Part 5 out of 6
brought about the Renascence in Italy was the fashion that in successive
waves was passing over Europe and moulding the future. He himself felt
it, and welcomed it now as an authority not to be gainsaid, and again
as an example to be competed against and surpassed. This fashion, this
trend of opinion and hope, was the significance behind the effect
produced on him by Jacopo de' Barbari, whose charming but ineffectual
originality succeeded merely in creating an eddy in that stream. It was
the tide behind him which so powerfully stirred and stimulated Dürer.
The resemblances traceable between certain still life studies by the two
men, or even in figures of their engravings, is insignificant compared
with the fact that through Jacopo Dürer probably first felt the energy
and true direction of the great tidal waves which were then rolling
forth from Italy. Even Mantegna's influence was probably less the effect
of a personal affinity than that through him a power streamed direct
from the antique dawn. This great and master influence of those days was
more one of hope, indefinite, incomprehensible, visionary, than one of
knowledge and assured discovery. Raphael may have received it from
Dürer, as well as Dürer from Bellini. Figures and incidents from Dürer's
engravings are supposed to have been adapted in certain works, if not of
his own hand at least proceeding from his immediate pupils. For Raphael,
Dürer was a proof of the excellence of human nature in respect to the
arts, even when it could not form itself on the immediate study and
contemplation of antiques, and thus added to the zest and expectation
with which he improved himself in that direction. These great men did
not distinguish clearly between pregnancy due to their own efforts, that
of their contemporaries and immediate predecessors, and that due to
their more mystic passion for antiquity. Michael Angelo, Titian, and
Correggio were destined to be the signets by which this great power was
to be most often and clearly stamped on the work of future artists.
From the unhappy location of his life Dürer was debarred from any such
obvious and overwhelming effect on after generations. The influences
which helped to shape him were no doubt at work on all the more eminent
artists, his fellow-countrymen; on Albrecht Altdorfer, Hans Burgkmair,
Lucas Cranach, or Baldung Grien, to mention only the elect. What the
stimulus of his achievements, of his renown, meant for these men we have
no means of computing; yet we may feel sure that it was vastly more
important and significant than any actual traces of imitation or
plagiarism from his works, which can with difficulty and for the more
part very doubtfully be brought home to them;--vastly more important and
significant too we may be sure than his effect upon his pupils and other
more or less obscure painters, engravers, and block designers, in whose
work actual imitation or adaption of his creations is more certain and
more abundant. His pictures, plates, and woodcuts were copied both in
Italy and in the North, both as exercises for the self-improvement of
artists and to supply a demand for even secondhand reflections of his
genius and skill. He was not destined to lend the impress of his
splendid personality to the tide of fashion like the great Italians;
their influence was to supersede his even in the North.
This is obvious: but who shall compare or estimate the accession of
force which the tide as a whole gained from him, or that more latent
power which begins to be disengaged from the reserve and lack of proper
issue from which he evidently suffered, now that the great tide of the
Renaissance has spent its mighty onrush and become merged in the
constant movement of life--that power by which he moves us to
commiserate his circumstances and to feel after the more and better,
which we cannot doubt that he might have given us had he been more
[Illustration: THE LAST SUPPER Woodcut, p. 53]
Only to compare the value of Michael Angelo's sonnets with that of the
doggerel rhymes which Dürer produced, may give us some idea of the
portentous inferiority in Dürer's surroundings to those of the great
Italian. Both borrow the general idea of the subject, treatment, and
form of their poems from the fashion around them. But that fashion in
Michael Angelo's case called for elevated subject, intimate and
imaginative treatment, and adequacy of form, whereas none of these were
called for from Albrecht Dürer; and if his friends laughed at the
rudeness of his verses, it was not that they themselves conceived of
anything more adequate in these respects, only something more scholarly,
more pedantic. Michael Angelo's verse was often crabbed and rude, but
the scholarship and pedantry of Italy forbore to laugh at that rudeness,
because a more adequate standard made them recognise its vital power and
noble passion as of higher importance to true success. Still, in the
following rhymes, Dürer shows himself a true child of the Renascence, at
least in intention; and was proud of a desire for universal excellence.
When I received this from Lazarus Spengler, I made him the following
poem in reply (Mrs. Heaton's translation):
In Nürnberg it is known full well
A man of letters now doth dwell,
One of our Lord's most useful men,
He is so clever with his pen,
And others knows so well to hit,
And make ridiculous with wit;
And he has made a jest of me,
Because I made some poetry,
And of True Wisdom something wrote,
But as he likes my verses not,
He makes a laughing stock of me,
And says I'm like the Cobbler, he
Who criticised Apelles' art.
With this he tries to make me smart,
Because he thinks it is for me
To paint, and not write poetry.
But I have undertaken this
(And will not stop for him or his),
To learn whatever thing I can,
For which will blame me no wise man.
For he who only learns one thing,
And to naught else his mind doth bring,
To him, as to the notary,
It haps, who lived here as do we,
In this our town. To him was known
To write one form and one alone.
Two men came to him with a need
That he should draw them up a deed;
And he proceeded very well,
Until their names he came to spell:
Gotz was the first name that perplexed,
And Rosenstammen was the next.
The Notary was much astonished,
And thus his clients he admonished,
"Dear friends," he said, "you must be wrong,
These names don't to my form belong;
Franz and Fritz I know full well,
But of no others have heard tell."
And so he drove away his clients,
And people mocked his little science.
To me that it may hap not so,
Something of all things I will know.
Not only writing will I do,
But learn to practise physic too;
Till men surprised will say, "Beshrew me,
What good this painter's medicines do me!"
Therefore hear and I will tell
Some wise receipts to keep you well.
A little drop of alkali,
Is good to put into the eye;
He who finds it hard to hear,
Should mandel-oil put in his ear;
And he who would from gout be free,
Not wine but water drink should he;
He who would live to be a hundred,
Will see my counsel has not blundered.
Therefore I will still make rhymes
Though my friend may laugh at times.
So the Painter with hairy beard
Says to the Writer who mocked and jeered.
[Footnote 84: Equivalent to our John Doe and Richard Roe.]
THE IDEA OF A CANON OF PROPORTION FOR THE HUMAN FIGURE
Dürer often painted the Virgin's head as a mere exercise or example in
those proportion studies with which we must presently deal.
Sir W. M. CONWAY, in "Dürer's Literary Remains," p. 151.
As soon as he comes to speak of the very essence of artistic work, he
forgets theories and imitations of the antique; he knows nothing of
composition from fragments of Nature, of measurements and speculations.
No longer trusting to such aids as these, but launching himself boldly
on the broad stream of Nature, he believes that he shall attain to a
higher harmony in his work.
THAUSING'S "Albert Dürer," vol. ii., p. 318.
The idea of a canon for human proportions has proved a great
stumbling-block for so-called classical or academic artists. It is
usually taken to mean an absolutely right or harmonious proportion, any
deviation from which cannot fail to result in a diminution of beauty.
According to their thoroughness, the devotees of this idea seek to
arrive at such a scale of proportions for a varying number of different
ages in either sex; often even modifying this again for diverse types,
as tall or short, fat or lean, dark or blonde, but allowing no excessive
variation for these causes; so that abnormally tall people and dwarfs
are not considered. This is, I take it, what the great artist Albert
Dürer is generally taken to have been aiming at in his books on
proportion. It will not be difficult, I think, to show that Dürer had
quite a different idea of what a canon of proportion should be, and how
it should be applied. And certainly, had it been possible to study Greek
practice more closely, and in a larger number of examples, when this
idea (supposed to be drawn from that source) was chiefly mooted, a very
different notion of the canon of proportion would have been forced on
the most academical of theorists. Dürer's great superiority over such
academical masters is, that his idea of a canon of proportion and its
use agrees far better with what was apparently Greek practice.
Any one who has followed at all the interesting attempts made by
Professor Furtwängler and others to group together, by attention to the
measurements of the different parts of the figure, works belonging to
the different masters, schools, and centres, will have perceived that he
is led to assume a traditional canon of proportion from which a master
deviates slightly in the direction of some bias of his own mind towards
closer knit or more slim figures; such variations being in the earlier
stages very slight. Again, it is supposed that from the canon followed
by a master, different pupils may branch off in opposite directions
according to the leanings of their personal sentiment for beauty. The
conception of these ramifications has at least created the hope that
critics may follow them through a great number of complications, since
a master may modify his canon--after certain pupils have already struck
out for themselves, and new pupils may start from his modified canon;
and so on into an infinite criss-cross of branches, as any sculptor may
be influenced to modify his canon by his fellows or by the masters of
other schools whose work he comes across later. In any case, this main
fact arises, that the canon appears as what the artist deviated from,
not what he abided by: and any one who has any feeling for the infinite
nicety of the results obtained by Greek sculptors will easily apprehend
that each masterpiece established a new and slightly different canon,
and was then in the position to be in its turn again deviated from, as
"The conception of every work of art carries within it its own rule and
method, which must be found out before it can be achieved."
"Chayue ceuvre à faire a sa poëtique en soi, qu'il faut trouver."
The same thing is asserted by literary critics to have been the cause of
the repetition of subjects in Greek tragedy, and to have resulted in the
infinite niceties of their forms, which are never the same and never
The terrible old mythic story on which the drama was founded stood,
before he entered the theatre, traced in its bare outlines upon the
spectator's mind; it stood in his memory as a group of statuary, faintly
seen, at the end of a long dark vista. Then came the poet, embodying
outlines, developing situations, not a word wasted, not a sentiment
capriciously thrown in. Stroke upon stroke, the drama proceeded; the
light deepened upon the group; more and more it revealed itself to the
riveted gaze of the spectator; until at last, when the final words were
spoken, it stood before him in broad sunlight, a model of
This passage from Matthew Arnold's deservedly famous preface well
emphasises one advantage that a tradition of subject and treatment gave
to the Greek poet as to the Greek sculptor: the economy of means it made
possible, "not a word wasted, not a sentiment capriciously thrown
in,"--since every deviation from, every addition to, the traditional
story and treatment, was immediately appreciated by an audience
thoroughly conversant with that tradition, and often with several
previous masterpieces treating it. By merely leaving out an incident, or
omitting to appeal to a sentiment, a Greek tragedian could flood his
whole work with a new significance. So that the temptation to be
eccentric, the temptation to hit too hard or at random because he was
not sure of exactly where the mind stood that he would impress, did not
exist in anything like the same degree for him as it did for Shakespeare
and Michael Angelo as it does for romantic and origina natures to-day.
The absence of a sufficient body of traditional culture belonging to
every educated person tends always to force the artist to commence by
teaching the alphabet to his public. As Coleridge so justly remarked in
the case of Wordsworth: "He had, like all great artists, to create the
taste by which he was to be relished, to teach the art by which he was
to be seen and judged." All great artists no doubt have to do this, but
the modern artist is in the position of the Israelite who was bidden not
only to make bricks, but to find himself in stubble and straw, as
compared with a Greek who could appeal to traditional conceptions with
certainty. Dr. Verrall is no doubt right when he says:
Every one knows, even if the full significance of the fact is not always
sufficiently estimated, that the tragedians of Athens did not tell their
story at all as the telling of a story is conceived by a modern
dramatist, whose audience, when the curtain goes up, know nothing which
is not in the play-bill.
This ignorant public, this uncultivated and unmanured field with which
every modern artist has to commence, is the greatest let to the creator.
What wonder that he should so often prefer to make a gaudy show with
yellow weeds, when he perceives that there is hardly time in one man's
life to produce a respectable crop of wheat from such a wilderness?
"The story of an Athenian tragedy is never completely told; it is
implied, or, to repeat the expression used above, it is illustrated by a
selected scene or scenes. And the further we go back the truer this is,"
continues Dr. Verrall; and the same was doubtless true of sculpture and
painting. It is impossible to over-estimate the importance or advantage
of this fact to the artist. For religious art, for art that appeals to
the sum and total of a man's experience of beauty in life, a public
cultivated in this sense is a necessity. Giotto and Fra Angelico enjoyed
this almost to the same degree as Æschylus or Phidias; Michael Angelo
and the great artists of the Renascence generally enjoyed it in a very
great degree, and reaped an advantage comparable to that which Euripides
and his contemporaries and immediate successors enjoyed. The tradition
enabled such an artist to impress by means of subtleties, niceties, and
refinements, instead of forcing him to attempt always to more or less
seduce, astonish or overawe; strong measures which grow almost
necessarily into bad habits, and end by perverting the taste they
created. This, it has often been remarked, was the case even with
Michael Angelo, even with Shakespeare. Yet nowadays, to enable a man to
remark this, exceptional culture is required.
This idea of the use of a canon may be illustrated in many ways; for,
like all notions which resume actual experiences, it will be found
applicable in many spheres. Thus, on the subject of verse, the eternal
quarrel between the poet and the pedant is, that for the first the rules
of prosody and rhyme are only useful in so far as they make the licenses
he takes appreciable at their just value; while for the pedant such
licenses ever anew seem to imply ignorance of the rule or incapacity to
follow it,--an absurd mistake, since the power to create and impress has
little to do with the means employed; and if a man builds up for himself
a barrier of foregone conclusions about the exact manner in which alone
he will allow himself to be deeply impressed, it is very certain he will
have few save painful impressions. Or take another illustration--an
artist the other day told me that he had noticed that one could almost
always trace a faintly ruled vertical line on the paper which the
greatest of all modern draughtsmen used. Ingres, then, with all his
freedom, vivacity, and accuracy of control over the point he employed to
draw with, still found it useful to have a straight line ruled on his
paper as a student does, and may often even have resorted to the
plumb-line. It enabled his eye to test the subtlest deviations in the
other lines with which he was creating the balance, swing or stability
of a figure. Rules of art are, like this straight line, dead and
powerless in themselves: they help both creator and lover to follow and
appreciate the infinite freedom and subtlety of the living work. The
same thing might be illustrated with regard to manners; a fine standard
of social address and receptivity must be established before the
varieties and subtleties of those whose genius creates beautiful
relations can be appreciated at their full value in their full variety.
This dead law must be buried in everybody's mind and heart before they
can rise to that conscious freedom which is opposite to the freedom of
the wild animals, who never know why they do, nor appreciate how it is
done; neither are they able to rejoice in the address of others; much
less can they relish the infinite refinements of exhilarating
apprehension, which make of laughter, tears, speech, silence, nearness
and distance, a music which holds the enraptured soul in ecstasy; which
created and constantly renews the hope of Heaven. And what blacker
minister of a more sterile hell than the social pedant who only knows
the rule, and mistakes grace and delicacy, frankness and generosity, for
more or less grave infractions of it? But the happy critic, free from
any personal knowledge of what creation means, or what aids are likely
to forward it, is for ever in such a hurry to correct great creators
like Leonardo, Dürer, or Hokusai, that he fails to understand them; and
when he has caught them saying, "This is how anger or despair is
expressed," calmly smiles in his superiority and says,
"He had a scientific law for putting a battle on to canvas, one
condition of which was that 'there must not be a level spot which is
not trampled with gore.' But Leonardo did no harm; his canon was based
on literary rather than artistic interests."
Analogies with scientific laws have served art and art criticism a very
bad turn of late years. Nothing can be more useful to an artist than
knowledge of how the emotions are expressed by the contortion of the
features; but nobody in his senses could ever imagine that a rule for
the expression of anger was rigid throughout and must never be departed
from; every one approaching such a rule with a view to practice instead
of criticism must immediately perceive that its only use is to be
departed from in various degrees. Leonardo's advice for the painting of
a battle-piece is excellent if it is understood in the sense in which it
was meant,--"everything is what it is and not another thing," as Bishop
Butler put it. Be sure and make your battle a battle indeed. It is time
we should realise that what the great artists wrote about art is likely
to be as sensible as are the works they created. How absurd it is for
some one who can neither carve nor paint, much less create, to imagine
he easily grasps the rules of art better than a great master! To such
people let us repeat again and again Hamlet's impatient: "Oh, mend it
Now it will easily be seen that the causes which shape an art tradition
may often be independent of, and foreign to, the will that creates
beautiful objects. Religious superstition or formalism may often hem the
artist in, and hamper his will in every direction; though it is not
wholly accidental that the Greeks had a religion the spirit of which
tended always to defeat the conservatism and bigotry of its priests. So
that their formalism, instead of frustrating or warping the growth of
their art tradition, merely served as a check that may well seem to have
been exactly proportioned to its need; preventing the weakness or
rankness of over rapid growth such as detracts from the art of the
Renascence, and at the same time causing no vital injury. The spirit of
the race deserved and created and was again in turn recreated by
Since it is generally recognised that too much freedom is not good for
growing life, I think that almost everybody must at this stage have
become aware of how immensely stupid the academical idea of a canon
appears besides this idea. How suitable both to life and the desire for
perfection the Greek practice was! How theologically dense the
unprogressive inflexibility of the academical practitioner! And now let
us hear Dürer.
But first I will quote from Sir Martin Conway the explanation of what
Dürer means by the phrase, "Words of Difference."
These are what he calls the "Words of Difference": large, long, small,
stout, broad, thick, narrow, thin, young, old, fat, lean, pretty, ugly,
hard, soft, and so forth; in fact any word descriptive of a quality
"whereby a thing may be differentiated from the thing (normal figure)
Or, as Dürer says in another place, "difference such as maketh a thing
fair or foul."
But further, it lieth in each man's choice whether or how far he shall
make use of all the above written "Words of Difference." For a man may
choose whether he will learn to labour with art, wherein is the truth,
or without art in a freedom by which everything he doth is corrupted,
and his toil becometh a scorn to look upon to such as understand.
Wherefore it is needful for every one that he use discreetness in such
of his works as shall come to the light Whence it ariseth that he who
would make anything aright must in no wise abate aught (that is
essential) from Nature, neither must he lay what is intolerable upon
her. Howbeit some will (by going to an opposite extreme) make
alterations (from Nature) so slight that they can scarce be perceived.
Such are of no account if they cannot be perceived; to alter over much
also answereth not. A right mean (in such alterations) is best. But in
this book I have departed from this right mean in order that it might be
so much the better traced in small things. Let not him who wishes to
proceed to some great thing imitate this my swiftness, but let him set
more slowly (gradually) about his work, that it be not brutish but
artistic to look upon. For figures which differ from the mean are not
good to look upon _when_ they are wrongly and unmasterly employed.
It is not to be wondered at that a skilful master beholdeth manifold
differences of figure, all of which he might make if he had time enough,
but which, for lack of time, he is forced to pass by. For such chances
come very often to artists, and their imaginations also are full of
figures which it were possible for them to make. Wherefore, if to live
many hundred years were granted unto a man who had skill in the use of
such art and were thereto accustomed, he would (through the power which
God hath granted unto men) have wherewith daily to mould and make many
new figures of men and other creatures, which none had before seen nor
imagined. God, therefore, in such and other ways granteth great power
unto artistic men.
Although there be such talking of differences, still it is well known
that all things that a man doth differ of their own nature one from
another. Consequently, there liveth no artist so sure of hand as to be
able to make two things exactly alike the one to the other, so that they
may not be distinguished. For of all our works none is quite and
altogether like another, and this we can in no wise avoid.
We see that if we take two prints from an engraved copper-plate, or cast
two images in a mould, very many points may immediately be found whereby
they may be distinguished one from another. If, then, it cometh thus to
pass in things made by processes the least liable to error, much more
will it happen in other things which are made by the free hand.
This, however, is _not the kind of Difference_ whereof I here treat; for
I am speaking of a difference (from the mean) which a man specially
intendeth, and which standeth in his will, of which I have spoken once
This is not the aforesaid Difference which we cannot sever from our
work, but, such a difference as maketh a thing fair or foul, and which
may be set forth by the "Word of Difference" dealt with above in this
Book. If a man produce "different" figures of this kind in his work, it
will be judged in every man's mind according to his own opinion, and
these judgments seldom agree one with another.... Yet let every man
beware that he make nothing impossible and inadmissible in Nature,
unless indeed he would make some fantasy, in which it is allowed to
mingle creatures of all kinds together....
Any one who leads this carefully cannot fail to see that it is not only
that Dürer is not "desirous of laying down rules applicable to all
cases," or even of "proposing a definite canon for the relative
proportions of the human body," as Thausing indeed points out (p. 305,
v. 11): but that he does not conceive the proportions he gives as even
approximately capable of these functions; and considers it indeed the
very nature and special use of a canon of proportions to be wilfully
deviated from, pointing out that, though the deviations of which he is
speaking are slight and subtle, they are not to be confused with the
accidental ones that can but appear even in work done by mechanical
processes. Rather they are such variation as a man "specially intendeth,
and which standeth in his will;" and again, "such a difference as maketh
a thing fair or foul;" for the use of these normal proportions is that
they may enable an artist to deviate from the normal without the
proportions he chooses having the air of monstrosities or mistakes or
negligences. He does not insist that either of the scales he gives is
the best that could be, even for this purpose, but that they are
sufficiently good to be used; and he would have marvelled at the wonder
that has been caused in innocent critical minds that in his own work he
adhered to them so little. He never intended them to be adhered to.
It may be objected that Dürer certainly sometimes thought of a Canon of
Proportion as a perfect rule, because he wrote on a MS. page as
Vitruvius, the ancient architect, whom the Romans employed upon great
buildings, says that whosoever desires to build should study the
perfection of the human figure, for in it are discovered the most secret
mysteries of proportion. So, before I say anything about architecture, I
will state how a well-formed man should be made, and then about a woman,
a child and a horse. Any object may be proportioned out (_literally_,
measured) in a similar way. Therefore, hear first of all what Vitruvius
says about the human figure, which he learnt from the greatest masters,
painters and founders, who were highly famed. They said that the human
figure is as follows.
That the face from the chin upward to where the hair begins is the
tenth part of a man, and that an out-stretched hand is the same
[Illustration: "This is my appearance in the eighteenth year of my age"
Charcoal-drawing in the Academy, Vienna _Face p._288]
And again in another place, as Sir Martin Conway points out, he gives a
religious basis to this notion, "the Creator fashioned men once for
all as they must be, and I hold that the perfection of form and beauty
is contained in the sum of all men." In an obvious sense these passages
certainly run counter to those which I have quoted (pp. 285-207): but I
would like to point out that these are dogmatic assertions about
something that if it were true could never be proved by experience (see
also pp. 64, 254), those former are Dürer's advice with a view to
practice. Men frequently carry about a considerable amount of dogmatic
opinion, which has so little connection with actual experience that it
is never brought to the test without being noticeably incommoded by it.
Yet it is not absolutely necessary to consider Dürer as inconsistent in
regard to this matter, even to this degree.
The beauty of form which he held had been Adam's, and which was now
parcelled out among his vast progeny in various amounts as a consequence
of his fall--this beauty of form doubtless Dürer considered it part of
an artist's business to recollect and reveal in his work. This beauty is
an ideal, and his canon (or rather canons) were intended as means to
help the artist to approach towards the realisation of that ideal. It is
obvious also that a man occupied in comparing the proportions of those
whom he considers to be exceptionally beautiful will develop and feed
his power of imagining beautifully proportioned figures. It would be
futile to deny that this is very much what took place in the evolution
of Greek statues, or that such works are perhaps of all others the most
central and satisfying to the human spirit. The sentences that precede
that quoted by Sir Martin are Greek in tendency.
A good figure cannot be made without industry and care; it should
therefore be well considered before it is begun, so that it be correctly
made. For the lines of its form cannot be traced by compass or rule, but
must be drawn by the hand from point to point, so that it is easy to go
wrong in them. And for such figures great attention should be paid to
human proportions, and all their kinds should be investigated. _I hold
that the more nearly and accurately a figure is made to resemble a man,
so much the better the work will be._ If the best parts chosen from many
well-formed men are united in one figure, it will be worthy of praise.
But some are of another opinion, and discuss how men ought to be made. I
will not argue with them about that. I hold Nature for Master in such
matters, and the fancy of men for delusion.
And then follows the passage quoted by Sir Martin Conway (see p. 289).
It is obvious that, joined with the two preceding sentences, this
passage can in no way be made to serve the academical practitioner, as
it seems to when taken alone. In the same way, the sentence printed in
italics in the above quotation, if isolated, would certainly seem to
serve the scientific practitioners and their slavish realism, though in
connection with those that follow this is no longer possible. Dürer
regards nature as providing raw material for a creation which may not
tally exactly with any individual natural object. This was the Greek
artists' idea of the serviceableness of nature, as revealed both by
their practice and by such traditions as that concerning Zeuxis and his
five beautiful models for the figure of Venus. But Dürer does not
confine the use of his canons even to this aim, but clearly perceived
their utility in regard to quite other aims, as is shown by the passage
beginning, "It is not to be wondered at," &c. (see p. 286), in which the
imagination of figures not merely intended to embody beautiful or newly
assorted proportions is clearly considered; and if we review Dürer's
actual work we shall see how much oftener he created figures for
picturesque or dramatic effect than he did to embody beautiful
proportions in them, though he evidently also considered the last
purpose as of the first importance, as we see when he goes on to say:
Let any one who thinks I alter the human form too much or too little
take care to avoid my error and follow nature. There are many different
kinds of men in various lands: whoso travels far will find this to be
so, and see it before his eyes. We are considering about the most
beautiful human figure conceivable, but (only) the Maker of the world
knows how that should be. Even if we succeed well we do but approach
towards it from afar. For we ourselves have differences of perception,
and the vulgar who follow only their own taste usually err. Therefore I
do not advise any one to follow me, for I only do what I can, and that
is not enough even to satisfy myself.
The extreme complexity of Dürer's ideas and their application was a
natural result of their having been born of his experience. For
excellence is extremely various, and widely scattered through the world.
The simplicity of a true work of art results merely from some excellence
having been singled out from all foreign circumstances, and presented as
vividly as it was intensely apprehended. This excellence may be one of
proportion or one of many other kinds. Now, a figure conceived by an
artist, whether he value it for its choicely assorted proportions or for
picturesque or dramatic effect, may need to be developed before it is
serviceable in an elaborate work of art.
Artists who work rapidly, and, whose pictures are dominated by passing
moods, have always been in the habit of taking great licences with
proportion, and, indeed, with all matters of fact. Dürer's aim is to
endow the artist who elaborates his work slowly with a similar freedom.
This energy and power in rapid work it is the ever-renewed despair of
artists to feel themselves losing in the process of elaboration. And one
of the reasons for this is that in larger or more elaborate work, the
statement, being more ample, is expected to be also more comprehensive
and exhaustive; for the time required begets after-thoughts as to the
real nature of the object viewed apart from the mood, which is the only
excuse for the work; and so some of the artist's attention is drawn away
to facts and aspects which it would have been the success of his work to
have ignored. Dürer's object was to help a man to carry out his
essential intention, and that alone, in a carefully elaborated picture;
the problems faced were precisely similar to those so successfully coped
with in Greek statues. In the first place, he would have pointed out
that all sketches will not bear elaboration if their merit depends on
extreme licence, for instance. Next, that a man who had a standard of
proportion could see wherein the deviations of his sketched figure were
essential to the effect he wished it to produce, and wherein they were
unessential. Then, if he drew the normal figure large, he would be able
to deviate from it in exactly the right places and to the right degree
to reproduce the desired effect. But to do this he must also have a
general notion of how deviations from a normal proportion could be made
consistent throughout all the measurements involved not that he would in
every case want to make them consistent. Now, there is a class of
artists for whom all these suggestions of Dürer's must for ever remain
useless, for all science of production is impossible for those whose
only success lies in improvisation; such improvisations, however
dazzling or however delightful they may be, are, nevertheless, the class
of art-works furthest removed in spirit and in method from Greek
statuary. I do not say that they need be inferior; I say that they are
opposite in method. And, had circumstances permitted, or Dürer's dowry
of great gifts been more complete than it was, and enabled him to become
as great a creator of pictures as he is a great draughtsman and
portrait-painter, no doubt his pictures would have resembled Greek
statues both in their effect and their method, however different they
might have been in subject and in range. To talk about "beauty" being
sacrificed to "truth," with Prof. Thausing; or the ideal of the North
being "strength" in works of art as in life, with Sir Martin Conway;--is
to confuse the issue and deceive oneself. To have mistaken the proper
end of art, beauty, by thinking it was "truth" or "strength," is to have
failed to labour in the right direction; that is all-who-ever may
condone the failure.
Again, Sir Martin Conway tells us:
The laws of perspective can be deduced with certainty from mathematical
first principles, the canon of proportions' could only be constructed
empirically as the result of repeated observations. Nevertheless, once
constructed, it can certainly be used as Dürer suggested. Its use has
practically been superseded by the study of anatomy.
This last phrase shows us in a flash how far the writer when he wrote it
was from apprehending Dürer's meaning. How could the study of anatomy
ever do for an artist what Dürer was trying to do? No doubt Sir Martin
had Michael Angelo in his mind's eye; and it is true that he studied
anatomy, and that his influence has been, on the whole, paramount with
artists attempting subjects of this kind ever since. Whether Michael
Angelo studied proportion or not, his practice exemplifies Dürer's
meaning splendidly. No anatomical research could have led him to
construct figures nine to twelve, or even fifteen to twenty, heads
high--to do which, as his work developed, more and more became his
practice, especially in designs and sketches for compositions. To arrive
at such proportions he followed his imaginative instinct. He found that
these monstrous deviations from the normal (which, of course, in a
general sense he recognised, whether he gave any study to rendering it
precise or not) produced the effect on his mind that he wished to
produce on the minds of others--an effect that was emotional and
peculiar to his habitual moods. We know that his constitution gave him
the staying-power, while his fiery Titanic spirit gave him the energy,
to carry out and perfect his mighty frescoes and statues at the same
heat that the creative hour yields other men for the production of a
sketch alone. This giant son of Time was able to live for days and weeks
together in a state of mind two or three consecutive hours of which
exhaust the average master even. Considering the rapidity and intensity
of his mental process, it is a miracle that, in so many works and to so
great a degree, he respected the too much and too little of human
reason, and allowed himself to be governed by what the Greeks called a
sense of measure, instead of yielding to his native impetuosity and
becoming an a-thousand-fold-greater-Blake; and illustrating, to the
delight of active and short-winded intelligences, and the stupefaction
of slow and dull ones, the futility of eccentricity and the frivolity of
passion when unseconded by constancy of character and labour. For
futile, in the arts, is whatever the sense of beauty must condemn,
however well-intentioned; and frivolous is the passion that forgets the
end it would attain, and becomes merely a private rhapsody, however
astonishing its developments; slowly but surely it will be seen that
such fireworks do not vitally concern us. The proportions of many of
Michael Angelo's figures are as far removed from any possible normal
standard as what Dürer calls "this my swiftness," in the abnormally tall
and stout figures among the diagrams illustrating his book.
And this is where Dürer's idea comes nearer to Greek practice. For by
letting the striking rather than the subtle govern his departures from
the mean, Michael Angelo found himself always bound to go beyond
himself; as the palate which once has entertained strong stimulants
demands that the dose be continually strengthened. Now this is in entire
conformity with the impatience which was perhaps his greatest weakness;
just as Dürer's too methodical approach is in conformity with that
acquiescence in the insufficiency of his conditions which made him in
his weak moments swear never again to undertake those better classes of
work which were less adequately paid, or made him content to display
mere manual dexterity rather than do nothing on his days of darkness,
suffering and depression: we may add, which made him choose to live at
Nuremberg and refuse a better income and more suitable surroundings
It is obviously the more hopeful way to create a beautiful figure first
and discover a mathematical way of reproducing its most essential
proportions afterwards; and no doubt this is what Dürer intended should
be done; and in consequence he felt a need, and sought to supply it, for
mechanical means to simplify, shorten and render more sure that part of
the process which must necessarily partake something of the nature of
drudgery, if great finish is to be combined with splendid design. The
romantic, impulsive _improvisatore_ does not feel this need, considers
it bound to defeat its own aim; and, given his own gifts, he is right.
But none the less, there are the Greek statues elaborated with a
thoroughness which, if it ever dims or veils the creative intention,
does so in a degree so slight as to seem amply compensated by the sense
of ease maintained in spite of the innumerable difficulties overcome;
there are besides a score or more of Dürer's copper engravings with
their imperturbable adequacy of minute painstaking, never for a moment
sleepy or mechanical or lifeless. The one aim need not excommunicate the
other even in the same individual; far less need this be so in different
artists, with diverse temperaments, diverse aptitudes.
The application of this idea does not end with the simple proportions of
measurement between the limbs and parts of the figure; it is also
concerned with what is called the modelling, and the treatment of
surfaces such as the draperies, the hair, the fleshy portions and those
beneath which the bony structure comes to prominence; in painting it may
be applied to the chiaroscuro and colour. Reynolds' remarks on the
Venetians in his Eighth Discourse well illustrate this fact. He says:
It ought, in my opinion, to be indispensably observed that the masses of
light in a picture be always of a warm mellow colour, yellow, red, or a
yellowish-white; and that the blue, the grey, or the green colours be
kept _almost_ entirely out of these masses, and be used only to support
and set off these warm colours; and, for this purpose, a small
_proportion_ of cold colours will be sufficient.
If this conduct be reversed, let the light be cold, and the surrounding
colours warm, as we often see in the works of the Roman and Florentine
painters; and it will be out of the power of art, even in the hands of
Rubens or Titian, to make a picture splendid or harmonious.
Here we see a great colourist attempting to establish a canon for
colour. Had he lived at an earlier period, before expression had become
generally a subject of criticism, he would have described his discovery
in less guarded and elastic language, such as is now applied to
scientific laws. And then he might have been as excusably misunderstood
as Leonardo and Dürer have been; as it is, the misunderstanding dealt
out to him is quite without excuse.
Rembrandt, not only exemplifies the impressiveness of great deviations
in structural proportions in much the same degree as Michael Angelo,
using what the Greeks and Dürer would doubtless have considered a
dangerous liberty, however much they might have felt bound to admire the
results obtained; not only does he do this when, for instance, he
represents Jesus now as a giant, now as almost a dwarf, according to the
imaginative impression which he chooses to create; but he follows a
similar process in his black and white pattern. For among his works
there are etchings, which, though often supposed to have been left
unfinished, are discerned by those with a sense for beauties of this
class to be marvellously complete, stimulating, and satisfying, and in
the nicest harmony with the other impressions produced by the mental
point of view from which the subject is viewed, as also by the main
lines and proportions of the composition, and to yield the visual
delight most suitable to the occasion. Dürer and the Greeks are at one
with Michael Angelo and Rembrandt in condemning by their practice all
purely mechanical application of ideas or methods to the production of
works of creative art, such as is exemplified by artists of more limited
aims and powers; by academical practitioners, by theoretical scientists
calling themselves impressionists, luminarists, naturalists, or any
other name. For artists whose temperaments are impeded by some unhappy
slowness, or difficulty in concentrating themselves, methods of
procedure similar to those elaborated by Dürer in his books on
proportion, properly understood, must be a real aid and benefit; as
those who are essentially improvisors may help themselves and supply
their deficiencies by methods similar to those which Reynolds describes
as practised by Gainsborough.
"He even framed a kind of model of landscapes on his table, composed of
broken stones, dried herbs and pieces of broken glass, which he
magnified and improved into rocks, trees and water" (Fourteenth
This process resembles that of tracing faces or scenes from the life of
gnomes in glowing caverns among coals of fire on a winter's eve; it is
resorted to in one form or another by all creative artists, but it is
peculiarly useful to men like Gainsborough, whose art tends always to
become an improvisation, whatever strenuous discipline they may have
subjected themselves to in their days of ardent youth.
Perhaps Dürer's actual standards for the normal, his actual methods for
creating self-consistent variations from it, are not likely to prove of
much use, even when artists shall be sufficiently educated to understand
them; nevertheless, the principle which informs them has been latent in
the work of all great creators; is marvellously fulfilled indeed, in
Greek statuary. The work of Antoine Louis Barye, that great and
little-understood master--as far as I am able to judge, the only modern
artist who has made science serve him instead of being seduced by
her--exemplifies this central idea of Dürer's almost as fully as the
Greek masterpieces. The future of art appears to me to lie in the hands
of those artists who shall be able to grapple with the new means offered
them by the advance of science, as he did, and be as little or even less
seduced than he was by the foolish idea that art can become science
without ceasing to be art, which has handicapped and defeated the
efforts of so many industrious and talented men of late years. So truly
is this the case that the improvisor appears to many as the only true
artist, and his uncontrolled caprices as the farthest reach of human
In any case, no artist is unhappy if a docile and hopeful disposition
enables him to see in the masterpieces of Greek sculpture the reward of
an easy balance of both temperaments and methods, the improvisor's and
the elaborator's, under felicitous circumstances, by men better endowed
than himself. And this though never history and archaeology shall be in
a position to give him information sufficient to determine that his
faith is wholly warranted.
A golden age is a golden dream, that sheds
A golden light on waking hours, on toil,
On leisure, and on finished works.
[Footnote 85: "Literary Remains of Albrecht Dürer," p. 166.]
[Footnote 86: See also III Discourse where he defends Dürer against
THE IMPORTANCE OF DOCILITY
I now intend to re-arrange what seem the most interesting of the
sentences on the theory of art which are found in Dürer's MSS. and books
on proportion. He did not give them the final form or order which he
intended, and it seems to me that to arrange the more important
according to the subjects they treat of will be the simplest way of
arriving at general conceptions as to their tendency and value. We shall
thus bring together repetitions of the same thought and contradictory
answers to the same question; and after each series of sentences, I
myself shall discuss the points raised, illustrating my remarks from
modern writers whose opinion in these matters seems to me deserving of
most attention. I have heard it said by the late Mr. Arthur Strong that
Dürer's art is always didactic; and Dürer as a writer on art certainly
has ever before his mind this one object, to teach others, or, as I
should prefer to phrase it, to help others to learn. For he himself is
continually confessing that he cannot yet answer his own questions, and
it seems to me that the best teacher is always he who most desires to
increase his knowledge, not indeed to hoard it as some do and make of
it a personal possession; intellectual misers, for ever gnashing their
teeth over the reputations or the pretensions of others. No, but one who
desires knowledge for its own sake and welcomes it in others with as
much satisfaction as he gains it for himself. Docility, i.e.,
teachableness, let me point out once more, seems to be the necessary
midwife of genius, without the aid of which it often labours in vain, or
brings forth strange incongruous and misshapen births.
Sad is the condition of a brilliant and fiery spirit shut up in a man's
brain without the humble assistance of this lively, meek and patient
virtue! What unrelieved and insupportable throes of agony must be borne
by such a spirit, and how often does such labour end in misanthropy or
madness! The records of the lives of exceptionally-gifted men tell us
only too clearly what pains those are, and how frequently they have been
borne. So I fancy I cannot do better than choose out for my first
section sentences which praise or advocate the effort to learn, or
attempt to enlighten those who make such an effort on the choice of
teachers and disciplines.
I shall not hesitate to transpose sentences even when they appear in
connected passages, in order, as I hope, to bring out more clearly their
connection. For Dürer was not a writer by profession, and his thoughts
were often more abundant than he knew how to deal with.
Before starting, however, I must prefix to my quotations some account of
the four MS. books in the British Museum from which they are principally
taken. Rough drafts in Pirkheimer's handwriting were found among them,
but of Dürer's work Sir Martin Conway tells us:
The volumes contain upwards of seven hundred leaves and scraps of paper
of various kinds, covered at different dates with more or less elaborate
outline drawings, and more or less corrected drafts for works published
or planned by Dürer. Interspersed among them are geometrical and
He was in the habit of correcting and re-copying, again and again, what
he had written. Sometimes he would jot down a sentence alongside of
matter to which it had no relation. This sentence he would afterwards
introduce in its right connection. There are in these volumes no less
than four drafts of the beginning of a Dedication to Pirkheimer of the
Books of Human Proportions. Two other drafts of this same dedication are
among the Dresden MSS. The opening sentences of the Introduction to the
same work were likewise, as will be seen, the subject of
These drafts, notes and sketches date from 1508 to 1523. Some collector
had had them cut out, gummed together, and bound without the slightest
regard to order, or even to the sequence of consecutive passages. In
January 1890 the volumes were taken to pieces and rearranged by Miss
Lina Eckenstein, who had previously made the admirable translations of
them for Sir Martin Conway's "Literary Remains of Albrecht Dürer," from
which my quotations are taken.
The contents of the volumes as rearranged may be roughly described as
Volume 1. Drawings of whole figures and portions of the body,
illustrating Dürer's theories of Proportion. Drawings of a solid
octogon. Six coloured drawings of crystals. The description of the
Ionic order of architecture. Drawings of columns with measurements. A
scale for Human Proportions. A table of contents for a work on Geometry.
Notes on perspective, curves, folds, &c. The different kinds of temple
after Vitruvius. Mathematical diagrams, &c.
Volume II. Draft of a dedicatory letter to King Ferdinand (see page
180). Drafts and drawings for "The Art of Fortification." Drawing of a
shield with a rearing horse. Mantles of Netherlandish women and nuns. A
Latin inscription for his own portrait. Notes on "Proportion," and on
the feast of the Rosenkranz. Scale for Human Proportions. An alphabet.
Draft of a dedication for the books on Proportion. Sketch of a skeleton.
Studies of architecture. Venetian houses and roofs. Sketches of a
church, a house, a tower, a drapery, &c.
Volume III. Drafts of a projected work on Painting and on the study of
Proportion. Drafts for the dedication, the preface, and for a work on
Esthetics. Drawings of a male body, a female body, and a piece of
drapery. Notes and drawings for the proportions of heads, hands, feet,
outline curves, a child, a woman, &c.
Volume IV. Proportions of a man, a fat woman, the head of the average
woman, the young woman, &c. Short Profession of Faith (see page 130).
Scale for Human Proportions, &c. Fragments of the Preface of Essay on
Aesthetics, &c. Grimacing and distorted faces. Use of measurements. On
the characters of faces, thick, thin, broad, narrow, &c. Sketches of a
dragon and of an angel for Maximilian's Triumphal Procession. List of
Luther's works (see page 130). Drawings of human bodies proportioned
[Illustration: "UNA VILANA WENDISCH" Pen drawing with wash background
in the collection of Mrs. Seymour _face_ p. 304]
See the description in "Dürer's Schriftlicher Nachlass" (Lange und
Fuhse), page 263, from which the above abstract is made.
Sir Martin Conway continues:
In these volumes Dürer is seen, sometimes writing under the influence of
impetuous impulse, sometimes with leisurely care, allowing his pen to
embroider the script with graceful marginal flourishes.
At what period of his career Dürer first conceived the idea of writing a
comprehensive work upon the theory and practice of art is unknown. It
was certainly before the year 1512. The following list of chapters may
perhaps be an early sketch of the plan.
Ten things are contained in the little book.
The first, the proportions of a young child.
The second, proportions of a grown man.
The third, proportions of a woman.
The fourth, proportions of a horse.
The fifth, something about architecture.
The sixth, about an apparatus through which it can be
shown that 'all things may be traced.
The seventh, about light and shade.
The eighth, about colours, how to paint like nature.
The ninth, about the ordering (composition) of the
The tenth, about free painting, which alone is made by
Imagination without any other help.
Glad enough should we be to attain unto great knowledge without toil,
for nature has implanted in us the desire of knowing all things,
thereby to discern a truth of all things. But our dull wit cannot come
unto such perfectness of all art, truth, and wisdom. Yet are we not,
therefore, shut out altogether from all arts. If we want to sharpen our
reason by learning and to practise ourselves therein, having once found
the right path we may, step by step, seek, learn, comprehend, and
finally reach and attain unto something true. Wherefore, he that
understandeth how to learn somewhat in his leisure time, whereby he may
most certainly be enabled to honour God, and to do what is useful both
for himself and others, that man doeth well; and we know that in this
wise he will gain much experience in art and will be able to make known
its truth for our good. It is right, therefore, for one man to teach
another. He that joyfully doeth so, upon him shall much be bestowed by
God, from whom we receive all things. He hath highest praise.
One finds some who know nothing and learn nothing. They despise
learning, and say that much evil cometh of the arts, and that some are
wholly vile. I, on the contrary, hold that no art is evil, but that all
are good. A sword is a sword which may be used either for murder or for
justice. Similarly the arts are in themselves good. What God hath
formed, that is good, misuse it how ye will.
Thou findest arts of all kinds; choose then for thyself that which is
like to be of greatest service to thee. Learn it; let not the difficulty
thereof vex thee till thou hast accomplished somewhat wherewith thou
mayest be satisfied.
It is very necessary for a man to know some one thing by reason of the
usefulness which ariseth therefrom. Wherefore we should all gladly
learn, for the more we know so much the more do we resemble the likeness
of God, who verily knoweth all things.
The more, therefore, a man learneth, so much the better doth he become,
and so much the more love doth he win for the arts and for things
exalted. Wherefore a man ought not to play the wanton, but should learn
Is the artistic man pious and by nature good? He escheweth the evil and
chooseth the good; and hereunto serve the arts, for they give the
discernment of good and evil.
Some may learn somewhat of all arts, but that is not given to every man.
Nevertheless, there is no rational man so dull but that he may learn the
one thing towards which his fancy draweth him most strongly. Hence no
man is excused from learning something.
Let no man put too much confidence in himself, for many (pairs of eyes)
see better than one. Though it is possible for a man to comprehend more
than a thousand (men), still that cometh but rarely to pass.
Many fall into error because they follow their own taste alone;
therefore let each look to it that his inclination blind not his
judgment. For every mother is well pleased with her own child, and thus
also it ariseth that many painters paint figures resembling themselves.
He that worketh in ignorance worketh more painfully than he that worketh
with understanding; therefore let all learn to understand aright.
Now I know that in our German nation, at the present time, are many
painters who stand in need of instruction, for they lack all real art,
yet they nevertheless have many large works to do. Forasmuch then as
they are so numerous, it is very needful for them to learn to better
Willingly will I impart my teaching, hereafter written, to the man who
knoweth little and would gladly learn; but I will not be cumbered with
the proud, who, according to their own estimate of themselves, know all
things, and are best, and despise all else. From true artists, however,
such as can show their meaning with the hand, I desire to learn humbly
and with much thankfulness.
A thing thou beholdest is easier of belief than that thou hearest, but
whatever is both heard and seen we grasp more firmly and lay hold on
more securely. I will therefore do the work in both ways, that thus I
may be better understood.
Whosoever will, therefore, let him hear and see what I say, do, and
teach, for I hope it may be of service and not for a hindrance to the
better arts, nor lead thee to neglect better things.
I hear moreover of no writer in modern times by whom aught hath been
written and made known which I might read for my improvement. For some
hide their art in great secrecy, and others write about things whereof
they know nothing, so that their words are nowise better than mere
noise, as he that knoweth somewhat is swift to discover. I therefore
will write down with God's help the little that I know. Though many will
scorn it I am not troubled, for I well know that it is easier to cast
blame on a thing than to make anything better. Moreover, I will expound
my meaning as clearly and plainly as I can; and, were it possible, I
would gladly give everything I know to the light, for the good of
cunning students who prize such art more highly than silver or gold. I
further admonish all who have any knowledge in these matters that they
write it down. Do it truly and plainly, not toilsomely and at great
length, for the sake of those who seek and are glad to learn, to the
great honour of God and your own praise. If I then set something burning
and ye all add to it with skilful furthering, a blaze may in time arise
therefrom which shall shine throughout the whole world.
I shall here apply to what is to be called beautiful the same
touchstone as that by which we decide what is right. For as what all the
world prizeth as right we hold to be right, so what all the world
esteemeth beautiful that will we also hold for beautiful, and ourselves
strive to produce the like.
No one need blindly follow this theory of mine as though it were quite
perfect, for human nature has not yet so far degenerated that another
man cannot discover something better. So each may use my teaching as
long as it seems good to him, or until he finds something better. Where
he is not willing to accept it, he may well hold that this doctrine is
not written for him, but for others who are willing.
That must be a strangely dull head which never trusts itself to find out
anything fresh, but only travels along the old path, simply following
others and not daring to reflect for itself. For it beseems each
understanding, in following another, not to despair of itself
discovering something better. If that is done, there remaineth no doubt
but that in time this art will again reach the perfection it attained
amongst the ancients.
Much will hereafter be written about subjects and refinements of
painting. Sure am I that many notable men will arise, all of whom will
write both well and better about this art, and will teach it better than
I; for I myself hold my art at a very mean value, for I know what my
faults are. Let every man therefore strive to better these my errors
according to his powers. Would to God it were possible for me to see the
work and art of the mighty masters to come, who are yet unborn, for I
know that I might be improved upon. Ah! how often in my sleep do I
behold great works of art and beautiful things, the like whereof never
appear to me awake, but so soon as I awake, even the remembrance of
them leaveth me.
Compare also the passages already quoted,(pp. 15,16,26).
"What an admirable temper!" is the exclamation which expresses our first
feeling on reading the foregoing sentences. It renews the spirit of a
man merely to peruse such things. Scales fall from our eyes, and we see
what we most essentially are, with pleasure, as good children gleefully
recognise their goodness: and at the same time we are filled with
contrition that we should have ever forgotten it. And this that we most
essentially are rational beings, lovers of goodness, children of
hope,--how directly Dürer appeals to it: "Nature has implanted in us the
desire of knowing all things." It reminds one of Ben Jonson's:--
It is a false quarrel against nature, that she helps understanding but
in a few, when the most part of mankind are inclined by her thither, if
they would take the pains; no less than birds to fly, horses to run,
&c., which, if they lose it, is through their own sluggishness, and by
that means they become her prodigies, not her children.
There is something refreshing and inspiriting in the mere conviction of
our teachableness; and when the same author, referring to Plato's
travels in search of knowledge, says, "He laboured, so must we," we do
not find the comparison humiliating either to Plato or ourselves. For
"without a way there is no going," and every man of superior mould says
to us with more or less of benignity, "I am the way: follow me." Such
means or ways of attainment have been followed by all whose success is
known to us, and are followed now by all "finely touched and gifted
men." I might quote in illustration of these assertions the whole of
Reynolds' Sixth Discourse, so marvellous for its acute and delicate
discrimination; but I will content myself with a few leading passages:
We cannot suppose that any one can really mean to exclude all imitation
It is a common observation that no art was ever invented and carried to
perfection at the same time.
The greatest natural genius cannot subsist on its own stock: he who
resolves never to ransack any mind but his own will soon be reduced to
the poorest of all imitations, he will be obliged to imitate himself,
and to repeat what he has often before repeated.
The truth is, he whose feebleness is such as to make other men's
thoughts an encumbrance to him, can have no very great strength of mind
or genius of his own to be destroyed: so that not much harm will be done
at the worst.
Of course, this last phrase will not apply universally; we must remember
that the man who sets out to become an artist, or claims to be one by
native gift, has made apparent that he is the possessor of no mean
ambition. The humblest may see a way of improvement in their betters,
and obey the command, "Follow me." Every man is not called to follow
great artists, but only those who are peculiarly fitted to tread the
difficult paths that climb Olympus-hill. Yet to all men alike the great
artist in life, he who wedded failure to divinity, says, "Learn of me
that I am meek and lowly of heart, and ye shall find rest to
He who confines himself to the imitation of an individual, as he never
proposes to surpass, so he is not likely to equal, the object of his
imitation. He professes only to follow; and he that follows must
necessarily be behind.
It is of course impossible to surpass perfection, but it is possible to
be made one with it.
To find excellences, however dispersed, to discover beauties, however
concealed by the multitude of defects with which they are surrounded,
can be the work only of him who, having a mind always alive to his art,
has extended his views to all ages and to all schools; and has acquired
from that comprehensive mass which he has thus gathered to himself a
well-digested and perfect idea of his art, to which everything is
referred. Like a sovereign judge and arbiter of art, he is possessed of
that presiding power which separates and attracts every excellence from
every school; selects both from what is great and what is little; brings
home knowledge from the east and from the west; making the universe
tributary towards furnishing his mind, and enriching his works with
originality and variety of inventions.
In this tine passage we get back to our central idea in regard to the
sense of proportion "making the universe tributary towards furnishing
his mind"; while in the "discovery of beauties" the complete artist
"selects both from what is great and what is little," from the clouds of
heaven and from the dunghills of the farmyard.
Study, therefore, the great works of the great masters for ever. Study,
as nearly as you can, in the order, in the manner, and on the principles
on which they studied. Study nature attentively, but always with those
masters in your company; consider them as models which you are to
imitate, and at the same time as rivals with whom you are to contend.
For "no man can be an artist, whatever he may suppose, upon any
Yes, an artist is a child who chooses his parents, nor is he limited to
only two. Religion tells all men they have a Father, who is God;
philosophy and tradition repeat, "man has a mother, who is Nature."
These sayings are platitudes; their application is so obvious that it is
now generally forgotten. If God is a Father, it is the soul that chooses
Him; if Nature is a mother, it is the man who chooses to regard her as
such, since to the greater number it is well known she seems but a
stepmother, and a cruel one at that. Elective affinities, chosen
kindred!--"tell me what company you keep, and I will tell you who you
are" (what you are worth). How many artist waifs one sees nowadays! lost
souls, who choose to be nobody's children, and think they can teach
themselves all they need to know.
I think the very striking agreement between artists so totally different
in every respect except eminence, docility and anxiety to further art,
as Dürer and Reynolds, ought to impress our minds very deeply: even
though, as is certainly the case, the way they point out has been very
greatly abandoned of late years, and public institutions in this and
other countries proceed to further art on quite other lines; even though
critics are almost unanimous in knowing better both the end and the way
than the great masters who had not the advantage of a dash of science in
their hydromel to make it sparkle, but instead made it yet richer and
thicker by stirring up with it piety and religion. I think this
"cock-tail and sherry-cobbler" art criticism of to-day is very
deleterious to the digestion, and that the piety and enthusiasm which
Dürer and Reynolds worked into their art were more wholesome, and better
supplied the needs and deficiencies of artistic temperaments.
THE LOST TRADITION
Many centuries ago the great art of painting was held in high honour by
mighty kings, and they made excellent artists rich and held them worthy,
accounting such inventiveness a creating power like God's. For the
imagination of a good painter is full of figures, and were it possible
for him to live for ever, he would always have from his inward ideas,
whereof Plato speaks, something new to set forth by the work of
Many hundred years ago there were still some famous painters, such as
those named Phidias, Praxiteles, Apelles, Polycleitus, Parrhasius,
Lysippus, Protogenes, and the rest, some of whom wrote about their art
and very artfully described it and gave it plainly to light: but their
praise-worthy books are, so far, unknown to us, and perhaps have been
altogether lost by war, driving forth of the peoples, and alterations of
laws and beliefs--a loss much to be regretted by every wise man. It
often came to pass that noble "Ingenia" were destroyed by barbarous
oppressors of art; for if they saw figures traced in a few lines they
thought it nought but vain, devilish sorcery. And in destroying them
they attempted to honour God by something displeasing to Him; and to use
the language of men, God was angry with all destroyers of the works of
great mastership, which is only attained by much toil, labour, and
expenditure of time, and is bestowed by God alone. Often do I sorrow
because I must be robbed of the aforesaid masters' books of art; but the
enemies of art despise these things.
Pliny writeth that the old painters and sculptors--such as Apelles,
Protogenes, and the rest--told very artistically in writing how a
well-built man's figure might be measured out. Now it may well have come
to pass that these noble books were misunderstood and destroyed as
idolatrous in the early days of the Church. For they would have said
Jupiter should have such proportions, Apollo such others; Venus shall be
thus, Hercules thus; and so with all the rest. Had it, however, been my
fate to be there at the time, I would have said: "Oh dear, holy lords
and fathers, do not so lamentably destroy the nobly discovered arts,
which have been gotten by great toil and labour, only because of the
abuses made of them. For art is very hard, and we might and would use it
for the great honour and glory of God. For, even as the ancients used
the fairest figure of a man to represent their false god Apollo, we will
employ the same for Christ the Lord, who is fairest of all the earth;
and as they figured Venus as the loveliest of women, so will we in like
manner set down the same beauteous form for the most pure Virgin Mary,
the mother of God; and of Hercules will we make Samson, and thus will we
do with all the rest, for such books shall we get never more."
Wherefore, though that which is lost ariseth not again, yet a man may
strive after new lore; and for these reasons I have been moved to make
known my ideas here following, in order that others may ponder the
matter further, and may thus come to a new and better way and
I certainly do not deny that, if the books of the ancients who wrote
about the art of painting still lay before our eyes, my design might be
open to the false interpretation that I thought to find out something
better than what was known unto them. These books, however, have been
totally lost in the lapse of time; so I cannot be justly blamed for
publishing my opinions and discoveries in writing, for that is exactly
what the ancients did. If other competent men are thereby induced to do
the like, our descendants have something which they may add to and
improve upon, and thus the art of painting may in time advance and reach
Whether we should exercise our intellects or logical sense alone upon
the records and remains of past ages, or whether they may not be better
employed for the exercise and edification of the imaginative faculties,
would seem to be a question which, though they did not perhaps in set
terms put to themselves, modern historians have very summarily answered;
and I think answered wrongly. The records of the past, the records even
of yesterday, are necessarily extremely incomplete; to make them at all
significant something must be added by the historian. The 'perception'
of probability is never exact; it varies with the mind between man and
man; in the same man even before and after different experiences, &c.
But even if the perception of the highest probability were practically
exact, it would never suffice; for, as Aristotle says, "it is probable
that many things should happen contrary to probability." From these
facts it follows that the man who has the most exhaustive knowledge of
what has actually survived, and what has been recorded, will not
necessarily form the truest judgment on a question of history; it might
always happen that the intuition of some unscholarly person was nearer
the truth; still no man could ever decide between the two, nor would any
sane man think it worth his while to take sides with either of them;
such questions are most useful when they are left open. This is the case
because the imagination is thus left freer to use such knowledge as it
has for the edification of the character; and that model for our example
or warning which the imagination constructs may always possibly be the
truth. According to the balance in it of apparent probability, with
edifying power it will beget conviction. Such a conviction may be doomed
to be superseded sooner or later; its value lies in its potency while it
lasts. The temper in which we look at our historical heritage is of more
importance to us now than the exactitude of our vision; for this latter
can never be proved, while the former approves itself by the fruit it
bears within us. It is better, more fruitful, to feel with Dürer about
the art of Ancient Greece than to know all that can be known of it
to-day and feel a great deal less. "Character calls forth character,"
said Goethe; we may add, "even from the grave." Now that the physical
miracle of the Resurrection has come to seem so unimportant and
uninteresting to educated men, it might be a wise economy to connect its
poetry with this experience, that great and creative characters can
raise men better worth knowing than Lazarus from the dead. Nietsche
thought that Shakespeare had brought Brutus back to life, (though he
knew very little of Roman history), and that Brutus was the Roman best
worth knowing. "Of all peoples, the Greeks dreamt the dream of life the
best," Goethe said; and again, "For all other arts we have to make some
allowance; to Greek art alone we are for ever debtors." To feel the
truth of these sayings with a passion similar to that shown in the
passages quoted above from Dürer, must surely be a great help to an
artist. Such a passion is an end in itself, or rather is the only means
by which we can win spiritual freedom from some of the heavier fetters
that modern life lays upon us. It freed Goethe even from Germany.
How is beauty to be judged?--upon that we have to deliberate.
A man by skill may bring it into every single thing, for in some things
we recognise that as beautiful which elsewhere would lack beauty.
Good and better in respect of beauty are not easy to discern; for it
would be quite possible to make two different figures, one stout, the
other thin, which should differ one from the other in every proportion,
and yet we scarce might be able to judge which of the two excelled in
beauty. What beauty is I know not, though it dependeth upon many things.
I shall here apply to what is to be called beautiful the same touchstone
as that by which we decide what is right. For as what all the world
prizeth as right we hold to be right, so what all the world esteemeth
beautiful that we will also hold for beautiful, and ourselves strive to
produce the like.
There are many causes and varieties of beauty; he that can prove them is
so much the more to be trusted.
The accord of one thing with another is beautiful, therefore want of
harmony is not beautiful. A real harmony linketh together things unlike.
Use is a part of beauty, whatever therefore is useless unto men is
The more imperfection is excluded so much the more doth beauty abide in
Guard thyself from superfluity.
But beauty is so put together in men and so uncertain is our judgment
about it, that we may perhaps find two men both beautiful and fair to
look upon, and yet neither resembleth the other, in measure or kind, in
any single point or part; and so blind is our perception that we shall
not understand whether of the two is the more beautiful, and if we give
an opinion on the matter it shall lack certainty.
Negro faces are seldom beautiful because of their very flat noses and
thick lips; moreover, their shinbone is too prominent, and the knee and
foot too long, not so good to look upon as those of the whites; and so
also is it with their hand. Howbeit, I have seen some amongst them whose
whole bodies have been so well-built and handsome that I never beheld
finer figures, nor can I conceive how they might be bettered, so
excellent were their arms and all their limbs.
Seeing that man is the worthiest of all creatures, it follows that, in
all pictures, the human figure is most frequently employed as a centre
of interest. Every animal in the world regards nothing but his own kind,
and the same nature is also in men, as every man may perceive
[Illustration: Charcoal-drawing heightened with white on a green
prepared ground, in the Berlin Print Room _Face p_. 320]
Further, in order that he may arrive at a good canon whereby to bring
somewhat of beauty into our work, there-unto it were best for thee, it
bethinks me, to form thy canon from many living men. Howbeit seek only
such men as are held beautiful, and from such draw with all diligence.
For one who hath understanding may, from men of many different kinds,
gather something good together through all the limbs of the body. But
seldom is a man found who hath all his limbs good, for every man lacks
No single man can be taken as a model of a perfect figure, for no man
liveth on earth who uniteth in himself all manner of beauties.... There
liveth also no man upon earth who could give a final judgment upon what
the perfect figure of a man is; God only knoweth that.
And although we cannot speak of the greatest beauty of a living
creature, yet we find in the visible creation a beauty so far surpassing
our understanding that no one of us can fully bring it into his work.
If we were to ask how we are to make a beautiful figure, some would give
answer: According to human judgment (i.e., common taste). Others would
not agree thereto, neither should I without a good reason. Who will give
us certainty in this matter?
I have already given what I believe to be the best answer to these
questions as to what beauty is and how it is to be judged. Beauty is
beauty as good is good (_see_ pp. 7, 8), or yellow, yellow; indeed, to
the second question, Matthew Arnold has given the only possible
answer--the relative value of beauties is "as the judicious would
determine," and the judicious are, in matters of art "finely touched and
gifted men." This criterion obviously cannot be easily or hastily
applied, nor could one ever be quite sure that in any given case it had
been applied to any given effect. But for practical needs we see that it
suffices to cast a slur on facile popularity, and vindicate over and
over again those who had been despised and rejected. What the true
artist desires to bring into his pictures is the power to move
finely-touched and gifted men. Not only are such by very much the
minority, but the more part of them being, by their capacity to be moved
and touched, easily wounded, have developed a natural armour of reserve,
of moroseness, of prejudice, of combativeness, of pedantry, which makes
them as difficult to address as wombats, or bears, or tortoises, or
porcupines, or polecats, or elephants. It is interesting to witness how
Dürer's self-contradictions show him to be aware of the great complexity
of these difficulties, as also to see how very near he comes to the true
answer. At one time he tells us:
"When men demand a work of a master, he is to be praised in so far as he
succeeds in satisfying their likings ..."
At another he tells us:
"The art of painting cannot be truly judged save by such as are
themselves good painters; from others verily is it hidden even as a
Every "finely touched and gifted man" is not an artist; but every true
artist must, in some measure, be a finely touched and gifted man. There
is no necessity to limit the public addressed to those who themselves
produce: yet those who "can prove what they say with their hand" bring
credentials superior to those offered by any others,--although even
their judgment is not sure, as they may well represent a minority of
the true court of appeal which can never be brought together.
No doubt there is a judgment and a scale of values accepted as final by
each generation that gives any considerable attention to these
questions. Æsthetic appear to be exactly similar to religious
convictions. Those who are subject to them probably pass through many
successively, even though they all their lives hold to a certain fashion
which enables them to assert some obvious unity, like those who, in
religion, belong always to one sect. Yet if they were in a position to
analyse their emotions and leanings, no doubt very fundamental
contradictions would be discovered to disconcert them. Conviction and
enthusiasm in the arts and religion would seem to be the frame of mind
natural to those who assimilate, and are rendered productive by what
they study and admire. Convictions may never be wholly justifiable in
theory, but in practice when results are considered, it would seem that
no other frame of mind should escape censure.
[Footnote 87: "Literary Remains of Albrecht Dürer," p. 244.]
[Footnote 88: "Literary Remains of Albrecht Dürer," p. 245.]
[Footnote 89: _Idem_. p. 177.]
We regard a form and figure out of nature with more pleasure than
another, though the thing in itself is not necessarily altogether
better or worse.
Life in nature showeth forth the truth of these things (the words of
difference--i.e., the character of bodily habit to which they refer),
wherefore regard it well, order thyself thereby and depart not from
nature in thine opinions, neither imagine of thyself to invent aught
better, else shalt thou be led astray, for art standeth firmly fixed in
nature, and whoso can rend her forth thence he only possesseth her. If
thou acquirest her, she will remove many faults for thee from thy work.
Neither must the figure be made youthful before and old behind, or
contrariwise; for that unto which nature is opposed is bad. Hence it
followeth that each figure should be of one kind alone throughout,
either young or old, or middle-aged, or lean or fat, or soft or hard.
The more closely thy work abideth by life in its form, so much the
better will it appear; and this is true. Wherefore never more imagine
that thou either canst or shalt make anything better than God hath given
power to His creatures to do. For thy power is weakness compared to
God's creating hand. (_See_ continuation of passage, p. 10.)
Compare also passages quoted (pp. 289-291).
In these and other passages Dürer speaks about "nature," and enjoins on
the artist respect for and conformity to "nature" in a manner which
reminds us of that still current in dictums about art. Indeed, it seems
probable that Dürer's use of this term was almost as confused as that of
a modern art-critic. There are two senses in which the word nature is
employed, the confusion of which is ten times more confounded than any
of the others, and deserves, indeed, utter damnation, so prolific of
evil is it. We call the objects of sensory perception "nature"--whatever
is seen, heard, felt, smelt or tasted is a part of nature. And yet we
constantly speak of seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting
monstrous and unnatural things. And a monstrous and unnatural thing is
not merely one which is rare, but even more decidedly one of which we
disapprove. So that the second use of the term conveys some sense of
exceptionality, but far more of lack of conformity to human desires and
expectations. Now, many things which do not exist are perfectly natural
in this second sense: fairy-lands, heavens, &c. We perfectly understand
what is meant by a natural and an unnatural imagination, we perceive
readily all kind of degrees between the monstrous and the natural in
pure fiction. Now, this second use of the term nature is the only one
which is of any vital importance to our judgments upon works of art; yet
current judgments are more often than not based wholly on the first
sense, which means merely all objects perceived by the senses; and this,
draped in the authority and phrases belonging to judgments based on the
second and really pertinent sense.
Whole schools of painting and criticism have arisen and flourish whose
only reason for existence is the extreme facility with which this
confusion is made in European languages. It sounds so plausible that
some have censured Michael Angelo for bad drawing because men are not
from 9 to 15 or 16 heads high, and have not muscles so developed as the
gods and Titans of his creation. And others have objected to the angels,
the anatomical ambiguity of their wing articulations. To say that a
sketch or picture is out of tone or drawing damns, in many circles
to-day; in spite of the fact that the most famous masterpieces, if
judged by the same standard, would be equally offensive. This absurdity,
even where its grosser developments are avoided, breeds abundant
contradictions and confusion in the mouths of those who plume themselves
on culture and discernment. I hope not to have been too saucy,
therefore, in pointing out this pitfall to my readers in regard to these
sentences which I thought it worth while to quote from Dürer, merely
because if I did not do so I foresaw that they would be quoted
THE CHOICE OF AN ARTIST
In the great earnestness with which the difficulties that beset art and
the artist impressed him, Dürer intended to write a _Vade Mecum_ for
those who should come after him. He has left among his MS. papers many
plans, rough drafts, and notes for some such work, the form of which no
doubt changed from time to time. The one which gives us the most
comprehensive idea of his intentions is perhaps the following.
By the grace and help of God I have here set down all that I have learnt
in practice, which is likely to be of use in painting, for the service
of all students who would gladly learn. That, perchance, by my help they
may advance still further in the higher understanding of such art, as he
who seeketh may well do, if he is inclined thereto; for my reason
sufficeth not to lay the foundations of this great, far-reaching,
infinite art of true painting.
Item.--In order that thou mayest thoroughly and rightly comprehend what
is, or is called, an "artistic painter," I will inform thee and recount
to thee. If the world often goeth without an "artistic painter," whilst
for two or three hundred years none such appeareth, it is because those
who might have become such devote not themselves to art. Observe then
the three essential qualities following, which belong to the true artist
in painting. These are the three main points in the whole book.
I. The First Division of the book is the Prologue, and it compriseth
three parts (A, B, and C).
A. The first part of the Prologue telleth us how the lad should be
taught, and how attention should be paid to the tendency of his
temperament. It falleth into six parts:
1. That note should be taken of the birth of the child, in what Sign it
occurreth; with some explanations. (Pray God for a lucky hour!)
2. That his form and stature should be considered; with some
3. How he ought to be nurtured in learning from the first; with some
4. That the child should be observed, whether he learneth best when
kindly praised or when chidden; with explanations.
5. That the child be kept eager to learn and be not vexed.
6. If the child worketh too hard, so that he might fall under the hand
of melancholy, that he be enticed therefrom by merry music to the
pleasuring of his blood.
B. The second part of the Preface showeth how the lad should be brought
up in the fear of God and in reverence, that so he may attain grace,
whereby he may be much strengthened in intelligent art. It falleth into
1. That the lad be brought up in the fear of God and be taught to pray
to God for the grace of quick perception (_ubtilitet_) and to
2. That he be kept moderate in eating and drinking, and also in
3. That he dwell in a pleasant house, so that he be distracted by no
manner of hindrance.
4. That he be kept from women and live not loosely with them; that he
not so much as see or touch one; and that he guard himself from all
impurity. Nothing weakens the understanding more than impurity.
5. That he know how to read and write well, and be also instructed in
Latin, so far as to understand certain writings.
6. That such an one have sufficient means to devote himself without
anxiety (to his art), and that his health be attended to with medicines
C. The third part of the Prologue teacheth us of the great usefulness,
joy, and delight which spring from painting. It falleth into six parts:
1. It is a useful art when it is of godly sort, and is employed for holy
2. It is useful, and much evil is thereby avoided, if a man devote
himself thereto who else had wasted his time.
3. It is useful when no one thinks so, for a man will have great joy if
he occupy himself with that which is so rich in joys.
4. It is useful because a man gaineth great and lasting memory thereby
if he applieth it aright.
5. It is useful because God is thereby honoured when it is seen that He
hath bestowed such genius upon one of His creatures in whom is such
art. All men will be gracious unto thee by reason of thine art.
6. The sixth use is that if thou art poor thou mayest by such art come
unto great wealth and riches.
II. The Second Division of the book treateth of Painting itself; it also
A. The first part is of the freedom of painting; in six ways.
B. The second part is of the proportions of men and buildings, and what
is needful for painting; in six ways.
1. Of the proportions of men.
2. Of the proportions of horses.
3. Of the proportions of buildings.
4. Of perspective.
5. Of light and shade.
6. Of colours, how they are to be made to resemble nature.
C. The third part is of all that a man conceives as subject for
III. The Third Division of the book is the Conclusion; it also hath
A. The first part shows in what place such an artist should dwell to
practise his art; in six ways.
B. The second part shows how such a wonderful artist should charge
highly for his art, and that no money is too much for it, seeing that it
is divine and true; in six ways.
The third part speaks of praise and thanksgiving which he should render
unto God for His grace, and which others should render on his behalf;
in six ways.
It is in the variety and completeness of his intentions that we perceive
Dürer's kinship with the Renascence; he comprehends the whole of life in
his idea of art training.
In his persuasion of the fundamental necessity of morality he is akin to
the best of the Reformation. It is in the union of these two perceptions
that his resemblance to Michael Angelo lies. There is a rigour, an
austerity which emanates from their work, such as is not found in the
work of Titian or Rembrandt or Leonardo or Rubens or any other mighty
artist of ripe epochs. Yet we find both of them illustrating the
licentious legends of antiquity, turning from the Virgin to Amymone and
Leda, from Christ to Apollo and Hercules. By their action and example
neither joins either the Reformation or the Renascence in so far as
these movements may be considered antagonistic; nor did they find it
inconsistent to acknowledge their debt to Greece and Rome, even while
accepting the gift of Jesus' example as freely as it was offered.
Not only does Dürer insist on the necessity of a certain consonancy
between the surrounding influences and the artist's capacity, which
should be both called forth and relieved by the interchange of rivalry
with instruction, of seclusion with music or society, but the process
which Jesus made the central one of his religion is put forward as
essential; he must form himself on a precedent example. I have already
quoted from Reynolds at length on this point.
I will merely add here some notes from another MS. fragment of Dürer's
bearing on the same points.
He that would be a painter must have a natural turn thereto.
Love and delight therein are better teachers of the Art of Painting than
If a man is to become a really great painter he must be educated thereto
from his very earliest years. He must copy much of the work of good
artists until he attain a free hand.
To paint is to be able to portray upon a flat surface any visible thing
whatsoever that may be chosen.
It is well for any one first to learn how to divide and reduce, to
measure the human figure, before learning anything else.
[Footnote 90: The following list comes from another sheet of the MS.
(in. 70), but was dearly intended for this place. It is jotted down on a
thick piece of paper, on which there are also geometrical designs.]
If thou wishest to model well in painting, so as to deceive the
eyesight, thou must be right cunning in thy colours, and must know how
to keep them distinct, in painting, one from another. For example, thou
paintest two coats of mantles, one white the other red; thou must deal
differently with them in shading. There is light and shadow on all
things, wherever the surface foldeth or bendeth away from the eye. If
this were not so, everything would look flat, and then one could
distinguish nothing save only a chequerwork of colours.
If then thou art shading the white mantle, it must not be shaded with so
dark a colour as the red, for it would be impossible for a white thing
to yield so dark a shadow as a red. Neither could they be compared one
with another, save that in total absence of daylight everything is
black, seeing that colour cannot be recognised in darkness. Though,
therefore, in such a case, the theory allows one, without blame, to use
pure black for the shadows of a white object, yet this can seldom
come to pass.
Moreover, when thou paintest anything in one colour--be it red, blue,
brown, or any mixed colour--beware lest thou make it so bright in the
lights that it departs from its own kind. For example, an uneducated man
regardeth thy picture wherein is a red coat. "Look, good friend," saith
he, "in one part the coat is of a fair red and in another it is white
or pale in colour." That same is to be blamed, neither hast thou done it
aright. In such a case a red object must be painted red all over and yet
preserve the appearance of solidity; and so with all colours. The same
must be done with the shadows, lest it be said that a fair red is soiled
with black Wherefore be careful that thou shade each colour with a
similar colour. Thus I hold that a yellow, to retain its kind, must be
shaded with a yellow, darker toned than the principal colour. If thou
shade it with green or blue, it remaineth no longer in keeping, and is
no longer yellow, but becometh thereby a shot colour, like the colour of
silk stuffs woven of threads of two colours, as brown and blue, brown
and green, dark yellow and green, chestnut-brown and dark yellow, blue
and seal red, seal red and brown, and the many other colours one sees.
If a man hath such as these to paint, where the surface breaketh and
bendeth away the colours divide themselves so that they can be
distinguished one from another, and thus must thou paint them. But where
the surface lieth flat one colour alone appeareth. Howbeit, if thou art
painting such a silk and shadest it with one colour (as a brown with a
blue) thou must none the less shade the blue with a deeper blue where it
is needful. If often cometh to pass that such silks appear brown in the
shadows, as if one colour stood before the other. If thy model beareth
such a garment, thou must shade the brown with a deeper brown and not
with blue. Howbeit, happen what may, every colour must in shading keep
to its own class.
The great genius Hokusai, who has obtained for popular art in Japan a
success comparable to that of the best classic masterpieces of that
country and to the drawings and etchings of Rembrandt, a master of an
altogether kindred nature, wrote a little treatise on the difference of
aim noticeable in European and Japanese art. From the few Dutch pictures
which he had been able to examine, he concluded that European art
attempted to deceive the eye, whereas Japanese art laboured to express
life, to suggest movement, and to harmonise colour. What is meant is
easily grasped when we set before the mind's eye a picture, by Teniers
and a page of Hokusai's "Mangwa." On the other hand, if one chose a
sketch by Rembrandt to represent Dutch art, the difference could no
longer be apparent. If the aim of European art had ever in serious
examples been to deceive the eye, our painting would rank with
legerdemain and Maskelyne's famous box trick; for it is to be doubted if
it could ever so well have attained its end as even a second-rate
conjurer can. I have cited a passage in which Reynolds confronts the
work of great artists with the illusions of the camera obscura (see p.
237). The adept musical performer who reproduces the noises of a
farmyard is the true parallel to the lesser Dutch artists; he deceives
the ear far better than they deceive the eye. For every picture has a
surface which, unless very carefully lighted, must immediately destroy
the illusion, even if it were otherwise perfect. Nevertheless, Dürer in
the foregoing passage seems to accept Hokusai's verdict that the aim of
his painting is to deceive the eye; forgetful of all that he has
elsewhere written about the necessity of beauty, the necessity of
composition, the superiority of rough sketches over finished works.
When a painter has conceived in his heart a vision of beauty, whether he
suggests it with a few strokes of the pen or elaborates it as thoroughly
as Jan Van Eyck did, he wishes it to be taken as a report of something
seen. This is as different from wishing to deceive the eye as for some
one to say "and then a dog barked," instead of imitating the barking of
a dog. A circumstantial description in words and a picture by Van Eyck
or Veronese are equally intended to pass as reports of something
visually conceived or actually seen. Pictures would have to be made
peep-shows of before they could veritably deceive; and Jan Van Beers, a
modern Dutchman, actually turned some of his paintings into peep-shows.
Dürer in the following passage is speaking of the separate details or
objects which go to make up a picture, not of the picture as a whole; he
never tried to make peep-shows; his signature or an inscription is often
used to give the very surface that must destroy the peep-show illusion a
definite decorative value. The rest of his remarks have become
commonplaces; nor has he written at such length as to give them their
true limitations and intersubordination. They will be easily understood
by those who remember that art is concerned with producing the illusion
of a true report of something seen, not that of an actual vision. Such a
report may be slight and brief; it may be stammered by emotion; it may
have been confused or tortured to any degree by the mental condition of
him who delivers it: if it produces the conviction of his sincerity, it
achieves the only illusion with which art is concerned, and its value
will depend on its beauty and the beauty of the means employed to
After turning over Dürer prints and drawings, after meditating on his
writings, we feel that we are in the presence of one of those forces
which are constant and equal, which continue and remain like the growth
of the body, the return of seasons, the succession of moods. This is
always among the greatest charms of central characters: they are mild
and even, their action is like that of the tides, not that of storms.
"If only you had my meekness," Dürer wrote to Pirkheimer (set: p. 85),
half in jest doubtless, but with profound truth:--though the word
meekness does not indeed cover the whole of what we feel made Dürer's
most radical advantage over his friend; at other times we might call it
naïvety, that sincerity of great and simple natures which can never be
outflanked or surprised. Sometimes it might be called pride, for it has
certainly a great deal of self-assurance behind it, the self-assurance
of trees, of flowers, of dumb animals and little children, who never
dream that an apology for being where and what they are can be expected
of them. Such natures when they come home to us come to stop; we may go
out, we may pay no heed to them, we may forget them, but they abide in
the memory, and some day they take hold of us with all the more force
because this new impression will exactly tally with the former one; we
shall blush for our inconstancy, our indifference, our imbecility, which
have led us to neglect such a pregnant communion. Not only persons but
works of art produce this effect, and they are those with whom it is the
greatest benefit to live.
It is true that, compared with Giotto, Rembrandt, or Michael Angelo,
Dürer does not appear comprehensive enough. It is with him as with
Milton; we wish to add others to his great gifts, above all to take him
out from his surroundings, to free him from the accidents of place and
time. In one sense he is poorer than Milton: we cannot go to him as to a
source of emotional exhilaration. If he ever proves himself able so to
stir us, it is too occasionally to be a reason why we frequent him as it
may be one why we frequent Milton. Nevertheless, the greater characters
of control which are his in an unmatched degree, his constancy, his
resource and deliberate effectiveness, joined to that blandness, that
sunshine, which seems so often to replace emotion and thought in works
of image-shaping art, are of priceless beneficence, and with them we
would abide. Intellectual passion may seem indeed sometimes to dissipate
this sunshine and control without making good their loss. Such cases
enable us to feel that the latter are more essential: and it is these
latter qualities which Dürer possessed in such fulness. In return for
our contemplation, they build up within us the dignity of man and render
it radiant and serene. Those who have felt their influence longest and
most constantly will believe that they may well warrant the modern
prophet who wrote:
The idea of beauty and of human nature perfect on all its sides, which
is the dominant idea of poetry, is a true and invaluable idea, though it
has not yet had the success that the idea of conquering the obvious
faults of our animality and of a human nature perfect on the moral
side--which is the dominant idea of religion--has been enabled to have;
and it is destined, adding to itself the religious idea of a devout
energy, to transform and govern the other.
Angelico (Fra Beato)