The Pleasures of Life
By Sir John Lubbock

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    “High art consists neither in altering, nor in improving nature; but
    in seeking throughout nature for ’whatsoever things are lovely,
    whatsoever things are pure;’ in loving these, in displaying to the
    utmost of the painter’s power such loveliness as is in them, and
    directing the thoughts of others to them by winning art, or gentle
    emphasis. Art (caeteris paribus) is great in exact proportion to the
    love of beauty shown by the painter, provided that love of beauty
    forfeit no atom of truth."–RUSKIN.

The most ancient works of Art which we possess are representations of animals, rude indeed, but often strikingly characteristic, engraved on, or carved in, stag’s-horn or bone; and found in English, French, and German caves, with stone and other rude implements, and the remains of mammalia, belonging apparently to the close of the glacial epoch: not only of the deer, bear, and other animals now inhabiting temperate Europe, but of some, such as the reindeer, the musk sheep, and the mammoth, which have either retreated north or become altogether extinct. We may, I think, venture to hope that other designs may hereafter be found, which will give us additional information as to the manners and customs of our ancestors in those remote ages.

Next to these in point of antiquity come the sculptures and paintings on Assyrian and Egyptian tombs, temples, and palaces.

These ancient scenes, considered as works of art, have no doubt many faults, and yet how graphically they tell their story! As a matter of fact a king is not, as a rule, bigger than his soldiers, but in these battle-scenes he is always so represented. We must, however, remember that in ancient warfare the greater part of the fighting was, as a matter of fact, done by the chiefs. In this respect the Homeric poems resemble the Assyrian and Egyptian representations. At any rate, we see at a glance which is the king, which are officers, which side is victorious, the struggles and sufferings of the wounded, the flight of the enemy, the city of refuge–so that he who runs may read; while in modern battle-pictures the story is much less clear, and, indeed, the untrained eye sees for some time little but scarlet and smoke.

These works assuredly possess a grandeur and dignity of their own, even though they have not the beauty of later art.

In Greece Art reached a perfection which has never been excelled, and it was more appreciated than perhaps it has ever been since.

At the time when Demetrius attacked the city of Rhodes, Protogenes was painting a picture of Ialysus. “This,” says Pliny, “hindered King Demetrius from taking Rhodes, out of fear lest he should burn the picture; and not being able to fire the town on any other side, he was pleased rather to spare the painting than to take the victory, which was already in his hands. Protogenes, at that time, had his painting-room in a garden out of the town, and very near the camp of the enemies, where he was daily finishing those pieces which he had already begun, the noise of soldiers not being capable of interrupting his studies. But Demetrius causing him to be brought into his presence, and asking him what made him so bold as to work in the midst of enemies, he answered the king, ’That he understood the war which he made was against the Rhodians, and not against the Arts.’”

With the decay of Greece, Art sank too, until it was revived in the thirteenth century by Cimabue, since whose time its progress has been triumphal.

Art is unquestionably one of the purest and highest elements in human happiness. It trains the mind through the eye, and the eye through the mind. As the sun colors flowers, so does art color life.

“In true Art,” says Ruskin, “the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together. But Art is no recreation: it cannot be learned at spare moments, nor pursued when we have nothing better to do.”

It is not only in the East that great works, really due to study and labor, have been attributed to magic.

Study and labor cannot make every man an artist, but no one can succeed in art without them. In Art two and two do not make four, and no number of little things will make a great one.

It has been said, and on high authority, that the end of art is to please. But this is a very imperfect definition. It might as well be said that a library is only intended for pleasure and ornament.

Art has the advantage of nature, in so far as it introduces a human element, which is in some respects superior even to nature. “If,” says Plato, “you take a man as he is made by nature and compare him with another who is the effect of art, the work of nature will always appear the less beautitiful, because art is more accurate than nature.”

Bacon also, in The Advancement of Learning, speaks of “the world being inferior to the soul, by reason whereof there is agreeable to the spirit of man a more ample greatness, a more exact goodness, and a more absolute variety than can be found in the nature of things.”

The poets tell us that Prometheus, having made a beautiful statue of Minerva, the goddess was so delighted that she offered to bring down anything from Heaven which could add to its perfection. Prometheus on this prudently asked her to take him there, so that he might choose for himself. This Minerva did, and Prometheus, finding that in heaven all things were animated by fire, brought back a spark, with which he gave life to his work.

In fact, Imitation is the means and not the end of Art. The story of Zeuxis and Parrhasius is a pretty tale; but to deceive birds, or even man himself, is but a trifling matter compared with the higher functions of Art. To imitate the Iliad, says Dr. Young, is not imitating Homer, but as Sir J. Reynolds adds, the more the artist studies nature “the nearer he approaches to the true and perfect idea of art.”

“Following these rules and using these precautions, when you have clearly and distinctly learned in what good coloring consists, you cannot do better than have recourse to Nature herself, who is always at hand, and in comparison of whose true splendor the best colored pictures are but faint and feeble.” [1]

Art, indeed, must create as well as copy. As Victor Cousin well says, “The ideal without the real lacks life; but the real without the ideal lacks pure beauty. Both need to unite; to join hands and enter into alliance. In this way the best work may be achieved. Thus beauty is an absolute idea, and not a mere copy of imperfect Nature.”

The grouping of the picture is of course of the utmost importance. Sir Joshua Reynolds gives two remarkable cases to show how much any given figure in a picture is affected by its surroundings. Tintoret in one of his pictures has taken the Samson of Michael Angelo, put an eagle under him, placed thunder and lightning in his right hand instead of the jawbone of an ass, and thus turned him into a Jupiter. The second instance is even more striking. Titian has copied the figure in the vault of the Sistine Chapel which represents the Deity dividing light from darkness, and has introduced it into his picture of the battle of Cadore, to represent a general falling from his horse.

We must remember that so far as the eye is concerned, the object of the artist is to train, not to deceive, and that his higher function has reference rather to the mind than to the eye.

No doubt

  “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
  To throw a perfume on the violet,
  To smooth the ice, or add another hue
  Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
  To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
  Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.” [2]

But all is not gold that glitters, flowers are not all arrayed like the lily, and there is room for selection as well as representation.

“The true, the good, and the beautiful,” says Cousin, “are but forms of the infinite: what then do we really love in truth, beauty, and virtue? We love the infinite himself. The love of the infinite substance is hidden under the love of its forms. It is so truly the infinite which charms in the true, the good, and the beautiful, that its manifestations alone do not suffice. The artist is dissatisfied at the sight even of his greatest works; he aspires still higher.”

It is indeed sometimes objected that Landscape painting is not true to nature; but we must ask, What is truth? Is the object to produce the same impression on the mind as that created by the scene itself? If so, let any one try to draw from memory a group of mountains, and he will probably find that in the impression produced on his mind the mountains are loftier and steeper, the valleys deeper and narrower, than in the actual reality. A drawing, then, which was literally exact would not be true, in the sense of conveying the same impression as Nature herself.

In fact, Art, says Goethe, is called Art simply because it is not Nature.

It is not sufficient for the artist to choose beautiful scenery, and delineate it with accuracy. He must not be a mere copyist. Something higher and more subtle is required. He must create, or at any rate interpret, as well as copy.

Turner was never satisfied merely to reach to even the most glorious scenery. He moved, and even suppressed, mountains.

A certain nobleman, we are told, was very anxious to see the model from whom Guido painted his lovely female faces. Guido placed his color-grinder, a big coarse man, in an attitude, and then drew a beautiful Magdalen. “My dear Count,” he said, “the beautiful and pure idea must be in the mind, and then it is no matter what the model is.”

Guido Reni, who painted St. Michael for the Church of the Capuchins at Rome, wished that he “had the wings of an angel, to have ascended unto Paradise, and there to have beheld the forms of those beautiful spirits, from which I might have copied my Archangel. But not being able to mount so high, it was in vain for me to seek for his resemblance here below; so that I was forced to look into mine own mind, and into that idea of beauty which I have formed in my own imagination.” [3]

Science attempts, as far as the limited powers of Man permit, to reproduce the actual facts in a manner which, however bald, is true in itself, irrespective of time and scene. To do this she must submit to many limitations; not altogether unvexatious, and not without serious drawbacks. Art, on the contrary, endeavors to convey the impression of the original under some especial aspect.

In some respects, Art gives a clearer and more vivid idea of an unknown country than any description can convey. In literature rock may be rock, but in painting it must be granite or slate, and not merely rock in general.

It is remarkable that while artists have long recognized the necessity of studying anatomy, and there has been from the commencement a professor of anatomy in the Royal Academy, it is only of late years that any knowledge of botany or geology has been considered desirable, and even now their importance is by no means generally recognized.

Much has been written as to the relative merits of painting, sculpture, and architecture. This, if it be not a somewhat unprofitable inquiry, would at any rate be out of place here.

Architecture not only gives intense pleasure, but even the impression of something ethereal and superhuman.

Madame de Stael described it as “frozen music;” and a cathedral is a glorious specimen of “thought in stone,” whose very windows are transparent walls of gorgeous hues.

Caracci said that poets paint in their words and artists speak in their works. The latter have indeed one great advantage, for a glance at a statue or a painting will convey a more vivid idea than a long and minute description.

Another advantage possessed by Art is that it is understood by all civilized nations, whilst each has a separate language.

Even from a material point of view Art is most important. In a recent address Sir F. Leighton has observed that the study of Art “is every day becoming more important in relation to certain sides of the waning material prosperity of the country. For the industrial competition between this and other countries–a competition, keen and eager, which means to certain industries almost a race for life–runs, in many cases, no longer exclusively or mainly on the lines of excellence of material and solidity of workmanship, but greatly nowadays on the lines of artistic charm and beauty of design.”

The highest service, however, that Art can accomplish for man is to become “at once the voice of his nobler aspirations, and the steady disciplinarian of his emotions; and it is with this mission, rather than with any aesthetic perfection, that we are at present concerned.” [4]

Science and Art are sisters, or rather perhaps they are like brother and sister. The mission of Art is in some respects like that of woman. It is not Hers so much to do the hard toil and moil of the world, as to surround it with a halo of beauty, to convert work into pleasure.

In science we naturally expect progress, but in Art the case is not so clear; and yet Sir Joshua Reynolds did not hesitate to express his conviction that in the future “so much will painting improve, that the best we can now achieve will appear like the work of children,” and we may hope that our power of enjoying it may increase in an equal ratio. Wordsworth says that poets have to create the taste for their own works, and the same is, in some degree at any rate, true of artists.

In one respect especially modern painters appear to have made a marked advance, and one great blessing which in fact we owe to them is a more vivid enjoyment of scenery.

I have of course no pretensions to speak with authority, but even in the case of the greatest masters before Turner, the landscapes seem to me singularly inferior to the figures. Sir Joshua Reynolds tells us that Gainsborough framed a kind of model of a landscape on his table, composed of broken stones, dried herbs, and pieces of looking-glass, which he magnified and improved into rocks, trees, and water; and Sir Joshua solemnly discusses the wisdom of such a proceeding. “How far it may be useful in giving hints,” he says, “the professors of landscape can best determine,” but he does not recommend it, and is disposed to think, on the whole, the practice may be more likely to do harm than good!

In the picture of Ceyx and Alcyone, by Wilson, of whom Cunningham said that, with Gainsborough, he laid the foundation of our School of Landscape, the castle is said to have been painted from a pot of porter, and the rock from a Stilton cheese. There is indeed another version of the story, that the picture was sold for a pot of porter and a cheese, which, however, does not give a higher idea of the appreciation of the art of landscape at that date.

Until very recently the general feeling with reference to mountain scenery has been that expressed by Tacitus. “Who would leave Asia or Africa or Italy to go to Germany, a shapeless and unformed country, a harsh sky, and melancholy aspect, unless indeed it was his native land?”

It is amusing to read the opinion of Dr. Beattie, in a special treatise on Truth, Poetry and Music, written at the close of the last century, that “The Highlands of Scotland are in general a melancholy country. Long tracts of mountainous country, covered with dark heath, and often obscured by misty weather; narrow valleys thinly inhabited, and bounded by precipices resounding with the fall of torrents; a soil so rugged, and a climate so dreary, as in many parts to admit neither the amenities of pasturage, nor the labors of agriculture; the mournful dashing of waves along the firths and lakes: the portentous noises which every change of the wind is apt to raise in a lonely region, full of echoes, and rocks, and caverns; the grotesque and ghastly appearance of such a landscape by the light of the moon: objects like these diffuse a gloom over the fancy," etc. [5]

Even Goldsmith regarded the scenery of the Highlands as dismal and hideous. Johnson, we know, laid it down as an axiom that “the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees is the high road that leads him to England"–a saying which throws much doubt on his distinction that the Giant’s Causeway was “worth seeing but not worth going to see.” [6]

Madame de Stael declared, that though she would go 500 leagues to meet a clever man, she would not care to open her window to see the Bay of Naples.

Nor was the ancient absence of appreciation confined to scenery. Even Burke, speaking of Stonehenge, says, “Stonehenge, neither for disposition nor ornament, has anything admirable.”

Ugly scenery, however, may in some cases have an injurious effect on the human system. It has been ingeniously suggested that what really drove Don Quixote out of his mind was not the study of his books of chivalry, so much as the monotonous scenery of La Mancha.

The love of landscape is not indeed due to Art alone. It has been the happy combination of art and science which has trained us to perceive the beauty which surrounds us.

Art helps us to see, and “hundreds of people can talk for one who can think; but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion all in one.... Remembering always that there are two characters in which all greatness of Art consists–first, the earnest and intense seizing of natural facts; then the ordering those facts by strength of human intellect, so as to make them, for all who look upon them, to the utmost serviceable, memorable, and beautiful. And thus great Art is nothing else than the type of strong and noble life; for as the ignoble person, in his dealings with all that occurs in the world about him, first sees nothing clearly, looks nothing fairly in the face, and then allows himself to be swept away by the trampling torrent and unescapable force of the things that he would not foresee and could not understand: so the noble person, looking the facts of the world full in the face, and fathoming them with deep faculty, then deals with them in unalarmed intelligence and unhurried strength, and becomes, with his human intellect and will, no unconscious nor insignificant agent in consummating their good and restraining their evil.” [7]

May we not also hope that in this respect also still further progress may be made, that beauties may be revealed, and pleasures may be in store for those who come after us, which we cannot appreciate, or at least can but faintly feel.

Even now there is scarcely a cottage without something more or less successfully claiming to rank as Art,–a picture, a photograph, or a statuette; and we may fairly hope that much as Art even now contributes to the happiness of life, it will do so even more effectively in the future.

[1] Reynolds.

[2] Shakespeare.

[3] Dryden.

[4] Haweis.

[5] Beattie, 1776.

[6] Boswell.

[7] Ruskin.



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