A Joy For Ever/Education in Art

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(Read for the author before the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science in the autumn of 1858; and printed in the Transactions of the Society for that year, pp. 311-16.)

153. I will not attempt in this paper to enter into any general consideration of the possible influence of art on the masses of the people. The inquiry is one of great complexity, involved with that into the uses and dangers of luxury; nor have we as yet data enough to justify us in conjecturing how far the practice of art may be compatible with rude or mechanical employments. But the question, however difficult, lies in the same light as that of the uses of reading or writing; for drawing, so far as it is possible to the multitude, is mainly to be considered as a means of obtaining and communicating knowledge. He who can accurately represent the form of an object, and match its colour, has unquestionably a power of notation and description greater in most instances than that of words; and this science of notation ought to be simply regarded as that which is concerned with the record of form, just as arithmetic is concerned with the record of number. Of course abuses and dangers attend the acquirement of every power. We have all of us probably known persons who, without being able to read or write, discharged the important duties of life wisely and faithfully; as we have also without doubt known others able to read and write whose reading did little good to themselves and whose writing little good to any one else. But we do not therefore doubt the expediency of acquiring those arts, neither ought we to doubt the expediency of acquiring the art of drawing, if we admit that it may indeed become practically useful.

154. Nor should we long hesitate in admitting this, it we were not in the habit of considering instruction in the arts chiefly as a means of promoting what we call "taste" or dilettanteism, and other habits of mind which in their more modern developments in Europe have certainly not been advantageous to nations, or indicative of worthiness in them. Nevertheless, true taste, or the instantaneous preference of the noble thing to the ignoble, is a necessary accompaniment of high worthiness in nations or men; only it is not to be acquired by seeking it as our chief object, since the first question, alike for man and for multitude, is not at all what they are to like, but what they are to do; and fortunately so, since true taste, so far as it depends on original instinct, is not equally communicable to all men; and, so far as it depends on extended comparison, is unattainable by men employed in narrow fields of life. We shall not succeed in making a peasant's opinion good evidence on the merits of the Elgin and Lycian marbles; nor is it necessary to dictate to him in his garden the preference of gillyflower or of rose; yet I believe we may make art a means of giving him helpful and happy pleasure, and of gaining for him serviceable knowledge.

155. Thus, in our simplest codes of school instruction, I hope some day to see local natural history assume a principal place, so that our peasant children may be taught the nature and uses of the herbs that grow in their meadows, and may take interest in observing and cherishing, rather than in hunting or killing, the harmless animals of their country. Supposing it determined that this local natural history should be taught, drawing ought to be used to fix the attention, and test, while it aided, the memory. "Draw such and such a flower in outline, with its bell towards you. Draw it with its side towards you. Paint the spots upon it. Draw a duck's head—her foot. Now a robin's—a thrush's—now the spots upon the thrush's breast." These are the kinds of tasks which it seems to me should be set to the young peasant student. Surely the occupation would no more be thought contemptible which was thus subservient to knowledge and to compassion; and perhaps we should find in process of time that the Italian connexion of art with diletto, or delight, was both consistent with, and even mainly consequent upon, a pure Greek connexion of art with arete, or virtue.

156. It may perhaps be thought that the power of representing in any sufficient manner natural objects such as those above instanced would be of too difficult attainment to be aimed at in elementary instruction. But I have had practical proof that it is not so. From workmen who had little time to spare, and that only after they were jaded by the day's labour, I have obtained, in the course of three or four months from their first taking a pencil in hand, perfectly useful, and in many respects admirable, drawings of natural objects. It is, however, necessary, in order to secure this result, that the student's aim should be absolutely restricted to the representation of visible fact. All more varied or elevated practice must be deferred until the powers of true sight and just representation are acquired in simplicity; nor, in the case of children belonging to the lower classes, does it seem to me often advisable to aim at anything more. At all events, their drawing lessons should be made as recreative as possible. Undergoing due discipline of hard labour in other directions, such children should be painlessly initiated into employments calculated for the relief of toil. It is of little consequence that they should know the principles of art, but of much that their attention should be pleasurably excited. In our higher public schools, on the contrary, drawing should be taught rightly; that is to say, with due succession and security of preliminary steps,—it being here of little consequence whether the student attains great or little skill, but of much that he should perceive distinctly what degree of skill he has attained, reverence that which surpasses it, and know the principles of right in what he has been able to accomplish. It is impossible to make every boy an artist or a connoisseur, but quite possible to make him understand the meaning of art in its rudiments, and to make him modest enough to forbear expressing, in after life, judgments which he has not knowledge enough to render just.

157. There is, however, at present this great difficulty in the way of such systematic teaching—that the public do not believe the principles of art are determinable, and, in no wise, matters of opinion. They do not believe that good drawing is good, and bad drawing bad, whatever any number of persons may think or declare to the contrary—that there is a right or best way of laying colours to produce a given effect, just as there is a right or best way of dyeing cloth of a given colour, and that Titian and Veronese are not merely accidentally admirable but eternally right.

158. The public, of course, cannot be convinced of this unity and stability of principle until clear assertion of it is made to them by painters whom they respect; and the painters whom they respect are generally too modest, and sometimes too proud, to make it. I believe the chief reason for their not having yet declared at least the fundamental laws of labour as connected with art-study is a kind of feeling on their part that "cela va sans dire." Every great painter knows so well the necessity of hard and systematized work, in order to attain even the lower degrees of skill, that he naturally supposes if people use no diligence in drawing, they do not care to acquire the power of it, and that the toil involved in wholesome study being greater than the mass of people have ever given, is also greater than they would ever be willing to give. Feeling, also, as any real painter feels, that his own excellence is a gift, no less than the reward of toil, perhaps slightly disliking to confess the labour it has cost him to perfect it, and wholly despairing of doing any good by the confession, he contemptuously leaves the drawing-master to do the best he can in his twelve lessons, and with courteous unkindness permits the young women of England to remain under the impression that they can learn to draw with less pains than they can learn to dance. I have had practical experience enough, however, to convince me that this treatment of the amateur student is unjust. Young girls will work with steadiest perseverance when once they understand the need of labour, and are convinced that drawing is a kind of language which may for ordinary purposes be learned as easily as French or German; this language, also, having its grammar and its pronunciation, to be conquered or acquired only by persistence in irksome exercise—an error in a form being as entirely and simply an error as a mistake in a tense, and an ill-drawn line as reprehensible as a vulgar accent.

159. And I attach great importance to the sound education of our younger females in art, thinking that in England the nursery and the drawing-room are perhaps the most influential of academies. We address ourselves in vain to the education of the artist while the demand for his work is uncertain or unintelligent; nor can art be considered as having any serious influence on a nation while gilded papers form the principal splendour of the reception room, and ill-wrought though costly trinkets the principal entertainment of the boudoir.

It is surely, therefore, to be regretted that the art-education of our Government schools is addressed so definitely to the guidance of the artizan, and is therefore so little acknowledged hitherto by the general public, especially by its upper classes. I have not acquaintance enough with the practical working of that system to venture any expression of opinion respecting its general expediency; but it is my conviction that, so far as references are involved in it to the designing of patterns capable of being produced by machinery, such references must materially diminish its utility considered as a general system of instruction.

160. We are still, therefore, driven to the same point,—the need of an authoritative recommendation of some method of study to the public; a method determined upon by the concurrence of some of our best painters, and avowedly sanctioned by them, so as to leave no room for hesitation in its acceptance.

Nor need it be thought that, because the ultimate methods of work employed by painters vary according to the particular effects produced by each, there would be any difficulty in obtaining their collective assent to a system of elementary precept. The facts of which it is necessary that the student should be assured in his early efforts, are so simple, so few, and so well known to all able draughtsmen that, as I have just said, it would be rather doubt of the need of stating what seemed to them self-evident, than reluctance to speak authoritatively on points capable of dispute, that would stand in the way of their giving form to a code of general instruction. To take merely two instances: It will perhaps appear hardly credible that among amateur students, however far advanced in more showy accomplishments, there will not be found one in a hundred who can make an accurate drawing to scale. It is much if they can copy anything with approximate fidelity of its real size. Now, the inaccuracy of eye which prevents a student from drawing to scale is in fact nothing else than an entire want of appreciation of proportion, and therefore of composition. He who alters the relations of dimensions to each other in his copy, shows that he does not enjoy those relations in the original—that is to say, that all appreciation of noble design (which is based on the most exquisite relations of magnitude) is impossible to him. To give him habits of mathematical accuracy in transference of the outline of complex form, is therefore among the first, and even among the most important, means of educating his taste. A student who can fix with precision the cardinal points of a bird's wing, extended in any fixed position, and can then draw the curves of its individual plumes without measurable error, has advanced further towards a power of understanding the design of the great masters than he could by reading many volumes of criticism, or passing many months in undisciplined examination of works of art.

161. Again, it will be found that among amateur students there is almost universal deficiency in the power of expressing the roundness of a surface. They frequently draw with considerable dexterity and vigour, but never attain the slightest sense of those modulations in form which can only be expressed by gradations in shade. They leave sharp edges to their blots of colour, sharp angles in their contours of lines, and conceal from themselves their incapacity of completion by redundance of object. The assurance to such persons that no object could be rightly seen or drawn until the draughtsman had acquired the power of modulating surfaces by gradations wrought with some pointed instrument (whether pen, pencil, or chalk), would at once prevent much vain labour, and put an end to many errors of that worst kind which not only retard the student, but blind him; which prevent him from either attaining excellence himself, or understanding it in others.

162. It would be easy, did time admit it, to give instances of other principles which it is equally essential that the student should know, and certain that all painters of eminence would sanction; while even those respecting which some doubt may exist in their application to consummate practice, are yet perfectly determinable, so far as they are needed to guide a beginner. It may, for instance, be a question how far local colour should be treated as an element of chiaroscuro in a master's drawing of the human form. But there can be no question that it must be so treated in a boy's study of a tulip or a trout.

163. A still more important point would be gained if authoritative testimony of the same kind could be given to the merit and exclusive sufficiency of any series of examples of works of art, such as could at once be put within the reach of masters of schools. For the modern student labours under heavy disadvantages in what at first sight might appear an assistance to him, namely, the number of examples of many different styles which surround him in galleries or museums. His mind is disturbed by the inconsistencies of various excellences, and by his own predilection for false beauties in second or third-rate works. He is thus prevented from observing any one example long enough to understand its merit, or following any one method long enough to obtain facility in its practice. It seems, therefore, very desirable that some such standard of art should be fixed for all our schools,—a standard which, it must be remembered, need not necessarily be the highest possible, provided only it is the rightest possible. It is not to be hoped that the student should imitate works of the most exalted merit, but much to be desired that he should be guided by those which have fewest faults.

164. Perhaps, therefore, the most serviceable examples which could be set before youth might be found in the studies or drawings, rather than in the pictures, of first-rate masters; and the art of photography enables us to put renderings of such studies, which for most practical purposes are as good as the originals, on the walls of every school in the kingdom. Supposing (I merely name these as examples of what I mean), the standard of manner in light-and-shade drawing fixed by Leonardo's study, No. 19, in the collection of photographs lately published from drawings in the Florence Gallery; the standard of pen drawing with a wash, fixed by Titian's sketch, No. 30 in the same collection; that of etching, fixed by Rembrandt's spotted shell; and that of point work with the pure line, by Dürer's crest with the cock; every effort of the pupil, whatever the instrument in his hand, would infallibly tend in a right direction, and the perception of the merits of these four works, or of any others like them, once attained thoroughly, by efforts, however distant or despairing, to copy portions of them, would lead securely in due time to the appreciation of other modes of excellence.

165. I cannot, of course, within the limits of this paper, proceed to any statement of the present requirements of the English operative as regards art education. But I do not regret this, for it seems to me very desirable that our attention should for the present be concentrated on the more immediate object of general instruction. Whatever the public demand the artist will soon produce; and the best education which the operative can receive is the refusal of bad work and the acknowledgment of good. There is no want of genius among us, still less of industry. The least that we do is laborious, and the worst is wonderful. But there is a want among us, deep and wide, of discretion in directing toil, and of delight in being led by imagination. In past time, though the masses of the nation were less informed than they are now, they were for that very reason simpler judges and happier gazers; it must be ours to substitute the gracious sympathy of the understanding for the bright gratitude of innocence. An artist can always paint well for those who are lightly pleased or wisely displeased, but he cannot paint for those who are dull in applause and false in condemnation.