In his 1889 book, “How to judge of a picture”, John C. Van Dyke thoroughly describes how to properly assess a painting. I know, the title is weird, particularly with that preposition “of” stuck in there, but that’s the correct title. John Charles Van Dyke (1861-1931) was an American art historian and critic. He was a professor of art history at Rutgers College and was also elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1908. He authored two series of books related to art, the first were critical guidebooks, the second covered the history of art in America. The purpose of this blog, and others to follow, is to share with you some helpful guidelines, offered by Mr. Van Dyke, that will help us critique our own work and the work of others. We will not agree with everything, but all his comments are worth serious consideration before rejecting them out of hand. Remember, this was written in the 1880’s. The ability to effectively critique art, or anything else for that matter, requires a significant amount of factual knowledge and understanding, otherwise what is offered as a critique is really nothing more than an emotional reaction. Mr. Van Dyke is helping us gain that knowledge and understanding. (Click images to enlarge)
The Object of Art
“What is the language of art? What is the object of this language? What is the object of any language unless it be to express an idea, a thought, a fancy, a conception of the mind, or an emotion of the heart? If it convey no meaning it is entitled to no serious consideration. There may be some charm about a manner of talking, and there is beauty in the manner of painting, but the higher aim of any language is not to exhibit itself for its own sake, but to express the ideas and meanings of men.”
“There is a stronger element in a picture, if it be a masterpiece of its kind; and that is the artist’s conception, thought, or feeling. We shall carry away the impression of his idea, imagination, or creation; we shall feel the power of his individuality.”
“What is said is of more importance than the manner of saying.”
“The stronger part of art is not its language, but the ideas which that language expresses; that it is not so much the technique, brushwork, or handling for their own sake as for the conceptions they can present to us. Let us say at once, then, that what is said is of more importance than the manner of saying; that the chief aim of art is to express ideas, feelings, impressions, or beliefs of the artist; and that the language of art, the drawing, modeling, coloring, and all, are but parts of speech which enable the artist to frame a sentence and convey a thought.”
“Discard the idea that the only aim of art is the expression of technical skill. It could be as well maintained that the object of poetry is to display rhythmical words and sentences after the Swinburnian (English writer who dealt with controversial topics) manner, and that poetic ideas are of no consequence. Skill of hand is important – absolutely necessary; but it is the means of saying, not the end of that which is said.”
“The skill of the craftsman is admirable, especially to brother-craftsmen; but the work of the hand and the conception of the mind must not bear a false relationship to one another. The thought is greater than the means of expression, but there is beauty in both. Despise neither, but place the former above the latter.”
“You may be possessed of the idea that the object of a painting is to see how closely the artist can imitate nature – many people have such an idea. I beg of you to discard that likewise. Imitation never made anything worth looking at the second time. The world is indebted to it for nothing. The imitators have all died without leaving a trace of anything we appreciate or care for. Their labor has been too ignoble and purely mechanical to endure. The painter detailing nature upon canvas line upon line, with no hope, object, or ambition but that of rendering nature as she is, is but unsuccessfully rivaling the photograph camera.”
“True, painting and sculpture are classed among the imitative arts, and so is poetry; but consider how far removed from reality is poetic language, and consider how wide the gulf between nature and the greatest masterpieces of painting. The idea of imitation is a false conception of art throughout. Painting is a language, and trees, sky, air, water, men, cities, streets, buildings, are but the symbols of ideas which play their part in the conception.”
“The highest aim of art is the expression of an idea, impression, or emotion, regarding something conceived, seen, or felt by the artist.”
“Truth is not the aim of any of the arts. Their object is to please, not to instruct. If we wish to be taught we shall go to science, which has the one object of finding out the truth.”
“Painting should please us with aesthetic ideas, received through the sense of sight, precisely as poetry should please us with aesthetic ideas received through the sense of hearing; and the value of each depends very much on the quality and quantity of pleasure given.”
“Truth is absolutely necessary in painting, just as necessary as color, oil, and paint brushes; but I would have you discriminate between an accessory and a principle. Truth is quite indispensable in a picture, but remember, it is the means whereby the language of art is made easily recognizable, and not an end in itself.”
“The most enduring part of art, then, is the conception of the artist, the embodiment of conception in form, color, and their variations…these constitute the highest aim of painting. You must not infer that sublime art is the only art worthy of consideration; nor must you infer that the art of poetic or artistic feeling, or even the art of technical skill, or natural beauty, is to be sneered at. Those who have produced great art are like the Shakespeare’s and the Goethe’s – but the few from the millions; and surely there are many poets and painters besides the greatest whom we may honestly admire. I have instanced only the superlative cases to bring before you what I consider the highest art, to impress upon you the superiority of the conception over its realization or embodiment. There are grades of conceptions, ideas, impressions, and feelings.”
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