Representation Of Human Nature
( Originally Published 1869 )
As the study of human nature is one of the noblest and one of the most important themes upon which the mind can be engaged, so whatever tends to aid us in this exalted undertaking must necessarily be deemed worthy of our attention and our regard. Various as are the pursuits which are resorted to for this purpose, there is none by which human nature is represented more comprehensively and more completely than it is by art, through the medium of which, as upon the surface of a mirror, its entire form is reflected, and the lineament of each feature is faithfully and powerfully portrayed. And it is to the adaptation of art to depict human nature thus fully and fairly, that it owes its high rank among those sublime studies which con-tribute at once to expand and to invigorate the mind. Hence the representation of nature, but above all, of human nature, is the noblest prerogative of art; and that prerogative is mainly exercised in the exhibition that it affords of the characters which distinguish, and the passions which agitate different per-sons. An inquiry into a subject of this high interest must, therefore, necessarily constitute one of the most important of those selected for discussion in the present work.
In the arts of painting, sculpture, poetry, and eloquence, the appropriate and vigorous expression of the characters and feelings of the individuals who are introduced into a composition, has ever been acknowledged to be a matter of the very highest importance, and of the deepest interest. Indeed, on the effective attainment of this purpose, the power and excellence of the whole work must be mainly dependent. In the other arts, however, it is also possible to infuse into their compositions a certain individuality both of character and feeling, in a particular way, as also to represent nature generally, if not human nature, in all its varied features. Music, indeed, equally admits of this with painting and poetry. Architecture, although in another mode, is also susceptible of it. Acting is peculiarly adapted for this purpose. And by costume and gardening it is as fully, although in a different manner effected.
Every character and every passion has its distinct and appropriate expression in nature, which art too has the power to exhibit. The varieties of the countenance are but as so many notes which a skilful musician may bring out, correspondent with the endowments and emotions of the mind. The face, in-deed, is as it were the telegraph, or instrument for expressing the silent language of the soul. Its manifestations should not only be correct as a transcript of the feelings which cause them, but suitable to their own particular kind. Perhaps, in-deed, to a certain extent violent passion destroys individuality of intellectual or moral character, in so far as all men resemble one another when excited in the same degree. The exhibition of character and emotion varies, however, not only as regards its intenseness, but as regards its quality.
The aim, therefore, of a great painter or sculptor will be not only to represent the outward form and countenance of the man, but by such representation to afford an idea of his inward character and constitution. The outward delineation with him is not an end but a means. His success in the latter is tested only by his attainment of the former ; he portrays in reality not so much the body as the soul.
But in order to paint mankind properly, we must understand human nature thoroughly. As a knowledge of anatomy is requisite to enable us to delineate the figure correctly; so a knowledge of the working and operation of the soul is requisite to enable any one to describe character and passion with truth and animation. To capacitate us to touch the chord skilfully, we must be well acquainted with the instrument upon which we intend to perform.
To move the passions effectively, it is therefore essential that the representation be true to nature. At no time, indeed, has nature so entirely her full and free sway, as when a man is excited by passion. The shackles of society are at least then thrown off, and the bonds of formal etiquette burst asunder.
This important branch of art is, consequently, one which has ever met with the fullest consideration from all those who in each department have attained the highest rank. Raphael, who, among painters, stands pre-eminent, as regards the high and intellectual nature of his performances, is as I have already observed, particularly remarkable for the great attention which he paid to this subject. In poetry, Shakspeare, so justly styled the poet of nature, is also principally to be noted for his extra-ordinary skill in the apt delineation of the character and passions of the persons he describes.
On the other hand, it must be admitted that one great defeat in the works of many modern artists is the want, in fact the entire absence of all individuality and particularity in the character of the leading persons represented, sufficient to de-note with any certainty the especial being intended to be portrayed.
It is remarkable, indeed, that while so much time and attention and study have been devoted to the anatomy of the limbs and figure, and the attitudes which they assume ; so little pains should have been taken to observe and to delineate correctly the anatomy of the face, and the variety of character and expression manifested through the features, in which the quality and operations of the soul itself are reflected, and the portrayal of which is the noblest and highest attainment by far which can be reached by art.
One circumstance which has perhaps led people to suppose that the ancient masters in painting, in the development through their countenances of the character and feelings of the persons represented by them, were more ideal than those of the present day, and copied less from nature without selection or discrimination, is, that from their living in a country different to our own, the features of the persons delineated vary extensively in their general expression from those we every day see, although probably quite of the same cast with those which they were in the ordinary habit of beholding. This is especially the case with Raphael and with Rembrandt ; and it is also applicable to the sculptors of ancient Greece.
A character may, indeed, be either real or ideal. A real character is such as actually existed in nature, in some individual man. An ideal character is such as never existed in nature, but is supposed to belong to some imaginary human being. Or an ideal character may be to a certain extent real, as containing a general representation of human nature at large. This combination of the real and the ideal is the highest effort of art. Human nature is here not only described truly, but is in many instances exalted, and indeed perfected.
In the delineation of character, especially in epic composition, while the ideal should derive life and nature from the real, the real should in turn derive dignity and sublimity from the ideal.