The Unseen World and Other Essays
By John Fiske

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[65] The Philosophy of Art. By H. Taine. New York: Leypoldt &; Holt. 1867.

We are glad of a chance to introduce to our readers one of the works of a great writer. Though not yet[66] widely known in this country, M. Taine has obtained a very high reputation in Europe. He is still quite a young man, but is nevertheless the author of nineteen goodly volumes, witty, acute, and learned; and already he is often ranked with Renan, Littre, and Sainte-Beuve, the greatest living French writers.

[66] That is, in 1868.

Hippolyte Adolphe Taine was born at Vouziers, among the grand forests of Ardennes, in 1828, and is therefore about forty years old. His family was simple in habits and tastes, and entertained a steadfast belief in culture, along with the possession of a fair amount of it. His grandfather was sub-prefect at Rocroi, in 1814 and 1815, under the first restoration of the Bourbons. His father, a lawyer by profession, was the first instructor of his son, and taught him Latin, and from an uncle, who had been in America, he learned English, while still a mere child. Having gone to Paris with his mother in 1842, he began his studies at the College Bourbon and in 1848 was promoted to the ecole Normale. Weiss, About, and Prevost-Paradol were his contemporaries at this institution. At that time great liberty was enjoyed in regard to the order and the details of the exercises; so that Taine, with his surprising rapidity, would do in one week the work laid out for a month, and would spend the remainder of the time in private reading. In 1851 he left college, and after two or three unsatisfactory attempts at teaching, in Paris and in the provinces, he settled down at Paris as a private student. He gave himself the very best elementary preparation which a literary man can have,—a thorough course in mathematics and the physical sciences. His studies in anatomy and physiology were especially elaborate and minute. He attended the School of Medicine as regularly as if he expected to make his daily bread in the profession. In this way, when at the age of twenty-five he began to write books, M. Taine was a really educated man; and his books show it. The day is past when a man could write securely, with a knowledge of the classics alone. We doubt if a philosophical critic is perfectly educated for his task, unless he can read, for instance, Donaldson’s “New Cratylus” on the one hand, and Rokitansky’s “Pathological Anatomy” on the other, for the sheer pleasure of the thing. At any rate, it was an education of this sort which M. Taine, at the outset of his literary career, had secured. By this solid discipline of mathematics, chemistry, and medicine, M. Taine became that which above all things he now is,—a man possessed of a central philosophy, of an exact, categorical, well-defined system, which accompanies and supports him in his most distant literary excursions. He does not keep throwing out ideas at random, like too many literary critics, but attaches all his criticisms to a common fundamental principle; in short, he is not a dilettante, but a savant.

His treatise on La Fontaine, in 1853, attracted much attention, both the style and the matter being singularly fresh and original. He has since republished it, with alterations which serve to show that he can be docile toward intelligent criticisms. About the same time he prepared for the French Academy his work upon the historian Livy, which was crowned in 1855. Suffering then from overwork, he was obliged to make a short journey to the Pyrenees, which he has since described in a charming little volume, illustrated by Dore.

His subsequent works are a treatise on the French philosophers of the present century, in which the vapid charlatanism of M. Cousin is satisfactorily dealt with; a history of English literature in five volumes; a humorous book on Paris; three volumes upon the general theory of art; and two volumes of travels in Italy; besides a considerable collection of historical and critical essays. We think that several of these works would be interesting to the American public, and might profitably be translated.

Some three or four years ago, M. Taine was appointed Professor in the ecole des Beaux Arts, and we suppose his journey to Italy must have been undertaken partly with a view to qualify himself for his new position. He visited the four cities which may be considered the artistic centres of Italy,—Rome, Naples, Florence, and Venice,—and a large part of his account of his journey is taken up with descriptions and criticisms of pictures, statues, and buildings.

This is a department of criticism which, we may as well frankly acknowledge, is far better appreciated on the continent of Europe than in England or America. Over the English race there passed, about two centuries ago, a deluge of Puritanism, which for a time almost drowned out its artistic tastes and propensities. The Puritan movement, in proportion to its success, was nearly as destructive to art in the West, as Mohammedanism had long before been in the East. In its intense and one-sided regard for morality, Puritanism not only relegated the love for beauty to an inferior place, but contemned and spat upon it, as something sinful and degrading. Hence, the utter architectural impotence which characterizes the Americans and the modern English; and hence the bewildered ignorant way in which we ordinarily contemplate pictures and statues. For two centuries we have been removed from an artistic environment, and consequently can with difficulty enter into the feelings of those who have all this time been nurtured in love for art, and belief in art for its own sake. These peculiarities, as Mr. Mill has ably pointed out, have entered deep into our ethnic character. Even in pure morals there is a radical difference between the Englishman and the inhabitant of the continent of Europe. The Englishman follows virtue from a sense of duty, the Frenchman from an emotional aspiration toward the beautiful The one admires a noble action because it is right, the other because it is attractive. And this difference underlies the moral judgments upon men and events which are to be found respectively in English and in continental literature. By keeping it constantly in view, we shall be enabled to understand many things which might otherwise surprise us in the writings of French authors.

We are now slowly outgrowing the extravagances of Puritanism. It has given us an earnestness and sobriety of character, to which much of our real greatness is owing, both here and in the mother country. It has made us stronger and steadier, but it has at the same time narrowed us in many respects, and rendered our lives incomplete. This incompleteness, entailed by Puritanism, we are gradually getting rid of; and we are learning to admire and respect many things upon which Puritanism set its mark of contempt. We are beginning, for instance, to recognize the transcendent merits of that great civilizing agency, the drama; we no longer think it necessary that our temples for worshipping God should be constructed like hideous barracks; we are gradually permitting our choirs to discard the droning and sentimental modern “psalm-tune” for the inspiring harmonies of Beethoven and Mozart; and we admit the classical picture and the undraped statue to a high place in our esteem. Yet with all this it will probably be some time before genuine art ceases to be an exotic among us, and becomes a plant of unhindered native growth. It will be some time before we cease to regard pictures and statues as a higher species of upholstery, and place them in the same category with poems and dramas, duly reverencing them as authentic revelations of the beauty which is to be found in nature. It will be some time before we realize that art is a thing to be studied, as well as literature, and before we can be quite reconciled to the familiar way in which a Frenchman quotes a picture as we would quote a poem or novel.

Artistic genius, as M. Taine has shown, is something which will develop itself only under peculiar social circumstances; and, therefore, if we have not art, we can perhaps only wait for it, trusting that when the time comes it will arise among us. But without originating, we may at least intelligently appreciate. The nature of a work of art, and the mode in which it is produced, are subjects well worthy of careful study. Architecture and music, poetry, painting and sculpture, have in times past constituted a vast portion of human activity; and without knowing something of the philosophy of art, we need not hope to understand thoroughly the philosophy of history.

In entering upon the study of art in general, one may find many suggestive hints in the little books of M. Taine, reprinted from the lectures which he has been delivering at the ecole des Beaux Arts. The first, on the Philosophy of Art, designated at the head of this paper, is already accessible to the American reader; and translations of the others are probably soon to follow. We shall for the present give a mere synopsis of M. Taine’s general views.

And first it must be determined what a work of art is. Leaving for a while music and architecture out of consideration, it will be admitted that poetry, painting, and sculpture have one obvious character in common: they are arts of IMITATION. This, says Taine, appears at first sight to be their essential character. It would appear that their great object is to IMITATE as closely as possible. It is obvious that a statue is intended to imitate a living man, that a picture is designed to represent real persons in real attitudes, or the interior of a house, or a landscape, such as it exists in nature. And it is no less clear that a novel or drama endeavours to represent with accuracy real characters, actions, and words, giving as precise and faithful an image of them as possible. And when the imitation is incomplete, we say to the painter, “Your people are too largely proportioned, and the colour of your trees is false"; we tell the sculptor that his leg or arm is incorrectly modelled; and we say to the dramatist, “Never has a man felt or thought as your hero is supposed to have felt and thought.”

This truth, moreover, is seen. both in the careers of individual artists, and in the general history of art. According to Taine, the life of an artist may generally be divided into two parts. In the first period, that of natural growth, he studies nature anxiously and minutely, he keeps the objects themselves before his eyes, and strives to represent them with scrupulous fidelity. But when the time for mental growth ends, as it does with every man, and the crystallization of ideas and impressions commences, then the mind of the artist is no longer so susceptible to new impressions from without. He begins to nourish himself from his own substance. He abandons the living model, and with recipes which he has gathered in the course of his experience, he proceeds to construct a drama or novel, a picture or statue. Now, the first period, says Taine, is that of genuine art; the second is that of mannerism. Our author cites the case of Michael Angelo, a man who was one of the most colossal embodiments of physical and mental energy that the world has ever seen. In Michael Angelo’s case, the period of growth, of genuine art, may be said to have lasted until after his sixtieth year. But look, says Taine, at the works which he executed in his old age; consider the Conversion of St. Paul, and the Last Judgment, painted when he was nearly seventy. Even those who are not connoisseurs can see that these frescos are painted by rule, that the artist, having stocked his memory with a certain set of forms, is making use of them to fill out his tableau; that he wantonly multiplies queer attitudes and ingenious foreshortenings; that the lively invention, the grand outburst of feeling, the perfect truth, by which his earlier works are distinguished, have disappeared; and that, if he is still superior to all others, he is nevertheless inferior to himself. The careers of Scott, of Goethe, and of Voltaire will furnish parallel examples. In every school of art, too, the flourishing period is followed by one of decline; and in every case the decline is due to a failure to imitate the living models. In painting, we have the exaggerated foreshorteners and muscle-makers who copied Michael Angelo; the lovers of theatrical decorations who succeeded Titian and Giorgione and the degenerate boudoir-painters who followed Claucle and Poussin. In literature, we have the versifiers, epigrammatists, and rhetors of the Latin decadence; the sensual and declamatory dramatists who represent the last stages of old English comedy; and the makers of sonnets and madrigals, or conceited euphemists of the Gongora school, in the decline of Italian and Spanish poetry. Briefly it may be said, that the masters copy nature and the pupils copy the masters. In this way are explained the constantly recurring phenomena of decline in art, and thus, also, it is seen that art is perfect in proportion as it successfully imitates nature.

But we are not to conclude that absolute imitation is the sole and entire object of art. Were this the case, the finest works would be those which most minutely correspond to their external prototypes. In sculpture, a mould taken from the living features is that which gives the most faithful representation of the model; but a well-moulded bust is far from being equal to a good statue. Photography is in many respects more accurate than painting; but no one would rank a photograph, however exquisitely executed, with an original picture. And finally, if exact imitation were the supreme object of art, the best tragedy, the best comedy, and the best drama would be a stenographic report of the proceedings in a court of justice, in a family gathering, in a popular meeting, in the Rump Congress. Even the works of artists are not rated in proportion to their minute exactness. Neither in painting nor in any other art do we give the precedence to that which deceives the eye simply. Every one remembers how Zeuxis was said to have painted grapes so faithfully that the birds came and pecked at them; and how, Parrhasios, his rival, surpassed even this feat by painting a curtain so natural in its appearance that Zeuxis asked him to pull it aside and show the picture behind it. All this is not art, but mere knack and trickery. Perhaps no painter was ever so minute as Denner. It used to take him four years to make one portrait. He would omit nothing,—neither the bluish lines made by the veins under the skin, nor the little black points scattered over the nose, nor the bright spots in the eye where neighbouring objects are reflected; the head seems to start out from the canvas, it is so like flesh and blood. Yet who cares for Denner’s portraits? And who would not give ten times as much for one which Van Dyck or Tintoretto might have painted in a few hours? So in the churches of Naples and Spain we find statues coloured and draped, saints clothed in real coats, with their skin yellow and bloodless, their hands bleeding, and their feet bruised; and beside them Madonnas in royal habiliments, in gala dresses of lustrous silk, adorned with diadems, precious necklaces, bright ribbons, and elegant laces, with their cheeks rosy, their eyes brilliant, their eyelashes sweeping. And by this excess of literal imitation, there is awakened a feeling, not of pleasure, but always of repugnance, often of disgust, and sometimes of horror So in literature, the ancient Greek theatre, and the best Spanish and English dramatists, alter on purpose the natural current of human speech, and make their characters talk under all the restraints of rhyme and rhythm. But we pronounce this departure from literal truth a merit and not a defect. We consider Goethe’s second “Iphigenie,” written in verse, far preferable to the first one written in prose; nay, it is the rhythm or metre itself which communicates to the work its incomparable beauty. In a review of Longfellow’s “Dante," published last year, we argued this very point in one of its special applications; the artist must copy his original, but he must not copy it too literally.

What then must he copy? He must copy, says Taine, the mutual relations and interdependences of the parts of his model. And more than this, he must render the essential characteristic of the object—that characteristic upon which all the minor qualities depend—as salient and conspicuous as possible. He must put into the background the traits which conceal it, and bring into the foreground the traits which manifest it. If he is sculpturing a group like the Laocoon, he must strike upon the supreme moment, that in which the whole tragedy reveals itself, and he must pass over those insignificant details of position and movement which serve only to distract our attention and weaken our emotions by dividing them. If he is writing a drama, he must not attempt to give us the complete biography of his character; he must depict only those situations which stand in direct subordination to the grand climax or denoument. As a final result, therefore. Taine concludes that a work of art is a concrete representation of the relations existing between the parts of an object, with the intent to bring the essential or dominating character thereof into prominence.

We should overrun our limits if we were to follow out the admirable discussion in which M. Taine extends this definition to architecture and music. These closely allied arts are distinguished from poetry, painting, and sculpture, by appealing far less directly to the intelligence, and far more exclusively to the emotions. Yet these arts likewise aim, by bringing into prominence certain relations of symmetry in form as perceived by the eye, or in aerial vibrations as perceived by the ear, to excite in us the states of feeling with which these species of symmetry are by subtle laws of association connected. They, too, imitate, not literally, but under the guidance of a predominating sentiment or emotion, relations which really exist among the phenomena of nature. And here, too, we estimate excellence, not in proportion to the direct, but to the indirect imitation. A Gothic cathedral is not, as has been supposed, directly imitated from the towering vegetation of Northern forests; but it may well be the expression of the dim sentiment of an unseen, all-pervading Power, generated by centuries of primeval life amid such forests. So the sounds which in a symphony of Beethoven are woven into a web of such amazing complexity may exist in different combinations in nature; but when a musician steps out of his way to imitate the crowing of cocks or the roar of the tempest, we regard his achievement merely as a graceful conceit. Art is, therefore, an imitation of nature; but it is an intellectual and not a mechanical imitation; and the performances of the camera and the music-box are not to be classed with those of the violinist’s bow or the sculptor’s chisel.

And lastly, in distinguishing art from science, Taine remarks, that in disengaging from their complexity the, causes which are at work in nature, and the fundamental laws according to which they work, science describes them in abstract formulas conveyed in technical language. But art reveals these operative causes and these dominant laws, not in arid definitions, inaccessible to most people, intelligible only to specially instructed men, but in a concrete symbol, addressing itself not only to the understanding, but still more to the sentiments of the ordinary man. Art has, therefore, this peculiarity, that it is at once elevated and popular, that it manifests that which is often most recondite, and that it manifests it to all.

Having determined what a work of art is, our author goes on to study the social conditions under which works of art are produced; and he concludes that the general character of a work of art is determined by the state of intellect and morals in the society in which it is executed. There is, in fact, a sort of moral temperature which acts upon mental development much as physical temperature acts upon organic development. The condition of society does not produce the artist’s talent; but it assists or checks its efforts to display itself; it decides whether or not it shall be successful And it exerts a “natural selection" between different kinds of talents, stimulating some and starving others. To make this perfectly clear, we will cite at some length Taine’s brilliant illustration.

The case chosen for illustration is a very simple one,—that of a state of society in which one of the predominant feelings is melancholy. This is not an arbitrary supposition, for such a time has occurred more than once in human history; in Asia, in the sixth century before Christ, and especially in Europe, from the fourth to the tenth centuries of our era. To produce such a state of feeling, five or six generations of decadence, accompanied with diminution of population, foreign invasions, famines, pestilences, and increasing difficulty in procuring the necessaries of life, are amply sufficient. It then happens that men lose courage and hope, and consider life an evil. Now, admitting that among the artists who live in such a time, there are likely to be the same relative numbers of melancholy, joyous, or indifferent temperaments as at other times, let us see how they will be affected by reigning circumstances.

Let us first remember, says Taine, that the evils which depress the public will also depress the artist. His risks are no less than those of less gifted people. He is liable to suffer from plague or famine, to be ruined by unfair taxation or conscription, or to see his children massacred and his wife led into captivity by barbarians. And if these ills do not reach him personally, he must at least behold those around him affected by them. In this way, if he is joyous by temperament, he must inevitably become less joyous; if he is melancholy, he must become more melancholy.

Secondly, having been reared among melancholy contemporaries, his education will have exerted upon him a corresponding influence. The prevailing religious doctrine, accommodated to the state of affairs, will tell him that the earth is a place of exile, life an evil, gayety a snare, and his most profitable occupation will be to get ready to die. Philosophy, constructing its system of morals in conformity to the existing phenomena of decadence, will tell him that he had better never have been born. Daily conversation will inform him of horrible events, of the devastation of a province, the sack of a town by the Goths, the oppression of the neighbouring peasants by the imperial tax-collectors, or the civil war that has just burst out between half a dozen pretenders to the throne. As he travels about, he beholds signs of mourning and despair, crowds of beggars, people dying of hunger, a broken bridge which no one is mending, an abandoned suburb which is going to ruin, fields choked with weeds, the blackened walls of burned houses. Such sights and impressions, repeated from childhood to old age (and we must remember that this has actually been the state of things in what are now the fairest parts of the globe), cannot fail to deepen whatever elements of melancholy there may be already in the artist’s disposition.

The operation of all these causes will be enhanced by that very peculiarity of the artist which constitutes his talent. For, according to the definitions above given, that which makes him an artist is his capacity for seizing upon the essential characteristics and the salient traits of surrounding objects and events. Other men see things in part fragmentarily; he catches the spirit of the ensemble. And in this way he will very likely exaggerate in his works the general average of contemporary feeling.

Lastly, our author reminds us that a man who writes or paints does not remain alone before his easel or his writing-desk. He goes out, looks about him, receives suggestions from friends, from rivals, from books, and works of art whenever accessible, and hears the criticisms of the public upon his own productions and those of his contemporaries. In order to succeed, he must not only satisfy to some extent the popular taste, but he must feel that the public is in sympathy with him. If in this period of social decadence and gloom he endeavours to represent gay, brilliant, or triumphant ideas, he will find himself left to his own resources; and, as Taine rightly says, the power of an isolated man is always insignificant. His work will be likely to be mediocre. If he attempts to write like Rabelais or paint like Rubens, he will get neither assistance nor sympathy from a public which prefers the pictures of Rembrandt, the melodies of Chopin, and the poetry of Heine.

Having thus explained his position by this extreme instance, signified for the sake of clearness, Taine goes on to apply such general considerations to four historic epochs, taken in all their complexity. He discusses the aspect presented by art in ancient Greece, in the feudal and Catholic Middle Ages, in the centralized monarchies of the seventeenth century, and in the scientific, industrial democracy in which we now live. Out of these we shall select, as perhaps the simplest, the case of ancient Greece, still following our author closely, though necessarily omitting many interesting details.

The ancient Greeks, observes Taine, understood life in a new and original manner. Their energies were neither absorbed by a great religious conception, as in the case of the Hindus and Egyptians, nor by a vast social organization, as in the case of the Assyrians and Persians, nor by a purely industrial and commercial regime, as in the case of the Phoenicians and Carthaginians. Instead of a theocracy or a rigid system of castes, instead of a monarchy with a hierarchy of civil officials, the men of this race invented a peculiar institution, the City, each city giving rise to others like itself, and from colony to colony reproducing itself indefinitely. A single Greek city, for instance, Miletos, produced three hundred other cities, colonizing with them the entire coast of the Black Sea. Each city was substantially self-ruling; and the idea of a coalescence of several cities into a nation was one which the Greek mind rarely conceived, and never was able to put into operation.

In these cities, labour was for the most part carried on by slaves. In Athens there were four or five for each citizen, and in places like Korinth and Aigina the slave population is said to have numbered four or five hundred thousand. Besides, the Greek citizen had little need of personal service. He lived out of doors, and, like most Southern people, was comparatively abstemious in his habits. His dinners were slight, his clothing was simple, his house was scantily furnished, being intended chiefly for a den to sleep in.

Serving neither king nor priest, the citizen was free and sovereign in his own city. He elected his own magistrates, and might himself serve as city-ruler, as juror, or as judge. Representation was unknown. Legislation was carried on by all the citizens assembled in mass. Therefore politics and war were the sole or chief employments of the citizen. War, indeed, came in for no slight share of his attention. For society was not so well protected as in these modern days. Most of these Greek cities, scattered over the coasts of the Aigeian, the Black Sea, and the Mediterranean, were surrounded by tribes of barbarians, Scythians, Gauls Spaniards, and Africans. The citizen must therefore keep on his guard, like the Englishman of to-day in New Zealand, or like the inhabitant of a Massachusetts town in tho seventeenth century. Otherwise Gauls Samnites, or Bithynians, as savage as North American Indians, would be sure to encamp upon the blackened ruins of his town. Moreover, the Greek cities had their quarrels with each other, and their laws of war were very barbarous. A conquered city was liable to be razed to the ground, its male inhabitants put to the sword, its women sold as slaves. Under such circumstances, according to Taine’s happy expression, a citizen must be a politician and warrior, on pain of death. And not only fear, but ambition also tended to make him so. For each city strove to subject or to humiliate its neighbours, to acquire tribute, or to exact homage from its rivals. Thus the citizen passed his life in the public square, discussing alliances, treaties, and constitutions, hearing speeches, or speaking himself, and finally going aboard of his ship to fight his neighbour Greeks, or to sail against Egypt or Persia.

War (and politics as subsidiary to it) was then the chief pursuit of life. But as there was no organized industry, so there were no machines of warfare. All fighting was done hand to hand. Therefore, the great thing in preparing for war was not to transform the soldiers into precisely-acting automata, as in a modern army, but to make each separate soldier as vigorous and active as possible. The leading object of Greek education was to make men physically perfect. In this respect, Sparta may be taken as the typical Greek community, for nowhere else was physical development so entirely made the great end of social life. In these matters Sparta was always regarded by the other cities as taking the lead,—as having attained the ideal after which all alike were striving. Now Sparta, situated in the midst of a numerous conquered population of Messenians and Helots, was partly a great gymnasium and partly a perpetual camp. Her citizens were always in training. The entire social constitution of Sparta was shaped with a view to the breeding and bringing up of a strong and beautiful race. Feeble or ill-formed infants were put to death. The age at which citizens might marry was prescribed by law; and the State paired off men and women as the modern breeder pairs off horses, with a sole view to the excellence of the off-spring. A wife was not a helpmate, but a bearer of athletes. Women boxed, wrestled, and raced; a circumstance referred to in the following passage of Aristophanes, as rendered by Mr. Felton:—

 Hail! Lampito, dearest of Lakonian women.
 How shines thy beauty, O my sweetest friend!
 How fair thy colour, full of life thy frame!
 Why, thou couldst choke a bull.

        Yes, by the Twain;
 For I do practice the gymnastic art,
 And, leaping, strike my backbone with my heels.
 In sooth, thy bust is lovely to behold.

The young men lived together, like soldiers in a camp. They ate out-of-doors, at a public table. Their fare was as simple as that of a modern university boat-crew before a race. They slept in the open air, and spent their waking hours in wrestling, boxing, running races, throwing quoits, and engaging in mock battles. This was the way in which the Spartans lived; and though no other city carried this discipline to such an extent, yet in all a very large portion of the citizen’s life was spent in making himself hardy and robust.

The ideal man, in the eyes of a Greek, was, therefore not the contemplative or delicately susceptible thinker but the naked athlete, with firm flesh and swelling muscles. Most of their barbarian neighbours were ashamed to be seen undressed, but the Greeks seem to have felt little embarrassment in appearing naked in public. Their gymnastic habits entirely transformed their sense of shame. Their Olympic and other public games were a triumphant display of naked physical perfection. Young men of the noblest families and from the farthest Greek colonies came to them, and wrestled and ran, undraped, before countless multitudes of admiring spectators. Note, too, as significant, that the Greek era began with the Olympic games, and that time was reckoned by the intervals between them; as well as the fact that the grandest lyric poetry of antiquity was written in celebration of these gymnastic contests. The victor in the foot-race gave his name to the current Olympiad; and on reaching home, was received by his fellow-citizens as if he had been a general returning from a successful campaign. To be the most beautiful man in Greece was in the eyes of a Greek the height of human felicity; and with the Greeks, beauty necessarily included strength. So ardently did this gifted people admire corporeal perfection that they actually worshipped it. According to Herodotos, a young Sicilian was deified on account of his beauty, and after his death altars were raised to him. The vast intellectual power of Plato and Sokrates did not prevent them from sharing this universal enthusiasm. Poets like Sophokles, and statesmen like Alexander, thought it not beneath their dignity to engage publicly in gymnastic sports.

Their conceptions of divinity were framed in accordance with these general habits. Though sometimes, as in the case of Hephaistos, the exigencies of the particular myth required the deity to be physically imperfect, yet ordinarily the Greek god was simply an immortal man, complete in strength and beauty. The deity was not invested with the human form as a mere symbol. They could conceive no loftier way of representing him. The grandest statue, expressing most adequately the calmness of absolutely unfettered strength, might well, in their eyes, be a veritable portrait of divinity. To a Greek, beauty of form was a consecrated thing. More than once a culprit got off with his life because it would have been thought sacrilegious to put an end to such a symmetrical creature. And for a similar reason, the Greeks, though perhaps not more humane than the Europeans of the Middle Ages, rarely allowed the human body to be mutilated or tortured. The condemned criminal must be marred as little as possible; and he was, therefore, quietly poisoned, instead of being hung, beheaded, or broken on the wheel.

Is not the unapproachable excellence of Greek statuary—that art never since equalled, and most likely, from the absence of the needful social stimulus, destined never to be equalled—already sufficiently explained? Consider, says our author, the nature of the Greek sculptor’s preparation. These men have observed the human body naked and in movement, in the bath and the gymnasium, in sacred dances and public games. They have noted those forms and attitudes in which are revealed vigour, health, and activity. And during three or four hundred years they have thus modified, corrected and developed their notions of corporeal beauty. There is, therefore, nothing surprising in the fact that Greek sculpture finally arrived at the ideal model, the perfect type, as it was, of the human body. Our highest notions of physical beauty, down to the present day, have been bequeathed to us by the Greeks. The earliest modern sculptors who abandoned the bony, hideous, starveling figures of the monkish Middle Ages, learned their first lessons in better things from Greek bas-reliefs. And if, to-day, forgetting our half-developed bodies, inefficiently nourished, because of our excessive brain-work, and with their muscles weak and flabby from want of strenuous exercise, we wish to contemplate the human form in its grandest perfection, we must go to Hellenic art for our models.

The Greeks were, in the highest sense of the word, an intellectual race; but they never allowed the mind to tyrannize over the body. Spiritual perfection, accompanied by corporeal feebleness, was the invention of asceticism; and the Greeks were never ascetics. Diogenes might scorn superfluous luxuries, but if he ever rolled and tumbled his tub about as Rabelais says he did, it is clear that the victory of spirit over body formed no part of his theory of things. Such an idea would have been incomprehensible to a Greek in Plato’s time. Their consciences were not over active. They were not burdened with a sense of sinfulness. Their aspirations were decidedly finite; and they believed in securing the maximum completeness of this terrestrial life. Consequently they never set the physical below the intellectual. To return to our author, they never, in their statues, subordinated symmetry to expression, the body to the head. They were interested not only in the prominence of the brows, the width of the forehead, and the curvature of the lips, but quite as much in the massiveness of the chest, the compactness of the thighs, and the solidity of the arms and legs. Not only the face, but the whole body, had for them its physiognomy. They left picturesqueness to the painter, and dramatic fervour to the poet; and keeping strictly before their eyes the narrow but exalted problem of representing the beauty of symmetry, they filled their sanctuaries and public places with those grand motionless people of brass, gold, ivory, copper, and marble, in whom humanity recognizes its highest artistic types. Statuary was the central art of Greece. No other art was so popular, or so completely expressed the national life. The number of statues was enormous. In later days, when Rome had spoiled the Greek world of its treasures, the Imperial City possessed a population of statues almost equal in number to its population of human beings. And at the present day, after all the destructive accidents of so many intervening centuries, it is estimated that more than sixty thousand statues have been obtained from Rome and its suburbs alone.

In citing this admirable exposition as a specimen of M. Taine’s method of dealing with his subject, we have refrained from disturbing the pellucid current of thought by criticisms of our own. We think the foregoing explanation correct enough, so far as it goes, though it deals with the merest rudiments of the subject, and really does nothing toward elucidating the deeper mysteries of artistic production. For this there is needed a profounder psychology than M. Taine’s. But whether his theory of art be adequate or not, there can be but one opinion as to the brilliant eloquence with which it is set forth.

  June, 1868.



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