Popular Science Monthly/Volume 6/January 1875/Evolution in Ornament

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ON the two Morgan Expeditions to the Amazonas, in 1870 and 1871, there was obtained from a burial-mound on the island of Marajó, or Johannes, a lot of ancient pottery, consisting of burial-urns, idols, utensils of various kinds, personal ornaments, etc., many of which were richly ornamented with grecques, and scrolled borders of a very high order of evelopment. The resemblance borne by some of these ornaments to Old-World classic forms was very striking, and certain borders were, even in their accessories, identical with similar ornaments in Etruscan art. It has already been pointed out by Owen Jones that the so-called Greek fret has a very wide distribution, occurring not only in Egyptian and Greek art, but in that of India and China, while, in the New World, it was cultivated widely in both Americas. The distribution of these simple ornamental forms among widely-separated savage tribes renders it extremely unlikely that they should have all been derived from a common source, and their independent origin is all the more probable, since it has been conclusively shown that identical myths, religious ideas, manners and customs, found in different parts of the earth, have often originated independently of one another. Yet, while it is quite easy to understand how pottery might be invented by two different tribes, how is it possible that the same series of ornamental forms should arise among several independent and disconnected peoples? To the solution of this question I have addressed myself, and in this paper I propose to give, in a very condensed form, some of the more important results of my studies.[1]

Purely æsthetic decorative art has had its origin in the attempt to please the eye by lines and colors, just as music has originated in the attempt to give pleasure to the ear by a rhythmic series of sounds. Imitative decorative art appeals to the understanding as well as to the feelings: it is a song with words, but mere aesthetic ornament is visible music without words, and it is to this latter division of ornament that I shall principally invite your attention.

Color and form in ornament are so very different in their functions that they must be considered apart. Of the two, form is the more important element, and, in the following discussion, color will be left out of consideration.

The secret of the pleasant effect produced upon us by beautiful lines is, I believe, to be found in the structure of the eye itself, and I shall attempt to show that a line is beautiful, not because of any inherent quality of its own, but, primarily, because of the pleasure we take in making the muscular movements necessary to run over it with the eye, though, through education, we may afterward come to recognize, at a glance, and get the full effect of a form that has once given us pleasure; just as in music, the first few notes of an aria may be sufficient to recall the general effect of the complete composition.

When I look out of my window, the image of a very large tract falls upon my retina. I see at once a multitude of houses, and the infinitude of objects that go to make up the picture, and apparently I see every thing distinctly, but this is really far from being the case. If I look suddenly out at a landscape that I have never seen before, and fix my gaze upon a church-spire for a few moments, the image of the landscape falls immovably upon the retina; but, if I now suddenly withdraw and try to reproduce by sketch or writing what I have seen, I shall find myself totally unable. I have only an indistinct impression of the church-spire and perhaps of a few prominent objects in its immediate vicinity. I have seen the landscape, but I have not observed it.[2] Now let me return, paper in hand, to sketch the same landscape. Instead of fixing my eye immovably upon one point, I deliberately run it over the leading lines of the view, and then trace lines upon the paper that produce the same effect upon my eye as those in Nature have done. My sketch will at best be imperfect, but its accuracy will be in proportion to the care with which I have examined the outlines in the landscape. In observing an object, we do not then look fixedly at it—we run the eye over it. Let us see what this means.

The retina is not in all parts equally sensitive to light, and the whole of a visual image is not distinctly perceived at once. Directly in the back part of the eye is a little spot, about a line in diameter, called the yellow spot of Sömmering, and to this distinct vision is limited, for we see clearly only the part of an image that falls within it. It is even doubtful whether we see at one time distinctly, or, in other words, can observe, more than a point in that image. If you look at the middle of this page, you really see clearly only the point directly before your eye. The rest is indistinct, and, to observe a word on another part of the page, you must move the eye so that its image may fall on the yellow spot. So in reading, you run the eye over the words, or, by moving the eye, cause their images to fall successively upon the yellow spot, and, that you may do so readily, the words are arranged in straight, horizontal lines. The eyeball, otherwise immovable, may be rotated in its socket by the action of muscles, of which, in each eye, there are four principal ones, arranged in pairs, as in Fig. 1. When A contracts, the pupil is turned in the direction B A. The pair B A then cause the eye to rotate from side to side, while the pair C D cause it to rotate in a vertical plane. By combining two contiguous muscles, as, for instance, A and C, we may move the eye obliquely in any direction. Of the oblique muscles represented in the diagram I will not here speak, as they are apparently not so important in observation as those just described.

Fig. 1. Fig. 2.

If I look at the middle of a straight, horizontal line, my head being held erect, the image of that line (a b, Fig. 2) will lie on the retina directly between the muscles A B, the central point falling in the middle of the yellow spot S. In running my eye over that line, I use the muscles A B in such a way as to draw the image through the yellow spot; and, if, in doing so, I use these muscles with perfect regularity, I say the line is straight. Perpendicular and horizontal straight lines are the more easy to examine, because their images fall directly between two opposing muscles. An oblique line is difficult to examine, and we instinctively turn the head, in order to bring it in the plane of rotation of one or the other set of muscles. In following a curved line with the eye, two muscles are used together, one contracting more rapidly than the other. A curve is therefore more difficult to observe, or run the eye over, than a straight line, and the difficulty increases with the subtileness of the curvature.[3] The æsthetic effect of curves, as of gestures, is appreciated only after long training. Their beauty is primarily due to the pleasure we take in making the muscular movements necessary to follow them, and this pleasure is strictly akin to that which we feel in tracing them with the hand, either upon paper, or simply in gesture. Pleasure-giving, graceful, muscular movements are always in curves, and their grace depends upon the subtileness of the curve.

If decorative art has had a beginning and an evolution, we should expect to find a progress from straight lines to circles, spirals, and ellipses, while more subtile curves, such as we find in Nature, would be adopted later, and this is the case, not only in the art-history of nations, but also in that of individuals, for the child must be educated not only to make, but to appreciate and enjoy beautiful lines.[4]

Man, the world over, seeks to give pleasure to the eye. He is not satisfied that an object should be useful to him; it must be at the same time beautiful; and indeed he is usually quite as anxious that it should look well, as that it should minister to his comfort. It is not enough that clothing should be warm: it must be graceful in form, and covered, more or less, with ornament. A house of logs would hold a congregation and supply all the facilities for public worship, but that is not enough. We strive to make it a palace, and enrich its walls with beautiful forms. It is verily surprising what an important element ornament is in life. Is it, then, wonderful that man, striving everywhere to please the same eye by lines, should occasionally invent, independently, similar ornamental forms, or that decorative art should, in its beginning, evolve in the same direction in different countries?

The class of ornaments I have studied with the greatest care, and, at the same time, the greatest success, is that to which the so-called "Greek fret" and "honeysuckle ornament" belong, and I now propose to discuss the question of the origin and evolution of these decorative forms, premising that other classes of ornaments may be studied in exactly the same way.

If a single straight line is pleasant to the eye, two parallel straight lines are still more so; for, in running the eye over one of the lines, we have a sort of accompaniment produced by the indistinctly-seen second line; or, in looking along an imaginary line between the two, we get the indistinct effect of both; but it must be observed that the lines must neither be too near together, nor too far apart, else the effect of the parallelism is either impaired or entirely destroyed. The whole surface of an object, as, for instance, of a vase, may be ornamented by a great number of parallel lines, and this is often the case in primitive or rude art; but, with culture, comes the tendency to draw more or less narrow bands of lines following the most important lines of the object.

A further step is taken in the attempt to make two parallel lines more agreeable to the eye by filling in the space between them with lines, drawn in various directions, and it is in this way that the frets have originated. By drawing equidistant parallel lines directly across between the two main lines, as in Fig. 3, we make a series. This, as

Fig. 3. Fig. 4.

it exists in the drawing, is a series in space, but, as it grows up under the hand, or is examined by the eye, it is a series in time; and, in looking from A to B, an effect is produced upon the eye analogous to that produced upon the ear by the repetition of a musical note, with the same interval.[5] If lines be drawn only part way across, from each side alternately, as in Fig. 4, we have a sort of rhythm produced. If the lines all reach the centre, they may be, and often are, even in very savage art, connected together by twos, as in Fig. 5. This produces a series of units, each one of which is pleasant to examine with the

Fig. 5. Fig. 6.

eye. This is the simplest form of the fret. If the lines are drawn not quite to the centre, they may be united by oblique lines, as in Fig. 6, A, and lines drawn past the centre may be connected in the same way, as in C, but neither of the resulting units is very agreeable to the eye, and such attempts are characteristic, either of a rude stage of art, or of the work of a bungler. When the lines are not drawn to the centre, they may be joined as in B, and this form of fret was much cultivated in America; but it is objectionable, apparently on account of the obliquity of the units, and it is vastly inferior to the fret, Fig. 7, A, where lines, drawn past the middle, are united in a similar way. This last is the true Greek fret, though it occurs also in

Fig. 7. Fig. 8.

American aboriginal art. The units may be made more or less involved, as in Fig. 7, but the simple forms are the more pleasing.

I have observed that in Brazil, and elsewhere in America, the artist has often taken care to separate the units in this fret from one another, either by drawing lines between them, as in Fig. 8, A, or by placing them in cartouches, B. The addition of the line in A enhances the beauty of the series by breaking up the monotony and introducing a pleasing alternation. The attempt to separate the units resulted, however, in bringing about their firm union; for it was observed

Fig. 9.

that, by obliterating the dotted spaces in Fig. 9, the whole series could be drawn without lifting the hand, and thus arose the current fret, Fig. 10. Examples of the modification of ornaments by obliteration of parts, in this way, are common, not only in aboriginal, but also in classic and modern civilized art. The bounding lines, Fig. 10, were afterward added, and greatly heighten the beauty of

Fig. 10.

the border. The current fret is not only agreeable to run the eye over, but it is pleasant to trace with the hand. Current frets may of course be more or less involved.

Unless care is taken in drawing a current fret, one is apt to round down the angles, and, in running the eye over this ornament, there is a tendency not to follow lines down to the angles, but to swerve from one line to another, avoiding the corners—the muscular movements of the eye being such as would be necessary to follow a curve. It was soon found that frets drawn, probably at first unintentionally, with rounded corners, were pleasant to examine with the eye, and afterward they were purposely rounded down, giving rise to the beautiful linked scrolls, Fig. 11. At first, the most important part of this ornamental border was the scroll, and the connecting curve was

Fig. 11. Fig. 12.

treated, so to speak, as a mere hair-line; but, by-and-by, the eye began to take more and more pleasure in following this more subtile connecting line, and it came finally to be cultivated, to the neglect of the scrolls, giving rise to the sigmoids, Fig. 12.

Some have claimed that this last ornament was originally emblematic of water. This was certainly not the case, and it never came to mean water until, having fully grown, it was recognized as resembling the curling waves of the sea. In Etruscan art we frequently find a series of little dolphins gracefully leaping over the crests, or fishes are drawn in below. Here, undoubtedly, the ornament was treated as representing water, or the sea. A host of beautiful borders grew up by combining two or more series of these scrolls and shading the spaces in various ways, but I have not time to speak of them here.

With the culture of the sigmoid curves, and the neglect of the spirals, much vacant space is left in the border which will look better if filled in with ornament.[6]

In Brazil I have found little triangles drawn in these spaces, as in Fig. 13, while exactly the same border is found in Etruscan art.

Fig. 13. Fig. 14.

It will be observed that the sides of the little triangles are approximately parallel to the parts of the sigmoids and bounding lines to which they are adjacent, thus producing a pleasant effect on the eye. The next step in the evolution of this border consists in uniting the little triangles with the sigmoids, as in Fig. 14, and this form I have observed on a Peruvian vase.

With progress in culture comes the love of variety and change. Savage music, savage art, every thing in fact in uncivilized life, is monotonous. An Amazonian Indian will listen enrapt for hours to the repetition of the same monotonous song, which produces on civilized ears only increasing torture. The fret is at first drawn with all its unity running in the same direction, but in course of time it is found that a change of direction not only relieves the eye but gives greater pleasure, and the series comes to be broken up into bars, alternating in direction. This is observable not only in the classic Greek frets, but also in similar ornaments in America. In the intervals between the bars a square figure is often introduced, and this, both in Greek and South-American art, sometimes contains a cross or a quatrefoil. Similar breaks were often introduced into the scroll-border, in which case the bars were separated by a figure, shaped more or less like a cross-section of a biconcave lens, Fig. 15, A.

Fig. 15. Fig. 16.

In Old-World decorative art the great step was taken when the sigmoids were separated and alternately reversed, as in Fig. 16. This gave an opportunity for the growth between the sigmoids, of accessory ornaments that developed into an infinitude of beautiful forms in Egyptian and Greek art. It will be observed that, in this series, the little volutions, Fig. 16, A, A, A, are turned alternately up and down. The accessory ornament corresponding to Fig. 15, A, has therefore a broad base upon which to expand on one side and a narrow one on the other. These accessory ornaments may be developed on both sides of the line of sigmoids, but in this case a double series is formed, and a single one is more effective.[7] In Greek art they were principally cultivated on the upper side, giving rise to a single series of alternately broad and narrow figures supported on a line of sigmoids, as in Fig. 17. I would therefore claim that the upright, so-called

Fig. 17.

honeysuckle ornament or Anthemium was developed from the accessory ornament A, Fig. 15, while the oblique honeysuckle ornament, Fig. 18, appears to have been developed from the little triangles, Fig. 13.

Fig. 18.

In the Greek honeysuckle ornament the lines are not only subtile and beautiful, but they flow from one another and the parent-stems tangentially, according to a recognized and readily-explainable law in decorative art. For, just as gestures that flow tangentially from one another are more agreeable to the muscles of the arm, so lines tangential to one another are more pleasant to follow with the eye than those that start abruptly from one another.

The beautiful bounding line to the figure A, Fig. 19, appears to have been added after attention had been attracted to the elegant outlines of the Anthemium. When the figures A, A, were drawn close together, but little space was left for the narrow figure B, which was

Fig. 19.

therefore compressed as in Fig. 17. As the ornaments A and B were cultivated, the sigmoids were neglected, and, in course of time, they dropped out entirely from some of the borders, leaving, however, at the base of the ornament, two little volutes, which it is important to note are in the broad figure A turned in a direction opposed to that of the generating volutes. These little basal volutes are most remarkably persistent, and serve to aid us in determining the origin of many decorative forms, that have changed to such an extent, that their relation to the Anthemium would otherwise not have been suspected. Time will not allow me to trace out at greater length the line of evolution of this series of ornaments, and I can only allude to the Acanthus border as its richest and most luxuriant outgrowth. This is a matter of history, and I do not need to discuss it here.[8]

Decorative art has developed through the constant attempt to please the eye by more and more beautiful forms, and in obedience to the law of the survival of the most beautiful or of the fittest to please; for pure, well-constructed forms are persistent, while those that are abnormal, bizarre, or not adapted to the eye, die out. We still, today, use straight lines and frets, and a multitude of beautiful forms, many of which, doubtless, have come down to us from an immense antiquity. They are normally beautiful and we shall always need them. These, I may add, are also the forms which we shall find most widely distributed.

The connection between the manufacture of pottery and the evolution of ornament is exceedingly close; and some of the most beautiful ornamental borders, etc., have originated on pottery, the soft, easily-scratched clay furnishing an excellent surface for drawing upon. In savage America the manufacture of pottery falls everywhere to the lot of women, since, as it is a branch of cooking, she, having the charge of domestic affairs, naturally makes the vessels in which to prepare food. But the-Indian woman not only makes the pottery, she also ornaments it. Elsewhere, as among certain tribes in Africa, and also among the Papuans and the Feejees, woman is the ceramic artist. Llewellyn Jewett thinks that the Celtic burial-urns were made and ornamented by women. But, the world over, woman, among savage tribes, not only makes ornamented pottery, but she spins and weaves, and makes and decorates clothes. She is, in fact, the primitive decorative artist. Even in civilized life she still loves to cover with beautiful, purely aesthetic forms every thing her hand touches, and it is through her influence, more than through that of man, that decorative art flourishes to-day. I do not know whether her greater susceptibility to the influence of decorative art-forms springs from her greater delicacy of physical organization, or whether, what is perhaps more probable, it is owing to the wants of an entirely different life from that which man leads.

Ornament is something so necessary to civilized life, so universally necessary, that, like music and the other fine arts, it merits serious and intelligent study. A song is evanescent, but a good ornament "is a joy forever." To-day, in our craving, we cover every thing about us with a motley mixture of classic and detestably rude forms, and half even of the educated really do not know how to distinguish a good ornament from a bad one. Ornamental art will never take its proper rank, and be fully appreciated, until it is, in the first place, systematically studied, and, in the second place, intelligently and widely taught.

  1. In my volume on the "Antiquities of Brazil," now nearly ready for the press, I shall, in connection with an analysis of the ornaments of the Marajó pottery, treat of this subject much more thoroughly.
  2. Observation consists in the deliberate and careful running of the eye over the features of an object so that they are distinctly seen and appreciated. It is an art only to be learned by long practice. In natural-history studies I have found drawing to be a great aid in training a student, as it affords him a test of the accuracy of his observation.
  3. A straight line is beautiful, because of the pleasure we derive from the perfectly even, regular use of the muscles employed in following it with the eye, a pleasure comparable to that produced by passing the hand over a smooth, flat surface, or by listening to a single musical note.
  4. In music we find also a progress from a monotonous series of effects, to those which may be represented by more and more subtile sounds. These are the curves of melody, of force, and of acceleration, all of which, in the evolution of music, tend to greater subtilty. I suppose that this progress from monotony to subtilty is to be explained by the unconscious desire to escape the fatigue produced by a series of too similar effects.
  5. Irregularity in the interval interrupts the æsthetic effect. As each unit in the series falls on the yellow spot and is distinctly perceived, an effect is produced upon the brain which has a certain duration, gradually fading away. If the units are separated by the same intervals, these aesthetic effects will be alike; but, if they follow one another irregularly, the effect produced will be irregular, unexpected, and consequently disagreeable. The lengthening or diminution of the intervals, according to certain laws, heightens the æsthetic effect by relief from monotony; and this appears to be the least of the pleasure we derive from gradation in tint or shade.
  6. Some writers say that a space demands ornament, but the demand is subjective, not objective.
  7. This border is more effective when used horizontally. Vertical ornamented series are very often bilateral, and much wider than horizontal borders. Where a fret or honey-suckle border runs completely round the side of a room, we shall find that the horizontal parts give more pleasure to the eye.
  8. The "egg and tongue" or "egg and arrow" border had originated from the honey-suckle border, in architecture, in the attempt to produce, by a narrow cornice, the general effect of the latter border when seen at a distance. Ruskin cannot see what arrows have to do with eggs, and, though he admits the border to be beautiful, he characterizes it as a "nonsense" ornament.