Popular Science Monthly/Volume 18/March 1881/Editor's Table

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WHEN we compare pictures of the sixteenth and of the nineteenth centuries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, we are conscious that the charm of modern work is in the truthful delineation of scenery and character, in a certain reflection of our experiences, and in fitness as related to the drift of our imagination. We see a reality and daylight effect which we miss in allegorical and other subjects by artists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The coloring in pictures by Rubens and Murillo may be impressive, but not even this can obscure the truth that the result is not suited to the modern eye and taste. Most of us prefer nature mirrored by some of our modern masters. In fact, the disposition to appreciate work that seems practical does not favor the introduction of ancient methods. The pursuit of a highly developed sense of humor must impress artists with the importance of close attention to propriety and probability in every design. The fact that ancient art is not suited to present standards of taste was hinted at by Thackeray in "The Newcomes," in the artist who painted immense figures, and whose ideas of art were expressed in a picture fourteen feet high. The novelist intimates that this was high art in a literal sense; but the principal force of his satire is shown in the following remarks from the artist: "The models of the hancient Britons in that pictur' alone cost me thirty pound. . . . You recognize Boadishia, colonel, with the Roman 'elmet, cuirass, and javeling of the period all studied from the hantique, sir, the glorious hantique."

We also find a ludicrous contrast when ancient art is subjected to the practical test of modern scientific criticism, as seen in the disregard of the laws of equilibrium when angels are represented with arms as well as wings.[1]

The phrase "school of art" seems objectionable when it means more than a preparatory course by which the rudiments are mastered. An artist ought to be independent of all schools, or have a touch of all in his work, because otherwise his liberty will be restricted.

The advantage of originality appears in strong relief when we examine the negative work of imitators. While it is seen that artists having genius can produce striking effects, using apparently commonplace subjects, it is yet clear that imitators can not produce the same effects, because they fail to see them in nature. The picture painted by a great artist and the original in nature always produce two distinct and very different impressions upon the observer. Owing to some subtile change, which it is impossible for an imitator to follow, the picture has an indefinable effect of which we are not conscious in the natural occurrence or object. For this reason the imitators of original work must always fail. They see the effect after it has been rendered, but they can not perceive similar effects in the outer world of nature, as distinguished from the inner world of constructive thought. The striking peculiarity of the work causes them to overlook the delicate and truthful touches by which the general harmony and fitness are maintained. The unprecedented qualities in a work of genius are always sustained by a certain truth to nature.

Originality generally causes severe criticism from contemporary artists, because its tendency is to displace or weaken the established standards. In fact, the opposition usually becomes so intense that the merit of the old method is overlooked on one side, and the great value of a new insight is overlooked on the other. Conservative critics have very often tried to check venturesome innovators by misusing the word mannerism, which does not properly apply to peculiar work. The word means tasteless uniformity. This can be fairly maintained in opposition to critics who think that any incessantly-recurring effect, even though original and striking, is mannerism. Such critical objections ought not to influence an artist to abandon a forcible system of treatment, because the danger of anything really powerful dwindling into a series of tedious repetitions is very slight.

Where there is merit there is continuous growth, whereby the strong current of individuality or sameness of treatment is accompanied by constant transformations, absorbing new material, and finding new methods of expression.

It seems obvious that, after suitable instruction, during which any school may have sway, the artist must look for natural effects in the world directly around him. and not in Rome or in Paris. Nor should he use the special colors or tones advocated by conformists. Objects appear to him of a certain hue, or a certain action of the human figure appears worth rendering. Let him delineate these as he sees them, and be not discouraged by many failures and defects. His strong point may be discerned by close attention to his natural tendencies. In this way the true representation of his impressions will make others conscious of something which before lacked emphasis. Such development of originality in art, accompanied by hard and conscientious labor, may result in works of great fame, and in the evolution of art to a higher grade of adaptation to nature. In the future, the artist may better express ideal conceptions, because a wider mastery of facts and subjects involves increased power and skill.

  1. See "Popular Science Monthly," April, 1879: "The Monstrous in Art," by Samuel Kneeland, M.D.