Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/March 1896/Professional Institutions XI

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PICTORIAL representation in its rudest forms not only precedes civilization but may be traced back to prehistoric man. The delineations of animals by incised lines on bones, discovered in the Dordogne and elsewhere, prove this. And certain wall-paintings found in caves variously distributed, show, in extant savage races or ancestors of them, some ability to represent things by lines and colors.

But if we pass over these stray facts, which lie out of relation to the development of pictorial art during civilization, and if we start with those beginnings of pictorial art which the uncivilized transmitted to the early civilized, we see that sculpture and painting were coeval. For, excluding as not pictorial that painting of the body by which savages try to make themselves feared or admired, we find painting first employed in completing the image of the dead man to be placed on his grave—a painting of the carved image such as served to make it a rude simulacrum. This was the first step in the evolution of painted figures of apotheosized chiefs and kings—painted statues of heroes and gods.

We shall the better appreciate this truth on remembering that the complete differentiation of sculpture from painting which now exists did not exist among early peoples. In ancient times all statues were colored: the aim being to produce something as like as possible to the being commemorated.

The already named images of dead New Zealand chiefs tattooed in imitation of their originals, illustrate primitive attempts to finish the representations of departed persons by surface-markings and colors; and the idols preserved in our museums—not painted only but with imitation eyes and teeth inserted—make clear this original union of the two arts.

Of evidence that the priests painted as well as carved these effigies, little is furnished by travelers. Bourke writes of the Apaches:—"All charms, idols, talismans, medicine hats, and other sacred regalia should be made, or at least blessed, by the medicine-men." But while the agency of the primitive priest in idol-painting must remain but partially proved, we get clear proof of priestly agency in the production of other colored representations of religious kinds. Describing certain pictographs in sand, Mr. Gushing says:—

"When, during my first sojourn with the Zuñi, I found this art practice in vogue among the tribal priest-magicians and members of cult societies, I named it dry or powder painting." The pictures produced "are supposed to be spiritually shadowed, so to say, or breathed upon by the gods or god-animals they represent, during the appealing incantations or calls of the rites. . . . Further light is thrown on this practice of the Zuñi in making use of these suppositively vivified paintings by their kindred practice of painting not only fetiches of stone, etc., and sometimes of larger idols, then of washing the paint off for use as above described, but also of powder painting in relief; that is, of modeling effigies in sand, sometimes huge in size, of hero or animal gods, sacramental mountains, etc., powder painting them in common with the rest of the pictures, and afterward removing the paint for medicinal or further ceremonial use."

But the clearest evidence is yielded by the Navajo Indians. Dr. Washington Matthews in a contribution on "The Mountain Chant, a Navajo Ceremony," says:—

"The men who do the greater part of the actual work of painting, under the guidance of the chanter, have been initiated [four times], but need not be skilled medicine men or even aspirants to the craft of the shaman. . . . The pictures are drawn according to an exact system. The shaman is frequently seen correcting the workmen and making them erase and revise their work. In certain well-defined instances the artist is allowed to indulge his individual fancy. This is the case with the gaudy embroidered pouches which the gods carry at the waist. Within reasonable bounds the artist may give his god just as handsome a pouch as he wishes. Some parts of the figures, on the other hand, are measured by palms and spans, and not a line of the sacred design can be varied,"[1]

Unquestionably then pictorial art in its first stages was occupied with sacred subjects, and the priest, when not himself the executant, was the director of the executants.

The remains and records of early historic peoples yield evidences having like implications.

As shown already, there existed in America curious transitions between worshiping the actual dead man and worshiping an effigy of him—cases in which a figure was formed of portions of his body joined with artificial portions. The Nile Valley furnished other transitions. Concerning the Macrobrian Ethiopians, Herodotus tells the strange story that

"When they have dried the body, either as the Egyptians do, or in some other way, they plaster it all over with gypsum, and paint it, making it as much as possible resemble real life; they then put round it a hollow column made of crystal."

And to this plastered, painted, and inclosed mummy they made offerings. The Egyptian usage diverged from this simply in the casing of the mummy and in the painting: the one being opaque and the other consequently external. For the carved and painted representation of a human figure on the outer mummy-case, was doubtless a conventionally-stereotyped representation of the occupant. And since, in all such cases, the ancestor-worship, now of private persons, now of major and minor potentates, was a religion, painting as thus employed was a religious art.

The leading subjects of Egyptian wall-paintings are worshiping and killing: the last being, indeed, but a form of the first; since pictures of victorious fights are either glorifications of the commemorated commanders or of the gods by whose aid they conquered, or both. In early societies sacrifice of enemies is religious sacrifice, as shown among the Hebrews by the behavior of Samuel to Agag. Hence the painting in these Egyptian frescoes is used for sacred purposes.

That in Ancient Egypt the priest was the primitive sculptor we have already seen; and the association of painting with sculpture was so close as to imply that he was also the primitive painter—either immediately or by proxy. For, 'seeing that, as Brugsch remarks, Egyptian art "is bound by fetters which the artist dared not loosen for fear of clashing with traditional directions and ancient usage," it results that the priests, being depositaries of the traditions, guided the hands of those who made painted representations when they did not themselves make them. But there is direct proof. Erman says:—"Under the Old Empire the high priest of Memphis was regarded as their chief, in fact he bore the title of 'chief leader of the artists,' and really exercised this office." In another passage describing the administration of the great temple of Amon he tells us that the Theban god had his own painters and his own sculptors; both being under the supervision of the second prophet. It may be that, as in the case of the Indians above named, these working painters had passed through some religious initiation and were semi-priestly.

In connection with this use of painting for sacred purposes in Egypt, I may add evidence furnished by an existing religion. Says Tennent concerning the Buddhists of Ceylon:—

"The labors of the sculptor and painter were combined in producing these images of Buddha, which are always colored in imitation of life, each tint of his complexion and hair being in religious conformity with divine authority, and the ceremony of 'painting of the eyes,' is always observed by devout Buddhists as a solemn festival."

It is interesting to remark that in its mural representations, Egypt shows "US transitions from sculpture to painting, or, more strictly, from painted sculpture to painting proper. In the most sculpturesque kind the painted figures stood out from the general field and formed a bas-relief. In the intermediate kind, relief-encreux, the surfaces of the painted figures did not rise above the general field, but their outlines were incised and their surfaces rendered convex. And then, finally, the incising and rounding being omitted, they became paintings.

By the Greeks also, painting was employed in making finished representations of the greater or smaller personages worshiped—now the statues in temples and now the figures on stelæ used to commemorate deceased relatives, which, cut out in relief, were, we may fairly infer, colored in common with other sculptured figures, just as were those on Etruscan sarcophagi. Of this inference there has recently been furnished a justification by the discovery of certain remains which, while they show the use of color in these memorials, show also the transition from raised colored figures to colored figures not raised. Explorations carried on in Cyprus by Mr. Arthur Smith, of the British Museum, have disclosed—

"a series of limestone stelæ or tombstones, on which is painted the figure of the person commemorated. The surface of the limestone is prepared with a white ground, on which the figure is painted in colors and in a manner which strongly recalls the frescoes of Pompeii."

The painting being here used in aid of ancestor-worship, is in that sense, religious. Very little evidence seems forthcoming concerning other early uses of painting among the Greeks. We read that before the Persian war, the application of painting "was almost limited to the decoration of sacred edifices, and a few other religious purposes, as coloring or imitating bas-reliefs, and in representations of religious rites on vases or otherwise." In harmony with this statement is the following from Winckelmann:—

"The reason of the slower growth of painting lies partly in the art itself, and partly in its use and application. Sculpture promoted the worship of the gods, and was in its turn promoted by it. But painting had no such advantage. It was, indeed, consecrated to the gods and temples; and some few of the latter, as that of Juno at Samos, were Pinacothecæ, or picture galleries; at Rome, likewise, paintings by the best masters were hung up in the temple of Peace, that is, in the upper rooms or arches. But paintings do not appear to have been, among the Greeks, an object of holy, undoubting reverence and adoration." This relatively slow development of painting was due to its original subordination to sculpture. Independent development of it had scope only when by such steps as those above indicated it became separate; and, employed at first in temple-decoration, it gained this scope as sculpture did, in the ancillary and less sacred parts.

Partly because the Greek nature, and the relatively incoherent structure of the Greek nation, prevented the growth of an ecclesiastical hierarchy, with the normal developments arising from it, and partly—perhaps chiefly—because Greek civilization was in so large a measure influenced by the earlier civilizations adjacent to it, the further course of evolution in the art and practice of painting is broken. We can only say that the secularization became marked in the later stages of Grecian life. Though before the time of Zeuxis various painters had occupied themselves with such semi-secular subjects as battles and with other subjects completely secular, yet, generally executed as these were for the ancillary parts of temples, and being tinctured by that sentiment implied in the representation of great deeds achieved by ancestors, they still preserved traces of religious origin. This is, indeed, implied by the remark which Mr. Poynter quotes from Lucian, that Zeuxis cared not "to repeat the representations of gods, heroes, and battles, which were already hackneyed and familiar."

The first stages in the history of painting, and of those who practiced it, after the rise of Christianity, are confused by the influences of the pagan art at that time existing. It was only after this earliest Italian art, religious like other early art in nearly all its subjects, had been practically extinguished by barbarian invaders, that characteristic Christian art was initiated by introduction of the methods and usages which had been preserved and developed in Constantinople; and the art thus recommended, entirely devoted to sacred purposes, was entirely priestly in its executants. "From the monasteries of Constantinople, Thessalonica, and Mount Athos," says Mr. Poynter, "Greek artists and teachers passed into all the provinces of Southern Europe;" and thereafter, for a long period, the formal Byzantine style prevailed everywhere.

Of the scanty facts illustrating the subsequent relations between priest and painter in early Christian Europe, one is furnished by the ninth century.

Bogoris, the first Christian king of the Bulgarians, solicited the emperor Michael "for the services of a painter competent to decorate his palace," and the "emperor dispatched [the monk] Methodius to the Bulgarian Court." The continuance of this connection is shown by the following passage from Eastlake's History:

"In the practice of the arts of design, as in the few refined pursuits which were cultivated or allowed during the darker ages, the monks were long independent of secular assistance. Not only the pictures, but the stained glass, the gold and silver chalices, the reliquaries, all that belonged to the decoration and service of the church, were designed, and sometimes entirely executed by them; and it was not till the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when the knowledge of the monastery began to be shared by the world at large, that painting in some degree emerged from this fostering though rigid tuition."

Along with the practice of paintings went knowledge of the ancillary art, the preparation of colors. In a later passage Eastlake says:—

"Cennini, speaking of the mode of preparing a certain color, says that the receipt could easily be obtained, 'especially from the friars.'"

In another passage there is implied an early step in secularization.

"Colors and other materials, when not furnished by monks who retained the ancient habits of the cloister, were provided by the apothecary." And further steps in the divergence of lay painters from clerical painters are implied by the statement of Laborde, quoted by Levasseur, to the effect that the illuminators of the thirteenth century had for the most part been monks, but that in the fourteenth and fifteenth laymen competed with them. Various painters in miniature and oil are mentioned. Painters continued to be illuminators as well; they also painted portraits and treated some sacred subjects.

Throughout early Christian art, devoted exclusively to sacred subjects, there was rigid adherence to authorized modes of representation, as in ancient pagan art—Egyptian or Greek. Over ecclesiastical paintings this control continued into the last century; as in Spain, where, under the title of Pictor Christianus, there was promulgated a sacro-pictorial law prescribing the composition of pictures in detail. Nay, such regulation continues still. M. Didron, who visited the churches and monasteries of Greece in 1839, says:—

"Ni le temps ni le lieu ne font rien à l'art grec; au XVIIIe siècle, le peintre moréote continue et calque le peintre vénitien du Xe le peintre athonite du Ve ou VIe. Le costume des personnages est partout et en tout temps le même, non-seulement pour la forme, mais pour la couleur, mais pour le dessin, mais jusque pour le nombre et l'epaisseur des plis. On ne saurait pousser plus loin l'exactitude traditionnelle, l'esclavage du passé."

And Sir Emerson Tennent, à propos of the parallelism between the rigid code conformed to by the monkish artists of the East and the code, equally rigid, conformed to by the Buddhists of Ceylon, quotes an illustrative incident concerning these priest-painters of Mount Athos, who manufacture pictures to pattern with. "almost the rapidity of machinery." M. Didron wished to have a copy of the code of instructions "drawn up under ecclesiastical authority," but "the artist, when solicited by M. Didron to sell 'cette bible de son art,' naïvely refused, on the simple ground that 'en perdant son Guide, il perdait son art; il perdait ses yeux et ses mains'"

Concerning later stages in the rise of the lay painter, it must suffice to say that from the time of Cimabue, who began to depart from the rigidly formal style of the priestly Byzantine artists, the lay element predominated. Amid a number of apparently nonclerical painters, only a few clerics are named; as Don Lorenzo, Fra Giovanni, Fra Philippo Lippi, Fra Bartolommeo. But meanwhile it is to be observed that these secular painters, probably at first, like the secular sculptors, assistants to the priests in their work, were occupied mainly and often exclusively with sacred subjects.

Along with this differentiation of the lay painter from the clerical painter there began a differentiation of lay painters from one another; and the facts show us a gradual beginning where imagination would have suggested only an abrupt beginning. As I learn from an academician, the first form of portrait (omitting some painted under a surviving classic influence in those earliest days before art was extinguished by the barbarians) was that of the donor of a sacred picture to a church or other ecclesiastical edifice, who was allowed to have himself represented in a corner of the picture on his knees with hands joined in supplication.

Something similar happened with another form of art. Landscapes made their first appearance as small and modest backgrounds to representations of sacred personages and incidents—backgrounds the composition of which displays an artificiality congruous with that of the figure-composition. In course of time this background assumed a greater importance, but still it long remained quite subordinate. After it had ceased to be a mere accompaniment, landscape-painting in its secularized form was but partially emancipated from figure-painting. When it grew into a recognized branch of art, the title "Landscape with figures," was still generally applicable; and down to our own day it has been thought needful to put in some living creatures. Only of late has landscape pure and simple, absolutely divorced from human life, become common.

Of course various classes and sub-classes of artists, broadly if not definitely marked off, are implied by these and other specialized kinds of paintings: some determined by the natures of the subjects treated and others by the natures of the materials used.

For form's sake it is requisite to say that here as always those units of a society who make themselves distinct by performing functions of a certain kind, presently, along with separation from the rest, begin to unite with one another. The specialized individuals form a specialized aggregate.

When in the Middle Ages the artists employed as assistants to priests for ecclesiastical decoration became a class, they grew into something like guilds. Levasseur, quoting Laborde, says they were hardly distinguished from artisans: like them they formed corporations under the name of paintres, tailleurs d'ymaiges et voirriers. In Italy during the fourteenth century a Brotherhood of Painters arose, which, taking for its patron St. Luke the Evangelist, had for its purpose, partly mutual instruction and partly mutual assistance and protection.

That in modern times the tendency to integration has been illustrated all know. It needs only further to remark that the growth of the chief art corporations has been followed by the growth of minor art corporations, some of them specialized by the kinds of art practiced; and also that embodiment of the profession is now aided by art periodicals, and especially by one. The Artist, devoted to professional culture and interests.

Mention is made in Prof. Frederick Starr's Comparative Religion Notes, in the Biblical World, of the important place in the ceremonials of the Indian tribes of the Southwest occupied by curious pictures or mosaics made of sand. Different colored sands are procured by pounding up the various kinds of rocks. The designs are made by qualified persons, according to a prescribed method, after preparatory purification. Colors and designs are symbolical. In making them the sand taken in the hand is allowed to run out between the thumb and forefinger along the lines to be produced. The practice is found among various pueblo peoples and among the Navajos; and notice is made of similar observances among the Hindus and Parsees; and sand pictures are made as a street amusement in Japan.

The London Spectator gathers from a number of letters it has received that "a great many cultivated people like their small superstitions. . . . Some dislike trusting their reason wholly, because, they think, that way agnosticism may lie; some feel in their superstitious beliefs an antiquarian charm, or relation to their forebears; while others appear to have the feeling that, if they cleared the superstitions wholly out, their mental scenery would be rendered base and marred by sameness. . . . They do not all put the question, but all we think are inclined to ask us, as one rather clever old lady has done, what harm the petty superstitions do? Why not throw salt over your shoulder if you spill it?"

  1. Both great surprise and great satisfaction were given to me by these last sentences. When setting forth evidence furnished by. the Egyptians, I was about to include a remembered statement (though unable to give the authority), that there are wall-paintings—I think in the tombs of the kings—where a superior is represented as correcting the drawings of subordinates, and was about to suggest that, judging from the intimate relation between the priesthood and the plastic arts, already illustrated, this superior was probably a priest. And here I suddenly came upon a verifying fact supplied by a still earlier stage of culture: the priest is the director of pictorial representations when he is not the executant. Another important verification is yielded by these sentences. The essential parts of the representation are sacred in matter, and rigidly fixed in manner; but in certain non-essential, decorative parts the working artist is allowed play for his imagination. This tends to confirm the conclusion already drawn respecting Greek art. For while in a Greek temple the mode of representing the god was so fixed that change was sacrilege, the artist was allowed some scope in designing and executing the peripheral parts of the structure. He could exercise his imagination and skill on the sculptured figures of the pediment and metopes; and here his artistic genius developed.