Infancy Of Art
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
The strict analogy between the condition of man, both individually and in the aggregate, during infancy, and that of art, which is the product of the mind of man, is at once obvious ; and the nature of the one serves forcibly to illustrate that of the other. Art, like man, during its infancy, is feeble and inert as regards both its frame and its capacities. As it advances into childhood it gradually grows robust and vigorous; but it requires cultivation for the development of its powers, and direction to regulate its progress. During its youth it increases alike in vigour and in refinement, attains perfection in maturity, and in old age relapses into imbecility. So the mind itself, from which art originates, appears during the infancy of the body to be but feeble and immature. The soul, although created perfect as regards its power of action, and although capable of future advancement as regards the extent of that power, is unable to exert itself with vigour on account of the imperfect development of those material organs through which it acts. Just so is it in the case of works of art, which are the offspring of the mind, and the tasteful qualities of which constitute the spirit of the performance, that while the art is in its infancy, these high qualities are not developed from the want of mechanical appliances to effect this end. Or, as in the case of a plant just shooting above the ground, although it appears imperfect and unformed, yet all the leaves and branches of the future tree are contained in that infantine sprout. So in the case of early efforts in art, there are inherent in them, though at present undeveloped, all the principles of beauty and grandeur, and all the tasteful qualities which will at a future stage be made manifest. In the case of juvenile productions, whether during the infancy of art itself, or during the youth of the artist, the judicious and practised eye will without difficulty, at a glance, and as it were intuitively, discern the difference between the efforts of real but untutored genius on the one hand, and the tutored and strained attempts accomplished by discipline without genius on the other.
During the infancy of any particular art which is founded on a sustaining medium, the latter performs the part towards such an art that the parent tree does towards a sapling sprouting from it, nourishing and supporting it until it has acquired an independent root, and a vigour of its own. The art as it advances, gradually separates itself from, and becomes more and more independent of its sustaining medium, which on its first invention formed an essential part of it ; moreover, during the early stages of art, the sustaining medium is in many cases the only portion of it which is fully developed. The ornamental part, which is the flower of the art, and which alone constitutes the art itself, is but in the bud. At such a period, indeed, even the sustaining medium itself is frequently but in a very imperfect condition. It is not, therefore, to be wondered that the art of which it is the foundation should be correspondingly incomplete. At this period, too, the precise and proper mode of the application of the ornamental to the useful has not been discovered ; and in many cases the practical pursuit on which the art is based, is, through the want of scientific as well as of artistical skill, so little understood, and so rudely followed, that the art is wholly unable to develope itself.
Reference has so frequently been made to the condition of art during its early stages, in the preceding pages, that it is hardly necessary now to describe more fully than is here done what that condition is, beyond stating that it is the period when art is first brought into life, when its frame is feeble and its growth immature, and the powers that it afterwards exhibits are as yet undeveloped. The most important circumstance, however, as regards the infancy of art, is that, although then comparatively insignificant as a pursuit, it is, nevertheless, then brought into a state of actual and vital existence, which, however inert and feeble, may form the basis of its future progress,—a point from which it may proceed on-wards to an indefinite extent according to circumstances. It thus becomes established as regards its real being, and acquires a fulcrum on which may rest the lever of all its future movements.
The arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture, in the earlier periods of their infancy, are, as I observed in the pre-ceding chapter, for the most part imitative, possessing but little beyond tilt mere power of rudely and very incorrectly copying or representing the forms of certain objects in nature, which for our amusement or our actual use, we endeavour to reproduce, without, however, attempting to render them in any way ornamental or graceful, so as to excite pleasurable emotions from their tasteful qualities. Architecture at such a period consists, indeed, as we have seen, in the simple imitation of certain structures existing in nature.
The arts of poetry, eloquence, and music, as I remarked in the last chapter, are in their earliest stages rather ideal than imitative, and it is as they advance to maturity that they be-come more imitative, that their power of imitating nature is more clearly developed. What exists or has been invented of the art of dramatic acting at this period, consists rather in occasional rude mimicry of the acts of others with some specific object in view, than in reducing this art to any system or regular vocation. The art of costume is then in a very barbarous condition, and has not, indeed, advanced from a practical pursuit; although the application of ornament to dress, in a wild uncouth fashion, is perhaps one of the earliest efforts to which the taste of the rudest savage would direct him. Probably one of the first attempts in the art of gardening, would be the training in some regular order of the shoots of the trees or shrubs which grew near the humble hut, or transplanting there those flowers which proved congenial to the owner's taste.
Infancy in art is, indeed, in many respects, strictly analogous to that in nature. In both cases, many powers are at that period undeveloped, although they actually exist in the being. And as among mankind persons resemble each other most during infancy, and also in the earliest stages of society; so is it that the arts during the first stages of their progress most assimilate to each other, and are most nearly connected. And as genius developes and displays itself in the mind of a child, so does it also in the very infancy of art.
Before art was understood, and its extensive powers were known, artists had recourse to brilliant decorations, such as bits of gold and silver, and precious stones, for adding effect to the picture or. statue. At a later period, in its decline, when its real principles appear to be as little understood, or have been almost lost sight of, resort is had to tinsel ornament, false glitter, and gaudy colour, which are really as childish and as out of place in all genuine art.
The stiffness and formality observable in, and so characteristic of the productions in painting and sculpture at an early period of their growth, are no less characteristic of the compositions, at a corresponding period, in gardening and ornamental ground designing, and serve to mark the relation between these different arts. In both instances alike nature was departed from, and the modern improvement of the style has served not to violate, but to restore nature.