Notebook, 1993-

Ut Pictura Poesis - Lee, Rensselaer W. Ut Pictura Poesis, The Humanistic Theory of Painting. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc. 1967

X. Conclusion

In Italy of the sixteenth century the humanistic theory of painting rested on the classical doctrine that "the proper study of mankind is man." All critics assumed that painting, like poetry, was the imitation of human action, and it followed, as this essay has attempted to demonstrate, that it must resemble the sister art in subject matter, in human content, and in purpose. If the painter's inventions were to be comparable to those of the poet in power, depth, or beauty, he must choose themes from ancient and modern poetry, and from history sacred and profane; his genius was said to have its most intimate affinities with the poet's in his power to express human emotion; his aim like the poet's was assumed to be serious, for he must aspire not merely to give pleasure, but to impart wisdom to mankind.^

This profound relationship with poetry was enough to give to painting the prestige of a liberal art. But to make doubly sure that the painter should never again be considered only an artisan "sans littérature, sans mžurs, sans politesse," the critics, leaning heavily on the example of Pliny who had proclaimed the honorable estate of painters in antiquity, dwelt with wearisome though perhaps pardonable iteration on the free association of painters with princes and learned men during the Renaissance. Lastly, and most important, the high argument of inspired poetry could bestow on painting, as Varchi said in relating Michelangelo's debt to Dante,^ a profundity of content, a majesty and grandeur that Sir Joshua Reynolds writing on Michelangelo in a later age would have called the sublime.^ The critics who fashioned the doctrine ut pictura poesis thus ranked painting with poetry as a serious interpreter of human life, and the humanistic critic who is deeply concerned with art as a repository of enduring human values will always believe that human life is as supremely the painter's province as it is the poet's, and that some subjects are of more universal interest and importance than others, even though he may not care to admit with Roger de Piles that elevated subject matter can be an actual substitute for original genius.^

This was, in fact, De Piles at his most conservative, for although he was never a revolutionary and acquiesced in many of the dictates of the French Academy, his painter's instinct led him to extend a welcoming hand to landscape and still-life, which the Academy held in low repute, just as it led him to object to the unnaturalness of Le Brun's definitions of the passions, and to champion the sensuous element of color without which he said, "contour cannot represent any object as we see it in nature"^ --a sentiment that was distasteful to the Cartesian academicians who defended contour as the guardian of general, not particular truth. For the rational traditionalism of the Academy, founded on the ideal antique and sustained by a set of thoroughly formalistic concepts, tended to deny the painter his birthright of free converse with a living and unmethodized nature; and although one may discern behind the imposing but uninspired façade of its precepts the belief that the arts should minister to the dignity of human life, the extreme formalism of the academic point of view under Le Brun shows clearly that the once vital humanism of the Renaissance had hardened into inert convention which could not long resist the pressure of new and living forms of expression. And although the doctrine ut pictura poesis was to maintain something [p. 67] better than a hazardous existence during the eighteenth century, it was steadily undermined by forces that were in the long run to make for its destruction. Opposed to the humanistic point of view was the growing interest in external nature, with whose freshness and irresponsible freedom Rousseau, the apostle of emotion, was to contrast the life of human beings freighted with custom and constrained by the "false secondary power" of the reason. And although an interest like De Piles' in the concrete reality of nature as well as in the beauty of her transient effects--in those formae Veneres fugaces that had not been lost on Du Fresnoy--was necessary to save the painter's art [as in the Rococo painting of the early eighteenth century it was already doing] from the limitations of academic formalism, it was also a part of that general movement in thought and art away from concentration on the supreme significance of the human image.

Another source of danger to the humanistic point of view during the eighteenth century was the growing importance of the doctrine of original genius which was encouraged by the pervasive influence of the treatise of Longinus on the Sublime. ^ And although the Longinian doctrine that the artist, if he is to attain sublimity or greatness, must at times jump the traces of the rules--in Pope's famous phrase "snatch a grace beyond the reach of art" --was accepted by conservative theorists as legitimatizing the occasional flights of genius for which no rules could provide a pattern, as the century progressed it came to be associated in the minds of critics with the subjective and emotional in artistic expression, and with a special class of sublime subjects that were obviously congenial to the romantic temperament and to that alone. And these were non-traditional subjects: scenes for instance of terror, or of vast, wild, and formless nature which had submitted to the laws of order no more than genius itself, it was at length acknowledged, was expected to do. Such a point of view was not one to encourage the ideal representation of human action that had been the theme of humanistic painting, and the doctrine of original genius is, moreover, the ancestor of modern expressionism which is necessarily hostile to the doctrine of ut pictura poesis. For if the latter is to have any final significance, it must, without denying certain expressive privileges to genius, rest on the principle that since painting like poetry should be most concerned with the interpretation of universal human experience, the painter like the poet must in the act of creation retain a certain power of judgment and selective discrimination that is not compatible with unlicensed self-expression.

Amid the emancipating influences of the eighteenth century Lessing stands out as the last and one of the greatest of the Aristotelians, and the Laokoön as one of the last outposts of the humanism of the Renaissance. For in restricting painting and poetry to those subjects that were, as he thought, best suited to their means of imitation, he imposed severely humanistic limitations on both, denying to poetry whose proper sphere he considered to be human action, the description of scenes and objects in nature, and to painting [here, as we have seen, his point of view was narrow and, in a sense, anachronistic] virtually all but the depiction of corporeal beauty. Less brilliant as a dialectician, less uncompromising in his classicism, but, since he was a painter, aware as Lessing could never be of the wide and varied scope of pictorial art, Reynolds was a late and important exponent of humanistic [p. 68] doctrine. And again unlike Lessing he owed much to the doctrine of Longinus, not in its distorted and romantic form, but in its purity--in that form, in fact, in which it had first been known to the late seventeenth century through the translation and commentaries of Boileau. And it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the emphasis of Longinus on greatness of content in art as opposed to formal beauty, on the artist's power to move the mind through the emotions as against his appeal to the reason, on the imagination which in the greatest art outstrides correct judgment and purity of taste, all served to clear Reynolds' exposition of the academic tradition in his Discourses of much of the dead weight of formalism. Moreover it is "that nobleness of conception which goes beyond anything in the mere exhibition of perfect form" and which the painter acquires "by warming his imagination with the best productions of ancient and modern poetry" that is to Reynolds the crown of "that one great idea which gives to painting its true dignity, which entitles it to the name of a liberal art and ranks it as a sister of poetry." ^ Thus one of the last and sanest exponents of the doctrine ut pictura poesis --of that doctrine which the Renaissance critics both of painting and poetry based upon the literary theory of antiquity--found that the chief likeness of painting to poetry lay not in adherence to a set of precepts borrowed from the sister art, or in any imagined correspondences of form, but in "nobleness of conception ." To Reynolds, the most significant aspect of painting, as of poetry, was its capacity to reveal and interpret the element of dignity in human life. Painting, he believed, is never merely an art of the eye, but it is the mind whose servant the eye is that the painter of genius, like the poet, chiefly desires to address.

[pp. 67-69]

* Symbol for the phonetic accent in this word not available on the computer.

[Lee, Rensselaer W. Ut Pictura Poesis, The Humanistic Theory of Painting. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc. 1967.]



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