During all the great periods of art able men have striven earnestly to attain a knowledge of character and beauty and to achieve their truthful representation. Even when the purpose of the artist has been to express some specific idea or to record some incident or historical event, the work has lived, not because of the idea conveyed or the interest which attaches to the subject, but because it has portrayed character in a powerful manner, or because it has expressed the qualities of beauty which are inherent in nature. Upon these qualities, as they have been understood and translated by the artist, has depended the life of every great painting and work of sculpture. I believe this to be a fundamental and far reaching truth, accepted almost universally by painters and sculptors. This, I know, is equivalent to saying that the chief value of a work of art lies in its power to give aesthetic pleasure.
These observations may suggest a question as to the relative importance of a work of art which tells a story or records historical events as compared with one which appeals solely to the aesthetic sense or the love of beauty. Human language, it would seem to me, is the logical method for conveying thought from one mind to another and offers direct, untrammelled mental contact without the intervention of form or design of any kind, while the representation of beauty for beauty’s sake alone is the more direct and effective way of creating and stimulating in the human heart a love of nature and art.
This, however, is not the question considered in this work. The question raised is simply this:
Has the artist, in representing the evanescent effects of nature, the manifold beauties and harmonies with which we are surrounded in this world, or predominant character as expressed by man, exceeded nature either by virtue of his exceptional power or as a result of any personal quality which he may impart to the work?
It is also manifestly true that the greatness of a work of art must depend upon the mental power of the artist, that power which enables him to apprehend or discover the essential qualities existing in nature. It is equally true that every artist, even though wholly absorbed in the effort to reveal the truth and beauty which exist in nature, expresses in some degree his own personality. He does this inevitably, first, by the type of subject he chooses to study and represent, and, second, but in a less important degree, by the technical manner employed. This is, of course, well understood by every one. It is not for a moment disputed. But beyond and above this personal expression stands, as the chief and highest purpose of the artist, the representation of truth and character as these do actually exist.
While the painter has used his art to record history, to tell stories, and to express emotions and convictions, his chief mission is to extract from nature her many beautiful forms and harmonies and to present these in pleasing fashion. In this way the artisan, drawing upon the great multitude of beautiful forms and colours exhibited by nature and so lavishly spread everywhere in the animal and plant creations, cunningly fashions patterns and combinations, weaving these into rugs and adapting them to the many beautiful objects with which we are familiar.
Notwithstanding these accepted facts, I am convinced that the great works of the painter and sculptor, those of supreme importance, rest not upon any of these devices or expressions of art, but upon the faithful, unerring and masterly representation of character and beauty as these do actually exist. The masterpieces of art as they live today in the national art galleries of the world establish this fact. They seem to possess a common factor without regard to subject or period which unites in a common family the great paintings of the entire history of art. This factor I believe to be the quality of truth. These great works owe their existence to the fact that they faithfully represent some great outstanding type, or because they truthfully reveal the characteristic and essential beauty of nature expressed in one of her many moods. They are important just in proportion as their masters have understood these qualities and recorded their impressions on canvas and in marble.