Nature The Only Faultless And Perfect Model For Art
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
As all art originates in, so it all terminates in nature. The painter, and indeed the poet, may literally find sermons in stones, in the study of the hues and tints and shapes of rocks and mountains, and excellence in everything. No object, indeed, ought to be without its use to the artist in either walk ; but, as already remarked, by nature is only meant nature as she is found untainted by fashion, or unswayed by artificial restraint. Expression and attitude should be copied from the actions of life, not from the performances of the stage. When we apply art to direct nature, we desire that nature should seem to be nature still, and should not appear to be controlled by art, but to owe all to herself. The obvious interference of art will be apt to create a blemish, while the independence of it presents the most perfect condition. This is seen especially in gardening, but in all the other arts it is equally perceptible.
In this one sense all the arts alike are imitative, in that they all imitate nature as regards following her principles, and being guided by her style. An artist should moreover be acquainted with nature, not only as regards copying her forms and manner, but should have a knowledge also of her practical operations ; should be a man of science, of general information, and of the world; should have experience of life and of society, as well as of art, if he aspires to paint man ; indeed, of all the branches of nature with which it is most important for an artist to observe and to represent closely, human nature stands pre-eminent.
Art ought ever to be subservient to nature, although art should at the same time, and consistently therewith, direct nature and correct it in its development. This is the case alike in painting and eloquence, in acting and in gardening. Nature alone should appear, but art should aid nature in appearing to the greatest advantage. Art, nevertheless, should ever be concealed, like the bones and muscles that sustain and move our frames, which, although lying hid, give all the force to the body that it possesses. The perfection of art is to appear as nature; the perfection of nature is when it is corrected by art.
Addison observes that works of nature are often more agreeable to us the more they resemble those of art; but the pleasure in this case may proceed, not from the resemblance to art, but from art by its resort to regularity and harmony having improved, or rather corrected nature. Thus in a landscape painting the effect is occasionally aided by supplying objects in the composition, such as a tree or an animal, which did not actually exist in the real scene. Moreover, nature in its luxuriance will sometimes run into extravagances, the curtailment of which by art is not so much the alteration as the restoration of nature. A tree clipped and formed into a uniform shape is a displeasing, unsightly object; while one whose branches run wild, and are straggling about in all directions, is almost as devoid of real beauty. The most perfect form is that where, by the aid of art, these redundancies are removed, but the natural shape of the tree is still preserved; and this is the legitimate result of the application of art to nature.
There is, nevertheless, sometimes considerable doubt and perplexity in the mind of the artist, even the careful and ad-miring student of nature, whether he shall copy her as she is, or represent her as it seems to him that she ought to appear. In the one case, he follows nature more strictly, but in the other he may describe her more truly ; for it is to be borne in mind that he has not the power of imitating exactly what he sees. He can only produce an impression corresponding with it ; and this is very often better and more efficiently attained by recreating the image, and conveying its general effects, than by merely copying servilely, and which he can but feebly and imperfectly accomplish. He must, moreover, depict nature not only as she appears to him, but as his picture will appear to others.
Many paintings and poems are true to nature, and correct as regards their mode of operation, but are entirely destitute of all poetic feeling, or power of appealing to the mind or the passions. To these the principles of delineation only, and not those of the picturesque, have been applied. Some paintings and poems, on the other hand, possess this latter quality, but are not true to nature, or correct as works of art. This, on the other hand, has been owing to the neglect in their case of the principles of delineation, while those of the picturesque have been regarded. The right course is to render these performances at once true to nature and correct in design, and at the same time effective and powerful in appealing to the mind. The principles both of delineation and of the picturesque should be observed and applied, and observed and applied together in the same work of art, in order to render it perfect. In the one case we have, as it were, a sound body animated by a feeble mind; in the other case a deformed body, within which is a vigorous soul. Our chief aim should be to appeal with force to the understanding, but to do this through nature. Nature and art will thus mutually aid the vigour of the composition. The powerful mind will be enabled to exert itself the more efficiently from being placed in a healthful frame.
There are, moreover, two distinct kinds of excellence which excite admiration in works of art, and which command the homage of two entirely different classes of observers. These are natural excellence, or truth in imitating nature, which all persons can, although not to the same extent, appreciate ; and artificial excellence, which artists mainly though in very different degrees, admire. On many accounts, however, a perfect understanding of nature, as it is acquired through a cultivation of the mind by art, is necessary in order to estimate excellence of the former kind, although without natural taste a person will never effect this ; and in the latter, a true acquaintance with nature as well as with the principles of art, is essential. The two species of excellence are, however, quite distinct, and many may perceive the one who are entirely blind to the other. The man who is possessed alike of cultivation and of natural taste can alone fully appreciate both; and this is the case in all the arts alike, and equally so.
Artists of each kind differ also essentially in the two following points :—as to the manner and the accuracy with which they view nature as she is ; and as to the manner in which they are able to represent what they see and feel. Artists, moreover, differ as much in the one as in the other of these endowments ; and on the one as much as on the other are they dependent for their success. Upon their powers and feelings of each kind do they also depend for the operation and the success of both these efforts.
Nature is so far superior to art, that every actual departure from nature deteriorates, instead of improving a work of art. It is, indeed, a singular and striking test of the perfection of nature, as displayed in her landscape scenery, that any deviation in copying her, as regards her essential characteristic features, constitutes a defect in exact proportion to the extent of that variation. According as the artist fails in correctness here, will his performance proportionally fail in grandeur, beauty, and effect.
In a design in art we seek to imitate nature, not merely as she is in her ordinary aspects, but by selecting from her such examples of excellence as may render the composition, although only a work of art, superior to what we actually see in nature. Here, however, it is not nature that is rendered perfect through art, but art through the aid of nature. No work of art should be regarded as a complete model of itself; nature alone should be looked up to as the model. Works of art should be used only as beacons, and rather as warnings than as examples. Nature only is to be obeyed; art is merely to be consulted. The one is to be our guide, the other our monitor. We may be led by nature ; we are but to inquire of art. Nature should be followed and copied. Works of art should be studied, and not imitated; but nature is to be imitated through them. Rules, too, when they are resorted to, are to .be availed of, not so much as a pilot by which to steer our way, as a signal to guard us against danger.
The great and real advantage to be derived from studying the works of others, beyond that of studying the works of nature, is not that thereby we are enabled to copy their style, but that by this means we derive hints both for general improvement and for correction of errors. Hence, nature only is to be copied. Art is only to be observed. Thus it was that Raphael studied Michael Angelo, and improved his own style thereby. Thus also Virgil studied Homer ; and Milton both these great poets. The effect of artistical models so used may indeed be important, and may lead to an entire change of manner and style, but only in the way that I have mentioned.
A great genius will not be content merely to imitate nature, but will strive out of her elements to form new combinations of original ideas. A man of no genius will be content not only not to originate out of nature, but to copy only from art.
As in designing a picture the most eligible course is to copy nature, but to correct it by the rules of art; so the best master to study under is nature, from whom the purest precepts and the most perfect examples as to each department are to be gathered, and those who have studied her most attentively have attained the highest rank. But even in studying nature, art should ever be resorted to, not to correct any deficiencies of nature, but to aid our deficiencies in studying her.
In certain cases, for the sake of giving vigour and animation to a design, nature, instead of being followed, is, to a limited extent, departed from, or rather modified. Effect and expression are infused which do not actually exist in nature ; just as we see in a landscape, a tree or figure introduced which are not really to be found there, but whose presence is requisite to give vigour, and beauty, and spirit to the scene. Or in portrait painting even, on the same principle, lineaments are supplied to features in order to add to their grace but to which the living original could lay no claim. In these instances, however, al-though nature is varied from, nothing actually contrary to nature is effected. In poetry and eloquence, nature is completely followed, by giving full expression to the real thoughts and feelings of the soul. An orator of genius will appeal to nature ; one who is made by rule, to the artistic education of his audience.
The Elgin Marbles owe their effect to the imitation of nature ; but it is not to this alone that they are indebted for their excellence. Nature is here strictly observed, but she is also raised and perfected. Nature is the foundation of all that is accomplished here ; while on that foundation a sublime structure is erected which towers from earth into the regions of heaven. The Elgin Marbles are in sculpture what Homer is in poetry.
Even in architecture, nature is to be followed, and is to be allowed to regulate the general principle of the design, which should ever be in accordance with nature, although nature may not be there imitated strictly. But widely as architecture, especially in the later stages of its career, may appear to di-verge from nature ; yet, as it owed its invention to the imitation of nature,* so at each period of its growth do the traces of its resemblance to its progenitor ever and anon manifest themselves, and become more and more developed as its age advances. Consequently during even the most advanced periods of this art, nature should be closely followed, if not literally copied, in the due observance of proportion, and variety, and harmony, and with regard to all the different principles of de-sign. Thus also with respect to music.
Both in epic music and in epic painting, as well as in the lower departments of these arts, may a close imitation of nature be effected, not only without detracting from the dignity of the design, but such may considerably conduce to the vividness, and power, and energy of the whole composition, as has been actually achieved in some parts of Handel's `Israel in Egypt,' more especially in the `Hailstone Chorus,' and in the choruses descriptive of the plagues of frogs and of flies, and of the rushing of the waters on the destruction of the Egyptians.
As regards the effect of musical instruments themselves, it is probable that the singularly melodious tone and harmony of the organ, above all other instruments of this kind, arise mainly if not entirely from their exact accordance with nature in this respect, more especially as regards the easy and apparently natural flow of its notes, in which there is no appearance of effort or force. Although it imitates no particular sound in nature, yet in its general mode of producing its music it closely resembles nature in general.
Of all the arts, however, that whose principles especially require to be regulated by nature, is costume ; and it is here that nature affords the most perfect model as regards both colour and form, and the harmony and variety which should be here maintained, in the chaste and beautiful manner in which these are ordered and arranged, whether we refer to the clothing of the hills in landscape scenery, the foliage of the trees, the tints of flowers and plants, the plumage of birds and insects, or the hues with which fishes and reptiles are adorned. In every instance of this kind, the shape and colour appropriate to each, and suitable to one another, will ever be discerned.
Nature, indeed, affords as perfect a model for the harmony, general disposition, combination, and regulation of colour, as she does for those of form. Wherever we direct our researches, the diversified tints throughout creation, alike serve for this purpose. Here, although the colours themselves are the most vivid, the variety of them the greatest, and the contrasts the strongest, the entire harmony of the whole is never broken, as we see so frequently to be the case in costume. The costume of nature, therefore, alone supplies a complete pattern and guide for the regulation of colour in artistical costume, and indeed in all other branches of art.
Such being the case, colours and tints, and even shades, in all their varieties, should be closely observed in, and copied from nature, as well as the outlines and shapes of different objects. Out of the former, as well as the latter, ought a complete supply to be secured by the student of art. Of a well-selected assortment of each should his portfolio moreover consist, and ought to constitute an ample magazine of articles of this kind for use, whenever they may be made applicable.
Indeed, the due classification, distribution, and arrangement of colour alone, ascertaining what hues and tints harmonize well together, those that most efficiently contrast, and those which blend most suitably, might form a collateral auxiliary science for the student, not only of artistical costume, but of art in general, and of each kind. And in colour as well as in shape, and indeed in all the other departments of art, from nature, and from nature alone, may the most correct and unerring principles be deduced. Moreover, as was once truly remarked ,by our ingenious painter Stodhart, "there is a perspective both in colour and light and shade, as well as form,"* by which the relative distance of different objects is forcibly shown. Indeed, it is not too much to assert that every branch and principle of art, might constitute the subject of a separate study. To light and shade, an entire treatise could be advantageously devoted; and simple as the principles for their regulation appear, there is probably no single department in art so difficult completely to comprehend, and entirely to master, or on the proper observance of which so much depends in artistical design. Here, however, nature is the best instructor; although science requires to be occasionally called in, not to contradict or supersede, but to aid, or rather explain the occasionally obscure doctrines of nature. Nature indeed is the book out of which we study. Science is the grammar or dictionary by which her meaning is made clear.
Dress is to the human form what verdure is to the landscape. As the quality of the country will regulate that of the vegetation which covers it, so that of the body should decide the character of the costume in which it is clothed. And according to the shape and complexion of each individual, should his dress be adapted, both to set off to the best advantage a particular form and colour, and by the same means to counteract whatever deficiencies may exist. Moreover, in costume, as in each of the other arts, wherever nature has been violated, the art itself has failed. Deformity, not beauty, has been the real and ultimate, if not the immediate and direct result.
Hence it is obvious that the principles of delineation may be as extensively applied to costume as to any other of the arts ; that in this art especially, nature may be either closely followed, or widely departed from ; and that the adoption of either of these courses is productive of a corresponding result as regards the mode in which the design affects the mind. Thus we see that nature is obeyed in costume, by causing the clothing to correspond with and give effect to the form, whether we regard the human structure generally, or that of any particular individual; and whether we consider the character and cast of his features, the colour of his complexion, the shape of his limbs, or any other peculiarity. Stiffness and contrariety to nature are as displeasing in dress as they are in drawing; and flowing lines in a robe may be rendered as graceful as they are in the living figure which they cover, the general character of whose form they should serve to reflect and aid to develope, rather than, as it is too often the case, to conceal or to distort.
In no art, however, is nature studied with such entire advantage and such complete success as in that of dramatic acting. Here, indeed, she teaches not by mere precept, but by direct example. And it is to this perfect observation and pursuit of nature, that that great prince of dramatic writers, our own immortal Shakspeare, owes his excellence; hence, too, it is that in all ages alike his works are, like the works of nature, ad-mired and appreciated. The best compendium of all the principles which regulate this art, and which, as in the case of each of the other arts, are all founded upon nature, is contained in the advice of Hamlet to the players, which that greatest of all authors in dramatic composition, and who so completely comprehended the principles of dramatic art, puts into the mouth of his finest character.
Gardening seems very forcibly to illustrate the true principles on which design should proceed so as to coincide with nature on the one hand, and to aid, not alter it, by the introduction of artistical rules, on the other. Thus in ornamental gardening, while the ground should be laid out in imitation of the manner of nature, and nothing contrary to nature should be admitted ; nature in her most perfect form only should be followed, and due variety and harmony introduced. In gardening, moreover, equally with any of the arts, our aim should be, not to counteract nature, but to direct her in her proper course, and to enable her to avail to the full of the advantages which she possesses. And this principle should have reference, as regards laying out gardens and pleasure-grounds, both to the natural conformation of the land which is to be so disposed, and also to the character of the surrounding country, with which it ought to a certain extent to accord.
In some styles of gardening, nevertheless, nature has been cruelly tortured, and has been dealt with, not as though she were animate, and capable of being trained and developed, but as though she were utterly lifeless, and bereft of all capacity whatever of feeling or expression. She has, indeed, been treated by gardeners much in the way that butchers treat the carcases of animals exposed for sale, arranging the members in the most stiff and formal manner, joint corresponding with joint, and limb with limb. A strict and listless and deathlike uniformity has been observed in the disposition of the ground, cor-responding with the laying out a body for interment, and in which nature has been entirely departed from, and allowed to have no influence in directing the formation and development of the design. The whole, indeed, resembles rather a mathematical figure than any artistical effort in which either taste or nature have been followed.
As regards the general subject of the present section, it has here been pointed out that all the arts alike owe allegiance to nature. In nature, too, they all alike originate. From nature they each receive their laws ; and as regards delineation at least, to the imitation of nature they one and all apply their energies and direct their aim. Hence, whatever instruction he may have received from other sources, nature is the university in which every artist alike ought to perfect his education, as it is the most fitting in which to become a graduate. It is one, more-over, which is open to all, to which those of the highest merit have belonged ; and the greater his genius, the greater are the advantages which he may derive from its teachings. To this school belonged Raphael, and Michael Angelo, and Rembrandt, and Shakspeare, and Virgil, and Chaucer, and the most celebrated of every age and nation ; and to the discipline of this school they owed, mainly those sublime qualities by which they were adorned. The professors of this university are those noble works reflective of nature by her most renowned followers, which best serve to show how nature is to be studied. Its libraries consist in the rich and varied stores which nature unfolds to every student of her pages, in the diversified and splendid scenes around us. The roaring thunder, the murmur of brooks, and the warbling of birds constitute its lectures ; the raging of tempests, and the still fiercer passions of man-kind are its active experimental exercises. Its models, in the varied forms and colours of nature, whether mountains, or trees, or water, or animal objects, are all alike perfect ; and each affords conclusive evidence of the infinity of that Divine Wisdom which they severally acknowledge as their Author and their Source.