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ESSA Y XII.
ON THE FINE ART S.*
The term Fine Arts may be viewed as embracing all those arts in which the powers of imitation or invention are exerted, chiefly with a view to the production of pleasure by the immediate impression which they make on the mind. But the phrase has of late been restricted to a narrower and more technical siga nification, namely, to painting, sculpture, engraving, and architecture, which appeal to the eye as the medium of pleasure; and, by way of eminence, to the two first of these arts. In the following observations, I shall adopt this limited sense of the term; and shall endeavour to develope the principles upon which the great masters have proceeded, and also to enquire in a more particular manner, into the state and
* This Essay was a contribution to the new edition of the • Encyclopædia Britannica,' from which work it is, by kind permission, extracted.
probable advancement of these arts in this country. The great works of art at present extant, and which may be regarded as models of perfection in their several kinds, are the Greek statues—the pictures of the celebrated Italian masters--those of the Dutch and Flemish schools—to which we may add the comic productions of our own countryman, Hogarth. These all stand unrivalled in the history of art; and they owe their pre-eminence and perfection to one and the same principle—the immediate imitation of nature. This principle predominated equally in the classical forms of the antique, and in the grotesque figures of Hogarth : the perfection of art in each arose from the truth and identity of the imitation with the reality; the difference was in the subjects—there was none in the mode of imitation. Yet the advocates for the ideal system of art would persuade their disciples that the difference between Hogarth and the antique does not consist in the different forms of nature which they imitated, but in this, that the one is like, and the other unlike, nature. This is an error the most detrimental, perhaps, of all others, both to the theory and practice of art. As, however, the prejudice is very strong and general, and supported by the highest authority,
it will be necessary to go somewhat elaborately into the question, in order to produce an impression on the other side.
What has given rise to the common notion of the ideal, as something quite distinct from actual nature, is probably the perfection of the Greek statues. Not seeing among ourselves anything to correspond in beauty and grandeur, either with the feature or form of the limbs in these exquisite remains of antiquity, it was an obvious, but a superficial conclusion, that they must have been created from the idea existing in the artist's mind, and could not have been copied from anything existing in nature. The contrary, however, is the fact. The general form both of the face and figure, which we observe in the old statues, is not an ideal abstraction, is not a fanciful invention of the sculptor, but is as completely local and national (though it happens to be more beautiful) as the figures on a Chinese screen, or a copper-plate engraving of a negro chieftain a book of travels. It will not be denied that there is a difference of physiognomy as well as of complexion in different races of men. The Greek form appears to have been naturally beautiful, and they had, besides, every advantage of climate, of dress, of exercise, and modes
of life to improve it. The artist had also
every facility afforded himn in the study and knowledge of the human form; and their religious and public institutions gave him every encouragement in the prosecution of his art. All these causes contributed to the perfection of these noble productions; but I should be inclined principally to attribute the superior symmetry of form common to the Greek statues, in the first place, to the superior symmetry of the models in nature, and, in the second, to the more constant opportunities for studying them. If we allow, also, for the superior genius of the people, we shall not be wrong; but this superiority consisted in their peculiar susceptibility to the impressions of what is beautiful and grand in nature. It may be thought an objection to what has just been said, that the antique figures of animals, &c. are as fine, and proceed on the same principles, as their statues of gods or men. But all that follows from this seems to be, that their art had been perfected in the study of the human form, the test and proof of power and skill; and was then transferred easily to the general imitation of all other objects, according to their true characters, proportions and appearances.
As a confirmation of these remarks, the antique portraits of individuals were
often superior even to the personification of their gods. I think that no unprejudiced spectator of real taste can hesitate for a moment in preferring the head of the Antinous, for example, to that of the Apollo. And in general it may be laid down as a rule, that the most perfect of the antiques are the most simple,--those which affect the least action, or violence of passion, which
repose the most on natural beauty of form, and a certain expression of sweetness and dignity, that is, which remain most nearly in that state in which they could be copied from nature without straining the limbs or features of the individual, or racking the invention of the artist. This tendency of Greek art to repose has indeed been reproached with insipidity by those who had not a true feeling of beauty and sentiment. I, however, prefer these models of habitual grace or internal grandeur to the violent distortions of suffering in the Laocoon, or even to the supercilious air of the Apollo. The Niobe, more than any other antique head, combines truth and beauty with deep passion. But here the passion is fixed, intense, habitual ;-it is not a sudden or violent gesticulation, but a settled mould of features; the grief it expresses is such as might almost turn the human countenance itself into marble !