Notebook, 1993-

Eastlake's Methods and Materials of Painting of the Great Schools and Masters

Eastlake, Sir Charles Lock [One-time President of the Royal Academy], Methods and Materials of Painting of the Great Schools and Masters [Formerly titled: Materials for a History of Oil Painting]. Vol. One. New York; Dover Publications, Inc. 1960 [Originally published by Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans in 1847]

Professional Essays - On Subjects for Painting

It is a common error with unpractised artists, especially if their minds are cultivated, to consider those subjects fittest for painting which excite the most important historical recollections, and in which the actors are interesting, at least from their names. The real interest of such pictures would be best tried by submitting them to spectators ignorant of the persons represented [as most spectators probably would be unless their names were written under the figures]. In description it is of the first consequence that the actors, whatever they are doing, should be morally interesting. It is not what they are doing but who are doing which is the great source of interest; for no one act, not [p. 401] even the greatest in a man's life, is equivalent to the impression produced by the sum of his acts and the world's opinion--in short, by his fame--which makes the individual interesting whatever he may be doing. In painting, on the contrary, it is not who is doing but what is being done, as presented to our sight, which is the first as well as the last and longest source of interest. Great, or well-known names, in addition to this sine quâ non, undoubtedly add to the effect.

There are many persons so unconscious of the difference between the best and the worst pictures that to them the association is all in all; this exists with all spectators more or less, and is only in danger of being totally unfelt by that class of artists who make the impression on the eye alone the only rule for choice of subject, composition, costume, &c. When once this becomes the sole principal one], no absurdities in a moral, historical, or chronological point of view check the artist. His object [he says] is to produce a powerful and pleasing impression on the sense, and he not unjustly argues that those who criticise him for errors in costume, or for liberties taken with his subject, would have the right to find still greater fault with him if he produced an insipid picture. He works with his own materials, as the writer does with his, and the art of representation can only pretend to independence and, in short, to style when its principles and practice are regulated by its proper and distinct end. This view which contains much truth, but which easily admits of exaggeration, explains the extraordinary liberties which artists took at a time when the art was in its most perfect development. These licenses form a singular contrast with the fidelity to costume and the insipid propriety of modern pictures. A very little reflexion is sufficient to convince us that the masterworks of art would never have received the sanction of universal and enduring approbation but for the truest and the largest reasons--that the world's approbation has been given them because they unite as much of the end of art with as much of the means as is compatible, and that the defects above alluded to may often be necessary to, and even the chief cause of their excellence.

A habit of contemplating works of art merely with reference to those qualities which are common to description and general learning is the cause of the quantity of false criticism which has so often fallen from the pens of cultivated men. Nothing in short is easier than to find the greatest defects as to history, situation &c. in the finest works, and nothing can be a greater mistake [in most cases, we do not say in all] than to suppose that the remedying of these defects would improve the work of art. Let the Laocoon be clothed [as he should be] in his sacerdotal robes, and the coldest of these critics would acknowledge that no drapery nor [p. 403] ornament, especially in the monotony of marble, would be so beautiful or so impressive as his fine and convulsed form. Here then is an instance of the translation which is necessary when a subject is changed from one language to another--from description to representation. The first object of the artist who works in marble is to overcome its lifelessness, and no representation of drapery or any inanimate substance as a principal object ever does this. Drapery was therefore treated generally as an accessory by the ancient sculptors, and, when entire figures were clothed, as the marble could not be turned into a surface of animated life, its hardness and rigidity were converted, in the form of drapery, into an illusion of softness and flexibility; but such qualities were inferior to the expression of voluntary action, in short, of life, and, above all, of human life.

In painting too, nothing is so beautiful as the colour of the flesh, and we must not be surprised to find that the greatest colourists not only sought every opportunity of unclothing their figures but introduced all sorts of contrasts near them, whether warranted or not, in order to give them value. Michael Angelo's love of nude figures was of another, perhaps of a higher kind; he aimed at expressing grand ideas of nature, and with the feeling of a sculptor he disdained to waste his powers in painting cloth instead of human forms. The excesses to which Michael Angelo and the [p. 404] colourists carried this feeling, though, for different reasons, are well known. Raphael, with the highest forms, was fortunate in having no particular passion either for colour, or for anatomy, and was therefore enabled to unite more of general propriety with the claims of art than any other painter. But let it not be supposed that even he will stand the test of the false criticism above alluded to. No painter is fuller of anachronisms. Like all the other great artists, he aims at satisfying the feelings and the eye, but not the learning of the spectator. Lastly, even Poussin--the classic, correct, and pure--is full of errors in costume, while he gives a general impression of the chaste and simple principles of composition so admired in the ancients.

But if errors to this extent are to be found in the purest schools and examples what shall we say of those artists who confined themselves entirely to the ends of the art, and how can we account for the admiration bestowed upon them? Many of the mere colourists may be censured for having occupied themselves with an important part of the style, but not with the whole of the style of their art. Rembrandt, for instance, in compositions which did not require beauty, may be said to have attained perfection by satisfying the eye and the imagination and deeply interesting the feelings, and yet with every conceivable error of costume. The colourists of the Venetian school [always excepting Titian] atone for the want of interest often visible in their [p. 405] works, by a certain refinement of elegance which we always associate with splendour of colour, and which, in Paul Veronese, is often accompanied with a vivacity in the air and attitude, which although soon tiring, is addressed to the imagination and allied to ideas of beauty. Rubens, again, has not even this quality; he seldom approaches the idea of beauty in his forms or attitudes, yet he is always great in the particular beauty [that of colour] which constitutes the essence of painting, and every part of his works is evidence of his deep feeling for all that constitutes the style of this art as distinguished from any other.

When intelligent spectators [who have not paid particular attention to art] are sincere in their opinions on such works, they judge them merely as expressive of a subject, and fasten immediately on anything that shocks their notions of propriety as to invention, costume, &c. Those again who are less severe endeavour to make up the sum of praise, which they know it is usual to bestow, by supposing excellences which come within their sphere of comprehension. It is to be lamented that sensible men should think it necessary on these occasions to assume a virtue which they have not. Dr. Beatie, after sitting to Reynolds, declares that, whatever might be thought of his colouring, he was a great designer. This was altogether affectation, because he could judge as little of the one as of the other; but it is not uncommon for intelligent people to praise a picture for that which it has not, merely because they know that something ought to be praised.

It is an undeniable fact that there are certain requisites in a work of art which are more necessary than any others. That which addresses the sense must delight the sense before it can reach the mind. Again, there is a difference in the interest of objects, and another difference in their sort of interest. It may be assumed first, that nothing is so interesting to human beings as human beings; and secondly, that the exhibition of female beauty will always first attract the eye. But although interest in the object and beauty in colouring may be thus secured, a picture may still need some moral interest--that is, the feelings must be interested--and, lastly, the intellect may be addressed by as much attention to costume or history as can be kept subordinate to more proper claims. [p. 407]



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