The Practice of Art: A Classic Victorian Treatise

The Practice of Art: A Classic Victorian Treatise

by J.D. Harding


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Originally published in 1845 as The Principles & Practice of Art: With Illustrations Drawn and Engraved by the Author, this enduring guide is the work of an English painter and lithographer. J. D. Harding wrote several popular books on art instruction, and this volume constitutes one of his finest. A comprehensive manual geared toward practicing artists, the book features 24 black-and-white plates of illustrations by Harding that elucidate his observations and instructions. Topics include:
• Imitation as Applied to Art
• The Distinction Between the Judgment and the Feelings with Respect to Art
• Beauty and Form
• Composition
• Light and Shade
• Color
• Drawing from Nature
Art historians and students—especially those of nineteenth–century art—will prize this book for its philosophical theory of beauty and its abundant supply of illustrative examples, rendered in various styles of engraving and lithography.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486811284
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 12/14/2016
Series: Dover Fine Art, History of Art Series
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 8.20(w) x 11.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

English landscape painter and lithographer James Duffield Harding (1798–1863) wrote several widely read drawing manuals and other books on art. Dover also publishes his Lessons on Drawing and On Drawing Trees and Nature.

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The Practice of Art

A Classic Victorian Treatise


Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2016 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-81785-9



To the true perception of Nature and the just appreciation of Art, there must be an eye to see, intellect to distinguish, and feelings to stimulate and encourage their efforts. All these faculties, whatever be their natural degree of power, may be improved by instruction, which, to be valuable or worthy of the name, must be founded on truth. Truth, whether in Art or Science, must ever be the standard to which all opinions and judgments must ultimately be referred: no one endowed with reason will venture to deny, or to reject, laws perfect and demonstrable; nor be unwilling to acknowledge their immeasurable superiority over unfounded speculations and conventionalities.

It has been too much the practice of those who have written on Art to refer perpetually to the productions of the Old Masters, instead of referring to Nature as the only sure guide; and thus, instead of her constant and invariable laws, we are presented with the writer's opinions, often capriciously deduced from the occasional practice of the "Old Masters;" while for that which is truly admirable in the works of such masters, they usually fail in giving the only sound reason that can be assigned, — namely, that it is in accordance with a law of Nature regulating and determining her imitation by the means of Art.

In place of this, we are presented with a poor substitute — the authority of the Old Masters; for many of their works present exceptions to the rule soughtto be established, and afford proofs that such rule, — which is to be a guide to us, — was no rule to themselves, but rather an accidental adaptation suggested by the nature of the particular subject. We are thus constantly called upon to submit rather to their conventions, and their mannerisms, than to their powerful displays of truth; and errors are thus perpetuated which sound instruction should have taught us to avoid. By a proper study of Nature, however, with reference to Art, we may at length attain to a perception of truth, and learn to distinguish between an artist's occasional expedients and an invariable principle of universal applicability, and so become able to appreciate whatever is truly excellent — to distinguish the occasional glitter of the dross from the permanent lustre of the pure ore.

Works professing to give instruction in the principles of Art, sometimes present little more than a brief history of the Painters, where, and under whom they studied; accompanied with a catalogue of their works, and with criticisms on them; such, for instance, as that a light has been "carried into" the dark, and vice versâ; that the red on one side of the picture has been "carried into" the green on the opposite side; some yellow "carried off" by the pattern of a dress, &c. &c. Observations such as these are not of practical utility; they merely point to the occasional expedients of the Painter, appropriate to, and beginning and ending with, the particular picture spoken of; and very often the ingenious descanter on other men's merits finds beauties, and instances of "skilful contrasts" and "balancings," which the Painter himself never imagined. But if Nature's laws, to which those and other expedients should be subservient, and on which they ought to be based, were pointed out, we could then view such expedients as evidence, not only of the power of the Painter, but whence he had derived it.

To point to such devices, however ingenious, as the authorities for a principle, instead of referring to them as instances of its application, is to set up a less perfect standard than Nature; while to direct the student to her unchanging laws is to point to perfection: with a knowledge of these, he will be enabled to see how far others have succeeded, and to profit by their experience and practice.

I do not propose to reason on Art metaphysically and abstractly, but to explain its principles, as far as I am able, practically and sensibly, — that is, by appealing to truths which are perceived to be self-evident the moment that attention is directed towards them. If there be in Art anything worthy the name of science, it must be based on permanent laws, and regulated by them. My object, therefore, is to inquire what those laws are, what are their effects, and to demonstrate them by illustrative examples, as a mode of advancing Art, and of promoting a love of it.

"Notwithstanding the wide diffusion of the best works," says Sir Joshua Reynolds, "the knowledge of Art has not progressed in an equal ratio. Many, very many persons, still continue to imagine that it consists in certain secrets they can purchase, and soon put into practice." Many look on works of Art as on beautiful pieces of furniture, and are as indifferent to the talent of the artist as they are to the handiwork of the upholsterer, or cabinet-maker, and make no distinction in ranking the work of Art or the piece of furniture: of the two, perhaps, they prefer the latter, from its more obvious utility in contributing to their personal comfort and ease.

The perpetual necessity, from the first moment that the pen has dealt with Art, of pointing to some model for evidence, and for imitation, and the desire to avoid saying anything invidious of living artists, appear to have been the primary motives for appealing to the works of the Old Masters: — no interest could be injured, no feelings wounded. These circumstances have, I am convinced, contributed to establish a factitious fame, which is, in many instances, at variance with real merit, and has prevented thousands from thinking for themselves, and still more from expressing any unfavourable opinion of what has been assumed to be beyond dispute or criticism, and been set forth as the standard of excellence.

Though there can be no doubt that the Old Masters have left to posterity a rich inheritance in Art, yet their works, whether produced at the early or later part of their career, are not all equally valuable, nor all equally near perfection; and again, they were but the productions of men like ourselves; and amongst excellences to be imitated and emulated, there are faults to be avoided. Instead of inculcating an unreasonable deference to names — an indiscriminate admiration, without the free exercise of judgment — how much more must the real knowledge of Art be promoted by dispersing the mist of prejudice that obscures the student's vision, and by letting in the light of truth, which not only discovers to him defects, but also renders him more capable of perceiving and appreciating beauties? Aided by this light, he will be more heedful of adopting the errors of others while admiring their merits, and less liable to commit mistakes of his own.

To this it may, perhaps, be answered, that Sir Joshua Reynolds has said, "that all should be taken on trust." Now this appears to me to be quite erroneous; for, if the student have presented for his contemplation beauties or merits which he does not comprehend, he can set no real value on them, precisely because he neither knows nor feels what they are. Shortly after, however, Sir Joshua says, "that taste and genius operate in proportion to our attention in observing the works of Nature — to our skill in selecting and to our care in digesting, methodising, and comparing our observations."

That Art deserves to be more generally understood and appreciated, few will deny. Those who are really indifferent to it, or lightly esteem it, forget, or perhaps have never been aware, how much of the valuable information they possess is due to the instrumentality of Art, — how much of it is mixed up with many of the sciences, how much it contributes daily to the luxury of ornament, to the embellishment of utility, and to national wealth. It is man's constant attendant in a highly civilised state, and powerfully assists to raise him to it. Even in a savage state, he begins to apply his imagination to decorate his person; and in a high state of civilisation, whatever he requires for his use or ornament is impressed with the character of Art, either in form or in colour. He requires its presence, because he knows and feels its influence; and the degree of the presence of Art, according to his means, will generally mark the susceptibility of its possessor to impressions of beauty, as its selection and association will mark his taste, judgment, and refinement. Whether in-doors or out, he is continually surrounded, affected, and influenced by it; it becomes in a manner necessary to his pleasurable existence; and he feels the want when it is no longer presented to his eye.

There are, comparatively, few persons who have any competent knowledge of Art, or who think such knowledge necessary, or worthy of attainment. Prince Hoare, in his Enquiry, says, "That even scholars, of the profoundest erudition in letters, are very commonly little better informed of the properties of Art than the merest school-boy at an academy." This, I am inclined to think, proceeds rather from the difficulty of obtaining clear and intelligible information than from any positive indifference. Men of learning would willingly add to their store of acquirements knowledge on this, as well as on any other interesting subject; but many, no doubt, are prevented from seeking it, under the idea, that either they can never be made to understand the principles of Art unless they practise it, or that there is no certain knowledge to be acquired on the subject, — little to be learned beyond the mere technicalities of practice, and that if there be any science, it is too vague and unconnected to be worth the trouble of acquiring.

Amongst the quantity which has been written on Art, much is really excellent, but often mixed up with much that is too indefinite to lift the aspiring and talented student fairly over the difficulties of his early steps, and launch him on his future practice with safety; and also much is there that is obscure, unsatisfactory, and discouraging, to those in whom a natural love of Art has been implanted, and whom fortune has favoured with leisure to practise and encourage it; and thus many are led to look upon the acquisition as hopeless, and the encouragement of it hazardous.

To remove the obscurity and ambiguity to which I allude, and to make myself understood, as to the object I have in view in this work, I must quote some passages from Sir J. Reynolds himself, whose contributions, invaluable and justly esteemed as they are, are yet not without some unfounded opinions and unproved assertions, tending rather to embarrass than to enlighten the artist and the amateur, either practically or theoretically. I should perhaps have shrunk from a task which, even in his able hands, was sufficiently difficult, were it not from the encouragement and apology contained in the following sentence: — "The knowledge," says Sir Joshua, "which an artist has of his subject, will more than compensate for any want of elegance in the mode of treating it, or even perspicuity, which is more essential; and I am convinced that one short essay, written by a Painter, will contribute to advance the theory and practice of Art more than a thousand volumes, such as we sometimes see, the purpose of which seems rather to display the refinement of their authors' own conceptions of impossible practice, than to convey useful knowledge or instruction of any kind whatever."

An artist, who knows what is, and what is not, within the province of Art to perform, is not likely to be ever mystifying the poor student with the "grand conceptions of Michael Angelo," — the "divine poetry of Raphael," — the "majesty of Titian's colouring," — or the "depth of Carravagio's pencil;" and perplexing him with terms which convey no precise meaning, or with an imaginary union of excellences incompatible with each other.



The first step in Art is to imitate; and, therefore, the first inquiry respecting Art, must be, — What is meant by Imitation, and in what degree is it required?

There are two kinds of imitation; one of which strives to approach the likeness of the object by a direct fac-simile copy so as to persuade that the "mimic show" is scarcely fiction. But as all pictorial imitation is made with materials remotely differing from the object imitated, perfect likeness is impossible. Such imitation is also as unphilosophical as it is impracticable.

The other kind of imitation is that which, giving up identity, aims, through the perfect form of the object, or whatever is the perfection of its kind, to give it the appearance of possessing those qualities and properties of which the mind is cognizant, and from which we derive our sensations and emotions.

The difficulty of imitation is in giving the appearance of reality. This can only be done by studying the application of the powers and materials of Art, in conformity with the laws of Nature, so that the impressions we receive and learn from her, as our model, may be transmitted by imitating the outward characteristic of her objects. Now, as imitation is the true source of Art, it is necessary to study what degree of it is requisite to reach the true end of Art, — namely, to improve the mind, and ennoble the feelings.

Those who are neither acquainted with, nor study the true end and aim of Art, labour only to please the external sense, and misemploy their time in the fruitless endeavour to produce a perfect resemblance, which at best only gratifies the uneducated eye, whilst it reminds the intelligent spectator more forcibly of the artist's pains than of the object imitated. In such attempts, the means employed are most conspicuously evident; for the mind not beingreached, no ideas associated with the object represented are suggested; and thus the attention becomes more concentrated on the efforts of abortive Art.

Precisely, then, as the eye finds less to attract or engage its attention in the means themselves, or in their employment on identical imitation, so the mind receives more vivid impressions, and is, therefore, so captivated by the engrossing and active effect of Art on the imagination, as to be insensible to the want of perfection in the means, or in the imitation.

The means of Art, of whatever kind they may be, are poor and inadequate to represent completely the simplest natural object; and however the patient hand and correct eye may labour — whatever may be done — we are still conscious, in beholding the results, that we are looking at Art, and not at Nature. This inadequacy of the means, and our certain conviction that they are, after all, employed by artifice, make the energetic exercise of mind still more imperative on the artist, in order to overcome the manifest contradictions which exist between the imitation and the object, so as to produce on the mind of the spectator effective and vivid impressions, — to suggest forcibly the idea of the thing signified, without rendering the imperfections of the representation obtrusive.

Individuality, or identical imitation, is not only absolutely impossible, but is not required; for, otherwise, to perfect the charms of Sculpture or Painting, we must add colour to the one and rotundity to the other. Were identical imitation all-important, we could not stop short of any of the attributes of reality.

On this topic I beg to quote the following pertinent remarks from Mons. Quatremère de Quincy's Essay "On Imitation in the Fine Arts": —" Do we remark that there is matter in the masterpieces of Sculpture? Do we wish for the addition of colour? or the step nearer to verisimilitude which it might bring? Do we in paintings regret that their beautiful scenes are presented to us only on one side, or that their figures are motionless? What then would we have? Are shrieks wanting to the torments of the Laocoön, or the accents of lamentation to the anguish of Niobe?

"It will hold good, as a general remark, that, according as the imagination is more active, we possess in a higher degree the necessary capability of supplying the kind of deficit common to every work of Art; and the better also are we contented with the specific illusion. In fact, the pleasure of illusion arises, more than we allow for, from a sort of working of the mind by which itself finishes the work of Art.

"In imitation which is limited to the senses, in the choice of its subjects, and its mode of representing them, it may fairly be asked what its images can teach me, restricted as they are to the gratification of the eye? What do they show me more than I already know? What do they put me in a condition to perceive over and above their model? What impressions depending on Art do they communicate? What new acquisition can such imitation promise me, or give me reason to hope for? It does not carry my imagination beyond the confines of reality.


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