Where there not qualities as well as quantities of wealth, the world would not be half as rich as it is. Wealth often presents itself in a repulsive form, when it may be regarded as an essential among the utilities; at the same time there is a form of wealth dependent for its value on beauty alone. And the more elevating and refining the quality of wealth, the more beneficial it is to the human race. In the common comforts and conveniences of life, the useful arts cannot be ignored, but the fine arts are as a rule alone refining.
In all nature, as Ruskin remarks, there is a beauty addressed to the eye alone; yet what impresses us most is often a very small portion of that beauty. A landscape, for instance, may be composed of rich meadows and beautiful flowers, of sparkling streams and majestic woodlands, above which are the many tinted hues of a sunset sky; yet that on which we gaze most intently may be merely "a thin grey film on the extreme horizon, not so large in the space of the scene it occupies as a piece of gossamer on a near at hand bush, nor in any wise prettier to the eye than the gossamer; but because the gossamer is known by us for a little bit of spider's work, and the other grey film is known to mean a mountain ten thousand feet high, inhabited by a race of noble mountaineers we are solemnly impressed by its aspect, though all the while the thought and knowledge which cause us to receive this impression are so obscure that we are not conscious of them."
But he who would interpret nature aright should not attempt to interpret her all at once, any more than he should place on a single canvas the snows of a winter and the verdure of a summer landscape; for the moods of nature, fickle as a woman’s, are seldom exactly alike for two successive hours. Nor should there be too much of detail; for that which pleases most is not the minutiae but the sum total of what nature has produced; not the materials with which she has fashioned a landscape, but the landscape itself, as the eye is apt to see it and the soul to feel it. Take, for instance, by way of contrast, the landscapes of Hill and Corot, the former striving with infinite pains to depicture every tree and twig and leaf and blade of grass, thus ring the general impression; the latter omitting all such minor matters as would interfere with the softly intoned effects of foliage and light. In the one are the statistics, in the other is the spirit of art, though in the former there is more than mere statistics.
To the later period of the renaissance belonged Michael Angelo and his many imitators who served at least to infuse new life into the sculptor's craft. Among the French there were such men as Germain Pilou, Jean Goujon, and Barthelemy Prieur, all more or less imitators of the Italian school and later in Italy itself appeared Canova, one of the greatest masters of modern times. Thorwaldsen, Ranch, and Gibson, pupils of the latter and each one possessed of strong individuality, exercised a marked influence on Danish, German, and British sculpture, as did many others before we come to contemporary art.
It was not until a comparatively recent era that art was supposed to have any real existence outside the Latin races; yet in some respects the Dutch surpassed all other schools, and it is in Holland, Scandinavia, and perhaps in England, that modern painting shows the most decided progress.
Whether in landscapes, marines, or genre, Dutch masters, while not attaining to the glories of the past, hold their own with the foremost of European artists, though appearing perhaps at their best in simple themes; for it is in essence rather than in subject that true art really consists. In the portrayal of home life and home scenes they have no superiors. Thus, with a woman entering on her rest eternal, with him who was her husband at her side, and with little else save the bed on which the woman lies and the chair on which the man is seated, Israels produced in his 'Alone in the World' a composition that has never been excelled in the depiction of human woe. And so with Maris, with Mesdag, Neuhuys, and others, who from such unpromising subjects as windmills and canals, as cattle standing in a meadow beneath a clouded sky, or the surge of ocean breaking at the base of sand-dunes, can work out effects of singular beauty and sentiment.
When the purchase of the Angerstein collection was under the consideration of the British parliament, Sir George Beaumont wrote to a friend who had influence with its members, "It is my belief that such works as the Apollo, the Venus, the Laocoon, etc., are worth many thousands a year to the country that possesses them.” Later he declared in the commons, "Buy this collection for the nation and I will give you mine." He kept his word, presenting his collection, worth $375,000, as soon as there were galleries ready to receive them.
Speaking of the dismantling of the Louvre gallery in 1815, an eyewitness has in effect the following. On going up to the door of the Louvre, I found a guard of 150 British riflemen drawn up outside. I asked one of the soldiers what they were there for. "Why, they tell me, sir, that they mean to take away the pictures,” was the reply. An officer dropped his men in files along this magnificent gallery, until they extended from its entrance to its extremity, and then the work of removal was commenced, porters making their appearance with barrows and ladders and tackles of rope. From that moment the collection might be considered as broken up forever; its orderly aspect disappeared and it, assumed the melancholy and desolate air of an auction room after a day's sale. It seemed as if a nation had been ruined through improvidence and was selling off. The removal of the statues was later in commencing, and took up more time. I saw the Venus, the Apollo, and the Laocoon carted away and these might be, deemed the presiding deities of the collection. The French could not believe that their enemies would dare to deprive them of these sacred works, for it appeared to them impossible that they could ever be separated from France; but nevertheless it was done. One afternoon I stopped longer than usual to gaze on the Venus, and I never before was so much impressed with its superiority over all the rest. Returning the next morning, I found that the pedestal on which it had stood for so many years, the pride of the metropolis and the delight of every observer, was vacant. It seemed as if a soul had taken its flight from a body.
What Polygnotus was to ancient Greece, that was Giotto to the Italy of the middle ages, breaking through the cherished traditions of the Byzantine school, with its rigid formalities, and presenting instead the truths of nature thus, inaugurating what is termed the renaissance, which later displayed itself in countless forms. Soon after the death of Titian was expended the force of this newborn genius, never perhaps again to reappear; for the Italian painter of today can neither approach the achievements of the past, nor create a new style in keeping with modern tastes.
For the most part, whatever there may be of excellence is not Italian, but merely an adaptation from other schools; so that with few exceptions, their pictures, however ambitious in theme, are weak in execution.
As in poetry is found the highest art, so in art we here and there encounter poetry. Says The Painter of Florence:—
There once was a painter in Catholic days,
Like Job who eschewed all evil;
Still on his Madonnas the curious may gaze
With applause and amazement; but chiefly his praise
And delight was in painting the devil.
They were angels compared to the devils he drew,
Who besieged poor St. Anthony's cell;
Such burning hot eyes, such a luminous hue,
You could even smell brimstone, their breath was so blue;
He painted his devils so well.
And thus the Orlando Furioso of Ariosto:—
Lo! Leonardo! Gian Bellino view,
Two Dossi, and Mantegna reached by few,
With these an angel, Michael, styled divine,
In whom the painter and the sculptor join;
Sebastian, Titian, Raphael, three that grace
Cadora, Venice, and Urbino's race;
Each genius that can past events recall
In living figures on the storied wall.
In the epitaph of Hubert van Eyck, the soul of the artist is laid bare:—
Take warning from me, ye who walk over me. I was as you are, but am now buried beneath you. Thus it appears that neither art nor medicine availed me. Art, honor, wisdom, power, affluence are spared not when death comes.
I was called Hubert van Eyck; I am now food for worms. Formerly known and highly honored in painting, this all was shortly turned to nothing.
It was in the year of our Lord 1426, on the 18th day of September, that I rendered up my soul to God in suffering. Pray God for me, ye who love art, that I may attain to his sight. Flee sin; turn the best; for ye must follow me at last.