« PreviousContinue »
really and considerately thought to be ornamental must have been previously felt to be so: and though opinions may, by argument or demonstration, be proved to be wrong, how shall an individual pretend to prove the feelings of a whole age or nation wrong, when the only just criterion which he can apply to ascertain the rectitude of his own, is their congruity with those of the generality of his species ?
3. Is there then no real and permanent principle of beauty? No certain or definable combinations of forms, lines, or colours, that are in themselves gratifying to the mind, or pleasing to the organs of sensation ? Or are we, in this respect, merely creatures of habit and imitation; directed by every accidental impulse, and swayed by every fluctuation of caprice or fancy? It will be said perhaps, in reply, that we must not found universal scepticism in occasional deviations, or temporary irregularities: for, though absurd and extravagant fashions have, at intervals, prevailed in all ages, and, in later times, succeeded each other with little interruption; yet there are certain standards of excellence, which every generation of civilized man, subsequent to their first production, has uniformly recognized in theory, how variously soever they have departed from them in practice. Such are the precious remains of Grecian sculpture;
which afford standards of
real beauty, grace, and elegance in the human form, and the modes of adorning it, the truth and perfection of which have never been questioned, although divers other modes of producing and exhibiting those qualities have since prevailed in different ages and countries. The superiority, however, of these pure and faultless models has been invariably recognized by all; so that the vicious extravagancies and corruptions, which temporary and local fashions introduced and maintained, were tacitly and indirectly condemned even by those who most obstinately persevered in practising and encouraging them.
4. But is it certain that this condemnation was sincere? and are not men's real feelings and inclinations to be judged of more by their practice than their professions ? Established authority, both in literature and art, is so imposing, that few men have courage openly to revolt against it, and renounce all allegiance; though they may tacitly secede from its controul, and let their own taste and inclination govern them entirely in their practice: and that, too, by the force of habit, in a manner, and to a degree imperceptible to themselves. When we find every florid and affected rhetorician, who has successively contributed to the corruption of Greek, Latin, and English eloquence, applauding, in quaint phraseology and
epigrammatic point, the simple purity of Xenophon, Cæsar, and Swift; and condemning in others the very style which he employs, we can scarcely believe that he knew, at the time of writing, how widely the taste, which he had acquired by habit, differed from the judgment which he exercised under the influence of authority. Both Michel Angelo and Bernini were enthusiastic in their admiration, or at least in their applauses, of the Grecian style of sculpture; but nevertheless Michel Angelo and Bernini were, in opposite ways, the great corruptors of this pure style; the one having expanded it into the monstrous and extravagant, and the other sunk it into effeminacy and affectation. The late Sir Joshua Reynolds expressed, throughout his life, the most unqualified admiration for the works of Michel Angelo; while both in his writings and conversation he affected to undervalue those of Rembrandt, though he never attempted to imitate the former, but formed his own style of colouring and execution entirely from the latter; for whose merits he had the justest feeling, while he had none at all for those of the other, as his own collection abundantly proved; for the pictures which it contained of the Dutch master were all genuine and good, while those attributed to the Florentine were spurious and below criticism. His feeling was just, though
his judgment was wrong; and so far he was the reverse of Michel Angelo and Bernini, whose judgment was true while their feelings were false. As the vices, however, of both these celebrated artists were more enthusiastically admired, in their respective ages, than ever the merits of either Rembrandt or Reynolds were, it may reasonably be doubted whether they dictated to, or complied with, the taste of their contemporaries: either supposition equally favours the sceptical side of the question concerning any real and permanent principles of taste.
5. In judging, however, of the works of Nature, it must be owned that there appears to have been less inconstancy; the beauties of particular kinds of trees, plants, flowers, and animals, having, I believe, been universally recognized in all ages and all countries: but, over these, it must be remembered that the power of man is more limited, nor can he indulge those partial and extravagant caprices of his taste, which he has so abundantly displayed in the productions of his own art and labour. As far, however, as he has been able, he has done it most profusely. At one time he crops the tail and ears of his dogs and horses; and, at another, forces them to grow in forms and directions, which nature never intended : his trees and shrubs are planted in fantastic lines,
or shorn into the shapes of animals or implements; and all for the sake of beauty. Happily for the poor animals, it has never appeared possible to shear or twist them into the shapes of plants, or it would, without doubt, have been attempted; and we should have been as much delighted at seeing a stag terminating in a yew tree, as ever we were at seeing a yew tree terminating in a stag. These metamorphoses of plants are not now, indeed, in fashion but it is merely fashion that has exploded them; and as both fashions have had their respective admirers, not only among the vulgar, but among the most discerning and enlightened of mankind*, it may reasonably be doubted, whether either of them be at all consonant to the real principles of beauty, if any such there be. That however must be the subject of inquiry.
* Quid enim illo quincunce speciosius est, qui in quamcunque partem spectaveris, rectus est. Quinctil. lib. viii. c. iii.
See also Montesquieu, Fragm. sur le Gout. Addison, Spectator, No. 414; where he states, as a general position, that," though there are several wild scenes, that are more delightful than any artificial shows, yet we find the works of Nature still more pleasant, the more they resemble those of art," which he endeavours to account for philosophically. His natural feelings, however, soon rise up against his acquired opinions; and, towards the close of the same paper, he adds, "I do not know whe