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Art Experience of An Ignoramus by Sarah B. Wister

When I remember my first visits to the picture-galleries of Europe, I am filled with compassion for the multitudes of my country-folk who yearly undergo the same misery. I hope they do not all know how miserable they are, and fancy that they enjoy themselves; but with many the suffering is too great for self-deception, and they come home to look back upon those long halls, filled with the masterpieces of ancient and modern art, as mere torture-chambers, whence nothing is brought away but backache, headache, weary feet and an agonizing confusion of ideas. Some of them avenge themselves by making fun of the whole matter: they tell you that there is a great deal of humbug about your great pictures and statues; that Raphael is nearly as much overrated as Shakespeare; that it is all nonsense for people to pretend to admire headless trunks and dingy canvases. To them I have nothing to say: they find consolation in their own cleverness. But a great many are left with a mingled sense of disappointment and yearning: they cannot get rid of the thought that they have missed a great pleasure—that a precious secret has remained hidden from them, and that through no fault of theirs. It is to these, who have my sincere sympathy, and to those who have the same trials before them, that I offer the result of three years' acquaintance with the great galleries of Europe, premising that I have no technical knowledge of art: I have only learned to enjoy it.

We Americans generally bring total want of preparation with us from home: pictures and statues, their subjects and their authors, except a few of the most famous, are equally unknown to us. This is to some degree our own fault. All that we can learn by reading is valuable. I do not refer to criticism or descriptions, but what may be called the general literature of art—the lives of artists, the history of the various schools, even mythology and the lives of the saints; which last were the favorite theme during the best period everywhere except in England, whose native art is not much over a century old. This is within the reach of every one on this side the Atlantic, and to know what a picture is about is to have one source of confusion removed. Besides which, all accessory information adds much to the general interest and is a help in the first stages. Criticism is to be excepted, as tending to disturb the integrity of one's individual impressions, difficult enough to keep independent under the influence of a great name. The beginner ought not to seek the opinion of others—except in devoting his attention to the works of highest fame, which is following the verdict of the world, and not of a person or set—until he has one of his own, always bearing in mind that his is probably wrong, and keeping his conceit down and his mind open to conviction. The study of works of art with the handbooks of connoisseurs belongs to the higher branches of aesthetic education, of which I have naught to tell.

Besides reading, of course all opportunities of seeing good specimens at home should be made the most of. These are far from so rare as ten years ago. In Boston the Athenaeum, in New York the Metropolitan Art Museum, and both in the latter city and Philadelphia the private collections—which the kindness of their owners makes almost as accessible as public ones—afford us examples of most contemporary painters and of some of the older masters; while our schools of design are provided with casts from the most celebrated antique statues, and many of the best modern ones come to our shores. The Arundel Society of London publishes chromo-lithographs of uncommon merit after the finest and most curious paintings of the Old World. But the best preparation of all is a knowledge of drawing: even if nothing is acquired beyond the ability to copy a cast correctly or sketch a landscape roughly but faithfully, it is a long step over the primary difficulties of the path.

The very first of these difficulties is to know what we really like. It is probably impossible to look at a famous work with eyes clear from preconceived impressions: copies, engravings, photographs, have familiarized us in some measure with the finest things in the world. However imperfect an idea may be given by reproductions of great pictures—great in size as well as merit—whether we have seen a Marcantonio or a Raphael Morghen or only a carte de visite—a notion of their chief features is acquired: we recognize them from the farther end of the gallery, whither indeed we have generally come in quest of them, and the results are very like those of a first sight of Niagara. Everybody knows how that looks—the huge downpour of the American Fall, the graceful rush of the slenderer stream formed by Goat Island, the mighty curve and tremendous placidity of the Horseshoe Fall, the clouds of spray, the lightly poised rainbow. But all this does not give us the feeling of Niagara: one person is overwhelmed, another enraptured, very many are disappointed. Besides, we are bothered by notions of how we ought to feel at such a moment. All these hinderances the majority of us will meet at the outset. After seeing a few masterpieces, a superficial acquaintance with the characteristics of the most elaborated painters is soon acquired, and then comes the difficulty of judging honestly of the effect upon one's self of a picture which bears so great a name. Yet all Tintoretto's paintings are no more equal than Sir Walter Scott's novels or Byron's poems: Titian trips as Homer nods. Of course we cannot expect to distinguish between the good and the bad of a great master, but there is no reason for our admiring everything from his hand. A great step is gained when we know whether we are pleased or not.

All our familiarity with the composition of great pictures does not prevent our becoming bewildered by their size and color on first beholding them. The number of canvases and conflict of hues in a gallery confuse the eye and irritate the nerves. One looks down the interminable corridors, the immense halls, the endless suites of rooms, with growing dismay: as one succeeds another, and the inmost chamber seems farther off as we advance, the nightmare sense of something which is impossible, yet must be done, begins to weigh upon us. And this goes on day after day with a protracted strain upon the limbs, the senses and the brain, until real injury sometimes ensues. After traversing almost without a pause the great art-palaces of Munich, Brussels, Antwerp, The Hague and all the minor ones on the route, on reaching Amsterdam, with its inexhaustible picture-shows, I had got to the point where I sat down amidst the Rembrandts, forced to declare that I would rather look at so much wall-paper of a good pattern. This is utter folly. One cardinal rule in seeking either pleasure or profit is not to tire one's self. When time is limited and the opportunity may never recur, the temptation is almost overpowering: this is our only chance—we must not lose it. But it is lost if we overtask the perceptions and carry away no idea with us: there is no gain, and positive harm. No one new to galleries should look at pictures for more than an hour together, and I think that one who knows and cares much about them will not wish to do so for more than double that time. We learn by degrees to go through a gallery much more rapidly than at first, for unless we have adopted some plan of selection we begin by looking at every picture. After a while we merely glance at the greater number, and get over the ground much more quickly, though we spend a long time before the rest. If in this cursory survey a picture strikes and pleases you, look at it by all means, return to it again and again, and see whether the charm works or wears out: it may be the starting-point of your whole career of enjoyment. Do not run counter to your natural impulse if you have any: no matter whether you suspect the picture to be bad or by an inferior master, look at it and enjoy it as much as you can. If you are only honest with yourself, you will not care for it long if it be poor.

A good plan for getting our ideas into order on going into a gallery is to take one master and look only at his works for a day or two, and then at the others of his school, else there is a terrible confusion of names, dates, periods, manners and subjects in our heads. This cannot always be accomplished, for in some choice collections there are but a few specimens of each master, though in the large ones there are always more than enough for a beginner's first day. It is best to begin with a comparatively modern master, and work back gradually, otherwise the eye is puzzled by inaccuracies of drawing, perspective, color. The early painters can hardly be expected to delight us at first: we are shocked by the unnatural proportions, the grotesque countenances. To cite an extreme case, the first view of Giotto's frescoes, where men and women with bodies of board, long jointless fingers, rigid plastered hair, and dark-rimmed slits for eyes whose oblique glance imparts an air of suspicion to the whole assembly, will suggest merely a notion of their grotesqueness. By and by we shall grow used to the deformities, and recognize the primitive truthfulness of attitude and expression, the spirit which animates these ungainly forms and faces, until at length we look at the painter with the eyes of his contemporaries, and judge him by the standards of his own time, on which his claims rest. Then we shall admire him. The Venetians of the sixteenth century are the easiest to look at, however much of their genius and wonderful skill be lost on a novice, for they knew as much about anatomy and perspective as any painter of to-day, and their men and women are such glorious creatures, with backgrounds of such stately architecture or such magnificent scenery, all displayed in a revel of color, that pleasure outruns comprehension in the beholder.

The subject of a work of art exercises a great influence at first. Some subjects naturally attract, others awe, others repel, and some have no interest for us whatever: this, of course, is entirely apart from the intrinsic sources of enjoyment. Next we are affected by the way in which the subject is treated; and this, too, is a moral or intellectual appreciation, rather than an aesthetic one. Perhaps, as a general rule, the enjoyment of landscapes precedes that of figures, and expression strikes us sooner than form, while color comes last of all; but this differs with different temperaments. I suppose there are few who do not feel a little stupid amusement at first at inaccuracies of costume and accessories in the older pictures, but we soon become as indifferent to them as the painters were themselves. One grows so accustomed to see scriptural personages presented in the dress and surrounded by the architecture or landscape of Southern Europe of three centuries ago that the anachronism or inconsistency ceases to strike one. Perhaps it is because armor and flowing robes, colonnades and branching trees, never seem out of keeping with events of a certain dignity. I am not sure that the traveler ever becomes quite unconscious of the incongruity of the old Flemish dress and decorations, in most cases strongly enhanced by the prim composure which is the elementary expression of the earlier Netherlandish faces: this is still discernible through all transitory emotions of fear, hate, love or anguish, and does not fail to produce very tragi-comic combinations. I remember a group of a man in the dress of an Antwerp burgher sitting on a three-legged stool, with his head on the knee of a discreet-looking woman in a long-waisted, plain-skirted gown, with a high square bodice closed by a plaited neckerchief, her hair drawn tightly back under a close round cap, her pocket hanging from her girdle on one side, and on the other a small array of housewifery implements, among others a pair of scissors, with which she is clipping his locks: her expression is so placid and thrifty withal that it seemed clear she was saving a penny for her goodman instead of sending him to the barber. But this was not the painter's idea: the two were Samson and Delilah. Better than this was a painting of Susannah and the elders, where the chaste Susannah is depicted clothed to the throat like a Dutch burgomaster's wife, with a close cap and long veil, while her perilous ablutions are typified by a small wash-basin on the ground beside her. Another almost as grotesque was a Massacre of the Innocents by Peter Breughel the Elder—a snow-scene in the wide street of a red brick, high-gabled village—soldiers, parents, children, all in the stiff, ungraceful Flemish dress of the sixteenth century, the poor little children, in square trousers and pinafores, clinging to their mothers' narrow skirts. Oddly enough, it made the story more real to me than it had ever seemed before, quite painfully and terribly so, indeed: dispoiled of its usual conventional character, it became definite, and the very historical inaccuracy which destroyed the traditional conception made it an historical fact. We have only to go to Ghent and Bruges to see how the genius and devout earnestness of the Van Eycks, Van der Heyden and Hemling raise their pictures above trifling absurdities. It is undeniable that with many of us the constant presentation to our eyes of the incidents of our Saviour's life, especially His passion, gives them more reality than even the most frequent reading of the Bible. This renders the crucifixion extremely painful, intolerable in powerful pictures. I knew of an intelligent, sensitive little child who burst into convulsive sobbing before Tintoretto's great Crucifixion in the Scuola San Rocco at Venice. In the Belvedere at Vienna there is a picture by Rubens of the dead Christ in the arms of the usual small group: His mother is removing with a light, tender touch a thorn which is still piercing the cold brow. The whole picture is in the same spirit, and I never could look at it with dry eyes. Yet in Rubens's hands this and all kindred subjects are generally repulsive. The very early masters are prone to fix the attention upon some revolting detail of torture or too material and agonizing exhibition of physical suffering, but their stiff, hard outlines, absence of perspective and childishness of composition, with the element of the grotesque which is seldom absent, take the edge off their effect. Later, when art has advanced, and is capable of affecting us more deeply, refinement too has advanced: there is less simplicity, but merely painful detail is subordinated to general expression and skill of drawing and color. It is where the two meet, as in Rubens, that the result is most harrowing: the picture I have just spoken of is the only one of his in which I ever saw any sign of delicacy or tenderness, any appeal to the deeper and more exquisite emotions. Nevertheless, by degrees his genius helps one to surmount his realism. On my first visit to Antwerp I looked for a few minutes—which was as long, as I could bear it—at the great Descent from the Cross in the cathedral, and turned away with the conviction that I could never have anything but distressing and disagreeable impressions from that picture. Six months afterward I was in Antwerp again: I could not see the Descent often enough, and spent my last hour in the place before it. Yet he is a brutal painter withal, and such subjects, however magnificently treated by him, could never give me the same unmixed enjoyment as in the hands of the gentle and pensive Vandyke.

Some people maintain that all great works of art speak for themselves, and will make their appeal at once to a person capable of appreciating them, without any previous experience or education. This is impossible, for were it so the fine arts would be an exception to the rules which govern everything else in life—music, literature, moral beauty and the beauties of Nature. It must be with them as with other things: knowledge, cultivation, practice enhance the power of enjoyment. Of course, in this, as in all matters, individual organization will tell powerfully; but take an intelligent, educated person of average perceptions, who has never seen a single good picture, and set him before one of the greatest in the world, and I doubt if he would receive any genuine pleasure from it. A fortiori, an uneducated person, one who could appreciate the first masterpiece he ever saw the first time he ever saw it, would be a prodigy only second to him who could produce one without preliminary study. The picture which I think calculated to appeal most powerfully and universally is Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, where the grouping of the figures and the expression of each head, as well as the disposition of the whole, can hardly fail to produce a deep impression on any one of thought and feeling; yet even here there would be a first shock, to any untrained eye, from the faded colors, the defaced and spotted surface; and this must be got over before the fresco can be even seen. Moreover, in my experience, there is no pleasure connected with the whole business of seeing galleries like that of revisiting them: not only should we return to them daily on first acquaintance, but we should make a practice of seeing them again after an interval of months whenever it can be done: it is surprising what a comprehension and enjoyment of their chief treasures grows up during absence.

Little by little, through divers probations, we begin to feel ground under our feet. We have our likes and dislikes, our favorite masters, pictures and statues, which are like old friends. Instead of weariness, vexation and a vain effort to comprehend, a delightful sense of repose and coming pleasure steals over us as we enter a gallery. The lovely forms, the noble composition, the delicious color minister to us, mind and body, and soothe us like music or the smile of Nature; and the plastic arts have this advantage over music, that they are impersonal. We cannot identify ourselves with what moves us in painting or sculpture or architecture: on the contrary, it lifts us out of ourselves, away from our griefs and cares, instead of giving them a more intense and poignant expression, which at some moments is all the divinest music seems to do. Their influence is always benign and serene, and we may always have recourse to it, while the secrets of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann lie hidden between leaves, in the keeping of crabbed little hieroglyphs, and a voice, an instrument, or perhaps an orchestra, is needed to reveal them. The picture, the statue, has no secrets but open secrets. You stand before it, and the very soul and essence of it comes softly forth and breathes upon yours. Oh moments of delight, when we lose ourselves in the soft Arcadian mood of Claude Lorrain, in the cool, tranquil revery of the Dutch landscape-painters, in the giant impetuosity of Tintoretto, in the rich, warm sensuousness of Titian, in the glowing mystery of Giorgione, in the calm, profound devoutness of the early Flemings, in the religious rapture of the early Italians! It needs no jot of technical knowledge for this, however much that may enhance our enjoyment, as it undoubtedly must. But the inspiration of a work of art may be felt by any one.

I have considered sculpture less than painting in these remarks, partly because to the majority it is less interesting, and partly because it seems to me so much simpler in itself. The absence of color, the relief of form, the unity of idea, the limitation of each subject to a single figure, or at most two or three, perhaps too the repose and simplicity which characterize antique art, make the path less arduous. I never, even in the infinite vistas of the Vatican, felt the fatigue and perplexity which have beset me in the smallest picture-galleries.

If any reader has had patience with me until now, he or she may like to know the books which were of most use to me in my apprenticeship. There is no pleasanter instructress than Mrs. Jameson, although she is superficial and sentimental, a little lackadaisical indeed: her Early Italian Painters, Sacred and Legendary Art, and the supplementary volumes on the Legends of the Madonna and of the Monastic Orders, and on those relating to the life of our Lord, have all been republished in this country. There is a finer book of the same order, Lord Lindsay's Christian Art, now out of print, but to be found in public libraries. M. Rio's work, De l'Art Chrétien (let the purchaser beware of two volumes of Epilogue, which are autobiography), is a full and admirable history of religious art: it is written from a purely Roman Catholic point of view, and his opinions are deeply imbued by prejudice. The reader will soon perceive this, however, and be upon his guard, remembering that, after all, the Roman Catholic view is the true one whence to contemplate art from the twelfth to the seventeenth century, but that art and theology are not one, nor even akin. M. Rio does not mention the Spanish school, perhaps with reason, as the Virgins of Murillo, the saints of Zurburan and Ribera, scarcely belong to the realm of religious art: this deficiency is supplied by Stirling's Annals of the Artists of Spain. Kugler's Handbuch der Kunstgeschichte (translated, I believe) is a capital and comprehensive work, including ancient as well as modern art; and the knowledge of the one is as necessary for the understanding of the other as an acquaintance with ancient history is for the comprehension of modern history. I cannot recommend Vasari's Lives of the Italian Painters entertaining as it is, for so much of each page is taken up by notes of different editors and commentators denying flatly the assertions of the text that to read him for information seems waste of time. Messrs. Crowe and Cavalcaselle's New History of Painting in Italy is the latest English authority. Mr. Charles Perkins's Tuscan Sculptors, of which we have reason to be very proud, is already the accepted standard work everywhere. Kugler's Handbook of the German and Dutch Schools, edited by Sir Edmund Head, has not been superseded, I think. It is with great hesitation that I name Mr. Ruskin in the catalogue of guidebooks: he is so arbitrary and paradoxical, lays down the law so imperiously, and contradicts himself so insolently, that a learner attempting to follow him in his theories will be hopelessly bewildered. Yet nowhere are the eternal, underlying truths upon which art rests so clearly discerned and nobly defined as in Modern Painters, The Seven Lamps of Architecture and The Stones of Venice; and nowhere do we find such poetical or beautiful descriptions. Yes, one should read these earlier books of Ruskin's, if it be but for the pleasure they give. All theories of art are useless for the American student who has not been abroad: the object is not to make up one's mind respecting the principles and limits of beauty in painting and sculpture, to form a code of aesthetics while the great pictures and statues of the world are still unknown; yet if a natural curiosity impel us to the inquiry, there are Lessing and Winckelmann, still the first authorities, despite some slight signs of human fallibility.

I will not say that all these stories of artists whose works one has not seen, that even the most brilliant and graphic descriptions of their works, have not often the bitter flavor of the Barmecide feast, but we must have faith and patience: the real banquet will be forth-coming, and then we shall see what an appetite we bring to it from our studies.