Examples In Early Art
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
The most complete illustration of the condition of art at this early period will, however, be afforded by reference to examples produced at this time, and by an examination of the qualities with which it was then endowed.
The art of painting, when first invented, and during its infancy, consisted, as we have seen, in its simplest form, merely in tracing or copying the outline of a shadow ; although after a little practice, colour was added, which was very rudely laid on, and served to give to the picture much the same appearance as dead colouring, or an indifferent representation in mosaic work possesses, making no attempt at shading or chiaro-oscuro, but laying on merely the colours themselves,—thus, however, imitating as far as their skill would enable them, the objects they designed to copy. Ancient paintings of this description are still preserved in some of our public libraries and museums.
In the design of pictorial representations of this order, it is very seldom that any pretensions to refined or tasteful poetic feeling are displayed. Indeed, when this is found in any of the performances of such an age, they will generally be discovered to be the productions of foreign artists, who chanced upon particular occasions to be employed, and who belonged to a nation where the arts were in a more advanced state. The grouping of the figures does not appear to have excited much attention, and there is no attempt at grace and_ beauty in the drawing; the proportions are generally very incorrect, and perspective is altogether disregarded.
In early efforts in sculpture, even after the art has advanced out of its infantine condition, the performances are usually very rude, and bear close relation to these in painting, as regards their composition and their deficiency in refinement and feeling. A grotesque and but very imperfect imitation of the figure is all that is for a considerable period attained. Imitation, indeed, seems to be the only object aimed at ; the figures are stiff and quaint, the posture is ungraceful, and the expression is wild and unnatural ; beauty, grace, and effect are entirely lost sight of.
Rude and uncouth descriptions of works of art during the middle ages, corresponding in character with those works, are to be found in some of the contracts respecting their execution contained in the histories of art of that period. Works of art were then bargained for and measured out, and indeed executed as mere pieces of furniture, and were so regarded ; and in fact thus only did they deserve to be considered. It happens indeed with works of art as with individuals themselves, that they will generally be treated pretty fairly according to their character and qualities, and the real merits they exhibit. If works of art are altogether destitute of intellectual excellence, and can be estimated only as articles of ornament, they will be bought and sold as such; when they rise to the rank of intellectual efforts, they will be so considered. Here and there, however, at the early period alluded to, some refinement will be displayed; and grace and beauty and grandeur are occasionally exemplified in these compositions. Taste and imagination and genius are not, indeed, confined to any particular age, and belong not to one period more than another, although they are more easily exhibited at one time than they are at another ; and whenever the full capabilities which an art may effect are discovered, and the mechanical difficulties which may impede its progress are overcome, its powers will at once be developed and actively exerted.
Genius exists in all ages alike, although at different periods it is, according to circumstances, exhibited in a very different manner. But it is perceivable as clearly in the wild songs of the Indian, or in the ingenious carving and rich workmanship of his hand, as in the studied and refined lays of a highly civilized age, and the finished sculpture and ornament with which the dwellings of an advanced people may be adorned.
Even among the Greeks, where works of art were ultimately carried to the highest perfection, their early efforts in painting and sculpture and architecture were rude and misshapen, and exhibited but little taste or knowledge even of the first principles of art, although great labour was bestowed upon them. In the early age of each of the arts, this rudeness is alike discernible; and in the career of each, the progress is the same from infancy to maturity.
During the first stages of art, the power of producing a correct representation of any figure was regarded as the ultimate object of painting and sculpture. Ignorant and narrow-minded people seem, indeed, now to deem their object to be no higher.
Poetry, as I observed in the last chapter, is originally considered to speak the language, and is in fact the child of our passions or emotions ; or rather, the warm expressions excited by these feelings, gave rise to the invention of poetry as a means of embodying or putting into a regular or set form these expressions. In its earliest efforts, therefore, it is but in a slight degree imitative. It happens, however, that when poetry has been thus invented, it is soon applied for other purposes beyond those of exciting in our minds particular emotions; the composition of it becomes a regular art or study; its cultivators acquire a habit of writing without endeavouring to excite our feelings ; and regularity in the rhyme, and close attention to the metre, are frequently regarded as constituting the essence and the excellence of the art, while nature and the expression of passion become neglected. Hence it is that certain early specimens of poetry consist of little more than dry barren recitations, put into rhyme, and are destitute altogether of passion or beauty.
Many of the Saxon efforts in poetry in this country appear, however, not to have been even divided into verses of a determinate number of syllables, nor embellished with rhyme. Examples of attempts of this kind, both in poetry and in eloquence, may be found in some of our ancient chronicles.
Specimens of early English poetry are afforded by the following lines from the ancient poem of " Sir Cauline," which in their rude vigour and boldness and force of expression nearly correspond with analogous efforts of the same period in painting and sculpture. Their very uncouthness gives to them an air of wild grandeur.
" A hugye giaunt stiffe and starke,
" Before him came a dwarffe full lowe,
Considerable fire and energy are contained in the following lines from the song on the victory at Agincourt achieved by Henry V., which were probably composed soon after the event had occurred : ----
" Owre kynge went forth to Normandy,
" Then went owre kynge, with aile his oste
" Then for sothe that kyzt comely
As I before remarked, although passion was the originator of those strong expressions and ejaculations which produced poetry, in order to give vent to these feelings ; yet it cannot be correctly said that poetry itself was the immediate offspring of passion, however the vehement strains which preceded and ultimately produced it, may lay claim to this paternity; and therefore the earliest examples in this art are not characterized by any of the qualities which distinguished its primitive efforts.
The attempts at music, like those of poetry, among rude and uncivilized people, were wild and irregular. But in every nation, however uncultivated, some taste for this art, and some effort to follow it, have been evinced.
Even among the savage islanders of the South Seas, who are the lowest in the scale of civilization, a rude drama has been observed, in which a common event in life was imitated for the sake of amusement; and among the Hindoos, plays were known long before they could have borrowed anything through foreign communication. They possess, moreover, a rich dramatic literature of very great antiquity. The Chinese also have their standing national drama.
Eloquence was, however, probably the earliest of the arts, and sprang up coeval with the exhibition of passion. Figures of speech, and metaphor, and vigorous expression were resorted to as soon as language was formed. In the primitive ages of the world, eloquence was dignified by being called the language of the gods.
Examples of the art of costume have been afforded among the most savage tribes, who have decorated their dresses with the tawdry feathers of birds, and with shells and glittering stones, without much regard, indeed, to taste; but showing, nevertheless, that the principles of taste, sufficient to stimulate them to render their dresses ornamental as well as useful, had actuated them.
Of gardening, probably but few examples beyond what I have referred to in the preceding section will be found among people in a rude condition, or in a very early state of society. Nevertheless, the stiff formal style, so little in accordance with what we see in nature, which has been occasionally adopted in the art of gardening and laying out grounds, not only among the ancient Greeks and Romans, but also at an early period of the progress of this art in this country, and before the true principles of taste have been fully applied to it, or were even themselves generally understood,—is closely analogous to the following of the same style in other arts widely different from this as regards the nature of their material, and is a forcible illustration of the connection subsisting between them each, however apparently remote from one another.