The Subject in Art.

No. II.

Resuming a consideration of the subject-matter suitable in painting and sculpture, it is necessary to repeat those premises, and to re-establish those principles which were advanced or elicited in the first number of this essay.

It was premised then that works of Fine Art affect the beholder in the same ratio as the natural prototypes of those works would affect him; and not in proportion to the difficulties overcome in the artificial representation of those prototypes. Not contending, meanwhile, that the picture painted by the hand of the artist, and then by the hand of nature on the eye of the beholder, is, in amount, the same as the picture painted there by nature alone; but disregarding, as irrelevant to this investigation, all concomitants of fine art wherein they involve an ulterior impression as to the relative merits of the work by the amount of its success, and for a like reason, disregarding all emotions and impressions which are not the immediate and proximate result of an excitor influence of, or pertaining to, the things artificial, as a bona fide equivalent of the things natural.

Or the premises may be practically stated thus: -- (1st.) When one looks on a certain painting or sculpture for the first time, the first notion is that of a painting or sculpture. (2nd.) In the next place, while the objects depicted are revealing themselves as real objects, the notion of a painting or sculpture has elapsed, and, in its place, there are emotions, passions, actions (moral or intellectual) according in sort and degree to the heart or mind-moving influence of the objects represented. (3rd.) Finally, there is a notion of a painting or sculpture, and a judgment or sentiment commensurate with the estimated merits of the work. -- The second statement gives the premised conditions under which Fine Art is about to be treated: the 3rd statement exemplifies a phase in the being of Fine Art under which it is never to be considered: and furthermore, whilst the mental reflection last mentioned (the judgment on the work) is being made, it may occur that certain objects, most difficult of artistic execution, had been most successfully handled: the merits of introducing such objects, in such a manner, are the merits of those concomitants mentioned as equally without the scope of consideration.

Thus much for the premises -- next to the re-establishment of principles.


1st. The principle was elicited, that Fine Art should regard the general happiness of man, by addressing those of his attributes which are peculiarly human, by exciting the activity of his rational and benevolent powers; and thereafter: 2nd, that the Subject in Art should be drawn from objects which so address and excite him; and 3rd, as objects so exciting the metal activity may (in proportion to the mental capacity) excite it to any amount, and so possibly in the highest degree (the function of Fine Art being mental excitement, and that of High Art being the highest mental excitement) that all objects so exciting mental activity and emotion in the highest degree, mayafford subjects for High Art.

Having thus re-stated the premises and principles already deduced, let us proceed to enquire into the propriety of selecting the Subject from the past or the present time; which enquiry resolves itself fundamentally into the analysis of objects and incidents experienced immediately by the senses, or acquired by mental education.

Here then we have to explore the specific difference between the incidents and objects of to-day, as exposed to our daily observation, and the incidents and objects of time past, as bequeathed to us by history, poetry, or tradition.

In the first pace, there is, no doubt, a considerable real difference between the things of to-day and those of times past: but as all former times, their incidents and objects differ amongst themselves, this can hardly be the cause of the specific difference sought for -- a difference between our share of things past and things present. This real, but not specific difference then, however admitted, shall not be considered here.

It is obvious, in the meanwhile, that all which we have of the past is stamped with and impress of mental assimilation: an impress it has received from the mind of the author who has garnered it up, and disposed it in that form and order which ensure it acceptance with posterity. For let a writer of history be as matter of fact as he will, the very order and classification of events will save us the trouble of confusion, and render them graspable, and more capable of assimilation, than is the raw material of every-day experience. In fact the work of mind is begun, the key of intelligence is given, and we have only to continue the process. Where the vehicle for the transmission of things past is poetry, then we have them presented in that succession, and with that modification of force, a resilient plasticity, now advancing, now recoiling, insinuating and grappling, that ere this material and mental warfare is over, we find the facts thus transmitted are incorporated with our psychical


existence. And in tradition is it otherwise?-- Every man tells the tale in his own way; and the merits of the story itself, or the person who tells it, or his way of telling, procures ita lodgment in the mind of the hearer, whence it is ever ready to start up and claim kindred with some external excitement.

Thus it is the luck of all things of the past to come down to us with some poetry about them; while from those of diurnal experience we must extract this poetry ourselves: and although all good men are, more or less, poets, they are passive or recipient poets; while the active or donative poet caters for them what they fail to collect. For let a poet walk through London, and he shall see a succession of incidents, suggesting some moral beauty by a contrast of times with times, unfolding some principle of nature, developing some attribute of man, or pointing to some glory in The Maker: while the man who walked behind him saw nothing but shops and pavement, and coats and faces; neither did he hear the aggregated turmoil of a city of nations, nor the noisy exponents of various desires, appetites and pursuits: each pulsing tremour of the atmosphere was not struck into it by a subtile ineffable something willed forcibly out of a cranium: neither did he see the driver of horses holding a rod of light in his eye and feeling his way, in a world he was rushing through, by the motion of the end of that rod: -- he only saw the wheels in motion, and heard the rattle on the stones; and yet this man stopped twice at a book shop to buy 'a Tennyson,' or a 'Browning's Sordello.' Now this man might have seen all that the poet saw; he walked through the same streets: yet the poet goes home and writes a poem; and he who failed to feel the poetry of the things themselves detects it readily in the poet's version. Then why, it is asked, does not this man, schooled by the poet's example, look out for himself for the future, and so find attractions in things of to-day? He does so to a trifling extent, but the reason why he does so rarely will be found in the former demonstration.

It was shown how bygone objects and incidents come down to us invested in peculiar attractions: this the poet knows and feels, and the probabilities are that the transferred the incidents of to-day, with all their poetical and moral suggestions, to the romantic long-ago, partly from a feeling of prudence, and partly that he himself was under this spell of antiquity, How many a Troubadour, who recited tales of king Arthur, had his incidents furnished him by the events of his own time! And thus it is the many are attracted to the poetry of things past, yet impervious to the poetry of things present. But this retrograde movement in the poet, painter, or


sculptor (except in certain cases as will subsequently appear), if not the result of necessity, is an error in judgment or a culpable dishonesty. For why should he not acknowledge the source of his inspiration, that others may drink of the same spring with himself; and perhaps drink deeper and a clearer draught? -- for the water is unebbing and exhaustless, and fills the more it is emptied: why then should it be filtered through his tank where he can teach men to drink it at the fountain?

If, as every poet, every painter, every sculptor will acknowledge, his best and most original ideas are derived from his own times: if his great lessonings to piety, truth, charity, love, honor, honesty, gallantry, generosity, courage, are derived from the same source; why transfer them to distant periods, and make them not things of to-day? Why teach us to revere the saints of old, and not our own family-worshippers? Why to admire the lance-armed knight, and not the patience-armed hero of misfortune? Why to draw a sword we do not wear to aid and oppressed damsel, and nota purse which we do wear to rescue an erring one? Why to worship a martyred St. Agatha, and nota sick woman attending the sick? Why teach us to honor an Aristides or a Regulus, and not one who pays an equitable, though to him ruinous, tax without a railing accusation? And why not teach us to help what the laws cannot help? -- why teach us to hate a Nero or an Appius, and not an underselling oppressor of workmen and betrayer of women and children? Why to love a Ladie in bower, and not a wife's fireside? Why paint or poetically depict the horrible race of Ogres and Giants, and not show Giant Despair dressed in that modern habit he walks the streets in? Why teach men what were great and good deeds in the old time, neglecting to show them any good for themselves? -- till these questions are answered absolutory to the artist, it were unwise to propose the other question -- why a poet, painter or sculptor is not honored and loved as formerly? "As formerly," says some avowed sceptic in old world transcendency and golden age affairs, "I believe formerly the artist was as much respected and cared for as he is now. 'Tis true the Greeks granted an immunity from taxation to some of their artists, who were often great men in the state, and even the companions of princes. And are not some of our poets peers? Have not some of our artists received knighthood from the hand of their Sovereign, and have not some of them received pensions?"

To answer objections of this latitude demands the assertion of certain characteristic facts which, tho' not here demonstrated, may be authenticated by reference to history. Of these, the facts of


Alfred's disguised visit to the Danish camp, and Aulaff's visit to the Saxon, are sufficient to show in what respect the poets of that period were held; when a man without any safe conduct whatever could enter the enemy's camp on the very eve of battle, as was here the case; could enter unopposed, unquestioned, and return unmolested! -- what could have conferred upon the poet of that day so singular a privilege? What upon the poet of an earlier time that sanctity in behoof whereof

     "The great Emathian conqueror bid spare
     The house of Pindarus, when temple and tower
     Went to the ground: and the repeated air
     Of sad Electra's poet had the power
     To save the Athenian walls from ruin bare."
What but an universal recognition of the poet as an universal benefactor of mankind? And did mankind recognize him as such, from some unaccountable infatuation, or because his labours obtained for him and indefeasible right to that estimate? How came it, when a Greek sculptor had completed some operose performance, that his countrymen bore him in triumph thro' their city, and rejoiced in his prosperity as identical with their own? How but because his art had embodied some principle of beauty whose mysterious influence it was their pride to appreciate -- or he had enduringly moulded the limbs of some well-trained Athlete, such as it was their interest to develop, or he had recorded the overthrow of some barbaric invader whom their fathers had fallen to repel.

In the middle ages when a knight listened, in the morning, to some song of brave doing, ere evening he himself might be the hero of such song. -- what wonder then that he held sacred the function of the poet! Now-a-days our heroes (and we have them) are left unchapleted and neglected -- and therefore the poet lives and dies neglected.

Thus it would appear from these facts (which have been collaterally evolved in course of enquiring into the propriety of choosing the subject from past or present time, and in course of the consequent analysis) that Art, to become a more powerful engine of civilization, assuming a practically humanizing tendency (the admitted function of Art), should be made more directly conversant with the things, incidents, and influences which surround and constitute the living world of those whom Art proposes to improve, and, whether it should appear in event that Art can or can not assume this attitude without jeopardizing her specific existence, that such a consummation were desirable must be equally obvious in either case.


Let us return now to the former consideration. It was stated that the poet is affected by every day incidents, which would have little or no effect on the mind of a general observer: and if you ask the poet, who from his conduct may be the supposed advocate of the past as the fittest medium for poetic eduction, why he embodied the suggestions of to-day in the matter and dress of antiquity; he is likely to answer as follows. -- "you have stated that men pass by that which furnishes me with my subject: If I merely reproduce what they slighted, the reproduction will be slighted equally. It appears then that I must devise some means of attracting their sympathies -- and the medium of antiquity is the fittest for three several reasons. 1st. -- nothing comes down to us from antiquity unless fraught with sufficient interest of some sort, to warrant it being worthy of record. Thus, all incidents which we possess of the old time being more or less interesting, there arises an illative impression that all things of old really were so: and all things in idea associated with that time, whether real or fictitious, are afforded a favorable entertainment. Now these associations are neither trivial nor fanciful:* [Footnote: Here the author, in the person of respondent, takes occasion to narrate a real fact.] for I remember to have discovered, after visiting the British Museum for the first time, that the odour of camphor, for which I had hitherto no predilection, afforded me a peculiar satisfaction, seemingly suggestive of things scientific or artistic; it was in fact a literary smell! All this was vague and unaccountable until some time after when this happened again, and I was at once reminded of an enormous walrus at the British Museum, and then remembered how the whole collection, from end to end, was permeated with the odour of camphor! Still, despite the consciousness of this, the camphor retains its influence. Now let a poem, a painting, or sculpture, smell ever so little of antiquity, and every intelligent reader will be full of delightful imaginations. 2nd. -- all things ancient are mysterious in obscurity: -- veneration, wonder, and curiosity are the result. 3rd. -- all things ancient are dead and gone: -- we sympathize with them accordingly. All these effects of antiquity, as a means of enforcing poetry, declare it too powerful an ally to be readily abandoned by the poet." To all this the painter will add that the costume of almost any ancient time is more beautiful than that of the present -- added to which it exposes more of that most beautiful of all objects, the human figure.

Thus we have a formidable array of objections to the choice of


present-day subjects: and first, it was objected and granted, that incidents of the present time are well nigh barren in poetic attraction for the many. Then it was objected, but not granted, that their poetic or pictorial counterparts will be equally unattractive also: but this last remains to be proved. It was said, and is believed by the author, (and such as doubt it he does not address) that all good men are more or less poetical in some way or other; while their poetry shows itself at various times. Thus the business-man in the street has other to think of than poetry; but when he is inclined to look at a picture, or in his more poetical humour, will he neglect the pictorial counterpart of what he neglected before? To test this, show him a camera obscura, where there is a more literal transcript of present-day nature than any painting can be: -- what is the result? He expresses no anxiety to quit it, but a great curiosity to investigate; he feels it is very beautiful, indeed more beautiful than nature: and this he will say is because he does not see nature as an artist does. Now the solution of all this is easy: 1st. He is in a mood of mind which renders him accessible to the influences of poetry, which was not before the case. 2nd. He looks at that steadily which he before regarded cursorily; and, as the picture remains in his eye, it acquires an amount of harmony, in behoof of an intrinsic harmony resident in the organ itself, which exerts proportionately modifying influences on all things that enter within it; and of the nervous harmony, and the beautifully apportioned stimuli of alternating ocular spectra. 3rd. There is a resolution of discord effected by the instrument itself, inasmuch as its effects are homogeneous. All these harmonizing influences are equally true of the painting; and though we have no longer the homogeneous effect of the camera, we have the homogeneous effect of one mind, viz., the mind of the artist.

Thus having disproved the supposed poetical obstacles to the rendering of real life or nature in its own real garb and time, as faithfully as Art can render it, nothing need be said to answer the advantages to the antique or mediaeval rendering; since they were only called in to neutralize the aforesaid obstacles, which obstacles have proved to be fictitious. It remains then to consider the artistic objection of costume, &c., which consideration ranges under the head of real differences between the things of past and present times, a consideration formerly postponed. But this requiring a patient analysis, will necessitate a further postponement, and in conclusion, there will be briefly stated the elements of the argument, thus. -- it must be obvious to every physicist that physical beauty (which this subject involves on the one side [the ancient] as opposed to the


want of it on the other [the modern]) was in ancient times as superior to physical beauty in the modern, as psychical beauty in the modern is superior to psychical beauty in the ancient. Costume then, as physical, is more beautiful ancient than modern. Now that a certain amount of physical beauty is requisite to constitute Fine Art, will be readily admitted; but what that amount is, must be ever undefined. That the maximum of physical beauty does not constitute the maximum of Fine Art, is apparent from the facts of the physical beauty of Early Christian Art being inferior to that of Grecian art; whilst, in the concrete, Early Christian Art is superior to Grecian. Indeed some specimens of Early Christian Art are repulsive rather than beautiful, yet these are in many cases the highest works of Art.

In the "Plague at Ashdod," great physical beauty, resulting from picturesque costume and the exposed human figure, was so far from desirable, that it seems purposely deformed by blotches of livid color; yet the whole is a most noble work of Poussin. Containing as much physical beauty as this picture, the writer remembers to have seen an incident in the streets where a black-haired, sordid, wicked-headed man, was striking the butt of his whip at the neck of a horse, to urge him round an angle of the pavement; a smocked countryman offered him the loan of his mules :a blacksmith standing by, showed him how to free the wheel, by only swerving the animal to the left: he, taking no notice whatever, went on striking and striking; whilst a woman waiting to cross, with a child in her one hand, and with the other pushing its little head close to her side, looked with wide eyes at this monster.

This familiar incident, affording a subject fraught with more moral interest than, and as much picturesque matter as, many antique or mediaeval subjects, is only wanting in that romantic attraction which, by association, attaches to things of the past. Yet, let these modern subjects once excite interest, as it really appears they can, and the incidents of to-day will acquire romantic attractions by the same association of ideas.

The claims of ancient, mediaeval, and modern subjects will be considered in detail at a future period.

Read Part I of this essay




Last modified 5/22/95