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matter of those creeds is happily of such a nature as will allow us, in putting the question to a test, to establish our own faith by the same and by additional reasons. But the weak frights and the strong prejudices entertained about all the free questionings of the bolder minds of our time, indicate not only a dread of new truth, but also a determination that what claims to be such shall not have either a fair hearing or an opportunity to assure itself. Under such a state of things, the risk is that the old faith will decay without leaving any substitute for itself digested from the rich and abundant materials for it within the reach of our own generation. The clerical ban which forbids free inquiry fosters ignorance in one generation, and prepares the hardest and dreariest form of unbelief for the next.
ART. IV.- THE ART OF AMERICA AND THE “ OLD MASTERS."
1. Le Vite de' piu eccellenti Pittori, Scultori e Architetti, di GIORGIO
Vasari, pubblicate per cura di una Società di Amatori delle Arti
Belle. Vols. 13. Firenze: Felice Le Monnier. 1846 – 62. 2. “ Two Hundred and Forty Years Ago." A Lecture by HENRY
Ward Bercher, before the Society of the Sons of New England,
Do we, the composite people now forming on this continent, possess taste ? At this juncture, when old things are being made new, and fresh and novel forms of thought and action are developing among us, the question has a practical bearing.
Surely we have taste, decided and positive. Do we not give evidence of it in our likes and dislikes, the houses we build and furnish, the clothes we wear, the art we condemn or approve, the people we detest or admire ? In fine, in what does not taste display itself every hour of our lives?
It is true that every one has instinctive loves and hates, enjoys one object and is repelled by another. In its common acceptation, taste is the individual like or dislike. Sometimes it is capricious, partial, and prejudiced, often arbitrarily ruled
by crude fancy, erratic imagination, or mere force of local or personal association, independent of intellectual analysis and judgment. Hence its manifestations are frequently onesided, ignorant, and intolerant. In these instances, satisfied with its limited pleasures, like the Chinese with their limited knowledge, it esteems all judgments different from its own isolated preference as barbarous or foolish. If pressed for a reason for its dogmatism and its bizarre displays in dress, in building, in whatever it conceives as adornment, it evades all reference to law, and replies, “It is handsome, superb, splendid, - I like it," — drawing snail-like within its shell of unenlightened instincts, as if outside of them there were no appeal, and beyond them no progress.
True taste, however, has a broader and deeper significance. It is a riper judgment than this. Primarily it is based upon feeling, but is improved and strengthened by reason. Certain preferences, born with the individual man, manifest themselves spontaneously, and often give, as it were, a local coloring to an entire life. But there is also in him a capacity for intellectual progress and spiritual insight. The right aim of education is the gradual unfolding of this capacity. And the result of this unfolding, in manners, fashion, art, in all that makes up the refined enjoyment of life, is termed good taste.
The external aspects of things, form and color, are what we at first chiefly take note of. But as our faculties are cultivated, objects which at first gave only a superficial satisfaction address us in a more spiritual language. The difference in degree and quality of enjoyment in the one case and in the other is the measure of the distance that divides a cultivated from an uncultivated taste. The latter in its instincts may be purer than the former; but cultivation expands and strengthens its powers, separating still more widely the finely attuned soul from the heavier nature whose light comes through a denser medium. Hence, although the first requisite for a refined and enlightened taste is a keen native susceptibility to the true and beautiful, to be freely and spontaneously indulged, undeterred by fear of pedantry or criticism, still its possessor should bring it to the test of reason. Impressions are an excellent barometer of our moral and intel
lectual growth. But we cannot accurately note its precise rise or fall without some sort of gauge. Undisciplined taste, like untrained manners, may become very unlovely. But rightly educated, it is the winsome adornment of character and circumstance. There need be no monotony of expression or barren conformity of rule. For the inexhaustible delight of nature and art lies in their infinite variety, whereby every soul is fed according to its peculiar power of appreciation. The taste one displays is his public confession of the quality and cultivation of his mind. It helps to make up that aggregate expression of character in a community or nation which we call the public taste. America as yet cannot be said to possess taste, because our civilization recognizes no universal demand for beauty. The American mind, however, possesses much ästhetic feeling. It is expansive, inquiring, impressible, and sympathetic, prone to investigation, and, if honestly and courteously approached, gladly welcomes truth under multifarious forms. Thus far our circumstances have been adverse to the development of those faculties which culminate in a high standard of taste. But hopeful signs of growth are beginning to manifest themselves.
In saying this, we are not unmindful of the fact that there are many whose ideas and feelings have never been awakened to a consciousness that there is anything in life more enjoyable than physical well-being and thrift. Such see no joy in the landscape, view art as an idle pastime, and scorn beauty in any guise, unless it pays tribute to the purse. They are of the spirit of the farmer, who, when congratulated upon the beautiful scenery about him, replied, that for his part he did not see anything beautiful in it, for it had never been worth a dollar to him anyway. The finest countries are peopled by those as unconscious of the mental and spiritual wealth at their doors as if they were moles burrowing in the earth. Neither the sublimity of Switzerland, the gorgeous, burning beauty of the tropics, nor the celestial symphonies of color of the Italian skies, are appreciated by the peasantry whose birthright they are. And until they have discovered that they have faculties superior to the gratification of mere material wants, they will not enjoy them. Our intellectually quick
ened population is more alive to the beauty of nature, and in this there is a solid foundation for the growth of good taste. A perfect appreciation of nature is as much the result of an acquired taste as is that of art. A natural ear for music is simply a delicately attuned organ for the reception of harmonies and modulations which convey meaning and enjoyment to the mind within. So, too, one vision is more acute than another in noting the forms of things, and, as it were, telegraphing their sense to the soul. This distinction, however, is mainly one of degree only, and diminishes by cultivation. All have a capacity for progress in matters of taste in proportion to the attention they give to their æsthetic faculties. The universe pays infinite tribute to cultivated taste. As we increase our sympathy with art and nature, so do we invest them with an incalculable enrichment of suggestion. Each is a niggard to the dull, uncritical eye, but prodigal of gift to those who comprehend the “ King's language.” And the key that opens to us His treasure-house is not far off, to be reached only by overmuch toil and sacrifice, but hangs up within reach in every human heart. Once grasped, its occult power has no limit of charm and promise. Nature and art greet us with unceasing revelation. In them we discover the incarnation of our vague longings and undefined consciousness of things not seen. The power of interpretation comes from within. Art and nature reflect their interpreters, giving only to those to whom much is already given. This discovery made, we have added a cubit to our spiritual stature. It is by the light of these general views, and partially to illustrate them, that we propose to consider the American school of painting, and its influence on the public taste, as compared with the motives that inspired the old Italian painters.
The Italian schools of painting previous to the seventeenth century, represented by the works of the old masters, differ widely in motives and execution from the phase of modern art most esteemed in America. These are. indeed the two extremes of artistic feeling and taste. Any comparison which may aid the public in correctly appreciating their relative merits cannot fail of being useful, particularly as in several of our cities measures are taking to found public galleries,
both of ancient and modern paintings. Our own artists have securely established themselves in the public favor, and in some degree control or direct its taste. When, therefore, a foreign school of art appeals for appreciation, it is indispensable that its character should be properly presented. In one sense art is a universal language. But to entirely comprehend a speaker, the hearer must put himself in sympathy with him. This cannot be unless he informs himself of the orator's aims. So too in painting. Its special inspiration and object must be understood, before we are qualified to judge of its quality and success.
Italian art is born of a highly imaginative and intellectual race, whose faith and passions glow with æsthetic desire. They were a cultivated people, inheriting the Greek love of the human figure as the noblest ambition of art, at a period when almost every other European nation was in a semi-barbarous condition. The landscape had no special attraction for them. They sought their motives almost exclusively in elevated sentiment, poetical, historical, or religious, carefully avoiding the common or vulgar, seldom even finding subjects for their pencil in ordinary domestic life. Their art requires, for thorough appreciation, a degree of knowledge and a quality of feeling quite distinct from what is requisite for the enjoyment of American art. Greek and Italian art are as much exotics with us as the palm or the lotos, and must always be viewed here under the disadvantage of a transfer to an uncongenial atmosphere and incongruous associations. Age, too, has greatly dimmed their splendor. Literally they are voices from the dead; to the many, unfitted by faith, training, and temperament, to understand and enjoy them, speaking only a dead tongue. Our habits, instincts, and modes of thought tend to the exact reverse of the kind of civilization from which they sprang. The domestic, homely, practical, and common are what we are most familiar with in art and in life. No wonder, then, that the first impressions of any art wholly foreign to our feelings and experience are unfavorable. And if it gains steadily upon us, in contrast with what we have hitherto known, it must be owing to an inherent superiority of motive and execution. Italian art rises