The Principles Of Aesthetics
by Dewitt H. Parker

Presented by

Public Domain Books

Chapter XI - The Dominion of Art Over Nature: Painting

In literature, as we observed in our last two chapters, nature does not find aesthetic expression on its own account. In the lyric, nature appears only as the reflection of personal moods and thoughts, in the drama and novel and epic only as the theater of human action or the determiner of human fate. In painting and sculpture, on the other hand, the expression of nature is the primary aim. Of course, in so far as this expression is aesthetic, it is an expression not of nature alone, but of our responses as well; but nature is the starting point, not emotion as in lyric poetry, nor the effect upon destiny as in the epic.

Because they are expressions of nature, and because the copying of the human body, of trees, clouds, and the like is an indispensable part of their practice, painting and sculpture have seemed to give support to the theory of art as imitation. Yet, although the activity of imitation is a means to the creation of picture and statue, the mere fact of being a copy is not the purpose of the completed work nor the ground of our pleasure in it. Not its relation to anything outside itself, no matter how important for its making, but its own intrinsic qualities constitute its aesthetic worth.

This was true of the earliest efforts in these arts. The primitive artist copied not for the sake of copying, but because he ascribed a magical power to images. In the image he believed he somehow possessed the object itself, and so could control it; to the image, therefore, was transferred all the value and potence of the object. The object represented was deeply significant; it was perhaps the animal upon which the tribe depended for its food, its totem or guardian divinity; or else, as among the Egyptians, it was the man himself, of whom the image was meant to be an enduring habitation for the soul. If primitive men had copied indifferent objects, then we might infer that the mere making of an image was the end in view; but this they did not do, and it has never been the practice of any vigorous group of artists. Only when the means are valued instead of the end–technique in place of beauty–does this occur. Through such a mistaking of aims, new instruments of expression may be discovered, useful for a future genius, but no genuine art is produced. The genuine artist copies, not for the sake of copying, but in order to create a work of independent beauty.

This same transference of value to the image, with the consequent freeing of the image from the model, can be observed even in commemorative art. A king desires, perhaps, to perpetuate his memory; how better than through some enduring likeness in stone or paint? While he is alive and after his death this image will remind his subjects of him and his valorous deeds. The relation to the model seems to be fundamental; but in proportion to the success of the artist in making a likeness, the stone or paint will be made to seem all alive, and for those who cannot come into direct relations with the monarch, he will be effectively present in the statue or picture, even when, through death, he is removed from all social and practical relations. Who does not feel that Philip the Fourth is present on the Velasquez canvas; where else could one find him so alive? If the work is artistic, the spectator’s interest will center in feeling the life in the color and line or sculptured form; that it happens to be an imitation of something else will become of secondary importance. This is clearest when the name of the subject is not known; then surely it is the life before us that can alone concern us. Any feeble copy would serve as a reminder, but a living drawing or statue brings the man or woman into our presence. The aesthetic interest in the work as living supervenes upon the interest in it as a mere reminder of life.

This freedom from the model and attainment of intrinsic worth in the work of art itself is furthered through the realization of beauty in the medium of expression. The colors, lines, and shapes which the artist uses have a direct appeal to the eye and through the eye to feeling; hence arise preferences for the most agreeable and expressive. The artist discovered that he could express his emotion not only through representing its object, but through the very colors or lines or shapes used in the delineation. These effects, found by chance perhaps in the first instance, would later be striven for consciously. In this way, through some grace of line, or symmetry of form, or harmony of color, the statue or picture would acquire a power to please quite independent of any ulterior use or purpose; once more, it would become alive and of value on its own account.

We shall begin our study of the representative arts with drawing and painting–representation in two dimensions–not because they preceded sculpture historically, but because, being more complex arts, a solution of the problems which they raise makes a subsequent survey of the similar problems of the simpler art relatively easy.

The media of pictorial expression are color and line, and expression is attained through them in a twofold fashion. In a picture, every element of color or line is expressive directly, just as color and line, of some vague feeling or mood, and, in addition, chiefly through its resemblance, represents some action or object. The former kind of expression is indispensable. No matter how realistic the imitation, unless the picture thrill like music, through its mere colors or lines, it is aesthetically relatively ineffective. It is not sufficient that the picture move us through the vicarious presence on the canvas of a moving object; it must stir us in a more immediate fashion through the direct appeal of sense. For example, a picture which presents us with a semblance of the sea will hold us through the power which the sea has over us; but it will not hold us so fast as a picture of the same subject which, in addition, grips us through its greens and blues and wavy lines. The one sways us only through the imagination, the other through our senses as well.

Sensitiveness to color as such, so self-evident to one who possesses it, seems to be wanting, except in rudimentary fashion, in a great many people. They are probably few, however, who do not feel some stirrings when they look through the stained glass of a cathedral window or upon the red of Venetian glass, or who are entirely indifferent to the color of silk. The reason for emotional color-blindness is probably not a native incapacity to be affected, but rather a diversion of attention; color has come to be only a sign for the recognition and subsequent use of things, a signal for a practical or intellectual reaction. In our haste to recognize and use we fail to see, and give ourselves no time to be moved by mere seeing. But when, as in art, contemplation, the filling of the mind with the object, is the aim, the power to move of the sensuous surface of things may come again into its rights.

The emotional response to color, vague and abstract and objectless, is, like music, incapable of adequate expression in words, and for the same reason. Words are capable of expressing only the larger and fairly well-defined emotions; such subtle shadings and complex mixtures of feeling as are conveyed by color and sound are mostly beyond their ken. Colors make us feel and dream as music does in the same incommunicable fashion. Or rather the only possibility of communicating them is through the color schemes arousing them. And for one who appreciates color this is sufficient; he can point to the colors and say–that is what I feel. To render his feeling also in words would be a superfluous business, supposing they could be adequate to express it; or, if they were adequate, that would make expression through color superfluous. The value of any medium consists in its power to express what none other can. Nevertheless, it is possible to find rough verbal equivalents for the simpler colors. Thus every one would probably agree with Lipps and call a pure yellow happy, a deep blue quiet and earnest, red passionate, violet wistful; would perhaps feel that orange partakes at once of the happiness of yellow and the passion of red, while green partakes of the happiness of yellow and the quiet of blue; and in general that the brighter and warmer tones are joyful and exciting, the darker and colder, more inward and restful.

To explain the expressiveness of color sensations is as difficult as to account for the parallel phenomenon in sounds. Here as there resort is had to the principle of association. Colors get, it is thought, their value for feeling either through some connection with emotionally toned objects, like vegetation, light, the sky, blood, darkness, and fire, or else through some relation to emotional situations, like mourning or danger, which they have come to symbolize. And there is little doubt that such associations play a part in determining the emotional meaning of colors–the reticence and distance of blue, the happiness of yellow, for example, are partly explained through the fact that blue is the color of the sky, yellow the color of sunlight; the meaning of black is due, partly at any rate, to association with mourning. Yet neither of these types of association seems sufficient to explain the full emotional meaning of colors. The conventional meanings of colors seem rather themselves to need explanation than to serve as explanations–why is red the sign of danger, purple royal, white a symbol of purity, black a symbol of mourning? Is it not because these colors had some native, original expressiveness which fashion and habit have only made more definite and turned to special uses? And if we can explain the reticence of blue through association with the sky, can we thus explain its quietness? Can the warmth of fire and the excitement of blood explain quite all the depth of passionate feeling in red? The factors enumerated play a part in the complex effect, but there seem to be elements still unaccounted for.

In order to explain the total phenomenon we must admit, as in the case of tones, some direct effect of the sensory light stimulus upon the feelings. Rays of light affect not only the sensory apparatus, causing sensations of color; their influence is prolonged into the motor channels, causing a total attitude of the organism, the correlate of a feeling. It would be strange if any sensory stimulus were entirely cut off by itself and did not find its way into the motor stream. But these overflows are too diffuse to be noticed in ordinary experience; they are obscured through association or are not given time to rise to the level of clear consciousness, because we are preoccupied with the practical or cognitive significance of the colors; only in the quiet and isolation of contemplation can they come into the focus. Of course the student of the evolution of mind will want to go behind these color emotions and inquire why a given color is connected with a given reaction. He may even want to connect them with instinctive responses of primitive men. But here we can only speculate; we cannot know.

The problem is further complicated through the fact that private color- associations are formed obscuring the aesthetic meanings, which can be rediscovered only through the elimination of the former. Color preferences are often determined in this way; yet sometimes they spring from another and more radical source–an affinity between personal temperament and the feeling tone of the preferred color. A consistent choice of blues and grays indicates a specific kind of man or woman, very different from the chooser of yellows and reds.

Although single color tones are expressive, they seldom exist alone in works of art. Significant expression requires variety. The invention of original and expressive color combinations is a rare gift of genius. Rough rules of color combination have been devised from the practice of artists and from experiment, the following of which will enable one to produce faultless patterns, but without genius will never enable one to create a new expression. Color combinations are either harmonious or balanced, the former produced by colors or tones of colors very close to one another, the latter by the contrasting or widely sundered. In the one case, we get the quiet commingling of feelings akin to each other; in the other, the lively tension of feelings opposed. Compare, for example, the effect of a Whistler nocturne with a Monet landscape. The colors that do not go well together are such as are not close enough for union nor far enough apart for contrast. They are like personalities not sufficiently at one to lose themselves in each other, yet not sufficiently unlike to be mutually stimulating and enlarging, between whom there can be only a fruitless rivalry turning into hate. Such are certain purples and reds, certain greens and blues. Yet, through proper mediation, any two colors can be brought into a composition. All colors are brought together in nature through the sunlight, and in painting or weaving by giving to rival colors the same sheen or brightness. Or again, the union may be effected by combining the two with a third which is in a relation of balance or harmony with each, as in the favorite scheme of blue, red, and green.

Despite their ability to express, colors cannot stand alone; they must be the colors of something, they must make line or shape. Lines, on the other hand, seem to be independent of color, as in drawings and etchings; yet there is really some color even there–black and white and tones of gray. That color and line are independent of one another in beauty, is, however, shown by works, such as Millet’s, which are good in line but poor in color. Lines have, as we have already seen, the same duality of function as colors: they express feeling directly through their character as mere lines and they represent objects by suggesting them through resemblance.

There is, in fact, for those who can feel it, a life in lines of the same abstract and objectless sort as exists in colors and tones. Lines give rise to motor impulses and make one feel and dream, as music does. There are many who are cold to this effect; yet few can fail to get something of the vibration or mood of the lines of a Greek vase painting, a Botticelli canvas, or a Rembrandt etching. The life of lines is more allied to that of tones than of colors because it possesses a dynamic movement quality which is absent from the latter. This life is, in fact, twofold: on the one hand it is a career, with a beginning, middle, and end, something to be willed or enacted; on the other hand it is a temperament or character, a property of the line as a whole, to be felt. These two aspects of aesthetic lines are closely related; they stand to one another much as the temperament or character of a man stands to his life history, of which it is at once the cause and the result. Just as we get a total impression of a man’s nature by following the story of his life, so we get the temperamental quality of lines by following them with the eye; and just as all of our knowledge of a man’s acts enters into our intuition of his nature, so we discover the character of the total line by a synthesis of its successive elements.

It is as difficult, more difficult, perhaps, to put into words the temperamental quality of lines as to do the parallel thing with colors. Lines are infinite in their possible variations, and the fine shades of feeling which they may express exceed the number of words in the emotional vocabulary of any language. Moreover, in any drawing, the character of each line is partly determined through the context of other lines; you cannot take it abstractly with entire truth. It is, however, possible to find verbal equivalents for the character of the main types of lines. Horizontal lines convey a feeling of repose, of quiet, as in the wall-paintings of Puvis de Chavannes; vertical lines, of solemnity, dignity, aspiration, as in so much of the work of Boecklin; crooked lines of conflict and activity, as in the woodcuts of Durer; while curved lines have always been recognized as soft and voluptuous and tender, as in Correggio and Renoir. The supposition that the curved line is the sole “line of beauty” is the result of a narrow and effeminate idea of the aesthetic; yet it must be admitted that this form, since it permits of the greatest amount of variation, has the highest power of expression; but in many of its more complex varieties it loses much of its soft feminine quality, and takes on some of the strength of the other forms.

The expressiveness of lines is determined by several–at least three– factors. In the first place, the perception of lines is an active process. In order to get a line we have to follow it with the eye; and if we do not now follow it with our fingers, we at least followed similar lines thus in the past. Now this process of the perception of a line requires of us an energy of attention to the successive elements of the line as we pass over them and a further expenditure of energy in remembering and synthesizing them into a whole. This energy, since it is evoked by the line and is not connected with any definite inner striving of the self, is felt by us to belong to the line, to be an element in its life, as clearly its own as its shape. For example, a line with many sudden turns or changes of direction is an energetic and exciting line because it demands in perception a constant and difficult and shifting attention; a straight line, on the contrary, because simple and unvarying in its demands upon the attention, is monotonous and reposeful; while the curved line, with its lawful and continuous changes, at once stimulating yet never distracting attention, possesses the character of progressive and happy action. This, the primary source of the vital interpretation of lines is supplemented by elements derived from association. Lines suggest to us the movements of our bodies along paths of similar form, and we interpret them according to the feeling of these movements; in the imagination, we may seem to move along the very lines themselves as paths. Every skater or runner knows the difficulty of moving along a path full of sudden turns and angles, a difficulty which, if he is in good trim, may nevertheless afford him pleasure in the overcoming; the delightful and various ease of moving along curved lines; the monotony of a long, straight path, but the quick triumph of going right to the end along a short and terminal line of this character. But lines suggest to us not only the movements, but also the attitudes of our bodies. They may be straight and rising,–rigid or dignified or joyously expanding; they may be horizontal and lie down and rest; they may be falling and sorrowful; or the shapes whose outlines they form may be heavy or light, delicate or ungainly or graceful, as bodies are. Finally, the interpretation of lines may be further enriched as follows: The sight of a line suggests the drawing of it, the sweep of the brush that made it; we ourselves, in the imagination once more, may re-create the line after the artist, and feel, just as he must have felt, the mastery, ease, vigor, or delicacy of the execution into the line itself. Few can fail to get this effect from the paintings of Franz Hals, for example, where the abounding energy of the artist is apparent in each stroke of the brush. Artists feel this life in execution most strongly; yet, since almost every one has had some practice in drawing lines, it is potentially a universal quality in a painting.

Lines may be unified according to the three modes of harmony, balance, and evolution. The repetition of the same kind of line confers a harmonious unification upon a drawing, as in Tintoretto’s “Bacchus and Ariadne,” where the circle is to be found repeated in the crown and ring, in the heads of the three figures, in the breasts of Ariadne. Similar to this sameness of form is sameness of direction or parallelism of lines. Another kind of harmonious unification of lines is continuity, where out of different lines or shapes a single line is made. The classical geometrical forms of composition, as the circular or pyramidal, are good examples of this. The “Odalisque” of Ingres, where all the lines of the body constitute a single line, is a notable case. What Ruskin has called “the approach, intersection, interweaving of lines, like the sea waves on the shore,"–the conspiracy of all the lines in a drawing to form one single network, of which illustrations could be found in the work of every draftsman, is a kind of harmony of line. Symmetrically disposed shapes, and lines whose directions are opposed, have the balanced form of unity. Here, from a given point as center, the attention is drawn in contrary yet equal ways. Examples of this type of composition are abundant among the Old Masters; as a rigid form it is, however, disappearing. That the dramatic type of unity is to be found in lines will be confirmed by every one who has observed the movement, the career of lines. Whenever shapes are so disposed that they form a line leading up to a given shape, wherever, again, lines converge to a single point, there is a clear case of evolution; we begin by attending to the line at a certain point, proceed in a certain direction, then reach a terminal point, the goal of the process. In Leonardo’s “Last Supper,” the convergence of the perspective lines and the lines formed by the groups of Apostles is a case of evolution. The different types of unification are, of course, not exclusive. In the painting just referred to, all three are present: Christ and the Apostles are arranged along a single line, the two ends of which, despite their symmetrical and balanced disposition, converge to one central point, the Christ. Every pyramidal form of composition is a combination of balance between the elements at the bases of the triangle, convergence towards the apex, and harmony through the participation of the three elements in a single form. One of the most interesting and complex types of organization of lines is rhythm–the balanced, harmonious movement of lines. A line is rhythmical when there is a balanced alternation of direction in its movement, a turning now to the right and now to the left, or vice versa; proportion in the length of the segments made by the turns; and general direction–a tending somewhere.

As is assumed in the preceding paragraph, the elements of lines may be shapes or masses, as well as points. That is, not only do lines made up of points form shapes, but shapes in their turn, when arranged on a surface, necessarily make lines. Such lines are, as a rule, not continuous; yet since the eye takes the shapes successively and in a given direction, they are nevertheless true lines and possess the qualities of ordinary simple lines. The arrangement of masses in an undulating line, say in a landscape painting, has essentially the same value for feeling as a similar continuous line; compare this with a horizontal arrangement of masses, which has all the quiet and repose of a simple horizontal line.

Colors and lines, relying on the direct expressiveness which we have been studying, may stand by themselves, as in an oriental rug; yet in painting they have another function: to represent. And even in the purely ornamental use of color and line, the tendency towards representation is apparent everywhere; either the lines are derivatives of schematized pictures of men and plants and animals, or else such objects are introduced as motives without disguise. In painting, therefore, the color red has value not only as so much red, but as standing for the red of a girl’s lips or cheeks; and that curved line is of significance, not as mere line alone, but as the curve of her limbs. In this way the native value of the sense symbols becomes suffused and enriched with the values of the things they represent. The two functions of color and of line should never be indifferent to each other; representation should not become a mere excuse for decoration, the objects represented having no value in themselves; nor should color and line be used as mere signs of interesting objects, without reference to their intrinsic value. On the contrary, the two functions should play into each other’s hands. If, for example, the human body is represented, the colors and lines employed should be so disposed that they decorate the surface of the picture and hold us there through their sheer rhythm and quality; yet, at the same time, and through their very ornamental power, they should make us feel the more keenly the values of the object they represent. Between the immediate values of the colors and lines there should exist unity: stimulating colors should go with stimulating lines, quiet colors with quiet lines; and the resulting feeling tone of the medium should be in harmony with the feeling of the objects represented; the one should give the other over again, and so each enforce the other.

Since it is not the purpose of any art to represent mere things, but to express concrete “states of the soul,” the center of which is always some feeling, exact fidelity in the representation of objects is not necessary for good painting or drawing. Only so much of things needs to be represented as is necessary to give back the life of them. Necessary above all is the object as a whole, for to this our feelings are attached; now this can usually be far better represented through an impressionistic sketch, which gives only the significant features, than by a painstaking and detailed drawing. Since, furthermore, the life of things can be conveyed through color and line as such, a certain departure from realism is legitimate for this end. Without some freedom from the exact truth of the colors and lines of things, the artist is unable to choose and compose them for expressive purposes; when exactly like the objects which they represent, they tend to lose all expressive power of their own, becoming mere signs or equivalents of things. A certain amount of variation from the normal may be necessary in order that the sense symbols shall call attention to themselves, in order that we be prevented, as we are not in the ordinary observation of nature, from looking through them to the things which they mean. Whenever, moreover, the artist wishes to render a unique reaction to a scene, he can do so only through a courageous use of the subtle language of color and line, which may require a distortion of the “real” local qualities of things; for, if he makes a plain, realistic copy of the scene itself, he can evoke, and so express, only the normal emotional responses to it.

When such departures from the truth of things are properly motivated, no one can be offended by them, any more than when the brilliant hues of nature appear black and white in a charcoal drawing. The amount of realism in any work of art is largely a matter of tacit convention. An artist may, if he wishes, use color with no pretense at giving back the real colors of objects, but for purely expressive purposes alone, relying on line for purposes of representation. This is often done in Japanese prints. All that is necessary is that we should understand what the artist is doing and find what he presents to us real and alive. On the other hand, an expressive use of color and line leading to a distortion of objects out of all possibility of recognition, or even a use which makes them seem unreal and awry, is without excuse. For since colors and lines are employed to bring things before the imagination, they should be made to serve this purpose successfully; the value which belongs to the things should have a chance to appear; but this can happen only if they seem to be actually present before us. Painting is not a mere music of color and line expressive of abstract and objectless emotions alone, but a poetry, which, through the picturing of objects to which emotions are attached, renders the latter concrete and definite. Not mere feeling, such as a color or a line by itself can convey, but feeling in the presence of nature, which can be expressed only when color and line are made into a recognizable image of nature, is the substance of painting. One cannot express the feeling of the weight and bulk of objects, of their distribution in three dimensions, or the value of their shadows or atmospheric enveloping, without the representation of weight and bulk and shadow and atmosphere and perspective. Every increase in the power to represent nature, every advance in the mastery of the object, adds a new power over the expression of feeling, which varies with the object. The realist is, therefore, right in his demand that nature itself be painted; only he should remember that the nature which presents itself in art is never the naked object, but veiled in feeling; and, as so veiled, may sometimes be seen pretty much as it really is; then again with parts concealed, and sometimes even transformed. Both a realism that tries to unite fidelity to the full qualities of the object with musical expression in the medium, and so to render the more typical responses to nature, which depend, for the most part, on the object itself, and a symbolism or expressionism that sacrifices fidelity for the expression, through the mere medium, of more personal responses, are in their rights. Only the limits of both tendencies are illegitimate–the use of color and line to produce mere images of things on the one hand, or purely musical effects on the other.

The subject matter or content of painting is determined by its language, color, and line. These, as we have seen, by an imitation more or less exact, represent nature, the world of concrete things as directly presented to us in vision, colored and shapely. The inner world is expressed only so far as it is revealed in the gestures and attitudes of the bodies of men or so far as it is a mood attached to things and their colors and shapes. Now space is the universal container in which all elements of the visible world are disposed. Every painting, therefore, should include a representation of space; it should never represent things as if they stood alone without environment or relation. Even in the portrait of a single individual some relation to space should be indicated; this is accomplished by the background, in which the figures should be made to lie, and to which they should seem to belong. In front, the space of a picture is limited by the plane of the surface on which it is painted; everything should appear to belong in the space back of this; nothing should seem to come forward out towards the spectator. But behind this, backwards, the space represented is unlimited, and its infinite depths may well be indicated by the convergence of perspective lines and the gradual fading of the outlines and colors of objects.

The represented space of the picture is not, of course, the real space of the canvas or of the room in which the picture hangs. The former is infinite, while the latter is only so many square feet in area. The frame serves the purpose of cutting off the represented space from all relation to the real space, of which the frame itself is a part. A confusion of these two spaces is sometimes found in crude work and in the comments of people upon genuine works of art. I have, for example, seen a picture of a lion with iron bars riveted to the frame and extending over it,–a represented lion in a real cage! And I once heard a man criticise one of Degas’ paintings on the ground that “if the dancing girl were to straighten her bent body she would bump her head on the frame!” The rule that the color of the frame should harmonize with the main tones of the picture is no proof that they belong together; its purpose is merely to protect the colors of the painting from being changed through their neighborhood with those of the frame.

Although painting is essentially a spatial art, it includes a temporal element, the “specious present,” the single moment of action or of motion. The lines are not dead and static, but alive; they progress and vibrate; by their means a smile, the rippling of a stream, the gesture of surprise, the movement of a dance, may be depicted. Successive moments, the different phases of an action or movement, cannot, however, be represented. Strict unities of space and time should be observed in painting. Only contiguous parts of space and only one moment of time should be represented inside a single frame. Both these unities were violated in old religious paintings where sometimes the Nativity, Flight into Egypt, Crucifixion, and Resurrection were all portrayed on one canvas.

The space of painting is no abstract aspect of things such as the geometer elaborates. To be in a common space with other things, implies, for the pictorial intuition of the world, to be played upon by the same light and to be enveloped in the same atmosphere. Space, light, and air constitute the milieu in which everything lives and moves and has its being in painting. To every difference in the arrangement and foreshortening of objects, to every variation in their lights and shadows and aerial quality, the sensitive soul responds. The close proximity of objects in a tiny room has an effect upon feeling very different from their wide distribution over a broad space. An equal difference depends upon whether light is concentrated upon objects or evenly distributed over them; upon whether it is bright or dim; upon whether they are near and clear in a thin air or far and hazy in a thick and heavy cloud. The masters of light and air, Rembrandt, Claude, Turner, evoke myriad moods through these subtle influences. A long development and the following of many false paths was necessary before painting discovered its true function as an expression of the elements, the once hard outlines of things softening in their enveloping embrace.

The representation of space, which painting alone of all the arts can achieve, does not imply, however, a representation of the full plastic quality of individual objects, which is the function of sculpture. This, to be sure, can be done in painting, as the great sculptor-painters of the Renaissance have shown; but it cannot be done so well as in sculpture; and when done tends to interfere with other things. It makes objects stand out too much by themselves, destroying their felt unity with other elements on the canvas, so that when provided with all the colors of life, they seem rather real than painted, and look as if they wished to leave the world of representation, where they belong, and touch hands with the spectator. The depth and the extent of space, the distance and the distribution of objects, light and shade and air, are all independent of the plasticity of individual things, which tends to disappear in proportion as they are emphasized. Only when attention is directed to the individual object does its full plasticity appear; see it as an element of the environing whole, and it flattens out to view.

There are, in fact, two ways of seeing, to each of which corresponds a mode of painting. On the one hand, we may see distributively, holding objects as individuals each in our attention, neglecting light and space and air. Or else we may see synthetically, first the whole which light and space and air compose, and then individual things as bearers of these. The one is the more practical way of seeing; because, for practical purposes, the separate thing that can be grasped and used is all important, and the film of light and air and the neighborhood of other things are of no account. The other is more theoretical and sthetic; for to a pure vision which does not think of handling, there are no separate things, but only differences of shape and color and location in a single object, the visible whole. [Footnote: Cf. Lipps, Aesthetik, Bd. 2, s. 165, et seq.]

In the type of painting corresponding to the first way of seeing, objects are represented more as we think them to be, or as we should find them on further exploration, than as they actually appear to sight at any given moment; the outlines are clear and sharp and detail is emphasized. This mode of painting is most in place for interiors where there is an even distribution and no striking effects of light and shade, as in so many genre pictures of the Dutch school; but above all when the human significance of objects or their dramatic relations, which depend upon their being taken as separate things, is to be expressed. For example, to get the expression of the action of a woman pouring water into a jug, it is necessary that we feel the shape and color of the latter as aspects of a tangible reality having a distinct purpose, that of holding water; and this purposefulness makes of the object a separate, individual thing. Yet a too great distinction of objects and a too great elaboration of detail, as in Meissonier and the English Pre-Raphaelites, is inartistic; the picture breaks up into separate parts and all feeling of unity is lost. In the work of the Flemish and Dutch, on the contrary, we take delight in the perspicuity of things without losing the sense of wholeness; for there is a sameness and simplicity of color tone which unites them. A genuine and unique sthetic value is possessed by such work,–that of clear intuition of the visual detail and human significance of things.

Very often the unification in painting of this type is dramatic chiefly–some link of action or of symbolism which the elements of the picture have as meanings, a unity of content, therefore, and not a coloristic or a linear unity. The colors are essentially local colors, serving first to characterize and distinguish the objects properly, and then to lend to them severally high value through brightness and temperament; although harmonizing as mere colors, they are held together more through some connection in what they mean than through a unity of pure expression. The dominance of any one mass, too, depends more upon its superior significance as meaning than upon its claim upon the attention through any intrinsic quality of color. Nevertheless, even if secondary, the unity and dominance through color and line must be present, and should be consonant with the unity and subordination in the meanings. The painting of the great Italian masters was of this character. In a Madonna picture, for example, the elements representing the Holy Family are united through the spiritual oneness of the objects which they represent, and the Madonna is dominant through her superior significance for the religious life. The colors serve to characterize and distinguish the figures; yet between the former there is a harmony corresponding to the inner harmony of the latter; the spiritual dominance of the Madonna is expressed in a purely formal fashion through her larger size, central position, and more brightly gleaming garments.

In painting which corresponds to the synthetic way of seeing, all particular objects are subordinated to space and light and air; their outlines are melting, suggested rather than seen, and there is little emphasis on detail. Turner’s painting of light and the more recent examples of impressionism afford abundant examples of this. In this style, unification is effected almost wholly through color and line as such, and through the light and space and air which they represent. Just to live in the same atmosphere or in the path of the same light, to be enveloped in the same darkness or shadow, or merely to participate in a single composition of colors or rhythm of lines serves to unite objects. The relative importance of elements, too, is determined rather by some intrinsic quality which arrests attention than by any supremacy as meanings.

Through such materials and methods as we have described, the possibilities and limits of expression in painting are determined. First of all, painting has the power, through color and line as such, to express the purely musical emotions; this we demand of painting just as we demand music of verse: without word-music, there is no poetry, no matter how high the theme; so without color and line music, no matter how skillful the representation or how noble the subject, there is no picture. Painting may give little more than this. In much of still-life painting, for example, the values attached to the objects represented are borrowed from the music of the medium. And even when the objects represented have a value in themselves, the superiority of their representation over the mere perception of them in nature comes from this source. Why, for example, does the painting of flowers by a real master afford a richer aesthetic experience than real flowers? Painted flowers have no perfume, rightly called the soul of flowers. It is because in painting the expressiveness of the purer and more subtly harmonious colors more than compensates for the lack of odor. Through the music of color and line we are made responsive to common things which otherwise would leave us cold, or if we are responsive to them, our sensitiveness becomes finer and keener. It is largely because he is so accomplished a musician in color and composition that Jan Vermeer can make the inside of a room or some commonplace act by a commonplace person the object of an intense and sympathetic contemplation.

For the beauty of landscape also, which the art of painting has created and which during the last century has become its favorite theme, the music of color is equally essential. In its highest form, that beauty requires emotional responsiveness combined with the power accurately to observe and reproduce the qualities of things; without observation and reproduction, the feeling is incommunicable; without feeling, the imitation is lifeless. Love of the object, which at once reveals and makes responsive, mediates the highest achievements of the art. By translating the object into the language of abstract color and line, it is purified for feeling; for those qualities toward which feeling is indifferent are eliminated; only so much as can enter into an expressive color or line composition survives. The artist gives us the illusion that he is reproducing our familiar world all the while that he is glorifying it through the beauty of the colors in which he paints it. The painting of the human body, especially the nude human body, belongs to the same class of subjects as the painting of landscapes. For the human body unclothed, and as unclothed severed from the conventional social world, is a part of nature and speaks to us as nature does through form and color. To bring that object before us with all its expressive detail; to make us, in the imagination, move with it and touch it; to caress it with our eyes; to awaken that passionate interest which makes us see and feel it more vividly than anything else in the world, yet to subdue passion wholly to a glowing contemplation, this is one of the highest achievements of pictorial art. And the artistic right to represent it in the woods by lake or stream, or in the meadow among other natural things, must be accorded to the artist despite all protests of convention and habit; we never actually find it there, to be sure, yet there it belongs for imaginative feelings. The maidens in Corot’s paintings, for example, seem to belong as naturally to the landscape as the very trees themselves.

But the painter can depict the human body not merely as something sensuously beautiful, but as expressive, through gesture and pose and countenance, of character and thought. The complex psychic life of man is thus open to him for delineation. In the portrait, through the attentive study of the many varying expressions of the inner life, leading to the selection of some characteristic pose or action, the artist concentrates into a single image what seems to him to be the distinctive nature of the man. And he can express this nature over again, and so more effectively reveal it, in the mere colors and lines which he uses. Thus Franz Hals has embodied the abundance and good cheer of his burghers in the boldness and brightness of the lines and colors with which he paints them; and Hogarth, in the “Shrimp Girl," through the mere singularity of line and color, has created the eerie impression which we attach to the girl herself. The best portraits subordinate everything else, such as costume and background, to the painting of the inner life. Thus Velasquez brings before us the souls of his little Infantas despite the queer head-dresses and frocks which must have threatened to smother them. The background should serve the same end; if elaborate, it should represent a fitting environment; and if plain it should throw the figure into relief. Alongside of the portrait as a painting of the soul should be placed pictures of ideal characters; ideal, not in the sense of good, but in the sense of more highly complex and unified than actually existing persons. Such pictures symbolize for us the quintessence and highest level of definite types of life. Manet’s “Olympia” and Goya’s “Maja” belong here equally with Leonardo’s “Christ” or “Mona Lisa,” with Raphael’s Madonnas and Michelangelo’s gods and angels. In them is attained the most intense concentration of psychic life possible.

It is now pretty generally recognized that the unities of time and space exclude from the sphere of painting story telling and history, which require for effective representation more than the single moment included in painting. In order to tell a story in painting, one has to supplement what is seen with ideas which can be obtained only from a catalogue or other source external to the picture; one has to add in thought to the moment given on the canvas the missing moments of the action. But a work of art should be complete in itself and so far as possible self-explanatory; it should not lead us away from itself, but keep us always to itself. If the scene represented be a part of a story, the story should be so well known that its connection with the picture can be immediately recognized without external aid, and should admit of a certain completeness in its various parts. The life of Christ is such a story; everybody knows it and can interpret a picture portraying it forthwith; its various incidents and situations have each a unique and complete significance in themselves. Historical paintings are not necessarily bad, of course, but the good ones are good despite the history, and a proof of their excellence consists in the fact that when we see them they make us forget for the moment our historical erudition.

This norm does not exclude from the sphere of painting the expression of the relation of man to his fellows; it simply confines painting to the delineation of momentary and self-sufficient glimpses of social life. Pictures representing a mother and child, a pair of lovers, a family group, festival, tavern scene, or battle charge are illustrations. In Dutch painting the social life of Holland in the seventeenth century found its record; yet there is little or no anecdote. The genre, the representation of a group of people united by some common interest and with an appropriate background, has the same legitimacy, if not the same eminence, as the portrait. It does not possess the rank of the portrait because, since the interest is rather in the action or the situation portrayed, the figures are more merely typical, being developed only so far as is necessary to carry the action; seldom is a subtle and individualized inner life portrayed.

Objections are rightly raised, however, against pathetic, sentimental, and moralistic painting. Here color and line, the whole picture in fact, counts for little or nothing except to stir an emotion, usually of grief or pity or love, or to preach a sermon; the unity of form and content is sacrificed, the one becoming a mere means to the other. But, as we know, it is never the purpose of art merely to stir feeling; its purpose is to objectify feeling; if the art be painting, to put feeling into color and line, and only when feeling is experienced as there is it aesthetic feeling at all. And what shall we think of a picture like the “Doctor” of Luke Fildes’, which is so pathetic that one cannot bear to look at it? Surely a picture should make one want to see it! Of course I do not mean that an artist cannot paint pathetic and sentimental subjects. The great painters of the Passion would disprove that with reference to the former and Watteau with reference to the latter. But a power to achieve beauty of color and line and to objectify pathos and sentiment through them was possessed by these painters to a degree to which few others have attained. For moralistic painting, however, there can be no excuse. You can paint visible things and as much of the soul as can appear through them; you cannot paint abstract ethical maxims. Of course a painter may intend his picture to be an illustration of some moral maxim, or may even, as Hogarth did, paint it to expose the sins of his age and create a beautiful work notwithstanding; but only if, in the result, this purpose is irrelevant and the concrete delineation everything.


Preface  •  Chapter I - Introduction: Purpose and Method  •  Chapter II - Definition of Art  •  Chapter III - The Intrinsic Value of Art  •  Chapter IV - The Analysis of the Aesthetic Experience: The Elements of the Experience  •  Chapter V - The Analysis of the Aesthetic Experience: The Structure of the Experience  •  Chapter VI - The Problem of Evil in Aesthetics, and Its Solution Through the Tragic, Pathetic, and Comic  •  Chapter VII - The Standard of Taste  •  Chapter VIII - The Aesthetics of Music  •  Chapter IX - The Aesthetics of Poetry  •  Chapter X - Prose Literature  •  Chapter XI - The Dominion of Art Over Nature: Painting  •  Chapter XII - Sculpture  •  Chapter XIII - Beauty in the Industrial Arts: Architecture  •  Chapter XIV - The Function of Art: Art and Morality  •  Chapter XV - The Function of Art: Art and Religion  •  Bibliography

[Buy at Amazon]
The Principles Of Aesthetics
By Dewitt H. Parker
At Amazon