Defective Education Of Artists
( Originally Published 1869 )
In the preceding sections I observed that the main deficiency in the works of painting and sculpture in the English school, consists in the want of mental power and vigour in describing the scenes they portray, and rendering them at-tractive as intellectual performances which could afford gratification to persons of genius and cultivation, independent of the manual dexterity and skill which they evinced. Now it cannot be denied that this deficiency in intellectual merit of the original productions of the English school, which largely exists, arises mainly from the defective education which is usually afforded to our artists, with whom the imparting mechanical skill in their profession, and a general knowledge of the theoretical principles of beauty and grace, are deemed all-sufficient ; while the refinement and elevation of the mind, and storing it with ideas of grandeur and beauty, appear to be regarded as superfluous and wholly unnecessary, and quite beyond the sphere of their attainments; and thus they never in fact advance beyond the first rudiments or grammar of their art. Hence also it is that their imagination is contracted; and in their general notions of the picturesque, instead of elevating and improving they fall below the generality of those around them of ordinary education.
The study of the works of the great writers of antiquity, so as to obtain a true perception of the mode in which they described the various characters and scenes that they depicted with such dignity and force, and by which their minds would become stored with ideas of grandeur and beauty, ought to be an essential part of the education of every artist who aims at original conception.
The exploring too and pondering over the wonders of nature, —the glorious masterpieces which she herself has produced,—in the sublime and enchanting scenery of the Alps and of Italy, would be of infinite use in this respect to artists in whatever walk. At present, however, the sordid amount of remuneration which is afforded to our painters, will hardly admit of a very liberal and costly education being bestowed upon them ; and those who have been so fortunate as to be thus instructed, seek a field for turning to account their acquirements in some profession where better hopes of liberal recompense are held out.
The ancient masters, whose great works possessed such high and such intellectual merits, were eager in the cultivation of their minds by polite literature and poetry, as they were also in the study of the Book of Revelation, where the noblest descriptions are to be read, and which, the more any one is refined and enlarged by polite learning, the more he is capacitated to admire. Indeed, if the mind of the artist is well cultivated, and amply stored with rich ideas, this is certain to manifest itself in the productions of his hand, which, as regards the intellectual developments that it achieves, draws upon the head. On the other hand, if the mind is barren of ideas, this will be sure to be displayed in the poverty of the producetions of the hand. As a bramble cannot bear figs, nor a thistle grapes, so an uncultivated person cannot possibly produce works of imagination; nor, one void of noble sentiments, representations of either grandeur or beauty.
Those painters who have been the greatest as regards the intellect which their compositions displayed, were remarkable also for general vigour of mind. Indeed, in the case of the most eminent and intellectual of the artists of old, such as Raphael and Michael Angelo and Leonardo da Vinci and Rubens, we see men who possessed at once superior skill in the mechanical part of the art, which they had perfected by judicious and constant practice; while their minds had been also cultivated to the full, and their vast powers completely developed, not only by artistical but by general study. Hence, the latter gave birth to the noblest conceptions, while the hand was prepared to obey the impulses of the mind, and to convert into substance what the other had shadowed. This I hold to be the real secret of the excellence displayed in the works of the ancient masters.
By the artists of ancient Greece, their poets and philosophers were well studied; Phidias formed his idea of the Olympian Jupiter from the lines in the first book of the Iliad,' in which the poet so sublimely represents the majesty of the god. His mind was also highly cultivated by all the literature and science of the day.
An artist in each department should be, moreover, not only highly cultivated, but should be well read in the book of nature, and, above all, of human nature. He ought not merely to be an observer of men, but in order to be so fully, should be himself a man of the world. As a warrior, who goes forth to wage war against a foreign State, should be acquainted not only with the strength of his own forces, but with the weak points of the enemy; so the artist in whatever walk, whose works are intended to attract and captivate mankind in general, should not merely be well acquainted with the principles and capabilities of his art, but with the turn of mind and habits of thought and disposition and character of those on whose minds his productions are intended to act.
Among the followers of art in ages gone by, many of their noblest performances, especially those from the sacred Scriptures, were composed under a strong religious feeling, which sank deep into their minds, and animated and impassioned them, and which they imparted to the productions on which they were engaged. This was particularly the case with Michael Angelo, as it was also with Milton, accompanied moreover with high intellectual cultivation. The disposition in question had a corresponding effect on the mind with inspiration itself, in elevating and invigorating it. The strongest passions and emotions were thus rendered subservient to the highest ends. Indeed to conceive of, and to describe adequately, whether on the canvas or in verse, great religious subjects, the artist himself must have a mind animated with a deep religious feeling.
It is of course impossible that noble and sublime compositions should be produced by those who are destitute of noble and sublime conceptions. And even to appreciate nature fully, a large degree of intellectual cultivation is required. Mer e mechanical knowledge of his art can no more make a great painter, than the capacity of writing a, fair and legible hand can make a great poet.
As in literary composition feebleness and indistinctness of style are more often owing to want of knowledge and adequate conception of the subject than to deficiency in mere rhetorical power ; so in painting, the feebleness and want of expression and vigour with which many subjects are depicted, are far more owing to a want of adequate conception of the design, than to any defect in the manual capacity to execute it.
He who would be a great painter, must, moreover, include in his studies not only the anatomy of the figure, but the expression of the face ; and not merely so, but the workings of the soul by which this expression is caused. Mere mechanical skill in painting is but one out of many qualifications for making an artist, as dexterity in rhyming or fluency of utterance contribute but little to constitute a great poet or orator.
Architecture and acting suffer also from the defective education of those who professionally follow them, and whose minds require to be generally cultivated and refined in order to practise their art in a manner which will enable them to attract persons of a high intellectual standard. To architects especially is extensive mental cultivation essential both to discipline the taste, as also to exalt and ennoble the mind, and to store it with that historical and classical knowledge which is necessary to enable them to proceed correctly in the production of great and original performances in their particular art. So also with regard to costume and gardening. Taste in costume should at least be regulated by those of refined minds; although the manual operators in the art be not thus endowed. Gardening, indeed, has the advantage of having its efforts generally directed by persons of cultivated taste and of liberal education. Hence the pleasure-grounds of our nobility and men of affluence afford the most perfect examples of art in this department. Among the Chinese, where gardening ranks high as a national art, those manually employed in this pursuit are men of extensive information, and rank among the followers of an intellectual profession. They are usually persons who have enlarged their minds by foreign travel, and improved their natural taste by the study of scenery of different kinds. So also in music as well as in painting, we often find considerably more taste, though perhaps far less dexterity in manual execution, displayed by amateurs than by professional persons, on account of the superior mental cultivation of the former.