Specific Qualities And Faults
( Originally Published 1903 )
IF we recognize the manly qualities in a picture, the work has at least a favorable introduction. Farther than this point it may not please us, but if not, it should remain a question of taste between the artist and yourself; and, concerning taste there is no disputing. It is just at this point that the superficial critic errs. Dislike for the subject, however ably expressed, is never cause for condemnation. The fair question to ask is, what was the artist's intention ? Its answer provokes your challenge ; " Is it worth the expression ! " If conceded, the real judgment begins. Has he done it ; if not wholly—in what degree ?
The question of degree will demand the patience of good judgment. There may be much or little sanity in condemning a picture owing to a single fault. It depends on the kind. There are errors of selection, of presentation (technique) of natural fact, and of art principle. We can excuse the first, condone the second, find small palliation for the third, but he for whom art principles mean nothing, is an art anarchist.
Errors of selection are errors of judgment. A man may choose a subject which is unprofitable and which refuses to yield fruit ; and yet in his effort at reediting its elements he may have shown great skill and knowledge and may have expended upon it his rarest gifts—fine technique and good color. The critic must read between the lines and blame the judgment, not the art. Feeble selection and weak composition will be more easily specified as faults than bad drawing and unworthy color.
To the profession, the epithet " commonplace " weighs heavily against a work of art. Selection of what is fitting as an art subject means experience. The "ungrateful" subject and bad composition are therefore likely to mark the nouveau in picture making—the student fresh from the atelier with accurate drawing and true color and who may be full of promise, but who has become tangled with what the French term the soujet ingrat. Every artist has studies of this sort which contain sufficient truth to save them from being painted over as canvas, and most painters know the place for such—the store-room. Exhibition of studies is interesting as disclosing the means to an end, and the public should discern between the intention of the " study " and of the picture.
Herein lies the injustice of acquiring the posthumous effects of an artist and exposing for sale every scrap to be found. The ravenous group of dealers which made descent upon the Millet cottage at the death of that artist effected as clean a sweep as an army of ants in an Indian bungalow. In consequence we see in galleries throughout Europe and this country many trifles in pastel which are not only incomplete but positively bad as color. Millet used but a few hard crayons for trials in color suggestion, to be translated in oil. Some were failures in composition and in most the color is nothing more than any immature hand could produce with such restricted means. To allow these to enter into any estimate of Millet or to take them seriously as containing his own estimate of art, or as intrinsically valuable, is folly.
The faults of selection may also be open to difference of opinion. " Who would want to paint you when no one wants to look at you ?" said an old epigrammatist to a misshapen man. "Not so," says the artist ; " I will paint you though people may not like to look at you and they will look at my portrait not for your sake but for my art, and find it interesting."
The cult that declares for anything as a subject, its value dependent upon that which the artist adds, stands as a healthy balance to that band of literary painters which affected English art a generation ago, the school of Rossetti, Burne-Jones, and Maddox-Brown, who strove to present ideas through art. With them the idea was paramount, and the technical in time dwindled, the subject with its frequently ramified meaning, proving to be beyond their art expression.
Again, the popular attempt to conceive in pictures that which the artist never expected us to find is as reprehensible in graphic as in musical art. There is often no literary meaning whatever in some of the best examples of both. Harmony, tone, color and technique pure and simple are the full compass of the intention. What this may suggest to the individual he is welcome to, but the glib dictum of certain preachers on art as to hidden intentions would indicate that they had effected an agreement, with the full confidence of the silent partner to exploit him. Beware of the gilt edged footnote, or the art that depends upon it. A writer of ordinary imagination and fluent English can put an aureole about any work of art he desires and much reputation is secured on this wise.
In the presentation of a subject through given pictorial elements, the critic will know whether the most has been made of the opportunity. If the composition prove satisfactory and the theme as presented still fails to move the critic, he must shift from the scientific analysis to those qualities governing the artist subjectively. He is lacking in " temperament," and without temperament who in art has a chance ? With years in the schools and a technique of mechanical perfection he lacks the divine fire and leaves us cold. It is for the critic to say this, and herein he becomes a teacher to public and artist.
The patron who agreed that a picture under discussion had every quality which the salesman mentioned and patiently heard him through but quietly remarked, " It hasn't that," as he snapped his finger, is the sort of a critic who does not need to know the names of things in art. He felt a picture should have snap, and if it did not, it was lacking.
But beyond the presentation of a theme having in it the mark of genius, is that of workmanlike technique. The demand of the present age is for this. If a subject is not painted it will scarce hold as art. Ideas, composition, even color and harmony plead in vain ; the spirit of the times sits thus in judgment.
The presentation also should be individual, the unmistakable sign of distinction. To be able to tell at a glance by this mark puts us on the footing of intimate 'acquaintance. A difference exists between this and the well-known mannerisms of individuals. The latter applies to special items in pictures, the former to the individual style of expression. An artist may have one way of seeing all trees, or the similarity of one picture with another may be because there is only one sort of tree that interests him, or one time of day when all trees attract his brush. In the first case he is a mannerist, in the other a worker in a chosen groove. It cannot be denied that many artists making a success in a limited range of subject consent to stop, and go no further, under pressure of dealers or the public. The demand for specialists has much more reason in science and mechanics than in art, which is or should be a result of impulse.
Corot declared he preferred the low sweet music of early dawn and to him there was enough variety in it to keep him employed as long as he could paint ; but the thralldom of an artist who follows in the groove of a bygone success because if he steps out of it the dealer frowns and will not handle his work, is pitiable, exposing to view year by year the remonitory canvas with such slight changes as newness demands. It would be a healthier sign in art if the press and public would applaud new ventures when it was clear that an artist, thereby, was seeking to do better things and perhaps find himself in a newer vein. But variety in art it is maintained need not come of variety in the individual but of a variety of individuals. So Van Marke must paint cows, and Jacque sheep and Wouvermanns must be told by the inevitable white horse, and have the mere mention of the artist's name mean the same sort of picture every time. This aids the simplification of a many-sided question. The public, as Mr. Hamerton declares, hates to burden itself with names ; to which might be added that it also hates to differentiate with any single name. A good portraitist in England one year exhibited at the Royal Academy a wonderfully painted peacock. The people raved and thereafter he was allowed to paint nothing else. Occasionally it is shown that this discrimination is without reason, as many men rise above the restriction. The Gains-borough portrait and landscape are equally strong, the works of painters in marble, and sculptors who use color, have proved a surprise to the critics and an argument against the " specialty."
There are two degrees in the subversion of the natural fact.
If, for example, under the rule in physics, the angle of incidence being equal to the angle of reflection, it be found that a cloud in the sky will reflect into water too near the bottom of the picture, a painter's license may move it higher in its vertical line; but if the same cloud is made to reflect at an angle several degrees to right or left, the artist breaks the simplest law of optics. The painter's art at best is one of deception. In the first case the lie was plausible. In the second case any schoolboy could have "told on" the artist.
There are good painters who appear to know little and care less for physical fact. Their business is with the surface of the earth ; the whys and wherefores of the universe they ignore, complacent in their ignorance until it leads them to place the evening star within the arc of the crescent moon, when they are annoyed to be told that the moon does not grow from this shape to the full orb once a month. But ofttimes, though the artist may not flout the universe, he shows his carelessness of natural fact and needs the snubbing. It is in this range that the little critic walks triumphantly posing as a shrewd and a discerning one. He holds up inconsistencies with his deft thumb and finger and cries, " what a smart boy am I." And yet in spite of him Rubens, for the sake of a better line in the fore-ground of one of his greatest compositions dares to reconstruct a horse with his head issuing from his hind quarters, allowing the tail to serve as the mane, and Turner kept on drawing castles all wrong.
But these critics have their place. Even Ruskin accepted this as a part of his work.
There are occasions, as every artist will admit, when the artless critic with his crude commonplaces is most welcome.
As to the violator of art principles, his range in art must perforce be short, his reward a smile of pity, his finish suicide. Originality may find all the latitude it requires within the limits of Art Principles.
Ruskin in his principles of drawing enumerates these as " Principality, i. e., a chief object in a picture to which others point : Repetition, the doubling of objects gives quietude : Symmetry develops solemnity, but in landscape it must be balanced, not formal. Continuity : as in a succession of pillars or promontories or clouds involving-change and relief, or else it would be mere monotonous repetition. Curvature : all beautiful objects are bounded by infinite curves, that is to say, of infinitely changing direction, or else made up of an infinite number of subordinate curves. Radiation : illustrated in leaves and boughs and in the structure of organic bodies. Contrast : of shapes and substances and of general lines; being the complement of the law of continuity, contrast of light and shade not being enough. Interchange : as in heraldic quartering. Consistency: or breadth overriding petty contrast and giving the effect of aggregate color or form. Harmony : art is an abstract and must be harmoniously abstracted, keeping the relations of values."
With the above principles of composition Mr. Ruskin aims to cover the field of architecture, sculpture and painting, and he declares there are doubtless others which he cannot define " and these the most important and connected with the deepest powers of art. The best part of every work of art is inexplicable. It is good because it is good."
Mr. Hamerton enumerates the duties of the critic as follows ; " to utter unpopular truths ;' to instruct the public in the theoretical knowledge of art ; to defend true living artists against the malice of the ignorant ; to prevent false living artists from acquiring an influence injurious to the general interests of art ; to exalt the fame of dead artists whose example may be beneficial ; to weaken the fame of dead artists whose names have an injurious degree of authority; to speak always with absolute sincerity ; to give expression to vicissitudes of opinion, not fearing the imputation of inconsistency ; to make himself as thoroughly informed as his time and opportunities will allow, about everything concerning the Fine Arts, whether directly or indirectly ; to enlarge his own powers of sympathy ; to resist the formation of prejudices." The above requirements are well stated for critics who, by reason of the authority of their position as press writers, are teachers of art. As to the personnel and qualifications of this Faculty of Instruction, investigation would prove embarrassing. The shallowness of the average review of current exhibitions is no more surprising, than that responsible editors of newspapers place such consignments in the hands of the all-around-reporter, to whom a picture show is no more important than a fire or a function. Mr. Hamerton in his essay urges artists to write on art topics, as their opinions are expert testimony, a suggestion practically applied by a small group of daily papers in America. Says Mr. Stillman, " No labor of any human worker is ever subjected to such degradation as is art today under the criticism of the daily paper." Probably no influence is more responsible for the apathy and distrust of the public regarding art than these reviews of exhibitions for the daily press. The reader quotes as authoritative the dictum of a great journal, seldom reflecting that this is the opinion of one man, who, with rarest exception, is the least qualified of any writer on the staff to speak on his theme. Such is the value which the average manager puts upon the subject. To review the picked efforts of a year, of several hundred men, a scant column is deemed sufficient. Howsoever honest may be the intention toward these, the limitations render the task hopeless, for all efforts to level the scales to a nicety may be foiled by the shears of the managing editor if perchance another petit larceny should require any part of the space.
So the critic gives it up, mounts a pedestal, waves whole walls, aye galleries, to oblivion, and with the sumptuousness of a Nero, adopts the magnificent background, in the light of which for a moment he shines resplendent, as a gilded setting for his oracles.