The Study Of Beauty In Nature And Art
( Originally Published 1913 )
THE life of appreciation is a unity; to touch one aspect of it is to influence the whole. An awakening in personal love deepens One's response to the beauty of nature, as is indicated even in the conventional allusions of poetry to the lover wandering pensively in wood and field. The same experience influences the religious life: it is no accident that the majority of "conversions" occur in the period of sex awakening, nor does this fact in any way discredit the religious experience. So all cultivation of response to beauty, when in right relation, deepens the 'capacities in love, in aspiration toward the moral and religious ideal and in recognition of truth. Herein lies the importance of educating response to beauty. We can by conscious effort cultivate this aspect of the life of appreciation and so deepen the whole.
There are the two worlds of beauty—Nature and Art ;yet we might reverse the titles : nature is God's art; and art is man's highest nature. Each of these has its own superiority. In nature the identity of content and form is so wonderful that beside it human art seems painfully stumbling and inadequate. This union of the soul of meaning with the body of expression in a flower, for example, is perfect to the point that it may sound strange to speak of the two elements as present. So the flaming dawns and golden sunsets, the somber forest and melody of the pines—all seem to be the serene flowing forth of the divine mind into harmonious expression. Even
"Vague outlines of the Everlasting Thought
The artist can but stand in awe-struck admiration before this fusing of idea and expression in the matchless art of the Eternal Hand.
Even more significant is the fact that nature is alive with ever-changing beauty. The greatest of landscape paintings can fix but one mood of nature in statical form, while in the world without, from he flush of the dawn, through the growing splendor of the morning, on to the beauty of the late afternoon, the apocalypse of the sunset and the night with its calm, shining stars, the single day pours out an in-exhaustible wealth of beauty, changing each instant of time. The greatest portrait painter—a Titian, S Rembrandt, a Raphael—can paint but one of the actual or possible expressions of the face, fixing it permanently. The countenance of the humblest of us is alive, constantly changing, played upon by the ever-varying light and shadow, freshly revealing character in each of the manifold expressions f a single hour. Even literature, with all its power to portray life in action and relation, seems a poor echo in contrast to the vast, multiform maelstrom of life.
The harmony or identity of form and content in nature gives a wonderful healing power for th spirit of man. No human art, not even Greek sculpture, has this power in equal measure. Goethe shows this ministry of Nature in the scene which begins the second part of his supreme work, where Faust, before entering upon his career in the larger world, is healed in the calm, sweet Lethe he finds on the breast of the Nature mother. This ministry is experienced in all our response to the beauty and sublimity of nature, and it is impossible to exaggerate its value for the mod-ern spirit.
At least equally significant is the exalting power of the living beauty of nature over the spirit, lifting us away from the submerging stream of events that surges by us each day, giving calm perspective and inspiring to sane action. Wordsworth said of one of his characters:
"Love had he found in huts where poor men lie;
Emerson exclaimed in a fragment of verse that might be taken as the motto of his life:
"Teach me your mood, O patient stars !
To such an exalted mood the beauty of nature may lift us, giving memories that lessen the weight of many a burden and lighten the struggle up many a stony path. With this, how it widens our relation to the great universe that stretches away, giving steady growth in power to see and appreciate.
Since the contribution to our lives may be so great, it is most important to receive it fully. The need is to put ourselves in the way of enjoying the beauty of nature. Just because it is given so lavishly and universally, we are apt to ignore it and fail of its gift; yet the inexhaustible fecundity of nature is but the measure of our opportunity. Let us enter into our heritage of beauty, given everywhere in seas and forests, gray moorlands and purple mountains, daisy-dotted meadows and brooks flowing through leafy nooks, rosy dawns and starlit nights—just to enjoy it is the main, requisite.
Opportunities for appreciation are not enough, however. It is possible to live close to Nature, and yet be blind to her beauty. Indeed, constant utilitarian association may dull the aesthetic response. It is not always the Swiss peasants who appreciate most consciously the beauty of the Alps. They love them, and usually come back to them, from keeping shops in Italy or restaurants in Lon-don ; yet the cultivated traveler, who comes and goes, may respond far more keenly to the beauty of the mountains. Nature is so vast and overwhelming that we are bewildered by the very wealth of beauty poured out. We need to study consciously this beauty, to isolate from the multitude of forms, mastering one fragment after another, for the sake of deepening subsequent spontaneous appreciation.
Let one get acquainted with a tree one passes every morning; see it in the flush of the springtime, wakening to the garment of soft green; in the full tide of the luxuriant summer with the dark green foliage and cool shadows; in the autumn when, as you pass some mornning, the flash of gold and crimson is across its boughs, as if some transfiguring hand had touched it with the caress of death; then watch it day by day as the color spreads, fades to dimmer hues, until the brown leaves fall in whirling gusts under the gray sky, and the bare arms are outlined like lace-work against the somber heaven; on to the white sleeping time of the winter: and you find such loving appreciation of one aspect 2f nature is a doorway to the whole world of beauty.
If you have walked in the fields with an artist, you were doubtless surprised, the first time, at colors to which he called your attention. You did not see them, and came home feeling that these artist folk were strange persons, but to be tolerated for what they achieve. Go again and again, and you discover that the colors were there all the time ; it was merely that your eye had to be trained to see them. Perhaps your artist friend carried a little glass into which he occasionally squinted, arousing your curiosity. You inquired what it was, and he replied, "a reducing glass," the opposite of a magnifying glass. It merely pushed the landscape away and framed it, yet how magical the effect ! Such an aid is not needed by the sea or from the mountain top, where Nature sets the picture away and frames it with the sky; but when one is looking down the village lane, at the straggling buildings across the road, or through the avenue of trees, the reducing glass shows one a wealth of colors and beautiful forms which were there all the time, but not seen consciously until one's relation to the picture was slightly changed.
Some time when you are in the country, upon a slight elevation, try the experiment of bending over and looking at the world upside down. You will be amazed at the colors you see and the fresh beauty of the forms. The landscape is unchanged; it is merely that the position of your eyes in relation to it is reversed; and thus the blurring of the impression by habit, is replaced by the shock of a new relation and the consequent stimulation of the attention.
The first time one goes to London one is impressed with the terrible weight of life, the sordid materialism, the ugly, utilitarian, smoke-stained buildings. Let one climb to the top of a great omnibus and go bowling down Ox-ford street, and the whole impression is trans-formed. One sees the long vista of the street softened with misty light, the structures on either hand picturesque and transfigured with the dreamy atmosphere, the whole scene lifted to the world of ideals and dreams. Why? Merely because one has been lifted a dozen feet from the sidewalk, and a fresh point of view obtained. These devices merely indicate how one may freshen one's reaction, deepen one's appreciation, and so by conscious study enter the kingdom of beauty.
Conscious reception is not enough; there is need, too, of expression. A hazy notion be-comes a clear conception only through expression. When a student says that he knows but cannot tell, the statement is partly false. The fact is, he does not clearly know until he has told in some form. Intellectually and artistically nothing is truly our own until we have given it away—expressed it in some form; and that is why spiritual things grow by sharing them.
Thus one needs to give some expression of one's response to the beauty of nature. That is the value of comradeship and conversation with a friend. That also is the value of drawing and painting as taught in the public schools.. There are those who imagine that we hope to make artists of all the children: we neither hope nor fear that one child in a hundred will become an artist, but we do hope that all the other ninety-nine, as well, will learn to see something more of the forms and colors of things by trying to express them.
You may say, "We are not artists, and our education lacked this opportunity." There is one art, nevertheless, open to all. It is the universal art of our own language. If one will write out the impression made on one by the unusual sunset, the sweep of mountains, the peace of the forest, such a book of thoughts and impressions will be a great means of growth in appreciation, as well as an interesting record of one's experience.
This conscious study is wholly for the sake of appreciation. Were we to stop with the conscious analysis, it would be worse than useless; but as a means to subsequent synthetic appreciation it becomes a great help in enabling us to enter into our heritage.
If Art must lack the identity of content and form present in Nature, and if, in contrast to the living revelation of beauty in Nature, it seems fixed and inert, Art has, as we have shown, a correlative greatness of its own. The soul in Nature is dumb and brooding. It is indeed "Vague outlines of the everlasting thought" that "lie in the melting shadows as they pass" ; and these vague outlines are translated to clear expression only through human art. Contrast the inchoate, if spheric, music of the pine forest, with the ordered melody and harmony of a Beethoven symphony; the brooding beauty of the French nature world, with its clear interpretation in Corot, Millet and Bastien-Lepage; the bewildering maelstrom of human life, with Hamlet, Macbeth, Faust and the Divine Comedy. Remember that only through concrete expression is the abstract idea mastered, and that Art, by putting life and nature through the transmuting medium of the artist's spirit and appreciation, reveals their meaning. Thus, in its own ways, Art goes beyond and above Nature, with an excellence of its own.
Thus there is in relation to Art, as to Nature, at least equal need that we give our-selves daily to the enjoyment of beauty. That usually we have so little is due, not mainly to lack of opportunity, but to failure to use the opportunities that lie close at hand. I recall an experience in going to visit for the first time the museum of art in one of our greater American cities. It was necessary to pass down a main thoroughfare, where high board-fences had been erected before some building operations. The boards were covered with flaming posters, advertising some particularly sensational vaudeville, and the crowd gazing upon them was so great that one had to walk in the gutter. I came to the gallery: there was no crowd there ; the hollow echo f one's footfall alone broke the stillness. Yet here was a Corot as characteristic as anything in the Louvre. On one side, the painting contained a dark mass of trees, in the foreground the characteristic group of dancing figures, over all the subtle depth of atmosphere, with a wealth of yellow dawn lighting coming in from behind. In the next room was Millet's Shepherd Returning with his Flock: the sheep huddled together, their backs touched with the red light of the setting sun that hung lurid, just above the horizon; before them the shepherd—a tattered cloak about him, heavy wooden shoes upon his feet, the crook in his hand, and in his face that pathetic hunger, of which Millet's social idealism made him the great interpreter; while all about the desolate moorland stretched away.
Near by was Munkacsy's Bringing in the Night Rovers: an early morning street scene, with groups of common people—an old woman selling carrots, a girl returning from market with a basket on her arm, a little child going to school; in the center the prisoners and guard—in the foreground f these a rude giant, the massive figure in tattered cloak, a look of dumb hatred and rebellious gloom in the face. I need not multiply descriptions; a dozen other great paintings were there, not to mention the admirable reproductions of masterpieces of sculpture; yet the museum was almost vacant. The same experience can be repeated in almost any city. I have noted that even in Boston, many of the persons visiting the museum and the paintings in the public library have to ask their way about the city when they leave.
Everywhere the same fault is evident—failure to enjoy opportunities that are just at hand. So with music: each of us has friends with some proficiency in that art; and it is true we do ask them to play or sing when we give an evening's entertainment; yet there is not one of them who would not rather play or sing for you alone, because you love music, than be used as polite fringe on your dinner party, where the guests present are not even courteous enough to stop talking and listen to the music.
Of all the fine arts, literature is the most accessible. Whatever limitations one may suffer under, in opportunities for the enjoyment of sculpture, painting and music, the noblest achievements in literature are everywhere available. The great books of all time lie on the table in your own room for use in that margin of life that most persons so sadly waste. Indeed, as with the beauty of nature, the very accessibility of literature blinds us to its value. Thus here, even more than with the other arts, failure to enjoy beauty is one's own fault.
Still, with art as with nature, opportunities for spontaneous appreciation are not sufficient. Here, too, without training and cultivation, we often make sad work of it. How many per-sons are only confused and bored by great music, and go to hear it merely because they think it is socially the thing to do. So with painting and sculpture: consider the average American abroad, who spends an occasional free hour "doing" a gallery—a phrase as offensive in expression as it is pathetic in meaning. One sees the groups of tourists surging through the gallery, from room to room, and one wonders whether the result can be other than a confused blur of impressions, while one blushes for one's countrymen. Even with literature, careless reading and whimsical response are more frequent than sound appreciation.
No, opportunities to enjoy beauty are not enough; with art, as with nature, there must be added the conscious study of beauty for the sake of subsequent appreciation. Thus when one enters a new gallery of paintings, instead of wandering through, and blurring one impression with a hundred others, let one select two or three great works and try to master them. Ask questions of the painting. Why did Corot bring the dawn lighting in from behind? What do the dancing figures add to the impression of the whole? What is the value of the atmosphere? Why are the trees grouped at one side? What was the artist attempting to do in this painting? What is its relation to the actual nature world?
So with the Millet painting described above: What is value of the stretch of moorland? What did Millet mean by the look of weariness and dumb hunger in the shepherd's face? What is his aim in the painting? What is the relative value of nature and the human elements in it? What gives it beauty?
A little of such earnest, first-hand study, and the pictures begin to fall into place: one soon becomes aware of the definitive characteristics of different schools and separate artists; and one enters into one's heritage, as is impossible through the most extended reading of criticism and history of art.
With music, such study is more difficult, just because music is evanescent, and thus those who do not possess the peculiar musical memory find a composition difficult to recall. The more reason for hearing a great composition over and over again. Your musical friend, whom you ask to play for you, tells you he has nothing new. Tell him you are glad, that you did not want novelty, but music; and listen again and again to a composition until you have made it your own. Study what it does to your senses and emotions, analyze its themes and motives, its harmonies, study the artist's method and purpose. Through a little of such analysis one's subsequent enjoyment of music may be immeasurably deepened.
Again the accessibility of literature makes such study peculiarly possible and valuable in that art. To choose a single significant ex-ample : let one take the little volume compiled by Palgrave-the Golden Treasury of Songs and Lyrics; let one go through it poem by poem, analyzing the structure, diction and imagery, studying at every point the relation of forms of expression to the content of thought, feeling and imagination, noting the molding influence of artist and epoch; and one will find that the whole wealth of world literature has been opened to one and given new beauty and meaning.
Finally, not less than with nature, does the student need to give expression to his experience with art. By recording carefully the impression each great work of art makes upon him, the student learns to master his own experience and fix and clarify the receptive life. Such study of beauty, carried on for a little time each day, will give one the heritage of both nature and art beyond one's highest expectation.