breton, Lerolle, Mauve, and Israels-what a charm they have thrown about the coarse-featured, heavy-headed peasantry ! It is all true and all beautiful, but it was entirely unknown and unseen before these painters came into the world. In a similar manner there is a new beauty in the light of Corot, the foliage of Rousseau, the gray, voyaging clouds of Daubigny, the stormy skies of Courbet. We recognize it again in the tigers of Delacroix, in the children groups of Diaz, in the cattle of Troyon, and in a less degree in the satins and armor of Fortuny and the fish and fruit of Vollon. These men are not imitators-not parrots reiterating a well-worn theme-but, on the contrary, revealers of new features and interpreters of new beauties.

So, then, it is not a little part of the artist's aim that he discover and interpret to the world new beauty, and the value of his work may be estimated by the importance of his discovery. This is the rendering of objective beauty, tinctured, perhaps, by the painter's individuality, method, or feeling; but there is a higher beauty in the subjective of which it is necessary to speak. The most perfect beauty lies not in external surroundings, but in the conception of the human mind. There is nothing in nature that may be compared with it; beauties. of form, texture, or quality sink into insignificance beside it; it is predominant and omnipotent. It would seem, therefore, that the artist who discovers natural beauty and interprets it is not so great as the artist who creates beauty and uses the forms of nature merely as a means of explaining his creation.

Take the "Sower" of Millet, and what is it that we admire about it ? A hundred living artists could excel the drawing, a hundred could excel the rendering of textures and light. The figure is of little con-sequence. In any street in Paris might have been found a physical man of more perfect make-up. It is the thought, the conception of heroism in humble life, that is strikingly beautiful. You may re-member seeing in Rome the statue of Moses by Michael Angelo. As a piece of mechanical work it is not wonderful. I doubt not that Canova could have equalled, if not excelled, Michael Angelo as a carver and polisher. But there is something in the Moses that is worth all the marbles Canova ever cut. It is the conception of tremendous power, the conceived ability of Moses to overawe, crush, destroy all things before him. In the Prophets and Sibyls of the Sistine some of the same power is apparent, combined with solemnity, mystery, weirdness, even the spirit of that prophecy which characterized the originals. The conceptions are lofty to sublimity, nor are the forms at all unworthy of the ideas they embody; but they are not so great as the latter. Bouguereau could have drawn them as well; Delacroix could have given them a more harmonious coloring; Alfred Stevens or Carolus-Duran could have painted their garments much better; but all of them together could not have created that idea of mystery and power which attaches to them.

In the Old Pinacothek, at Munich, is a picture by Rubens of the "Christ on the Cross." It is the dead Christ hanging there alone in the night with drooped head and flowing hair, and in the background a black sky over the distant Jerusalem. There is no color to it of consequence, and color was a great feature of Rubens's art; it is not overwell drawn, nor will it compare with some of his other works in painting; but there is about it the blinding horror of the scene, the blackness of darkness, the awfulness of the deed. The power; the dread, the strength of death are overwhelming. The conviction rushes upon you irresistibly that the Crucified, hanging upon the cross, is not a human being, but the real Son of God. How the mind of Rubens ever soared so high as to grasp that conception baffles comprehension. For the idea seems great even above Rubens's greatness. Of course, the painting of it is not what one would call poorly done, for Rubens was too good a painter for that; but when you come to look upon the picture you will never see paint, or line, or texture. The conception absorbs everything else.

The landscapes of Corot, that is, the nobler ones like the "Danse des Amours," are great in a similar way. The technical part of the "Danse des Amours" is most excellent, and yet it fades into insignificance when compared with the predominant and beautiful conception of light. Still another instance of art excellent by the predominance of idea may be taken from the work of an American artist-Mr. Albert Ryder. You have doubtless seen a small sea-piece of his, often exhibited in New York, called "A Waste of Waters is Their Field." It is a little larger than your two hands, and represents a fisher-boat tossed by the waves of mid-ocean. The light is dull, the figures and boat mere suggestions, and the waves scarcely distinguishable, as I remember them; yet there is an indefinable something about the picture that draws us to it. It is not the painting of it, for that is hardly up to the average. I can scarcely describe what it is except by saying that the picture conveys to one the idea of the loneliness, the weirdness, the wildness of a continued existence at sea amid storms and tempests and dangers innumerable. The craft with her dusky crew, as she pitches and rolls in the sea, her black sails blown full of heavy air, and the light dimly seen through storm-clouds, looks like a wraith, a phantom boat, an exile hunted of men. We forget the material parts of the picture after a time, yet the idea haunts us. It keeps galloping through our brain like that dashing falconer of Fromentin. The painter holds us by his thought, his conception, precisely as the novelist makes us remember Lady Dedlock, Jean Valjean, or Harvey Birch, though we may hardly be able to recall a word they said or a thing they did.

The most enduring part of art, then, is the conception of the artist, and the embodiment of conception in form and color and their variations constitutes the highest aim of painting. But now from this you must not infer that sublime art is the only art worthy of consideration; nor must you infer that the art of poetic or artistic feeling, or even the art of technical skill or natural beauty, is to be sneered at. Those who have produced great art are like the Shakespeares and the Goethes-but the few from the millions; and surely there are many poets and painters beside the greatest whom we may honestly admire. I have instanced only the superlative cases to bring before you what I consider the highest art, to impress upon you the superiority of the conception over its realization or embodiment. There are other grades of conceptions, ideas, impressions, and feelings, but for the present we may rest content with the general statement that the highest aim of art is the expression of an idea, impression, or emotion, regarding something conceived, seen, or felt by the artist.

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