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Specific Idealization. ably he would not ignore, but by raising and strengthening the other features he would bring it into such harmony with the whole idea that its irregularity would cease to be very obtrusive.
We have dwelt on this portion of our subject with some earnestness, not from any idle fancy that what we have said is to possess the character of an æsthetic discovery to the better instructed and sounder headed portion of our readers, but from a firm conviction that to a forgetfulness of the principles which we have attempted to revive on the part of the general public, and of those popular artists who reflect its sentiments, is to be ascribed that want of confidence at the present time so prevalent in all artistic efforts which professedly depart from the letter of individual nature. Against the spurious idealization which consists either in taming down individual characteristics or in magnifying accidental peculiarities, the charges of feebleness on the one hand, and exaggeration on the other, are most justly directed; but the error consists in supposing that every departure from nature, as she presents herself in special circumstances, must be in one or other of these directions.
So much then for individual idealization, the first step which the artist makes out of the region of actual existence, and short of which he cannot stop, if he is to lay claim to the character of an artist at all. The next step is one very frequently attempted, with more or less success, by modern artists, and which commonly forms the limit of their endeavours,—we mean specific idealization, or the seizing of the type of a particular species or class of men, animals, or things. It was at this that the whole school of Dutch painters aimed, and it was in this that our own Wilkie was so signally successful. His “ Blind Fiddler” is the type of all blind fiddlers; and in his “ Rent Day," his “ Village Politicians," his “ Chelsea Pensioners,” and others of his pictures, we have frequent examples of most complete success in this department. The object of the painter is here to subordinate the individual peculiarities, not to the leading idea of the individual life, but to the most prominent peculiarity of the class of which it is intended that the subject shall serve as a representative. The field of action is, in a certain sense, a wider one than in individual portraiture, the generalization stands on a broader basis; and if the subject selected be such as to admit of the free exhibition of generic qualities in and through the specific, the work will border upon the higher department of which we have next to speak. Suppose the type to be aimed at is that of a soldier or an orator, the appropriate image will not differ greatly from a work of ideal art, properly so called. The full expression of the specific qualities, of the idiosyncrasies of class, is here not only consistent with an exhibition of the generic qualities of man, but seems absolutely to demand it. Even the canon according to which nature has proportioned the human figure, may not only be adhered to with propriety, but can scarcely be departed from with impunity. The specific peculiarities, in short, from the very nature of the case, must be exhibited in a well proportioned and fully developed human form ; and these peculiarities are in themselves of so simple and universal a kind, as to be perfectly consistent with that unity of purpose which must ever be conspicuous in works of art of the highest kind. But such are by no means the subjects usually chosen by artists who devote themselves to this department; on the contrary, those cases in which the generic qualities must of necessity be subordinated to, and as it were obscured by the specific offer to many persons, for reasons not difficult to discover, a temptation scarcely to be resisted. The more abnormal any object or class of objects is, the more easily will an effect of a certain kind be produced, and a certain species of success be secured by its representation ; for when the qualities of the genus are thrown into the shade, no great amount of skill is required to make those of the species stand forth with peculiar vividness. Let us take an example. The Irish have long been distinguished for their powers of public speaking, and their orators possess so many peculiarities as to render it quite possible that an artist should present a type of the class. In addition to the peculiarities of an Irishman, however, he would in this case require to bestow on his subject the qualities of a well formed and largely developed man, the better classes in Ireland being large and handsome. Now, one-tenth part of the ability which would be requisite thus to preserve the Irishman in, and present him through the generic qualities of well developed manhood, would suffice, if the artist were permitted to subordinate these entirely to peculiarities of race, which he probably would be entitled to do if he were representing an Irishman of the people. In the former case, the normal human form being preserved without any serious alteration, would form a continual element of likeness, against which the typical peculiarities, so to speak, would have to struggle ; whereas in the latter, it might be distorted to any extent which was requisite, to bring out the specialities of the case with greater force. It is for this reason that the subjects selected by artists in this department are usually those, the effect of whose occupations or habits is to destroy the symmetry of their form. Tailors and shoemakers with bent backs, blear eyes, and wrinkled faces, fat cooks with thick arms, bloated drunkards with thin legs, idiots with “foreheads villanous low,” grinning from ear to ear; such were the favourite subjects of the Dutch masters, and if they have not
been precisely followed in them by our countrymen, it is because the fastidiousness of our times demands subjects of greater refinement, though by no means partaking to a greater extent of absolute or generic qualities. It is from this circumstance that the tendency to caricature in this department of art is even greater than in individual portraiture; and so much so indeed has this been the case, that the great majority of Dutch pictures might be more correctly described as caricatures of a class, than by any other epithet.
As it is to this department of specific idealization that nineteen out of every twenty of the cabinet pictures which crowd the walls of all our exhibition rooms belong, we may regard it as pretty certain that it at present enjoys no small share of favour both with artists and the public. For this favour many reasons might be assigned besides that of its comparatively easy execution, which we have mentioned as a temptation to the less aspiring class of artists. From dealing almost entirely with prominent external peculiarities, it is far more easily understood by the vulgar than works of art of a higher class, nay, even than thoroughly good portraits, whilst to a more universal interest than portraiture can possibly possess, it adds the charm of caricature without the malignity of individual satire. To those who regard art as a mere amusement, it is unquestionably the most attractive form in which it can present itself, and by all it must be admitted that it affords an infinite field for the display, not only of good-natured humour, but of shrewd observation of life and manners. Notwithstanding all these advantages however, we must admit that the frequency of its appearance is to us a subject of regret, regarding it, as we do, as probably less calculated than any other to affect the great ends and purposes of art, of which it will presently be our business to speak.
But independently of the class (we fear a numerous one) of those who are contented to rest at the stage which we have now reached, and who seek in art nothing higher than a harmless amusement, arising either from that literal copying of natural objects by which their instinctive love of imitation is gratified, or from a clever seizing of some of those peculiarities by which different classes of their fellow-men are distinguished, there is, if we may trust a species of indefinite longing which frequently expresses itself in a scarcely articulate manner both from the press and the platform, no small number of persons who would willingly regard it in a very different light. From them we continually hear of the influence which art is calculated to exercise in reforming the taste and in elevating the imagination of the people; and by them it is not unfrequently referred to as an instrument, the use of which, those whose business it is to watch
VOL. XVI. NO. XXXI.
over the advance of civilisation are not entitled to neglect. It is at the instigation of persons holding these opinions that galleries are built, academies founded, and a very considerable portion both of public and private wealth expended on works of art. It is very rarely, however, that we hear from them anything like an intelligible account of the manner in which they look for the attainment of these results; and if we do not greatly err, it is from a certain want of clearness on this point, that so much laudable enthusiasm for the promotion of art in this country has hitherto been productive of so little. We constantly find that persons professing these expectations, practically bestow their patronage upon those very departments of art which receive the countenance of those who have no such sanguine views with regard to it. Now, could we predicate an unlimited amount of patience on the part of our readers, we believe it would be no hard task to demonstrate, that from neither of the departments of which we have hitherto spoken, least of all from the second, as it is usually practised, can any important social influence by possibility arise. In individual portraiture, if the primary idea of nature be brought out with greater consistency and clearness than she herself has exhibited it, something unquestionably will be taught to him who appreciates the work, beyond what, with unartistic eyes, he could have read in the individual face; but where the magnifying of accidental peculiarities alone is attempted, whether they be those of an individual or a class, the spectator may learn the influence of circumstances on the human frame, but he will not be raised one step nearer to the idea after which it was formed. It is from the last and highest department of art alone, that which, according to the division which we have adopted, we call generic idealization, that these results can be expected ; and in order that we may see in what manner they flow from it rather than from the others, we must endeavour to determine in what respect it differs from them.
The main distinction between the highest department of art and every other, we take to be that from the former deformity, i.e., all violation of the norm, or general law of nature, with reference to the object to be represented, is absolutely excluded. In the most freely idealized portrait, in order to preserve the identity to which he is bound down, the artist may be compelled to admit positive deformity, and the type of any class of actually existing beings, must necessarily exhibit many characteristics at variance with nature's absolute law.* In both cases, the representation
* The artist may represent an individually idealized hunchback, or a specifically idealized hunchback, but a generically idealized hunchback would be a self-contradiction.
must unquestionably be consistent with nature, but with nature only in so far as she has manifested herself in this or that particular case, or class of cases. In the higher art, however, the image presented by the artist must be natural beyond nature herself, as exhibited in any individual example. It must be absolutely, not relatively natural. “ The painter,” says Sir J. Reynolds, “corrects nature by herself, her imperfect state by her more perfect; his eye being able to distinguish the accidental differences, excrescences and deformities of things, from their general figures, he makes out an abstract idea of their forms more perfect than any original, and what may seem a paradox, he learns to design naturally, by drawing figures unlike to any one object.” After this most orthodox exposition, however, Sir Joshua, without guarding them by any definition, or qualifying them by any comment, makes use of certain customary modes of expression, which have done much to propagate an error which still occasions no small difficulty to many in considering this subject. He speaks of “this idea of the perfect state of nature, which the artists call the ideal beauty.” Elsewhere he mentions the beau ideal, and at last, as if anticipating what would now be regarded as a Germanic mode of putting the same thought, he calls it, “ that central form from which every deviation is deformity."* From these and similar phrases, persons little acquainted with the subject have not unnaturally inferred that not only deformity, but variety also, must be excluded from ideal art, and that if carried to its highest perfection it must necessarily end, in so far as the human form is concerned, in one ideal man, and one ideal woman; or perhaps by carrying the abstraction a little farther, in one sexless human form. Such, however, we are persuaded, was far from the meaning which Sir Joshua Reynolds intended to convey, and such certainly was not the view upon which the ancients, who framed the canon of form which he adopted, acted in their own practice. Of this latter fact no farther proof is necessary than that which will be afforded by the most cursory examination of a gallery of Greek statues, where they will be found to vary quite as much as an equal number of family portraits. They have not only the peculiarities incident to sex and to age, but they have, moreover, and very conspicuously, those necessary for the expression of the mythological ideas which respectively attached to them. It would be difficult to find two men more unlike than a Jove and an Apollo, or a Hercules and a Mercury.
If the extraordinary attempt of arriving at “one central * In a subsequent page, (63 of the edition of 1798,) Sir Joshua goes somewhat farther, and, we fear, falls quite into the error which we have here endeavoured to point out.