Art Theory - Disposition Of Groups
( Originally Published 1869 )
The same principles which are applicable for our guidance in the distribution of the different figures in a composition are also applicable to the distribution of the different groups. And as in figures the principal one takes the lead, and all the others are subordinate to it; so among groups there is in a corresponding manner a principal one to which the other groups are subordinate. Here also, as in the cases already mentioned, nature is the best and the surest guide, and affords the fullest example both of the observance of this principle, and of the advantages resulting from its due observance.
Indeed, in the disposal of groups as well as in the arrangement of figures, nature exhibits a variation at once infinite and astonishing ; and this she effects moreover in those groups which might be expected on a calculation to appear the most monotonous and unvaried. Thus, in the disposal of the starry firmament, where each object out of thousands closely resembles the other alike in shape and colour and general appearance; such is the arrangement of the different planets and groups and clusters and constellations, that the utmost variety is produced.
It is, however, further to be observed that in nature the principle of perspective, which at once of itself causes a considerable apparent difference in size of many figures and groups, according to their respective relative distance from the eye, greatly conduces to assist in her this variation. Many objects which when viewed together appear exactly similar, by the effect of perspective seem totally different. Distance, moreover, has the effect of changing the appearance of objects not only as regards their size, but their shape and colour. In compositions in painting and bas-relief, where all the groups are equidistant from the eye, we must copy the effect produced by nature as the result of perspective. In sound, distance occasions also a variation or modulation, the effect of which must be imitated in music, analogously to the mode in which perspective is availed of in painting.
The limbs of a figure are to the figure what the figure itself is to the group, and the group itself to the whole composition.
The precise mode of regulating the disposal of figures and groups in a composition, is beyond the scope of the rules of art. This principle must necessarily vary according to the nature of the particular composition, or the mental capacities of the composer. Not only should each figure in the composition further the general design, but each attitude and expression and form and gesture should contribute to the uniform result of the whole; and the very shape and character of the limbs should ac-cord with and conduce to add effect to the form and expression of the features. The contortions of the body should, as it were, echo or shadow the character displayed by the countenance, as the latter must be supposed to reflect the emotions of the soul.
In the painting of the 'Last Judgment' by Michael Angelo, the various groups collected in it, although each bearing their part in the whole design, appear as distinct and independent, and consequently as capable of disposition, as the individual figures themselves ; and therefore admit as fully of the principles here enunciated being applied to them. This is also equally the case with groups of figures or buildings or trees in a landscape. But in every case, however independent each group may appear, it should contribute to aid the general effect of the composition.