The Picture Sense
( Originally Published 1903 )
" FORTUNATE is he, who at an early age knows what art is."
How so ever eloquent may be the artist in his work, it is convincing only in that degree to which his audience is prepared to understand his language and comprehend his subject.
"The artist hangs his brains upon the wall," said the veteran salesman of the National Academy, and there they remain without explanation or defense. The crowd as it passes, enjoys or jeers, as the ideas of this mute language are comprehended or confounded. Art requires no apology and asks none ; all she requests is that those who would affect her must know the principles upon which she works. An age of altruism should be able to insure to the artist sufficient culture in his audience so that his language be under-stood and that his speech be not reckoned as an uncertain sound. The public should form with him an industrial partnership, not in the limited sense of giving and taking, but of something founded on comprehensibility.
What proportion of the visitors to an annual exhibition can intelligently state the purpose of impressionism, or distinguish between this and tonal art ; what proportion think of art only as it exploits a " subject" or "tells a story"; how many look at but one class of pictures and have no interest in the rest; how many go through the catalogue with a prayer-book fidelity, and know nothing of it all when they come out ! How many know enough to hang the pictures in their own houses so that each picture is helped and none damaged ?
Could it be safely inferred that every collector of pictures knows and feels to the point of giving a reason for his choice of pictures, or even reason-able advice to a friend who would also own pictures ? Is not much of what is bought taken on the word of a reliable dealer and owned in the satisfaction of its being " all right," and perhaps " safe," as an investment ? Is it unreason-able to ask the many sharers in the passing picture pleasures of a great city to make themselves intelligent in some other and more practical way than by contact, gleaning only through a life-time what should have been theirs without delay as a foundation; and to exchange for the vague impression of pleasure, defended in the simple comfort of knowing what one likes, the enjoyment of sure authority and a reason for it.
The best of all means for acquiring art sense is association; first, with a personality ; second, with the product. The artist's safest method with the uninitiated is to use the speech which they understand. In conversation, artists, as a rule, talk freely, and one may get deeper into art from a fortnight's sojourn with a group of artists than from all the treatises ever written on the philosophy of art. The most successful collectors of pictures know this. They study artists as well as pictures. But on the other hand must it not also be conceded that acquaintance with fine examples of art is in a fair way of cultivating the keen and intelligent collector in the pictorial sense to a degree beyond that of those artists whose associations are altogether with their own works or with those who think with them, who must of necessity believe most sincerely in themselves and who are thus obliged to operate in a groove, and with consequent bias. For this reason association should be varied. No one has the whole truth.
Music scores a point beyond painting, in necessitating a personality. We see the interpreter and this intimacy assists comprehension. But howsoever potent is association with art and artist, one may thus never get as closely in touch with art as by working with her. The best and safest critic is of course one who has performed. Experts are those persons who have passed through every branch and know the entire "business."
The years of toil to students who eventually never arrive are incidentally spent in gaining the knowledge to thus know pictures, and though the success of accomplishment be denied, their compensation lies in the lengthened reach of a new horizon which meantime has been opened to them.
Whether the picture be found in nature and is to be rescued, as is the bas-relief from its enveloping mould, cut out of its surroundings by the four sides of the canvas and brought indoors with the same glow of triumph as the geologist feels in picking a turquoise out of a rock at which others had stared and found nothing; or whether it be found, as one of many in a collection of prints or paintings ; or whether the recognition be personal and asks the acceptance of some-thing wrought by one's own hand—to know a picture when one sees it—this is art sense. Backed by a judgment presenting a defense to the protests of criticism, it becomes art knowledge.
To find and preserve pictures out of the maze of nature is the labor of the artist : to recognize them when found, the privilege of the connoisseur.
The guileless prostrations which the many affect regarding art judgments evoke the same degree of pity as the assertion of the beggar that be needs money for a night's lodging when you and he know that one is awaiting him for the asking at the Bureau of Charities. The many declare they know nothing about art, the while having an all around culture in the humanities, in literature, poetry, prose composition, music, æsthetics, etc. The principles of all the arts being identical, how simple would it be to apply those governing the arts which one knows to what is unknown. The musician and poet make use of contrast, light and shade, gradation, antithesis, balance, accent, force by opposition, isolation and omission, rhythm, tone-color, climax, and above all unity and harmony.
Let the musician and him who knows literature challenge the work of art for a violation of any of these and the judgment which results may be accepted seriously ; and yet the essence lies beyond —with nature herself. It is just here that the stock writer of the daily paper misses it. He may have science enough, but lacks the love, the revelation through communion.
But, with this omitted, critical judgment is safer in the hands of a person of broad culture, who knows nothing of the tools of painting and sculpture, than when wielded by a half-educated student of art with his development all on one side. Ruskin warns us of young critics.
As a short cut, the camera fills a place for the many who feel pictures and wish to create them, but at small cost of time and effort. A little art school for the public has the small black box be-come, into which persons have been looking searchingly and thoughtfully for the past dozen years. To those who have thus regarded it and exhibit work in competition, revelations have come. Non-composition ruins their chances. Good composition is nine-tenths of the plot. When this is conceded the whole significance of their art is deepened. Then and not until then does photography become allied with art, for this is the only point at which brains may be mixed with the photographic product.
Any one who has experienced a lantern slide exhibition of art, where picture after picture follows rapidly and the crowd expresses judgment by applause, will not long be in doubt what pictures make the strongest appeal. The " crowd" applauds three types; something recognized as familiar, the " happy hit," especially of title, and, (not knowing why) all pictures, without regard to subject, which express unity. The first two classes are not a part of this argument, but of the last, the natural, spontaneous attraction of the healthy mind by what is complete through unity contains such reason as cannot be ignored. Subjects of equal or greater interest which antagonize unity fall flat before this jury.
There is no opportunity more valuable to the amateur photographer than the lantern slide exhibition, and the fact that even now no more than ten or twelve per cent. of what is shown is pictorially good should provoke a search for the remedy.
For the student, to fill the eye full of good compositions and to know why good, is of equal value with the study of faulty composition to discover why bad.
The challenge of compositions neither good nor bad to discover wherein they could be improved is better practice than either.
This is the constant exercise of every artist, the ejection of the sand grains from his easy running machinery.
Before photography became a fashion it was the writer's privilege to meet a country physician who had cultivated for himself a critical picture sense. The lines of his circuit lay among the pleasantest of pastoral scenes. Stimulated by their beauty it became his habit, as he travelled, to mark off the pictures of his route, to note where two ran together, to decide what details were unnecessary, or where, by leaving the high-way and approaching or retiring he discovered new ones. After a time he bought a Claude Lorraine glass. It was shortly after this purchase that I met him. His enthusiasm was delightful. With this framing of his views his judgment grew sensitive and as he showed these mirrored pictures to friends who rode with him he was most particular at just what point he stopped his horse. The man for whom picture galleries were a rarity, talked as intelligently upon the fundamental structure of pictures as most artists.
" I buy the pictures of Mauve," remarked a clergyman in Paris, " because he puts into them what I try to get into my sermons ; simplicity, suggestiveness and logical sequence."