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crawl about, were soon relieved, and recovered their health and strength in a very short time; but, in the rest, the disease seemed to have ac. quired a degree of inveteracy which was altogether without example.
285.—IMITATION IN ART,
REYNOLDS [It is as a writer that we shall here have to speak of the great English painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds. His lectures, delivered as President of the Royal Academy, are admirable examples of that species of composition. They unite enlarged principles with accurate knowledge, and are remarkable for their elegance and purity of style. Joshua Reynolds was the son of the Rev. Samuel Reynolds, rector of Plympton, Devon. He was born in 1723, and, having exhibited a decided vocation for art, was placed as a pupil with Hudson, a celebrated portrait-painter. The course of his professional career has been detailed in his Life by Northcote. He died in 1792.]
The subject of this discourse will be IMITATION, as far as a painter is concerned in it. By imitation, I do not mean imitation in its largest sense, but simply the following of other masters, and the advantage to be drawn from the study of their works.
Those who have undertaken to write on our art, and have represented it as a kind of inspiration, as a gift bestowed upon peculiar favourites at their birth, seem to ensure a much more favourable disposition from their readers, and have a much more captivating and liberal air, than he who attempts to examine, coldly, whether there are any means by which this art may be acquired; how the mind may be strengthened and expanded, and what guides will show the way to eminence.
It is very natural for those who are unacquainted with the cause of any thing extraordinary to be astonished at the effect, and to consider it as a kind of magic. They who have never observed the gradation by which art is acquired; who see only what is the full result of long labour and application of an infinite number and infinite variety of acts, are apt to conclude from their entire inability to do the same at once, that it is not only inaccessible to themselves, but can be done by
those only who have some gift of the nature of inspiration bestowed upon them.
The travellers into the East tell us that, when the ignorant inhabitants of those countries are asked concerning the ruins of stately edifices yet remaining amongst them, the melancholy monuments of their former grandeur and long-lost science, they always answer that they were built by magicians. The untaught mind finds a vast gulf be. tween its own powers and those works of complicated art, which it is utterly unable to fathom; and it supposes that such a void can be passed only by supernatural powers.
And, as for artists themselves, it is by no means their interest to undeceive such judges, however conscious they may be of the very natural means by which their extraordinary powers were acquired; though our art, being intrinsically imitative, rejects this idea of inspiration, more perhaps than any other.
It is to avoid this plain confession of truth, as it should seem, that this imitation of masters, indeed almost all imitation, which implies & more regular and progressive method of attaining the ends of painting, has ever been particularly inveighed against with great keenness, both by ancient and modern writers.
To derive all from native power, to owe nothing to another, is the praise which men, who do not much think on what they are saying, bestow sometimes upon others, and sometimes on themselves; and their imaginary dignity is naturally heightened by a supercilious censure of the low, the barren, the grovelling, the servile imitator. It would be no wonder if a student, frightened by these terrific and disgraceful epithets, with which the poor imitators are so often loaded, should let fall his pencil in mere despair; (conscious, as he must be, how much he has been indebted to the labours of others, how little, how very little of his art was born with him ;) and consider it as hopeless to set about acquiring, by the imitation of any human master, what he is taught to suppose is matter of inspiration from Heaven.
Some allowance must be made for what is said in the gaiety of rhetoric. We cannot suppose that any one can really mean to exclude all imitation of others. A position so wild would scarce deserve a serious answer; for it is apparent, if we were forbid to make use of the advantages which our predecessors afford us, the art would be always to begin, and consequently remain always in its infant state; and it is a
common observation that no art was ever invented and carried to perfection at the same time.
But, to bring us entirely to reason and sobriety, let it be observed that a painter must not only be of necessity an imitator of the works of nature, which alone is sufficient to dispel this phantom of inspiration, but he must be as necessarily an imitator of the works of other painters : this appears more humiliating, but is equally true; and no man can be an artist, whatever be may suppose, upon any other terms.
However, those who appear more moderate and reasonable allow that our study is to begin by imitation; but maintain that we should no longer use the thoughts of our predecessors, when we are become able to think for ourselves. They hold that imitation is as hurtful to the more advanced student, as it was advantageous to the beginner..
For my own part, I confess, I am not only very much disposed to maintain the 'absolute necessity of imitation in the first stages of the art, but am of opinion that the study of other masters, which I here call imitation, may be extended throughout our whole lives, without any danger of the inconveniences with which it is charged, of enfeebling the mind, or preventing us from giving that original air which every work undoubtedly ought always to have.
I am, on the contrary, persuaded that by imitation only, variety, and even originality of invention is produced. I will go further; even genius, at least what generally is so called, is the child of imitation. But, as this appears to be contrary to the general opinion, I must explain my position before I enforce it.
Genius is supposed to be a power of producing excellences which are out of the reach of the rules of art; a power which no precepts can teach, and which no industry can acquire.
This opinion, of the impossibility of acquiring those beauties which stamp the work with the character of genius, supposes that it is something more fixed than in reality it is; and that we always do, and ever did, agree in opinion with respect to what should be considered as the characteristic of genius. But the truth is, that the degree of excellence which proclaims Genius is different, in different times and different places; and what shows it to be so is, that mankind have often changed their opinion upon this matter.
When the Arts were in their infancy, the power of merely drawing the likeness of any object was considered as one of its greatest efforts. The common people, ignorant of the principles of art, talk the same language even to this day. But when it was found that every man could be taught to do this, and a great deal more, merely by the observance of certain precepts, the name of Genius then shifted its application, and was given only to him who added the peculiar character of the object he represented; to him who had invention, expression, grace, or dignity; in short, those qualities, or excellences, the power of producing which could not then be taught by any known and promulgated rules. .
We are very sure that the beauty of form, the expression of the passions, the art of composition, even the power of giving a general air of grandeur to a work, is at present very much under the dominion of rules. These excellences were, heretofore, considered merely as the effects of genius; and justly, if genius is not taken for inspiration, but as the effect of close observation and experience.
He who first made any of these observations, and digested them, so as to form an invariable principle for himself to work by, bad that merit, but probably no one went very far at once; and, generally, the first who gave the hint, did not know how to pursue it steadily and methodically; at least not in the beginning. He himself worked on it, and improved it; others worked more and improved further; until the secret was discovered, and the practice made as general as refined practice can be made. How many more principles may be fixed and ascertained we cannot tell; but, as criticism is likely to go hand in hand with the art which is its subject, we may venture to say, that, as that art shall advance, its powers will be still more and more fixed by rules.
But, by whatever strides criticism may gain ground, we need be under no apprehension that invention will ever be annihilated or subdued; or intellectual energy be brought entirely within the restraint of written law. Genius will still have room enough to expatiate, and keep always at the same distance from narrow comprehension and mechanical performance.
What we now call Genius, begins, not where rules, abstractedly taken, end; but where known vulgar and trite rules have no longer any place. It must of necessity be, that even works of Genius, like every other effect, as they must have their cause, must likewise have their rules; it cannot be by chance that excellences are produced with
any constancy or any certainty, for this is not the nature of chance ; but the rules by which men of extraordinary parts, and such as are called men of Genius, work, are either such as they discover by their own peculiar observations, or of such a nice texture as not easily to admit being expressed in words; especially as artists are not very frequently skilful in that mode of communicating ideas. Unsubstantial, however, as these rules may seem, and difficult as it may be to convey them in writing, they are still seen and felt in the mind of the artist; and he works from them with as much certainty as if they were embodied, as I may say, upon paper. It is true these refined principles cannot be always made palpable, like the more gross rules of art; yet it does not follow, but that the mind may be put in such a train, that it shall perceive, by a kind of scientific sense, that propriety, which words, particularly words of unpractised writers, such as we are, can but very feebly suggest.
Invention is one of the great marks of genius; but if we consult experience we shall find, that it is by being conversant with the inventions of others that we learn to invent, as by reading the thoughts of others we learn to think.
Whoever has so far formed his taste as to be able to relish and feel the beauties of the great masters has gone a great way in his study; for, merely from a consciousness of this relish of the right, the mind swells with an inward pride, and is almost as powerfully affected as if it had itself produced what it admires. . Our hearts, frequently warmed in this manner by the contact of those whom we wish to resemble, will undoubtedly catch something of their way of thinking; and we shall receive in our own bosoms some radiation at least of their fire and splendour. That disposition, which is so strong in children, still continues with us, of catching involuntarily the general air and manner of those with whom we are most conversant, with this difference only, that a young mind is naturally pliable and imitative; but in a more advanced state it grows rigid, and must be warmed and softened, before it will receive a deep impression.
From these considerations, which a little of your own reflection will carry a great way further, it appears, of what great consequence it is, that our minds should be habituated to the contemplation of excellence; and that, far from being contented to make such habits the discipline of our youth only, we should, to the last moment of our lives,