On the Mechanism of a Historical Picture.




Part I. The Design.


OA In tracing these memoranda of the course to be pursued in producing a work of the class commonly denominated " Historic Art," we have no wish to set ourselves in opposition to the practice of other artists. We are quite willing to believe that there may be various methods of working out the same idea, each productive of a satisfactory result. Should anyone therefore regard it as a subject for controversy, we would only reply that, if different, or to them better, methods be adopted by other painters, no less certain is it that there are numbers who at the onset of their career have not the least knowledge of any one of these methods ; and that it is chiefly for such that these notes have been penned. In short, that to all about to paint their first picture we address ourselves.

The first advice that should be given, on painting a historical picture, ought undoubtedly to be on the choosing of a fit subject ; but, the object of the present paper being purely practical, it would ill commence with a question which would entail a dissertation bearing upon the most abstract properties of Art. Should it afterwards appear necessary, we may append such a paper to the last number of these articles ; but, for the present, we will content ourselves with beginning where the student may first encounter a difficulty in giving body to his idea.

The first care of the painter, after having selected his subject, should be to make himself thoroughly acquainted with the character of the times, and habits of the people, which he is about to represent ; and next, to consult the proper authorities for his costume, and such objects as may fill his canvass ; as the architecture, furniture, vegetation or landscape, or accessories, necessary to the elucidation of the subject. By not pursuing this course, the artist is in danger of imagining an effect, or disposition of lines, incompatible with the costume of his figures, or objects surrounding them ; and it will be found always a most difficult thing to efface an idea that has once taken possession of the mind. Besides which, it is impossible to conceive a design with any truth, not being acquainted with the character, habits, and appearance, of the people represented.

Having, by such means, secured the materials of which his work must be composed, the artist must endeavour, as far as lies in his power, to embody the picture in his thoughts, before having recourse to paper. He must patiently consider his subject, revolving in his 71

mind every means that may assist the clear development of the story : giving the most prominent places to the most important actors, and carefully rejecting incidents that cannot be expressed by pantomimic art without the aid of text. He must also, in this mental forerunner of his picture, arrange the " grouping" of his figures,--that is, the disposing of them in such agreeable clusters or situations on his canvass as may be compatible with the dramatic truth of the whole, (technically called the lines of a composition.) He must also consider the color, and disposition of light and dark masses in his design, so as to call attention to the principal objects, (technically called the " effect.") Thus, to recapitulate, the painter, in his first conception of his picture, will have to combine three qualities, each subordinate to the other ;--the intellectual, or clear development, dramatic truth, and sentiment, of his incident ;--the construction, or disposition of his groups and lines, as most conducive to clearness, effect, and harmony ;--and the chromatic, or arrangement of colors, light and shade, most suitable to impress and attract the beholder.*

Having settled these points in his mind, as definitely as his faculties will allow of, the student will take pencil and paper, and sketch roughly each separate figure in his composition, studying his own acting, (in a looking-glass) or else that of any friend he may have of an artistic or poetic temperament, but not employing for the purpose the ordinary paid models.--It will be always found that they are stiff and feelingless, and, as such, tend to curb the vivacity of a first conception, so much so that the artist may believe an action impossible, through the want of comprehension of the model, which to himself or a friend might prove easy.

Here let the artist spare neither time nor labor, but exert himself beyond his natural energies, seeking to enter into the character of each actor, studying them one after the other, limb for limb, hand for hand, finger for finger, noting each inflection of joint, or tension of sinew, searching for dramatic truth internally in himself, and in all external nature, shunning affectation and exaggeration, and striving after pathos, and purity of feeling, with patient endeavor and utter simplicity of heart. For on this labor must depend the success of his work with the public. Artists may praise his color,


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* Many artists, chiefly of the schools not colorists, are in the habit of making their designs in outline, leaving the colors and light and shade to be thought of afterwards. This plan may offer facilities ; but we doubt if it be possible to arrange satisfactorily the colors of a work which has been designed in outline without consideration of these qualities.

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drawing, or manipulation, his chiaroscuro, or his lines ; but the clearness, truth, and sentiment, of his work will alone affect the many.

The action of each figure being now determinate, the next step will be to make a sketch in oil of the whole design ; after which, living models, as like the artist's conception as can be found, must be procured, to make outlines of the nude of each figure, and again sketches of the same, draped in the proper costume.*

From these studies, the painter will prepare a second sketch, in outline, of the whole, being, in fact, a small and hasty cartoon.*

In this last preparation of the design, the chief care of the student will be the grouping, and the correct size and place of each figure ; also the perspective of the architecture and ground plan will now have to be settled ; a task requiring much patient calculation, and usually proving a source of disgust to the novice not endowed with much perseverance. But, above all, the quality to be most studied in this outline design will be the proportion of the whole work.

And with a few remarks on this quality, which might appropriately be termed " constructive beauty in art," we will close this paper on " the Design," as belonging more properly to the mechanical than the intellectual side of art ; as being rather the slow growth of experience than the spontaneous impulse of the artistic temperament. It is a feature in art rather apt to savor of conventionality to such as would look on nature as the only school of art, who would consider it but as the exponent of thought and feeling ; while, on the other hand, we fear it likely to be studied to little effect by such as receive with indiscriminate and phlegmatic avidity all that is handed down to them in the shape of experience or time-sanctioned rule. But plastic art claims not merely our sympathy, in its highest capacity to emit thought and sentiment ; but as form, colour, light, life, and beauty ; and who shall settle the claims be-


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*There is always difficulty attending this very necessary portion of the study of the picture ; because, if the dresses be borrowed or hired, at this period they may be only wanted for a few hours, and perhaps not required again for some months to paint into the picture.--Again, if the costume have to be made, and of expensive material, the portion of it seen may be sufficient to pin on to a lay figure, without having the whole made, which could not be worn by the living model. However, with all the larger or loose draperies, it is very necessary to sketch them first from the living model.


*Should the picture be of small dimensions, it will be found more expeditious to make an outline of it on paper the full size, which can be traced on to the canvass, keeping the latter clean. On the contrary, should the painting be large, the outline had better be made small, and squared to transfer to the canvass.

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tween thought and beauty ? But art has beauties of its own, which neither impair nor contradict the beauties of nature ; but which are not of nature, and yet are, inasmuch as art itself is but part of nature : and of such, the beauties of the nature of art, is the feeling for constructive beauty. It interferes not with truth or sentiment ; it is not the cause of unlikely order and improbable symmetry ; it is not bounded by line or rule, nor taught by theory. It is a feeling for proportion, ever varying from an infinity of conflicting causes, that balances the picture as it balances the Gothic edifice ; it is a germ planted in the breast of the artist, that gradually expands by cultivation.

To those who would foster its development the only rule we could offer would be never to leave a design, while they imagine they could alter for the better (subordinate to the truth of nature) the place of a single figure or group, or the direction of a line.

And to such as think it beneath their care we can only say that they neglect a refinement, of which every great master takes advantage to increase the fascination which beauty, feeling, or passion, exercises over the multitude.



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