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The Greeks, it must be remarked, took no delight in contemplating the beauty of the external world, or in what is commonly termed the “Poetry of Nature.” Man, in his corporeal and physical aspects, and Man, as a social and intellectual being, seem to have absorbed the attention of artist, dramatist, and thinker respectively, among that remarkable people.
Under the Roman dominion, the character of the arts of sculpture and painting lost much of their dignity, becoming subservient to the degraded tastes and corrupted manners which prevailed among that people. When, in the fourth century, the protection of the Roman Emperor was accorded to the Christian form of worship, the artists from various quarters who flocked to the new capital, Byzantium, shared the patronage of the Pagan with that of the Christian world; so that, for some considerable time, a mixed style of art obtained the ascendancy: blending the still extant, though impure, types of Grecian civilization with the Oriental style of treatment; and pictures and frescoes abounded, blazing with colour and glittering with meretricious, and even with metallic, ornament.
After the sixth century, the gradual increase and spread of Christianity enabled its professors to substitute paintings illustrative of their own sacred origin and history for the representations of subjects familiar to the older world. Such few vestiges as remain to us of these primitive efforts are, of course, injured and defaced; but, viewed as paintings, they could never have been other than barbarous productions. Passing over the feeble endeavours made during the
dark ages to keep alive the embers of art, as serving both to kindle and to propagate the religious sentiment, we find so early as the eleventh, and notably in the twelfth century, a marked progress, of which the Church was naturally the chief promoter, in the forin and character of Christian, or Pure Art.*
The subjects on which the painters of this period occupied their skill, partook of the religious feeling to an almost exclusive degree. And this concentration of the powers of the pencil on one vein of sentiment, produced in these works a simplicity of design, and profound devotional expression, together with a certain naïveté of composition. Qualities which have always commanded the homage of connoisseurs, although not generally attractive to the unlearned.
Through successive phases, such as an inquiring student will find no difficulty in tracing from Cimabue onwards, the capacity for expressing deep sentiment gradually allied itself with an improved faculty of composition and skill of hand, until the Umbrian and Florentine painters carried this divine art to a point of perfection never since attained; their works having continued to be regarded as models of excellence, with admiration and emulous imitation, by each successive age.
* In a work on Italian art, recently published in Paris, the author, M. Charles Clement, mentions, as being among the most striking efforts of the eleventh century, some of the mural pictures in mosaic work, especially those of Sicily and Venice :—"Ces gigantesques figures à demi barbares, dessinées sans art, qui n'ont ni modèle ni perspective, placées contre les parois, et dans le fond de vastes édifices obscurs, les remplissent de leur présence. Elles resplendissent, sur leur fond d'or, d'un éclat mysterieux et terrible ; et si le but de l'art religieux est de frapper vivement l'imagination, je ne pense pas qu'il l'ait jamais plus complètement attient que dans les mosaïques,"
Although painters of unquestionable genius and wide-spread fame continued to enrich European edifices and galleries during a considerable number of years, it is generally admitted that Italian art, after the sixteenth century, underwent a gradual decline; insomuch that the glories of the pencil and the chisel were, in the seventeenth, assigned to other lands.
The sculptors of Germany, and the painters of the Low Countries, together with a few eminent masters among the French, took a prominent lead in their respective departments, producing works which continue to enjoy a deservedly high repute to this day. And it is easy to understand how that the arts, no longer exclusively devoted to the sustentation of religious faith, but encouraged by the laity with liberal hand, broke into a variety of channels secular, historical, voluptuous, architectural, festal, and the like. Landscape painting, too, assumed a more important character, and began to display the charm and captivation of which it is avowedly capable. Thus, the increase of wealth, the multiplication of objects of curiosity, and of means of enjoyment, contributed to diversify the productions of art, and to engender new styles; at the same time, by this active movement, the earnest, meditative compositions of the early painters became much less sought after. The tone of the period was changed.
During the eighteenth century no country would seem to have produced better painters than the British; our native artists maintaining a creditable position in that walk of art, though the sculptors of the Continent were confessedly superior to our own,
and, I am afraid, continue to be so. The works produced in the latter portion of the century seem to rise, rather than decline, in public estimation, especially in respect to portraits, a branch of art in which the moderns scarcely reach the standard of their predecessors. However, the rich products of the easel in the nineteenth century surpass, in most other respects, those of the previous period. Stimulated by the growing appetite of the community for art, accompanied by an extraordinary increase of the purchasing power, the painter of modern days has invented new methods, employed the science of chemistry to improve his colours, and cultivated fresh fields in choosing his subjects.
The foreign schools have likewise developed considerable activity, and many of their professors exhibit a dexterity of handling, a correctness of drawing, and a finish which command unqualified admiration. Yet, with these painters, as with us, high art is in some sort eclipsed by general subjects and, especially amongst the French, by such as are connected with battles and victories.
As to the predominant taste of the English in matters of art, it would puzzle the most attentive observer to characterize it suitably; so multiform are the fruits of the pencil in our day. I will venture, nevertheless, to employ one epithet, (which indeed seems applicable to modern feeling in general,) and say
that it inclines to the realistic in art. Even in pictures of a religious class, we may observe how far this element has superseded the ideal and the pathetic. Pious ecstasies, eloquent agonies, are no longer in demand; the sober Protestant form of faith, conjoined with amiable and homely forms of sympathy
domestic incidents and every-day interests—such are the subjects which command the attention and ensure the gaze of “the multitude,” rich and
poor, time. And these predominate through the range modern artistic productions, reflecting indeed very correctly the tone in which popular serial literature has, for some ten or twenty years back, been composed.
“ The applause of the exquisite few," said Wilkie, in one of his published letters, “is better than that of the ignorant many. But I like to reverse received maxims. Give me the many who have admired, in different ages, Raffaelle and Claude.” On which passage, Mr. Leslie, in his own memoirs, published in 1860, comments thus:-“But have the many,
any age, admired Raffaelle and Claude?
I certainly believe not."
And again, Leslie remarks that, “Wilkie's works were popular from the first, because the public could understand his subjects, and natural expression is always responded to. But the beauty of his composition, the truth of his effects,' the taste of his execution, were no more felt by the multitude than such qualities are felt in any class of painting, by any but those whose perceptions of art are cultivated.
An artist must belong to the multitude to please the multitude."
In these remarks I own I am disposed to concur, whilst guarding myself against being supposed to disparage the taste of “the multitude.” It is certainly a most pleasing circumstance that so large a portion of our countrymen and countrywomen should indulge a liking for art. Nevertheless, a faculty of nicely discriminating between true and false greatness in