Art
Ralph Waldo Emerson


Give to barrows, trays, and pans
Grace and glimmer of romance;
Bring the moonlight into noon
Hid in gleaming piles of stone;
On the city's paved street
Plant gardens lined with lilac sweet;
Let spouting fountains cool the air,
Singing in the sun-baked square;
Let statue, picture, park, and hall,
Ballad, flag, and festival,
The past restore, the day adorn,
And make each morrow a new morn.
So shall the drudge in dusty frock
Spy behind the city clock
Retinues of airy kings,
Skirts of angels, starry wings,
His fathers shining in bright fables,
His children fed at heavenly tables.
'T is the privilege of Art
Thus to play its cheerful part,
Man in Earth to acclimate,
And bend the exile to his fate,
And, moulded of one element
With the days and firmament,
Teach him on these as stairs to climb,
And live on even terms with Time;
Whilst upper life the slender rill
Of human sense doth overfill.

Art

Because the soul is progressive, it never quite repeats itself,
but in every act attempts the production of a new and fairer whole.
This appears in works both of the useful and the fine arts, if we
employ the popular distinction of works according to their aim,
either at use or beauty. Thus in our fine arts, not imitation, but
creation is the aim. In landscapes, the painter should give the
suggestion of a fairer creation than we know. The details, the prose
of nature he should omit, and give us only the spirit and splendor.
He should know that the landscape has beauty for his eye, because it
expresses a thought which is to him good: and this, because the same
power which sees through his eyes, is seen in that spectacle; and he
will come to value the expression of nature, and not nature itself,
and so exalt in his copy, the features that please him. He will give
the gloom of gloom, and the sunshine of sunshine. In a portrait, he
must inscribe the character, and not the features, and must esteem
the man who sits to him as himself only an imperfect picture or
likeness of the aspiring original within.

What is that abridgment and selection we observe in all
spiritual activity, but itself the creative impulse? for it is the
inlet of that higher illumination which teaches to convey a larger
sense by simpler symbols. What is a man but nature's finer success
in self-explication? What is a man but a finer and compacter
landscape than the horizon figures, -- nature's eclecticism? and what
is his speech, his love of painting, love of nature, but a still
finer success? all the weary miles and tons of space and bulk left
out, and the spirit or moral of it contracted into a musical word, or
the most cunning stroke of the pencil?

But the artist must employ the symbols in use in his day and
nation, to convey his enlarged sense to his fellow-men. Thus the new
in art is always formed out of the old. The Genius of the Hour sets
his ineffaceable seal on the work, and gives it an inexpressible
charm for the imagination. As far as the spiritual character of the
period overpowers the artist, and finds expression in his work, so
far it will retain a certain grandeur, and will represent to future
beholders the Unknown, the Inevitable, the Divine. No man can quite
exclude this element of Necessity from his labor. No man can quite
emancipate himself from his age and country, or produce a model in
which the education, the religion, the politics, usages, and arts, of
his times shall have no share. Though he were never so original,
never so wilful and fantastic, he cannot wipe out of his work every
trace of the thoughts amidst which it grew. The very avoidance
betrays the usage he avoids. Above his will, and out of his sight,
he is necessitated, by the air he breathes, and the idea on which he
and his contemporaries live and toil, to share the manner of his
times, without knowing what that manner is. Now that which is
inevitable in the work has a higher charm than individual talent can
ever give, inasmuch as the artist's pen or chisel seems to have been
held and guided by a gigantic hand to inscribe a line in the history
of the human race. This circumstance gives a value to the Egyptian
hieroglyphics, to the Indian, Chinese, and Mexican idols, however
gross and shapeless. They denote the height of the human soul in
that hour, and were not fantastic, but sprung from a necessity as
deep as the world. Shall I now add, that the whole extant product of
the plastic arts has herein its highest value, _as history_; as a
stroke drawn in the portrait of that fate, perfect and beautiful,
according to whose ordinations all beings advance to their beatitude?

Thus, historically viewed, it has been the office of art to
educate the perception of beauty. We are immersed in beauty, but our
eyes have no clear vision. It needs, by the exhibition of single
traits, to assist and lead the dormant taste. We carve and paint, or
we behold what is carved and painted, as students of the mystery of
Form. The virtue of art lies in detachment, in sequestering one
object from the embarrassing variety. Until one thing comes out from
the connection of things, there can be enjoyment, contemplation, but
no thought. Our happiness and unhappiness are unproductive. The
infant lies in a pleasing trance, but his individual character and
his practical power depend on his daily progress in the separation of
things, and dealing with one at a time. Love and all the passions
concentrate all existence around a single form. It is the habit of
certain minds to give an all-excluding fulness to the object, the
thought, the word, they alight upon, and to make that for the time
the deputy of the world. These are the artists, the orators, the
leaders of society. The power to detach, and to magnify by
detaching, is the essence of rhetoric in the hands of the orator and
the poet. This rhetoric, or power to fix the momentary eminency of
an object, -- so remarkable in Burke, in Byron, in Carlyle, -- the
painter and sculptor exhibit in color and in stone. The power
depends on the depth of the artist's insight of that object he
contemplates. For every object has its roots in central nature, and
may of course be so exhibited to us as to represent the world.
Therefore, each work of genius is the tyrant of the hour, and
concentrates attention on itself. For the time, it is the only thing
worth naming to do that, -- be it a sonnet, an opera, a landscape, a
statue, an oration, the plan of a temple, of a campaign, or of a
voyage of discovery. Presently we pass to some other object, which
rounds itself into a whole, as did the first; for example, a
well-laid garden: and nothing seems worth doing but the laying out of
gardens. I should think fire the best thing in the world, if I were
not acquainted with air, and water, and earth. For it is the right
and property of all natural objects, of all genuine talents, of all
native properties whatsoever, to be for their moment the top of the
world. A squirrel leaping from bough to bough, and making the wood
but one wide tree for his pleasure, fills the eye not less than a
lion, -- is beautiful, self-sufficing, and stands then and there for
nature. A good ballad draws my ear and heart whilst I listen, as
much as an epic has done before. A dog, drawn by a master, or a
litter of pigs, satisfies, and is a reality not less than the
frescoes of Angelo. From this succession of excellent objects, we
learn at last the immensity of the world, the opulence of human
nature, which can run out to infinitude in any direction. But I also
learn that what astonished and fascinated me in the first work
astonished me in the second work also; that excellence of all things
is one.

The office of painting and sculpture seems to be merely
initial. The best pictures can easily tell us their last secret.
The best pictures are rude draughts of a few of the miraculous dots
and lines and dyes which make up the ever-changing "landscape with
figures" amidst which we dwell. Painting seems to be to the eye what
dancing is to the limbs. When that has educated the frame to
self-possession, to nimbleness, to grace, the steps of the
dancing-master are better forgotten; so painting teaches me the
splendor of color and the expression of form, and, as I see many
pictures and higher genius in the art, I see the boundless opulence
of the pencil, the indifferency in which the artist stands free to
choose out of the possible forms. If he can draw every thing, why
draw any thing? and then is my eye opened to the eternal picture
which nature paints in the street with moving men and children,
beggars, and fine ladies, draped in red, and green, and blue, and
gray; long-haired, grizzled, white-faced, black-faced, wrinkled,
giant, dwarf, expanded, elfish, -- capped and based by heaven, earth,
and sea.

A gallery of sculpture teaches more austerely the same lesson.
As picture teaches the coloring, so sculpture the anatomy of form.
When I have seen fine statues, and afterwards enter a public
assembly, I understand well what he meant who said, "When I have been
reading Homer, all men look like giants." I too see that painting and
sculpture are gymnastics of the eye, its training to the niceties and
curiosities of its function. There is no statue like this living
man, with his infinite advantage over all ideal sculpture, of
perpetual variety. What a gallery of art have I here! No mannerist
made these varied groups and diverse original single figures. Here
is the artist himself improvising, grim and glad, at his block. Now
one thought strikes him, now another, and with each moment he alters
the whole air, attitude, and expression of his clay. Away with your
nonsense of oil and easels, of marble and chisels: except to open
your eyes to the masteries of eternal art, they are hypocritical
rubbish.

The reference of all production at last to an aboriginal Power
explains the traits common to all works of the highest art, -- that
they are universally intelligible; that they restore to us the
simplest states of mind; and are religious. Since what skill is
therein shown is the reappearance of the original soul, a jet of pure
light, it should produce a similar impression to that made by natural
objects. In happy hours, nature appears to us one with art; art
perfected, -- the work of genius. And the individual, in whom simple
tastes and susceptibility to all the great human influences overpower
the accidents of a local and special culture, is the best critic of
art. Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must
carry it with us, or we find it not. The best of beauty is a finer
charm than skill in surfaces, in outlines, or rules of art can ever
teach, namely, a radiation from the work of art of human character,
-- a wonderful expression through stone, or canvas, or musical sound,
of the deepest and simplest attributes of our nature, and therefore
most intelligible at last to those souls which have these attributes.
In the sculptures of the Greeks, in the masonry of the Romans, and in
the pictures of the Tuscan and Venetian masters, the highest charm is
the universal language they speak. A confession of moral nature, of
purity, love, and hope, breathes from them all. That which we carry
to them, the same we bring back more fairly illustrated in the
memory. The traveller who visits the Vatican, and passes from
chamber to chamber through galleries of statues, vases, sarcophagi,
and candelabra, through all forms of beauty, cut in the richest
materials, is in danger of forgetting the simplicity of the
principles out of which they all sprung, and that they had their
origin from thoughts and laws in his own breast. He studies the
technical rules on these wonderful remains, but forgets that these
works were not always thus constellated; that they are the
contributions of many ages and many countries; that each came out of
the solitary workshop of one artist, who toiled perhaps in ignorance
of the existence of other sculpture, created his work without other
model, save life, household life, and the sweet and smart of personal
relations, of beating hearts, and meeting eyes, of poverty, and
necessity, and hope, and fear. These were his inspirations, and
these are the effects he carries home to your heart and mind. In
proportion to his force, the artist will find in his work an outlet
for his proper character. He must not be in any manner pinched or
hindered by his material, but through his necessity of imparting
himself the adamant will be wax in his hands, and will allow an
adequate communication of himself, in his full stature and
proportion. He need not cumber himself with a conventional nature
and culture, nor ask what is the mode in Rome or in Paris, but that
house, and weather, and manner of living which poverty and the fate
of birth have made at once so odious and so dear, in the gray,
unpainted wood cabin, on the corner of a New Hampshire farm, or in
the log-hut of the backwoods, or in the narrow lodging where he has
endured the constraints and seeming of a city poverty, will serve as
well as any other condition as the symbol of a thought which pours
itself indifferently through all.

I remember, when in my younger days I had heard of the wonders
of Italian painting, I fancied the great pictures would be great
strangers; some surprising combination of color and form; a foreign
wonder, barbaric pearl and gold, like the spontoons and standards of
the militia, which play such pranks in the eyes and imaginations of
school-boys. I was to see and acquire I knew not what. When I came
at last to Rome, and saw with eyes the pictures, I found that genius
left to novices the gay and fantastic and ostentatious, and itself
pierced directly to the simple and true; that it was familiar and
sincere; that it was the old, eternal fact I had met already in so
many forms, -- unto which I lived; that it was the plain _you and me_
I knew so well, -- had left at home in so many conversations. I had
the same experience already in a church at Naples. There I saw that
nothing was changed with me but the place, and said to myself, --
`Thou foolish child, hast thou come out hither, over four thousand
miles of salt water, to find that which was perfect to thee there at
home?' -- that fact I saw again in the Academmia at Naples, in the
chambers of sculpture, and yet again when I came to Rome, and to the
paintings of Raphael, Angelo, Sacchi, Titian, and Leonardo da Vinci.
"What, old mole! workest thou in the earth so fast?" It had travelled
by my side: that which I fancied I had left in Boston was here in the
Vatican, and again at Milan, and at Paris, and made all travelling
ridiculous as a treadmill. I now require this of all pictures, that
they domesticate me, not that they dazzle me. Pictures must not be
too picturesque. Nothing astonishes men so much as common-sense and
plain dealing. All great actions have been simple, and all great
pictures are.

The Transfiguration, by Raphael, is an eminent example of this
peculiar merit. A calm, benignant beauty shines over all this
picture, and goes directly to the heart. It seems almost to call you
by name. The sweet and sublime face of Jesus is beyond praise, yet
how it disappoints all florid expectations! This familiar, simple,
home-speaking countenance is as if one should meet a friend. The
knowledge of picture-dealers has its value, but listen not to their
criticism when your heart is touched by genius. It was not painted
for them, it was painted for you; for such as had eyes capable of
being touched by simplicity and lofty emotions.

Yet when we have said all our fine things about the arts, we
must end with a frank confession, that the arts, as we know them, are
but initial. Our best praise is given to what they aimed and
promised, not to the actual result. He has conceived meanly of the
resources of man, who believes that the best age of production is
past. The real value of the Iliad, or the Transfiguration, is as
signs of power; billows or ripples they are of the stream of
tendency; tokens of the everlasting effort to produce, which even in
its worst estate the soul betrays. Art has not yet come to its
maturity, if it do not put itself abreast with the most potent
influences of the world, if it is not practical and moral, if it do
not stand in connection with the conscience, if it do not make the
poor and uncultivated feel that it addresses them with a voice of
lofty cheer. There is higher work for Art than the arts. They are
abortive births of an imperfect or vitiated instinct. Art is the
need to create; but in its essence, immense and universal, it is
impatient of working with lame or tied hands, and of making cripples
and monsters, such as all pictures and statues are. Nothing less
than the creation of man and nature is its end. A man should find in
it an outlet for his whole energy. He may paint and carve only as
long as he can do that. Art should exhilarate, and throw down the
walls of circumstance on every side, awakening in the beholder the
same sense of universal relation and power which the work evinced in
the artist, and its highest effect is to make new artists.

Already History is old enough to witness the old age and
disappearance of particular arts. The art of sculpture is long ago
perished to any real effect. It was originally a useful art, a mode
of writing, a savage's record of gratitude or devotion, and among a
people possessed of a wonderful perception of form this childish
carving was refined to the utmost splendor of effect. But it is the
game of a rude and youthful people, and not the manly labor of a wise
and spiritual nation. Under an oak-tree loaded with leaves and nuts,
under a sky full of eternal eyes, I stand in a thoroughfare; but in
the works of our plastic arts, and especially of sculpture, creation
is driven into a corner. I cannot hide from myself that there is a
certain appearance of paltriness, as of toys, and the trumpery of a
theatre, in sculpture. Nature transcends all our moods of thought,
and its secret we do not yet find. But the gallery stands at the
mercy of our moods, and there is a moment when it becomes frivolous.
I do not wonder that Newton, with an attention habitually engaged on
the paths of planets and suns, should have wondered what the Earl of
Pembroke found to admire in "stone dolls." Sculpture may serve to
teach the pupil how deep is the secret of form, how purely the spirit
can translate its meanings into that eloquent dialect. But the
statue will look cold and false before that new activity which needs
to roll through all things, and is impatient of counterfeits, and
things not alive. Picture and sculpture are the celebrations and
festivities of form. But true art is never fixed, but always
flowing. The sweetest music is not in the oratorio, but in the human
voice when it speaks from its instant life tones of tenderness,
truth, or courage. The oratorio has already lost its relation to the
morning, to the sun, and the earth, but that persuading voice is in
tune with these. All works of art should not be detached, but
extempore performances. A great man is a new statue in every
attitude and action. A beautiful woman is a picture which drives all
beholders nobly mad. Life may be lyric or epic, as well as a poem or
a romance.

A true announcement of the law of creation, if a man were found
worthy to declare it, would carry art up into the kingdom of nature,
and destroy its separate and contrasted existence. The fountains of
invention and beauty in modern society are all but dried up. A
popular novel, a theatre, or a ball-room makes us feel that we are
all paupers in the alms-house of this world, without dignity, without
skill, or industry. Art is as poor and low. The old tragic
Necessity, which lowers on the brows even of the Venuses and the
Cupids of the antique, and furnishes the sole apology for the
intrusion of such anomalous figures into nature, -- namely, that they
were inevitable; that the artist was drunk with a passion for form
which he could not resist, and which vented itself in these fine
extravagances, -- no longer dignifies the chisel or the pencil. But
the artist and the connoisseur now seek in art the exhibition of
their talent, or an asylum from the evils of life. Men are not well
pleased with the figure they make in their own imaginations, and they
flee to art, and convey their better sense in an oratorio, a statue,
or a picture. Art makes the same effort which a sensual prosperity
makes; namely, to detach the beautiful from the useful, to do up the
work as unavoidable, and, hating it, pass on to enjoyment. These
solaces and compensations, this division of beauty from use, the laws
of nature do not permit. As soon as beauty is sought, not from
religion and love, but for pleasure, it degrades the seeker. High
beauty is no longer attainable by him in canvas or in stone, in
sound, or in lyrical construction; an effeminate, prudent, sickly
beauty, which is not beauty, is all that can be formed; for the hand
can never execute any thing higher than the character can inspire.

The art that thus separates is itself first separated. Art
must not be a superficial talent, but must begin farther back in man.
Now men do not see nature to be beautiful, and they go to make a
statue which shall be. They abhor men as tasteless, dull, and
inconvertible, and console themselves with color-bags, and blocks of
marble. They reject life as prosaic, and create a death which they
call poetic. They despatch the day's weary chores, and fly to
voluptuous reveries. They eat and drink, that they may afterwards
execute the ideal. Thus is art vilified; the name conveys to the
mind its secondary and bad senses; it stands in the imagination as
somewhat contrary to nature, and struck with death from the first.
Would it not be better to begin higher up, -- to serve the ideal
before they eat and drink; to serve the ideal in eating and drinking,
in drawing the breath, and in the functions of life? Beauty must
come back to the useful arts, and the distinction between the fine
and the useful arts be forgotten. If history were truly told, if
life were nobly spent, it would be no longer easy or possible to
distinguish the one from the other. In nature, all is useful, all is
beautiful. It is therefore beautiful, because it is alive, moving,
reproductive; it is therefore useful, because it is symmetrical and
fair. Beauty will not come at the call of a legislature, nor will it
repeat in England or America its history in Greece. It will come, as
always, unannounced, and spring up between the feet of brave and
earnest men. It is in vain that we look for genius to reiterate its
miracles in the old arts; it is its instinct to find beauty and
holiness in new and necessary facts, in the field and road-side, in
the shop and mill. Proceeding from a religious heart it will raise
to a divine use the railroad, the insurance office, the joint-stock
company, our law, our primary assemblies, our commerce, the galvanic
battery, the electric jar, the prism, and the chemist's retort, in
which we seek now only an economical use. Is not the selfish and
even cruel aspect which belongs to our great mechanical works, -- to
mills, railways, and machinery, -- the effect of the mercenary
impulses which these works obey? When its errands are noble and
adequate, a steamboat bridging the Atlantic between Old and New
England, and arriving at its ports with the punctuality of a planet,
is a step of man into harmony with nature. The boat at St.
Petersburgh, which plies along the Lena by magnetism, needs little to
make it sublime. When science is learned in love, and its powers are
wielded by love, they will appear the supplements and continuations
of the material creation.