Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/The artist: his health

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The Artist!” What kind of artist? There are so many sorts of art! What can there be in common among them affecting health!

Let us see how the matter stands,—how artists are employed in their various departments,—and whether there is anything remarkable about the health of any or all of them. And first of all, what do we mean by Art, in the present instance?

Art is, by the progress of civilisation, more and more brought into the field of the arts. In other words, the commodities used in our daily life are rendered more and more expressive of something beyond their primary use. Hence, our Schools of Design are full of Students who pass into some region or other of our manufactures. They will paint porcelain or papier-mâché, or design ribbons or muslin dresses, or carpets or shawls, or paper-hangings, or lace curtains, or the colouring of damasks, or the forms of pitchers, or lamps, or flower-vases, or the devices of picture-frames, or of the binding of books. We are scarcely more busy in applying science to the arts, than Art to the arts. Looking at the matter in this way, we should reckon our artists by tens of thousands, without including the poet said to be retained in the service of Moses and Son. In their case, however, the aim of their occupation is ornamentation. The various classes of artists proper have to study the rendering of beauty too; but their first object is expression;—expression of whatever is, within the limits of the secondary consideration,—that of beauty.

When the artist is spoken of, the supposition is that he is a Painter. The reason of this pre-eminence probably is, not so much that painting once occupied the greater part of the field of art, as that it comprehended a set of symbols, universal and permanent, and thus was as expressive as language, in a way unapproached by any other method of art. Sculpture shared more or less in this characteristic; and so did architecture; but their range of types was much narrower, and agreed upon, and understood by much fewer minds. It is impossible to gain anything by glancing at or studying the life of the painter, without keeping in mind the difference between the two methods of reading pictures, which the progress of the human mind has set up in opposition to each other; and the painter’s own condition of mind and life is largely determined by his addressing himself to the one set of requirements or the other.

In the old days of polytheism, first, and on through the Romish centuries, painting and sculpture told their tale by means of established symbols. There might be endless modifications of these, innumerable combinations, and inexhaustible varieties of beauty; but no one could mistake the meaning of the marble group or the mediæval picture before him. Diana and Apollo, the Virgin and the Baptist were types, as statues and pictures can never be again. We cannot stop to consider here the causes of the change: it is enough to perceive how real and how thorough it was. Now, when a picture of merit is studied, the gazer brings metaphysics to bear on it,—or did till very lately. As every one sees according to his visual organ, or even sees outside of him just what he carries within, there have been as many interpretations of pictures as of oracles. At the beginning of the present century, whatever subtle notions were in a man’s own head were found by him in pictures; and the reign of metaphysics affected even the reading of landscapes and portraits. The artist’s mind could not but travel the same road with the spectator’s; and hence the number of pictures painted for an immortality which they will not have, and full of meanings which are now lost, if indeed, the works themselves are not wholly forgotten. Though these have passed away, there is no return to the period of broad, intelligible types, for good reasons, which it would take much space to show; but we have taken another tack. That which will hereafter be the essential means to the great aim of painting, is now pursued as if it were the end itself. Accurate representation is almost enough of itself to secure a great reputation in art, as vague meaning and ambitious colouring, covering bad drawing, were in an intermediate period. Even the truly great artists who have something to express greater than the terms of expression, are a puzzle to their own generation, and will be to a future one, for their indisposition to the representation of beauty. Their study is, as it ought to be, to express; and they deserve well of their time by endeavouring to carry over their art from its elevation in the past, to an elevation which shall befit the future, (into the terms of which, this is not the place to enter); but their position and their influence are unfavourably affected by their incompetence to represent beauty,—whether the inability arises from a neglect of the consideration of beauty, or from a peculiarity in their own notion of the beautiful.

Changes like these determine much of the mode of life of the artist. In landscape-painting, and the accessories of figure-painting, there was nothing like the study formerly that is now the rage. The greatest of our landscape-painters were formerly mannerists, presenting a nobly true general conception, nobly true also in its leading features; but filled up with inborn details, supplied by imagination at home.

At present, the minute study of nature (which will enrich art hereafter as much as it seems to impoverish it now), imposes severe labour of body and mind. To become a painter in any style, at present, requires strength and hardihood of the bodily, as persistence and endurance in the mental frame. It is one thing to lie in bed till noon, in a “simmering” state of thought, or gazing at visionary scenes, and another to be abroad at daybreak, studying the earth and sky, and each day for a life-time, some new feature or fresh product of Nature. It is one thing to represent historical tragedy in painting by means of established symbols as accessories, and quite another to go to the actual scene, and in suffering and privation, with labour and anxiety, under an eastern sun, or an ocean hurricane, investigate what Nature has there to express, and how she there expresses it.

The minor conditions of a painter’s life depend much on his course as a whole. There used to be much talk of the artist’s health in the days when Sir Joshua Reynolds pointed out how much he owed to the practice of always standing at his easel. We have all heard much of the confinement, the smell of the oils, the constant interruptions, when the artist has become eminent, and the more irritating loneliness if he does not become famous. We hear of the fatigues of study, in schools, in the world, and at home; but, above all, of the mortifications arising from want of appreciation, and the cares which must precede success. A good deal is said, too, of the troubles which are always arising in the profession, from jealousy in one quarter or another. These things tell on the health of body and mind. There is no doubt of that. The question is, first, whether these are necessary sufferings, and next, whether the artist considers it worth while to encounter these particular trials for the sake of the privileges of his calling. There have been suicides among painters; there have been paralytics, prostrated by debt and anxiety; there have been maniacs, raving of the jealousy of all the world. But there have been more aged men, serene and genial; and not a few who have paid brethren’s debts, instead of having any of their own, and whose judgment and affections went on improving long after hand and eye refused to express the richest ideas and sentiment of the whole life.

Like all artists, the painter must depend much for success and stimulus, and for professional rewards, on the opinions of others; and his position is one which draws attention to the world’s opinion of him. He must therefore be strong in his love of his art, and in his self-respect, before he commits himself to his career, or he may pass his life in misery, and end it in despair. With a brave spirit, a true love of art, and a power of manly self-discipline, even a painter may live happily on a small measure of success; though such an one is hardly likely to hold a mortifying position as a painter. As for the rest, the painter has the advantage of exemption from the grosser temptations of intemperance, which beset artists of some other classes. He is anxious to preserve the full power of his senses and of his hand. His vocation favours early hours, diversified study of men and Nature, and therefore exercise of the various powers of body and mind. The grand danger is of a growing egotism, less gross but more engrossing than in men of other pursuits. Any one must see this who considers what is comprehended in the exclusive study of beauty and expression, for which a superiority to other people in a special direction is indispensable. It is this fearful snare, lying in the midst of the field of art, which renders moralists so timid, or even hostile, to the pursuit of art as a profession. It is this which gives the physician so many mournful tales to tell of the catastrophe of the artist-life; for the cares and disturbances of egotism wear the brain, like other anxieties and troubles. The danger must be met, if at all successfully, by a diligent use of the ordinary means of health,—exercise of all the faculties in an equable way, bodily activity and temperance, intellectual study, and social energy and benevolence. A hearty love of art will go a long way towards discrediting self in the painter’s imagination; but there is no security from more or less undue consideration of his own needs or merits, except in getting the world, with its praises and censures, under his feet.

The Sculptor is, for the most part, under the same conditions as the painter. His studies, however, are different; his public is a smaller one; and his success is of a somewhat more retired and less material character. So it seems to be in our time, however different it may have been formerly, and may be again. His study of the human frame (and also of the brute) must be of the deepest and most elaborate kind; and so must his study of ancient art, and of every-day Nature. His workings in clay may be paralleled with the painter’s on canvas: but the results arrived at are different. The painter may stand anywhere in a long gradation of ranks; but the sculptor either succeeds greatly or fails. There are always people who will buy paintings of any degree of merit, even to the lowest: but, for so costly a luxury as sculpture, orders are given only to an eminent artist,—whether his eminence be well grounded, or a matter of fashion. The sculptor, therefore, has need, even more than the painter, of an intrepid spirit, and the magnanimity to propose a great stake, and accept his destiny. Without this, he may eat his heart out before his destiny is determined, and the highest success may be rendered injurious to body and mind; for, where there is a lack of magnanimity, any exceptional lot is pretty surely fatal. The brilliant load crushes the bearer: the strong gale overthrows the house upon the sand. The sculptor should, then, have a heart and mind as large and lofty among men as his pursuit is noble among the arts: and, in order to this, he should set his life by the laws of Nature, as his dial is set by the sun. Either may be clouded over: but neither can go wrong.

There remain Music and the Drama, scarcely separable as to their effect on the artist.

An actor may have no concern with music; but a great singer or instrumental performer exercises the faculties appropriate to the drama in the musical form of expression. The modes and conditions of life are nearly the same in the two branches of the profession. There are the same trying conditions of health, the same moral dangers, the same peculiar social circumstances: and therefore we may here consider them together.

To those who know the profession of public performer only from the outside, it seems that the singer or actor is always in circumstances dangerous to health, and yet lives on into old age, at least as often as other people. We hear of desperate fatigues, of constant dread of cold, of perilous excitements of mind and tension of nerves, so that we expect nothing short of fever, apoplexy, paralysis, or something as bad; and then, years after, we see the ancient favourite of the public driving about at leisure in a fine old age, and read the notice of his death at last, at long past the threescore years and ten. This is surely very remarkable. How can it be?

We hear of the life of the singer or actor as it is when the eyes of the public are upon it,—in the thick of the business of the year. We are apt to overlook the weeks (I fear I must not say months) during which the artist takes rest and makes holiday. The singer must exercise his voice for hours of every day;—the female artist, at least, says that she must: whereas the theatrical artist may, I suppose, dismiss work altogether during the holiday time. This annual interval given to repose, travel, rural quiet or seaside amusement, to family and friendly intercourse, reading, and as much sleep as comes naturally, does certainly recruit the forces of body and mind considerably. During the working months, the wear and tear must be prodigious. Unlike the painter, whose executive labour stops necessarily at sunset, and to whom the morning hours are therefore precious, the stage artist is in as heavy a sleep till near noon as the editor of a London daily newspaper. Till past midnight he is in a state of vivid excitement, on the nights of performance; and then he has to undergo the state of collapse before he can sleep. He has to put off his trappings, his paint, and his stage associations, and get into a new train before he is fit for sleep. One member of the profession I have known who had his own method of fitting himself for true repose. If he came home after midnight too much exhausted even to speak to wife or sister while having his tea, he was never unable to spend half an hour over his systematic Bible reading and habitual prayer before going to bed. He said it was the first part of his night’s rest. If people of all orders find it desirable to clear scores with the world and themselves in this way before they sleep, casting out passion, soothing down irritability, forgiving offences in others, and reconciling all within themselves, it is easy to imagine how eminently salutary the practice may be found in a profession which is supposed to abound beyond all others in irritations, collisions, and excitements.—After this, the sleep should be complete,—regulated by the need and not by the hour; for the hours after breakfast are wanted for study. It is not always so; but, unless the actor is playing the same character for a course of nights, he needs more or less study; and when he is preparing for a new or revived part, the study is very intense, and requires wide-awake faculties. When the great actor goes into his study, and shuts the double door, it is understood that he must not be interrupted. A glance at his own desk-copy of the play, with its broad margins, bearing an infinity of minute notes and marks, will show what intellectual exercise goes on upon that theme. As to the other preparation than that which goes on at the desk, I know nothing. The nearest approach to it which has come under my own observation was when I was staying in the same house with an American politician and much-applauded orator, who was to deliver as oration in a day or two. Others knew his habits better than I did, and were therefore less astonished, though perhaps not less amused, than I was, when, in the deepest stillness of the night, strains of oratory rang through the house, from the great man’s chamber. The rehearsal was of certain particular passages, the turns of which were repeated over and over again, till the effect of so planning such an amount of spontaneous emotion was ridiculous beyond measure. As the tones expressive of surprise, inquiry, or passion were practised patiently till the right gradation was obtained, the household lay laughing in their beds. There was no appearance of shame or misgiving the next morning; and, as the need of a big looking-glass in this gentleman’s room, whenever he was on u oratorical expedition, was known to his hostesses, it is probable that he was unconscious of anything absurd in his proceedings. But it was rather extravagant to expect us, on the grand occasion, to be thrilled, as he declared himself to be, with horror, amazement, grief, &c. Tones which had been heard so often over, under different circumstances, failed to thrill, and tears would not come at passages which had been laughed at for their cadence when the words could not be distinguished. My own impression certainly was that, if he felt enough on the particular occasion to be justified in speaking, he would have gained all desirable ends better by sleeping in the night, and trusting to his natural thoughts and feelings for his speech,—all the technical practice having been familiar to him from his youth.—In the actor’s case, the same kind of practice is a grave and respectable affair, free from all taint of ridicule. He has to deliver, not his own pretended thoughts and feelings of the moment, but the recognised art production of the tragic or comic poet; and what is hypocrisy in the orator, is his professional business. I must leave him at it, for how he transacts it I do not know.

Then there is the business at the theatre; among draughts and discomfort, and the mixed disgust and amusement caused by seeing the inside of the puppet-show,—the devices by which moving or brilliant impressions are to be made on the audience of the evening. The rehearsal at a theatre, I have been told, is enough to chill the enterprise of the most able or ambitious artist that ever trod the stage.

Happy those actors who live where they can see something of the face of Nature every day! If they can get out to the fields, or upon a common for even half an hour, it is the best kind of exhilaration. A walk in the Park is good; or a game at romps with the children in a garden, if there is one; or an hour’s gardening: but the evening comes very soon after so late a rising and term of study; and there is little time for anything between.

As for the wear and tear of the next few hours, everybody sees what it must be; and no description can magnify the impression of it. Mere publicity is wear and tear; and here the intellect has to work intensely under the concentrated gaze of a crowd. In the presence of everything that can agitate the nerves, the brain must produce its greatest achievements; and a severer trial, for the hour, of physical and intellectual power can hardly be conceived. Of all the nonsense that is talked by people who pretend to judge other people’s business, none is more extreme than that which treats the actor’s or opera-singer’s work as frivolous, slight, and of no account. It would be less exhausting if the work were either solitary,—as that of the great orator’s,—or sustained by hearty fellowship with a group of fellow-labourers. The great actor has the disadvantage of partial dependence on the ability of comrades, who not only discourage him more or less by their inferiority, but cannot be more than adventitious associates. It is well if even a bare good understanding can be kept with them by forbearance and generosity. The green-room may be often a very merry, and a very instructive place; but it can scarcely be a happy one to anybody but an occasional visitor.—If the exhaustion is not too great, the actor is in the mood for an exciting supper, where wine, and praise, and good fellowship with admirers end his day with more or less moral intoxication, though the physical one may be avoided.

So much for the external appearance of this mode of life. To judge of the effect on the welfare of the individual, we must look a little deeper.

As far as my intercourses have led me to any understanding of the matter, it seems to me that there are two theories of this profession which cannot be too clearly distinguished from each other, for the sake of the welfare of its members, and the morality of society.

According to the one theory, the performer’s point of view lies outside of and above the part he or she is to represent. He is to study it intellectually, and so to invest his imagination in it, as to act and speak as he is certain a real being would have acted and spoken under the circumstances. He throws all his convictions, both of experience and imagination into his part, being the more, instead of the less, himself for this diligent use of his faculties and means. According to the other theory, the performer’s point of view lies within the part he assumes. He must be in the very mood of passion to be represented, and must lose himself in the imaginary scene and circumstances. The difference between these two views is a very serious matter indeed, as I once had occasion to perceive, when conversing with a very eminent member of the college of critics.

A particular case being under discussion, this learned personage began lamenting the irreconcilable requirements of social life in England and art,—operatic and dramatic. The highest attainment in art demands a mood of passion as lasting as the professional life; whereas, English social life requires respectable marriage, or a respectable single life. Now, marriage is the immediate extinguisher of the capacity for passion; and besides, the gifted individual who can attain the heights of art must presently discover the inferiority of his or her mate, and must find marriage a yoke, under which power must continually decline—and so forth. There is, my informant added, no other way of pursuing art with the highest success than surrendering the passionate nature to a succession of attachments,—and so forth. Thus only can the variety and power of expression be preserved till the time has arrived for quitting the stage. Such was the insoluble problem of dramatic art.

I ventured to ask what was to be done, if this were true;—which should give way, our daily human life, with its natural succession and discipline of affections, and its sweet and solemn sanctions, or the life of the stage, with its eternal childhood (according to the critic) of passions. Of course, the critic was of opinion that art could never die out: and I need not add that my opinion was, and is, that human life will hold its natural course, perpetually maturing, rather than lapsing into inferior stages of experience. The critic supposed I therefore gave up art. Not so. I believe that art is long, and that life is long too; and that there is no reason why they should not live on together, each helping the other. What I do not believe is, that true art can ever require the perpetuating of one stage of human experience beyond its natural limits, to the destruction of the individual, and the injury of both the character and reputation of art.

As for the other view, there is fact enough in its favour to save the necessity of argument. The name of Mrs. Siddons alone would suffice to shame the bad doctrine of the oracular critic. Mrs. Siddons, looking after her children’s clothes and lessons at home, and devoting herself to her husband’s comfort and will and pleasure, certainly thrilled and transported an audience quite as effectively as any lady who has since hesitated to marry, because she could not rise to the height of her professional ambition otherwise than by a succession of love-affairs. It would be insulting to mention the names of living persons in such a connection; but we may safely ask, whether among the greatest artists of our time, we have not seen devoted husbands and wives, and performers who were always thinking more of their art than of themselves, without pretending to the heroism of going to perdition for it.

This difference of view is entertained to a sufficient extent to require thus much notice in considering the welfare of the dramatic artist. A few more words will convey all else that I am able to suggest.

We have been lately informed that the dramatic artists of all classes in Europe, constitute a population of tens of thousands;—a number large enough to render their welfare an important element in human happiness. Of the greater proportion the earnings are very small, and the rewards of their labour are very scanty. If they keep their morals, they suffer under the corrosions of poverty and humiliation; and if they succumb to temptation—in their case fearfully strong—their fate is, of course, worse. It seems to be commonly agreed, that the musical and the theatrical career is not a prosperous lot in life, except to the very few who attain the heights of the profession.

Their case, in regard to health and happiness, seems to be this.

Their nature is not the highest, to begin with. This is saying little; for how many in a nation could be pointed out as of the highest original quality? They have no desire of concentrated wisdom,—no craving for peace of mind arising from harmony of the faculties and affections. The highest moral condition,—that of habitual moderation, attained through a varied experience,—is not within their view. It does not come directly within the range of any art of expression, and it is therefore scarcely a part of human life to them. All else that is heroic, they can appreciate and adore. Their notion of life, however, is of an endless drama of passions and sentiments, interacting with events. They also commit themselves to a life from which tranquillity is excluded,—practically, if not theoretically; and thus they set out with a sacrifice of welfare of a grave character. They know that jealousies, mortifications, irritations of all sorts beset the career, and they must intend to put up with these miseries for the sake of art or ambition; for it is inconceivable that any man or woman can expect to be always superior to such trials.

They are under graver liabilities than these. It may be doubted whether any art of expression can be exclusively studied without destroying the simplicity and integrity of the mind in that particular direction. Without summoning as a witness the designer of patterns for the Coventry manufacturer who complained that he had got to see ribbons in everything,—in sunsets, in the sea waves, in the woods, and everywhere, we may refer to the landscape-painter’s phrase of “the innocent eye,”—the eye of unconscious spectators, who see colours as they appear to the general sense: whereas the painter sees them through a medium which affects his very perceptions. It is not a trifle to have exchanged the natural relish of a morning landscape, or a fair face, for a professional view of it: but the penalty becomes much graver when the art of expression relates to human character. The natural springs of action and emotion then become means of art, and simplicity and unconsciousness are lost. Leaving as a fair subject for opinion the quality of Mrs. Siddons’s act of running across the street when a child was run over, to study the countenance of the mother, in furtherance of her art, the fact remains that human feelings and fortunes, when once made an art-study by a fellow being, cease to be a ground of companionship and sympathy. The ordinary complaint is, that actors are affected, or formal, or self-conscious: but the full truth is, that they have forsworn the freemasonry of direct sympathy, and have compelled themselves to take life at second-hand, as it were. They have lost their direct grasp upon it. their direct apprehension of it. The case is clear enough in the instance of authors who have become bewitched by the theatre. There have been such in the last generation, and there are such in the present. The public cannot conceive the meaning of their delight in theatrical associations, and has no reason to be pleased with the effect on their mode of art. They are mannerists, in an extreme degree; and their pictures of life are, however able, only natural to their own manner. They are scenes beheld by lamplight, and commented on from the green-room point of view; and they bear no resemblance to the clear noon-day aspects of life presented by authors of parallel ability, who have never been bewitched by the theatre. Such is the difference between the dramatic artist’s and other men’s apprehension of the great phenomena of human existence. The consideration is a serious one. The question is, what had best be done.

The only recommendation that I know of is, to live as much like other people as possible, and to counteract to the utmost, by a homely method of life, the besetting danger of artificial habits of looking, moving, and speaking. To lend a hand as often as possible to the common business of life, to repress all indulgence in merely uttered sentiment, and to make such a home as must remove the egotism at least one degree from its centre, is good. To cultivate, in short, the reality of life, and to restrict profession and demonstration to the domain of art, is essential to the welfare of the artist in any department. If he is able to do this, and further to raise himself in fact above his ostensible position of dependence on the opinion of the public, he may keep his nature healthy, and his life satisfactory. Each kind of art has its high enjoyments: each its happy influences; each its lofty function. The drawback is, that so many have sunk under the peculiar liabilities, living irksome, or turbulent, or disreputable lives, and dying in a state of feebleness or disturbance. Happily, there have been robust, and self-respecting, and simpleminded, and generous, and amiable artists, as well as soldiers, or doctors, or divines, or merchants. Such men, in all callings, have secured their physical and moral health in the same way,—by harmon|ising their lives with the laws of Nature, precisely to the extent of that health.

Harriet Martineau.