Deviations From Nature, When And How Far Defensible
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
Nevertheless, it may sometimes happen that a departure from literal fact in the description or representation of a real scene or transaction in nature, may not only be warranted upon principle, but that under proper limits it may in certain cases serve to convey a more adequate and complete, if not exact and strictly accurate idea of it than a precisely correct and literal representation of it could afford. Indeed, in many instances, by this means alone can a really true and ample genuine ac-count of the subject be rendered. Thus, in a drawing of a landscape, a portion of which is disfigured and indeed distorted by an unsightly modern building, it will be quite correct to omit this object, which although essentially as much a part of the scene as the rocks and rivers, yet its presence only violates nature, while its abstraction creates no imperfection in the actual prospect, which is in all respects as true a representation of nature without it. So also a ruin or a tree may sometimes be introduced by the artist, which, although not to be perceived at the exact point of view chosen, yet its entire omission would occasion a greater departure from the truth as regards the general representation of the scene, than does the variation in its position so made. Thus also in historical composition in painting, incidents may be brought in which, although not really occurring at the precise moment represented, yet their omission altogether (which can only be avoided by so bringing them in) would be a greater violation of truth than this partial departure from the actual event. So, too, in a poetical description, detached independent transactions which contribute nothing in the way of sentiment or feeling to the tale, but rather detract from its effect in this respect, may fairly and correctly be omitted, although they constitute an essential part of the transaction considered as matter of literal fact. Extreme caution and a severe exercise of the judgment are, however, required whenever such a liberty with nature is to be taken.
Many study art in preference to nature, because art is regarded as the interpretation of nature. They will not take the trouble to read her in her original language. Good works of art form indeed the best interpretations of nature, and are most valuable as interpretations. But reading her in the original, is ever the most profitable. Ideas drawn from works of art which obtained them from nature, instead of being drawn from nature herself, are like copies of pictures instead of pictures from nature, and want the freshness and vitality which always per-tain to original productions. It is from copying from art which few understand, instead of copying from nature which all can appreciate, that the works of many artists are not generally more admired than they are.
No art can atone for the want of nature in art. No amount of extravagance can compensate for the vigour which nature infuses into works of art animated by her spirit. Nature, in. deed, affords the real standard of perfection for art.
Some artists copy nature not as a whole, but only one particular feature or quality of her; and while many fail in emulating nature, some few, as I have lately pointed out, are presumptuous enough to attempt to go beyond her. They fancy themselves fitted not only to copy her excellences, but to remedy her defects. We ought indeed not to follow art alone, nor nature alone, but to blend the two together : to observe nature, but to see her through art : to adapt the rules of art to the imitation of nature, and the principles of nature to the formation of works of art.
Not only, however, should nature be followed, but the best parts of nature. A selection should be made not merely of the choicest scenes, but of the choicest points, and the fittest periods for their representation.
Nature may indeed be varied from in individual representations, but never in the general description of her. The actual position of an object may be portrayed as different to what it is, but not as different to what it would be without violating the laws of nature. Although her principles must ever be followed, the application of them maybe diversified. By the proper observance of this rule, representations of nature by art may be made to appear superior even to what the same scenes are in nature.
Nature should, however, not merely be studied and consulted generally, but at every point and stage of our proceedings, and to some extent, perhaps, even in our mode of working. From nature not only should works of art be designed, but by nature they should be corrected, and by this alone be tested.
The progress towards the imitation of nature is not only continual but infinite. To encourage us on our course in this direction, it should, however, be borne in mind, that through her dominions lies the only sure road to perfection in art of either kind.
Although nature should ever be faithfully followed, yet when the supernatural is to be represented this principle must of course be modified. Even here, however, nature is not to be departed from, but should be accommodated to the exigencies of the case. What is termed the grand style, although it may apparently vary from nature as regards the portrayal of common objects, yet it implicitly obeys her principles as regards the production of the grand, and by obeying them attains those sublime effects which it achieves. Its success indeed here is really owing not to its neglect of nature, but to its so closely following her.
The inability to represent nature may often be the best proof of the limitation of our artistical powers. Some, however, have been successful in the close imitation of nature, but have effected this in one quality only, as a painter in colouring or outline, while his deficiency in other respects has marred the general effect of his whole work. But as in nature so in art, while certain objects and certain points are to be prominently brought forward, others ought to be kept in the shade. When we copy art, we copy defects as well as excellences. When we copy nature, we are relieved from having actual defects to copy. We should, however, be careful that it is real genuine nature which we follow, and not an artificial representation of her.
The opinions of the vulgar and illiterate, and above all, the unbiassed, unsophisticated, and unshackled taste and discernment of children, on works of art, whose minds are as yet free from the prejudices of fashion and error, are often of the utmost value, as genuine indications where propriety has been deviated from, and may be regarded as the voice of nature herself tenderly and truthfully responding to our candid inquiries.
An intimate friend of that highly gifted statesman, the late Sir Robert Peel, who was greatly distinguished for his taste in collecting works of art, once told me that, before deciding upon the purchase of any picture, he was in the habit of taking his children to look at it, and of attending carefully to their criticisms upon it, in order that he might observe whether, in the opinion of these fair and impartial, but keen-sighted judges, it duly and correctly represented nature as she really appears.
In the revision, moreover, of our own works of art, considerable use may be made of the senses and the discernment of others, of our foes as well as of our friends, and of our inferiors in point of acquirements and age, as well as our equals. Any defect, or omission, or incongruity, will at once strike them, however it may have escaped our vigilance ; and they will be more ready than we could be both to discover and point out these errors, having no filial partiality to close their eyes or their mouths. The criticisms of our foes may, in this respect, be turned to our own advantage, and the more acute and searching they are, the more valuable may they be rendered.
Hardly any subjects or objects strike different people in the same way, who view them with different organs, and in whom they excite very different emotions, and induce very different conclusions. Even we ourselves vary in our opinion about the same matter, and the same work of art, according to the point from which we survey it, the light in which it is placed, and the state of mind in which we happen to be at the time. This difference of opinion about different works is as natural as, and is indeed a necessary consequence of the difference in taste, and feeling, and judgment among men. Each person ought to be quite free, inasmuch as each may possibly be quite correct in giving his own opinion, according to the premises before him, and the influences exercised upon his mind. All this proves the folly of one man trying to control or to coerce the sentiments of another.
It is also both more easy and more satisfactory to test our own works by the criticisms of other people, than by the mere comparison of them with other works of art. In the latter case, we are too apt to be swayed by partiality, and we may more-over, possibly, be as blind to the merits of other people's performances as we are to our own deficiencies. In the former case we must, nevertheless, be cautious that we do not suffer our own judgment to be overruled by a too great deference to the opinions of others. We should decide with the calmness and impartiality of a judge between the two conflicting arguments, and strive to enunciate truth out of these inconsistent and contradictory statements.
Nature should always be studied as she is in her purity by nature; not as she is seen when adulterated by art. Works of art founded on the principles of nature, like the elements of nature, endure for ever. The best representation of nature is very often by concealment of art. Indeed, art never seems to be nature but when it is concealed. The study of nature should, however, be as varied as are the features which nature presents. Art should moreover imitate, not only the vigour, but the animation of nature ; and in the representation of nature by art, she should be neither fallen short of nor over-done.
As already observed, individual nature should not so much be imitated, as general nature resorted to from which to form a standard of perfection. Thus the ideal springs from the imitative. And to the august tribunal of nature must all the rules of criticism be referred. In some cases direct accordance with nature will be the only true test of right or wrong. Nature will ever be found to be the best corrector, not only of art but of nature as well. The ancients delight us by their imitation or rather following of nature, in this comprehensive manner, and by presenting to us a representation not merely of individual but of general nature.