Colour

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Colour
by John Ruskin

173. To-day I must try to complete our elementary sketch of schools of art, by tracing the course of those which were distinguished by faculty of colour, and afterwards to deduce from the entire scheme advisable methods of immediate practice.

You remember that, for the type of the early schools of colour, I chose their work in glass; as for that of the early schools of chiaroscuro, I chose their work in clay.

I had two reasons for this. First, that the peculiar skill of colourists is seen most intelligibly in their work in glass or in enamel; secondly, that Nature herself produces all her loveliest colours in some kind of solid or liquid glass or crystal. The rainbow is painted on a shower of melted glass, and the colours of the opal are produced in vitreous flint mixed with water; the green and blue, and golden or amber brown of flowing water is in surface glassy, and in motion "splendidior vitro." And the loveliest colours ever granted to human sight--those of morning and evening clouds before or after rain--are produced on minute particles of finely-divided water, or perhaps sometimes ice. But more than this. If you examine with a lens some of the richest colours of flowers, as, for instance, those of the gentian and dianthus, you will find their texture is produced by a crystalline or sugary frost-work upon them. In the lychnis of the high Alps, the red and white have a kind of sugary bloom, as rich as it is delicate. It is indescribable; but if you can fancy very powdery and crystalline snow mixed with the softest cream, and then dashed with carmine, it may give you some idea of the look of it. There are no colours, either in the nacre of shells, or the plumes of birds and insects, which are so pure as those of clouds, opal, or flowers; but the _force_ of purple and blue in some butterflies, and the methods of clouding, and strength of burnished lustre, in plumage like the peacock's, give them more universal interest; in some birds, also, as in our own kingfisher, the colour nearly reaches a floral preciousness. The lustre in most, however, is metallic rather than vitreous; and the vitreous always gives the purest hue. Entirely common and vulgar compared with these, yet to be noticed as completing the crystalline or vitreous system, we have the colours of gems. The green of the emerald is the best of these; but at its best is as vulgar as house-painting beside the green of bird's plumage or of clear water. No diamond shows colour so pure as a dewdrop; the ruby is like the pink of an ill-dyed and half-washed-out print, compared to the dianthus; and the carbuncle is usually quite dead unless set with a foil, and even then is not prettier than the seed of a pomegranate. The opal is, however, an exception. When pure and uncut in its native rock, it presents the most lovely colours that can be seen in the world, except those of clouds.

We have thus in nature, chiefly obtained by crystalline conditions, a series of groups of entirely delicious hues; and it is one of the best signs that the bodily system is in a healthy state when we can see these clearly in their most delicate tints, and enjoy them fully and simply, with the kind of enjoyment that children have in eating sweet things.


174. Now, the course of our main colour schools is briefly this:--First we have, returning to our hexagonal scheme, line; then _spaces_ filled with pure colour; and then _masses_ expressed or rounded with pure colour. And during these two stages the masters of colour delight in the purest tints, and endeavour as far as possible to rival those of opals and flowers. In saying "the purest tints," I do not mean the simplest types of red, blue, and yellow, but the most pure tints obtainable by their combinations.


175. You remember I told you, when the colourists painted masses or projecting spaces, they, aiming always at colour, perceived from the first and held to the last the fact that shadows, though of course darker than the lights with reference to which they _are_ shadows, are not therefore necessarily less vigorous colours, but perhaps more vigorous. Some of the most beautiful blues and purples in nature, for instance, are those of mountains in shadow against amber sky; and the darkness of the hollow in the centre of a wild rose is one glow of orange fire, owing to the quantity of its yellow stamens. Well, the Venetians always saw this, and all great colourists see it, and are thus separated from the non-colourists or schools of mere chiaroscuro, not by difference in style merely, but by being right while the others are wrong. It is an absolute fact that shadows are as much colours as lights are; and whoever represents them by merely the subdued or darkened tint of the light, represents them falsely. I particularly want you to observe that this is no matter of taste, but fact. If you are especially sober-minded, you may indeed choose sober colours where Venetians would have chosen gay ones; that is a matter of taste; you may think it proper for a hero to wear a dress without patterns on it, rather than an embroidered one; that is similarly a matter of taste: but, though you may also think it would be dignified for a hero's limbs to be all black, or brown, on the shaded side of them, yet, if you are using colour at all, you cannot so have him to your mind, except by falsehood; he never, under any circumstances, could be entirely black or brown on one side of him.


176. In this, then, the Venetians are separate from other schools by rightness, and they are so to their last days. Venetian painting is in this matter always right. But also, in their early days, the colourists are separated from other schools by their contentment with tranquil cheerfulness of light: by their never wanting to be dazzled. None of their lights are flashing or blinding; they are soft, winning, precious; lights of pearl, not of lime: only, you know, on this condition they cannot have sunshine: their day is the day of Paradise; they need no candle, neither light of the sun, in their cities; and everything is seen clear, as through crystal, far or near.

This holds to the end of the fifteenth century. Then they begin to see that this, beautiful as it may be, is still a make-believe light; that we do not live in the inside of a pearl; but in an atmosphere through which a burning sun shines thwartedly, and over which a sorrowful night must far prevail. And then the chiaroscurists succeed in persuading them of the fact that there is a mystery in the day as in the night, and show them how constantly to see truly, is to see dimly. And also they teach them the brilliancy of light, and the degree in which it is raised from the darkness; and instead of their sweet and pearly peace, tempt them to look for the strength of flame and coruscation of lightning, and flash of sunshine on armour and on points of spears.


177. The noble painters take the lesson nobly, alike for gloom or flame. Titian with deliberate strength, Tintoret with stormy passion, read it, side by side. Titian deepens the hues of his Assumption, as of his Entombment, into a solemn twilight; Tintoret involves his earth in coils of volcanic cloud, and withdraws, through circle flaming above circle, the distant light of Paradise. Both of them, becoming naturalist and human, add the veracity of Holbein's intense portraiture to the glow and dignity they had themselves inherited from the Masters of Peace: at the same moment another, as strong as they, and in pure felicity of art-faculty, even greater than they, but trained in a lower school,--Velasquez,--produced the miracles of colour and shadow-painting, which made Reynolds say of him, "What we all do with labour, he does with ease;" and one more, Correggio, uniting the sensual element of the Greek schools with their gloom, and their light with their beauty, and all these with the Lombardic colour, became, as since I think it has been admitted without question, the captain of the painter's art as such. Other men have nobler or more numerous gifts, but as a painter, master of the art of laying colour so as to be lovely, Correggio is alone.


178. I said the noble men learned their lesson nobly. The base men also, and necessarily, learn it basely. The great men rise from colour to sunlight. The base ones fall from colour to candlelight. To-day, "non ragioniam di lor," but let us see what this great change which perfects the art of painting mainly consists in, and means. For though we are only at present speaking of technical matters, every one of them, I can scarcely too often repeat, is the outcome and sign of a mental character, and you can only understand the folds of the veil, by those of the form it veils.


179. The complete painters, we find, have brought dimness and mystery into their method of colouring. That means that the world all round them has resolved to dream, or to believe, no more; but to know, and to see. And instantly all knowledge and sight are given, no more as in the Gothic times, through a window of glass, brightly, but as through a telescope-glass, darkly. Your cathedral window shut you from the true sky, and illumined you with a vision; your telescope leads you to the sky, but darkens its light, and reveals nebula beyond nebula, far and farther, and to no conceivable farthest--unresolvable. That is what the mystery means.


180. Next, what does that Greek opposition of black and white mean?

In the sweet crystalline time of colour, the painters, whether on glass or canvas, employed intricate patterns, in order to mingle hues beautifully with each other, and make one perfect melody of them all. But in the great naturalist school, they like their patterns to come in the Greek way, dashed dark on light,--gleaming light out of dark. That means also that the world round them has again returned to the Greek conviction, that all nature, especially human nature, is not entirely melodious nor luminous; but a barred and broken thing: that saints have their foibles, sinners their forces; that the most luminous virtue is often only a flash, and the blackest-looking fault is sometimes only a stain: and, without confusing in the least black with white, they can forgive, or even take delight in things that are like the [Greek: nebris], dappled.


181. You have then--first, mystery. Secondly, opposition of dark and light. Then, lastly, whatever truth of form the dark and light can show.

That is to say, truth altogether, and resignation to it, and quiet resolve to make the best of it. And therefore portraiture of living men, women, and children,--no more of saints, cherubs, or demons. So here I have brought for your standards of perfect art, a little maiden of the Strozzi family, with her dog, by Titian; and a little princess of the house of Savoy, by Vandyke; and Charles the Fifth, by Titian; and a queen, by Velasquez; and an English girl in a brocaded gown, by Reynolds; and an English physician in his plain coat, and wig, by Reynolds: and if you do not like them, I cannot help myself, for I can find nothing better for you.


182. Better?--I must pause at the word. Nothing stronger, certainly, nor so strong. Nothing so wonderful, so inimitable, so keen in unprejudiced and unbiassed sight.

Yet better, perhaps, the sight that was guided by a sacred will; the power that could be taught to weaker hands; the work that was faultless, though not inimitable, bright with felicity of heart, and consummate in a disciplined and companionable skill. You will find, when I can place in your hands the notes on Verona, which I read at the Royal Institution, that I have ventured to call the aera of painting represented by John Bellini, the time "of the Masters." Truly they deserved the name, who did nothing but what was lovely, and taught only what was right. These mightier, who succeeded them, crowned, but closed, the dynasties of art, and since their day, painting has never flourished more.


183. There were many reasons for this, without fault of theirs. They were exponents, in the first place, of the change in all men's minds from civil and religious to merely domestic passion; the love of their gods and their country had contracted itself now into that of their domestic circle, which was little more than the halo of themselves. You will see the reflection of this change in painting at once by comparing the two Madonnas (S. 37, John Bellini's, and Raphael's, called "della Seggiola"). Bellini's Madonna cares for all creatures through her child; Raphael's, for her child only.

Again, the world round these painters had become sad and proud, instead of happy and humble;--its domestic peace was darkened by irreligion, its national action fevered by pride. And for sign of its Love, the Hymen, whose statue this fair English girl, according to Reynolds' thought, has to decorate (S. 43), is blind, and holds a coronet.

Again, in the splendid power of realisation, which these greatest of artists had reached, there was the latent possibility of amusement by deception, and of excitement by sensualism. And Dutch trickeries of base resemblance, and French fancies of insidious beauty, soon occupied the eyes of the populace of Europe, too restless and wretched now to care for the sweet earth-berries and Madonna's ivy of Cima, and too ignoble to perceive Titian's colour, or Correggio's shade.


184. Enough sources of evil were here, in the temper and power of the consummate art. In its practical methods there was another, the fatallest of all. These great artists brought with them mystery, despondency, domesticity, sensuality: of all these, good came, as well as evil. One thing more they brought, of which nothing but evil ever comes, or can come--LIBERTY.

By the discipline of five hundred years they had learned and inherited such power, that whereas all former painters could be right only by effort, they could be right with ease; and whereas all former painters could be right only under restraint, they could be right, free. Tintoret's touch, Luini's, Correggio's, Reynolds', and Velasquez's, are all as free as the air, and yet right. "How very fine!" said everybody. Unquestionably, very fine. Next, said everybody, "What a grand discovery! Here is the finest work ever done, and it is quite free. Let us all be free then, and what fine things shall we not do also!" With what results we too well know.

Nevertheless, remember you are to delight in the freedom won by these mighty men through obedience, though you are not to covet it. Obey, and you also shall be free in time; but in these minor things, as well as in great, it is only right service which is perfect freedom.


185. This, broadly, is the history of the early and late colour-schools. The first of these I shall call generally, henceforward, the school of crystal; the other that of clay: potter's clay, or human, are too sorrowfully the same, as far as art is concerned. But remember, in practice, you cannot follow both these schools; you must distinctly adopt the principles of one or the other. I will put the means of following either within your reach; and according to your dispositions you will choose one or the other: all I have to guard you against is the mistake of thinking you can unite the two. If you want to paint (even in the most distant and feeble way) in the Greek School, the school of Lionardo, Correggio, and Turner, you cannot design coloured windows, nor Angelican paradises. If, on the other hand, you choose to live in the peace of paradise, you cannot share in the gloomy triumphs of the earth.


186. And, incidentally note, as a practical matter of immediate importance, that painted windows have nothing to do with chiaroscuro.[14] The virtue of glass is to be transparent everywhere. If you care to build a palace of jewels, painted glass is richer than all the treasures of Aladdin's lamp; but if you like pictures better than jewels, you must come into broad daylight to paint them. A picture in coloured glass is one of the most vulgar of barbarisms, and only fit to be ranked with the gauze transparencies and chemical illuminations of the sensational stage.

[Footnote 14: There is noble chiaroscuro in the variations of their colour, but not as representative of solid form.]

Also, put out of your minds at once all question about difficulty of getting colour; in glass we have all the colours that are wanted, only we do not know either how to choose, or how to connect them; and we are always trying to get them bright, when their real virtues are to be deep, mysterious, and subdued. We will have a thorough study of painted glass soon: mean while I merely give you a type of its perfect style, in two windows from Chalons-sur-Marne (S. 141).


187. But for my own part, with what poor gift and skill is in me, I belong wholly to the chiaroscurist school; and shall teach you therefore chiefly that which I am best able to teach: and the rather, that it is only in this school that you can follow out the study either of natural history or landscape. The form of a wild animal, or the wrath of a mountain torrent, would both be revolting (or in a certain sense invisible) to the calm fantasy of a painter in the schools of crystal. He must lay his lion asleep in St. Jerome's study beside his tame partridge and easy slippers; lead the appeased river by alternate azure promontories, and restrain its courtly little streamlets with margins of marble. But, on the other hand, your studies of mythology and literature may best be connected with these schools of purest and calmest imagination; and their discipline will be useful to you in yet another direction, and that a very important one. It will teach you to take delight in little things, and develop in you the joy which all men should feel in purity and order, not only in pictures but in reality. For, indeed, the best art of this school of fantasy may at last be in reality, and the chiaroscurists, true in ideal, may be less helpful in act. We cannot arrest sunsets nor carve mountains, but we may turn every English homestead, if we choose, into a picture by Cima or John Bellini, which shall be "no counterfeit, but the true and perfect image of life indeed."


188. For the present, however, and yet for some little time during your progress, you will not have to choose your school. For both, as we have seen, begin in delineation, and both proceed by filling flat spaces with an even tint. And therefore this following will be the course of work for you, founded on all that we have seen.

Having learned to measure, and draw a pen line with some steadiness (the geometrical exercises for this purpose being properly school, not University work), you shall have a series of studies from the plants which are of chief importance in the history of art; first from their real forms, and then from the conventional and heraldic expressions of them; then we will take examples of the filling of ornamental forms with flat colour in Egyptian, Greek, and Gothic design; and then we will advance to animal forms treated in the same severe way, and so to the patterns and colour designs on animals themselves. And when we are sure of our firmness of hand and accuracy of eye, we will go on into light and shade.


189. In process of time, this series of exercises will, I hope, be sufficiently complete and systematic to show its purpose at a glance. But during the present year, I shall content myself with placing a few examples of these different kinds of practice in your rooms for work, explaining in the catalogue the position they will ultimately occupy, and the technical points of process into which it is useless to enter in a general lecture. After a little time spent in copying these, your own predilections must determine your future course of study; only remember, whatever school you follow, it must be only to learn method, not to imitate result, and to acquaint yourself with the minds of other men, but not to adopt them as your own. Be assured that no good can come of our work but as it arises simply out of our own true natures, and the necessities of the time around us, though in many respects an evil one. We live in an age of base conceit and baser servility--an age whose intellect is chiefly formed by pillage, and occupied in desecration; one day mimicking, the next destroying, the works of all the noble persons who made its intellectual or art life possible to it:--an age without honest confidence enough in itself to carve a cherry-stone with an original fancy, but with insolence enough to abolish the solar system, if it were allowed to meddle with it.[15] In the midst of all this, you have to become lowly and strong; to recognise the powers of others and to fulfil your own. I shall try to bring before you every form of ancient art, that you may read and profit by it, not imitate it. You shall draw Egyptian kings dressed in colours like the rainbow, and Doric gods, and Runic monsters, and Gothic monks--not that you may draw like Egyptians or Norsemen, nor yield yourselves passively to be bound by the devotion, or inspired by the passion of the past, but that you may know truly what other men have felt during their poor span of life; and open your own hearts to what the heavens and earth may have to tell you in yours.

[Footnote 15: Every day these bitter words become more sorrowfully true (September, 1887).]


190. In closing this first course of lectures, I have one word more to say respecting the possible consequence of the introduction of art among the studies of the University. What art may do for scholarship, I have no right to conjecture; but what scholarship may do for art, I may in all modesty tell you. Hitherto, great artists, though always gentlemen, have yet been too exclusively craftsmen. Art has been less thoughtful than we suppose; it has taught much, but erred much, also. Many of the greatest pictures are enigmas; others, beautiful toys; others, harmful and corrupting enchantments. In the loveliest, there is something weak; in the greatest, there is something guilty. And this, gentlemen, if you will, is the new thing that may come to pass,--that the scholars of England may resolve to teach also with the silent power of the arts; and that some among you may so learn and use them, that pictures may be painted which shall not be enigmas any more, but open teachings of what can no otherwise be so well shown;--which shall not be fevered or broken visions any more, but filled with the indwelling light of self-possessed imagination;--which shall not be stained or enfeebled any more by evil passion, but glorious with the strength and chastity of noble human love;--and which shall no more degrade or disguise the work of God in heaven, but testify of Him as here dwelling with men, and walking with them, not angry, in the garden of the earth.

This work was published before January 1, 1923, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.