Pictorial Composition and the Critical Judgment of Pictures
by Henry Rankin Poore
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The one, drawn by her beauty, kneels to her, touching her resplendent garments; the other grasps her with the mailed hand, bedecking her with a mantle of his own. The knights wooing the same mistress are therefore lorn rivals.

For effect, no one can deny that produced by the savage in war paint and feathers is more startling than the man wearing the conventional garb of civilization, or that the stars and stripes have greater attraction than the modified tones of a gobelin tapestry or a Persian rug. We put the flag outside the building but the daily course of our lives is more easily spent with the tapestry and rug.

An "impression"(19) among tonal pictures appears as foolish as a tonal picture among impressions and the sane conclusion is that the attempt to combine them should not be made.

The clear singing tones of the upper register are better rendered under this formula than by any other, but the feeling of solidity and the tonal depth of nature are qualities which it compromises. Impressionism expresses frankly by the use of smaller methods what the tonists attain by larger and freer ones. The individual must decide whether he prefers to tell the time as he watches the movement of the works or will take this for granted if he gets the result.

For charm in color no one will deny that in the works of old masters this is found in greater degree than in painting of more recent production, and the reason is, not because the pigments of the fourteenth century are better than ours, but it is to be found in the alterative and refining influences of time and varnish, which have crowned them with the glorious aureole of the centuries.

Guided by this fact the modern school of tonists seeks to shorten the period between the date of production and this final desirable quality, by setting in motion these factors at once. They therefore paint with varnish as a medium, multiplying the processes of glazing with pure color so that under a number of surfaces of varnish the same chemical action may be precipitated which in the earlier art came about with but few exceptions as a happening through the simple necessary acts of preservation. The consequence of this adoption of kindred processes is that the tonal pictures and the old masters join hands naturally and can stand side by side in the gallery of the collector.

This, though a wholly practical reason for the growing popularity of tonal art is one of the powerful considerations for the trend from that sort which is liable to create discord. The simplest illustration of harmony, and unity and tone may be had in nature herself, for though these qualities have their scientific exposition, the divisions of the color scale are not so easily comprehended by many people as the chart which may be conceived in extended landscape. The sky, inasmuch as it spreads itself over the earth and reflects its light upon it, dictates the tone of the scene. The surface of the lake reveals this fact beyond dispute, for the water takes on any tone which the sky may have. The sky's power of reflection is no less potent in the landscape.

Reflection is observable in that degree in which the surface, reflected upon, is rough or smooth. The absorbent surface allows the light to fall in and disappear and under this condition we see the true or local color. Note, for example, the effect of light on velvet or the hide of a cow in winter. When the hair points toward the light the mass is rich and dark, but when it turns away in any direction its polished surface reflects light, which like the lake becomes a mirror to it.

Light falling upon a meadow will influence it by its own color only in those places where the grass is turned at an angle from its rays.

From these few observations it becomes obvious that unity of tone is a simple matter when understood by the painter and that unity, being a most important part of his color scheme, may be increased by additions of objects bearing the desirable color which nature fails to supply in any particular subject. Thus if the day be one in which a warm mellow haze pervades the air, those tones of the sky repeated upon the backs of cattle, a roadway, clothing, or what not, may effect a more positive tonality than the lesser items would give which also reflect it. Herein then is the principle of Tonality: That all parts of the picture should be bound together by the dominating color or colors of the picture.

With the indoor subject the consideration is equally strong. Let the scheme be one as coloresque as the Venetian school took delight in, vivid primaries in close juxtaposition (see small reproduction in Fundamental forms—The Cross). The central figure, that of St. Peter is clothed in dark blue with a yellow mantle. The Virgin's dress is deep red, her mantle a blue, lighter than that of Peter's robe. Through the pillars is seen the blue sky of still lighter degree. Thus the sky enters the picture by graded approaches and focalizes upon the central figure. In like manner do the light yellow clouds repeat their color in the side of the building, in the yellow spot in the flag and the mantle of the central figure. The red of the Virgin's robe and the yellow mantle together form a combination of a yellow red in the flag, the blue and red of the central figures become purple and garnet in the surplices of the kneeling churchmen and doges. The repetition of a given color in different parts of the figure is pushed still further in the blue gray hair of the kneeling figures, the red brown tunics of the monks and the yellow bands upon the draperies.

In the picture by Henry Ranger (the crossing of horizontals effected without a line), a canvas in which the color is particularly reserved and gray, the tone is created by precisely the same means. The cool gray and warm white clouds are reflected into the water and concentrated with greater force in the pool in the foreground, the greens and drabs of the bushes being strikingly modified by both of the tones noted in the sky. In landscape a cumulative force may be given the progress of the sky tones by the use of figures, the blue or gray of the sky being brought down in stronger degree upon the clothing of the peasant, his cart or farm utensils. Just here inharmony easily insinuates itself through the introduction of elements having no antiphonal connection.

Fancy a single spot of red without its echo. Our sense of tonal harmony is unconsciously active when between two figures observed too far away for sight of their faces we quickly make our conclusions concerning their social station, if one be arrayed in a hat trimmed with purple and green, a garnet waist and a buff skirt, while the other, though dressed in strong colors expresses the principles of coloration herewith defined. The purple and green hat may belong to her suit if their colors be repeated by modification, in it; or the garnet and buff become the foundation for unity if developed throughout the rest of the costume.

The purchaser of a picture may be sure of the tone of his new acquisition if he will hang it for a day or two upside down. This is one of the simplest tests applied by artists, and many things are revealed thereby. Form is lost and the only other thing remains—color.

Harmony being dependent only on the interrelations of colors, their degree or intensity are immaterial.

On this basis it is a matter of choice whether our preference be for the coloresque or the more sober art.

It must however be borne in mind that the danger lies in the direction of color. Inharmony is more frequently found here than in the picture of sober tone.

Precisely the same palette is used to produce an autumnal scene on a blue day, when the colors are vivid and the outline on objects is hard and the form pronounced, as on an overcast day with leaden clouds and much of the life and color gone from the yellow and scarlet foliage.

The reason why chances for harmony in the first are less than in the second is that the synthetic union of the colors is not as obvious or as simple as in the latter, in which to produce the gray sky, red and yellow have been added to the blue, and the sky tones are more apparently added to the bright hues by being mixed into dull colors upon the palette. The circle of harmony is therefore more easily apparent to our observation.

It is for this reason that tonality is more easily understood when applied to the green and copper bronze of the oak tree against a cool gray sky than the red and yellow hillside and the blue sky.


Another important consideration in an estimate of a picture is its truth of values. The color may be correct and harmonious but the degree of its light and shade be faulty. This is a consideration more important to the student than the connoisseur as but few pictures see the light of an exhibition which carry this fault. It is the one most dwelt upon in the academies after the form in outline has been mastered. On it depends the correctness of surface presentation. If, for instance, the values of a face are false, the character will be disturbed. This point has been made evident to all in the retouching, which many photographs receive. Likeness is so dependent on those surfaces connecting the features or upon the light and shade of the features, that any tampering with them in a sensitive part is ruinous.

Values represent the degree of light and shade which the picture demands, the relations of one part to another on the scale assumed. Thus with the same light affecting various objects in a room, if one be represented as though illumined by a different degree of light it is out of value; or, in a landscape, if an object in the distance is too strong in either color or degree of light and shade for its particular place in perspective, it is out of value. There are therefore values of color and of chiaroscuro, which may be illustrated in a piece of drapery. A light pink silk will be out of value in its shadow if these are too dark for the degree of light represented, and out of color value, if, instead of a salmon tone in the crease which a reflection from the opposing surface of the fold creates, there be a purplish hue which properly belongs to the outer edge of the fold in shadow, where, from the sky or a cool reflecting surface near by, it obtains this change of color by reflection.

The most objectionable form of false values is the isolated sort, whereby the over accentuation of a part is made to impress itself unduly; "to jump" in the technical phraseology of the school.

The least objectionable and often permitted form is that where a large section is put out of its value with the intent of accenting the light of a contiguous part.

In landscape the whole foreground is frequently lowered in tone beyond the possibility of any cloud shadow, for the sake of the light beyond, which may be the color motif of the picture and which thereby is glorified.


Allied to values is the idea of envelopment: of a kindred notion to this is aerial perspective. On these two depends the proper presentation of a figure in air.

If at any place on the contour of a figure the background seems to stick, the detachment from its surroundings, which every figure should have, is wanting.

The reason for it is to be found in a false value which has deprived it of rotundity of envelopment.

The solid object which resists the attempt to put one's hand around it or to stretch beyond into the background, lacks this quality. A fine distinction must be here drawn between simple envelopment and relief, which is a more positive and less important quality.

However flatly and in mass figures may be conceived, the impression of aerial envelopment must be unmistakable. Here a nice adjustment of values or relative tones will accomplish it.

Naturally, the greater space between the spectator and an object, the more air will be present. To the painter the color of air is the color of the sky. This then will be mixed with the local color of the object, giving it atmosphere.

Envelopment is unmistakably represented by the out of door Dutch painters, for in the low countries atmosphere is seen in its density, and at very short range. Holland is therefore an ideal sketching ground for the painter and the best in the world for the student, since the ideas of values and envelopment are ever present. In this saturated air the minute particles of moisture which, in the case of rain or fog can affect the obliteration of objects, partially accomplishes it at all times, with the result that objects seem to swim in atmosphere.

In such a landscape perspective of value and color is easily observed, making positive the separation of objects. The painter, under these conditions, is independent of linear perspective to give depth to his work, which being one of the cheap devices of painting he avoids as much as possible.

It is because aerial perspective is paintable and the other sort is not that artists shun the clear altitudes of Colorado where all the year one can see for eighty miles and, on the Atlantic border, wait the summer through for the fuller atmosphere which the fall will bring, that by its tender envelopment the vividness and detail which is characteristic of the American landscape may give place to what is serviceable to the purposes of painting.

It is because of misunderstanding on this point that we of the Western Hemisphere may wrongly challenge foreign landscape, judging it upon the natural aspect of our own country. The untravelled American or he who has "been there" without seeing things, is not aware that distinctly different conditions prevail in Europe than with us, especially above latitude 40 deg..

Advantage in the paintability of subject therefore lies distinctly with the European artist, and it may be because he has to labor against these odds that the American landscapist has forged to the front and is now leading his European brethren. It must, however, be acknowledged that he acquired what he knows concerning landscape from the art and nature of Europe—from Impressionism with its important legacy of color, which has been acknowledged in varying degree by all our painters, and from the "school of 1830," on which is based the tonal movement of the present.

Other than perspective of values, no importance should be attached to that which, with the inartistic mind, is regarded so important a quality. The art instruction which the common school of the past generation offered was based on perspective, its problems, susceptible of never ending circumventions, being spread in an interminable maze before the student. Great respect for this "lion in the path" was a natural result and "at least a two years' study" of these problems was thought necessary before practical work in art could commence. (See Appendix.)

Mr. Ruskin's fling at the perspective labyrinth would have been more authoritative than it proved, had he not too often lessened our faith by the cry of wolf when it proved a false alarm.

There is a single truth which, though simple, was never known to Oriental art, namely; that in every picture there must be a real or understood horizon—the level of the painter's eye,—that all lines above this will descend and all lines below will rise to it as they recede.

But upon aerial perspective depends the question of detail in the receding object and this to the painter is of first importance. To temper a local color so that it shall settle itself to a nicety at any distance, in the perspective scheme, and to express the exact degree of shadow which a given color shall have under a given light and at a given distance are problems which absorb four-fifths of the painter's attention.

If the features of a man a hundred yards away be painted with the same fidelity as though he stood but ten yards distant the aerial balance is disturbed, the man being brought nearer than his place on the perspective plan allows.

At a mile's range a tree to the painter is not an object expressing a combination of leaves and branches, but a solid colored mass having its light and shade and perhaps perforated by the sky. It is with natural aspect and not natural fact that the painter deals.

Pre-Raphaelite art practised this phase of honesty, which, in our own day was revived in England. In this later coterie of pre-Raphaelite brethren was but one painter, the others, men of varying artistic perceptions and impulses. To the painter it in time became evident that he was out of place in this company and the commentary of his withdrawal proved more forcible than any to be made by an outsider.

When, therefore, judgment be applied to a work of painting it must be with a knowledge of natural aspect in mind, not necessarily related, even vaguely, to the scene under consideration, but such as has come by the absorption of nature's moods, whereby, with the cause given, the effect may be known as a familiar sequence. The public too should be sufficiently knowing to catch the code signals of each artist whereby these natural facts are symbolled.

Herein has now been set forth, as concisely as possible, the few considerations which are ever present to the painter. The connoisseur who would judge of his work, either subjectively or technically, must follow in his footprints and be careful to follow closely. He must appreciate the differences in the creeds of workers in color and not apply the formulas of impressionism to works in tone. He must not emphasize the importance of drawing in the work which clearly speaks of color and by its technique ignores all else; nor expect the miracle of luscious, translucent color in a work demanding the minute drawing of detail. He can, however, be sure that the criteria of judgment which under all circumstances will apply are:

Balanced and unified composition, both of line and mass.

Harmony of color, expressed by the correlation of all colors throughout the picture.

Tone, or the unification of all colors upon the basis of a given hue.

Values, or the relation of the shades of an object to each other and the degree of relation between one object and another.

Envelopment, or the sense of air with which objects are surrounded.

With these five ideas in mind the critic of Philistia may enter the gallery, constituting himself a jury of one, assured he is armed with every consideration which influenced the artist in his work and the art committee in its acceptance thereof.

Judgment however does not end here. These constitute the tables of the law, and law finds its true interpretation only in the spirit of the living principle.


If discernment was ours to trace through the maze of fashion and experimental originality the living principle of true art, the caprice of taste would have little to do with the comfort of our convictions or the worth of our investments.

Fallacy has its short triumphs and the persuasive critic or the creator of art values may effect real value but for a day. The limit of the credulity of the public, which Lincoln has immortalized, is the basis of hope.

The public in time rights itself.

Error in discerning this living principle in art is cause for the deepest contrition at the confessional of modern life. Unsigned and unrecognized works by modern masters have been rejected by juries to whom in haste the doors of the Salon or Society have been reopened with apologies. The nation which assumes the highest degree of aesthetic perception turned its back on Millet and Corot and Courbet and Manet and Puvis de Chavannes, rejecting their best, and has honored yesterday what it spurns to-day. The feverish delirium of the upper culture demands "some new thing," and Athens, Paris, London and New York concede it.

But what has lived? What successive generations have believed in may be believed by us; a thought expressed by the author of "Modern Painters" in one magnificent sentence, containing 153 words and too long for quotation. The argument is based on the common sense of mankind. It has however this objection. Judgment by such agreement is bound to be cumulative. What is good in the beginning is better to-day, still better to morrow, then great, then wonderful, then divine.

This is the Raphaelesque progression, and if fifty persons were asked who was the greatest painter, forty-nine would say Raphael, without discrimination. The fiftieth might have observed what all painters know, that Raphael was not a great painter, either as colorist or technician. The opinion in this contention of Velasquez that of all painters he studied at Rome, Raphael pleased him least, is a judgment of a colorist and a technician, the more valuable because rendered before the ministrations of oil and granular secretion had enveloped his work in the mystery from which it speaks to us. As a painter and draughtsman Raphael is perhaps outclassed by Bouguereau, Cabanel or Lefevre of our own time, and as a composer of either decorative or pictorial design he has had superiors. But the work of Raphael possesses the loving unction of real conviction and nothing to which he put his well trained hand failed of the baptism of genius. Through this mark, therefore, it will live forever. Nor should any work require more than this for continuous life. Each age should be distinctive.

The bias of judgment through the cumulative regard of successive centuries is what has created the popular disparity between the old and modern masters, and it must not be forgotten that the harmony of color and its glowing quality is largely the gift of these centuries, a fact made cruelly plain to those who have restored pictures and tampered with their secrets.

It will be a surprise to the average man in that realm of perfect truth which lies beyond, to mark, in the association of artists of all ages, when the divisions of schools, periods and petty formulas are forgotten, that Raphael will grasp the hand of Abbott Thayer, saying to him in the never dying fervor of art enthusiasm and with the acknowledgment of limitations, which is one of the signs of greatness;

"O, that I had had thy glorious quality of technical subtlety in place of the mechanical directness in which I labored!" and he in turn to be reminded that had he paused for this, the span of his short life were measured long before he had accomplished half his work.

A kindred bias is the eventual acceptance of whatever is persisted in. Almost any form in which a technically good artist may express his idea will in time find acceptance. It has the persuasion of the advertisement, offering what we do not want. In time we imagine we do. Duplications of Cuyp's very puerile arrangement of parts, as in the "Departure for the Chase" to be found in others of his pictures, work in our minds mitigation for those faults. The belief in self has the singular magnetic potency of drawing and turning us. A stronger magnet must then be the living principle. We find it in unity. Originality compromises this at its peril.

And that discrimination against the prophet in his own country! Under its ban the native artist left his home and dwelt abroad; but the expatriation which produced pictures of Dutch and French peasants by native painters was in time condemned. The good of the foreign experience lay in the medals which were brought back out of banishment. These turned the tide of thoughtless prejudice, and international competitions have kept it rising.

But the worth of the foreign signature is now of the lesser reckonings; for with the same spirit in which the native artist would annihilate the tariff on foreign art, have the best painters of Europe declared "there shall be no nationality in art"; for art is individual and submits to the government stamp only by courtesy.

Happy that nation which, when necessary, can believe in its own, not to exclusion, from clannish pride, but on the basis of that simple canon adopted by the world of sport; "Let the best win."

The commonest bias to judgment is also the most vulgar—price. The reply of the man of wealth to the statement that a recent purchase was an inferior example of an artist's work; "I paid ten thousand for it. Of course it's all right," was considered final to the critic. The man whose first judgment concerning an elaborate picture of roses was turned to surprise and wonder when told the price, which in time led to respect and then purchase, may find parallels in most of the collections of Philistia. "The value of a picture is what some one will pay for it" is a maxim of the creators of picture values and upon it the "picture business" has its working basis. And so together with the good of foreign art have the Meyer Von Bremens and the Verbeckhovens, the creations of the school of smiles and millinery, and the failures and half successes of impressionism, together with its good, been cornered, and unloaded upon the ingenuous collector.

The most insidious bias of judgment is that developed by the art historian, the man who really knows.

Serene and above the petty matters which concern the buyer of art and perplex the producer, he pours forth his jeremiads upon the age and its art, subjecting them to indefensible comparisons with the fifteenth century and deploring the materialism of modern times.

The argument is that out of the heart the mouth must speak; can men gather figs from thistles: is it reasonable to expect great art when men and messages are transported by steam and electricity, in the face of Emerson's contention that art is antagonistic to hurry? The argument neglects the fact that this present complex life is such because it has added one by one these separate interests to those which it has received as an inheritance, each of which in its own narrowing niche having been preserved under the guardianship of the specialist.

The art instinct has never died out; but art, which aforetime was the only thought of the humanists, has been obliged to move up and become condensed. But mark, the priests who keep alive her fires can still show their ordination from the hands of the divine Raphael. The age may be unsympathetic, but for those who will worship, the fire burns. Whereas art was once uplifted by the joyous acclaim of the whole people, she must now fight for space in a jostling competition. But is it not more reasonable that the prophet lay aside his sackcloth and accept the conditions of the new era, acknowledging that art has had its day in the sanctuary and has now come to adorn the home and that of necessity therefore the conditions of subject and of size must be altered? The impulse which aforetime expressed itself in ideals is now satisfied to become reflective of the emotions. The change which has restricted the range in the grander reaches of the ideal has resulted in the closer and more intimate friendship with nature. The effort which was primarily ideal now turns its fervor into the quality of its means.


If there be a basis of reliance for continuous life and consequent value, a search for the living principle must be made in those works which the world will not let die. And this labor will be aided by the exclusion of such as have had their day and passed. Although the verdict suggested in the fostering care of the people or in its lack, may be wrong, as future ages may show, yet for us in our inquiry in the twentieth century this jury is our only court of appeal and its dictum must be final.

We command a view of the long line of art unfolding as a river flows, in winding course from meagre sources, and through untoward obstructions into a natural bed which awaits it, now deep and swollen, now slender, now graceful, now turbid, here breaking into smaller threads stretching into opposed directions, here again uniting and deepening, and we mark in all of its variety of course and depth, the narrow line of the channel. A slender line there is touching hands through all generations from the painters of the twilight of Art to the painters of the present who have seen all of its light and for whom too much of its brilliancy has proved bewildering. The history of art is perforce full of the chronicles of unfruitful effort and the galleries as replete with unprofitable pictures. Our ardent though rapid quest will, unaided by the catalogue, discover for us the real, and sift it free of the spurious if we have settled with ourselves what art is and what its purpose. If we hold to the present popular notion that art is imitation, the results will come out at variance with the popular opinion of five centuries. If, on the other hand, we delegate to its proper place fidelity to the surface of nature, we must of necessity seek still further for its essence. This is subjective and not objective.

To make apparent a statement the edge of which strikes dull from much use in purely philosophical lingo, let us take the case of a picture representing a laborer with his horse. The idea for the expression of which the few elements of field, man and beast, are employed is Toil. Whether then the man and beast be in actual labor or not, the dominant idea in the artist's mind is that they are or have been laboring; that that is what they stand for, that idea to be presented in the strongest possible way. "The strongest possible way" is the question to be debated. Individual artists interpret this as suits their temperament, the jury therefore sits in judgment upon the temperament as the exponent of "the strongest possible way." With the idea of toil in mind one artist is moved to present its unadorned force, careful not to weaken the conception by the addition of anything superfluous or extraneous to the idea. Its force is therefore ideal force and the presentation appeals to and moves us on this basis. Another will see in the subject of a landscape, a man and a horse, an opportunity presented of detail and of surfaces and will delight in expressing what he knows to do cleverly. Under this impulse the dexterity of his art is poured forth; the long training of the workshop aids him. He paints the horse and makes it look not only like a real horse, but a particular one. The bourgeois claps his hands exclaiming, "See it is unmistakably old Dobbin, the white spot on his fetlock is there and his tail ragged on the end; and the laborer, I know him at once. How true to life with side whiskers and that ugly cut across the forehead and his hat with the hole in it. The field too is all there, the stones, the weeds, the rows of stubble, nothing slighted. And the action of the light too, what a relief the figures possess, how like colored photographs they stand out, clear, sharp and unmistakable."

A third artist, without sacrificing the individual character of the horse will yet represent him in such a way that one feels first the idea, of a laboring horse and afterward notes that he is a particular horse, and in like manner with the man of the picture. This artist's conception lies midway between the two extremes and in consequence expresses greater truth than either. He poises himself on the magic line spanning the chasm between these opposing walls, supported by the balancing pole of the real and ideal, lightly gripped in the centre.

But to return to the first in the spirit of nature-love and truth to prove if it be worthy. Judged on this scale does it stand? Coordinately with the idea of toil, does it violate the laws of the universe; do the surfaces thereof reflect the light of day; is the color probable; is the action possible? If under this scrutiny the work fails, its acceptable idealistic expression cannot save it.

It is here that the idealist pleads in vain for the painters of the groping periods of art, or for the pre-Raphaelites of the nineteenth century, who in their spirit beg that we accept their unctuous will for the deed completely wrought. When however they do fill the condition of natural aspect in its fundamental essence, in its condition of non-violation of physical law, when, uncompromised by such discrepancy, the presentment of the idea is complete and this alone engages us, the work by virtue of its higher motive takes higher rank in the scale of art than that in which the idea has been delegated to a place second to the shell which encloses it. It is the art which fulfills both requirements with the idea paramount that has survived in all ages. The reverse order is not sustained by the history of art. Mark the line from the early masters to the present, do you not find the description includes "the idealists" who could paint? The list would be a long and involved one, taking its start in Italy with Botticelli, Giotto, Fra Angelico, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Michael Angelo, Andrea del Sarto, Fra Bartolomeo, Titian, Giorgione, and extending thence to our own time inclusive of Millet, Corot, Watts, Turner, Blake, Rousseau, Mauve, Puvis de Chavannes and Ryder—men of all complexions in art, and typical of many more quite as diverse in their subjects and modes of expression but who place the idea, the motive, the emotion, the type, before the thing depicted. For them the letter of the law killeth, but the spirit giveth life. This of course raises issue with the naturalistic school—a school which believes in rendering Nature as she is, without rearrangement, addition, substraction or idealization; a school presuming the artist to be a copyist, and founded not on the principles of design, but the love of nature.

Says W. J. Stillman in his impassioned polemic on "The Revival of Art": "The painter whose devotion to nature is such that he never leaves or varies from her, may be, and likely is, a happier man than if he were a true artist...To men of the other type, the external image disturbs the ideal which is so complete that it admits no interference. To them she may offer suggestions, but lays down no law."

The complaint of Turner that Nature so frequently put him out contains for us what it should have expressed to Ruskin, the real attitude which he held toward nature, but which Ruskin in his enthusiastic love of nature did not, or would not perceive. What the master artist saw and utilized in nature were forms for his designs and sentiment for emotional expression. Yet the recorder of his labors followed after, verifying his findings with near-sighted scrutiny, lauding him with commendations for keen observation in noting rock fractures, the bark of trees, grass, or the precise shape of clouds, undismayed when his hero neglected all these if they interfered with his art.

The point of the argument as stated by the idealists can be understood only save through the element in our nature from which art draws its vitality. Its deduction is thus bluntly expressed; "the nearest to nature, the farther from art," an apparent paradox paralleled by the epigram, "the nearer the church, the farther from God."

Both of them, out of their hollow clamor, echo back a startling truth: Not form, but spirit. Thus did Rembrandt work for the spirit of the man and the art to be got from the waiting subject. Thus did Millet reveal in his representation of a single toiler the type of all labor. Thus did Corot stop, when he had produced the spirit of the morning, knowing well his nymphs would have vanished if the mystery of their hiding-places was entirely laid bare, nor ever come to him again had he exposed the full truth of form and feature.

It is the touch of poesy which has glorified these works and those of their kind, the spring of the unwritten law yielding preeminence to the emotional arts. Impulse is the life of it: it dies when short tethered by specific limitations.

On this basis the way seems opened to settle the changeful formulas of taste; why the rejection of what for the moment has held the pinnacle of popular favor; why, for instance, the waning of interest in the detailists of the brilliant French-Spanish School, the school of Fortuny, Madrazzo, Villegas, Rico, or of the work of Meissonier, who as a detailist eclipsed them all. A simple analysis of their work in toto will prove that their best pictures are those in which a sentiment has dominated and in which breadth and largeness of effect is strongest. Thus Meissonier's "Return of Napoleon from Moscow," is a better picture than his "Napoleon III surrounded by his staff in Sicily," which latter is only a marvellous achievement at painting detail in the smallest possible size, and lacks entirely the forceful composition of mass and light and shade of the former. Thus does the "Spanish Marriage" of Fortuny outclass his "Academicians Choosing a Model," which besides lacking the reserve force of the former has its source in flippant imagination; and so may the many other shifts of time and tide in the graphic arts be measured and chronicled upon the basis of the emotions and the formative touch of the poetic, upon the sequence of the artist's regard for the ideal and the real, and the degree of his approach toward either. The concensus of the ages regarding finish, dexterity, cleverness, and chic is that in the scale of art they weigh less than the simple breadth of effect which they so frequently interrupt. The school of Teniers with all of its detail was preservative of this.

It is on the question of detail and the careful anxiety concerning the surface that the art instinct avoids science, refusing her microscope in preference for the unaided impression of normal sight. The living art of the ages is that in which the painter is seen to be greater than his theme, in which we acknowledge the power first, and afterward the product. It is the unfettered mode allowing the greatest individualism of expression; it is, in short, the man end of it which lives, for his is the immortal life.


The argument of the book is here reduced to a working basis.

The Concept

The first point settled in the making of a picture after the subject has germinated, is the shape into which the items of the concept are to be edited; the second is the arrangement of those items within the proscribed limits; the third is the defining of the dark and light masses. This consideration forces the question whence the light, together with its answer, hence the shadow.

The Procedure

The detail of the direction of light and the action of the shadows cuts the pictorial intention clear of the decorative design. Design is a good basis, its simplicity yielding favorably to the settlement of spaces and the construction of lines, but its chief purpose ends when it has cleared the field of little things and reduced the first conception, which usually comes as a bundle of items, to a broad and dignified foundation into which these little things are set.


A severe, space-filling design in three tones or four will place the student in a position of confidence to proceed with detail which, until the design has settled well into its four sides, should be persistently excluded. It may, however, be found that the essence of certain subjects lies in a small item of detail. This, when known, must be allowed for in the design.


Of first importance in composition is the notion of Light and Dark, to which Line is second. In the tone design line is but the edge of the masses. Line as the basis of the form of the design is reduced to a few forms which with modifications become the framework for all pictorial structure. (See Fundamental Forms.) Line as an element of beauty sufficient of itself to become subjective is rare, an exception in pictorial art. (See Line)

The aesthetics of Line must be comprehended and felt in its symbolism. The form into which lines may lead the subject should have the full knowledge of the composer.

The Vertical

The uplift of the simple vertical is spiritual as well as mechanical. It may carry the thought to higher levels or may support therewith an opposed line. In either case its strength is majestic and in so far as this line dominates does the picture receive its quality.

The Horizontal

A group of pines or the columns of the Greek or Egyptian temple alike induce solemnity, quietude and dignity. The horizontal is a line less commanding than the vertical with its upright strength, the symbol of repose, serenity, and reserved motion.

The Diagonal

The diagonal being an unsupported line naturally suggests instability, change, motion, transit. Its purpose frequently is to connect the stabler forms of the composition or lead therefrom.

The curvilinear line is the basis of variety and graceful movement. As an adjunct, it assists the sequence of parts. In the latter capacity it is of great importance to the composer. It is of course the basis of the circle as well as the important notion of circular construction and observation.

Given the subject and means of expression the final labor is the restraint or enforcement of parts in the degree of their importance. This requires ingenuity and knowledge and frequently demands a reconstruction of the original scheme.

Principality and Sacrifice

The most absolute and the most important idea in the production of art is Principality, that one object or idea shall be supreme. Its correlative idea contains in it the hardships of composition, namely, Sacrifice. This forces a graded scale of importance or attraction throughout the entire work.

The idea has complete exposition in the vase or baluster in which the commanding lines of the body find both support and extension through the lesser associated parts. These stand as types of complete art revealing the uncompromising principles of domination and subordination.

[Stable Interior—A. Mauve (A simple picture containing all the principles of composition); Her Last Moorings—From a Photograph]

In the picture, complete in its chiaroscuro, these principles are as easily apprehended as with the more tangible line and space of the solid form. The "Cow in a Stable," by Mauve, contains by his management of this rude and simple subject all the possibilities opened to and demanded by compositions involving many elements. It might stand as the light and dark scheme for some of the allegories of Rubens, Wiertz or Correggio, or for many genre interiors, or for an "arrangement" of flowers.

When once the importance of this principle is realized many of the pitfalls into which beginners are so prone to fall are covered, and that forever. Time and regrets are both saved to the student who will pause for the absorption of the few principles on which all the arts are founded.

This idea may seem to disturb the notion of balance across the centre, especially when the object which receives our first consideration occupies one side of the picture. A study of the postulates together with the principle of the steelyard and the knowledge of picture balance will clear any apprehension of conflict.

The Dominant Idea

Above and beyond the object which dominates all others is the idea which dominates the picture. Such may be light, gloom, space, action, passion, repose, communion, humor, or whatever has stimulated and therefore must govern the composition. If with the sentiment of Repose as subjective, the principal object expresses action, there must necessarily be conflict between the idea and the reality.

Action, however, may very appropriately be introduced into a conception of repose, its contrast heightening this emotion; the creeping baby, the frolicking kitten, the swinging pendulum, the distant toilers observed by a nearer group at rest.

The point where a counter emotion weakens and where it strengthens the idea is determined on a scale of degree, many necessary parts taking precedence thereto before the opposed sentiment shall attract us. These ideas, correlative to their principal, have also their scale of attraction, and only in the formal arrangement of allegory and decoration may two units be allowed the same degree of attraction. This is one of the most frequent forms in which weak composition develops, leaving the mind uncertain as to the sequence, and the eye wavering between the equal claims of separated parts. The neglect of leading lines, or of forcing a logical procedure from part to part, so that no part may escape the continuous inspection of all, produces decomposition. The avoidance of inharmony must of course yield harmony.


Harmony, therefore, though a necessary principle in all art, does not push herself to the front as does Principality. She follows naturally, if allowed to.

The Must Be's and May Be's of Composition

Of the other principles, Consistency or breadth, Continuity and its complement, Contrast, associate themselves in greater or less degree with Principality and Harmony, which are the must be's; while Repetition, Radiation, Curvature and Interchange are reckoned as the may be's of composition.


The basis of all plane presentation is founded on perspective, an absolute science giving absolute satisfaction to all who would have it. Knowing that a figure must be of a certain height if it occupy a given space is often a shorter road to the fact even though it demand a perspective working plan than feeling for it with the best of artistic intentions. One may feel all around the spot before finding it, and meanwhile the scientist has been saving his temper.

In all compositions demanding architectural environment or many figures, perspective becomes essential, at least as a time saver. Yet if the science never existed such art as embraces many figures and architecture could find adequate expression at the hands of the discerning artist.

The science of perspective does no more than acquaint the artist with any given angle. His knowledge of cause and effect in the universe, with an added art instinct, are equipment sufficient to obtain this.

No part of art expression commands more of the mysterious reverence of the atechnic than perspective. It is that universal art term that includes very much to many people. When, after writing a thorough treatise on the subject, Mr. Ruskin remarked the essence of the whole thing can be known in twenty minutes, it was doubtless in rebuke of the unqualified suppositions of the artless public.


The conception of balance clearly understood in the length, the height and the depth of a picture contains the whole truth of pictorial composition. The elements which war against unity and which we seek to extract, reveal themselves as the disturbers of balance and are to be found when the principles of balance are put into motion.

Does divided interest vex us, the foreground absorbing so much interest that the background, where the real subject may lie, struggles in vain for its right; then we may know that the balance through the depth of the picture has been disturbed. Does the middle distance attract us too much in passing to the distance where the real subject may lie; then we may know that its attachment to the foreground or its sacrifice to the background is insufficient and that its shift in the right direction will restore balance. Do we feel that one side of the picture attracts our entire attention and the other side plays no part in the pictorial scheme, then we may know that the items of the lateral balance are wanting.

It is rare to find apart from formality a composition which develops to a finish in an orderly procedure. Once separated from the even balance the picture becomes a sequence of compromises, the conciliation of each new element by the reconstruction of what is already there or the introduction of the added item which unity necessitates.

The argument reminds the picture maker that he is in like case with the voyageur who loads his canoe, sensible of the exquisite poise which his craft demands. Along its keelson he lays the items of his draught, careful for instance that his light and bulky blanket on one side is balanced by the smaller items of heavier weight in opposed position. The bow under its load may be almost submerged and the onlooker ventures a warning. But again balance is restored when the seat at the other end is occupied as a final act in the calculation.(20)

The degree of attraction of objects in the balanced scheme must be a matter of individual decision as are many other applied principles in temperamental art.

Color representing the natural aspect of objects, color containing "tone," and color containing tone quality or "tonal quality," are three aspects of color to be met with in accepted art.


As with the sentiment of the art idea, whether it incline toward the real or the ideal, so the distinction applies between what is reflective only of nature and what is reflective also of the artist's temperament. It is a simple proposition in the scale of value and it works as truly when applied to color as to the art concept: the more of the man the better the art. Were it not so the color-photograph would have preeminence.

The first degree in the scale of color is represented by that sort which applied to canvas to imitate a surface seems satisfying to the artist as nature-color. The second degree is that in which the color is made to harmonize with all other colors of the picture on the basis of a given hue. This tonal harmony may fail to reveal itself in many subjects in nature or in such arrangements of objects as the still-life painter might and often does collect, and is therefore clearly a quality with which the artist endows his work. Such painters as Whistler and his following see to it that this tonality inheres in all subjects which may be governed in the composition of color (such as his "arrangements" in the studio), so that the production of this harmony results naturally by following the subject.


The color key is given in that selected hue which influences to a greater or less degree all the colors, even when these make violent departures in the scheme of harmony. Solicitous only of the quality of unified color, the majority of these painters (though this frequently does not include Mr. Whistler himself) concern themselves wholly with that thought, employing their pigment so directly that the vibration of color is sacrificed.

The production of this vibration is by agreement on the part of all great colorists impossible through impasted color or that applied flatly to the surface, which they declare cannot be as powerful, as significant or as beautiful as that which vibrates, either by reason of the juxtaposition of color plainly seen, as with the impressionists, or of its broken tone, or by virtue of the influence of a transparent glaze of color which enables two colors to be seen at once.

The last method is that of Titian, the second in combination with the last that of Rembrandt in his latest and best period, the first that of Monet, which contains the principle of coloration in its scientific analysis. The chasm between these men is not known in any such degree as a superficial notion of their respective arts might presuppose. The real disparity in color presentation exists between all such painters and those who paint directly on white canvas, neglecting the influence of the undertone and the enrichment which enters into color by glazes (transparent color).

Such painters may be able to represent most faithfully the true tints of Nature but not the true impression, for Nature is always expressive of that depth and strength which lies far in and which the painter of "quality" insists to render. To him it is that something containing the last word of a thorough statement, and without it the statement is a surface one.

Technically, it may mean the labor of many repaintings, of color glazes, and of procedure from one process to another, so that the first statement on the canvas becomes the general but not the final dictum. Through these the work takes on that unctuousness of depth and strength by which one experiences the same thrill as through the deep reverberations of a musical tone from many instruments, simple tone being producible by one instrument. Practically, it is the pulsation of color in every part of the picture felt by either the play of one color through another or by such broken color as may be administered by a single brush stroke loaded with several colors or by a single color so dragged across another as to leave some of the under color existent.


Such technique produces the highest tonal quality. It cannot be supposed that Rembrandt glazed and repainted on his portraits for a lesser reason than to supply them with a quality which direct painting denied, nor that Frank Holl, of our own times, employed a like method for the sake of being like Rembrandt.

Natural Color; Tonal Color, representing nature; and Tonality plus "Quality" (the last a vague term denoting depth and fullness of color) are three grades represented, the first by Meissonier in his "1807", a picture devoid of tone; the second by the portraits of Alice, by Chase, and Lady Archibald Campbell, by Whistler; and the last or tonal quality, by the later works of George Fuller and Albert Ryder. Under these specified classes the lists of names in art are now lengthening and shortening, the indications of our present art pointing to a revival of the color quality of a former age.

[Alice—W.M. Chase (Verticals Diverted); Lady Archibald Campbell—Whistler (Verticals Obliterated); The Crucifixion—Amie Morot (Verticals Opposed)]


It was stated in the introduction that the commandments of this book would be the "must nots," yet for him who apprehends principles, commandments do not exist. A few conclusions from the foregoing arguments may, however, be of service to beginners in the practice of composition.

Structures to be avoided are:—

Those in which the lines all run one way without opposition:

Those especially in which the bottom of the frame is paralleled:

Those in which the perspective of a line or the edge of a mass happens to be a vertical:

Those in which an opposing plane or attractive mass barricades the entrance of the picture:

Those in which two masses in different planes happen to be the same size:

Those in which objects of equal interest occur in the same picture:

Those in which an object awkwardly prolongs a line:

Those in which the line of the background duplicates the lines of the subject:

Those in which the picture is cut by lines too long continued in any direction:

Those in which radial lines fail to lead to a focal object:

Those in which the items of a picture fail to present a natural sequence:

Those in which the subject proper is not dignified by a conspicuous placement or is swamped by too attractive surroundings:

Those in which the most energetic forms of construction are not allied to the principal but to secondary parts of the picture:

Those formal compositions in which greater interest is shown at the sides than in the centre:

Those in which the aesthetic principle of the constructive form is antagonistic to the sentiment of the subject.


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