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

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



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 Page:ONCE A WEEK JUL TO DEC 1860.pdf/379 Page:ONCE A WEEK JUL TO DEC 1860.pdf/380 Page:ONCE A WEEK JUL TO DEC 1860.pdf/381 Page:ONCE A WEEK JUL TO DEC 1860.pdf/382