Popular Science Monthly/Volume 56/April 1900/The Science of Art Form

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TASTE is so free and so subjective, so largely a matter of personal feeling, that any selection or limitation of attractive objects would be met by plausible objection. Every honest and unprejudiced investigator must, however, admit nowadays that his individual taste may be informed and purified, and that he is under obligations to be ever ready to explain and to justify it. The day for the mere proclaiming of preference has passed. The proclamation must be accompanied by explanations which will satisfy others, if they do not convince them, and which will be clear to one's own understanding. The authoritative explanation, "I like this, I dislike that," will no more pass current nor carry weight. Science has sufficiently studied the sentiments and emotions to know that they, too, are subject to laws which must be acknowledged and obeyed. Excitations for which there is no reasonable accounting, no justifiable source, must be relegated to the domain of folly. The reason for everything that appertains to thought and emotion, if not apparent, must be exposed and presented. Artists must explain their works to vulgar understanding. Writers must make their criticisms plain to the humble intellect. The age in which we live takes nothing for granted, accepts no man's ipse dixit, hates shams, is intolerant of secrecy, hypocrisy, and fraud.

I propose in this article, by contrasting good and bad examples, to put before readers a few of the simplest elements of decoration. You can hardly fail to note the differences, and when once the eye has acquired the habit of discriminating there is no reason why there should not follow a growth in perception which will result in delightful and augmenting artistic enjoyment. No attempt is to be made to develop a system, nor, of course, to cover the whole ground of the subject. The object is simply to start perceptions in the right direction.

Almost all the ideas and the illustrations of this article are taken from a little work by Henri Mayeux, called La Composition Décorative. Henri Mayeux is Professor of Decorative Art in the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His work is one of the series of the Bibliothèque de l’Enseignement des Beaux-Arts, a series which PSM V56 D0702 Superiority of artfully executed work over a plain version.pngFig. 1. should be among the very first works to be found in the library of every student of art.

The very first of Mayeux's illustrations (Fig. 1) introduces the style of the teaching of the volume and of this article. Let me translate his accompanying description: "Here are two recipients of the same height, made of the same material, and with about equal care. Each has two handles and is decorated by the same number of fillets. The one marked A is the work of an ordinary potter, without artistic instinct or education. The other, B, is a Greek vase of fine and delicate taste. No one can fail to appreciate the superiority of B to A. The purity of its profile, the graceful manner in which the handles are attached, the calculated division of the fillets, establish at once a considerable difference of artistic value between the two objects." If Mayeux were addressing beginners he might add that one reason why all jugs and vases are round is that the shape is the easiest to make. The potter's wheel must have been one of the very earliest inventions of semi-civilized races. Besides, as a drop of water is globular, it seems appropriate that liquids should be contained in round receptacles. A square jug would not only seem inappropriate, but it would be ugly and perhaps difficult to handle. Notice in B how much better the different parts are distinguished: the neck from the body of the vessel, and the body of the vessel from the foot. PSM V56 D0703 Application of ornament to form 1.pngFig. 2. Two fillets are also very appropriately put where the vessel is largest, and where they seem to convey a sense of increased strength exactly where the pressure is greatest. You will find all the way through the study of ornament that utility, or use, is a fundamental principle which can not be violated without impairing beauty.

Before presenting objects for comparison it may be well to pass in review the elements which compose all objects. Decoration is the application of ornament to form. It therefore presupposes knowledge of both form and ornament, for form must be understood by itself, and ornament by itself, PSM V56 D0703 Application of ornament to form 2.pngFig. 3. before the proper ornament may be selected for the given form. The elements of form are length, breadth, and thickness. A mathematical point is conceived to have no dimensions, a mathematical line but one, and a mathematical plane but two. But in actuality there is no tangible object without the third dimension—thickness. Still, where two dimensions are very much more prominent than the third—as, for instance, in a plaque, in the side of a room, in a single elevation of a building, or whenever merely the surface of an object is viewed—the third dimension may be left out of consideration. Lines and the surfaces they bound—that is, length and breadth form which play the chief part in decoration. If the two vases which are represented in the view by vertical and horizontal, straight and curved lines, were actually before us you would have difficulty in finding any vertical lines, and the horizontal lines would turn out to be circles. The lines in the view mark the apparent terminations of the surfaces. For purposes of study, however, you must regard objects of three dimensions as bounded by lines, just as they appear in photographs, drawings, or other flat representations, geometric or perspective. In regarding objects from the point of view of decoration there is still another element to be considered; that is, the element of material, the substance of which objects consist, for it is evident that the ornament which would be appropriate to wood, for instance, PSM V56 D0704 Ornamentation used to embellish form.pngFig. 4. might not be appropriate to metal or to stone. The element of material is of great importance in practical decoration, but of less importance in theoretical decoration. Lines and surfaces are therefore the two chief elements of decoration to be considered at present. Color, being an element of an entirely independent nature, will not be considered at all.

First, lines. The lines down one side of an object may be called the profile of the object, while the lines surrounding the object may be called the contour or outline of the object.

Profiles and outlines are made up of any number of straight and curved lines connected at any and every variety of angle. The view (Fig. 2) shows a few possibilities of combination of lines into profiles. The particular thing to be observed in these profiles is that individual curves are preceded or followed by curves which curve in the same direction or in the opposite direction—that is, regarding the curves as concave or convex from a given side of the profile, sometimes a concave curve meets a concave curve, sometimes it meets a convex curve. In these particular profiles the straight lines which unite the curves are so small and so insignificant that they appear as mere connections. Where the adjoining curves are homogeneous the connection is called conintuous—raccords continus, as Mayeux puts it. When the adjoining curves are different, the connection is called contrasted—raccords contrastés. In the view all continuous connections are marked a; all contrasted connections are marked b. Now follow these lines up and down slowly and deliberately—not once or twice, but a number of times. See exactly where the connections occur,

PSM V56 D0705 French names given to ordinary greek forms.png

Fig. 5.

and where the connections are continuous, and where they are contrasted. In these profiles are shown forth and made evident two of the most important and general laws not only of ornament, but of all artistic composition: First, that connected curves of the same kind must run substantially in the same direction; and, second, that for purposes of strong contrast curves of different kinds must be joined—that is to say, that where contrasted connection is desired, the difference in direction must be abruptly and sharply indicated. In the profiles in the view the various curves have been continued in dotted lines beyond the profiles, so as to bring out

PSM V56 D0706 Proportional differences indicating good and bad designs.png

Fig. 7.

and make clear these two laws. You see that wherever there is a b. the dotted lines cross at, or nearly at, right angles, and that wherever there is an a. there is no crossing at all of the dotted lines. The essence of these two laws is of such importance in all artistic and decorative composition that beginners might well be put to drawing profiles until the principles involved have been absorbed and made a part of artistic apprehension. The profiles in the view are all pleasing, because the laws are observed. Try your hand at drawing profiles in which the laws are not observed, and you will quickly perceive the difference. The most beautiful of pure profiles are those presented by Greek entablatures. The most beautiful of Greek outlines are those presented by Greek vases. The beauties of Greek sculpture and of renaissance design belong so strictly to the domain of pure art PSM V56 D0706 Changing of curves and the addition of fillets improve the design.pngFig. 7. that they may not be used for comparison in an article on ornament.

As outlines are composed of profiles, the same laws govern. That the curved line is the line of beauty stands out most evidently in the study of antique designs. Vertical lines and horizontal lines are the lines of support and strength, and must always have proper consideration; but in pure ornament the office of straight lines seems to be confined to connecting curves and to emphasizing their contrasts.

The next view (Fig. 3) is to illustrate the progress already made. On the upper line are the three rough outline sketches for modern articles, of which the final use and destination are shown on the lower line. In the sketch to the left the fine effect is produced by a few curves, of which the connections are boldly and finely contrasted. In the second sketch an equally pleasing effect is produced by curves, of which the principal ones are continuously connected, while in the third sketch there is a pleasing exhibition of both kinds of connections. The lower line gives you your first

Contours báards et indécis.

PSM V56 D0707 Indecisive undistinguished and misdirecting contours 1.png

Fig. 8.

notion of the use of ornament in marking and embellishing the lines of form. The next view (Fig. 4) exposes forms in which the above laws are violated, and by whose ugliness you can not fail to be impressed. On the top line are objects of which the curves are so weak and undecided that it would be difficult to state whether the connections are continuous or contrasted. In the second line is shown how ugly is the effect when straight lines are substituted for curved lines, and in the third line is shown how ugly effects may be produced

PSM V56 D0707 Indecisive undistinguished and misdirecting contours 2.png

Fig. 9.

even by curved lines when not used in obedience to some accepted and apprehended principle.

There is another presentation of form which is in reality but a modification of profile, but which, because it looks as if it had been separately applied, and also because it is separately treated in books, must be considered by itself. The term "molding" has been given to variations in surfaces which have both useful and ornamental uses. Moldings are as old as architecture, and vary with schools of architecture.

In the next view (Fig. 5), taken from Mayeux's work, are given the most ordinary Greek moldings with their French names. However necessary it must be for the architect, and however admirable it may be for the art student, to know the names of all moldings by heart and to be able to describe each one accurately, such proficiency is not required at present and is not necessary for the

PSM V56 D0708 Unstable objects used for show rather than useful purpose.png

Fig. 10.

understanding of the present theme. Some moldings have square edges, some round. The curved edges of some are simple, of others complex. Each has its name, and of some the name is descriptive. The term molding would seem to indicate that moldings were made apart and subsequently applied to the main object. Whatever be the origin of moldings, the same rules apply to them which apply to other profiles, with the additional rule that moldings must always be kept subordinate to the principal object. For instance, in the view (Fig. 6) the pedestal marked bon is good, because the body of the pedestal is the principal object and it is clearly seen that the moldings at the base and at the top are subordinate and merely ornamental, while the pedestal marked mauvais is decidedly bad, because more vertical space is given to the moldings than to the shaft, confusing outline, weakening the shaft, and destroying the sense of strong and steady support.

Readers may at once make use of the information already acquired by seeing how these rules apply to their own lamps, candlesticks, pieces of furniture, etc.

The next view (Fig. 7) shows incidentally how much better it is under all circumstances to mark with fillets and lines the changes

PSM V56 D0709 Patterns reminiscent of italian tapestries.png

Fig. 11.

from one curve to another, for you certainly see how much more substantial character and beauty has B than A.

Finally, let it be said, and said emphatically, that though there are profiles which require the use of the compass to draw them, and though all architectural details must be worked out with mathematical accuracy, those profiles and outlines are the most beautiful where it is evident that artistic skill governing a free hand has controlled and where mechanical assistance is so subordinate as to be overlooked.

There is very little to be said about surfaces or forms of two dimensions. The principal requirement is that outlines should be agreeable and must be well defined. In fact, the two qualities are inseparable, for a well-defined outline is agreeable and a badly defined one is sure to be disagreeable. By well-defined is meant that its particular shape should easily appear and be clearly distinguishable. For instance, a square should appear with sides distinctly equal; a circle should have but one center. In an architectural opening either arch or entablature should prevail, and the character of the arch should be evident. In the examples presented (Fig. 8) in the view these principles are violated. PSM V56 D0710 Equilibrium and stability of design in pendants.pngFig. 12. The first figure is so clearly a square that at first, and before you have examined it closely, you think it is a square. It leaves an indefinite and consequently disagreeable impression. The same criticism applies to the second object, apparently a mirror. The glass is round, but the frame is so irregular that the impress of the circle is destroyed, and there is left an undecided and therefore uncomfortable sensation. In the third example the arch is so poorly defined and so weak, while the entablature above it is so strong and so prominent, that the result is a composition that fails to give pleasure, because no distinct idea is conveyed. In the last example the outlines of the arch are so indefinite that its character is indistinguishable. You can not see which prevails, the round arch or the pointed arch.

The same principles apply to smaller objects and to details, as seen in the next view (Fig. 9). To the left the date plate on top is bad in comparison with the one beneath it, because its direction is not so well marked and its corner projections are too large. In the lambrequins on the right, those are good in which the general direction is properly marked, and in which subdivisions are kept properly subordinated. Lambrequins have so entirely gone out of use nowadays that it is difficult to recall the time when they were regarded as indispensable parts of furniture.

There is one other point to which your attention should be called—that is, stability. If an object be intended to stand, its center of gravity should be so well within its base that there will be no danger of its being upset by the ordinary uses to which it is exposed. Pots and pans, pitchers, lamps, and candlesticks, of general and daily household use, should have bases so broad and weight so low that the accidental bump of the inexperienced "help" will not be inevitably fatal.

When utensils are made more for show than for use, as those in Fig. 10, and are to occupy places of comparative security, beauty more than utility may be considered in the proportions of their supports. Where utility has disappeared altogether and the suggested outline of a vase, for instance, is used for purely ornamental purpose, supports may be done away with altogether, as appears in these drawings of Italian tapestries of the seventeenth century (Fig. 11).

The stability of pendant objects must also be considered. It is evident that the perpendicular line of suspension must be the line of equilibrium, and that these two must correspond with the design (Fig. 12). Whether any objects should under any circumstances be exposed to the real and apparent danger of falling is a question. We have got so into the habit of hanging pictures, engravings, and other works of art in our houses, and of seeing them hung in galleries, that we have lost sight of the incongruity of the custom. Pictures should be impaneled, and be permanent parts of the walls on which they appear. But, then, how could they be moved when owners tire of them, or tire of their houses, or how could they be gathered together in museums for purposes of study and public enjoyment? Picture frames are of comparatively modern invention. The idea of buying a picture for the purpose of selling it again was not entertained before the fifteenth century. Pictures were as substantial parts of churches and houses as were shrines and fireplaces.

Having very cursively reviewed the elements of form, we are in a position to understand decoration, which is simply the application to form of ornament.

The highest authenticated points at which flowering plants have heretofore been found growing upon the Andes are at about 17,000 feet, although the Kew Herbarium contains several specimens labeled as having been found at altitudes of from 17,000 to 18,000 feet. Sir Martin Conway has brought back from his recent explorations in the Bolivian mountains at least half a dozen species from 18,000 feet and upward, the highest being from about 18,500 feet. They include a saxifrage, a mallow, a valerian, and several Compositæ. Composite likewise attain the upper limit of phanerogamous vegetation in Thibet, where, in latitudes from 30° to 34°, one was found by Dr. Thorold at 19,000 feet.