The painter who is content with the praise of the world in respect to what does not satisfy himself, is not an artist, but an artisan; for though his reward be only praise, his pay is that of a mechanic,for his time, and not for his art.
A man cannot tell whether Apelles or Albert Durer were the more triflers, whereof the one would make a personage by geometrical proportions, the other by taking the best parts of divers faces to make one excellent.
Poets, and orators, and painters, and those who cultivate other branches of the liberal arts, have, without this critical knowledge, succeeded well in their several provinces, and will succeed: as among artificers there are many machines made and even invented without any exact knowledge of the principles they are governed by. It is, I own, not uncommon to be wrong in theory and right in practice: and we are happy that it is so. Men often act right from their feelings, who afterwards reason but ill on them from principle; but as it is impossible to avoid an attempt at such reasoning, and equally impossible to prevent its having some influence on our practice, surely it is worth taking some pains to have it just, and founded on the basis of sure experience. We might expect that the artists themselves would have been our surest guides; but the artists have been too much occupied in the practice; the philosophers have done little; and what they have done was mostly with a view to their own schemes and systems; and as for those called critics, they have generally sought the rule of the arts in the wrong place; they sought it among poems, pictures, engravings, statues, and buildings. But art can never give the rules that make an art.
I know several who admire and love painting, and yet who regard the objects of their admiration in that art with coolness enough in comparison of that warmth with which they are animated by affecting pieces of poetry or rhetoric. Among the common sort of people, I never could perceive that painting had much influence on their passions. It is true that the best sorts of painting, as well as the best sorts of poetry, are not much understood in that sphere. But it is most certain that their passions are very strongly roused by a fanatic preacher, or by the ballads of Chevy Chase, or the Children in the Wood, or the other little popular poems and tales that are current in that rank of life. I do not know of any paintings, bad or good, that produce the same effect. So that poetry, with all its obscurity, has a more general, as well as a more powerful dominion over the passions, than the other art.
In reality, poetry and rhetoric do not succeed in exact description so well as painting does; their business is, to affect rather by sympathy than imitation; to display rather the effect of things on the mind of the speaker, or of others, than to present a clear idea of the things themselves. This is their most extensive province, and that in which they succeed the best.
The most important part of painting is to know what is most beautiful in nature, and most proper for that art; that which is the most beautiful is the most noble subject: so in poetry, tragedy is more beautiful than comedy, because the persons are greater whom the poet instructs, and consequently the instructions of more benefit to mankind.
Out of the true fountains of science painters and statuaries are bound to draw, without amusing themselves with dipping in streams which are often muddy, at least troubled: I mean the manner of their masters after whom they creep.
Raphael writes thus concerning his Galatea: To paint a fair one, tis necessary for me to paint many fair ones; but because there is so great a scarcity of lovely women, I am constrained to make use of one certain idea which I have formed in my fancy.
The emperor, one day, took up a pencil which fell from the hand of Titian, who was then drawing his picture; and, upon the compliment which Titian made him on that occasion, he said, Titian deserves to be served by Cæsar.
Certain modes of drawing and painting, followed by pupils of a great master, have led to the foundation of well-defined schools of painters, since the revival of the art among the Byzantine and Tuscan painters of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
It is a very common error to term the ancient paintings found on church walls, &c, frescos, but there is scarcely an instance of a genuine fresco among them. They are distemper paintings on plaster, and quite distinct in their style, durability, and mode of manipulation.
Some object to his versification; which is in poetry what colouring is in painting, a beautiful ornament. But if the proportions are just, though the colours should happen to be rough, the piece may be of inestimable value.
A general chorus of learned authorities tells me that Michael Angelo and Raphael are the two greatest painters that ever lived; and that the two recognized masterpieces of the Highest Art are the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, and the Transfiguration, in the Vatican. It is not only Lanzi and Vasari, and hosts of later sages running smoothly after those two along the same critical grooves, who give me this information. Even the greatest of English portrait-painters, the true and tender-hearted gentleman, Sir Joshua Reynolds, sings steadily with the critical chorus, note for note.
In the Anecdotes of Painting, [Walpole] states, very truly, that the art declined after the commencement of the civil wars. He proceeds to inquire why this happened. The explanation, we should have thought, would have been easily found. He might have mentioned the loss of the most munificent and judicious patron that the fine arts ever had in England, the troubled state of the country, the distressed condition of many of the aristocracy, perhaps also the austerity of the victorious party. These circumstances, we conceive, fully account for the phenomenon. But this solution was not odd enough to satisfy Walpole. He discovers another cause for the decline of the art,the want of models. Nothing worth painting, it seems, was left to paint. How picturesque, he exclaims, was the figure of an Anabaptist! as if puritanism had put out the sun and withered the trees; as if the civil wars had blotted out the expression of character and passion from the human lip and brow; as if many of the men whom Vandyke painted had not been living in the time of the Commonwealth, with faces little the worse for wear; as if many of the beauties afterwards portrayed by Lely were not in their prime before the Restoration; as if the garb or the features of Cromwell and Milton were less picturesque than those of the round-faced peers, as like each other as eggs to eggs, who look out from the middle of the periwigs of Kneller.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Horace Walpole, Oct. 1833.
The first degree of proficiency is, in painting, what grammar is in literature,a general preparation for whatever species of art the student may afterwards choose for his more particular application. The power of drawing, modelling, and using colours is very properly called the language of the art.
Though it be allowed that elaborate harmony of colouring, a brilliancy of tints, a soft and gradual transition from one to another, present not to the eye what an harmonious concert of music does to the ear; it must be remembered that painting is not merely a gratification of sight.
It requires the nicest judgment to dispose the drapery so that the folds shall have an easy communication, and gracefully follow each other with such natural negligence as to look like the effect of chance, and at the same time show the figure under it to the greatest advantage.
The great style stands alone, and does not require, perhaps does not as well admit, any addition from inferior beauties. The ornamental style also possesses its own peculiar merit: however, though the union of the two may make a sort of composite style, yet that style is likely to be more imperfect than either of those which go to its composition.
If a portrait-painter is desirous to raise and improve his subject, he has no other means than by approaching it to a general idea; he leaves out all the minute breaks and peculiarities in the face, and changes the dress from a temporary fashion to one more permanent, which has annexed to it no ideas of meanness from its being familiar to us.
If we compare the quietness and chastity of the Bolognese pencil to the bustle and tumult that fills every part of a Venetian picture, without the least attempt to interest the passions, their boasted art will appear a mere struggle without effect.
Claude Lorrain, on the contrary, was convinced that taking nature as he found it seldom produced beauties: his pictures are a composition of the various draughts which he has previously made from various beautiful scenes and prospects.
If we put these great artists on a line of comparison with each other, Raphael had more taste and fancy, Michael Angelo more genius and imagination. The one excelled in beauty, the other in energy. Michael Angelo had more of the poetical inspiration; his ideas are vast and sublime; his people are a superior order of beings; there is nothing about them, nothing in the air of their actions or their attitudes, or the style and cast of their limbs or features, that reminds us of their belonging to our own species.
I have very often lamented and hinted my sorrow in several speculations, that the art of painting is made so little use of to the improvement of our manners. When we consider that it places the action of the person represented in the most agreeable aspect imaginable, that it does not only express the passion or concern as it sets upon him who is drawn, but has under those features the height of the painters imagination, what strong images of virtue and humanity might we not expect would be instilled into the mind from the labours of the pencil?
If a picture is daubed with many glaring colours, the vulgar eye admires it; whereas he judges very contemptuously of some admirable design sketched out only with a black pencil, though by the hand of Raphael.