Introductory To Art
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Art the Eternal Language — The Meaning of Art—Art as an Expression of the Creative Impulse—Art as an Index of the Character of Nations, Individuals, and Epochs—The Greeks, the Italians, and the French Compared from this Point of View—Art as a Part of Our Daily Life and as the Inexorable Recorder of Our Taste and Cultivation.
THIRTY thousand years ago an unknown savage, a member of an unknown tribe of an unknown race, painted some animals upon the rocky walls of a cave in Spain; they show a knowledge of form, developed powers of observation, and skill of hand that tell us this nameless people must have been high in the intellectual scale. Judged by our standards of living, so far as we know they might be called savages; savages, dead and gone ten times as long ago as the birth of Christ, and of whose origin, appearance, customs, and language we are alike ignorant. If the man who drew those animals far back in the dim recesses of that cavern stood before us in the flesh, his spoken language would be mere gibberish to us; and yet, dead and gone for twenty, thirty thousand years, he speaks to us clearly to-day in the one eternal, the one universal tongue—the language of art.
Art may be defined as a beautiful thought made visible to us through Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, and the divers kindred arts, or audible to us through Music, or both audible and visible in Poetry and the Drama, the spoken and the written word. Certain thoughts, imagined moods, or states of mind, certain ranges of idea, are best expressed through the medium of music, others through literature; some, beautiful in themselves, cannot be artistically ex-pressed through any medium save architecture, or painting, or sculpture. Having the same source, all arts are akin ; and they vary, not in principle but in their means and modes of expression; their origin may be traced farther back than even thought itself, traced back to the impulses which mysteriously precede or underlie thought; they are the direct offspring of that desire to create which is one of the strongest of the fundamental instincts of all mankind. The remains of the arts of some vanished race are frequently all that tell us of their life, their ideas and their ideals, and their position in the scale of civilization.
Art is a positive index of the character of races, nations, individuals, and epochs; a comparison of the arts of certain nations at given periods, and of artists of those nations who lived at those periods, will support this view. The nations and epochs we will select for this comparison are : the Greeks at the height of their culture in Athens at the time of Pericles, in the fifth century before Christ; the Italians at the apogee of the Renaissance in the sixteenth century of the Christian era; and the French of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when refinement of manners in France had reached their zenith. Of the Greeks we will choose two sculptors, Phidias and Praxiteles; of the Italians, Michael Angelo, architect, sculptor, and painter, and Raphael, painter and architect; of the French, the painters Watteau and Boucher.
The chief characteristics of the art of the Greeks are : Simplicity, Serenity or Repose, Clarity, Subtlety, Grace, Beauty. Their Architecture and Sculpture, their Literature, their Drama, their Philosophy, exhibit these traits. The place of a people in the civilized scale is to be adjudged upon their degree of cultivation rather than by the standards of a vulgar materialism ; and the quality of mind shown by the Greeks in all their arts places them intellectually at the very pinnacle of civilization. What of the traits of the work of the two men, Phidias, the author of the frieze of the Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis, and Praxiteles, the sculptor of the Hermes found at Olympia in the Peloponnesus ? Both are great artists and each shows the character and qualities of his mind and of his nation in his productions. In those of Phidias are Simplicity, Repose, Clarity, Beauty, united in a certain atmosphere of Austerity. In those of Praxiteles are the attributes first named, with Subtlety and an ineffable Grace. And we recognize this work, first, as of the highest type, the finest flower, of Greek art; and second, as the sculpture, this of Phidias, that of Praxiteles. Phidias worked just when Athens had emerged victorious from her struggle with the Persians, and Praxiteles at a later time, of political exhaustion, but in which the Greeks were gathering some of the richest fruits of the preceding Golden Age. We have few historical facts as to the personality of these two men; we only know them as their work reveals them; but we may be sure that the touch of austere simplicity is the reflection of the spirit of Phidias, as we know it to be that of the spirit of his time; and that in the softer grace of Praxiteles is the softer fibre of his day transpiring to us through his personality.
Comparing the Renaissance period in Italy—meaning the rediscovery of the culture of Greece and Rome and the rebirth of the mind of man thereby—with the greatest epoch in Greece just traversed, we find a similar intellectual ardor and acuity; but in the meantime Christianity had come into the world and affected the mental and spiritual attitude of men, and the conditions of life had materially altered in the lapse of these twenty centuries. We are prepared therefore to find the inner significance of the Renaissance expressed in art in quite a different way. Instead of the serenity of the Pagan we have the doubt and striving of the Christian; it was a time when men like Pico della Mirandola were trying to reconcile the newly recovered learning of the ancient world with the teachings of the fathers of the Church; at its height it was also a time of immense luxury and display, and this, too, is reflected in its art ; it was a time of exuberant life, and this exuberance is manifested in rich and complicated compositions in which the fertile Italian mind took pleasure. The two dominant figures of the art of the Italian Renaissance were Michael Angelo Buonarroti and Raffaello Sanzio, or Raphael as he is commonly called. In character, in upbringing, and in age, they differed widely. Raphael died in 1520 at thirty-seven years of age, when Michael Angelo was already forty-five and had forty-four years of life yet before him. The middle and the closing years of Angelo's life were clouded by irritations and disappointments. He was a crusty, and at times an unhappy and a bitter man. Raphael, on the contrary, was a popular fellow, courted and admired, and fortune seemed always to smile upon him. Turning from the men to their work, what do we find ? Does it or does it not reflect their temperaments and circumstances ? Examine the painting of the Last Judgment, in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, by Michael Angelo; a vast, grand, and gloomy composition, crowded with figures, full of action and of agony, full of a terrific vigor, the terribilita of Angelo. Compare with this the Discussion of the Christian Faith, known also as the Disputa, on one of the walls of the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican, by Raphael. Here, too, is an immense composition of many figures, but, the difference in the kind of subject aside, the treatment and the point of view, the quiet and the calm, would tell us of the order and measure of the more content, less self-searching soul of Raphael. A survey of all the works of the two men shows these contrasts running through them all. Angelo's indicates a man visited by terrible visions; Raphael's a man at peace with his material and spiritual worlds. And each exhibits a different phase of their many-sided epoch.
We pass to France of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Jean Antoine Watteau was born in 1684, when Louis XIV, Le Grand Monarque, was King; a little King, who increased his stature by high-heeled shoes and an absurdly tall and voluminous wig of curled horsehair—a King nevertheless of character and ability; the wig and the high heels are symbolic of the artificiality and pompous insincerity of the time. Louis XIV died seven years be-fore Watteau; and before he died, the King, after a life of pleasure, became a religious devotee under the influence of Madame de Maintenon. Gloom pervaded the court; but at Louis's death the most violent reaction took place and the license and depravity of the following regime has passed into legend. Watteau was not of the court, but he is a connecting link between the two reigns. We have deliberately chosen him to illustrate our thesis because the character he reveals in his work is so at variance with all the accounts of his nature, and the very difference points the argument that no artist can fail to disclose his innermost self in his art. He was, as the world saw him, a sickly young man, a misanthrope of unstable character, a recluse constantly changing his place of abode, given to bitter and sarcastic gibes, dying of consumption at thirty-seven. And here enters the apparent contradiction which modern criticism penetrates to find the soul behind it—his work, full of phantasy, fabrics of dreams, where courtly lovers woo delicate ladies "to the sound of flute and viol" in landscapes of melting sweetness, shows not a trace of this outer man. "All men of creative genius are slaves to their own temperament. The creator whose blood is red, whose circulation is rapid, and whose muscles are strong gives birth to vigorous conceptions. . . . But the frail and sickly poet . . . shrinks from the strenuous passions and strifes of humanity . . . the suffering genius builds as a refuge a pleasure palace for his own frail soul, a world from which all elements which hurt him in the real world are absent, a fairy land of color . where Spring reigns eternal. . . . Such was the world which Watteau created for himself . . . and here his sick soul might find itself safe from all contact with the brutality of real life." Thus Dargenty, in his Antoine Watteau. Who shall say that in his work we do not find the real Watteau, the poet of delicate fancy imprisoned in the outer man like a sweet kernel in a bitter husk—a poet who could not, moreover, escape the artificiality of the age in which he lived, and all unconsciously exhibits it to us who follow ?
When Watteau was nineteen years old and Louis XIV had twelve more years to live, Francois Boucher was born. By the time he had reached young manhood Louis XV was King of France. This child, who ascended the throne at the age of five to reign for fifty-nine years, could hardly exercise a restraining influence upon a society which concealed, beneath the most graceful manners, a profound corruption that early contaminated the young King. After the dull days of the close of his great-grandfather's rule, the court gave itself up to the extreme of voluptuous indulgence. It was into this dissolute, decadent, pleasure-seeking society that Boucher was thrown; and at the service of this society he placed an immense talent, a wealth of fancy that found utterance in exquisitely sophisticated compositions in the general vein which Watteau had made popular. Boucher was no misanthropic recluse. He swam with the stream. At thirty-one he was a member of the Academy; at fifty-two he became Inspector of the Gobelins, the royal tapestry manufactory; at sixty-two he was made First Painter to the King ; Madame de Pompadour, one of the mistresses of the King, was his friend and patroness. He died in 1770, four years before his King and master.
Here was a man upon whom, as upon Raphael, fortune smiled. No dark dreams visited him. His paintings seem to have been the natural product of a cheerful nature developed in a cheerful and congenial atmosphere. Society, during the long reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV, had become highly organized, highly conventional, thoroughly artificial. It was not an age of individualism. It was not a society of lofty ideals; it did not wish to think—merely to be lightly amused, to be pleased. Conformity to usage, to good form, was demanded of courtier and painter alike. This society had developed a certain kind of taste, and in Watteau and Boucher it found the men who could minister to it. To this agreement of their contemporaries upon taste and style may be ascribed the substantial likeness in the work of these two men, despite the difference in their characters and their lives.
To sum up the facts we have examined : we find in France, in Italy, and in Greece, in times disparate, under social conditions widely at variance, the art of the time expressing the time, the art of the race expressing the race at that time, the art of the individual disclosing the individual. The work of Phidias and of Praxiteles is unmistakably Greek compare it with that of the other four. The work of Angelo and of Raphael is unmistakably Italian—compare theirs with the others'. The paintings of Watteau and Boucher could only have been done by Frenchmen. The art of Phidias and of Praxiteles is absolutely that of certain periods of Greek history, that of Angelo and Raphael could only have been produced under the conditions of their epoch in Italy, that of Watteau and Boucher only under the special influences of aristocratic life in the France of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
In like manner, quite unconsciously, as such forces must act, the artists of to-day are writing the history of our time and revealing themselves and us to posterity. Poet, dramatist, architect, sculptor, painter, musician, critic, are acting in the dual capacity of creators and mirrors of our intellectual, and in large measure our material, life. If the architecture of New York of any decade should seem trivial or vulgar to posterity, it would be because the ideals of the city and of the architects of that decade were vulgar and trivial. The architecture and painting of Venice are the visible sign of the rich and luxurious life of the enlightened oligarchy that ruled her. The city of Paris shows the clear, logical mind of the French applied to the solution of problems of civic order and beauty. Scandinavian drama exhibits the morbid introspectiveness engendered by the rigors of long, dark winters in a climate almost arctic. In the American school of landscape painting is reflected the love of outdoors so typical of our nation and a fine sensitiveness to the beauty of the moods of nature; while on the other hand, the weakness of our portraiture indicates a people less interested in human beings than in the world in which they move. The Renaissance period, the time of salient personalities, was the time of great and vivid portraiture by men intensely interested in men as men.
Art is thus to be apprehended, not as something remote, outside of life or a purely decorative grace of life, with which the average man or woman, boy or girl, has no concern, unless he or she takes up the life and work of the artist as a career, but, on the contrary, a part, and a very important part, of the daily life of every one of us. We should surely all like to think that we have better taste, more cultivation, than was current in that dreadful period which immediately preceded, let us say, eighteen hundred and seventy—a century or more of false taste or lack of any soever. We should hardly care to have future generations say of us what we say of the aesthetic sense of our grandparents. But let us remember that we are, all of us, layman and artist alike, unconsciously making for future generations to read, a record of our taste, of our sensitiveness to beauty and to the finer things of life. The record will be no more splendid than the quality of our generation. Art, the Recorder, is inexorable.
"The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,
It is of vital importance for us all to learn as much as we may of the art of this world we live in. He who understands art has at his command a means of communication with the African savage painting his shield, or the Indians of the pueblos weaving their blankets; he speaks the language of the Japanese connoisseur; he is at home in the depths of China and India and in all the far places of the earth; and all lands and all ages are his. In these pages I shall try to convey a clear idea of the nature, practice, and history of art, in the briefest possible compass. We are to deal especially with the three arts of Architecture, Sculpture, and Painting and in a limited degree with the divers arts that derive from them. The origins and the psychology of the arts of the East differ so widely from those of the Western world that they cannot be conveniently included here, al-though the arts of China and Japan are immensely important and have strongly affected the work of many Western masters, notably James McNeill Whistler. The reader will find Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art, by Ernest Fenollosa, a brilliant and fascinating book.