Rise And Progress Of The Arts.
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
THE THREE AGES OF ART
IN the two chapters immediately preceding the present, I endeavoured, first, to inquire into the origin of art in general, by investigating the capability of man for such a pursuit from the constitution of his nature, and the faculties for this purpose with which his mind is endowed. In the second place, I proceeded to trace out the mode in which different arts were invented. We have now to follow the process of artistical vegetation a step further; and having ascertained the manner in which the plant makes its first shoot, we must watch its progress as it rears its head above the soil, expands its leaves and extends its branches, and assumes that mature form in which its appearance is productive of intense admiration and gratification to every beholder.
The history of art comprises, indeed, the intellectual history of the world, more especially as regards its imaginative efforts, and the development of its taste and its genius,—the most important and interesting of all the various departments of history.
Art, like man, has its different periods or ages of infancy, childhood, youth, vigour, and decrepitude, each of which are characterized in both cases by some peculiar qualities or features, and to which I shall refer in the course of the present chapter.
The ages of art may be, however, most aptly divided, as regards the illustration of its rise and progress, into the main periods of—l. Infancy. 2. Manhood. 3. Old age.
Man varies so essentially at the several periods of his existence, as to be almost another being ; so diffèrent as to powers, both intellectual and physical, and, indeed, of every kind, is the youth from the infant, as also from persons of advanced age, But art varies not less in each of the three ages of its career, as regards the nature and extent of its different capacities, adaptations, and powers; and each of these ages of art, moreover, possesses a peculiar and distinct characteristic of its own. This will be fully and satisfactorily evinced as we pursue the subject of this chapter, and proceed in the examination of the rise and progress of each of the arts, during which they necessarily pass through these successive stages. This is true of all the arts alike, although some may exemplify it more plainly than do certain other of the arts.
Painting, more especially, may be considered to have three stages of life, which have been divided into :-1. The period when it is merely and strictly imitative. 2. The period when we improve or correct nature, as it has been somewhat pre-sumptuously termed. 3. The period when we form ideal subjects from general nature.
The earlier efforts in art of each kind evince at once the infancy of the art, and therewith also very often that of the nation itself in which it is progressing. Art, although not entirely dependent upon, is always more or less influenced by the condition of the people among which it exists, more especially as regards the comparative state of civilization of such a country ; and in its turn it more or less reflects or exhibits, and also influences that condition.
It is in their infancy, (as I have pointed out in the preceding chapter) that the arts most resemble each other, and are the nearest connected together. Even those which at a later stage seem the farthest apart, and to possess merely a very remote connection, are then not only perceived to be much alike, but they appear almost identical. Eloquence and poetry, as already remarked, are at this time hardly distinguishable, and music is generally united with the latter. Painting and sculpture are also followed together, the rude figures of that period being coloured. Nevertheless, many arts which were at first, as it were, blended together, eventually become not only distinct, but so absolutely independent that their former connection is hardly perceptible.
The progress of the different arts in a nation greatly resembles and bears strict analogy to their advancement in each individual mind. The child is early delighted with pictures of various objects in nature, and as he advances in years effects them rudely, but gradually improves and acquires skill in the art, as he cultivates his taste for this pursuit. He is here dependent in the first place on his own genius, which both impels him to follow art, and directs him in it ; and in the second place, on the teachers from whom he receives instruction, and who exhibit to him models of art from which to improve his own notions. In architecture and sculpture, too, the youth is induced to try his skill, and makes attempts here. Music also he very early endeavours to practise, and, if his genius lies in that direction, poetry also. The puerile at-tempts of individuals in the latter art are not at all unlike rude efforts during the infancy of a nation. The proneness of children to indulge in mimicry, or at all events to copy the manners and habits of those about them, has already been pointed out as the source of dramatic acting. As the nation or the individual advances, he is directed as regards the general progress, the peculiar character, and the particular style of each art, by its own taste and character on the one hand, and the external influences which act upon it on the other. Thus Shakspeare was influenced in part by his own genius, in part by his early associations, his first studies, his visit to London, and his subsequent experience of the world. In the same way art in England has been influenced in part by the situation of the country, in part by her climate, the genius of the people, the Roman, Saxon, Danish, and Nor-man Invasions, her continued intercourse with Rome, France, and Germany, and the importation of foreign artists and works of art.
The arts, however, resemble man not only in their infancy, but in old age also ; like man they appear to have a period of second childhood, and the imbecile efforts of decayed taste are as destitute of energy and spirit as are the early attempts at development made by art. There is, nevertheless, this essential and extensive difference between infancy and old age, both in art and in man, that while the one is susceptible of every new impression, the other is not only dull in this respect, but loses those already communicated.
Thus the arts, like nations and like individuals, have each their different periods of infancy and manhood, of growth and perfection and decay. In each case also, particular causes influence in various ways their rise and their decline.