26 June 2020

The Aesthetic Virtues

Jules Breton, The Life of an Artist: An Autobiography, tr. Mary J. Serrano (New York: D. Appleton, 1890), pp. 290-291:
A painter may be interesting provided he has studied Nature sufficiently to avoid copying her expressionless aspects, but he will touch the feelings only in so far as he can interpret her intensities.

How is the artist to learn to recognize the essential features of Nature which he is to depict, and the commonplaces which he is to avoid?

He can only do this by elevating his soul by the contemplation of the beautiful spectacles which strike his imagination, and by lovingly interpreting them.

For it is not enough to discern and portray the superficial character of things; it is necessary also — and this is the most important point — to interpret their meaning, their expression learned by putting our souls in communication with what I shall call the souls of inanimate objects.

For everything in nature has a hidden, and, so to say, a moral life.

This life is mysterious, but in nowise chimerical, and only those, whether poets or artists, who are penetrated deeply with it, have the power to touch the feelings.

What is the sky to me if it does not give me the idea of infinity?

Looking at a twilight scene, it matters little that my eye should receive the impression of the view, if my spirit does not at once experience a feeling of repose, of tranquillity, and of peace. A bunch of flowers should, above all things, rejoice the eye by its freshness.

The spirit of a subject should take precedence of the letter.

Force, Elegance, Majesty, Sweetness, Splendor, Grace, Naiveté, Abundance, Simplicity, Richness, Humility — some one of these qualities, according to the genius of the painter and the nature of the subject, should strike the beholder, in every work, before he has had the time to take in the details of the scene represented.

These are the aesthetic virtues.

They are common to all the arts, which live only through them. The most skillful execution, the most accurate knowledge, can not supply their place.

They are eternal, and pass through the caprices of fashion, without losing any of their sovereign power.

Jules Breton, Le pré fleuri à Courrières (1888)

 For the original see La vie d'un artiste (Paris: Alphonse Lemerre, 1890), pp. 280-281

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