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“ handling, he is like Tintoret, the very thunderbolt of the pen“cil, “il fulmine di pennello"-and he unites so completely
"Grant me patience just heaven!” I exclaimed in the words af Sterne, on perusing the pompous and pedantic panegyric on Mr. West's picture, in Poulson's paper of September 9, 1811. “Grant me patience just heaven--of all the cants that are canted in this canting world—though the cant of hypocrisy may be the worst, the cant of criticism is the most tormenting.”
We have now obtained in a late number of The Port Folio, an etching of the outline of Mr. West's famous paintilig of Christ healing the sick; the original occupying one hundred and seventy-seven square feet of canvass. Although this etching can give very faint ideas of the effect of the picture-and although the English outline from which The Port Folio copy is taken, excites no commendation even as an etching, yet something is in our possession relating to this much-praised picture, upon which we may hazard a few observations.
Let us just call to mind, what ideas an etching of outline can afford us, and what parts of the picture it can throw no light upon.
The outline can give us a tolerable correct notion,
Ist. Of the COMPOSITION of the picture: that is, of the manner in which the artist has chosen to tell his story: the personages he has introduced, the way in which they are introduced: their use in contributing to elucidate and give force to the leading idea intended to be expressed by the artist. It will enable us to judge how far his invention is to be commended or blamed in his mode of telling the story to the mind's eye-whether the objects introduced contribute each in its proportion to the general plan---whether those which contribute the most to this purpose, or might be made so to do, are the figures most prominent on the canvass—whether there are too many or too few for the purpose and generally, whether the transaction intended to be represented, is strongly and impressively told by means of the objcers introduced, each of which ought to have its apa propriate design and bearing. Even a back ground in a well composed picture, ought to have its meaning.
2dly. An outline will give much of the EXPRESSION by which permanent character, or temporary feeling, is marked, whether in the features, or the attitude of the figure. Doubtless this would be observed much more perfectly in the finished painting; still, much may be seen even in a sketch.
3dly. An outline will enable us to form a tolerable idea of the DESIGN displayed in the picture so far as the drawing of contour is concerned. We can judge whether the drawing is graceful, easy, majestic, anatomically accurate, well adapted to the purpose—30 of the drapery, we can see from the outline, whether it is in the easy, flowing style of a great master, or frittered away into numerous and unmeaning folds.
4thly. The outline will enable us to judge whether the UNITIES of time and PLACE are preserved. Whether the painter has confined himself as he ought, to one point of time, to one transaction, to one place of transaction. A limitation, which too many of the followers of the graphic art, have thought themselves at liberty to reject. Instances of which are common even in modern days, as in the monstrous collection of absurdities painted by Mr. Barry for the society of arts in the Adelphi.
5thly. The outline will enable us to judge whether the painter has consulted UNITY OF CHARACTER, or whether he has absurdly intermixed things sacred and things profane-things real and things' allegorical—things ancient and things modern—of which Mr. Barry, sir Joshua Reynolds, and Fuseli (to say nothing of inferior artists) have shewn us such lamentable, and indeed such laughable examples. Such as Barry's Hell and Elysium in the same picture; sir Joshua's Mrs. Siddons, his devil on the pillow of cardinal Beaufort, and Fuseli's night niare. I do not recollect any thing of this kind in David's paintings, but I remember perfectly well to have read and to have seen with much pleasant effect on my risible muscles, his order of procession for the Fete of Chateauvieu, when the city of Paris armed a la Minerve mounted on her triumphal car, met the city of Brest (also cap-à-pie) mounted on a similar vehicle, and ardently embraced her in token of fervent and indissoluble (not fraternization, for
they were two women hired for the purpose, but) revolutionary amity.
6thly. An outline will enable us to judge whether the cosTUME is preserved—whether the story is told by persons and objects preserving the dress, character, and manner of the times; circumstances, which artists have too often thought be. neath their notice. Mr. West has never indeed equalled the ab: surdity of the Dutch painter in a picture of Abraham offering up Isaac; but he certainly was too generous and attentive when he adorped king Alexander with the order of the Garter.
7thly. It may give us some idea of the GROUPING of the pic. ture: whether the artist has so disposed his figures, that each per, son in each group shall contribute to the design of the group itself, and each group to the general plan, and all appear one harmonious assemblage enforcing one great idea; and not separate masses of objects, and distinct stories.
Such are points in the picture which the outline may inform us of.. Let us next see wherein it leaves us in the dark.
It can give us no idea of the magic effect of COLOURING of the Harmony of colouring, by which tints are so appropriated, and yet so blended, as to give the same sensation to the eye, as fine music performed by a full band does to the ear. We can know nothing from an outline, of that richness and transparency of colouring, for which the Venetian school is so famous. Nor can it give any idea of the handling of the pencil, by which the effect is produced according to the peculiar stile of the master: whether the colours are laid on with the roughness and force of the landscapes of Berghern, or touched and retouched with the indefatigable patience of Denner, or Gerard Dow. It can give us no idea of that charming part of the art, the chiaroscuro, that breadth and massing of light and shade, so little known to the ancients, and by means of which such wonders have been produced in Rembrandt's school. Finally, it can throw no light on the physiognomical character so far as it is raised and heightened by the colouring of the features.
I have thus endeavoured to ascertaju how far we may venture to give an opinion of a picture from having seen the copy of the outline only. But before I proceed to give any opinion on the picture itself, thus founded on less, perhaps, than half informa
tion, let me bestow a few words on the preliminary question, bow far am I, and others of my description, entitled to give any opinion at all?
A facetious friend of mine, an amateur of the art, used to divide mankind into three classes, the cognoscenti, the cogno. scentini, and the ignoranti. Like many other of your readers, I have no pretensions to the first character; but as a painter is supposed to address not artists merely, bu: the public, his work ought to be considered as open to such criticisms as men of tolerable good sense and information, might reasonably make upon it. A spectator, not an artist himself, or much conversant with the pictures of great masters, is hardly competent to judge how far the artist is to be praised or blamed for the management of his colouring; whether the tints are so placed, and in such proportions, as to exhibit that mellowness of effect which the painters call harmony. Nor can such a man pretend to decide on the handling of a picture, whether the artist in this respect is original or a mannerist-whether the colouring is hard and laboured, or easy and flowing—whether the adventurous dashes of the pencil are so managed as to give force and effect to the object. Still less can he venture to descant upon the cold and warm tints--the demi tints-the demi-jour-the lo strepitothe silver tone, or any other of the unmeaning and unintelligible metaphors which would-be connoisseurs, who know as little of language as of painting, have forced into their service." Nor can he hazard any comparison of the picture before him, with the paintings of the Venetian or the Lombard school, with Tiziano, or Tintoret, or Veronese, like “one of the ablest pens of the country," as this panegyrist is modestly called. If this gentleman has had the advantage over his neighbours of having visited Paris, and picked up a few phrases of Italian connoisscur. ship to astound the imateurs of his native country, it would have been well had he “borne his faculties more meekly," and taken the advice of honest Dogberry in the play, give God thanks, and make no boast of it.
• The cold and warm tints, is an expression not overstrained: even the demi-jour may be pardoned, but the strepito and the silver tone is absolute Jargon.
Neither, perhaps, ought a man, who like myself, has pretensions to little more than plain sense, and common observation, to decide whether the pyramidical distribution of the various groups, so as to give the idea of one harmonious mass of figures, has been judiciously preserved-or to criticise the aerial perspectives--nor can he venture, without hazard of going out of his depth, to judge of the contour, the foreshortening, or the drawing in general; a department of art in which the ancients still hold a decided superiority. Yet he may look at the sprawling gods and goddesses on the walls and ceilings of Sir Peter Paul Rubens, and his unintelligible allegories, without any thing like speechless admiration; and he may be permitted to laugh outright at the distortions of Fuseli, however correct the anatomical outline.
· Having thus noted some of the points upon which a prudent man, who has no pretensions 10 the knowledge of an artist, and who has not had an opportunity of studying and comparing many pictures of acknowledged excellence, should speak with diffidence; let us see whether there are not some parts of a picture, upon which even such a man may be allowed to express a decided opinion.
Ist. As to the comPOSITION*, he is as competent a judge as a professed artist, whether the story is single and simple, or complicated and confused. He can judge too, whether the mode of telling the story does credit to the invention of the artist, by means of the objects introduced for the purpose. The poetry of the composition, is not exclusively within the province of the artist.
2dly. He may venture his opinion for the same reason, as to the Expression of the countenance, the attitude, and the manner of the figures. This also is out of the exclusive pale of an artist's jurisdiction: this is the language of nature, who has enabled not every human being only, but every animal also, to acquire something of the permanent as well as the transient physiognomy-the physiognomy of character as well as the physiognomy of the passions.
* Sometimes invention is regarded as different from composition; but I regard the word as perfectly intelligible, and comprehending, first, the composltion of the picture as a poet; second, as an artist.