Read CHAPTER V of The Gate of Appreciation, free online book, by Carleton Noyes, on ReadCentral.com.

THE BACKGROUND OF ART

SCENE: The main hall of the Accademia in Venice.

Time: Noon of a July day.

Dramatis personae: A guide; two drab-colored and tired men; a group of women, of various ages, equipped with red-covered little volumes, and severally expressive of great earnestness, wide-eyed rapture, and giggles.

The guide, in strident, accentless tones: Last work of Titian. Ninety-nine years old. He died of smallpox.

A woman: Is that it?

A high voice on the outskirts: I’m going to get one for forty dollars.

Another voice: Well, I’m not going to pay more than fifty for mine.

A straggler: Eliza, look at those people. Oh, you missed it! (Stopping suddenly?) My, isn’t that lovely!

Chorus: Yes, that’s Paris Bordone. Which one is that? He has magnificent color.

The guide: The thing you want to look at is the five figures in front.

A voice: Oh, that’s beautiful. I love that.

A man: Foreshortened; well, I should say so! But I say, you can’t remember all these pictures.

The other man: Let’s get out of this!

The guide, indicating a picture of the Grand Canal: This one has been restored.

A girl’s voice: Why, that’s the house where we are staying!

The guide: The next picture . . .

The squad shuffles out of range.

This little comedy, enacted in fact and here faithfully reported, is not without its pathos. These people are “studying art.” They really want to understand, and if possible, to enjoy. They have visited galleries and seen many pictures, and they will visit other galleries and see many more pictures before their return home. They have read guide-books, noting the stars and double stars; they have dipped into histories of art and volumes of criticism. They have been told to observe the dramatic force of Giotto, the line of Botticelli, the perfect composition of Raphael, the color of Titian; all this they have done punctiliously. They know in a vague way that Giotto was much earlier than Raphael, that Botticelli was rather pagan than Christian, that Titian belonged to the Venetian school. They have come to the fountain head of art, the very works themselves as gathered in the galleries; they have tried to remember what they have read and to do what they have been told; and now they are left still perplexed and unsatisfied.

The difficulty is that these earnest seekers after knowledge of art have laid hold on partial truths, but they have failed to see these partial truths in their right relation to the whole. The period in which an artist lived means something. His way of thinking and feeling means something. The quality of his color means something. But what does his picture mean? These people have not quite found the key by which to piece the fragments of the puzzle into the complete design. They miss the central fact with regard to art; and as a consequence, the ways of approach to the full enjoyment of art, instead of bringing them nearer the centre, become for them a network of by-paths in which they enmesh themselves, and they are left to wander helplessly up and down and about in the blind-alleys of the labyrinth. The central fact with regard to art is this, that a work of art is the expression of some part of the artist’s experience of life, his vision of some aspect of the world. For the appreciator, the work takes on a meaning as it becomes for him in his turn the expression of his own actual or possible experience and thus relates itself by the subtle links of feeling to his own life. This is the central fact; but there are side issues. Any single work of art is in itself necessarily finite. Because of limitations in both the artist and the appreciator the work cannot express immediately and completely of itself all that the author wished to convey; it can present but a single facet of his many-sided radiating personality. What is actually said may be reinforced by some understanding on the beholder’s part of what was intended. In order to win its fullest message, therefore, the appreciator must set the work against the large background out of which it has proceeded.

A visitor in the Salon Carre of the Louvre notes that there are arrayed before him pictures by Jan van Eyck and Memling, Raphael and Leonardo, Giorgione and Titian, Rembrandt and Metsu, Rubens and Van Dyck, Fouquet and Poussin, Velasquez and Murillo. Each one bears the distinctive impress of its creator. How different some of them, one from another, the Virgin of Van Eyck from the Virgin of Raphael, Rembrandt’s “Pilgrimsat Emmaus” from the “Entombment” by Titian. Yet between others there are common elements of likeness. Raphael and Titian are distinguished by an opulence of form and a luxuriance of color which reveal supreme technical accomplishment in a fertile land under light-impregnated skies. The rigidity and restraint of Van Eyck and Memling suggest the tentative early efforts of the art of a sober northern race. To a thoughtful student of these pictures sooner or later the question comes, Whence are these likenesses and these differences?

Hitherto I have referred to the creative mind and executive hand as generically the artist. I have thought of him as a type, representative of all the great class of those who feel and express, and who by means of their expression communicate their feeling. Similarly I have spoken of the work of art, as though it were complete in itself and isolated, sprung full-formed and panoplied from the brain of its creator, able to win its way and consummate its destiny alone. The type is conceived intellectually; in actual life the type resolves itself into individuals. So there are individual artists, each with his own distinctive gifts and ideals, each with his own separate experience of life, with his personal and special vision of the world, and his characteristic manner of expression. Similarly, a single work of art is not an isolated phenomenon; it is only a part of the artist’s total performance, and to these other works it must be referred. The kind of work an artist sets himself to do is determined to some extent by the period into which he was born and the country in which he lived. The artist himself, heir to the achievements of his predecessors, is a development, and his work is the product of an evolution. A work of art, therefore, to be judged aright and truly appreciated, must be seen in its relation to its background, from which it detaches itself at the moment of consideration, the background of the artist’s personality and accomplishment and of the national life and ideals of his time.

If the layman’s interest in art is more than the casual touch-and-go of a picture here, a concert there, and an entertaining book of an evening, he is confronted with the important matter of the study of art as it manifests itself through the ages and in diverse lands. It is not a question of practicing an art himself, for technical skill lies outside his province. The study of art in the sense proposed has to do with the consideration of an individual work in its relation to all the factors that have entered into its production. The work of an artist is profoundly influenced by the national ideals and way of life of his race and of his age. The art of Catholic Italy is ecclesiastical; the art of the Protestant North is domestic and individual. The actual form an artist’s work assumes is modified by the resources at his disposal, resources both of material and of technical methods. Raphael may have no more to say than Giotto had, but he is able to express himself in a fuller and more finished way, because in his time the language of painting had become richer and more varied and the rhetoric of it had been carried to a farther point of development. Finally, as all art is in essence the expression of personality, a single work is to be understood in its widest intention and scope by reference to the total personality of the individual artist as manifested in his work collectively, and to be interpreted by the appreciator through his knowledge of the artist’s experience of life.

In order to wrest its fullest expressiveness from a work of art it is necessary as far as possible to regard the work from the artist’s own point of view. We must try to see with his eyes and to feel with him what he was working for. To this end we must reconstruct imaginatively on a basis of the facts the conditions in which he lived and wrought. The difference between Giotto and Raphael is a difference not of individuality only. Each gives expression to the ideals and ways of thought of his age. Each is a creative mind, but each bases his performance upon what has gone before, and the form of their work is conditioned by the resources each had at his disposal. To discover the artist’s purpose more completely than he was able to realize it for himself in the single work, that is the aim and function of the historical study of art. A brief review of the achievement of Giotto and of Raphael may serve to illustrate concretely the application of the principle and to fix its value to appreciation.

In the period of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire art passed from Rome to Byzantium. The arts of sculpture and painting were employed in the service of the Church, imposing by its magnificence and all-powerful in its domination over the lives and minds of men. The function of art was to teach; its character was symbolic and decorative. Art had no separate and independent existence. It had no direct reference to nature; the pictorial representation of individual traits was quite outside its scope; a few signs fixed by convention sufficed. A fish derived from the acrostic ichtbus symbolized the Saviour; a cross was the visible token of redeeming grace. And so through several hundred years. The twelfth century saw the beginnings of a change in the direction of spiritual and intellectual emancipation. The teachings and example of Francis of Assisi brought men to the consciousness of themselves and to a realization of the worth and significance of the individual life. The work of Giotto is the expression in art of the new spirit.

Of necessity Giotto founded his work upon the accepted forms of the Byzantine tradition. But Giotto was a man of genius and a creative mind. In the expression of his fresh impulse and vital feeling, the assertion of new-found individuality, he tried to realize as convincingly and vividly as possible the situation with which he was dealing; and with this purpose he looked not back upon art but out upon nature. Where the Byzantine convention had presented but a sign and remote indication of form by means of flat color, Giotto endows his figures with life and movement and actuality by giving them a body in three dimensions; his forms exist in the round. Until his day, light and shade had not been employed; and such perspective as he was able to achieve he had to discover for himself. For the first time in Christian painting a figure has bodily existence. Giotto gives the first evidence, too, of a sense of the beauty of color, and of the value of movement as a means of added expressiveness. His power of composition shows an immense advance on his predecessors. In dealing with traditional subjects, as the Madonna and child, he follows in general the traditional arrangement. But in those subjects where his own inventiveness is given free play, as in the series of frescoes illustrating the life of St. Francis, he reveals an extraordinary faculty of design and a dramatic sense which is matched by a directness and clarity of expression.

Not only in the technique of his craft was Giotto an innovator, but also in the direction of naturalness and reality of feeling. He was the first to introduce portraits into his work. His Madonnas and saints are no longer mere types; they are human and individual, vividly felt and characterized by immediate and present actuality. Giotto was the first realist, but he was a poet too. His insight into life is tempered by a deep sincerity and piety; his work is genuinely and powerfully felt. As a man Giotto was reverent and earnest, joyous and beautifully sane. As a painter, by force of the freshness of his impulse and the clarity of his vision, he created a new manner of expression. As an artist he reveals a true power of imaginative interpretation. The casual spectator of to-day finds him naïve and quaint. In the eyes of his contemporaries he was anything but that; they regarded him as a marvel of reality, surpassing nature itself. When judged with reference to the conditions of life in which he worked and to the technical resources at his command, Giotto is seen to be of a very high order of creative mind.

The year 1300 divides the life of Giotto into two nearly equal parts; the year 1500 similarly divides the life of Raphael. In the two centuries that intervene, the great age of Italian painting, initiated by Giotto, reaches its flower and perfection in Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael. The years which followed the passing of these greatnesses were the years of decadence and eclipse. If we are to understand and justly appreciate the work of each man in its own kind, the painting of Giotto must be tried by other standards than those we apply to the judgment of Raphael. Giotto was a pioneer; Raphael is a consummation. The two centuries between were a period of development and change, a development in all that regards technique, a change in national ideals and in the artist’s attitude toward life and toward his art. A quick survey of the period, if so hasty a generalization permits correctness of statement, will help us in the understanding of the craft and art of Raphael.

Giotto was succeeded by a host of lesser men, regarded as his followers, men who sought to apply the principles and methods of painting worked out by the master, but who lacked his inspiration and his power. Thus it was for nearly a hundred years. The turn of the fourteenth century into the fifteenth saw the emergence of new forces in the science and the mechanics of painting. The laws of perspective and foreshortening were made the object of special research and practice by men like Uccello (1397-1475), Piero dei Franceschi (1416-1492), and Mantegna (1431-1506). “Oh, what a beautiful thing this perspective is!” Uccello exclaimed, as he stood at his desk between midnight and dawn while his wife begged him to take some rest. In the first thirty years of the fifteenth century, Masaccio contributed to the knowledge of anatomy by his painting of the nude form; and the study of the nude was continued by Pollaiuolo and Luca Signorelli, in the second half of the century. Masaccio, also, was the first to place his figures in air, enveloping them in atmosphere. Verrocchio, a generation later than Masaccio, was one of the first of the Florentines to understand landscape and the part played in it by air and light. The realistic spirit, which suffices itself with subjects drawn from every-day actual experience, finds expression in the first half of the fifteenth century in the work of Andrea del Castagno. And so down through that century of spring and summer. Each painter in his own way carries some detail of his craft to a further point of development and prepares the path for the supreme triumphs of Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael.

The growing mastery of the principles and technique of painting accompanied a change in the painter’s attitude toward his art. Originally, painting, applied in subjection to architecture and employed in the service of the Church, was decorative in scope; its purpose was illustration, its function was to teach. As painters, from generation to generation, went deeper into the secrets of their craft, they became less interested in the didactic import of their work, and they concerned themselves more and more with its purely artistic significance. Religious subjects were no longer used merely as symbols for the expression of piety and as incitements to devotion; they became inherently artistic motives, valued as they furnished the artist an opportunity for the exercise of his knowledge and skill and for the exhibition of lovely color and significant form. A change in the mechanical methods of painting, also, had its influence on a change in the conception of the function of art. With a very few exceptions, the works of Giotto were executed in fresco as wall decorations. The principles of mural painting require that the composition shall be subordinated to the architectural conditions of the space it is to fill and that the color shall be kept flat. The fresco method meets these requirements admirably, but because of its flatness it has its limitations. The introduction of an oil vehicle for the pigment material, in the fifteenth century, made possible a much greater range in gradated color, and reinforcing the increased knowledge of light and shade, aided in the evolution of decoration into the “easel picture,” complete in itself. Released from its subjection to architecture, increasing its technical resources, and widening its interests in the matter of subject so as to include all life, painting becomes an independent and self-sufficing art.

Coincident with the development of painting as a craft, a mighty change was working itself out in the national ideals and in men’s ways of thought and feeling. Already in Giotto’s time the spirit of individualism had begun to assert itself in reaction from the dominance of an all-powerful restrictive ecclesiasticism, but the age was still essentially pietistic and according to its lights, religious. The fifteenth century witnessed the emancipation from tradition. The new humanism, which took its rise with the rediscovery of Greek culture, extended the intellectual horizon and intensified the enthusiasm for beauty. Men’s interest in life was no longer narrowly religious, but human; their art became the expression of the new spirit. Early Christianity had been ascetic, enjoining negation of life and the mortification of the flesh. The men of the Renaissance, with something of the feeling of the elder Greeks, glorified the body and delighted in the pride of life. Pagan myths and Greek legends take their place alongside of Bible episodes and stories of saints and martyrs, as subjects of representation; all served equally as motives for the expression of the artist’s sense of the beauty of this world.

To this new culture and to these two centuries of growth and accomplishment in the practice of painting Raphael was heir. With a knowledge of the background out of which he emerges, we are prepared now to understand and appreciate his individual achievement. In approaching the study of his work we may ask, What is in general his ideal, his dominant motive, and in what manner and by what means has he realized his ideal?

How much was already prepared for him, what does he owe to the age and the conditions in which he worked, and what to the common store has he added that is peculiarly his own?

Whereas Giotto, the shepherd boy, was a pioneer, almost solitary, by sheer force of mind and by his sincerity and intensity of feeling breaking new paths to expression, for Raphael, on the contrary, the son of a painter and poet, the fellow-worker and well-beloved friend of many of the most powerful artistic personalities of his own or any age, the way was already prepared along which he moved in triumphant progress. The life of Raphael as an artist extends through three well-defined periods, the Umbrian, the Florentine, and the Roman, each one of which contributed a distinctive influence upon his development and witnessed a special and characteristic achievement.

To his father, who died when the boy was eleven years old, Raphael owed his poetic nature, scholarly tastes, and love of beauty, though he probably received from him no training as a painter. His first master was Timoteo Viti of Urbino, a pupil of Francia; from him he learned drawing and acquired a “certain predilection for round and opulent forms which is in itself the negation of the ascetic ideal.” At the age of seventeen he went from Urbino to Perugia; there he entered the workshop of Perugino as an assistant. The ideal of the Umbrian school was tenderness and sweetness, the outward and visible rapture of pietistic feeling; something of these qualities Raphael expressed in his Madonnas throughout his career. Under the teaching of Perugino he laid hold on the principles of “space composition” which he was afterwards to carry to supreme perfection.

From Perugia the young Raphael made his way to Florence, and here he underwent many influences. At that moment Florence was the capital city of Italian culture. It was here that the new humanism had come to finest flower. Scholarship was the fashion; art was the chief interest of this beauty-loving people. It was the Florentines who had carried the scientific principles of painting to their highest point of development, particularly in their application to the rendering of the human figure. In Florence were collected the art treasures of the splendid century; here Michelangelo and Leonardo were at work; here were gathered companies of lesser men. By the study of Masaccio Raphael was led out to a fresh contact with nature. Fra Bartolomeo revealed to him further possibilities of composition and taught him some of the secrets of color. In Florence, too, he acknowledged the spell of Michelangelo and Leonardo. But though he learned from many teachers, Raphael was never merely an imitator. His scholarship and his skill he turned to his own uses; and when we have traced the sources of his motives and the influences in the moulding of his manner, there emerges out of the fusion a creative new force, which is his genius. What remains after our analysis is the essential Raphael.

Raphael’s residence in Florence is the period of his Madonnas. From Florence Raphael, twenty-five years old and now a master in his own right, was summoned to Rome by Pope Julius II; and here he placed his talents and his mastership at the disposal of the Church. He found time to paint Madonnas and a series of powerful and lovely portraits; but these years in Rome, which brought his brief life to a close, are preeminently the period of the great frescoes, which are his supreme achievement. But even in these mature years, and though he was himself the founder of a school, he did not cease to learn. Michelangelo was already in Rome, and now Raphael came more immediately under his influence, although not to submit to it but to use it for his own ends. In Rome were revealed to him the culture of an older and riper civilization and the glories and perfectness of an elder art. Raphael laid antiquity under contribution to the consummation of his art and the fulfillment and complete realization of his genius.

This analysis of the elements and influences of Raphael’s career as an artist inadequate as it necessarily is may help us to define his distinctive accomplishment. A comparison of his work with that of his predecessors and contemporaries serves to disengage his essential significance. By nature he was generous and tender; the bent of his mind was scholarly; and he was impelled by a passion for restrained and formal beauty. Chiefly characteristic of his mental make-up was his power of assimilation, which allowed him to respond to many and diverse influences and in the end to dominate and use them. He gathered up in himself the achievements of two centuries of experiment and progress, and fusing the various elements, he created by force of his genius a new result and stamped it with the seal perfection. Giotto, to whom religion was a reality, was deeply in earnest about his message, and he phrased it as best he could with the means at his command; his end was expression. Raphael, under the patronage of wealthy dilettanti and in the service of a worldly and splendor-loving Church, delighted in his knowledge and his skill; he worshiped art, and his end was beauty. The genius of Giotto is a first shoot, vigorous and alive, breaking ground hardily, and tentatively pushing into freer air. The genius of Raphael is the full-blown flower and final fruit, complete, mature. The step beyond is decay.

By reference to Giotto and to Raphael I have tried to illustrate the practical application of certain principles of art study. A work of art is not absolute; both its content and its form are determined by the conditions out of which it proceeds. All judgment, therefore, must be comparative, and a work of art must be considered in its relation to its background and its conventions. Art is an interpretation of some aspect of life as the artist has felt it; and the artist is a child of his time. It is not an accident that Raphael portrayed Madonnas, serene and glorified, and Millet pictured rude peasants bent with toil. Raphael’s painting is the culmination of two centuries of eager striving after the adequate expression of religious sentiment; in Millet’s work the realism of his age is transfigured. As showing further how national ideals and interests may influence individual production, we may note that the characteristic art of the Italian Renaissance is painting; and Italian sculpture of the period is pictorial rather than plastic in motive and handling. Ghiberti’s doors of the Florence Baptistery, in the grouping of figures and the three and four planes in perspective of the backgrounds, are essentially pictures in bronze. Conversely, in the North the characteristic art of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries is carving and sculpture; and “the early painters represented in their pictures what they were familiar with in wood and stone; so that not only are the figures dry and hard, but in the groups they are packed one behind another, heads above heads, without really occupying space, in imitation of the method adopted in the carved relief.” Some knowledge of the origin and development of a given form of technique, a knowledge to be reached through historical study, enables us to measure the degree of expressiveness of a given work. The ideas of a child may be very well worth listening to, though his range of words is limited and his sentences are crude and halting, A grown man, having acquired the trick of language, may talk fluently and say nothing. In our endeavor to understand a work of art, a poem by Chaucer or by Tennyson, a picture by Greco or by Manet, a prelude by Bach or a symphony by Brahms, we may ask, Of that which the artist wanted to say, how much could he say with the means at his disposal? With a sense of the artist’s larger motive, whether religious sentiment, or a love of sheer beauty of color and form, or insight into human character, we are aided by a study of the history of technique to determine how far the artist with the language at his command was able to realize his intention.

But not only is art inspired and directed by the time-spirit of its age. A single work is the expression for the artist who creates it of his ideal. An artist’s ideal, what he sets himself to accomplish, is the projection of his personality, and that is determined by many influences. He is first of all a child of his race and time; inheritance and training shape him to these larger conditions. Then his ideal is modified by his special individuality. A study of the artist’s character as revealed in his biography leads to a fuller understanding of the intention and scope of his work. The events of his life become significant as they are seen to be the causes or the results of his total personality, that which he was in mind and temperament. What were the circumstances that moulded his character and decided his course? What events did he shape to his own purpose by the active force of his genius? What was the special angle of vision from which he looked upon the world? The answers to these questions are the clue to the full drift of his work. As style is the expression of the man, so conversely a knowledge of the man is an entrance into the wider and subtler implications of his style. We explore the personality of the man in order more amply to interpret his art, and we turn to his art as the revelation of his personality. In studying an artist we must look for his tendency and seek the unifying principle which binds his separate works into a whole. An artist has his successive periods or “manners.” There is the period of apprenticeship, when the young man is influenced by his predecessors and his masters. Then he comes into his own, and he registers nature and life as he sees it freshly for himself. Finally, as he has mastered his art and won some of the secrets of nature, and as his own character develops, he tends more and more to impose his subjective vision upon the world, and he subordinates nature to the expression of his distinctive individuality. A single work, therefore, is to be considered in relation to its place in the artist’s development; it is but a part, and it is to be interpreted by reference to the whole.

In the study of biography, however, the man must not be mistaken for the artist; his acts are not to be confounded with his message. “A man is the spirit he worked in; not what he did, but what he became.” We must summon forth the spirit of the man from within the wrappages of material and accident. In our preoccupation with the external details of a man’s familiar and daily life it is easy to lose sight of his spiritual experience, which only is of significance. Whistler, vain, aggressive, quarrelsome, and yet so exquisite and so subtle in extreme refinement, is a notable example of a great spirit and a little man. Wagner wrote to Liszt: “As I have never felt the real bliss of love, I must erect a monument to the most beautiful of my dreams, in which from beginning to end that love shall be thoroughly satiated.” Not the Wagner of fact, but the Wagner of dreams. Life lived in the spirit and imagination may be different from the life of daily act. So we should transcend the material, trying through that to penetrate to the spiritual. It is not a visit to the artist’s birthplace that signifies, it is not to do reverence before his likeness or cherish a bit of his handwriting. All this may have a value to the disciple as a matter of loyalty and fine piety. But in the end we must go beyond these externals that we may enter intelligently and sympathetically into the temper of his mind and mood and there find disclosed what he thought and felt and was able only in part to express. It is not the man his neighbors knew that is important. His work is the essential thing, what that work has to tell us about life in terms of emotional experience.

Studies in the history of art and in biography are avenues of approach to the understanding of a work of art; they do not in themselves constitute appreciation. Historical importance must not be mistaken for artistic significance. In reading about pictures we may forget to look at them. The historical study of art in its various divisions reduces itself to an exercise in analysis, resolving a given work into its elements. But art is a synthesis. In order to appreciate a work the elements must be gathered together and fused into a whole. A statue or a picture is meant not to be read about, but to be looked at; and its final message must be received through vision. Our knowledge will serve us little if we are not sensitive to the appeal of color and form. There is danger that preoccupation with the history of art may betray us if we are not careful to keep it in its place. The study of art should follow and not lead appreciation. We are apt to see what we are looking for. So we ought to come to each work freshly without prejudice or bias; it is only afterwards that we should bring to bear on it our knowledge about the facts of its production. Connoisseurship is a science and may hold within itself no element of aesthetic enjoyment. Appreciation is an art, and the quality of it depends upon the appreciator himself. The end of historical study is not a knowledge of facts for their own sake, but through those facts a deeper penetration and fuller true enjoyment. By the aid of such knowledge we are enabled to recognize in any work more certainly and abundantly the expression of an emotional experience which relates itself to our own life.

The final meaning of art to the appreciator lies in just this sense of its relation to his own experience. The greatest works are those which express reality and life, not limited and temporary conditions, but life universal and for all time. Without commentary these carry their message, appealing to the wisest and the humblest. Gather into a single room a fragment of the Parthenon frieze, Michelangelo’s “Day and Night,” Botticelli’s “Spring,” the sprites and children of Donatello and Delia Robbia, Velasquez’s “Pope Innocent,” Rembrandt’s “Cloth-weavers,” Frans Hals’ “Musician,” Millet’s “Sower,” Whistler’s “Carlyle.” There is here no thought of period or of school. These living, present, eternal verities are all one company.