Scanned from a copy of Clausen's Six Lectures on Painting Delivered to the Students of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, January, 1904 (see details at end).This is the sixth and final lecture. It has been formatted for the Victorian Web, linked to other material on the website, and illustrated by Jacqueline Banerjee. Page numbers are given in square brackets. [Click on all the illustrations to enlarge them, and usually for more information about them.]
HE greatest work in painting that has been produced is unquestionably the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo. This work shows, in perfect balance, all the qualities of the finest art: invention, impressive sentiment, grandeur of design, with a presentation of form which is not only in itself beautiful and noble, but unapproachable in its expressiveness and appropriateness of action and gesture; and in colour it is rich, grave, and harmonious. In this great work each quality stands in such perfect balance one with the other that no one asserts its pre-eminence; and each quality is carried to its farthest possible point of expression. It is impossible to say whether this work is greater in knowledge of form or in the sentiment which it inspires — or which inspires it — [115/116] in its design or in its colour, in its fulness or its austerity. The general impression which it produces is of perfect harmony, and of a mind infinitely greater in its range than our own. Michelangelo is beyond, and apart from, other men. His work has not the sentiment of Pagan art; it has not the sentiment of Christian art; but is simply human. Millet said of him that he seemed able, in a single figure, to personify the good or ill of all humanity.
Never in art has there been shown such a perfect balance of intellect and emotion, each carried to its highest point, as we find in Michelangelo; he is the one ideal artist. All is under the control of his mind. All is kept within the possibilities of nature, yet taken beyond nature as it is seen by us.
It is hardly necessary to dwell on this, for it is the accepted commonplace of criticism, but I would like to touch on it, and on the question of idealism in art, so far as it seems to affect our work.
Wellington Monument in St Paul's, by Alfred Stevens. "The only artist, so far as I know," says Clausen below, "who has been able to enter into and carry on [Michelangelo's] tradition worthily."
As you know, Sir Joshua Reynolds, in his Discourses, continually dwells on the excellences of Michelangelo, and exhorts his students to take [116/117] him as their model. And there is no book that an artist can read that is so illmninating and so helpful as the Discourses, though I think it cannot be so well understood by young painters as by those who have had some experience, who know their own mistakes and weaknesses, and through them can begin to estimate the greatness of the masters. These admirable Discourses give, with the utmost candour and clearness, with entire freedom from the sentimentality and gush which mars so much that is written on artistic subjects, the ripe conclusions of a great artist. We see the perfect workman — the master-craftsman, if I may say so — putting his methods before us and laying bare his mind to us. Now, if there is one thing in the Discourses more commented on than another, it is that Reynolds, while continually exhorting his pupils to follow the grand style, was himself a follower of the Venetians and of Vandyke — of the schools which he classes as merely ornamental, and lower than the grand style of Michelangelo. And this is pointed out as an inconsistency. I do not think that this charge is just or fair. No one can [117/118] read the Discourses without feeling convinced of Reynolds' admirable candour and consistency. No one can read his last discourse, especially the concluding passage, where he says, "I feel a self- congratulation in knowing myself capable of such sensations as Michelangelo intended to excite" without feeling his absolute sincerity; and it is evident that Reynolds, knowing well how great he was, and how great was the work of the Venetian who inspired him, simply and candidly stated what he felt, in placing his own work, and that of so many other great artists, below that which he knew in his heart to be the greatest work of all. I instance this as touching on idealism in art. It is evident that Reynolds recognised that more than the will was necessary to follow in the steps of Michelangelo — that to take up the work of Michelangelo one must have the mind of Michelangelo — and we can all recall instances in which his followers have achieved, not sublimity, but only bombastic pretentiousness — not realising that every peculiarity of his was part of his means of expression; and they gave his body, and not always a good version of his body at that, without [118/119] his spirit. The only artist, so far as I know, who has been able to enter into and carry on his tradition worthily is Alfred Stevens, whose Wellington Memorial and other works stand alone, as continuing the spirit of the Renaissance.
The tendency to estimate the manner as of greater account than the mind is the cause, I think, of so many failures in the direction of idealism in art. It must be governed by the idea. If the idea is not worthy, or the artist is not capable of giving it expression, there cannot be a fine result. Ideal art requires a man to be both a great artist, as executant, and a great thinker; and such men are rare. The majority of us have to walk, as well as we are able, in much humbler paths, and to keep within the limits of man's experience, of things we can actually see; within the indefinite bounds of what is known as "realism."
Realism may be of different kinds. One may have the realism of external things, where a painter may so copy a face or person that though everything is represented in a way one cannot find fault with, it is all lifeless. This would happen if the painter were only occupied with the [119/120] visible surfaces of the person he was painting, and not thinking of expressing his individual character. Or one may have the opposite of this; a realism of expression or character, in which the character of the person or thing may be conveyed to the spectator, although in its appearance — in colour or surface — we fail to recognise the painter's work as corresponding exactly with what he depicts. We fed that the painter has taken liberties with his facts. Or one may try and maintain a balance between these two extremes, giving each quality its due place.
The realism of surfaces only is a false realism. It seems to me to be a kind of evasion of the difficulty of true representation, and to ask that we should assume that the care with which the trivial things are rendered, implies that the greater ones are equally well rendered also. For though we may have all the buttons right, the ring on the finger, the curl in the hair, and so on, we do not produce truth of resemblance by the sum of little things without first securing the great ones. It is a common error that much detail necessarily means completeness, or conscientiousness. [120/121]
The realism of expression or character, on the other hand, may reach the level of very fine art — perhaps the finest. It depends on the degree in which' expression or character is realised. It does not depend on the accuracy with which facts or details are copied, nor does it depend upon colour, but upon a grasp of the broad structural features and movements which give expression. It is an analysis and abstraction of the simple forms.
Left: Ford Madox Brown's The Last of England. Right: John Everett Millais' Ophelia.
The realism of externals is a fault too common in our work to-day. We see too many pictures — in all branches of painting — where the interest does not he where it professes to be, or where it should naturally be looked for, but is frittered away over the surfaces of things, on rich stuffs, or flowers, or weeds, or other minor points and accessories; while the central intention, or what should be the central intention, is but little regarded. I do not wish to discourage attention to detail, — detail must and should be attended to, — but it should come after the qualities of structure and expression, not before. It is possible, with detail carried to the extremest point, still to be [121/122] broad, still to keep to the structure, still to maintain the expression, as we may see in the works of Van Eyck — especially, as masterpieces of modelling and character, the two small heads in the National Gallery — or in the work of Holbein, such as the "Duchess of Milan"; or, among modern work, the "Last of England," by Madox Brown, and the "Ophelia" by Sir John Millais. But what we should guard against is letting ourselves be led away, by the comparative ease with which we can paint the httle things, from the difficulties of painting the greater ones.
The realism of expression or character is to be found in the work of the past rather than in that of to-day. We find it in the work of Titian, of Tintoret, of Rembrandt, as in the "Jew Merchant" in the National Gallery, and of Sir Joshua Reynolds. It is not an imitation of nature, but an abstraction of an imaginative artist, and is found, as a rule, in his later works. We find examples of the middle course between these extremes in the work of Velasquez, of Moroni — such as the "Tailor" and the "Lawyer" — and of Lorenzo Lotto, in his fine portrait of an ecclesi[122/123]astic in the National Gallery, and in the work of Veronese and Franz Hals. This is the direction, I think, in which realism in portraiture should go.
The degree of realism, or definite realisation in a picture, should be kept in accord with the actuality of its subject. For while it is quite proper, and may be very necessary, to realise materials and textures in a picture of actual life, it is manifestly no help, but is a hindrance to the expression of the subject, when the same degree of reaUsm is given in an abstract subject or a mythological story. In such a subject, where the appeal is to the imagination through figures or persons whom we know to be unreal, it jars terribly to find figures, draperies, and accessories painted with the realism of still life, so that we recognise the model, or question the material of the dresses, and wonder where they were bought. Some convention, some treatment, especially of the colour, in accord with the sentiment, should, I think, be adopted in work of this kind.
Venus Rising from the Sea, by Edward Burne-Jones.
The hardness and archaism of the early painters is acceptable to us in these subjects, as we see in the "Primavera," or the "Venus [123/124] rising from the Sea," by Botticelli, because it does not lead us to think of our treatment of nature. We are too far removed from the early men, and their style of painting also becomes legendary, like the story of their pictures. There is a consequent harmony between subject and treatment. We may see this in the work of Burne-Jones. Titian's convention seems to be too near to nature, Tintoret's is less literal, but Michelangelo's is the ideal one."
Whatever be the intention in a picture, the treatment should be in accord with it. This seems self-evident; but often we see pictures where a greater sense of reality, of unity, would be gained were a less realistic treatment adopted, and the picture would be more real if it were not so realistic. In painting real things, let us be as real, as trae to what we see in nature, as we can. And the field is wide enough. But when we attempt subjects outside ordinary experience, we are under the disadvantage, as compared with the early painters, of not having the same naive simplicity of mind which carried them safely through very difficult themes. We are too self-[124/125]conscious, too critical, and cannot walk securely outside the bounds of our ordinary experience; and we seldom see a Scriptural theme, or an allegory, treated now in a way that we do not, in our minds, challenge — however much we may admire its skill — on the ground of its leaning towards a kind of realism that is inappropriate and distracting, in the sense that the real interest of the picture is not where it professes to be. As, in a picture of history, the historical interest may be neglected, or overpowered, and altogether secondary to the interest of the costumier; although it may be said that from the painter's point of view it does not matter, and that good painting, as good painting alone, will always hold its own.
This is true; yet I cannot help feeling that painting of objects, as an end in itself, is not fully satisfactory, and that true realism consists in the impression of general truth produced by rendering, not only the externals, but, by means of the externals, something of the significance of the thing painted. We find this in all the greatest art, and this should be the painter's [125/126] aim. He should give his reading of the subject. He should, at the same time, by study and by reference to what great artists have done, educate himself, so that his reading of nature may not be an ignoble one.
It is impossible to draw the line and say where realism ends and impressionism begins — that is, if we are not to confine the term "impressionism" to a particular school of explorers in colour. I do not think we should do so, as all art is so largely a matter of personal impression; and one quality runs into another, from the old conventions at one end of the scale to the extreme impressionist at the other, whose impression is so personal that he alone can understand it. But if we use the term in its accepted sense, as denoting the work of a number of artists whose interest is in recording effects of light, seeking to express nature truly and disregarding old conventions, we have a very interesting development of painting to consider.
There has always been impressionism in painting, but it was in the recording of form and movement, and not of colour. The colour of the older [126/127] painters was more or less arbitrary, except in the case of a few men. They did not study or seek to record the momentary effects and changes of colour with the keenness they showed in studying form, or light and shade. We know how they took trouble to give draperies the effect of movement, or figures the sense of action. And it was not until landscape painting had developed — until the time of Turner, and since then — that some artists saw in the study of colour as effected by light a new field, a little comer of nature which had not been explored, where some fresh beauty might be found.
Norham Castle, Sunrise, by J. M. W. Turner.
The old painters gained colour at the expense of light, suggested sunlight by means of dark shadow, and the general effect of truth to nature by a proportionate lowering of the scale of colour in nature. Turner was the first to discard these methods, and to try and attain in a higher scale of colour one more resembling nature, the fulness and gradation of Nature herself; to get colour in the shadows as well as in the lights. And in his finest works he did, I think, succeed in giving this, not only as it had never been given before. [127/128] but with a delicacy which has not been equalled since; he was the first and the greatest impressionist painter. He left no successor in England, and it was not until some years after his death that Claude Monet, and some other French artists who had been inspired by his work, endeavoured to develop his principles, or perhaps it would be more correct to say that they were influenced to study nature in the direction indicated by Turner — the realisation of actual sunlight; and their painting became brighter and brighter in the effort to express its full brilliancy, or to suggest its effect, until it has now reached the limits of what is possible in paint.
Norham Castle, Sunrise, by John Frederick Lewis.
The impressionists have rendered sunlight with a truth of colour and freshness new in art — if anything can really be said to be new; for their method of painting in pure colours is but a kind of magnified stippling, and one remembers the pictures of Eastern sunlight by J. F. Lewis, in which a wonderful brilliancy is produced by small touches of pure colour. One cannot help feeling that some impressionist work in its extreme developments — where, in [128/129] order to get the full force of colour, the paint is laid on pure, unmixed, and in separate spots — is, in spite of its beauty, disquieting and violent; and that it is questionable if, after all, this method is as true to nature as the older conventions of painting, where the effect is more restful if less brilliant.
It is a fresh convention, that is all. One cannot say that it is truer than others, for truth is infinite, and cannot be expressed in any formula; it may be truer in a particular respect, but this applies to the older conventions too. The impressionist methods make evident to us, by the force of contrast, the beauty of the older conventions, and many painters are returning to them as being more true to the general look of nature, so far as it can be expressed by paint; this may be taken as a reaction from impressionism, it being felt to have reached its limit of expression. But we cannot contentedly go back again to the old brown shadows and degraded tones; something has been gained, and we may try to follow the effective planning, the breadth and simplicity of the older painters, and still to have our colours [130/131] clear and true. It seems to me that the work of Manet was in this direction.
I should like to touch briefly on the art of Japan, which has influenced Western art in the last fifty years. It is a true style, perfect and complete in itself ; and there is no art more beautiful, in the sense of simply giving pleasure by its decorative qualities. It is frankly impressionist in its disregard of all but the things chosen, is less diffuse and self-conscious than our art; more concentrated, more vital. Its point of view is altogether different from that of Western art. This difference is so great that Japanese and modem European pictures cannot hang together on the same waU harmoniously; the European work suffers. The two schools do not agree, and one would say that it is impossible to combine their points of view, were it not for the work of Whistler and Degas. Whistler, in the portraits of his mother, of Miss Alexander, and in his nocturnes, has entered into the spirit of Japanese art so thoroughly as to gain from it something of his own, and to develop his own art from its suggestions; and the work of Degas shows [130/131]the same influence in the unexpectedness of its arrangement and its decorative balance and spacing.
Camellia and Blue-headed Bird, a polychrome woodblock print by Utagawa Hiroshige, c. 1833 (from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the public domain).
There is something disquieting in the fact that Japanese art is so beautiful, and at the same time so altogether different from ours, so much so as to cause a momentary thought whether it is not finer. But whether or no, we must keep on our own road, for our traditions and practice do not lead us to render nature like the Japanese. Still, we may study their work with great advantage; especially their fine colour, and the way they make their pictures by simple masses of colour or by silhouette, so that the effect is produced by the play of colour against colour, or by harmony of colour, and not by light and shade.
Our art appeals through representation or imitation, creating an illusion of nature in its three dimensions; while the Japanese representation of nature is not imitative, but selective, certain things being chosen and the rest ignored. And their art seems, in this respect, to have developed to its final perfection on the lines of the earliest forms of art, without changing its direction. If we go back to beginnings; to the [131/132] Egyptian wall-paintings, to the Greek vase-paintings or to the earliest Italians, or even if we look at the drawings of children, we find they are alike in this, that they draw the thing they want to express, and leave out the rest. The Japanese make their selection in the same way; their art has developed, but has not changed.
But in our art this simple method of selection is no longer possible; figures must have their backgrounds and surroundings, and the appearance of nature must be studied in order to give, by light, shade, or colour, the necessary emphasis to the principal parts.
We are agreed that this is the proper way to represent nature, but the art of the Japanese brings home to us the fact that it is not the only way; and we see from early pictures, such as the "Battie of St. Egidio," by Paolo Ucello, in the National Gallery, which is extremely like a Japanese picture, that the Early Italian point of view was very similar to that of the Japanese. Then I think we can realise how much the appreciation of a work of art depends upon the accepted convention of the moment; and this [132/133] may help us to understand the unaccountable neglect which has from time to time overtaken great artists.
Our conventions serve the same end as the simple selection of the Japanese, to give prominence to the thing desired; but it is not easy to decide how far we should be absolutely frank before nature, as we know we ought to be, and how much to depend on conventions. All that we can do is to try and understand the reasons for conventions, we may then be able to use them; and the underlsong thing, I think, is that imitation as an end is not enough — there must be some motive or point in the picture to which it is necessary to give prominence; for all art is based on selection.
The student's greatest difficulty is to find himself; what it is that he really wants to express; and he is naturally more influenced by the present than by the past. His inclination is to think only of the mode of to-day, of the work which surrounds him, rather than to search for general principles. But he should try and arrive at principles, and to that end study also the work [133/134] of the old artists, who have travelled the whole road; depending on nature for his inspiration, while referring to them for guidance. For we train ourselves to see and understand, by studying the work of the masters, which help us to form our judgment before nature.
I have tried to put before you as fairly and with as little bias as I can, some of the problems we have to consider; but it seems to me, now that I am come to the end, that I am something like the innkeeper who had but one wine in his cellar, which he made do duty for all vintages, only changing the label on the bottle. Like the innkeeper, I have given you the only wine I have, and, after all, the label does not matter; nor does it matter, I think, what kind of label is affixed to our work — whether it is realist, idealist, impressionist, or what not. The important thing is that we do it as well as we can.
Clausen, George. Six Lectures on Painting Delivered to the Students of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, January, 1904. 3rd ed. London: Methuen, 1904. Internet Archive. Contributed by Reese Library, University of California. Web. 1 September 2019.
Last modified 26 June 2020