Examples In Each Art
( Originally Published 1869 )
We must now advert to some of the leading examples afforded in illustration of each of the foregoing principles together and in the aggregate, by the different arts, in addition to those already cited in the previous sections, as also in the other chapters of the present work.
The arts as regards their different operations so far as they have been treated on in this chapter, appear to divide them-selves into those which are descriptive, those which are narrative, and those which are suggestive only. They may be further divided into those which describe or narrate active scenes, those which describe or represent scenes which are passive, and those which describe or represent scenes of a mixed character. As regards this latter division, poetry, eloquence, and music, appear mainly to be comprehended under the first class; architecture, costume, and gardening, under the second; and painting, sculpture, and acting, under the third.
We have an excellent, and indeed perfect illustration of the principles both of composition, and also of narration and description, in the picture by Poussin, in the Bridgewater gallery, of 'Moses Striking the Rock.' The principal person in the scene, who is of dignified office and character, and who is deemed worthy of being the immediate agent of Providence in this great work, is marked out as of superior aspect and demeanour to the rest ; he is endowed with a considerable degree of grandeur in his appearance, and at once strikes the eye as the leading figure in the picture. To add to the effect of this particular individual, most of the others are turned towards him, and serve to point him out as the chief object in the group. The artist has also enhanced the dignity of the above personage, by placing him rather on an eminence, as is also done in the figure of St. Paul, in the cartoon which represents him 'Preaching at Athens.' The attitude of Moses here, who is in the act of striking the rock, at once and alone serves to denote what particular individual he is intended to represent.
The subordinate characters in the picture are described in different postures, and as engaged in various actions. None of them possess that dignity with which the principal figure is endowed, but they all contribute, by their attitude and demeanour, admirably to narrate the history of the event there depicted. The fading eye, the shrunk form, the haggard and deathlike expressions of some, show the agony they had endured; while the postures of repose in which they are reclining, denote the feeble and exhausted, and, indeed, almost dying condition to which they had become reduced. The rapturous eagerness with which others rush to taste the water, serves to tell us that the want of that has been the cause of their suffering, and that its appearance was sudden and unlooked for. The amazement and awe depicted on their countenances evince that the event was deemed miraculous ; and the adoration of others, that they knew they were indebted to Providence for their deliverance.
The remaining parts of the picture are all made to assist in the narration, and nothing which is introduced destroys the unity in action of the entire representation. The background, or landscape, exhibits a dreary desert. As a whole, this picture relates in language the most affecting and powerful, the wonderful event of which it is the subject.
In poetic description and narration, we may observe how gradually we are led on to the transaction ; every attendant circumstance which could give effect to the subject is introduced, and the different objects are minutely described. In the following account by Virgil, who was one of the greatest masters in this art, of the " Death of Laocoon,"* we cannot but be struck by the vigour and the power with which the whole scene is portrayed. The ocean, the first appearance motion and colour of the serpents, the actions and feelings both of Laocoon and of his sons, are forcibly described, and the vigour of the narration is greatly heightened by apt compari-sons. On the other hand, in the representation by sculpture of this event, only a very limited portion of the narration de-tailed by the poet is attempted, and the figures of Laocoon and his sons entwined by the serpents, are all that are introduced into the scene. Yet the description in sculpture strikes our minds as effectively, if not more powerfully than the narration of the poet, inasmuch as it appeals more directly to the senses, instead of to the imagination and the judgment. We seem to behold the agonizing forms, and the writhing serpents, really present before us.
It is not often that we see motion successfully represented in sculpture ; but this is not so much owing to the direct inaptation of the art for this purpose, as to the want of skill in the particular artist. Statuary is in reality not more motionless than painting. A picture is as inanimate and as still as a statue. The efficiency, therefore, with which a work in sculpture imitates action, depends entirely on the peculiar degree of dexterity possessed by the person who applies the materials for this purpose. There are instances of moving figures being as correctly represented in sculpture as in painting, for examples of which we may appeal to the group of ' The Laocoon,' but above all to those most perfect specimens of art in this branch, the Elgin Marbles. The appropriate and various attitudes of different living figures, and the position of the drapery in which they are clothed, are the most efficient elements to depict motion in sculpture. The latter is peculiarly available for this purpose ; and, indeed, in nature, we judge of the motion of drapery more by the figure that it assumes than by actually seeing it move. Action of different kinds, repose, and death,—indeed, description and narration generally,—are as fully portrayed and effected by sculpture as by painting.
In compositions and descriptions, both in poetry and eloquence, great skill is evinced by seizing upon those ideas which strike the mind most forcibly, and by vividly exciting them by means of the narration. The extraordinary success of Spenser in this respect, I have already adverted to in the previous chapter, and the examples there given may suffice for illustration here. In this department, Homer very highly excels, alike as regards the vigour with which his delineations are effected, and the accordance with nature which they ever maintain. And he also possessed, to a high degree, the art of giving life and animation to the different characters that he introduces. This appears also to have been the great forte of Sterne, as we may perceive in the following sketch of ' The Captive,' which serves admirably to illustrate my theory, and where the ideas of the ghastly form, the pining features, and the haggard looks of the wretched being, together with the various melancholy objects about him, are called forth in a very striking manner. Here also vital action is represented, as well as its opposite, repose; and the ideas of what is past and prospective are also excited. Death in the approach is moreover shadowed.
"I took a single captive ; and having first shut him up in his dungeon, I then look'd through the twilight of his grated door to take his picture.
"I beheld his body half wasted away with long expectation and confinement, and felt what kind of sickness of the heart it was which arises from hope deferred. Upon looking nearer, I saw him pale and feverish, in thirty years the western breeze had not once fanned his blood ;he had seen no sun, no moon, in all that time ;—nor had the voice of friend or kinsman breathed through his lattice !
"His children ---
" But here my heart began to bleed ;—1 was forced to go on with another part of the portrait.
" He was sitting upon the ground upon a little straw, in the furthest corner of his dungeon, which was alternately his chair and bed : a little calendar of small sticks were laid at the head, notched all over with the dismal days and nights he had passed there ;he had one of these little sticks in his hand, and with a rusty nail he was etching another day of misery to add to the heap. As I darkened the little light he had, he lifted up a hopeless eye towards the door, then cast it down—shook his head, and went on with his work of affliction. I heard his chains upon his legs, as he turned bis body to lay his little stick upon the bundle.—He gave a deep sigh.—I saw the iron enter into his soul!"
Music is, as has been observed, peculiarly adapted for description and narration : indeed, so obviously is this the case, that it is unnecessary here to point out its entire suitableness for these important purposes, or the application to this art of the foregoing principles. It is eminently fitted also for the representation of action, especially of the most exciting kind, such as tempests and battle-pieces. Handel's oratorio of 'Israel in Egypt' affords ample illustration here.
In dramatic acting the narration is effected, as in poetry eloquence and music, by the actual motion of the agents en-gaged in the description; so that it is these operations in reality, instead of the representation of them, that we witness. Each of the principles already enumerated in the fore-going sections, may be advantageously applied more or less here.
In costume, although literal description or narration may not be attained, yet by the ideal, or rather emblematical representation which it presents, many ideas may be forcibly called forth or suggested to the mind; as some costumes are, as already observed, peculiarly fitted for action, such as martial costume ; others for quietude or repose ; and some, such as mourning costumes, are emblematical of death. Another important consideration in the case of costume, is the freedom that it allows to the natural motion of the limbs, and other pliable parts of the body, the regulation of which may be said to correspond in this art with the principle of action in painting and sculpture.
Gardening appears in every way fitted rather for the representation of inaction than action. But even here, as regards the scenes it is capable of typifying or suggesting, especially those of quietude and repose, many of the foregoing principles may be rendered applicable. Indeed, with respect to the varying prospects which a composition in landscape-gardening displays, the exhibition of them may be deemed somewhat analogous to the description and narration of successive scenes by certain of the other arts. On the whole, how-ever, it is obvious, as already remarked, that in architecture costume and gardening, the narration and action can only be symbolical instead of real. These arts reflect merely, in the place of directly representing the transaction or idea to be portrayed. Thus, the Tower of London may be regarded as symbolically descriptive and narrative of the many tragic and historical events which it has witnessed, and of the various remarkable actions that have been performed within its walls ; as is also the case with many of our noble cathedrals and castles, renowned alike in the page of history, and for the splendour of their structure. The several suits of antique armour and costume contained in our different feudal edifices bring back to our recollection events and actions during the period of their use. In a corresponding manner, too, the gardens and grounds of our ancient palaces, serve to recall to our minds the various memorable occurrences which are inseparably associated with their history. In this respect, their language, like that of pictures, although mute, is both eloquent and universal.