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FROM THE ESSAY ON "THE DECAY OF ART," IN
"THE OLD ROME AND THE NEW."
BY W. J. STILLMAN.
There are two distinct forms of so-called art, of which the elder and true form, the subjective, is an art of expression, whereof the vital quality is that it shall convey, not the facts and actual phenomena which constitute the anatomy of nature, but the emotions and impressions of the artist, in which all the visible forms are but the symbols of language in which the artist, without any restriction of realistic fidelity, shall show forth what he considers artistic truth or ideal beauty in any of its related forms of positive or negative. The other form, objective or realistic art, which is entirely the development of the naturalistic spirit, depends, for its relative value and standing, upon the fidelity which it shows to natural phenomena; it is the art, if it be art, of facts and physics, of the anatomist, the geologist, the botanist, and the portraitist. The former of these has fallen into decay,
but en passant I will call attention to the fact which explains itself, that the noblest technique has arisen in the art of expression, and that, for certain forms of it, we have to seek the highest in antique or renaissance art. The supreme artist is the idealist, and the imitator of nature is the artist only in a lower and secondary sense. The distinction is radical, and extreme illustrations will be found in J. F. Millet and Meissonier, the former the most subtle and masterly example of the pure Greek method of approaching art, the latter the extreme manifestation of the purely modern spirit, realism reduced to its last expression. That element in art which makes it such is not its fidelity to nature but its personality, the way in which the artist arranges, subordinates, harmonizes the material which he borrows or invents; in the majesty or sweetness of his composition, the harmony and pathos or splendour of his colour; all those things which in poetry, in music, give rank as poet or musician. The law is the same in all the arts; it is always the subjective element which determines the place of the artist. Art
is simply the harmonic expression of human emotion. Where there is no emotion there is no art, except in that secondary sense which relates to the primary as the letter to the spirit. All the great schools of painting and sculpture have been purely subjective in their origin and development. The moment the subjective method which was its life gave way to the objective or scientific method, the art began to go down. The moment of completest triumph, in which art seemed to have added to its proper charm that of the realistic fidelity which wins the universal applause, was that in which decline began. This was the epoch of Praxiteles and Scopas, of Titian and Raphael; and when, finally, at Bologna, the academy model took the place of the ideal, there was no longer any hope of any school of art. The reason for this it is not difficult to state. The genuine creative or ideal art is only possible where there is full liberty to embody distinct conceptions which are creations; and here the mental conception must be so clear in the mind of the artist that it serves the mental vision as the type of which
the work of art is the visible embodiment. But when constant and concurrent reference to the model is kept up this is not possible, and the slightest indication of the model shown in design is immediately destructive of this supreme quality of art. There can be no doubt that the Greek sculptors never worked directly from nature. We know the same to be true of Michael Angelo, and in all the work of the great painters of the Italian schools we find unmistakable indications that they did not work before nature. Not only is this the immutable law of all great art, but I maintain that the scientific study of nature, whether as anatomy, geology, or botany, is obnoxious in a high degree to the development of the great qualities of design. Beauty is purely a visible and therefore superficial quality. The Greeks had no knowledge of anatomy, or of the use of the muscular system. Down to the last of the great schools, that of Rembrandt, Teniers, and Rubens, the deference to nature, except in portraiture, never went further than to make sketches from nature in which the essential qualities
only were recorded, using nature as a vehicle for their ideals of composition and colour. Turner, who attained the highest expression of subjective art of his time, possibly of all time, was in no period of his career a student of nature in the modern acceptation of that term. Then the art died, as the Greek and Italian schools had died, from a method of study initiated by portraiture, and the sudden recognition of an interest in nature never felt before by the general mind. When the modern landscape and genre painter brought into painting a clear unconventional way of seeing nature, and uncompromising fidelity in rendering facts requiring neither knowledge of, nor feeling for, art in its public, or poetic insight in its painter, it brought into existence what is commonly supposed to be a rational art, but which is, in reality, the negation of art. That the inspiration, however, is not extinct we see in Delacroix, J. F. Millet, Watts, Burne Jones, and Rossetti. To know nature and employ her terms for the expression of the artist's ideal is a widely different thing from the imitation of her forms and facts. The former