An essay upon prints: containing remarks upon the principles of picturesque beauty, the different kinds of prints, and the characters of the most noted masters; ...
Gilpin, William, 1724-1804.
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CHAPTER I. The principles of Painting considered, so far as they relate to Prints.

A Painting, or picture, is di∣stinguished from a print only by the colouring, and the manner of execution. In other respects, the Page  2 foundation of beauty is the same in both; and we consider a print, as we do a picture, in a double light, with regard to a whole, and with regard to its parts. It may have an agree∣able effect as a whole, and yet be very culpable in its parts. It may be likewise the reverse. A man may make a good appearance upon the whole; tho' his limbs, examined se∣parately, may be wanting in exact proportion. His limbs, on the other hand, may be exactly formed, and yet his person, upon the whole, dis∣gusting.

To make a print agreeable as a whole, a just observance of those rules is necessary, which relate to design, disposition, keeping → , and the distribu∣tion Page  3 of light: to make it agreeable in its parts, of those which relate to drawing, expression, grace, and per∣spective.

By design, (a term, which painters sometimes use in a more limited sense) I mean the general conduct of the piece as a representation of such a particular story. It answers, in an historical relation of a fact, to a ju∣dicious choice of circumstances, and includes a proper time, proper charac∣ters, the most affecting manner of in∣troducing those characters, and proper appendages.

With regard to a proper time, the painter is assisted by good old dra∣matic Page  4 rules; which inform him, that one point of time only should be taken — the most affecting in the action; and that no other part of the story should interfere with it. Thus in the death of ANANIAS, if the instant of his falling down be cho∣sen, no anachronism should be intro∣duced; every part of the piece should correspond; each character should be under the strongest impression of astonishment, and horror; those pas∣sions being yet unallayed by any cooler passions succeding.

With regard to characters, the painter must suit them to his piece by attending to historical truth, if his subject be history; or to heathen mythology, if it be fabulous.

Page  5He must farther introduce them pro∣perly. They should be ordered in such an advantageous manner, that the principal figures, those which are most concerned in the action, should catch the eye first, and en∣gage it most. This is an essential ingredient in a well-told story. In the first place, they should be the least embarrassed of the group. This alone gives them distinction. But they may be farther distinguish∣ed, sometimes by a broad light; some∣times, tho' but rarely, and when the subject requires it, by a strong sha∣dow, in the midst of a light; some∣times by a remarkable action, or ex∣pression; and sometimes by a combi∣nation of two or three of these modes of distinction.

Page  6The last thing included in design is the use of proper appendages. By appendages are meant animals, land∣skip, buildings, and in general, what ever is introduced into the piece by way of ornament. Every thing of this kind should correspond with the subject, and rank in a proper subor∣dination to it. BASSAN would some∣times paint a scripture-story; and his method was, to croud his fore∣ground with cattle, well painted in∣deed, but wholly foreign to his sub∣ject; while you seek for his princi∣pal figures, and at length perhaps with difficulty find them in some re∣mote corner of his picture. We often see a landskip well adorned with a story in miniature. The land∣skip here is principal; but at the Page  7 same time the figures, which tell the story, tho' subordinate to the land∣skip, are the principal figures. BAS∣SAN'S practice was different. In his pictures neither the landskip, nor the story is principal. His cattle are the ornament of his pieces. To intro∣duce a story then is absurd.

When all these rules are observed, when a proper point of time is chosen; when characters corresponding with the subject are introduced, and these ordered so judiciously as to point out the story in the strongest manner; and lastly, when all the appendages, and under-parts of the piece are suitable, and subservient to the sub∣ject, then the story is well told, and of course the design is perfect.

Page  8The second thing to be considered with regard to a whole, is disposition. By this word is meant the art of grouping the figures, and of combi∣ning the several parts of a picture. Design considers how each part, separately taken, concurs in produ∣cing a whole—a whole, arising from the unity of the subject, not the effect of the object. For the figures in a piece may be so ordered, as to tell the story in an affecting manner, which is as far as design goes, and yet may want that agreable com∣bination, which is necessary to please the eye. To produce such a com∣bination is the business of disposition. In the cartoon of St. PAUL preaching at Athens, the design is perfect; and Page  9 the characters, in particular, are so ordered, as to tell the story in a very affecting manner: yet the several parts of the picture are far from being agreably combined. If RUBENS had had the disposition of the materials of this picture, and the management of the lights, it's effect as a whole had been very different.

Having thus distinguished between design and disposition, I shall explain the latter a little farther.

It is an obvious principle, that one object at a time is enough to en∣gage either the senses or the intellect. Hence the necessity of unity or a whole in painting. The eye, upon a complex view, must be able to Page  10 comprehend the picture as one ob∣ject, or it cannot be satisfyed. It may be pleased indeed by feeding on the parts separately; but a picture, which can please no otherwise; is as poor a production, as a machine, the springs and wheels of which are fi∣nished with nicety, but are unable to act in concert, and effect the intended movement.

Now disposition, or the art of group∣ing and combining the figures, and several parts of a picture is an essen∣tial, which contributes greatly to pro∣duce a whole in painting. When the parts are scattered, they have no de∣pendance on each other; they are still only parts: but by an agreeable Page  11 grouping, they are massed together, and become a whole.

In disposing figures great artifice is necessary to make each group open itself in such a manner, as to set off advantageously the several figures, of which it is composed. The action at least of each figure should appear.

No group can be agreeable with∣out contrast. By contrast is meant the opposition of one part to another. A sameness in attitude, action, or expression, among figures in the same group, will always disgust the eye. In the cartoon of St. PAUL preaching at Athens, the contrast among the figures is incomparably fine; and the Page  12 want of it, in the death of ANANIAS, makes the group of the apostles a disagreeable one.

Nor indeeed is contrast required only among the figures of the same group, but also among the groups themselves, and among all the parts, of which the piece is composed. In the beautiful gate of the temple, the figures of the principal group are very well contrasted; but the ad∣joining group is disposed almost in the same manner; which, together with the formal pillars, introduce a disagreable regularity into the pic∣ture.

The judicious painter, however, whether he group, combine, or con∣trast, Page  13 will always avoid the appear∣ance of artifice. The several parts of his picture will be so suited to each other, that his art will seem the result of chance. In the sacrifice at Lystra, the head of the ox is bowed down, with a design, no doubt, to group the figures around it more harmoniously; but their action is so well suited to the posture of the ox, and the whole managed with so much 'judgment, that altho' the fi∣gures are disposed with the utmost art, they appear with all the ease of nature. The remaining part of the group is an instance of the reverse, in which a number of heads appear manifestly stuck in to fill up vacui∣ties.

Page  14But farther, as a whole, or unity, is an essential of beauty, that dispo∣sition is certainly the most perfect, which admits but of one group. All subjects, however, will not allow this close observance of unity. When this is the case, the several groups must again be combined, chiefly by a proper distribution of light, so as constitute a whole.

But as the whole will soon be lost, if the constituent parts become nume∣rous, it follows, that many groups must not be admitted. Judicious painters have thought three the ut∣most number, that can be allowed. Some subjects indeed, as battles, and triumphs, necessarily require a great number of figures, and of course Page  15 various combinations of groups. In the management of such subjects, the greatest art is necessary to preserve a whole. Confusion in the figures must be expressed without confusion in the picture. A writer should treat his subject clearly, tho' he write upon obscurity.

With regard to disposition, I shall only add, that the shape or form of the group should also be considered. The triangular form MICHAEL ANGELO thought the most beautiful. And indeed there is a lightness in it, which no other form can receive. The group of the apostles, in the cartoon of giving the keys, and the same group, in the death of Ananias, are both ex∣ceedingly heavy, and this heaviness Page  16 arises from nothing more than from the form of a parallelogram, within the lines of which these groups are contained. The triangular form too is capable of the most variety: for the vertical angle of a group so dis∣posed may either be acute, or obtuse, in any degree. Or a segment only of a triangle may be taken, which still increases the variety. The cartoons afford few instances of beauty in the forms of groups. In the works of Salvator Rosa we frequently find them.

The painter, when he hath chosen his subject, should always scetch out some beautiful form of grouping, which may best suit it; within which bounds he should, as nearly as may Page  17 be, without affectation, confine his figures. What I mean, is, that the form of the group should never be left at random.

A third thing to be considered in a picture, with regard to a whole, is keeping → . This word implies the dif∣ferent degrees of strength and faint∣ness, which objects receive from near∣ness and distance. A nice observance of the gradual fading of light and shade contributes greatly towards the production of a whole. Without it, the distant parts, instead of being connected with the objects at hand, appear like foreign objects, wildly in∣troduced, and unconnected. Dimi∣nished in size only, they put you in Page  18 mind of Lilliput and Brobdignag uni∣ted in one scene. Keeping → is generally found in great perfection in DELLA BELLA'S prints; and the want of it as conspicuously in TEMPESTA'S.

Nearly allied to keeping → is the doc∣trine of harmony, which equally con∣tributes towards the production of a whole. In painting, the practice of this doctrine has amazing force. A judicious arrangement of according tints will strike even the unpracticed eye. The effect of every picture, in a great measure, depends on one principal and master-tint, which pre∣vails over the whole. Sometimes the purple tint is chosen: sometimes the mellow, brown one; and in some subjects the greenish hue is most Page  19 proper. Of this ruling tint, whatever it is, every object in the picture should in a degree participate. This theory is founded on principles of truth, and produces a fine effect from the harmony, in which it unites every object.—But altho' harmony shews its effect chiefly in painting, yet in some measure the effect of prints may be assisted by it. Unless they are har∣monized by the same tone of shadow, if I may so express myself, there will always appear a great deficiency in them. By the same tone of shadow, I mean not only the same manner of execution, but an uniform degree of strength. We often meet with hard touches in a print, which, standing alone, are unharmonious; but when every contiguous part is touched up Page  20 to that tone, the whole is in unison. —Keeping → then proportions a proper degree of strength to the near and distant parts, in respect to each other. Harmony goes a step farther, and keeps each part quiet, with respect to itself, and the whole. I shall only add, that in scetches, and rough etchings no harmony is expected: it is enough, if keeping → be observed. Harmony is looked for only in finished compositions. If you would see the want of it in the strongest light, exa∣mine a worn-print, harshly retouched by some bungler.

The last thing, which contributes to produce a whole, is a proper di∣stribution of light. This, in a print especially, is most essential. An har∣mony Page  21 in the colouring may, in some measure, supply its place in painting; but a print has no succidaneum. Were the design, disposition, and keep∣ing ever so perfect, beautiful, and just, without this essential, instead of a whole, we should have only a piece of patch-work. Nay, such is the power of light, that by an arti∣ficial management of it we may even harmonize a bad disposition.

The general rule, which regards the distribution of light, is, that it should be spread in large masses. This gives us the idea of a whole. Every grand object catches the light only upon one large surface. Where the light is spotted, we have the idea of several objects; or at least of an in∣coherent Page  22 one, if the object be single; which the eye surveys with difficulty. It is thus in painting. When we see, upon a comprehensive view, large masses of light and shade, we have, of course, the idea of a whole — of unity in that picture. But where the light is scattered, we have the idea of several objects, or at least of one broken and confused. TITIAN'S known illustration of this point by a bunch of grapes is beautiful, and explanatory. When the light falls upon the whole bunch together (one side being illumined, and the other dark) we have the representation of those large masses, which constitute a whole. But when the grapes are stripped from the bunch, and scat∣tered upon a table (the light shining Page  23 upon each separately) a whole is no longer preserved.

Having thus considered those essen∣tials of a print, which produce a whole, it remains to consider those, which relate to the parts—drawing, expression, grace, and perspective. With regard to these, let it be first obser∣ved, that, in order, they are infe∣rior to the other. The production of a whole is the great effect, that should be aimed at in a picture: a picture without a whole is properly only a study: and those things, which produce a whole are of course the principal foundation of beauty.

By drawing we mean the exactness of the out-line. Without a compe∣tent Page  24 knowledge of this there can be no just representation of nature. E∣very thing will be distorted, and offensive to the eye. Bad drawing therefore is that disgusting object, which

Non homines, non dii, non concessere columnae.

Drawing, however, may be very tolerable, though it fall short in a certain degree, of absolute perfec∣tion. The defect will only be ob∣served by the most critical and ana∣tomical eye: and I may venture to say, that drawing is ranked too high, when the niceties of it are considered in preference to those essentials, which constitute a whole.

Expression is the life and soul of painting. It implies a just represen∣tation Page  25 of passion, and of character: of passion, by exhibiting every emotion of the mind, as outwardly discovered by any peculiarity of gesture; or the extention, and contraction of the fea∣tures: of character, by representing the different manners of men, as ari∣sing from their particular tempers, or professions. The cartoons are full of examples of the first kind of expression; and with regard to the second, commonly called manners-painting, it would be invidious not to mention our countryman HOGARTH; whose works contain a variety of characters, represented with more force than most men can conceive them.

Grace consists in such a disposition Page  26 of the parts of a figure, as forms it into an agreeable attitude. It de∣pends on contrast and ease. Contrast, when applied to a single figure, means the same, as when applied to a group; the opposition of one part to another. It may be considered with reference to the body, the limbs, and the head; the graceful attitude arising sometimes from a contrast in one, sometimes in another, and some∣times in all. With reference to the body, contrast consists in giving it an easy turn, opposing concave parts to convex. Of this, St. PAUL in the sacrifice at Lystra is an instance. — With reference to the limbs, it consists in the opposition between ex∣tention and contraction. MICHAEL ANGELO'S illustration by a triangle, or Page  27 pyramid, may here likewise again be introduced; this form giving grace and beauty to a single figure, as well as to a group. Only here a greater liberty may be allowed. In group∣ing, the triangle must always rest upon its base; but in a single figure, it may be inverted, and stand upon its apex. Thus if the lower parts of the figure be extended, the upper parts should be contracted; but the same beautiful form is given by ex∣tending the arms, and drawing the feet to a point. — Lastly, contrast often arises from the air of the head; which is given by a turn of the neck from the line of the body. The cartoons abound with examples of this kind of grace. It is very re∣markable in the figure of St. JOHN Page  28 healing the cripple; and the same cartoon affords eight or nine more instances. I say the less on this subject, as it hath been so well ex∣plained by the ingenious author of the Analysis of Beauty.

Thus contrast is the foundation of grace; but it must ever be remem∣bred, that contrast should be accom∣panied with ease. The body should be turned, not twisted; every con∣strained posture avoided; and every motion such, as nature, which loves ease, would dictate.

What hath been said on this head relates equally to all figures; those drawn from low, as well as those from high life. And here I would distin∣guish Page  29 between picturesque grace, and that grace which arises from dignity of character. Of the former kind, which is the kind here treated of, all figures should partake: you find it in BERGHEM'S clowns, and in CALLOT'S beggars: but it belongs to expression to mark those charac∣teristics, which distinguish the lat∣ter.

I shall only observe farther, that when the piece consists of many figures, the contrast of each single figure should be subordinate to the contrast of the whole. It will be im∣proper therefore, in many cases, to practice the rules, which have been just laid down. They ought, how∣ever to be a general direction to the Page  30 painter; and at least to be observed in the principal figures. — If a single figure be introduced, as in portrait, the pyramidal form cannot well be dispensed with. The figure partakes then of the nature of a group.

Perspective is that proportion, with regard to size, which near and di∣stant objects, with their parts, bear to each other. It answers to keep∣ing: one gives the out-line; and the other fills it up. Without a competent knowledge of perspective very absurd things would be in∣troduced: and yet to make a vain shew of it is pedantic. — Under this head may be reduced fore-shortning. Unless this be done with the utmost art, it were better omitted: it will otherwise occasion Page  31 great aukwardness. RUBENS is fa∣mous for fore-shortning; but the effect is chiefly seen in his paintings; sel∣dom in his prints.

To this summary of the rules, which relate to the whole of a picture, and to its parts, I shall just add a few observations upon execution; which relates equally to both.

By execution is meant that manner of working, by which each artist produces his effect. Artists may dif∣fer in their execution or manner, and yet all excel. CALLOT, for instance, uses a strong, firm stroke; SALVA∣TOR, a slight, and loose one; while REMBRANDT executes in a manner different from them both, by scratches seemingly at random.

Page  32Every artist is in some degree a mannerist; that is, he executes in a manner peculiar to himself. But the word mannerist has generally a closer sense. Nature should be the stand∣ard of imitation; and every object should be executed, as nearly as possible, in her manner. Thus SAL∣VATOR'S figures, DU JARDIN'S ani∣mals, and WATERLO'S landskips, are all strongly impressed with the cha∣racter of nature. Other masters again, deviating from this standard, instead of nature, have recourse only to their own ideas. They have gotten a general idea of a man, a horse, or a tree; and to these ideas they apply upon all occasions. In∣stead therefore of representing that endless variety, which nature exhi∣bits Page  [unnumbered]

Page  33 on every subject, a sameness runs through all their performances. Every figure, and every tree bears the same stamp. Such artists are properly called mannerists. TEMPEST, CALLOT, and TESTA are all mannerists of this kind. Their ideas are plainly no copies from nature. PERELLE'S landskips too are mere transcripts of imagina∣tion. — The artist however, who copies nature, if he make a bad choice (as REMBRANDT often did) is less agreable, than the mannerist, who gives us his own elevated ideas, touched with spirit and character, tho' not with exact truth. He is the true artist, who copies nature; but, where he finds her mean, elevates her from his own ideas of beauty. Such was SALVATOR.

Page  34By the spirit and freedom of execution, we mean something, which it is diffi∣cult to explain. A certain heaviness always follows, when the artist is not sure of his stroke, and cannot execute his idea with precision. The reverse is the case, when he is certain of it, and gives it boldly. I know not how to explain better what is meant by spirit. Mere freedom a quick execution will give; but unless that freedom be attended with precision, the stroke, however free, will be so un∣meaning as to lose its effect.

To these observations, it may not be improper to add a short compa∣rative view of the peculiar excellences of pictures, and prints, which will Page  [unnumbered]

Page  35 shew us in what points the picture has the advantage.

In design and composition the effects of both are equal. The print exhi∣bits them with as much force and meaning as the picture.

In keeping the picture has the ad∣vantage. The haziness of distance can∣not well be expressed by any thing, but the hue of nature, which the pencil is very able to give. The print endeavours to preserve this hazi∣ness; and to give the idea: but the idea is very imperfect. It is little more than an aid to memory. We know the appearance exists in nature; and the print furnishes an hint to re∣collect it.

Page  36In the distribution of light the com∣parison runs very wide. Here the painter avails himself of a thousand varied tints, which assist him in this business; and by which he can har∣monize his gradations from light to shade with an almost infinite variety. An harmonious colouring has in itself indeed the effect of a proper distri∣bution of light. The engraver, in the mean time, is left to work out his effect with two materials only, plain white and black.—In the print however you can more easily trace the principles of light and shade. The pencil is the implement of deception; and it requires the eye of a master to distinguish between the effect of light, and the mere effect of colour: but in the print, even the unpractised Page  37 eye can readily catch the mass; and follow the distribution of it through all its variety of middle tints. — One thing more may be added on this head: If the picture have no harmony in its colouring, the tints being all at discord among themselves, which is very often the case in the works of reputable painters, a good print from such a picture, is more beautiful than the picture itself. It preserves what is valuable, (upon a supposition there is any thing valuable in it,) and removes what is offensive.

Thus the comparison runs with regard to those essentials, which re∣late to a whole: with regard to drawing, expression, grace, and per∣spective, we can pursue it only in the Page  38 two former: in the two latter, the picture and the print seem to have equal advantages. — With regard to perspective indeed, the lines of the print verging all to one point, may mark the principles of it more strong∣ly.

Drawing, in a picture, is effected by the contiguity of two different colours: in a print by a positive line. In the picture, therefore, drawing has more of nature in it, and more of effect: but the student in anatomy finds more precision in the print; and can more easily trace the line, and follow it in all its windings through light and shade. — In met∣zotinto indeed the comparison fails; in which species of prints, drawing Page  39 is effected nearly as it is in paint∣ing.

With regard to expression, the painter glories in his many advantages. The passions receive their force almost as much from colour, as from the emo∣tion of feature. Nay lines, without colour, have frequently an effect very opposite to what is intended. Vio∣lent expressions, when lineal only, become often grotesque. The com∣plexion should support the distortion. The bloated eyes of immoderate grief degenerate into coarse features, unless the pencil add those high-blown touches, which mark the passion. Ask the engraver, why he could not give the dying saint of DOMINICHINO Page  40 his true expression?* Why he gave him that ghastly horror, instead of the serene langour of the original? The engraver may with justice say, he went as far as lines could go; but he wanted DOMINICHINO'S pen∣cil to give those pallid touches, which alone could make his lines expres∣sive. — Age also, and sex, the bloom of youth, and the wan cheek of sickness, are equally indebted, in representation, for their most charac∣teristic marks, to the pencil. — In portrait, the different hues of hair, and complexion; — in animal-life the various dies of furrs, and plu∣mage Page  41 — in landskip, the peculiar tints of seasons; of morning, and evening; the light azure of a summer's sky; the sultry glow of noon; the bluish, or purple tinge, which the moun∣tain assumes, as it recedes, or ap∣proaches; the grey moss upon the ruin; the variegated greens, and mellow browns of foliage, and broken ground; in short, the colours of every part of nature, have all ama∣zing force in strengthning the ex∣pression of objects. — In the room of all this, the deficient print has only to offer mere form, and the grada∣tions of simple light. Hence the sweet touches of the pencil of CLAUDE, mark his pictures with the strongest expressions of nature, and render them invaluable; while Page  42 his prints are the dirty shapes of something, which he could not ex∣press.

The idea also of distant magnitude the print gives only very imperfectly. It is expressed chiefly by colour. Air, which is naturally blue, is the me∣dium, through which we see; and every object participates of this blue∣ness. When the distance is small, the tinge is imperceptible: as it increases, the tinge grows stronger; and when the object is very remote, it entirely loses its natural colour, and becomes blue. And indeed this is so familiar a criterion of distance, at least, with those, who live in mountainous countries, that if the object be visible at all, after it has Page  43 received the full ether-tinge, if I may so speak, the sight immediately judges it to be very large. The eye ranging over the plains of Egypt, and catching the blue point of a pyramid, from the colour concludes the distance; and is struck with the magnitude of an object, which, through such a space, can exhibit form. —Here the print fails: this criterion of distant magnitude, it is unable to give.

The print equally fails, when the medium itself receives a foreign tinge from a strength of colour behind it. The idea of horrour impressed by an expanse of air glowing, in the night, with distant fire, cannot be raised by black and white. VANDERVELDE has Page  45 contrived to give us a good idea of the dreadful glare of a fleet in flames: but it were ridiculous for an engraver to attempt such a sub∣ject; because he cannot express that idea, which principally illustrates his story.

Transparency is another thing which the print is very unable to express. It is the united tinge of two colours, one behind the other, each of which, in part, discovers itself singly. If you employ one colour only, you have the idea of opaqueness. A fine carnation is a white transparent skin, spread over a multitude of small blood vessels, which blush through it. When the breath departs, these little fountains of life flow no longer; the Page  46 bloom fades; and livid paleness, the colour of death, succeeds. — The happy pencil can mark both these effects. It can spread the glow of health over the cheek of beauty; and it can with equal facility express the cold, wan tint of human clay. The print can express neither; repre∣senting, in the same dry manner, the bright transparency of the one, and the inert opaqueness of the other.

Lastly, the print fails in the expres∣sion of polished bodies; which are in∣debted for their chief lustre to reflected colours. The print indeed goes far∣ther here, than in the case of tran∣sparency. In this it can do very Page  46 little: in polished bodies, it can at least give reflected shapes. It can shew the forms of hanging woods upon the edges of the lake; tho' it is unable to give the kindred tinge. But in many cases the polished body receives the tinge, without the shape. Here the engraver is wholly deficient: he knows not how to stain the gleaming silver with the purple liquor it con∣tains; nor is he able to give the hero's armour its highest polish from the tinge of the crimson vest, which covers it.

A single word upon the subject of execution, shall conclude these re∣marks. Here the advantage lies wholly on the side of painting. That manner, which can best give the idea Page  47 of the surface of an object, is the best; and the lines of the finest engraving are harsh in comparison of the smooth flow of the pencil. Metzotinto, tho' deficient in some respects, is certainly in others the happyest manner of ex∣ecution; and the ancient wooden print, in which the middle tint is used, is undoubtedly in point of execution, beyond either etching or engraving.

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