Ariadne Florentina Part 16

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II.

_On the three excellent engravers representative of the first, middle, and late schools._

[Ill.u.s.tration: XII.

The Coronation in the Garden.]

247. I have given opposite a photograph, slightly reduced from the Durer Madonna, alluded to often in the text, as an example of his best conception of womanhood. It is very curious that Durer, the least able of all great artists to represent womanhood, should of late have been a very princ.i.p.al object of feminine admiration. The last thing a woman should do is to write about art. They never see anything in pictures but what they are told, (or resolve to see out of contradiction,)--or the particular things that fall in with their own feelings. I saw a curious piece of enthusiastic writing by an Edinburgh lady, the other day, on the photographs I had taken from the tower of Giotto. She did not care a straw what Giotto had meant by them, declared she felt it her duty only to announce what they were to _her_; and wrote two pages on the bas-relief of Heracles and Antaeus--a.s.suming it to be the death of Abel.

248. It is not, however, by women only that Durer has been over-praised.

He stands so alone in his own field, that the people who care much for him generally lose the power of enjoying anything else rightly; and are continually attributing to the force of his imagination quaintnesses which are merely part of the general mannerism of his day.

The following notes upon him, in relation to two other excellent engravers, were written shortly for extempore expansion in lecturing. I give them, with the others in this terminal article, mainly for use to myself in future reference; but also as more or less suggestive to the reader, if he has taken up the subject seriously, and worth, therefore, a few pages of this closing sheet.

249. The men I have named as representative of all the good ones composing their school, are alike resolved their engraving shall be lovely.

But Botticelli, the ancient, wants, with as little engraving, as much Sibyl as possible.

Durer, the central, wants, with as much engraving as possible, anything of Sibyl that may chance to be picked up with it.

Beaugrand, the modern, wants, as much Sibyl as possible, and as much engraving too.

250. I repeat--for I want to get this clear to you--Botticelli wants, with as little engraving, as much Sibyl as possible. For his head is full of Sibyls, and his heart. He can't draw them fast enough: one comes, and another and another; and all, gracious and wonderful and good, to be engraved forever, if only he had a thousand hands and lives.

He scratches down one, with no haste, with no fault, divinely careful, scrupulous, patient, but with as few lines as possible. 'Another Sibyl--let me draw another, for heaven's sake, before she has burnt all her books, and vanished.'

Durer is exactly Botticelli's opposite. He is a workman, to the heart, and will do his work magnificently. 'No matter what I do it on, so that my craft be honorably shown. Anything will do; a Sibyl, a skull, a Madonna and Christ, a hat and feather, an Adam, an Eve, a c.o.c.k, a sparrow, a lion with two tails, a pig with five legs,--anything will do for me. But see if I don't show you what engraving is, be my subject what it may!'

251. Thirdly: Beaugrand, I said, wants as much Sibyl as possible, and as much engraving. He is essentially a copyist, and has no ideas of his own, but deep reverence and love for the work of others. He will give his life to represent another man's thought. He will do his best with every spot and line,--exhibit to you, if you will only look, the most exquisite completion of obedient skill; but will be content, if you will not look, to pa.s.s his neglected years in fruitful peace, and count every day well spent that has given softness to a shadow, or light to a smile.

III.

_On Durer's landscape, with reference to the sentence on p. 101_: "I hope you are pleased."

252. I spoke just now only of the ill-shaped body of this figure of Fortune, or Pleasure. Beneath her feet is an elaborate landscape. It is all drawn out of Durer's head;--he would look at bones or tendons carefully, or at the leaf details of foreground;--but at the breadth and loveliness of real landscape, never.

He has tried to give you a bird's-eye view of Germany; rocks, and woods, and clouds, and brooks, and the pebbles in their beds, and mills, and cottages, and fences, and what not; but it is all a feverish dream, ghastly and strange, a monotone of diseased imagination.

And here is a little bit of the world he would not look at--of the great river of his land, with a single cl.u.s.ter of its reeds, and two boats, and an island with a village, and the way for the eternal waters opened between the rounded hills.[BP]

It is just what you may see any day, anywhere,--innocent, seemingly artless; but the artlessness of Turner is like the face of Gainsborough's village girl, and a joy forever.

IV.

_On the study of anatomy._

253. The virtual beginner of artistic anatomy in Italy was a man called 'The Poulterer'--from his grandfather's trade; 'Pollajuolo,' a man of immense power, but on whom the curse of the Italian mind in this age[BQ]

was set at its deepest.

Any form of pa.s.sionate excess has terrific effects on body and soul, in nations as in men; and when this excess is in rage, and rage against your brother, and rage accomplished in habitual deeds of blood,--do you think Nature will forget to set the seal of her indignation upon the forehead? I told you that the great division of spirit between the northern and southern races had been reconciled in the Val d'Arno. The Font of Florence, and the Font of Pisa, were as the very springs of the life of the Christianity which had gone forth to teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Prince of Peace. Yet these two brother cities were to each other--I do not say as Abel and Cain, but as Eteocles and Polynices, and the words of aeschylus are now fulfilled in them to the uttermost. The Arno baptizes their dead bodies:--their native valley between its mountains is to them as the furrow of a grave;--"and so much of their land they have, as is sepulcher." Nay, not of Florence and Pisa only was this true: Venice and Genoa died in death-grapple; and eight cities of Lombardy divided between them the joy of leveling Milan to her lowest stone. Nay, not merely in city against city, but in street against street, and house against house, the fury of the Theban dragon flamed ceaselessly, and with the same excuse upon men's lips. The sign of the s.h.i.+eld of Polynices, Justice bringing back the exile, was to them all, in turn, the portent of death: and their history, in the sum of it and substance, is as of the servants of Joab and Abner by the pool of Gibeon. "They caught every one his fellow by the head, and thrust his sword in his fellow's side; so they fell down together: wherefore that place was called 'the field of the strong men.'"

254. Now it is not possible for Christian men to live thus, except under a fever of insanity. I have before, in my lectures on Prudence and Insolence in art, deliberately a.s.serted to you the logical accuracy of the term 'demoniacal possession'[BR]--the being in the power or possession of a betraying spirit; and the definite sign of such insanity is delight in witnessing pain, usually accompanied by an instinct that gloats over or plays with physical uncleanness or disease, and always by a morbid egotism. It is not to be recognized for demoniacal power so much by its _viciousness_, as its _paltriness_,--the taking pleasure in minute, contemptible, and loathsome things.[BS] Now, in the middle of the gallery of the Brera at Milan, there is an elaborate study of a dead Christ, entirely characteristic of early fifteenth century Italian madman's work. It is called--and was presented to the people as--a Christ; but it _is_ only an anatomical study of a vulgar and ghastly dead body, with the soles of the feet set straight at the spectator, and the rest foreshortened. It is either Castagno's or Mantegna's,--in my mind, set down to Castagno; but I have not looked at the picture for years, and am not sure at this moment. It does not matter a straw which: it is exactly characteristic of the madness in which all of them--Pollajuolo, Castagno, Mantegna, Lionardo da Vinci, and Michael Angelo, polluted their work with the science of the sepulcher,[BT] and degraded it with presumptuous and paltry technical skill. Foreshorten your Christ, and paint Him, if you can, half putrefied,--that is the scientific art of the Renaissance.

255. It is impossible, however, in so vast a subject to distinguish always the beginner of things from the establisher. To the poulterer's son, Pollajuolo, remains the eternal shame of first making insane contest the only subject of art; but the two _establishers_ of anatomy were Lionardo and Michael Angelo. You hear of Lionardo chiefly because of his Last Supper, but Italy did not hear of him for that. This was not what brought _her_ to wors.h.i.+p Lionardo--but the Battle of the Standard.

V.

_Fragments on Holbein and others._

256. Of Holbein's St. Elizabeth, remember, she is not a perfect Saint Elizabeth, by any means. She is an honest and sweet German lady,--the best he could see; he could do no better;--and so I come back to my old story,--no man can do better than he sees: if he can reach the nature round him, it is well; he may fall short of it; he cannot rise above it; "the best, in this kind, are but shadows."

Yet that intense veracity of Holbein is indeed the strength and glory of all the northern schools. They exist only in being true. Their work among men is the definition of what is, and the abiding by it. They cannot dream of what is not. They make fools of themselves if they try.

Think how feeble even Shakspere is when he tries his hand at a G.o.ddess;--women, beautiful and womanly, as many as you choose; but who cares what his Minerva or Juno says, in the masque of the Tempest? And for the painters--when Sir Joshua tries for a Madonna, or Vand.y.k.e for a Diana--they can't even _paint_! they become total simpletons. Look at Rubens' mythologies in the Louvre, or at modern French heroics, or German pietisms! Why, all--Cornelius, Hesse, Overbeck, and David--put together, are not worth one De Hooghe of an old woman with a broom sweeping a back-kitchen. The one thing we northerns can do is to find out what is fact, and insist on it: mean fact it may be, or n.o.ble--but fact always, or we die.

257. Yet the intensest form of northern realization can be matched in the south, when the southerns choose. There are two pieces of animal drawing in the Sistine Chapel unrivaled for literal veracity. The sheep at the well in front of Zipporah; and afterwards, when she is going away, leading her children, her eldest boy, like every one else, has taken his chief treasure with him, and this treasure is his pet dog. It is a little sharp-nosed white fox-terrier, full of fire and life; but not strong enough for a long walk. So little Gershom, whose name was "the stranger" because his father had been a stranger in a strange land,--little Gershom carries his white terrier under his arm, lying on the top of a large bundle to make it comfortable. The doggie puts its sharp nose and bright eyes out, above his hand, with a little roguish gleam sideways in them, which means,--if I can read rightly a dog's expression,--that he has been barking at Moses all the morning and has nearly put him out of temper:--and without any doubt, I can a.s.sert to you that there is not any other such piece of animal painting in the world,--so brief, intense, vivid, and absolutely balanced in truth: as tenderly drawn as if it had been a saint, yet as humorously as Landseer's Lord Chancellor poodle.

258. Oppose to--

Holbein's Veracity--Botticelli's Fantasy.

" Shade " Color.

" Despair " Faith.

" Grossness " Purity.

True Fantasy. Botticelli's Tree in h.e.l.lespontic Sibyl. Not a real tree at all--yet founded on intensest perception of beautiful reality. So the swan of Clio, as opposed to Durer's c.o.c.k, or to Turner's swan.

The Italian power of abstraction into one mythologic personage--Holbein's death is only literal. He has to split his death into thirty different deaths; and each is but a skeleton. But Orcagna's death is one--the power of death itself. There may thus be as much _breadth in thought_, as in execution.

259. What then, we have to ask, is a man _conscious of_ in what he sees?

For instance, in all Cruikshank's etchings--however slight the outline--there is an intense consciousness of light and shade, and of local color, _as a part_ of light and shade; but none of color itself.

He was wholly incapable of coloring; and perhaps this very deficiency enabled him to give graphic harmony to engraving.

Bewick--snow-pieces, etc. _Gray_ predominant; _perfect sense of color_, coming out in patterns of birds;--yet so uncultivated, that he engraves the brown birds better than pheasant or peac.o.c.k!

For quite perfect consciousness of color makes engraving impossible, and you have instead--Correggio.

VI.

_Final notes on light and shade._

Ariadne Florentina Part 16

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