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Sculpture Commissioners on the Fine Arts Essay

The following able article is to be found in the Appendix to the Third Report of the Commissioners on the Fine Arts, to the British Paliament in 1844. It was written by the distinguished Secretary of the Commission, and has been recently published in England, together with other essays by the same author, in a volume entitled “ Contributions to the Literature of the Fine Arts.” It has never before been printed in America. We hope that none of our readers will be deterred by its length from giving it an attentive perusal.

The restrictions imposed on the selection and treatment of subjects by the nature of the art itself, are much more rigid in the case of sculpture, which, strictly speaking, has but one style. The principle, that in proportion as the means of representation become circumscribed the imitation of inanimate objects becomes less satisfactory, is here especially applicable. The surface of life, either alone, or with drapery that indicates the form or adorns it, was with the Greek sculptors the chief object of imitation.

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As in considering the claims of painting it is desirable to keep the highest style in view, though that style may be seldom attainable or seldom applicable, so in sculpture, a description of the practice of the ancients in their best works may not be out of place here, although it is too certain that modern habits and associations may often render it impossible to conform to the example.

it will be needless to dwell on the more obvious requisites of sculpture; the necessity of beauty in an art which can conceal nothing; the necessity of balancing the mere weight, and the degree of symmetry in composition which results from that law; or the general principles (applicable to all the arts of design) of proportion, breadth, gradation of quantities, and contrast. It is proposed here chiefly to consider its specific style, as more directly affecting the question of the selection of subjects fitted for it. For this purpose it will be necessary to ascend to
its simplest elements.

The art of sculpture imitates with more or less completeness the real bulk of objects, their substance and form, but it does not imitate their color. This restriction is the result of a comprehensive view of imitation ; it is by no means from actual impossibility, but because the end of genuine illusion would be defeated by the attempt. A statue colored to the life might deceive the spectator for a moment, but he would presently discover that life and motion were wanting; and the imitation would be consequently pronounced to be incomplete. Whatever is attempted by the arts, the perfection of style requires that the imita- tion, however really imperfect with reference to nature, or even with reference to other modes of representation, should suggest no want. The imagination then assents to the illusion, though the senses are far from being deceived.

As it is well known that the ancients occasionally added color to their statues, it will be necessary to consider thiB difficulty at once. It may bo observed that the colors employed were probably never intended to increase the resemblance of the object to nature, but that they served only to insure distinctness, or were merely for ornament. The gilding of the hair, for instance, however objectionable, would not be condemned on the ground of its being too close an imitation of real hair. So also the color which was sometimes appropriated to the statues of Mercury, Bacchus, and Pan, would never be mistaken for flesh.

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It would indeed soon be apparent that the differences which colors in nature present—for example, in the distinction of the face from the hair, anu of the drapery from the flesh—require to be met in sculpture by some adequate or equivalent differences; hence, the contrasts adopt-ed were cither greatly conventional or dictated such a choice of nature as was best calculated to supply the absent quality.

It will first be necessary to inquire what aegree of resemblance was proposed in the imitation of the living form. In the fine examples of sculpture the surface of the skin, though free from minute accidents, is imitated closely. The polish is, however, uniform; first, because anyvarieties in this respect could not be distinguished at a due distance; and secondly, because a rough surface on marble in the open air is sure to hasten the corroding effect of time by affording minute receptacles for dust or rain, while in interiors the rough portions would bo soonestsoiled.

In polishing the marble the ancient sculptors were sometimes careful not to obliterate or soften too much the sharp ridges of the features, such as the edges of the eyelids, lips, &c. These sharpnesses were preserved, and occasionally exaggerated, in order to insure a distinct lightand shade on the features at a considerable distance. Such contrivances, it is almost needless to say, were in a great measure dispensed with in statues intended for near inspection. Lastly, the marble received a varnish (rather to protect the surface than to give it gloss),the ingredients of which may be gathered from a passage in Vitruvius. These modes of finishing the surface are detailed, because it is of importance to remark that this was the extent of the imitation. The varnish, doubtless, would give mellowness to the color of the marble; but it may be assumed that a statue thus finished was nearly white.

The flesh is always the master-object of imitation in the antique statues; the other substances, drapery, armor, hair, or whatever they may be, are treated as accessories, to give value and truth to the naked. It follows that the differences of color which, as before observed, are met by some equivalent differences in the colorless marble, are solely expressed in the accessories—the principal object imitated being nearest to reality, and never, as it were, abandoning its supremacy in this respect. But it will have been seen that, when all was done, the marble flesh was in itself a convention, owing to the absence of color; it was therefore for the artist to take care that the spectator should never be reminded of this want.

Drapery, which in nature may be supposed to be different in color, as it is certainly different in texture from the flesh, was made to differ from the appearance of the flesh accordingly, especially when they were in immediate juxta-position. Thus, although in marble the mere color of the drapery is the same as that of the flesh, it is generally so treated that the eye is enabled, instantly and at a considerable distance, to dis- tinguish the two, and nature is thus successfully imitated. The requisite contrast is generally effected by means of folds varying in direction and quantity according to the portions of the figure with which they are in contact. The difference which the colors of nature exhibit is thus represented by another kind of difference, but which is still in nature.

Simple and allowable as this principle of imitation seems to be, it was rejected by the Italian sculptors of the seventeenth century, as their practice shows. In their works the flesh is often confounded with flat drapery, from a mistaken endeavor to give the breadth which is desirable in painting. It is to be remarked that the broad masses of drapery which occur in the antique are always so contrived as to leave no doubt respecting the substance, hor example, when flat masses cross the limbs they cannot easily be confounded with them.

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Again, in nature it is possible for hair to be so smooth as to offer scarcely any difference in surface from the flesh. Indiscriminate imita- tion has also hod its advocates in this particular, and many Italian statue9 of the period referred to, want color to make the hair distinct from the face. The hair in the antique, whether crisp in its undulations, like that of the Venus of Milo; or soft like that of the Mediccan Venus; or bristled in unequal masses, like that of the Dyine Gladiator; or elaborately true, like that of the Lucius Verus; or whether even, as in the early Greek works, it is represented by undulating scratches, or by a series of regular curls,* it is always more or less rough and channelled so as to present a surface, sometimes from its deep shades almost approaching a mass of dark, opposed to the face. All this is only a iudicious choice, and a skillful translation of nature.

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Sculpture Commissioners on the Fine Arts Essay
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Artscolumbia

The following able article is to be found in the Appendix to the Third Report of the Commissioners on the Fine Arts, to the British Paliament in 1844. It was written by the distinguished Secretary of the Commission, and has been recently published in England, together with other essays by the same author, in a volume entitled “ Contributions to the Literature of the Fine Arts." It has never before been printed in America. We hope that none of our readers will b

2017-08-09 13:23:05
Sculpture Commissioners on the Fine Arts Essay
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