William Wetmore Story.

Conversations in a studio online

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use of the term " handling." They always go by
names, ancT not reaunes. They admire by rule,
and they misemploy all the slang words of art.
When they look at a picture they generally think
it shows critical faculty to examine it closely, bit
by bit, at about an inch distance from the canvas.
But the highest touch of pretended connoisseur-
ship skill is to apply a lens to it. This has an
alarming air of knowledge.


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M. I don*t know that bad criticism is worse
than foolish enthnsiasm^

B. I do not agree. ^There is something better
in any kind of enthusiasm than in pretentious
criticisBy/Critics generally think it shows knowl-
edge and ability to find fault ; but they are mis-
taken in this. It shows much more real knowledge
to be able to praise justly. Nothing that ever was
made^ or ever will be made, is without faults. Per-
fection in art is impossible, and it is safest always
to find fault, since defects will always necessarily
exist. SBesides, one can always retreat after any
seve^^riticism into the fastness of, " I do not like
it ; " and this negative position is unassailable,
and exposes no one to laughter or contempt, ^ut
praise is positive. It requires knowledge^ and ap-
preciation, and feeling, to praise properlj^ If the
praise is foolishly and ignorantly bestowed, it ex-
poses the writer or speaker to ridicule. There was
never anything written, painted, or chiseled which
is not full of defects. The great question is
whether, in spite of those defects, it is good. Any
fool among architects can find fault with St.
Peter's ; but, after all, is it not a great work ?
What makes it a great work ? TeU me, you who
know. The fool will tell me its defects. You only
can tell me its merits. The petty fault-finder seeks
out the blemishes in Shakespeare. The sympa-
thetic poet thinks only of the beauty, the grandeur,
the passion, and in the blaze of these all the shad-
ows and blots are as nothing, — mere spots on the

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sun. The anatomical critic will tell you that the
Day and Night of Michael Angeio are impossible.
So be it. But what is it that makes them so grand
and imposing, despite their defects, — nay, perhaps,
in measure because of their defects ? K thevwere

perfectly ^^Uf^^, wnnl/1 flif>y f^^ qq ;Trip|»p^^.%r^ 9 T

doubt it. To say of anything wherein it is right,
is far more difficult than to say wherein it is wrong.
Nothing is so easy as to abuse. Any ignoramus
can do that. But every man has a right to be
judged by his best, not by his worst ; and accord-
ing to what he intends to do, not according to what
the critic thinks he ought to have striven to do.

M, I am afraid we have little criticism in our
country in the just sense of that word ; one either
receives praise or blame with exaggeration. There
is no justice rendered. Criticism is ruled by per-
sonal feelings, and makes itself the mouthpiece of
a clique. lA work is either cried up to the skies
or trampled under foot/ — according to the clique.
Criticism has a better tone in France or Germany.
Tt IS y\nv(^ fifllm and dispassionatft. — Tbo OjitlO
strives to understand the author and do him jus-
tice, rather than to instruct him or degrade him.
With us, on the contrary, much of the criticism is
after this fashion : The painter or author has given
us a horse ; he ought to have given us a bull. It
is absurd that he should have omitted to put horns
on his head, for the merest schoolboy knows that
a bull has horns. That is, the critic will not criti-
cise the work according to the author's intention

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and motive in doing it^ut instructs him that he
ought to. have done something different, and then
finds fault with him for not doing what would have
been at variance with the whole intention and mo-
tive of his work<

jB. Let us leave the critics. ^Disraeli hit them
hard when he said, critics are those who have failed
in art and literatur^^ But don't let us be too hard
upon them. Artists and authors are difficult crea-
tures to deal with. They are so sensitive that they
will not allow a word of fault-finding, and they are
as jealous of the slightest dispraise of their own
work as of overpraise of another's. 2Vbn ragionam
di lor.

M. Very true, and very natural, too. Every
mother likes her own child, however deformed it
may be ; and the more crying the deformity, the
stronger the bias of her love to make up for it. I
hope I shall never take the low view of my own
works that critics would counsel. It would kill
all the heart out of me ; and besides, I don't wish
to be treated according to my deserts. Heaven
forbid !

B. Blessed, I say, are those who are vain, —
cased doubly, trebly in mail of vanity. What
though the world laughs at them, they rejoice in

M. And another beatitude is. Blessed are they
who expect little, for they may get what they ex-

B. I don't know about that. The vain are hap-


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pier than the humble, and the world is very apt to
take a man at his own reckoning. A man should
stand up for himself and for his work, and not be
fouling his own nest. I dare say you know a great
many weak places in that work of yours which
you never will point out.

M. Certainly I shall not. I should only spoil
your pleasure and my own aim. Nor can I con-
ceive that any advantage would accrue to anybody
for so doing. Criticism on a work in progress,
even when good, often disturbs the mind, thwarts
the enthusiasm, and sets the perceptions awry.
Nothing can be well done which is done with a
conscious fear of criticism. And after the work
is done, criticism will not help us. Let us only be
in earnest and do our best, boldly. What is good
cannot be crushed, what has life in it cannot be
killed. Even the great lexicographer himself with
his elephantine foot could not utterly trample out
Shakespeare, either by his blame, his praise, or his
patronage. Wordsworth survived Jeffrey's " This
will never do." Let us keep calm whatever shots
are fired. It will all be the same a himdred years
hence. But what were we talking about when we
were led off our track by the critics ? How con-
versation " strays from the direct " !

B. That is its very charm. It is like a stroll
anywhere out of the beaten path and highway, just
as caprice shows the way and tempts us on.

M. Except that one is not obliged to come
back — in conversation.


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B. But are we not wishing to come back on the
path we lost?

M. True ; and what was it I was meaning to
say ? No matter. Ah ! what you were saying, of
retreating from critical dispraise into the fastness
of non mipiace^ reminded me of a French maid
we once had who had as easy a facility of lying
as any person I ever knew, and who justified this
habit most ingeniously. She was relating a con-
versation with some person who had been making
pushing inquiries as to a matter that she thought
better not to reveal. We asked, Did you tell the
truth ? " Moi ? " she cried with a pretty start of
surprise; "je n'^tais pas si bete — j'ai menti —
on pent toujours vous savez se retirer sur le vrai
-^s'il le faut absolument." If one tell a lie at
first, one can, according to her philosophy, always
fall back upon the truth, if it be absolutely neces-
sary, and be unassailable. But if one begin with
the truth, one cannot fall back upon a lie with

£, I must say that was ingenious.

M. She was a good creature, and honest, too ;
only she did not like the truth. It was hard and
ugly to her — coarse, rude -r- and had none of the
grace which could be given to a lie. Her imagina-
tion constantly outran the facts, and moulded and
trained them to her wiU. The Soman Catholic
coimtries seem to us peculiar in this respect. They
find nothing repulsive merely in a lie, unless it be
told with a wicked intent. If a lie will make you


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happy, they will tell it : " e perche non," say the
Italians. " Cosa ho fatto lo di male," said one of
my servants to me after I had discovered him in a
deliberate lie. " But you knew I should find it
out in a couple of hours," I said. " Si, Signore,"
he answered, " e vero ; but if I had told you the
truth then, you would have been annoyed and
vexed two hours sooner. I saved you two hours
of annoyance, and I don't see what I have done
that was wrong, — Cos' ho fatto di male lo ? "
What could I say ?

B, I suppose he thought himself quite justi-
fiable. We of all nations are, I believe, the only
one who worship Truth. But we also reverence
Humbug, and make a fetish of Propriety, and are
in mortal fear of Mrs. Grundy. In England can
any more cruel stones be hurled at the female head
than these ? — "It 's not proper," and " What will
people say ? " Does not this make one shudder to
think of it?

M. Fashion rules everything. An Egyptian
shows her body and hides her face. A European
hides her body and shows her face. And each
would think the other immodest. An inch more
or less in a ball-dress makes all the difference in
the world. But Fashion is so arbitrary and so im-
perious that all blindly follow. Art is the fashion
now. I wish I could think that there was a real
love for it.

B. We have not a natural artistic sense, as the
ancient Greeks had, or even as the Italians have.


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Nature is undressed always before us^ and there-
fore there is more real feeling and knowledge about
landscape than about the human figur ^ anda bet-
[ig of pictures than ofstatn gsj The
Greeks always had the nude before them, and felt
no sham modesty in exposing their person. In the
annual festival of Neptune, the most beautiful girls
in Athens went nude along the shore and bathed
in the sea while all the assembled world looked on.
There was no idea of immodesty in this. It was a
religious rite. On these occasions Phryne, in the
perfection of her beauty, showed herself to the ad-
miring eyes of all, looking like Aphrodite as she
rose from the sea. Artists were thus inspired, and
all the world educated to a knowledge of the hu-
man figure and its nude beauty. When they saw
a statue, they could criticise it and feel its beauty
or defects. Even in the streets and houses, and in
the walks of daily life, there was but slight con-
cealment of the person. (The Greek dresses, with
their long folds and delicate draperies, followed the
form and the motion^ But how can we in general
know whether a statue is right or wrong, who can
only judge it by generalities, and lose all the finesse
and refinement of the art ? In Greece, fashion did
not every year rearrange itself, seeking ever the
new and the fantastic, as it does with us. There,
beauty and grace were the ends sought, not mere
novelty. For centuries the dresses never changed.
They were simple, and modeled on the hmnan
figure, — vestes artus exprimentes^ — not, like ours,


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grotesque and deforming. The tyranny of scissors
had not come. With them, what was beautiful to-
day was beautiful to-morrow^ the next month, the
next year, the next centuryQ^We, on the contrary,
worship the Proteus of Fas hi^ The costume of
one season becomes ridiculous in our eyes the next
season. We chiffonner everything. We are made
up of shreds and patches. There is neither dignity
nor beauty in our dress, and the outward shows of
life are vulgar and ugly.

M. The worst of it is, that our taste thus be-
comes coiTupted, and our sensibility to beauty im-
paired. (flArt is driven into a comer, and, scorning
the preseSt, is forced to take refuge in the past.
It finds no nourishment in the life of to-day, and
becomes artificial and pedan ticT] We ask for stat-
ues of our great men, but thearess we wear is so

hldemia anri imr>/^nf.h that it dfig^nya qH par-c^nol

dignity, and the sculptor throws up his work in
despair. How can a man look otherwise than vul-
gar and ridiculous moimted on a pedestal arrayed
piijL modem dress, with two trousered legs like those
J of an elephant, and a mean inform coat with coUar
l^d buttons, and short board -like skirts? No
careful modeling can correct these, or make them
beautiful. Phidias, Praxiteles, or Lysippus alike
would fail to do this. The highest genius cannot
produce beauty and dignity out of what is ugly
and uncouth.

B. This is what we owe to France. The dress-
coat is the great product of the French Revolution,


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and it is curious how it came about. The old coat
out of which it was created was not beautiful in
itself, but it had a certain character and effect as
costume. It was long in the skirts, and buttoned
across the chest. The sleeves were loose, and
turned up with facings from beneath ; while in full
dress, lace ruffles depended over the hand. Also
the coat was faced with a different-colored lining,
which it showed when imbuttoned. In walking,
the skirts, faced also, were turned back and but-
toned up to two buttons on the back. Gradually
it was lopped and reduced to the thing it now is.
The skirts in front were cut away instead of being
turned back, but the two foolish buttons behind
were still kept after their use had gone. The front
was permanently turned back, and the coat made
too narrow to button, the foolish cuts now remain-
ing in the collar representing the old division of
the front lappets. As time went on, more and
more of the skirts were cut away, until they were
reduced to the ridiculous swallow-tail in which
Beau Brummel said there was safety. The collar
was then piled up behind, the facings and color
were done away with, and thus little by little grew
up the glorious thing called a dress-coat.

M. Is it not strange that of all fashions in late
days this clings closest to Europe ? Is it out of
perversity, because it is the ugliest ?

B. Who can tell ! Fashion herself bows down
before it ; other things change, but this seems to
be permanent.


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M. Why does all the world accept France as
the arbiter of taste in dress ? It is a mystery I
cannot explain. Has she ever invented anything
beautiful in costume, except, of course, the dress-
coat ? I cannot find that she has. The notion of
every dressmaker there is to cut out arbitrary
shapes upon which are bepatched all sorts of bows,
and scraps, and flounces, and ruffles of various col-
ors, sizes, and materials, and to stick out the skirts
by under-constructions so as to represent deformi-
ties. No French dress is ever made in conformity
with the lines of the human figure ; one thing es-
pecially I observe, the permanence of some hump
of deformity on women's dresses : sometimes it is
low down, sometimes high up, sometimes behind,
sometimes in front, sometimes all round, but it
never is wanting I suppose no modem dress
would be accepted in Paris without a deformity

B. It is the same with their architecture and
their sculpture. They have no idea of simplicity
and repose, but they seek to obtain beauty by ex-
cess and exaggeration. In their architecture there
are no large, open, simple spaces. Every inch is
bepatched with some ornament or other, until the
effect is tantalizing and oppressive. Their build-
ings are, in a word, chiffonms all over, just as
their dresses are. The crowning horror of all is
that embodiment of pretentiou^^jigliness and de-
formity, the new Opera House. V^ So in their sculp-
ture there is the same absence of simplicity and


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digni^^ij^^very figure is contorted ; the action is
almost always excessive or affected land their nude
figures are conscious of their nudii^

M. Their costumes were originally taken from
Italy — and spoiled in the taking. In the time of
Shakespeare the Italians were the dressmakers, as
is plain from the very terms we still use in Eng-
lish. A milliner is a person from Milan ; a man-
tua-maker comes from Mantua. The gentlemen
of England took their dresses from Italy : then, no
one ever dreamed of going to France for dresses.
Richard II.'s ear was stopped by —

" Reports of fashions in proud Italy,
Whose manners still our tardy apish nation
Limps after in base imitation."

And one might go on with the quotation,

" Where doth the world thrust forth a vanity
(So it be new, there 's no respect how vile)
That is not quickly buzzed into his ears."

B. One must say with Borachio, ." What a de-
formed thief this Fashion is 1 How giddily he turns
about all the hot-bloods between fourteen and five-
and-thirty " —

M. Ah, yes : " I know that deformed," as well
as the First Watch : " 'a has been a vile thief this
seven year; 'a goes up and down like a gentle-

B, Formerly, the fashions were quite as much
for men as for women. But now we are degraded
and stripped of all our gay plumage. The male
birds have all bright feathers, and the female the


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sober-tinted ; but women in our age have robbed
men of every color. But to go back to the French.
In painting we must admit they are clever, — their
school of design as well as of color is high. They
draw admirably, and their methods of painting are
vigorous and sure, — far better in every way than
ours. But their excellences are chiefly material,
and their school is going to seed, and devoting all
its energies to genre pictures of cabinet size. We
have no grand, imaginative works. I do not mean
by this, grand pretentious canvases; a picture
may be greatly imaginative in a small space, — as,
for instance, the Entombment, in the Louvre, by
Titian; the Vision of Ezekiel by Baffaelle; the
Jacob's Dream by Eembrandt. What I mean is,
that the subjects are mean and trivial in motive,
and for the most part essentially naturalistic and
imitative, instead of being poetic and imaginative.
Stuffs admirably painted, interiors with caskets,
and ormolu, and clocks, and tapestries finished
with great truth to nature, and meaning nothing
when they are done. Chic is the word for every-
thing. The everlasting pensive woman, in a splen-
didly painted sUk or satin, in a splendid bou-
doir with splendid mirrors reflecting her or her
dress, meets us everywhere on these canvases, —
the whole interest being in the perfection with
which the accessories are painted. If the material
be well represented, if the picture be clever in
touch and small, it will bring a large price. But
when they attempt any high imaginative work, they


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are weak, artificial, and exaggerated. We in Eng-
land like the namby-pamby, — we are domestic-
ally sentimental : the Mother's Darling, the Morn-
ing Prayer, Peek-a-boo, the First Step, the Last
Step, the Drunkard's Home, Good -By, — these
are the subjects that touch us. In landscape we
strive for nature, and the literal reproduction of
nature is the end of our striving. Some time or
other I should like to tell you what I think real
art is ; for I believe in England now we are as
wrong one way in our principles and practice as we
used to be wrong in the other. We can neither
attain the ends of art by simple imitation of na-
ture, nor by vague generalizations. But I will
spare you now. Artists, however, are not entirely
to blame for this. The public demands genre^ is
wonder-struck at cleverness and chic^ — and the
public must be satisfied, —

" For those who live to please, most please to live."

It does not care for high works of imagination
and mature power — and leaves them in the ar-
tist's hands. Eafifaelle would starve in Paris at the
present day. Teniers could give him long odds
and beat him with the public. Great prices are
great temptations, — irresistible temptations when
the artist to whom they are offered is poor.

M. Well, the temptations are not wanting.
What prices the pictures of the first artists bring
now ! Is it possible that another generation will
rank them as highly as we do? What would Ti-


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tian have thought of such prices as Meissonnier
commands ? What woul d Correp^^o?

B. Poor Corr eggio ! W hen I think of him car-
rying III I ^1*114^111 I iij[i|i( I li II li in compensation of
one of his finest works, it makes me grieve ; if that
very picture were now exposed for sale in Paris or
London, himdreds of persons would be glad not
only to make every copper gold, but to double the
amount and count it a cheap bargain.

M, There is no truth in that story about Cor-
reggio. It is only a hen trovato. But no mat-
ter; the experiment has failed, as our professor
in chemistry used to say, but the principle remains
the same. The prices that all the great artists of
that time received for their works seem to us ridic-
ulously small, — and they were exceedingly small.
Some of them, after a long life of severe labor,
left no more than a mere pittance — a few hun-
dred crowns. No common decorator of to-day^
would accept the wages which Michel Angelo was
content to receive for his stupendous works. For
instance, for his magnificent and colossal monu-
ment, as it was originally projected, to Julius II.,
he was only to receive 10,000 golden florins ; and
by the second contract he agreed to make it, with
six colossal statues, — of which the Moses was one,
— for 16,000 ducats. For the whole Sistine ceil-
ing he only was to receive 15,000 ducats, and did
actually receive only 3,000. For his work on the
Medici Chapel of Florence he was allowed a gold
florin a day. For the great figures of the Medici


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Chapel in Florence he received 400 gold ducats,
and was paid at the rate of a gold florin a day ; but
it is not said whether in this sum was included the
price of the marble, which cost 150 duj^«ts in gold.
In 1501, Cardinal Francesco Piccolomino made a
contract with Michel Angelo for a series of fifteen
statues for the Capella Piccolomino in the Duomo
at Siena. Each of these was to be two braccii
high, or nearly 4^ feet, with the exception of two
figures, one of which represented Christ, and this
was to be a palm, or about nine inches higher ;
the other, four fingers higher. Added to these,
there were also to be four angels. And for all
these figures the sculptor was to receive 500 gold
ducats, to be paid by instalments as he finished
each figure. He only modeled four of these, —
St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Pius, and St. Gregorius.
Now, I ask you, is there any artist of to-day,
of any class, who would accept such a commis-

B. None, of course.

M. Oh, I forgot to mention the colossal David.
For this he was to receive by contract six golden
florins a month, and to finish it in two years, —
that is, 144 florins for the completed work. For
the Last Judgment, however, he was better paid,
and received for it 1,200 scudi d'oro a year for life.
This was better than the Carracci fared, who, for
the whole of the magnificent frescoes which adorn
the ceiling of the Famese Palace at Rome, was
paid only 500 scudi ; or than poor Correggio, who


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only received 1,100 gold ducats for the whole
Cupola of San Giovanni at Parma, as well as the
Chapel and the Choir.

B, But eVfen this is a fortune compared to some
of the prices paid to the great artists at that time.
Domenichino, for instance, was paid about fifty
scudi for his great picture of St. Jerome ; and for
the magnificent Marriage at Cana, now in the
Louvre, Paolo Veronese only received a sum equiv-
alent to about ^40. Indeed, I have been told that
there is still in the archives of Paris a letter from
him relating to this picture, in which he makes a
charge for the eggs bought by him to lay in the
ground in tempera, as well as for the ulti*amarine
he used. This is curious, besides the evidence it
affords as to the exceedingly small compensation
he received, as showing that he first painted this
picture in tempera, and then went over it in oil.

M, It seems almost impossible that he should
have received such a price for that noble work.
Kaffaelle was better paid; but the sums he re-
ceived were certainly not large. What would he

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Online LibraryWilliam Wetmore StoryConversations in a studio → online text (page 2 of 19)