The Two Paths/Appendix I

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Readers who are using my Elements of Drawing may be surprised by my saying here that Tintoret may lead them wrong; while in the Elements he is one of the six men named as being "always right."

I bring the apparent inconsistency forward at the beginning of this Appendix, because the illustration of it will be farther useful in showing the real nature of the self-contradiction which is often alleged against me by careless readers.

It is not only possible, but a frequent condition of human action, to do right and be right—yet so as to mislead other people if they rashly imitate the thing done. For there are many rights which are not absolutely, but relatively right—right only for that person to do under those circumstances,—not for this person to do under other circumstances.

Thus it stands between Titian and Tintoret. Titian is always absolutely Right. You may imitate him with entire security that you are doing the best thing that can possibly be done for the purpose in hand. Tintoret is always relatively Right—relatively to his own aims and peculiar powers. But you must quite understand Tintoret before you can be sure what his aim was, and why he was then right in doing what would not be right always. If, however, you take the pains thus to understand him, he becomes entirely instructive and exemplary, just as Titian is; and therefore I have placed him among those are "always right," and you can only study him rightly with that reverence for him.

Then the artists who are named as "admitting question of right and wrong," are those who from some mischance of circumstance or shortcoming in their education, do not always do right, even with relation to their own aims and powers.

Take for example the quality of imperfection in drawing form. There are many pictures of Tintoret in which the trees are drawn with a few curved flourishes of the brush instead of leaves. That is (absolutely) wrong. If you copied the tree as a model, you would be going very wrong indeed. But it is relatively, and for Tintoret's purposes, right. In the nature of the superficial work you will find there must have been a cause for it. Somebody perhaps wanted the picture in a hurry to fill a dark corner. Tintoret good-naturedly did all he could—painted the figures tolerably—had five minutes left only for the trees, when the servant came. "Let him wait another five minutes." And this is the best foliage we can do in the time. Entirely, admirably, unsurpassably right, under the conditions. Titian would not have worked under them, but Tintoret was kinder and humbler; yet he may lead you wrong if you don't understand him. Or, perhaps, another day, somebody came in while Tintoret was at work, who tormented Tintoret. An ignoble person! Titian would have been polite to him, and gone on steadily with his trees. Tintoret cannot stand the ignobleness; it is unendurably repulsive and discomfiting to him. "The Black Plague take him—and the trees, too! Shall such a fellow see me paint!" And the trees go all to pieces. This, in you, would be mere ill-breeding and ill-temper. In Tintoret it was one of the necessary conditions of his intense sensibility; had he been capable, then, of keeping his temper, he could never have done his greatest works. Let the trees go to pieces, by all means; it is quite right they should; he is always right.

But in a background of Gainsborough you would find the trees unjustifiably gone to pieces. The carelessness of form there is definitely purposed by him;—adopted as an advisable thing; and therefore it is both absolutely and relatively wrong;—it indicates his being imperfectly educated as a painter, and not having brought out all his powers. It may still happen that the man whose work thus partially erroneous is greater far, than others who have fewer faults. Gainsborough's and Reynolds' wrongs are more charming than almost anybody else's right. Still, they occasionally are wrong—but the Venetians and Velasquez,[1] never.

I ought, perhaps, to have added in that Manchester address (only one does not like to say things that shock people) some words of warning against painters likely to mislead the student. For indeed, though here and there something may be gained by looking at inferior men, there is always more to be gained by looking at the best; and there is not time, with all the looking of human life, to exhaust even one great painter's instruction. How then shall we dare to waste our sight and thoughts on inferior ones, even if we could do so, which we rarely can, without danger of being led astray? Nay, strictly speaking, what people call inferior painters are in general no painters. Artists are divided by an impassable gulf into the men who can paint, and who cannot. The men who can paint often fall short of what they should have done;—are repressed, or defeated, or otherwise rendered inferior one to another: still there is an everlasting barrier between them and the men who cannot paint—who can only in various popular ways pretend to paint. And if once you know the difference, there is always some good to be got by looking at a real painter—seldom anything but mischief to be got out of a false one; but do not suppose real painters are common. I do not speak of living men; but among those who labour no more, in this England of ours, since it first had a school, we have had only five real painters;—Reynolds, Gainsborough, Hogarth, Richard Wilson, and Turner.

The reader may, perhaps, think I have forgotten Wilkie. No. I once much overrated him as an expressional draughtsman, not having then studied the figure long enough to be able to detect superficial sentiment. But his colour I have never praised; it is entirely false and valueless. And it would tie unjust to English art if I did not here express my regret that the admiration of Constable, already harmful enough in England, is extending even into France. There was, perhaps, the making, in Constable, of a second or third-rate painter, if any careful discipline had developed in him the instincts which, though unparalleled for narrowness, were, as far as they went, true. But as it is, he is nothing more than an industrious and innocent amateur blundering his way to a superficial expression of one or two popular aspects of common nature.

And my readers may depend upon it, that all blame which I express in this sweeping way is trustworthy. I have often had to repent of over-praise of inferior men; and continually to repent of insufficient praise of great men; but of broad condemnation, never. For I do not speak it but after the most searching examination of the matter, and under stern sense of need for it: so that whenever the reader is entirely shocked by what I say, he may be assured every word is true.[2] It is just because it so much offends him, that it was necessary: and knowing that it must offend him, I should not have ventured to say it, without certainty of its truth. I say "certainty," for it is just as possible to be certain whether the drawing of a tree or a stone is true or false, as whether the drawing of a triangle is; and what I mean primarily by saying that a picture is in all respects worthless, is that it is in all respects False: which is not a matter of opinion at all, but a matter of ascertainable fact, such as I never assert till I have ascertained. And the thing so commonly said about my writings, that they are rather persuasive than just; and that though my "language" may be good, I am an unsafe guide in art criticism, is, like many other popular estimates in such matters, not merely untrue, but precisely the reverse of the truth; it is truth, like reflections in water, distorted much by the shaking receptive surface, and in every particular, upside down. For my "language," until within the last six or seven years, was loose, obscure, and more or less feeble; and still, though I have tried hard to mend it, the best I can do is inferior to much contemporary work. No description that I have ever given of anything is worth four lines of Tennyson; and in serious thought, my half-pages are generally only worth about as much as a single sentence either of his, or of Carlyle's. They are, I well trust, as true and necessary; but they are neither so concentrated nor so well put. But I am an entirely safe guide in art judgment: and that simply as the necessary result of my having given the labour of life to the determination of facts, rather than to the following of feelings or theories. Not, indeed, that my work is free from mistakes; it admits many, and always must admit many, from its scattered range; but, in the long run, it will be found to enter sternly and searchingly into the nature of what it deals with, and the kind of mistake it admits is never dangerous, consisting, usually, in pressing the truth too far. It is quite easy, for instance, to take an accidental irregularity in a piece of architecture, which less careful examination would never have detected at all, for an intentional irregularity; quite possible to misinterpret an obscure passage in a picture, which a less earnest observer would never have tried to interpret. But mistakes of this kind—honest, enthusiastic mistakes—are never harmful; because they are always made in a true direction,—falls forward on the road, not into the ditch beside it; and they are sure to be corrected by the next comer. But the blunt and dead mistakes made by too many other writers on art—the mistakes of sheer inattention, and want of sympathy—are mortal. The entire purpose of a great thinker may be difficult to fathom, and we may be over and over again more or less mistaken in guessing at his meaning; but the real, profound, nay, quite bottomless, and unredeemable mistake, is the fool's thought—that he had no meaning.

I do not refer, in saying this, to any of my statements respecting subjects which it has been my main work to study: as far as I am aware, I have never yet misinterpreted any picture of Turner's, though often remaining blind to the half of what he had intended: neither have I as yet found anything to correct in my statements respecting Venetian architecture;[3] but in casual references to what has been quickly seen, it is impossible to guard wholly against error, without losing much valuable observation, true in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, and harmless even when erroneous.


Footnotes[edit]

  1. At least after his style was formed; early pictures, like the Adoration of the Magi in our Gallery, are of little value.
  2. He must, however, be careful to distinguish blame— however strongly expressed, of some special fault or error in a true painter,—from these general statements of inferiority or worthlessness. Thus he will find me continually laughing at Wilson's tree-painting; not because Wilson could not paint, but because he had never looked at a tree.
  3. The subtle portions of the Byzantine Palaces, given in precise measurements in the second volume of the "Stones of Venice," were alleged by architects to be accidental irregularities. They will be found, by every one who will take the pains to examine them, most assuredly and indisputably intentional,—and not only so, but one of the principal subjects of the designer's care.