Subject


I have to combat even from Lawrence the plausible argument that subject makes the picture.
                  Constable.

While it is emotion that gives an impulse to the landscape painter it is his style that inspires the critic's praise, and his subject that inveigles the untutored beholder. Subject has the variety of life. During the last century pictorial art was largely illustrative subjects were literary, and every picture told a story. Recently there was a craze for pictures of ships, cats, flowers, and blizzards in art each have their ardent admirers. Sunsets have a strong appeal. In fact subject is a matter of the first importance to many.

The Angelus told a story, its significance, and the admirable spirit of devotion expressed therein are lost to all who do not recognize the fact that the peasants' heads are bowed in prayer, and that the bells in the church tower in the distance pealed the summons. Millet's famous painting was exhibited in America some years ago, and reproductions were put on the market at the same time. Its sentiment, while recognized, was not deep enough to wallow in, and until the publishers changed the title to Burying the Baby, the prints were a drug on the market.

Sentiment has a powerful appeal even in landscape, but it is a poor substitute for beauty or the higher emotions. Though despised and rejected by the judicious, abandoned even by the Christmas card designer, cheap sentiment still fouls the skirts of art. a landscape painting is essentially emotional I origin. It exists as a record of an effect in nature whose splendour has moved a human heart, and according as it is well or ill done it moves the hearts of others.

Many of the world's famous landscape paintings represent homely or familiar scenes. Old Crome's Household Heath is a barren undulating waste traversed by a road; Hobbema's Avenue at Middleharnis is a view along a flat country road; Corot painted pastoral scenes of great simplicity; Cotman's great unfinished work was entitled, View from my father's house at Thorpe; George Clausen and many have painted from their own back-yards. It would seem that beauty maybe perceived in any scene by one with sympathy and understanding. Beauty is in the mind.

I used to visit a certain village on Salisbury Plain because of its charm and peculiar beauty. It boasted a gray stone church, a pellucid stream, a mill and bridge. Nearly all the cottages were thatched, and the willows there were the finest in England. One day the village doctor asked me what place in the vicinity would provide a good sketching for his son who could not find anything to paint near home. The youth had eyes but could not see.

Fine scenery may seem commonplace through familiarity, for much of the nature of beauty lies in the element of surprise, sudden discovery. There can be no revelation of familiar beauty if such a thing exists. But the aspect of things, influenced by weather and light, is never constant. No two days are the same, and no two hours. Your won mood colours the scene variously with every change. While there is good in everything, breadth of effect is of more importance pictorially than form, and to that our emotions reach. Whistler called his pictures nocturnes and symphonies in colour, but generally titles are not related to the true theme—in Crome's masterpiece the one merely indicates locality, while the theme is the spaciousness of the light-washed heath. The word subject is used conveniently to define the main material aspect in a painting.

My father used to say, when he saw me floundering in my box of paints, "Why don't you paint a picture of Windsor Castle?." This was exactly what the early water-colourists did. They painted all the Windsor Castles they could find. While the demand for famous and familiar scenes treated literally, it has been superseded by one pure landscape, whether treated literally, decoratively or subjectively. The photographer has ousted the topographic painter, and provides circumstantial records of gentlemen's seats, cathedrals, and ruins, for nominal sums. The landscape painter now has a wider choice of subject than ever before, almost a free choice, and his fancy may wander uninfluenced by economic considerations.

Each of us is more susceptible to the one form of beauty than another. It sometimes happens that a painter is content to remain faithful to one district, or to tone theme, and to explore its possibilities thoroughly. He perceives the fallacy of the supposition that the further bank of the stream is the most desirable. It may be true that he who paints exclusively in his own neighbourhood is better able to record its spirit than he who fares afield. But in repetition there is always a danger of the intrusion of conventions. There are many examples of painters who are so accustomed to one type of scenery, or to one locality, that the work they do elsewhere retains its character as an exotic blemish. The school of classical landscape stands as a warning against conventionalism. No longer is the public satisfied with brown trees and a ruin, with nymphs and a swain and a handful of sheep. It wants atmosphere, locality, and variety instead. The Artist must be able to appreciate the apparent differences between a humid atmosphere and a dry one, between the buildings, the boats or the trees of one district and another. The Canadian scene was made to look as much like Europe as possible by the artists who first depicted it. The Artist must be faithful to locality, he must be a scientific student of scenery so that he is not improbable or inaccurate when he works up sketches in the studio and relies upon memory for facts. Constable's Cornfield with Reaper at Work was once praised by a countryman because the Lord, as the leading reaper is called in Suffolk, was in due advance of the rest.

A sketcher finds inspiration also in unaccustomed places, but it is not the necessities of art that arouses within him a desire to paint Greenland, or in some delectable oasis in the Sahara. There are subjects wherever he happens to be, or whatever particular manifestation of beauty-light, weather, pattern, form or colour chiefly attracts him. The knowledge of nature that he acquires enables him to endow almost anything with beauty. By the alchemy of art he can make mountains out of molehills, beauty of the beast, and over and above all conscious composition is the unconscious expression of his own predilections, which is style.

Style is instinctive and few achieve it in a notable degree. Its development is not hastened by instruction. It comes or it doesn't. It will take care of itself.

Often his zeal in pursuit of a subject leads the artist into discomforts and dangers. Turner is said to have lashed himself to the mast of a boat in a storm the better to observe the movements of the waves. Holman Hunt painted the Scapegoat by the shores of the Dead Sea, surrounded by hostile arabs. Once he was interrupted by seven armed robbers. His servant fled at their approach, but Hunt continued painting imperturbably. He adopted a lordly tone when he spoke, and finally waltzed back to his tent, creating the impression that he was of far too admirable a type to be slain.

Paul Kane possessed a very proper sketching spirit, as the following narrative of Buffalo hunt taken from Wanderings of an Artist, proves.

I again joined in the pursuit; and coming up with a large bull, I had the satisfaction of bringing him down at the first fire. Excited by my success I threw down my cap, and galloping on, soon put a bullet through another enormous animal. he did not, however, fail but stopped and faced me pawing the earth, bellowing and glaring savagely at me. The blood was streaming profusely from his mouth, and I thought he would soon drop. The position in which he stood was so fine that I could not resist the desire of making a sketch. I accordingly dismounted, and had just commenced, when he suddenly made a dash at me. I had hardly time to spring on my horse, and get away from him, leaving my gun and everything else behind. When he came up to where ai had been standing, he turned over the articles I had dropped, pawing fiercely as he tossed them about, and then retreated towards the herd. I immediately recovered my gun, and having, reloaded, again pursued him, and soon planted another shot in him; and this time he remained on his legs long enough for me to make a sketch.


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