« AnteriorContinuar »
The Correspondents of the EDINBURGH MAGAZINE AND LITERARY MISCELLANY are respectfully requested to transmit their Communications for the Editor to ARCHIBALD CONSTABLE and COMPANY, Edinburgh, or LONGMAN and COMPANY, London; to whom also orders for the Work should be particularly addressed.
Printed by George Ramsay and Co.
ON THE EXHIBITION OF MODERN
WHEN the Institution for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts was first commenced in this city, three years ago, we ventured to predict that it would produce most salutary effects upon the progress of art, and the improvement of public taste. The concentration of the greatest works of ancient genius which the country could exhibit in one gallery, was better fitted, we observed, than any other plan that could be adopted, to improve the taste of the inhabitants of this city; and promised, if continued for a sufficient length of time, to compensate in some measure to our people for the remoteness of their situation, and their distance from the places where the finest models of art are preserved.
Of the truth of these observations, the short experience which has already taken place, has furnished very satisfactory proof. No person can have attended to the taste of the higher and middling classes in this city, and which is perhaps of more importance to the increasing pleasure which they derive from the Fine Arts, without perceiving that there is a remarkable increase, within these few years, in the taste for such productions. Without pretending to affirm that they have attained the refinement in this particular which characterizes other states, where the models of art have long existed, and where no virtues of a severer and more import
* See Number for April 1819.
ant kind occupy the attention of the people, it may safely be affirmed, that, on comparing the national taste as it at present stands, with what it was within our own recollection, the step which has been made is very great.
The advantages which attend an Exhibition of Ancient and Modern Paintings seem to be chiefly three.
In the first place, it presents models of excellence to form the taste and rouse the émulation of our artists. The importance of such an acquisition is incalculable. How rich soever the country may be in the works of art, they are placed in such remote situations, and at such a distance from each other, that they can contribute but little to the improvement of the artist. His funds are seldom equal to the expensive journeys which are requisite, in order to see the collections of paintings at the country seats of their different proprietors; and when that is surmounted, the transient visit of a few hours is incapable of imbuing his mind with that vivid perception of the grand and the beautiful which the habitual contemplation of works of excellence can alone confer. The residence of our landed proprietors in the country, amidst many and important benefits, has been attended with this one injurious consequence, that, by separating the collections of paintings from each other, and rendering them in a great degree inaccessible to artists, it has prolonged the period of barbarous taste, in this country, at a time when, in every other branch of improvement, it had surpassed all
other states. This great disadvantage the annual exhibition of the works of art, by the institution which has lately been formed, is well calculated to remove, and promises, by affording at least one gallery in which the models of ancient excellence may be studied by our artists, to awaken them by degrees to a conception of the capabilities and excellence of their art.
In the next place, it tends to improve and purify the taste of the public. There is but one way in which either individuals or nations can acquire a refined taste in the Fine Arts, or even become capable of appreciating their beauties; and that is, by contemplating the works in which excellence has been attained. The greatest genius, and the most delicate taste, are incapable of perceiving or feeling the excellencies of art, unless a previous acquaintance with similar productions has awakened the mind to a sense of the objects to which it is directed, the limits within which it is circumscribed, and the emotions it is intended to awaken. To many, indeed, the advantages of foreign travelling communicate this new sense, of which their contemporaries at home are almost entirely destitute; but, as this is an advantage which lies within the reach of a small proportion only of the intelligent part of the community, the national taste never can be formed on such a basis. It is by works of art at home, continually presented to the eye, and forming the subject of habitual admiration, that the taste of every people is formed. The taste of the Athenian people grew up amid the beauties of Architecture and Sculpture which were assembled on the Acropolis, and the refinement of the modern Italian taste has arisen in consequence of the inimitable relics which survived the destruction of the Roman empire, and the excellence of modern art to which their study has given birth. The same 'cause will, without doubt, operate, and to a certain extent has already operated, in this city. But until this most desirable consequence has fully taken effect, it is in vain to expect that any eminent school of painting can arise amongst us. It is the warmth of public admiration which animates, and the correctness of public taste which chastens, an artist. Without numerous and wealthy purchasers, his genius must languish,
or be diverted to more profitable purposes;-without a discriminating public to praise his beauties and censure his defects, he will seldom either improve the one or avoid the other. The Institution for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts, therefore, has adopted the only method by which it is possible to form a school of painting in this country, by furnishing the means of spreading a taste for the beauties, and a sense of the defects, of the art, amongst the intelligent and respectable classes of the community.
A third effect which may be expected from this institution is, that it will gradually correct the vanity which early excellence is so apt to produce, and stimulate our artists to unceasing exertions, in order to rival and excel those great masters whose works are placed before their eyes. This, though a less obvious, is not a less important consequence than either of the preceding. That the genius which is fitted to attain to excellence in the fine arts, is nearly allied to vanity,or rather, that the sensibility of mind which qualifies inen to attain such excellence, exposes them also to this de fect, is a truth which has been known in all ages. If this disposition went no farther than to render the individual vain of his own productions, it would be a subject of amusement rather than serious thought; but, unfortunately, it produces the most ruinous effects upon the progress of
An artist whose early productions bear some marks of talent, and who, by a thorough discipline and education, might possibly arrive at the height of his profession, is irrecoverably destroyed by imagining that he has now attained to perfection when he is only emerging out of mediocrity. Compared with the rude and barbarous works which are executed by other artists around him, his works may, indeed, be excellent; but, compared with the great works of ancient masters, they are as nothing. But, unfortunately, the wretched productions of inferior artists are around him, and accessible to every one, while the great models of art are in distant countries, and known only to a few individuals. Hence he becomes elated with his own proficiency, and looking to the distance at which he has left those behind him, instead of the space he has to measure before he
reaches those who are before him, he relaxes in his efforts, and rests upon his oars, at the very time when he should be straining every nerve to advance in his course.
In this respect, there is an important distinction between the arts of painting or sculpture, and the works of poetry or eloquence. The great masters in the latter are in every body's hands, and have long ago formed the taste of all the intelligent classes of society. If any young poet, therefore,, were to affirm that his verses were equal to Milton, or any young orator were to flatter himself that he could rival Cicero or Burke, all the world would laugh at his folly. The continual study of the great poets and orators of former times, both prevents such extravagant ideas being formed, and stimulates our youth to unceasing efforts, in order to equal the works on which their taste has been formed. But in a country where there are few models of the fine arts, and such as exist are in remote situations, not fitted to form the taste, or even come under the observation of the majority of the people, this salutary control upon the excesses of early vanity, and this animating perception of the capabilities of the art, cannot be felt. The artist is left to form his own opinions, and trusts to the praises of his own little circle in regard to his productions, and their talents, which were fitted to have a chieved the greatest undertakings, soon become stationary, and an ambition which should have stopt short of nothing but real excellence, is satisfied by that moderate proficiency to which it had early attained.
In making these observations, we have no intention of throwing any reflections on individuals, or of detracting from the merits which the private character, as well as public excellencies, of many of our leading artists have deservedly acquired. We are proud to own, that the modesty of real genius is as conspicuous among our artists, as in any other class of society. It is of the external circumstances which form men, and train some to excellence, while they leave others in mediocrity, that we are here speaking; and we believe no person who has attended to the subject will deny, that the preceding observations are in some degree at least well founded.
The Exhibition of the Works of Modern and Ancient Artists seems to be eminently qualified to correct the evil which has now been described. By collecting into one gallery the finest specimens of art which the country can produce, it furnishes both the examples on which the style of our artists is to be formed, and the models by which their ambition is to be excited. When the works of Raphael and Claude are placed before the eyes of our people, and held up for the imitation of our artists, it is impossible that the taste of either can permanently be formed on too low a standard. Both must rapidly perceive the superiority of the productions of antiquity to those which modern art has hitherto brought forth; the former will cease to admire what is not really excellent, and the latter will be stimulated to redoubled efforts in order to keep pace with the advancing taste of the age.
Already the symptoms of a very great improvement in this respect have begun to appear. Till within these few years the barbarous taste of this city in architecture was the subject of universal reprobation; and it was the common observation of foreigners, that the unparalleled advantages of stone and situation were lost by the want of skill in those who directed the public improvements. But sinee the termination of the war has permitted the national attention to be directed to such objects; and since the extent of foreign travelling has made so large a proportion of the higher orders acquainted with the finest architectural designs in other states, the improvement in the public taste has been prodigious. Fortunately for this city, and the progress of the art in this end of the island, the genius of its architects has more than kept pace with the advance in the public taste, and the works of Playfair and Elliot will not only remain as monuments of the step which has already been made, but will form the public taste upon that high standard, which is the best security for a continuance of the progress in future times.
In painting and sculpture, the improvement in public taste has been less remarkable, for this obvious reason, that the number of specimens of these arts which have been exhibited to
the public have been so extremely small compared to the works of architecture which are always before our eyes, and insensibly form the taste of those who pay the least attention to such subjects. Yet even in these arts, the indications of an increasing taste are both numerous and gratifying. The persons who attended the Exhibition are apparently much more numerous on this than on any former occasion. A still more material proof of the increasing interest which the higher orders take in such productions, was afforded by the great number of pictures sold, and the high prices which many of them deserved ly brought. Within these few years, also, the sale of old paintings in this city has been very considerable, to the value, we have heard, of L. 5000 ;-a certain indication of which was afforded by the great number of fine paintings collected by respectable dealers, which were brought from London and exhibited for sale during the last winter. The multiplication of periodical publications containing engravings of the finest scenery, both in this island and over the whole Continent, has, within the last five years, been so great, as to have given birth to an entirely new set of artists, and called forth the astonishment both of our own countrymen and foreigners. The sale of such productions is not confined to the higher orders, but extends also among the middling classes, and a great degree of taste is frequently discovered among persons who, from their habits of life, would be thought least likely to have attained it. These, and many other circumstances which might be mentioned, prove how strongly the taste of the age is both extending and improving, and should be considered by the distinguished persons at the head of the Institution both as a proof of the success which has already attended their exertions, and the best pledge of the beneficial effects which it is calculated to produce in future times.
It is in the contemplation of the Directors of this Institution, we understand, to build, if their funds will ever admit of such an undertaking, a suite of three rooms, one of which is to be devoted to an exhibition of the works of ancient masters, one to the works of modern artists, and the third to a selection of the finest sta
tues of antiquity. We would carnestly recommend the adoption of such a measure, and rejoice to find that, by combining with some other societies which require additional accommodation, there is every prospect of the plan being realized. Similar galleries are to be found in the Brera of Milan, in the academy of Venice, at Florence, and in many other cities where the Fine Arts have been cultivated with the greatest success. Nothing, indeed, is more wanting in this city than a public exhibition for the sculpture of antiquity; and nothing can more strikingly demonstrate the truth of the observations we have made on this subject, than the praise which is now lavished by its inhabitants on busts and statues of the most inconsiderable merit. If the public taste was formed on the high standard which the study of the antique produces, such productions, instead of meeting with approbation, would excite the criticisms they deserve, and the artists, who are now insensible to any higher merit, would soon be awakened to a more honourable emulation.
The exhibition also of modern and ancient pictures in rooms adjoining each other, at the same time, would produce the most beneficial effects upon the progress of the art. It is the fashion, we know, for modern artists to decry the merits of the ancient schools; or, at least, to hold that the works of the present age are quite equal to those of any which have preceded it, both in conception and execution. By many the excessive admiration for the Italian school is considered as affectation, or as a diseased partiality which travelled persons feel for works which they have seen under peculiar circumstances, and concerning which they arrogate to themselves the exclusive right of judging. There may be some truth in these observations; and possibly the strong predilection which we feel for the Italian masters may render us in some degree insensible to the merits which the artists of our own country possess. It is an act of justice, therefore, as well as expediency, to put the two schools beside each other, that, if injustice is done to modern genius, amends may as soon as possible be made; but that, on the other hand, if the superiority of the works of former times is manifest, our own artists