Modern Painters, Volume IV (of V)
by John Ruskin
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Sec. 6. But this may be done either nobly or basely, as any other solemn truth may be asserted. It may be spoken with true feeling of all that it means; or it may be declared, as a Turk declares that "God is great," when he means only that he himself is lazy. The "heaven is bright," of many vulgar painters, has precisely the same amount of signification; it means that they know nothing—will do nothing—are without thought—without care—without passion. They will not walk the earth, nor watch the ways of it, nor gather the flowers of it. They will sit in the shade, and only assert that very perceptible, long-ascertained fact, "heaven is bright." And as it may be asserted basely, so it may be accepted basely. Many of our capacities for receiving noblest emotion are abused, in mere idleness, for pleasure's sake, and people take the excitement of a solemn sensation as they do that of a strong drink. Thus the abandoned court of Louis XIV. had on fast days its sacred concerts, doubtless entering in some degree into the religious expression of the music, and thus idle and frivolous women at the present day will weep at an oratorio. So the sublimest effects of landscape may be sought through mere indolence; and even those who are not ignorant, or dull, judge often erroneously of such effects of art, because their very openness to all pleasant and sacred association instantly colors whatever they see, so that, give them but the feeblest shadow of a thing they love, they are instantly touched by it to the heart, and mistake their own pleasurable feeling for the result of the painter's power. Thus when, by spotting and splashing, such a painter as Constable reminds them somewhat of wet grass and green leaves, forthwith they fancy themselves in all the happiness of a meadow walk; and when Gaspar Poussin throws out his yellow horizon with black hills, forthwith they are touched as by the solemnity of a real Italian twilight, altogether forgetting that wet grass and twilight do not constitute the universe; and prevented by their joy at being pleasantly cool, or gravely warm, from seeking any of those more precious truths which cannot be caught by momentary sensation, but must be thoughtfully pursued.

Sec. 7. I say "more precious," for the simple fact that the sky is brighter than the earth is not a precious truth unless the earth itself be first understood. Despise the earth, or slander it; fix your eyes on its gloom, and forget its loveliness; and we do not thank you for your languid or despairing perception of brightness in heaven. But rise up actively on the earth,—learn what there is in it, know its color and form, and the full measure and make of it, and if after that you can say "heaven is bright," it will be a precious truth, but not till then. Giovanni Bellini knows the earth well, paints it to the full, and to the smallest fig-leaf and falling flower,—blue hill and white-walled city,—glittering robe and golden hair; to each he will give its lustre and loveliness; and then, so far as with his poor human lips he may declare it, far beyond all these, he proclaims that "heaven is bright." But Gaspar, and such other landscapists, painting all Nature's flowery ground as one barrenness, and all her fair foliage as one blackness, and all her exquisite forms as one bluntness; when, in this sluggard gloom and sullen treachery of heart, they mutter their miserable attestation to what others had long ago discerned for them,—the sky's brightness,—we do not thank them; or thank them only in so far as, even in uttering this last remnant of truth, they are more commendable than those who have sunk from apathy to atheism, and declare, in their dark and hopeless backgrounds, that heaven is NOT bright.

Sec. 8. Let us next ascertain what are the colors of the earth itself.

A mountain five or six miles off, in a sunny summer morning in Switzerland, will commonly present itself in some such pitch of dark force, as related to the sky, as that shown in Fig. 4. Plate 25, while the sky itself will still, if there are white clouds in it, tell as a clear dark, throwing out those white clouds in vigorous relief of light; yet, conduct the experiment of the white paper as already described, and you will, in all probability, find that the darkest part of the mountain—its most vigorous nook of almost black-looking shadow—is whiter than the paper.

The figure given represents the apparent color[17] of the top of the Aiguille Bouchard (the mountain which is seen from the village of Chamouni, on the other side of the Glacier des Bois), distant, by Forbes's map, a furlong or two less than four miles in a direct line from the point of observation. The observation was made on a warm sunny morning, about eleven o'clock, the sky clear blue; the mountain seen against it, its shadows grey purple, and its sunlit parts greenish. Then the darkest part of the mountain was lighter than pure white paper, held upright in full light at the window, parallel to the direction in which the light entered. And it will thus generally be found impossible to represent, in any of its true colors, scenery distant more than two or three miles, in full daylight. The deepest shadows are whiter than white paper.

Sec. 9. As, however, we pass to nearer objects, true representation gradually becomes possible;—to what degree is always of course ascertainable accurately by the same mode of experiment. Bring the edge of the paper against the thing to be drawn, and on that edge—as precisely as a lady would match the colors of two pieces of a dress—match the color of the landscape (with a little opaque white mixed in the tints you use, so as to render it easy to lighten or darken them). Take care not to imitate the tint as you believe it to be, but accurately as it is; so that the colored edge of the paper shall not be discernible from the color of the landscape. You will then find (if before inexperienced) that shadows of trees, which you thought were dark green or black, are pale violets and purples; that lights, which you thought were green, are intensely yellow, brown, or golden, and most of them far too bright to be matched at all. When you have got all the imitable hues truly matched, sketch the masses of the landscape out completely in those true and ascertained colors; and you will find, to your amazement, that you have painted it in the colors of Turner,—in those very colors which perhaps you have been laughing at all your life,—the fact being that he, and he alone, of all men, ever painted Nature in her own colors.

Sec. 10. "Well, but," you will answer, impatiently, "how is it, if they are the true colors, that they look so unnatural?"

Because they are not shown in true contrast to the sky, and to other high lights. Nature paints her shadows in pale purple, and then raises her lights of heaven and sunshine to such height that the pale purple becomes, by comparison, a vigorous dark. But poor Turner has no sun at his command to oppose his pale colors. He follows Nature submissively as far as he can; puts pale purple where she does, bright gold where she does; and then when, on the summit of the slope of light, she opens her wings and quits the earth altogether, burning into ineffable sunshine, what can he do but sit helpless, stretching his hands towards her in calm consent, as she leaves him and mocks at him!

Sec. 11. "Well," but you will farther ask, "is this right or wise? ought not the contrast between the masses be given, rather than the actual hues of a few parts of them, when the others are inimitable?"

Yes, if this were possible, it ought to be done; but the true contrasts can NEVER be given. The whole question is simply whether you will be false at one side of the scale or at the other,—that is, whether you will lose yourself in light or in darkness. This necessity is easily expressible in numbers. Suppose the utmost light you wish to imitate is that of serene, feebly lighted, clouds in ordinary sky (not sun or stars, which it is, of course, impossible deceptively to imitate in painting by any artifice). Then, suppose the degrees of shadow between those clouds and Nature's utmost darkness accurately measured, and divided into a hundred degrees (darkness being zero). Next we measure our own scale, calling our utmost possible black, zero;[18] and we shall be able to keep parallel with Nature, perhaps up to as far as her 40 degrees; all above that being whiter than our white paper. Well, with our power of contrast between zero and 40, we have to imitate her contrasts between zero and 100. Now, if we want true contrasts, we can first set our 40 to represent her 100, our 20 for her 80, and our zero for her 60; everything below her 60 being lost in blackness. This is, with certain modifications, Rembrandt's system. Or, secondly, we can put zero for her zero, 20 for her 20, and 40 for her 40; everything above 40 being lost in whiteness. This is, with certain modifications, Paul Veronese's system. Or, finally, we can put our zero for her zero, and our 40 for her 100; our 20 for her 50, our 30 for her 75, and our ten for her 25, proportioning the intermediate contrasts accordingly. This is, with certain modifications, Turner's system;[19] the modifications, in each case, being the adoption, to a certain extent, of either of the other systems. Thus, Turner inclines to Paul Veronese; liking, as far as possible, to get his hues perfectly true up to a certain point,—that is to say, to let his zero stand for Nature's zero, and his 10 for her 10, and his 20 for her 20, and then to expand towards the light by quick but cunning steps, putting 27 for 50, 30 for 70, and reserving some force still for the last 90 to 100. So Rembrandt modifies his system on the other side, putting his 40 for 100, his 30 for 90, his 20 for 80; then going subtly downwards, 10 for 50, 5 for 30; nearly everything between 30 and zero being lost in gloom, yet so as still to reserve his zero for zero. The systems expressed in tabular form will stand thus:—


0 0 0 0 10 1 10 10 20 3 20 20 30 5 24 30 40 7 26 32 50 10 27 34 60 13 28 36 70 17 30 37 80 20 32 38 90 30 36 39 100 40 40 40

Sec. 12. Now it is evident that in Rembrandt's system, while the contrasts are not more right than with Veronese, the colors are all wrong, from beginning to end. With Turner and Veronese, Nature's 10 is their 10, and Nature's 20 their 20; enabling them to give pure truth up to a certain point. But with Rembrandt not one color is absolutely true, from one side of the scale to the other; only the contrasts are true at the top of the scale. Of course, this supposes Rembrandt's system applied to a subject which shall try it to the utmost, such as landscape. Rembrandt generally chose subjects in which the real colors were very nearly imitable,—as single heads with dark backgrounds, in which Nature's highest light was little above his own; her 40 being then truly representable by his 40, his picture became nearly an absolute truth. But his system is only right when applied to such subjects: clearly, when we have the full scale of natural light to deal with, Turner's and Veronese's convey the greatest sum of truth. But not the most complete deception, for people are so much more easily and instinctively impressed by force of light than truth of color, that they instantly miss the relative power of the sky, and the upper tones; and all the true local coloring looks strange to them, separated from its adjuncts of high light; whereas, give them the true contrast of light, and they will not observe the false local color. Thus all Gaspar Poussin's and Salvator's pictures, and all effects obtained by leaving high lights in the midst of exaggerated darkness, catch the eye, and are received for true, while the pure truth of Veronese and Turner is rejected as unnatural; only not so much in Veronese's case as in Turner's, because Veronese confines himself to more imitable things, as draperies, figures, and architecture, in which his exquisite truth at the bottom of the scale tells on the eye at once; but Turner works a good deal also (see the table) at the top of the natural scale, dealing with effects of sunlight and other phases of the upper colors, more or less inimitable, and betraying therefore, more or less, the artifices used to express them. It will be observed, also, that in order to reserve some force for the top of his scale, Turner is obliged to miss his gradations chiefly in middle tints (see the table), where the feebleness is sure to be felt. His principal point for missing the midmost gradations is almost always between the earth and sky; he draws the earth truly as far as he can, to the horizon; then the sky as far as he can, with his 30 to 40 part of the scale. They run together at the horizon; and the spectator complains that there is no distinction between earth and sky, or that the earth does not look solid enough.

Sec. 13. In the upper portions of the three pillars 5, 6, 7, Plate 25, are typically represented these three conditions of light and shade, characteristic, 5, of Rembrandt, 6, of Turner, and 7, of Veronese. The pillar to be drawn is supposed, in all the three cases, white; Rembrandt represents it as white on its highest light; and, getting the true gradations between this highest light and extreme dark, is reduced to his zero, or black, for the dark side of the white object. This first pillar also represents the system of Leonardo da Vinci. In the room of the Louvre appropriated to Italian drawings is a study of a piece of drapery by Leonardo. Its lights are touched with the finest white chalk, and its shadows wrought, through exquisite gradations, to utter blackness. The pillar 6 is drawn on the system of Turner; the high point of light is still distinct: but even the darkest part of the shaft is kept pale, and the gradations which give the roundness are wrought out with the utmost possible delicacy. The third shaft is drawn on Veronese's system. The light, though still focused, is more diffused than with Turner; and a slight flatness results from the determination that the fact of the shaft's being white shall be discerned more clearly even than that it is round; and that its darkest part shall still be capable of brilliant relief, as a white mass, from other objects round it.

Sec. 14. This resolution, on Veronese's part, is owing to the profound respect for the colors of objects which necessarily influenced him, as the colorist at once the most brilliant and the most tender of all painters of the elder schools; and it is necessary for us briefly to note the way in which this greater or less respect for local color influences the system of the three painters in light and shade.

Take the whitest piece of note-paper you can find, put a blot of ink upon it, carry it into the sunshine, and hold it fully fronting the sunshine, so as to make the paper look as dazzling as possible, but not to let the wet blot of ink shine. You will then find the ink look intensely black,—blacker, in fact, than any where else, owing to its vigorous contrast with the dazzling paper.

Remove the paper from the sunshine. The ink will not look so black. Carry the paper gradually into the darkest part of the room, and the contrast will as gradually appear to diminish; and, of course, in darkness, the distinction between the black and the white vanishes. Wet ink is as perfect a representative as is by any means attainable of a perfectly dark color; that is, of one which absorbs all the light that falls on it; and the nature of such a color is best understood by considering it as a piece of portable night. Now, of course, the higher you raise the daylight about this bit of night, the more vigorous is the contrast between the two. And, therefore, as a general rule, the higher you raise the light on any object with a pattern or stain upon it, the more distinctly that pattern or stain is seen. But observe: the distinction between the full black of ink, and full white of paper, is the utmost reach of light and dark possible to art. Therefore, if this contrast is to be represented truly, no deeper black can ever be given in any shadow than that offered at once; as local color, in a full black pattern, on the highest light. And, where color is the principal object of the picture, that color must, at all events, be as right as possible where it is best seen, i.e. in the lights. Hence the principle of Paul Veronese, and of all the great Venetian colorists, is to use full black for full black in high light, letting the shadow shift for itself as best it may; and sometimes even putting the local black a little darker in light than shadow, in order to give the more vigorous contrast noted above. Let the pillars in Plate 25 be supposed to have a black mosaic pattern on the lower part of their shafts. Paul Veronese's general practice will be, as at 7, having marked the rounding of the shaft as well as he can in the white parts, to paint the pattern with one even black over all, reinforcing it, if at all, a little in the light.

Sec. 15. Repeat the experiment on the note-paper with a red spot of carmine instead of ink. You will now find that the contrast in the sunshine appears about the same as in the shade—the red and white rising and falling together, and dying away together into the darkness. The fact, however, is, that the contrast does actually for some time increase towards the light; for in utter darkness the distinction is not visible—the red cannot be distinguished from the white; admit a little light, and the contrast is feebly discernible; admit more, it is distinctly discernible. But you cannot increase the contrast beyond a certain point. From that point the red and white for some time rise very nearly equally in light, or fall together very nearly equally in shade; but the contrast will begin to diminish in very high lights, for strong sunlight has a tendency to exhibit particles of dust, or any sparkling texture in the local color, and then to diminish its power; so that in order to see local color well, a certain degree of shadow is necessary: for instance, a very delicate complexion is not well seen in the sun; and the veins of a marble pillar, or the colors of a picture, can only be properly seen in comparative shade.

Sec. 16. I will not entangle the reader in the very subtle and curious variations of the laws in this matter. The simple fact which is necessary for him to observe is, that the paler and purer the color, the more the great Venetian colorists will reinforce it in the shadow, and allow it to fall or rise in sympathy with the light; and those especially whose object it is to represent sunshine, nearly always reinforce their local colors somewhat in the shadows, and keep them both fainter and feebler in the light, so that they thus approach a condition of universal glow, the full color being used for the shadow, and a delicate and somewhat subdued hue of it for the light. And this to the eye is the loveliest possible condition of color. Perhaps few people have ever asked themselves why they admire a rose so much more than all other flowers. If they consider, they will find, first, that red is, in a delicately gradated state, the loveliest of all pure colors; and secondly, that in the rose there is no shadow, except what is composed of color. All its shadows are fuller in color than its lights, owing to the translucency and reflective power of its leaves.

The second shaft, 6, in which the local color is paler towards the light, and reinforced in the shadow, will therefore represent the Venetian system with respect to paler colors, and the system, for the most part, even with respect to darker colors, of painters who attempt to render effects of strong sunlight. Generally, therefore, it represents the practice of Turner. The first shaft, 5, exhibits the disadvantage of the practice of Rembrandt and Leonardo, in that they cannot show the local color on the dark side, since, however energetic, it must at last sink into their exaggerated darkness.

Sec. 17. Now, from all the preceding inquiry, the reader must perceive more and more distinctly the great truth, that all forms of right art consist in a certain choice made between various classes of truths, a few only being represented, and others necessarily excluded; and that the excellence of each style depends first on its consistency with itself,—the perfect fidelity, as far as possible, to the truths it has chosen; and secondly, on the breadth of its harmony, or number of truths it has been able to reconcile, and the consciousness with which the truths refused are acknowledged, even though they may not be represented. A great artist is just like a wise and hospitable man with a small house: the large companies of truths, like guests, are waiting his invitation; he wisely chooses from among this crowd the guests who will be happiest with each other, making those whom he receives thoroughly comfortable, and kindly remembering even those whom he excludes; while the foolish host, trying to receive all, leaves a large part of his company on the staircase, without even knowing who is there, and destroys, by inconsistent fellowship, the pleasure of those who gain entrance.

Sec. 18. But even those hosts who choose well will be farther distinguished from each other by their choice of nobler or inferior companies; and we find the greatest artists mainly divided into two groups,—those who paint principally with respect to local color, headed by Paul Veronese, Titian, and Turner; and those who paint principally with reference to light and shade irrespective of color, headed by Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Raphael. The noblest members of each of these classes introduce the element proper to the other class, in a subordinate way. Paul Veronese introduces a subordinate light and shade, and Leonardo introduces a subordinate local color. The main difference is, that with Leonardo, Rembrandt, and Raphael, vast masses of the picture are lost in comparatively colorless (dark, grey, or brown) shadow; these painters beginning with the lights, and going down to blackness; but with Veronese, Titian, and Turner, the whole picture is like the rose,—glowing with color in the shadows, and rising into paler and more delicate hues, or masses of whiteness, in the lights; they having begun with the shadows, and gone up to whiteness.

Sec. 19. The colorists have in this respect one disadvantage, and three advantages. The disadvantage is, that between their less violent hues, it is not possible to draw all the forms which can be represented by the exaggerated shadow of the chiaroscurists, and therefore a slight tendency to flatness is always characteristic of the greater colorists, as opposed to Leonardo or Rembrandt. When the form of some single object is to be given, and its subtleties are to be rendered to the utmost, the Leonardesque manner of drawing is often very noble. It is generally adopted by Albert Durer in his engravings, and is very useful, when employed by a thorough master, in many kinds of engraving;[20] but it is an utterly false method of study, as we shall see presently.

Sec. 20. Of the three advantages possessed by the colorists over the chiaroscurists, the first is, that they have in the greater portions of their pictures absolute truth, as shown above, Sec. 12, while the chiaroscurists have no absolute truth anywhere. With the colorists the shadows are right; the lights untrue: but with the chiaroscurists lights and shadows are both untrue. The second advantage is, that also the relations of color are broader and vaster with the colorists than the chiaroscurists. Take, for example, that piece of drapery studied by Leonardo, in the Louvre, with white lights and black shadows. Ask yourself, first, whether the real drapery was black or white. If white, then its high lights are rightly white; but its folds being black, it could not as a mass be distinguished from the black or dark objects in its neighborhood. But the fact is, that a white cloth or handkerchief always is distinguished in daylight, as a whole white thing, from all that is colored about it: we see at once that there is a white piece of stuff, and a red, or green, or grey one near it, as the case may be: and this relation of the white object to other objects not white, Leonardo has wholly deprived himself of the power of expressing; while, if the cloth were black or dark, much more has he erred by making its lights white. In either case, he has missed the large relation of mass to mass, for the sake of the small one of fold to fold. And this is more or less the case with all chiaroscurists; with all painters, that is to say, who endeavor in their studies of objects to get rid of the idea of color, and give the abstract shade. They invariably exaggerate the shadows, not with respect to the thing itself, but with respect to all around it; and they exaggerate the lights also, by leaving pure white for the high light of what in reality is grey, rose-colored, or, in some way, not white.

Sec. 21. This method of study, being peculiarly characteristic of the Roman and Florentine schools, and associated with very accurate knowledge of form and expression, has gradually got to be thought by a large body of artists the grand way of study; an idea which has been fostered all the more because it was an unnatural way, and therefore thought to be a philosophical one. Almost the first idea of a child, or of a simple person looking at anything, is, that it is a red, or a black, or a green, or a white thing. Nay, say the artists; that is an unphilosophical and barbarous view of the matter. Red and white are mere vulgar appearances; look farther into the matter, and you will see such and such wonderful other appearances. Abstract those, they are the heroic, epic, historic, and generally eligible appearances. And acting on this grand principle, they draw flesh white, leaves white, ground white, everything white in the light, and everything black in the shade—and think themselves wise. But, the longer I live, the more ground I see to hold in high honor a certain sort of childishness or innocent susceptibility. Generally speaking, I find that when we first look at a subject, we get a glimpse of some of the greatest truths about it: as we look longer, our vanity, and false reasoning, and half-knowledge, lead us into various wrong opinions; but as we look longer still, we gradually return to our first impressions, only with a full understanding of their mystical and innermost reasons; and of much beyond and beside them, not then known to us, now added (partly as a foundation, partly as a corollary) to what at first we felt or saw. It is thus eminently in this matter of color. Lay your hand over the page of this book,—any child or simple person looking at the hand and book, would perceive, as the main fact of the matter, that a brownish pink thing was laid over a white one. The grand artist comes and tells you that your hand is not pink, and your paper is not white. He shades your fingers and shades your book, and makes you see all manner of starting veins, and projecting muscles, and black hollows, where before you saw nothing but paper and fingers. But go a little farther, and you will get more innocent again; you will find that, when "science has done its worst, two and two still make four;" and that the main and most important facts about your hand, so seen, are, after all, that it has four fingers and a thumb—showing as brownish pink things on white paper.

Sec. 22. I have also been more and more convinced, the more I think of it, that in general pride is at the bottom of all great mistakes. All the other passions do occasional good, but whenever pride puts in its word, everything goes wrong, and what it might really be desirable to do, quietly and innocently, it is mortally dangerous to do, proudly. Thus, while it is very often good for the artist to make studies of things, for the sake of knowing their forms, with their high lights all white, the moment he does this in a haughty way, and thinks himself drawing in the great style, because he leaves high lights white, it is all over with him; and half the degradation of art in modern times has been owing to endeavors, much fostered by the metaphysical Germans, to see things without color, as if color were a vulgar thing, the result being, in most students, that they end by not being able to see anything at all; whereas the true and perfect way of studying any object is simply to look what its color is in high light, and put that safely down, if possible; or, if you are making a chiaroscuro study, to take the grey answering to that color, and cover the whole object at once with that grey, firmly resolving that no part of it shall be brighter than that; then look for the darkest part of it, and if, as is probable, its darkest part be still a great deal lighter than black, or than other things about it, assume a given shade, as dark as, with due reference to other things, you can have it, but no darker. Mark that for your extreme dark on the object, and between those limits get as much drawing as you can, by subtlety of gradation. That will tax your powers of drawing indeed; and you will find this, which seems a childish and simple way of going to work, requires verily a thousandfold more power to carry out than all the pseudo-scientific abstractions that ever were invented.

Sec. 23. Nor can it long be doubted that it is also the most impressive way to others; for the third great advantage possessed by the colorists is, that the delightfulness of their picture, its sacredness, and general nobleness, are increased exactly in proportion to the quantity of light and of lovely color they can introduce in the shadows, as opposed to the black and grey of the chiaroscurists. I have already, in the Stones of Venice, vol. ii. chap. v., insisted upon the fact of the sacredness of color, and its necessary connection with all pure and noble feeling. What we have seen of the use of color by the poets will help to confirm this truth; but perhaps I have not yet enough insisted on the simplest and readiest to hand of all proofs,—the way, namely, in which God has employed color in His creation as the unvarying accompaniment of all that is purest, most innocent, and most precious; while for things precious only in material uses, or dangerous, common colors are reserved. Consider for a little while what sort of a world it would be if all flowers were grey, all leaves black, and the sky brown. Imagine that, as completely as may be, and consider whether you would think the world any whit more sacred for being thus transfigured into the hues of the shadows in Raphael's Transfiguration. Then observe how constantly innocent things are bright in color; look at a dove's neck, and compare it with the grey back of a viper; I have often heard talk of brilliantly colored serpents; and I suppose there are such,—as there are gay poisons, like the foxglove and kalmia—types of deceit; but all the venomous serpents I have really seen are grey, brick-red, or brown, variously mottled; and the most awful serpent I have seen, the Egyptian asp, is precisely of the color of gravel, or only a little greyer. So, again, the crocodile and alligator are grey, but the innocent lizard green and beautiful. I do not mean that the rule is invariable, otherwise it would be more convincing than the lessons of the natural universe are intended ever to be; there are beautiful colors on the leopard and tiger, and in the berries of the night-shade; and there is nothing very notable in brilliancy of color either in sheep or cattle (though, by the way, the velvet of a brown bull's hide in the sun, or the tawny white of the Italian oxen, is, to my mind, lovelier than any leopard's or tiger's skin); but take a wider view of nature, and compare generally rainbows, sunrises, roses, violets, butterflies, birds, gold-fish, rubies, opals, and corals, with alligators, hippopotami, lions, wolves, bears, swine, sharks, slugs, bones, fungi,[21] frogs, and corrupting, stinging, destroying things in general, and you will feel then how the question stands between the colorists and chiaroscurists,—which of them have nature and life on their side, and which have sin and death.

Sec. 24. Finally: the ascertainment of the sanctity of color is not left to human sagacity. It is distinctly stated in Scripture. I have before alluded to the sacred chord of color (blue, purple, and scarlet, with white and gold) as appointed in the Tabernacle; this chord is the fixed base of all coloring with the workmen of every great age; the purple and scarlet will be found constantly employed by noble painters, in various unison, to the exclusion in general of pure crimson;—it is the harmony described by Herodotus as used in the battlements of Ecbatana, and the invariable base of all beautiful missal-painting; the mistake continually made by modern restorers, in supposing the purple to be a faded crimson, and substituting full crimson for it, being instantly fatal to the whole work, as, indeed, the slightest modification of any hue in a perfect color-harmony must always be.[22] In this chord the scarlet is the powerful color, and is on the whole the most perfect representation of abstract color which exists; blue being in a certain degree associated with shade, yellow with light, and scarlet, as absolute color, standing alone. Accordingly, we find it used, together with cedar wood, hyssop, and running water, as an emblem of purification, in Leviticus xiv. 4, and other places, and so used not merely as the representative of the color of blood, since it was also to be dipped in the actual blood of a living bird. So that the cedar wood for its perfume, the hyssop for its searchingness, the water for its cleansing, and the scarlet for its kindling or enlightening, are all used as tokens of sanctification;[23] and it cannot be with any force alleged, in opposition to this definite appointment, that scarlet is used incidentally to illustrate the stain of sin,—"though thy sins be as scarlet,"—any more than it could be received as a diminution of the authority for using snow-whiteness as a type of purity, that Gehazi's leprosy is described as being as "white as snow." An incidental image has no authoritative meaning, but a stated ceremonial appointment has; besides, we have the reversed image given distinctly in Prov. xxxi.: "She is not afraid of the snow for her household, for all her household are clothed with scarlet." And, again: "Ye daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you in scarlet, with other delights." So, also, the arraying of the mystic Babylon in purple and scarlet may be interpreted exactly as we choose; either, by those who think color sensual, as an image of earthly pomp and guilt, or, by those who think it sacred, as an image of assumed or pretended sanctity. It is possible the two meanings may be blended, and the idea may be that the purple and fine linen of Dives are worn in hypocritical semblance of the purple and fine linen of the high priest, being, nevertheless, themselves, in all cases typical of all beauty and purity. I hope, however, to be able some day to enter farther into these questions with respect to the art of illumination; meantime, the facts bearing on our immediate subject may be briefly recapitulated. All men, completely organized and justly tempered, enjoy color; it is meant for the perpetual comfort and delight of the human heart; it is richly bestowed on the highest works of creation, and the eminent sign and seal of perfection in them; being associated with life in the human body, with light in the sky, with purity and hardness in the earth,—death, night, and pollution of all kinds being colorless. And although if form and color be brought into complete opposition,[24] so that it should be put to us as a matter of stern choice whether we should have a work of art all of form, without color (as an Albert Durer's engraving), or all of color, without form (as an imitation of mother-of-pearl), form is beyond all comparison the more precious of the two; and in explaining the essence of objects, form is essential, and color more or less accidental (compare Chap. v. of the first section of Vol. I.); yet if color be introduced at all, it is necessary that, whatever else may be wrong, that should be right; just as, though the music of a song may not be so essential to its influence as the meaning of the words, yet if the music be given at all, it must be right, or its discord will spoil the words; and it would be better, of the two, that the words should be indistinct, than the notes false. Hence, as I have said elsewhere, the business of a painter is to paint. If he can color, he is a painter, though he can do nothing else; if he cannot color, he is no painter, though he may do everything else. But it is, in fact, impossible, if he can color, but that he should be able to do more; for a faithful study of color will always give power over form, though the most intense study of form will give no power over color. The man who can see all the greys, and reds, and purples in a peach, will paint the peach rightly round, and rightly altogether; but the man who has only studied its roundness, may not see its purples and greys, and if he does not, will never get it to look like a peach; so that great power over color is always a sign of large general art-intellect. Expression of the most subtle kind can be often reached by the slight studies of caricaturists;[25] sometimes elaborated by the toil of the dull, and sometimes by the sentiment of the feeble, but to color well requires real talent and earnest study, and to color perfectly is the rarest and most precious power an artist can possess. Every other gift may be erroneously cultivated, but this will guide to all healthy, natural, and forcible truth; the student may be led into folly by philosophers, and into falsehood by purists; but he is always safe if he holds the hand of a colorist.


[13] Part II. Sec. II. Chap I.

[14] Part III. Sec. I. Chap. V.

[15] Light from above is the same thing with reference to our present inquiry.

[16] For which reason, I said in the Appendix to the third volume, that the expression "finite realization of infinity" was a considerably less rational one than "black realization of white."

[17] The color, but not the form. I wanted the contour of the top of the Breven for reference in another place, and have therefore given it instead of that of the Bouchard, but in the proper depth of tint.

[18] Even here we shall be defeated by Nature, her utmost darkness being deeper than ours. See Part II. Sec. II. Chap. I. Sec. 4-7. etc.

[19] When the clouds are brilliantly lighted, it may rather be, as stated in Sec. 4. above, in the proportion of 160 to 40. I take the number 100 as more calculable.

[20] It is often extremely difficult to distinguish properly between the Leonardesque manner, in which local color is denied altogether, and the Turneresque, in which local color at its highest point in the picture is merged in whiteness. Thus, Albert Durer's noble "Melancholia" is entirely Leonardesque; the leaves on her head, her flesh, her wings, her dress, the wolf, the wooden ball, and the rainbow, being all equally white on the high lights. But my drawing of leaves, facing page 120, Vol. III., is Turneresque; because, though I leave pure white to represent the pale green of leaves and grass in high light, I give definite increase of darkness to four of the bramble leaves, which, in reality, were purple, and leave a dark withered stalk nearly black, though it is in light, where it crosses the leaf in the centre. These distinctions could only be properly explained by a lengthy series of examples; which I hope to give some day or other, but have not space for here.

[21] It is notable, however, that nearly all the poisonous agarics are scarlet or speckled, and wholesome ones brown or gray, as if to show us that things rising out of darkness and decay are always most deadly when they are well drest.

[22] Hence the intense absurdity of endeavoring to "restore" the color of ancient buildings by the hands of ignorant colorists, as at the Crystal Palace.

[23] The redeemed Rahab bound for a sign a scarlet thread in the window. Compare Canticles iv. 3.

[24] The inconsistency between perfections of color and form, which I have had to insist upon in other places, is exactly like that between articulation and harmony. We cannot have the richest harmony with the sharpest and most audible articulation of words: yet good singers will articulate clearly: and the perfect study of the science of music will conduct to a fine articulation; but the study of pronunciation will not conduct to, nor involve, that of harmony. So, also, though, as said farther on, subtle expression can be got without color, perfect expression never can; for the color of the face is a part of its expression. How often has that scene between Francesca di Rimini and her lover been vainly attempted by sculptors, simply because they did not observe that the main note of expression in it was in the fair sheet-lightning—fading and flaming through the cloud of passion!

Per piu flate gli occhi ci sospinse Quella lettura, e scolorocci il viso.

And, of course, in landscape, color is the principal source of expression. Take one melancholy chord from the close of Crabbe's Patron:

"Cold grew the foggy morn; the day was brief, Loose on the cherry hung the crimson leaf. The dew dwelt ever on the herb; the woods Roared with strong blasts; with mighty showers, the floods All green was vanished, save of pine and yew That still displayed their melancholy hue; Save the green holly, with its berries red And the green moss that o'er the gravel spread."

[25] See Appendix 1. Modern Grotesque.



Sec. 1. In the preceding chapters we have shown the nature of Turner's art; first, as respected sympathy with his subject; next, as respected fidelity in local detail; and thirdly, as respected principles of color. We have now finally to confirm what in various places has been said respecting his principles of delineation, or that mysterious and apparently uncertain execution by which he is distinguished from most other painters.

In Chap. III. Sec. 17 of the preceding volume we concluded generally that all great drawing was distinct drawing; but with reference, nevertheless, to a certain sort of indistinctness, necessary to the highest art, and afterwards to be explained. And the inquiry into this seeming contradiction has, I trust, been made somewhat more interesting by what we saw respecting modern art in the fourth paragraph of Chap. XVI., namely, that it was distinguished from old art eminently by indistinctness, and by its idle omission of details for the sake of general effect. Perhaps also, of all modern artists, Turner is the one to whom most people would first look as the great representative of this nineteenth century cloudiness, and "ingenious speaking concerning smoke;" every one of his compositions being evidently dictated by a delight in seeing only a part of things rather than the whole, and in casting clouds and mist around them rather than unveiling them.

Sec. 2. And as the head of modern mystery, all the ranks of the best ancient, and of even a very important and notable division of modern authority, seem to be arrayed against him. As we saw in preceding chapters, every great man was definite until the seventeenth century. John Bellini, Leonardo, Angelico, Durer, Perugino, Raphael,—all of them hated fog, and repudiated indignantly all manner of concealment. Clear, calm, placid, perpetual vision, far and near; endless perspicuity of space; unfatigued veracity of eternal light; perfectly accurate delineation of every leaf on the trees, every flower in the fields, every golden thread in the dresses of the figures, up to the highest point of calm brilliancy which was penetrable to the eye, or possible to the pencil,—these were their glory. On the other—the entirely mysterious—side, we have only sullen and sombre Rembrandt; desperate Salvator; filmy, futile Claude; occasionally some countenance from Correggio and Titian, and a careless condescension or two from Tintoret,[26]—not by any means a balanced weight of authority. Then, even in modern times, putting Turner (who is at present the prisoner at the bar) out of the question, we have, in landscape, Stanfield and Harding as definers, against Copley Fielding and Robson on the side of the clouds;[27] Mulready and Wilkie against Etty,—even Etty being not so much misty in conception as vague in execution, and not, therefore, quite legitimately to be claimed on the foggy side; while, finally, the whole body of the Pre-Raphaelites—certainly the greatest men, taken as a class, whom modern Europe has produced in concernment with the arts—entirely agree with the elder religious painters, and do, to their utmost, dwell in an element of light and declaration, in antagonism to all mist and deception. Truly, the clouds seem to be getting much the worst of it; and I feel, for the moment, as if nothing could be said for them. However, having been myself long a cloud-worshipper, and passed many hours of life in the pursuit of them from crag to crag, I must consider what can possibly be submitted in their defence, and in Turner's.

Sec. 3. The first and principal thing to be submitted is, that the clouds are there. Whether we like them or not, it is a fact that by far the largest spaces of the habitable world are full of them. That is Nature's will in the matter; and whatever we may theoretically determine to be expedient or beautiful, she has long ago determined what shall be. We may declare that clear horizons and blue skies form the most exalted scenery; but for all that, the bed of the river in the morning will still be traced by its line of white mist, and the mountain peaks will be seen at evening only in the rents between their blue fragments of towering cloud. Thus it is, and that so constantly, that it is impossible to become a faithful landscape painter without continually getting involved in effects of this kind. We may, indeed, avoid them systematically, but shall become narrow mannerists if we do.

Sec. 4. But not only is there a partial and variable mystery thus caused by clouds and vapors throughout great spaces of landscape; there is a continual mystery caused throughout all spaces, caused by the absolute infinity of things. WE NEVER SEE ANYTHING CLEARLY. I stated this fact partly in the chapter on Truth of Space, in the first volume, but not with sufficient illustration, so that the reader might by that chapter have been led to infer that the mystery spoken of belonged to some special distance of the landscape, whereas the fact is, that everything we look at, be it large or small, near or distant, has an equal quantity of mystery in it; and the only question is, not how much mystery there is, but at what part of the object mystification begins. We suppose we see the ground under our feet clearly, but if we try to number its grains of dust, we shall find that it is as full of confusion and doubtful form as anything else; so that there is literally no point of clear sight, and there never can be. What we call seeing a thing clearly, is only seeing enough of it to make out what it is; this point of intelligibility varying in distance for different magnitudes and kinds of things, while the appointed quantity of mystery remains nearly the same for all. Thus: throwing an open book and an embroidered handkerchief on a lawn, at a distance of half a mile we cannot tell which is which; that is the point of mystery for the whole of those things. They are then merely white spots of indistinct shape. We approach them, and perceive that one is a book, the other a handkerchief, but cannot read the one, nor trace the embroidery of the other. The mystery has ceased to be in the whole things, and has gone into their details. We go nearer, and can now read the text and trace the embroidery, but cannot see the fibres of the paper, nor the threads of the stuff. The mystery has gone into a third place. We take both up and look closely at them; we see the watermark and the threads, but not the hills and dales in the paper's surface, nor the fine fibres which shoot off from every thread. The mystery has gone into a fourth place, where it must stay, till we take a microscope, which will send it into a fifth, sixth, hundredth, or thousandth place, according to the power we use. When, therefore, we say, we see the book clearly, we mean only that we know it is a book. When we say that we see the letters clearly, we mean that we know what letters they are; and artists feel that they are drawing objects at a convenient distance when they are so near them as to know, and to be able in painting to show that they know, what the objects are, in a tolerably complete manner; but this power does not depend on any definite distance of the object, but on its size, kind, and distance, together; so that a small thing in the foreground may be precisely in the same phase or place of mystery as a large thing far away.

Sec. 5. The other day, as I was lying down to rest on the side of the hill round which the Rhone sweeps in its main angle, opposite Martigny, and looking carefully across the valley to the ridge of the hill which rises above Martigny itself, then distant about four miles, a plantain seed-vessel about an inch long, and a withered head of a scabious half an inch broad, happened to be seen rising up, out of the grass near me, across the outline of the distant hill, so as seemingly to set themselves closely beside the large pines and chestnuts which fringed that distant ridge. The plantain was eight yards from me, and the scabious seven; and to my sight, at these distances, the plantain and the far away pines were equally clear (it being a clear day, and the sun stooping to the west). The pines, four miles off, showed their branches, but I could not count them; and two or three young and old Spanish chestnuts beside them showed their broken masses distinctly; but I could not count those masses, only I knew the trees to be chestnuts by their general look. The plantain and scabious in like manner I knew to be a plantain and scabious by their general look. I saw the plantain seed-vessel to be, somehow, rough, and that there were two little projections at the bottom of the scabious head which I knew to mean the leaves of the calyx; but I could no more count distinctly the seeds of the plantain, or the group of leaves forming the calyx of the scabious, than I could count the branches of the far-away pines.

Sec. 6. Under these circumstances, it is quite evident that neither the pine nor plantain could have been rightly represented by a single dot or stroke of color. Still less could they be represented by a definite drawing, on a small scale, of a pine with all its branches clear, or of a plantain with all its seeds clear. The round dot or long stroke would represent nothing, and the clear delineation too much. They were not mere dots of color which I saw on the hill, but something full of essence of pine; out of which I could gather which were young and which were old, and discern the distorted and crabbed pines from the symmetrical and healthy pines; and feel how the evening sun was sending its searching threads among their dark leaves;—assuredly they were more than dots of color. And yet not one of their boughs or outlines could be distinctly made out, or distinctly drawn. Therefore, if I had drawn either a definite pine, or a dot, I should have been equally wrong, the right lying in an inexplicable, almost inimitable, confusion between the two.

Sec. 7. "But is this only the case with pines four miles away, and with plantains eight yards?"

Not so. Everything in the field of sight is equally puzzling, and can only be drawn rightly on the same difficult conditions. Try it fairly. Take the commonest, closest, most familiar thing, and strive to draw it verily as you see it. Be sure of this last fact, for otherwise you will find yourself continually drawing, not what you see, but what you know. The best practice to begin with is, sitting about three yards, from a bookcase (not your own, so that you may know none of the titles of the books), to try to draw the books accurately, with the titles on the backs, and patterns on the bindings, as you see them. You are not to stir from your place to look what they are, but to draw them simply as they appear, giving the perfect look of neat lettering; which, nevertheless, must be (as you find it on most of the books) absolutely illegible. Next try to draw a piece of patterned muslin or lace (of which you do not know the pattern), a little way off, and rather in the shade; and be sure you get all the grace and look of the pattern without going a step nearer to see what it is. Then try to draw a bank of grass, with all its blades; or a bush, with all its leaves; and you will soon begin to understand under what a universal law of obscurity we live, and perceive that all distinct drawing must be bad drawing, and that nothing can be right, till it is unintelligible.

Sec. 8. "How! and Pre-Raphaelitism and Durerism, and all that you have been talking to us about for these five hundred pages!"

Well, it is all right; Pre-Raphaelitism is quite as unintelligible as need be (I will answer for Durerism farther on). Examine your Pre-Raphaelite painting well, and you will find it is the precise fulfilment of these laws. You can make out your plantain head and your pine, and see entirely what they are; but yet they are full of mystery, and suggest more than you can see. So also with Turner, the true head of Pre-Raphaelitism. You shall see the spots of the trout lying dead on the rock in his foreground, but not count them. It is only the Germans and the so-called masters of drawing and defining that are wrong, not the Pre-Raphaelites.[28]

Not, that is to say, so far as it is possible to be right. No human skill can get the absolute truth in this matter; but a drawing by Turner of a large scene, and by Holman Hunt of a small one, are as close to truth as human eyes and hands can reach.

Sec. 9. "Well, but how of Veronese and all the firm, fearless draughtsmen of days gone by?"

They are indeed firm and fearless, but they are all mysterious. Not one great man of them, but he will puzzle you, if you look close, to know what he means. Distinct enough, as to his general intent, indeed, just as Nature is distinct in her general intent; but examine his touches, and you will find in Veronese, in Titian, in Tintoret, in Correggio, and in all the great painters, properly so called, a peculiar melting and mystery about the pencilling, sometimes called softness, sometimes freedom, sometimes breadth; but in reality a most subtle confusion of colors and forms, obtained either by the apparently careless stroke of the brush, or by careful retouching with tenderest labor; but always obtained in one way or another: so that though, when compared with work that has no meaning, all great work is distinct,—compared with work that has narrow and stubborn meaning, all great work is indistinct; and if we find, on examining any picture closely, that it is all clearly to be made out, it cannot be, as painting, first-rate. There is no exception to this rule. EXCELLENCE OF THE HIGHEST KIND, WITHOUT OBSCURITY, CANNOT EXIST.

Sec. 10. "But you said that all authority was against Turner,—Titian's and Veronese's, as well as that of the older painters."

Yes, as regards his choice of misty or foggy subject, it is so; but in this matter of mere execution, all the great painters are with him, though at first he seems to differ from them, on account of that choice of foggy subject; and because, instead of painting things under circumstances when their general character is to be discerned at once (as Veronese paints human figures close to us and the size of life), he is always painting things twenty and thirty miles away, reduced to unintelligible and eccentric shades.

Sec. 11. "But how, then, of this foggy choice; can that be right in itself?"

That we will discuss in the next chapter: let us keep at present to the question of execution.

"Keeping to that question, why is it that a photograph always looks clear and sharp,—not at all like a Turner?"

Photographs never look entirely clear and sharp; but because clearness is supposed a merit in them, they are usually taken from very clearly marked and un-Turnerian subjects; and such results as are misty and faint, though often precisely those which contain the most subtle renderings of nature, are thrown away, and the clear ones only are preserved. Those clear ones depend for much of their force on the faults of the process. Photography either exaggerates shadows, or loses detail in the lights, and, in many ways which I do not here pause to explain, misses certain of the utmost subtleties of natural effect (which are often the things that Turner has chiefly aimed at,) while it renders subtleties of form which no human hand could achieve. But a delicately taken photograph of a truly Turnerian subject, is far more like Turner in the drawing than it is to the work of any other artist; though, in the system of chiaroscuro, being entirely and necessarily Rembrandtesque, the subtle mystery of the touch (Turnerism carried to an infinitely wrought refinement) is not usually perceived.

Sec. 12. "But how of Van Eyck, and Albert Durer, and all the clear early men?"

So far as they are quite clear, they are imperfect, and knowingly imperfect, if considered as painters of real appearances; but by means of this very imperfection or conventionalism, they often give certain facts which are more necessary to their purpose than these outward appearances. For instance, in Fig. 2 of Plate 25, facing page 32, I requested Mr. Le Keux to facsimile, as far as might be, the look of the daguerreotype; and he has admirably done so. But if Albert Durer had drawn the wall between those towers, he would have represented it with all its facts distinctly revealed, as in Fig. 1; and in many respects this clear statement is precious, though, so far as regards ocular truth, it is not natural. A modern sketcher of the "bold" school would represent the tower as in Fig. 3; that is to say, in a manner just as trenchant and firm, and therefore ocularly false, as Durer's; but, in all probability, which involved entireness of fallacy or ignorance as to the wall facts; rendering the work nearly valueless; or valuable only in color or composition; not as draughtsmanship.

Of this we shall have more to say presently, here we may rest satisfied with the conclusion that to a perfectly great manner of painting, or to entirely finished work, a certain degree of indistinctness is indispensable. As all subjects have a mystery in them, so all drawing must have a mystery in it; and from the nearest object to the most distant, if we can quite make out what the artist would be at, there is something wrong. The strokes of paint, examined closely, must be confused, odd, incomprehensible; having neither beginning nor end,—melting into each other, or straggling over each other, or going wrong and coming right again, or fading away altogether; and if we can make anything of them quite out, that part of the drawing is wrong, or incomplete.

Sec. 13. Only, observe, the method by which the confusion is obtained may vary considerably according to the distance and scale of the picture itself; for very curious effects are produced upon all paintings by the distance of the eye from them. One of these is the giving a certain softness to all colors, so that hues which would look coarse or bald if seen near, may sometimes safely be left, and are left, by the great workmen in their large works, to be corrected by the kind of bloom which the distance of thirty or forty feet sheds over them. I say, "sometimes," because this optical effect is a very subtle one, and seems to take place chiefly on certain colors, dead fresco colors especially; also the practice of the great workmen is very different, and seems much to be regulated by the time at their disposal. Tintoret's picture of Paradise, with 500 figures in it, adapted to a supposed distance of from fifty to a hundred feet, is yet colored so tenderly that the nearer it is approached the better it looks; nor is it at all certain that the color which is wrong near, will look right a little way off, or even a great way off: I have never seen any of our Academy portraits made to look like Titians by being hung above the line: still, distance does produce a definite effect on pictorial color, and in general an improving one. It also deepens the relative power of all strokes and shadows. A touch of shade which, seen near, is all but invisible, and, as far as effect on the picture is concerned, quite powerless, will be found, a little way off, to tell as a definite shadow, and to have a notable result on all that is near it; and so markedly is this the case, that in all fine and first-rate drawing there are many passages in which if we see the touches we are putting on, we are doing too much; they must be put on by the feeling of the hand only, and have their effect on the eye when seen in unison, a little way off. This seems strange; but I believe the reason of it is, that, seen at some distance, the parts of the touch or touches are gathered together, and their relations truly shown; while, seen near, they are scattered and confused. On a large scale, and in common things, the phenomenon is of constant occurrence; the "dirt bands" on a glacier, for instance, are not to be counted on the glacier itself, and yet their appearance is truly stated by Professor Forbes to be "one of great importance, though from the two circumstances of being best seen at a distance, or considerable height, and in a feeble or slanting light, it had very naturally been overlooked both by myself and others, like what are called blind paths over moors, visible at a distance, but lost when we stand upon them."[29]

Sec. 14. Not only, however, does this take place in a picture very notably, so that a group of touches will tell as a compact and intelligible mass, a little way off, though confused when seen near; but also a dark touch gains at a little distance in apparent darkness, a light touch in apparent light, and a colored touch in apparent color, to a degree inconceivable by an unpractised person; so that literally, a good painter is obliged, working near his picture, to do in everything only about half of what he wants, the rest being done by the distance. And if the effect, at such distance, is to be of confusion, then sometimes seen near, the work must be a confusion worse confounded, almost utterly unintelligible; hence the amazement and blank wonder of the public at some of the finest passages of Turner, which look like a mere meaningless and disorderly work of chance; but, rightly understood, are preparations for a given result, like the most subtle moves of a game of chess, of which no bystander can for a long time see the intention, but which are, in dim, underhand, wonderful way, bringing out their foreseen and inevitable result.

Sec. 15. And, be it observed, no other means would have brought out that result. Every distance and size of picture has its own proper method of work; the artist will necessarily vary that method somewhat according to circumstances and expectations: he may sometimes finish in a way fitted for close observation, to please his patron, or catch the public eye; and sometimes be tempted into such finish by his zeal, or betrayed into it by forgetfulness, as I think Tintoret has been, slightly, in his Paradise, above mentioned. But there never yet was a picture thoroughly effective at a distance, which did not look more or less unintelligible near. Things which in distant effect are folds of dress, seen near are only two or three grains of golden color set there apparently by chance; what far off is a solid limb; near is a grey shade with a misty outline, so broken that it is not easy to find its boundary; and what far off may perhaps be a man's face, near, is only a piece of thin brown color, enclosed by a single flowing wave of a brush loaded with white, while three brown touches across one edge of it, ten feet away, become a mouth and eyes. The more subtle the power of the artist, the more curious the difference will be between the apparent means and the effect produced; and one of the most sublime feelings connected with art consists in the perception of this very strangeness, and in a sympathy with the foreseeing and foreordaining power of the artist. In Turner, Tintoret, and Paul Veronese, the intenseness of perception, first, as to what is to be done, and then, of the means of doing it, is so colossal, that I always feel in the presence of their pictures just as other people would in that of a supernatural being. Common talkers use the word "magic" of a great painter's power without knowing what they mean by it. They mean a great truth. That power is magical; so magical, that, well understood, no enchanter's work could be more miraculous or more appalling; and though I am not often kept from saying things by timidity, I should be afraid of offending the reader, if I were to define to him accurately the kind and the degree of awe, with which I have stood before Tintoret's Adoration of the Magi, at Venice, and Veronese's Marriage in Cana, in the Louvre.

Sec. 16. It will now, I hope, be understood how easy it is for dull artists to mistake the mystery of great masters for carelessness, and their subtle concealment of intention for want of intention. For one person who can perceive the delicacy, invention, and veracity of Tintoret or Reynolds[30] there are thousands who can perceive the dash of the brush and the confusion of the color. They suppose that the merit consists in dash and confusion, and that they may easily rival Reynolds by being unintelligible, and Tintoret by being impetuous. But I assure them, very seriously, that obscurity is not always admirable, nor impetuosity always right; that disorder does not necessarily imply discretion, nor haste, security. It is sometimes difficult to understand the words of a deep thinker; but it is equally difficult to understand an idiot; and young students will find it, on the whole, the best thing they can do to strive to be clear;[31] not affectedly clear, but manfully and firmly. Mean something, and say something, whenever you touch canvas; yield neither to the affectation of precision nor of speed, and trust to time, and your honest labor, to invest your work gradually, in such measure and kind as your genius can reach, with the tenderness that comes of love, and the mystery that comes of power.


[26] In the clouds around Mount Sinai, in the picture of the Golden Calf; the smoke turning into angels, in the Cenacolo in San Giorgio Maggiore; and several other such instances.

[27] Stanfield I call a definer, as opposed to Copley Fielding, because, though, like all other moderns, he paints cloud and storm, he will generally paint all the masts and yards of a ship, rather than merely her black bows glooming through the foam; and all the rocks on a hill side, rather than the blue outline of the hill through the mist.

[28] Compare, if at hand, my letter in the Times of the 5th of May, 1854, on Hunt's Light of the World. I extract the passage bearing chiefly on the point in question.

"As far as regards the technical qualities of Mr. Hunt's painting, I would only ask the spectator to observe this difference between true Pre-Raphaelite work and its imitations. The true work represents all objects exactly as they would appear in nature, in the position and at the distances which the arrangement of the picture supposes. The false work represents them with all their details, as if seen through a microscope. Examine closely the ivy on the door in Mr. Hunt's picture, and there will not be found in it a single clear outline. All is the most exquisite mystery of color; becoming reality at its due distance. In like manner, examine the small gems on the robe of the figure. Not one will be made out in form, and yet there is not one of all those minute points of green color, but it has two or three distinctly varied shades of green in it, giving its mysterious value and lustre. The spurious imitations of Pre-Raphaelite work represent the most minute leaves and other objects with sharp outlines, but with no variety of color, and with none of the concealment, none of the infinity of nature."

[29] Travels through the Alps, chap. viii.

[30] Reynolds is usually admired for his dash and speed. His true merit is in an ineffable subtlety combined with his speed. The tenderness of some of Reynolds' touches is quite beyond telling.

[31] Especially in distinction of species of things. It may be doubtful whether in a great picture we are to represent the bloom upon a grape, but never doubtful that we are to paint a grape so as to be known from a cherry.



Sec. 1. In the preceding chapter we were concerned only with the mystery necessary in all great art. We have yet to inquire into the nature of that more special love of concealment in which Turner is the leading representative of modern cloud-worship; causing Dr. Waagen sapiently to remark that "he" had here succeeded in combining "a crude painted medley with a general foggy appearance."[32]

As, for defence of his universal indistinctness, my appeal was in the last chapter to universal fact, so, for defence of this special indistinctness, my first appeal is in this chapter to special fact. An English painter justifiably loves fog, because he is born in a foggy country; as an Italian painter justifiably loves clearness, because he is born in a comparatively clear country. I have heard a traveller familiar with the East complain of the effect in a picture of Copley Fielding's, that "it was such very bad weather." But it ought not to be bad weather to the English. Our green country depends for its life on those kindly rains and floating swirls of cloud; we ought, therefore, to love them and to paint them.

Sec. 2. But there is no need to rest my defence on this narrow English ground. The fact is, that though the climates of the South and East may be comparatively clear, they are no more absolutely clear than our own northern air; and that wherever a landscape-painter is placed, if he paints faithfully, he will have continually to paint effects of mist. Intense clearness, whether in the North after or before rain, or in some moments of twilight in the South, is always, as far as I am acquainted with natural phenomena, a notable thing. Mist of some sort, or mirage, or confusion of light, or of cloud, are the general facts; the distance may vary in different climates at which the effects of mist begin, but they are always present; and therefore, in all probability it is meant that we should enjoy them.

Sec. 3. Nor does it seem to me in any wise difficult to understand why they should be thus appointed for enjoyment. In former parts of this work we were able to trace a certain delightfulness in every visible feature of natural things which was typical of any great spiritual truth; surely, therefore, we need not wonder now, that mist and all its phenomena have been made delightful to us, since our happiness as thinking beings must depend on our being content to accept only partial knowledge, even in those matters which chiefly concern us. If we insist upon perfect intelligibility and complete declaration in every moral subject, we shall instantly fall into misery of unbelief. Our whole happiness and power of energetic action depend upon our being able to breathe and live in the cloud; content to see it opening here and closing there; rejoicing to catch, through the thinnest films of it, glimpses of stable and substantial things; but yet perceiving a nobleness even in the concealment, and rejoicing that the kindly veil is spread where the untempered light might have scorched us, or the infinite clearness wearied.

Sec. 4. And I believe that the resentment of this interference of the mist is one of the forms of proud error which are too easily mistaken for virtues. To be content in utter darkness and ignorance is indeed unmanly, and therefore we think that to love light and seek knowledge must always be right. Yet (as in all matters before observed,) wherever pride has any share in the work, even knowledge and light may be ill pursued. Knowledge is good, and light is good, yet man perished in seeking knowledge, and moths perished in seeking light; and if we, who are crushed before the moth, will not accept such mystery as is needful for us, we shall perish in like manner. But, accepted in humbleness, it instantly becomes an element of pleasure; and I think that every rightly constituted mind ought to rejoice, not so much in knowing anything clearly, as in feeling that there is infinitely more which it cannot know. None but proud or weak men would mourn over this, for we may always know more if we choose, by working on; but the pleasure is, I think, to humble people, in knowing that the journey is endless, the treasure inexhaustible,—watching the cloud still march before them with its summitless pillar, and being sure that, to the end of time and to the length of eternity, the mysteries of its infinity will still open farther and farther, their dimness being the sign and necessary adjunct of their inexhaustibleness. I know there are an evil mystery and a deathful dimness,—the mystery of the great Babylon—the dimness of the sealed eye and soul; but do not let us confuse these with the glorious mystery of the things which the angels "desire to look into," or with the dimness which, even before the clear eye and open soul, still rests on sealed pages of the eternal volume.

Sec. 5. And going down from this great truth to the lower truths which are types of it in smaller matters, we shall find, that as soon as people try honestly to see all they can of anything, they come to a point where a noble dimness begins. They see more than others; but the consequence of their seeing more is, that they feel they cannot see all; and the more intense their perception, the more the crowd of things which they partly see will multiply upon them; and their delight may at last principally consist in dwelling on this cloudy part of their prospect, somewhat casting away or aside what to them has become comparatively common, but is perhaps the sum and substance of all that other people see in the thing, for the utmost subtleties and shadows and glancings of it cannot be caught but by the most practised vision. And as a delicate ear rejoices in the slighter and more modulated passages of sound which to a blunt ear are utterly monotonous in their quietness, or unintelligible in their complication, so, when the eye is exquisitely keen and clear, it is fain to rest on grey films of shade, and wandering rays of light, and intricacies of tender form, passing over hastily, as unworthy or commonplace, what to a less educated sense appears the whole of the subject.[33] In painting, this progress of the eye is marked always by one consistent sign—its sensibility, namely, to effects of gradation in light and color, and habit of looking for them, rather even than for the signs of the essence of the subject. It will, indeed, see more of that essence than is seen by other eyes; and its choice of the points to be seized upon will be always regulated by that special sympathy which we have above examined as the motive of the Turnerian picturesque; but yet, the more it is cultivated, the more of light and color it will perceive, the less of substance.

Sec. 6. Thus, when the eye is quite uncultivated, it sees that a man is a man, and a face is a face, but has no idea what shadows or lights fall upon the form or features. Cultivate it to some degree of artistic power, and it will then see shadows distinctly, but only the more vigorous of them. Cultivate it still farther, and it will see light within light, and shadow within shadow, and will continually refuse to rest in what it had already discovered, that it may pursue what is more removed and more subtle, until at last it comes to give its chief attention and display its chief power on gradations which to an untrained faculty are partly matters of indifference, and partly imperceptible. That these subtle gradations have indeed become matters of primal importance to it, may be ascertained by observing that they are the things it will last part with, as the object retires into distance; and that, though this distance may become so great as to render the real nature of the object quite undiscernible, the gradations of light upon it will not be lost.

Sec. 7. For instance, Fig. 1, on the opposite page, Plate 26, is a tolerably faithful rendering of the look of a wall tower of a Swiss town as it would be seen within some hundred yards of it. Fig. 2 is (as nearly as I can render it) a facsimile of Turner's actual drawing of this tower, at a presumed distance of about half a mile. It has far less of intelligible delineation, either of windows, cornices, or tiles; but intense care has still been given to get the pearly roundness of the side, and the exact relations of all the tones of shade. And now, if Turner wants to remove the tower still farther back, he will gradually let the windows and stones all disappear together, before he will quit his shadows and delicately centralized rays. At Fig. 3 the tower is nearly gone, but the pearly roundness of it and principal lights of it are there still. At Fig. 4 (Turner's ultimate condition in distance) the essence of the thing is quite unintelligible; we cannot answer for its being a tower at all. But the gradations of light are still there, and as much pains have been taken to get them as in any of the other instances. A vulgar artist would have kept something of the form of the tower, expressing it by a few touches; and people would call it a clever drawing. Turner lets the tower melt into air, but still he works half an hour or so over those delicate last gradations, which perhaps not many people in England besides himself can fully see, as not many people can understand the final work of a great mathematician. I assume, of course, in this example, that the tower, as it grows less and less distinct, becomes part of the subject of a larger picture. Fig. 1 represents nearly what Turner's treatment of it would be if it were the principal subject of a vignette; and Fig. 4 his treatment of it as an object in the extreme distance of a large oil picture. If at the same supposed distance it entered into a smaller drawing, so as to be much smaller in size, he might get the gradations with less trouble, sometimes even by a single sweep of the brush; but some gradation would assuredly be retained, though the tower were diminished to the height of one of the long letters of this type.

Sec. 8. "But is Turner right in doing this?"

Yes. The truth is indeed so. If you watch any object as it fades in distance, it will lose gradually its force, its intelligibility, its anatomy, its whole comprehensible being; but it will never lose its gradation of light. Up to the last moment, what light is seen on it, feebly glimmering and narrowed almost to a point or a line, is still full of change. One part is brighter than another, and brighter with as lovely and tender increase as it was when nearest to us; and at last, though a white house ten miles away will be seen only as a small square spot of light, its windows, doors, or roof, being as utterly invisible as if they were not in existence, the gradation of its light will not be lost; one part of the spot will be seen to be brighter than another.

Sec. 9. Is there not a deep meaning in this? We, in our daily looking at the thing, think that its own make is the most important part of it. Windows and porticos, eaves and cornices, how interesting and how useful are they! Surely, the chief importance of the thing is in these. No; not in these; but in the play of the light of heaven upon it. There is a place and time when all those windows and porticos will be lost sight of; when the only question becomes, "what light had it?" How much of heaven was looking upon it? What were the broad relations of it, in light and darkness, to the sky and earth, and all things around it? It might have strange humors and ways of its own—many a rent in its wall, and many a roughness on its roof; or it might have many attractivenesses and noblenesses of its own—fair mouldings and gay ornaments; but the time comes when all these are vain, and when the slight, wandering warmth of heaven's sunshine which the building itself felt not, and not one eye in a thousand saw, becomes all in all. I leave the reader to follow out the analogies of this.

Sec. 10. "Well, but," it is still objected, "if this be so, why is it necessary to insist, as you do always, upon the most minute and careful renderings of form?"

Because, though these gradations of light are indeed, as an object dies in distance, the only things it can retain, yet as it lives its active life near us, those very gradations can only be seen properly by the effect they have on its character. You can only show how the light affects the object, by knowing thoroughly what the object is; and noble mystery differs from ignoble, in being a veil thrown between us and something definite, known, and substantial; but the ignoble mystery is a veil cast before chaos, the studious concealment of Nothing.

Sec. 11. There is even a way in which the very definiteness of Turner's knowledge adds to the mystery of his pictures. In the course of the first volume I had several times occasion to insist on the singular importance of cast shadows, and the chances of their sometimes gaining supremacy in visibility over even the things that cast them. Now a cast shadow is a much more curious thing than we usually suppose. The strange shapes it gets into—the manner in which it stumbles over everything that comes in its way, and frets itself into all manner of fantastic schism, taking neither the shape of the thing that casts it, nor of that it is cast upon, but an extraordinary, stretched, flattened, fractured, ill-jointed anatomy of its own—cannot be imagined until one is actually engaged in shadow-hunting. If any of these wayward umbrae are faithfully remembered and set down by the painter, they nearly always have an unaccountable look, quite different from anything one would have invented or philosophically conjectured for a shadow; and it constantly happens, in Turner's distances, that such strange pieces of broken shade, accurately remembered, or accurately invented, as the case may be, cause a condition of unintelligibility, quaint and embarrassing almost in exact proportion to the amount of truth it contains.

Sec. 12. I believe the reader must now sufficiently perceive that the right of being obscure is not one to be lightly claimed; it can only be founded on long effort to be intelligible, and on the present power of being intelligible to the exact degree which the nature of the thing admits. Nor shall we, I hope, any more have difficulty in understanding how the noble mystery and the ignoble, though direct opposites, are yet continually mistaken for each other—the last aping the first; and the most wretched artists taking pride in work which is simply slurred, slovenly, ignorant, empty, and insolent, as if it were nobly mysterious (just as a drunkard who cannot articulate supposes himself oracular); whereas the noble art-mystery, as all noble language-mystery, is reached only by intense labor. Striving to speak with uttermost truth of expression, weighing word against word, and wasting none, the great speaker, or writer, toils first into perfect intelligibleness, then, as he reaches to higher subject, and still more concentrated and wonderful utterance, he becomes ambiguous—as Dante is ambiguous,—half a dozen different meanings lightening out in separate rays from every word, and, here and there, giving rise to much contention of critics as to what the intended meaning actually was. But it is no drunkard's babble for all that, and the men who think it so, at the third hour of the day, do not highly honor themselves in the thought.

Sec. 13. And now observe how perfectly the conclusions arrived at here consist with those of the third chapter, and how easily we may understand the meaning of that vast weight of authority which we found at first ranged against the clouds, and strong in arms on the side of intelligibility. Nearly all great men must, for the reasons above given, be intelligible. Even, if they are to be the greatest, still they must struggle through intelligibility to obscurity; if of the second class, then the best thing they can do, all their lives through, is to be intelligible. Therefore the enormous majority of all good and true men will be clear men; and the drunkards, sophists, and sensualists will, for the most part, sink back into the fog-bank, and remain wrapt in darkness, unintelligibility, and futility. Yet, here and there, once in a couple of centuries, one man will rise past clearness, and become dark with excess of light.

Sec. 14. "Well, then, you mean to say that the tendency of this age to general cloudiness, as opposed to the old religious clearness of painting, is one of degradation; but that Turner is this one man who has risen past clearness?"

Yes. With some modifications of the saying, I mean that; but those modifications will take us a little time to express accurately.

For, first, it will not do to condemn every minor painter utterly, the moment we see he is foggy. Copley Fielding, for instance, was a minor painter; but his love of obscurity in rain clouds, and dew-mist on downs, was genuine love, full of sweetness and happy aspiration; and, in this way, a little of the light of the higher mystery is often caught by the simplest men when they keep their hearts open.

Sec. 15. Neither will it be right to set down every painter for a great man, the moment we find he is clear; for there is a hard and vulgar intelligibility of nothingness, just as there is an ambiguity of nothingness. And as often, in conversation, a man who speaks but badly and indistinctly has, nevertheless, got much to say; and a man who speaks boldly and plainly may yet say what is little worth hearing; so, in painting, there are men who can express themselves but blunderingly, and yet have much in them to express; and there are others who talk with great precision, whose works are yet very impertinent and untrustworthy assertions. Sir Joshua Reynolds is full of fogginess and shortcomings as compared with either of the Caraccis; but yet one Sir Joshua is worth all the Caraccis in Europe; and so, in our modern water-color societies, there are many men who define clearly enough, all whose works, put together, are not worth a careless blot by Cox or Barrett.

Sec. 16. Let me give one illustration more, which will be also of some historical usefulness in marking the relations of the clear and obscure schools.

We have seen, in our investigation of Greek landscape, Homer's intense love of the aspen poplar. For once, in honor of Homer and the Greeks, I will take an aspen for the subject of comparison, and glance at the different modes in which it would have been, or was, represented from the earliest to the present stage of landscape art.

The earliest manner which comes within our field of examination is that of the thirteenth century. Fig. 1. Plate 27 is an aspen out of the wood in which Absalom is slain, from a Psalter in my own possession, executed, certainly, after the year 1250, and before 1272; the other trees in the wood being, first, of course, the oak in which Absalom is caught, and a sycamore. All these trees are somewhat more conventional than is even usual at the period; though, for this reason, the more characteristic as examples of earliest work. There is no great botanical accuracy until some forty years later (at least in painting); so that I cannot be quite sure, the leaf not being flat enough at the base, that this tree is meant for an aspen: but it is so in all probability; and, whether it be or not, serves well enough to mark the definiteness and symmetry of the old art,—a symmetry which, be it always observed, is NEVER formal or unbroken. This tree, though it looks formal enough, branches unequally at the top of the stem. But the lowest figure in Plate 7, Vol. III. is a better example from the MS. Sloane, 1975, Brit. Mus. Every plant in that herbarium is drawn with some approach to accuracy, in leaf, root, and flower; while yet all are subjected to the sternest conventional arrangement; colored in almost any way that pleases the draughtsman, and set on quaint grounds of barred color, like bearings on shields;[34] one side of the plant always balancing the other, but never without some transgression or escape from the law of likeness, as in the heads of the cyclamen flower, and several other parts of this design. It might seem at first, that the root was more carelessly drawn than the rest, and uglier in color; but this is in pure conscientiousness. The workman knew that a root was ugly and earthy; he would not make it ornamental and delicate. He would sacrifice his pleasant colors and graceful lines at once for the radical fact; and rather spoil his page than flatter a fibre.

Sec. 17. Here, then, we have the first mediaeval condition of art, consisting in a fenced, but varied, symmetry; a perfect definiteness; and a love of nature, more or less interfered with by conventionalism and imperfect knowledge. Fig. 2 in Plate 27 represents the next condition of mediaeval art, in which the effort at imitation is contending with the conventional type. This aspen is from the MS. Cotton, Augustus, A. 5, from which I have already taken an example of rocks to compare with Leonardo's. There can be no doubt here about the species of the tree intended, as throughout the MS. its illuminator has carefully distinguished the oak, the willow, and the aspen; and this example, though so small (it is engraved of the actual size), is very characteristic of the aspen ramification; and in one point, of ramification in general, namely, the division of the tree into two masses, each branching outwards, not across each other. Whenever a tree divides at first into two or three nearly equal main branches, the secondary branches always spring from the outside of the divided ones, just as, when a tree grows under a rock or wall, it shoots away from it, never towards it. The beautiful results of this arrangement we shall trace in the next volume; meantime, in the next Plate (28) I have drawn the main[35] ramifications of a real aspen, growing freely, but in a sheltered place, as far as may be necessary to illustrate the point in question.

Sec. 18. This example, Fig. 2 in Plate 27 is sufficiently characteristic of the purist mediaeval landscape, though there is somewhat more leaning to naturalism than is usual at the period. The next example, Fig. 3, is from Turner's vignette of St. Anne's Hill (Rogers's Poems, p. 214). Turner almost always groups his trees, so that I have had difficulty in finding one on a small scale and isolated, which would be characteristic of him; nor is this one completely so, for I had no access to the original vignette, it being, I believe, among the drawings that have been kept from the public, now these four years, because the Chancery lawyers do not choose to determine the meaning of Turner's perfectly intelligible, though informal, will; and Mr. Goodall's engraving, which I have copied, though right in many respects, is not representative of the dotted touch by which Turner expressed the aspen foliage. I have not, however, ventured to alter it, except only by adding the extremities where they were hidden in the vignette by the trelliswork above.

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