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Nature," says Sir Humphry Davy, "never deceives us; the rocks, the mountains, the streams, always speak the same language; a shower of snow may hide the verdant woods in spring, a thunder storm may render the blue limpid streams foul and turbulent; but these effects are rare and transient-in a few hours, or at least days, all the sources of beauty are renovated. And nature affords no continued trains of misfortunes and miseries, such as depend upon the constitution of humanity, no hopes for ever blighted in the bud, no beings full of life, beauty, and promise, taken from us in the prime of youth. Her fruits are all balmy, bright, and sweet; she affords none of those blighted ones so common in the life of man, and so like the fabled apples of the Dead Sea, fresh and beautiful to the sight, but when tasted, full of bitterness and ashes."
THE POETRY OF PAINTING.
In turning our attention to the poetry of painting, we enter upon a subject which forms the first connecting link between the physical and the intellectual world. So far as painting is a faithful representation of external nature, it belongs to the sphere of the senses; but as it holds intimate connection with some of the noblest efforts and affections of the human mind, it is scarcely inferior to the art of poetry itself, in the value it derives from the diffusion of poetic feeling, through the countless varieties of style and character, in which it is exhibited to mankind.
The poetry of painting is perhaps more felt, and less understood, than that of any other subject to which we can apply our thoughts; nor is it easy to define what is the nature of the charm by which we are fascinated on beholding a picture in perfect accordance with our taste, especially as this taste varies so much in different individuals, and even in the same becomes more select in its gratifications, in proportion as it is more cultivated and refined.
That the poetry of painting is not mainly dependent upon the choice of subjects is clear, from the most simple and familiar
scenes being rendered poetically beautiful by the pencil of an able artist; yet there are lines of demarcation beyond which even genius dare not venture, and which cannot be transgressed without the most glaring violation of good taste. It is where the associations are such as are not only vulgar in themselves, but totally destitute of any claim upon the feelings or affections of the mind. Nor is it in the representation of scenes the most gross and degraded (though such do little credit to the taste of the painter); yet in them the violent passions which agitate our nature are frequently most powerfully and strikingly exhibited. Look, for example, upon a representation of the lowest stage of intoxication, and surely the pencil of the painter can pourtray no subject more loathsome and repulsive; yet even here the associations are not necessarily such as are altogether debarred from connection with refined intellectual speculations. In contemplating such a picture, we think immediately of the high capabilities of man, and of the dangerous profanation and abuse of his natural powers, of the spotless infancy of the being before us, the love that watched over his youth, the hopes that were centered in his manhood, and that now lie grovelling beneath him in his fall. This class of subjects then is not entirely beyond the limits of the field of poetry, though it certainly requires some stretch of fancy to prove them to be within it; yet there is another class so decidedly and irrevocably excluded, that it may not be uninteresting to mark the difference between them, and of these a single instance will be sufficient.
I remember seeing in an exhibition of paintings at Manchester, a picture of a huge red brick cotton-mill, so well executed, and so appropriately placed, as to look very handsome in its way; and no doubt that way was all-sufficient to the owner, who had a train of sweet and pleasant local associations with this picture, enjoyed snugly to himself, which if they were not poetical, had most probably a weightier charm, and one which he would not have exchanged for the lyre of Apollo. The surface of the picture was almost entirely covered with the brick building, and by its side was the all important engine-house, with tall spiral chimney
pointing to the sky, but alas! with no heavenward purpose. It was the picture of a manufactory, and nothing more-most probably the owner wanted nothing more. There was not, as there might have been, a broken foreground, denoting the rugged course of one of those polluted streams which murmur on (for what can still the voice of nature?) with the same melody as in its native woods, before the click of rattling machinery broke in upon the harmony of man's existence. There was no pale girl, with darkened brow and dejected form, returning to her most unnatural labours, a living and daily sacrifice to the triumphs of national prosperity; there was not even that deep and turbid stream, that dense and perpetually rising fountain of thick smoke, bursting, as if with indignation, from the gross confines of its narrow birthplace, first darting upwards in one compact and sable pillar, as if from the crater of a volcano, and then folding and unfolding its dark volume, until, assuming a more ethereal character, it floats away upon the gale, and ambitious of a higher union, mingles at last with the vapours that sail along the purer regions of the sky-no, there was nothing in this picture but a cotton-mill; and the wealthy owner, with a praiseworthy feeling of gratitude and respect for the origin of his prosperity and distinction in the world, had done | his best to immortalize the object that was not only the most important, but the dearest to him on earth. Yet notwithstanding this was, in the opinion of at least one individual, a picture of great merit, it was unquestionably of that class to which no single poetical idea could by any possibility be attached. It is true that such a building as was here represented, need not be without its intellectual associations. It might give rise to some of the most profound speculations relative to trade, commerce, and the wealth of nations; all that I maintain is, that this picture could not in any way call forth the passions or affections of our nature, or awaken those emotions of the soul which constitute the very essence of poetry.
In order to render the poetry of painting a subject more tractable in an unskilful and inexperienced hand, it will be necessary to consider it under its three different cha
racters-portrait, landscape, and historical painting. Of these three, portrait painting is decidedly the least calculated for the display of poetical feeling, not only because it is generally practised under the arbitrary will of those who possess neither taste nor understanding in the fine arts, but because there are so few subjects really worthy in themselves, and these few are too frequently beyond the reach of the artist; while the rubicund and wealthy citizen, having grown sleek upon turtle soup, after retiring with his rosy consort to their Belle Vue, or Prospect Cottage, in the suburbs of the town, deems it a suitable and gratifying appropriation of some portion of his hard-earned wealth, to employ one of the first artists of the day in making duplicates of forms, which a fullsized canvas is scarcely wide enough to contain, and faces, in which the expression of cent. per cent., and the distinctions of white and brown sauce, are the only visible characteristics.
While the painter is at work, sacrificing all that is noble in his art to the sad necessity for sordid gain, the gentleman insists upon a blue coat and buff waist-coat, but above all, upon a gold headed cane, which necessarily mars the picture with a bright yellow spot full in the centre. This however is a trifle by comparison, for the buttons help to carry off the glare of the gold, and the artist revenges himself by making the hand approximate to the same colour. It is in attempting to delineate the august person of the lady, that his skill and his taste are put to the severest test. With consternation in his countenance, he eyes the subject before him, and in the first agony of despair, queries within himself whether he cannot really afford to lose the offered reward. He ventures to remonstrate with great delicacy on some particular portions of the dress. But the lady is inexorable. It is a dress for which she has paid the highest price, and must look well. Money rules the day, and the painter, covering his palette with double portions of red and yellow, commences with his task. Upon the head of the fair sitter is a pink turban, interwoven with a massive gold chain, surmounting a profusion of flaxen ringlets, in the midst of which twinkle out two small blue eyes, faintly shaded by thin
eyelashes of the palest yellow, while cheeks that might vie with the deepest peony, and a figure upon which is stretched, almost without a fold, a brilliant orange dress of costly silk, make up the rest of the picture.
It is upon the same principle, and with similar restrictions, that portrait painting is generally practised in the present day. But let the painter rule his subject, and the case will be widely different. He who is worthy of his art sees at once what are its capabilities. His imagination immediately places the object before him in some appropriate situation. He assigns to it a character of which it may be wholly unconscious one to which it was by nature peculiarly adapted, though circumstances may have consigned it to a totally different destiny.
Perhaps there is no class of pictures in which the painter's want of taste is more frequently displayed, than in the portraits of children. We see them standing like wooden images, holding in one hand an orange never meant to be eaten, or flowers which it is evident they have not gathered; their hair smoothly combed, their frocks unruffled, and their blue morocco slippers unsullied by the dust of the earth. In short they are always dressed in their best to be painted, and the mother is often as solicitous about the pink sash, as about the likeness. The subject is unquestionably one of great difficulty, because the beauty of childhood consisting chiefly in the light easy movement of the playful limbs, it is almost impossible to make a child perfectly natural when at rest, and not sleeping; and it is here that the skill of the able artist is exercised in carrying on our thoughts to what the child will the next moment be doing. If he does not place in its hand a bunch of flowers, he throws into his picture a vivid atmosphere, in which we are sure that flowers are growing; and by slightly ruffling the fair hair, letting loose the folds of the dress, quickening the expression of the eye, and giving a playfulness to the almost open lips, an idea of life and motion is conveyed, and we are deluded into the belief that the very next moment the child will start off in pursuit of the butterfly, and that he will bring home with him a handful of flowers gathered from the gorgeous carpet of nature, or a wounded
bird found in his woodland rambles, to place on the maternal bosom, which has so fondly cherished him, that he believes it to have benevolence enough for all the wants and sufferings in the world.
It is possible that the same artist may be called in to paint the portrait of a poor gentleman, who having nothing else to bequeath to his children, is prevailed upon to leave them a likeness of the form they have been accustomed to venerate. The painter finds him in a mean and humble dwelling, dressed in a manner that too plainly shows his long acquaintance with urgent wants and narrow means. Yet in the noble outline of the face, the fair and finely moulded forehead, when for a moment its wrinkles are smoothed down, but above all, in the symmetry of the mouth, and the graceful motion of the lips, he reads the sad history of that gradual fall from high station and noble fortune, which has never through the whole of a long life been able to degrade the soul; and in painting the portrait of this poor gentleman, he makes a picture worthy of a place amongst the aristocracy of the land.
Or he may be required to exercise his art in painting the likeness of one of the celebrated belles of the day. It is possible that the arbitrary laws of fashion may have concealed the beauty of a form that is perfectly Grecian in its contour. The painter casts down the stately and unnatural fabric from the head, and leaving a few dishevelled ringlets to wander over the snowey temples, binds up the rest of the hair so gracefully behind, as just to leave visible the noble pillar of the neck, which proudly supports the whole. It is also possible that the rigid rules of polished society, or early discipline, or sad experience, may have rendered cold, constrained, or artificial in its expression, a countenance that was originally capable of exhibiting the deepest passions, and the finest sensibilities of our nature. The artist whose eye is quickened to an almost supernatural acuteness of perception, sees all this; and in painting the portrait of one who is by compulsion a mere fine lady, he invests it with the beauty and the pathos of a heroine.
Nor is it in the skillful management of expression alone that the poetry of this art consists. Though this is unquestionably
specify in what the poetry of the art consists.
to constitute a picture. Let one of these be the massive stem of an old tree, grey with time, and shattered with the storms of ages, wearing round its hoary brow a wild wreath of clustering ivy, and stretching forth one verdant branch, still clothed with dense foliage as in former years. Let the other be the
the most important, there are minor points, which cannot be neglected without so glaring a violation of good taste that the eye is offended; and as we have often had occasion to remark, no sooner are the senses unpleasantly affected, than the powers of the mind are arrested in their agreeable exercise, and the poetic illusion is totally destroyed. In the choice of costume, it is highly essential to the poetical charm of the portrait, that every thing wearing the cha-ceive the shadow of the first, are sufficient racter of constraint or conceit should be avoided. All those striking peculiarities which belong only to a class of beings whose feelings and avocations are entirely separate from the sphere of high mental refinement, or intellectual power, will be rejected by an artist of good taste. The coarse habit of the monk may be made sub-weedy banks of a silent river, in whose clear servient to the poetical interest of a portrait, because it is associated in our minds with ideas of reflection, study, and strict mental discipline; even that of a peasant is admissible, because his hardy frame may be animated by the bold independence and rude energy of a mountaineer; but he who would paint a butcher or a harlequin in their characteristic costume, must forfeit every pretension to the poetry of his art.
The local partiality of the Dutch painters has rendered this error strikingly conspicuous in some of their historical pieces. Whatever may be the merits of this school of artists, the national prejudice which retained the familiar costume, habits, and customs of their own peculiar people, even when representing the higher scenes and circumstances of life, proves them to have been but little qualified for the most noble and interesting branch of their art.
Besides the choice of costume, and of far higher importance, is the proper adjustment of colours, and other mechanical branches of the art of painting, which cannot properly be discussed in a chapter on poetry, but which are of unspeakable importance in producing that delightful combination of form and colour by which the eye is so entirely gratified as to repose in perfect enjoyment and to leave the imagination to wander as it will.
depths the shadow of this ancient tree is re-
It was, a few years ago, my good fortune to receive instruction from a gentleman,* who, whatever may be his other pretensions, must be unanimously acknowledged to be one of the most poetical artists of the present day; a fact which is sufficiently proved by the fearless and independent manner in which he can snatch up the most barren subject, and invest it with a mysterious beauty of his own creating. The piece which this artist first gave me to copy, was a pencil sketch of a rude entrance by a little wooden bridge, over a narrow stream, to what might be a copse-wood, or indeed a wood of any kind; for the whole picture contained nothing more than three or four trees, a few planks of time-worn timber, and the reedy banks of this stream or pool. My task was performed with diligence, and with no little self-approbation, for my friends pronounced it to be admirable; and I saw myself that
Mr. Cotman, now professor of drawing at King's
Entering upon the subject of landscape. painting, it becomes much less difficult to College, London.
the foliage of the oak was edged round with the most accurate precision, the rooks in the distance were eked out with the same economy of number, and the bulrushes that stood in the water were all manifestly tipped at the ends. While my heart bounded with internal triumph, I drew forth the interesting deposit from the portfolio in which I had conveyed it into the presence of my master, and impatiently watched the expression of his eye as he glanced over it. After looking at it for some time with less and less of what was agreeable in his countenance, he at last gave utterance to a low growl of disapprobation, and finally pronounced it to be bad in two ways-bad as a copy, and bad as a drawing. Although I was at that moment very much inclined to execrate the art so often called divine, I have since learned to look with feelings of interest almost like affection upon that simple drawing, to which my master, with a few strokes from his own able and accomplished pencil, gave a character at once touching, beautiful, and poetic. What was practically the work of this pencil, it would be foreign to my purpose (even were I able) to define. It is sufficient to say, that through the illusion of the eye, the mind was forcibly presented with the ideas of space and atmosphere. My drawing represented nothing but an even surface, covered with a minutely extended texture, woven according to the pattern, of oak leaves, reeds, water, or whatever the uninitiated pencil might vainly attempt to imitate. In the same picture, after it had received a few touches from an able hand, the most unpractised eye might behold a distinct representation of a quiet day in autumn. The rooks, which had been stationary and silent, were now winging their way towards that woodland scene, cawing at intervals with the musical and melancholy cadence, which at that particular time of the year, and especially at that particular distance, turns their harsh tones to melody. The passage of the wooden bridge had now become quite practicable, and after looking down into the bosom of the unruffled water, you might enter upon that unfrequented path, and hear the rustling of the withered grass beneath your feet; while high overhead were the majestic branches of old and stately trees, extended by the
imagination beyond what was perceptible to the eye, farther and farther, into the silent depth of the forest.
From what I then saw of the metamorphosis wrought upon this picture, and what I have since learned by observation and experience, I am inclined to think that the poetry of landscape painting is dependent, in a great degree, upon the idea of atmosphere being clearly conveyed to the mind. That scene, however laboriously or delicately executed, which, from its want of general harmony, conveys no such idea to the mind, deserves not the name of a picture; but that which draws forth the emotions of the soul by a correspondence with impressions made upon it by the sun, the sky, the seasons, or the hour of the day, may be highly and intensely poetical, though simple and unpretending in itself. This idea must be strongly impressed upon the memory and the imagination of the painter before he begins his task. As in the natural world the colour and character of every visible object is affected by the air which is invisible, so in all representations of external nature there must be that perfect harmony pervading the whole scene, which is in keeping with any particular state of the atmosphere, of which the artist may wish to convey an impression to others; and thus, through the medium of form and colour operating upon the eye, the mind receives distinctly and forcibly the idea of that which possesses neither form nor colour in itself, and which no eye is capable of beholding.
I never saw the want of atmosphere more striking than in a picture full of peacocks. It was intended to illustrate the fable of the presumptuous jackdaw adorned in borrowed plumes; but the jackdaw was only to be found upon examination, for there were three peacocks nearly as large as life crowded into a moderate sized painting, and two of them having their tails expanded, the canvass was literally covered with feathers. These feathers, it is true, were beautifully executed, and had the piece been called a picture of peacock's feathers, it might have been admired; but there was a total absence of some of the most essential parts of a scene, and the eye turned away with weariness or disgust, while the mind remained unin