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Composition In Art

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

How is a song or a symphony that is expressive of any given feeling composed? Always thus: A certain duration, force, pitch, or quality of voice, varied two or three times, is recognized to be a natural form of expression for a certain state of mind,-satisfaction, grief, ecstasy, fright, as the case may be. A musician takes this form of sound, and adds to it other forms that in rhythm or in modulation, or in both, can be compared or associated with it, varying it in only such subordinate ways as constantly to suggest it; and thus he elaborates a song expressive of satisfaction, grief, ecstasy, or fright. Or if it be a symphony, the method is the same. The whole, intricate as it may appear, is developed by recurrences of the same or very similar effects, varied almost infinitely but in such ways as constantly to suggest a few notes or chords which form the theme or themes. A similar fact is true with reference to poetic elaboration. What are the following but series of comparisons,—reiterations of the same particular or general idea in different phraseology or figures?

What do we have in the poetic treatment of a subject considered as a whole, as in an epic or a drama? Nothing but repeated delineations of the same general conceptions or characters as manifested or developed amid different surroundings of time or of place. So with the forms of painting, sculpture, and architecture. Every one knows that, as a rule, certain like lines, arches, or angles are repeated in the columns, cornices, doors, windows, and roofs of buildings. Few, perhaps, without instruction, recognize that the same principle is true as applied to both the outlines and colors through which art delineates the scenery of land or water or the limbs of living creatures. But one thing almost all recognize: This is that, in the highest works of art, every special effect repeats, as a rule, the general effect. In the picture of a storm, for instance, every cloud, wave, leaf, bough, repeats, as a rule, the storm's effect; in the statue of a sufferer, every muscle in the face or form repeats, as a rule, the suffering's effect; in the architecture of a building, —if of a single style,—every window, door, and dome repeats, as a rule, the style's effect. Essentials of Aesthetics, XIV.


Art-composition is influenced first by mental and then by material considerations. He (the artist) begins with a conception which, in his mind, is associated with certain forms or series of forms. To represent this conception is his primary object. But he cannot attain it, unless the forms, or series of forms, added by him in the process of elaboration, continue to have the same general effect as those with which he starts. About the latter therefore, as a nucleus, he arranges other like forms according to the general method of comparison. Controlled at first chiefly by a desire to have them manifest this, in order to express a like thought, or to be alike by way of congruity; afterwards descending to details, he is careful to make them alike by way of repetition and consonance. While thus securing unity of effect, however, he is confronted by the variety and complexity of the natural forms from which he is obliged to construct his art-work. But he soon finds that these can be adapted to his purposes through the methods of contrast and complement; and, when it comes to grouping, he is able still to suggest unity by fulfilling the requirements of order, in spite of confusion, through counteraction and the arrangement of factors in accordance with methods of principality, subordination, balance, and organic form.—The Genesis of Art-Form, Ix.

It is the combined result of the application of all of these methods that produces the general effect termed harmony. —Proportion and Harmony of Line and Color, XXIV.


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