Failures

‘Tis not in the mortals to command success.
Addison.

If an artist ever succeeds in expressing his emotions completely, and to his permanent satisfaction, it is safe to say that his conceit exceeds his intelligence. But no true artist ever did, or ever will. The beauties of conception are always superior to those of expression.

Cezanne's attitude was most commendable. he felt so much dissatisfaction with his sketches that he often flung them into hedges or ditches, but he was equally uncomplimentary over the work of another rebel, Gauguin. he said to him, ‘Honestly, your painting is mad.'

Some drawings are better than others. Some are utterly spoiled. ‘some are left half-finished; others are barely begun, or ruined by over-anxiety or too much labour, teased and worried. I keep them all. For one thing, I am incapable of noble gestures like Cezanne's. I find a use sometimes even for the worst drawing. Spoiled drawings in colour eke out the pencil drawings in my sketch books, as a supply of themes for studio pictures, for trifles like small prints, back-grounds for figures, Christmas cards, stage settings. But their chief use is to mortify one's conceit, to show how thoroughly incompetent it is possible to be, and to shame one into better ways.

Figures in Landscape

Claude used to say that he made no charge for figures in landscape. Yet his temples are inhabited, people walk his groves, and rest under his plane trees. He was bound to introduce figures, for they are the proper complement of artificial scenery, that is, of the of the classical or pastoral type, or of any other landscape save the remote, the untamed, or the unhabitable wilderness. Figures are not always essential; in fact, the modern tendency is to leave them out, [whether or no.] In modern exhibitions one sees pictures of streets that suggest such titles as, ‘The Deserted Village', or ‘Sunday Morning', pictures of pastures where no animals graze, and of parks apparently avoided by humanity.

The introduction of figures inappropriate to a scene is as bad. I remember a painting that was praised extravagantly a few years ago - a tender landscape with a village and a church in the middle distance, but across the sky, and into the foreground, a number of charming volant babies disported themselves, while a gentleman in black, firmly fixed to earth, a very circumspect and modern gentleman, watched them. The idea was so engaging, so well conceived and expressed, that these discordant elements seemed inevitably probable, the anachronismatical babies entered for the time into modern life, and criticism was disarmed.

The best advice in the matter, excluding fantasy, is that given Constable by Antiquity Smith; ‘Do

not set about inventing figures for a landscape taken from nature; for you cannot remain an hour in any spot solitary, without the appearance of some living thing that will in all probability accord better with the scene and time of day than will any invention of your own.'

Figures are important aids in composition; they will provide the maximum amount of interest in relation to space. Regarded in this light, their proper placement is assured, but added without thought, fortuitously, they may easily be redundant.

The little figures in Cox's water-colours are alive, appropriated and exactly placed but it will be remarked that their backs are nearly always turned towards the spectator. His critics said that this posture was necessary because he could not draw faces, but Cox had a better reason. The psychological effect of a figure turning away from a scene, and facing the spectator would tend to lessen its importance, and diminish its beauty, whereas one gazing in a specified direction tends to encourage others to do the same, and does not provide a superfluous point. The posture and employment of a figure is as important as its position. It is sufficient to depict a young lady peering rapturously at a tree-top to suggest a nightingale, or a group of archers craning their necks in unison, to express the flight of an arrow.

Mr Brigden occasionally introduces figures in his pastoral scenes, but when he depicts the wild beauty of the north shore only a rare angler or voyageur ever appears. The Canadian forests and lakes seem remote from the haunts of man; few human figures are at ease there, or seem appropriate in its transcription.

Breadth

A landscape painter certainly ought to study anatomically all the objects which he paints ... when he knows his subject he will know not only what to describe, but what to omit; and his skill in leaving out is in all things a great part of knowledge and wisdom. Reynolds.

Before leaving the subject of expression it may be as well to consider the matter of breadth, which was always accounted an admirable quality in painting. Breadth is readily confused with spontaneity or directness of handling, with unity, insofar as it concerns the proper subordination of parts to the effect of the whole, and with the slurring of all detail relevant or otherwise, but breadth is as much a matter of vision as expression. It is easy to detect but hard to define.

Samuel Prout, who was born within five months of Cox, and who lived to the same age, wrote a book entitled ‘Easy Lessons in Landscape Drawing', in which the following passage occurs, ‘Minute and elaborately finished pictures never strongly impress the mind, and are but mere curiosities to gratify persons insensible to higher excellencies. Poetry does not consist of words alone; there must be sentiment and fancy, combination and arrangement.' This at any rate is definite enough, though the matter of size is ignored, and the degree of breadth is left in doubt. A painting two inches long usually needs mor elaboration in proportion than one two feet long, and infinitely more than a six-footer. If the effect of the whole is truthful, then the degree of breadthis right.

To demand breadth and virtuosity, or any other manifestation of knowledge and experience from a young artist is as unreasonable as to expect a baby in arms to run. The master painters, without exception, began their careers by producing tight, detailed, and very objective work. As thy grew older and wiser, their style changed. Zorn was a slick painter in his prime, using an absurdly restricted palette to achieve representation by the means, largely by suggestion. Yet his early work in water-colour was as circumstantial as could be as full of detail as a Birkett Foster, and very tightly handled. I recall a harvest scene by Zorn in which every blade of grass in the foreground was most accurately rendered. Sargent made a few brush strokes suggest even more than Zorn did.

Breadth, as well as other aspects of style, is a matter of growth.



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