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Significance In Painting

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The world in general judges of subjects by the possibilities of significance in them. There are both greater opportunity and necessity for manifesting thought and emotion in connection with a landscape than with a dish of fruit or a vase of flowers; and in connection with human figures than with landscapes. Of course, many pictures of fruits and flowers are superior, as works of art, to many pictures of human figures; but in case of equal skill displayed in the representation of form, the art-work ranks highest which necessitates thought and emotion of the highest quality. This principle enables us to rank as subjects not only flowers and fruits below landscapes, and landscapes below human figures, but to rank below others certain products representing exactly the same objects. For instance, flowers, oranges, grapes, apples, or wine or beer in a glass, —all these may be portrayed so skillfully as to be exceedingly artistic. But it is easy to perceive that the appeal of the picture as a thing of significance may be differently deter-mined by different circumstances. A vase of flowers represented as being in a room upon the sill of a closed window, beyond which, outside the house, can be seen snowdrifts and frost-laden trees; or fruits and viands represented as heaped upon a table where nevertheless a half-empty plate and glass and an unfolded napkin give evidence that some one has already partaken of all that he wishes, with, perhaps, a window near by, through which a half-starved face of a child is wistfully peering,-arrangements like these, or hundreds of a similar character, which might be thought out or felt out, would put thought and emotion into the picture; and thus make it representative of these. Can anybody deny that pictures thus made significant by means of arrangement, if equally well executed, would rank higher than pictures merely imitative?—Essentials of 'Esthetics, val.

When we see a party of children, we may be interested in them on account of the symmetrical outlines of their forms, or of the glow of health in their faces. But there are other considerations that may increase our interest. One is the fact that we see them doing something which their actions indicate. Another is that they are expressing something which their countenances indicate; and, still another, that they are children whom we know and love. Nor is it true that any of these latter considerations, which increase our interest, necessarily interfere with the degree of interest excited in us by their grace or beauty of form.-Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture as Representative Arts,

A picture of a child represents by way of association any child, and therefore causes a mother, upon seeing it, to recall instinctively her own child, and, doing so, to take an interest in it. But in the degree in which the picture, besides this, represents her child by way of comparison—in the degree in which agreement in each detail of sex, age, size, dress, and countenance satisfies her critical reflective powers, in this degree will the interest awakened in her pass into emotion. The same principle applies to scenery. Owing to their associations with some particular lake or mountain, certain persons are instinctively interested in a painting of any lake or mountain. But the distinctively emotional effects of the picture are always increased in the degree in which all the details, the more men reflect upon them, are perceived to resemble those of the particular lake or mountain with which they have associated it. So with sculpture and architecture. Because of the principle of association, certain persons cannot avoid an instinctive tribute of reverence when they enter any chapel and stand before the statue of any saint. But let the chapel or statue either in its general form or in certain of its details—as of flowers, leaves, symbols, etc.,—recall, distinctly, by way of comparison, that particular chapel or personality with which they associate it, and their reverence will be the result of a deeper phase of emotion. Thus we find both logic and experience confirming from a new point of view what was said in "Art in Theory" with reference to the importance in high art of having the art-form represent both mental conceptions—to represent which alone it would need merely to suggest a certain association of ideas—and also audible or visible material phenomena, to represent which alone, it would need merely to manifest imitation.—Idem,

"He is what I call a vulgar painter," said a critic, some time ago, when speaking of an artist. "Are you getting ethical in your tastes?" was asked. "Not that," he answered, "but don't you remember that picture of a little girl by Sargent in the National Academy Exhibition last year? You couldn't glance at it, in the most superficial way, without recognizing at once that it was a child of hightoned, probably intellectual, spiritually-minded, aristocratic parentage and surroundings. Now, if the man of whom I was speaking had painted that child, he could not have kept from making her look like a coarse-haired, hide-skinned peasant." It is easy to perceive that, if this criticism were justifiable, the fault indicated would be largely owing to the failure of the artist to recognize the thoughts and feelings that men naturally associate with certain appearances of line and color. It would be largely owing to the fact that he had never learned that the round, ruddy form of the vital temperament that blossoms amid the breeze and sunshine of the open field has a very different significance from the more complex and delicate curves and colors that appear where the nervous temperament is ripened behind the sheltering window-panes of the study. An artist believing in significance merely enough to recognize the necessity of representing it in some way could, with a very few thrusts of his knife, to say nothing of his brush, at one and the same time relieve the inflammation of chapped cheeks, and inject into the veins some of the blue blood of aristocracy.—Essentials of esthetics, V.

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