Letters on Painting by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe:

Letter from His Excellency, Privy Councilor von Goethe
Honored Sir,
In sending back the pleasing pictures, I also enclose the essay. The two are most perfectly related; they reveal a tender and sensitive mind that is truly and solidly grounded within itself. Lovers of art here have made constant pilgrim- ages to this delightful piece of work, and each has adopted his own favorite. Very many thanks are due to you for sending it to us; I only hope that these delicate works reach you safely. I would be obliged if you would let me know.
Your letters on landscape painting are as well conceived as they are beauti- fully written; you ought not withhold them from the public. They will not fail to produce an effect and will delight both artists and amateurs by opening their eyes to the manifold associative harmonies within nature.
At the same time, when I reflect on the depth and thoroughness with which you investigate organic structure and the vividness and accuracy with which you characterize it, I can only wonder that, with such objectivity, you reveal yourself to be so profoundly versed in matters that appear to belong wholly to the subjective realm.
The error that has found its way onto the printer’s block, despite the clar- ity of your drawing, is unfortunately beyond repair; let the erratum therefore read as you have indicated. From time to time, as your plates are completed, let me see a proof, to allay my impatience, since your work is not to be hoped for until next year. *
I shall shortly be sending the next fascicle of my Morphologie—
Yours very truly,
J. W. VON GOETHE Weimar, 20 April 1822
* This was a reference to my work Von den Ur-Theilen des Knochen- und Schalen- gerüstes [Primitive portions of the bone and shell skeleton],which was eventuallypublished six years later. —CARUS
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Letter I
The study of art, like that of the ancient authors, gives us a point of attachment, a pleasure that lies within ourselves. By filling our inner life with grand objects and ideas, it holds our outward-directed impulses in check while cherishing our finer longings within our hearts. Our need of communication becomes less and less; like painters, sculptors, and architects, the lover of art works in solitude, for the sake of enjoyments that he is rarely in a position to share with others.
—Goethe, Aus meinem Leben2-
The chill, damp snow slides down the window; profound silence is all around me; the room is pleasantly warm, and the lamp, which is lit early on these long, murky evenings that presage the onset of winter, sheds a pleasing half- light all around me. At such times, surely, nothing can be more delightful than to yield, in all tranquillity of spirit, to thoughts that arise from art and carry us so entirely into the realm of beauty that we forget the darkness of the days and banish the memory of all earlier unease. My dear Ernst,31 hope that you will look as kindly as ever on these outlines of the thoughts that have occu- pied my mind at such times; please also accept this in fulfillment of my earlier promise to set down for you my views on the meaning and purpose of art in general and of landscape painting in particular.
You are only too likely to find these papers lacking in sustained order and adequate breadth of scope and to conclude that much of this is founded on my individual temperament, rather than confirmed by other minds. If so, regard it, as Hamlet says, as so many bubbles arising from my brain; where you can, show me a better and a straighter road to follow.4
I hope you will not suppose, as many moderns do, that to speak or write of art and beauty as an investigator is to belittle or even profane them; as if nothing counted in such matters but feeling and sentiment, and as if depth and clarity were entirelyincompatible.
Surely, man in his true feelings is always one; only as a whole being can he attain the sublime and the beautiful. Why should our feelings be impaired, even blunted, simply because that which warms the emotions has become clear to the mind? How can the beautiful, which is ultimately none other than the whole and the perfect (KOafioc), ever be profoundly known and inwardly absorbed unless it is embraced with the whole soul?
It is my firm conviction that all art is dead and buried if the emotions are not moved; that a cold calculation of contrasts5 and rational concepts can give birth to nothing but poetic cripples. I am entirely in agreement with the Master’s whimsical remark:
Fortzupflanzen die Welt sind alie vernünft’ge Discurse Unvermógend; durch sie kommt auch kein Kunstwerk hervor.6
[Procreation is never a matter for rational discourse; Similarly, with Art,reasoning does you no good.]
However, I am daily confirmed in my belief that emotion, left entirely to itself, will fail for want of inner certainty and calm, since:
Nirgends haften
Die unsicheren Sohlen, Und mit ihm spielen Wolken und Winde.7 [His unsteady feet
Find no purchase,
And he is the plaything Of clouds and winds.]
I feel that a true poetic mood is an elevation of the whole being, involving all the powers of the soul; I perceive the error of those who by reflecting doubly eschew reflection in all matters of art; and I therefore have no hesitation in embracing beauty with every part of my soul. In the presence of a work of art, the vital response of my emotions combines with my clear understanding of inner perfection and my awareness of a pure artistic will. Only then do I expe- rience a full and genuine poetic enjoyment. Such enjoyment, being based on beauty, truth, and Tightness, never fails or lessens on subsequent encounters with the work of art, which it thereby defines as a classic. Let us freely and wholeheartedly yield to inner impulse, ranging in thought over every part of beauty’s realm. Our delight in gazing down from a mountaintop is no less if we have previously made our way through all the intricacies of the lower val- leys; indeed, the total experience8 is all the finer because it recapitulates, as it were, and encapsulates our previous enjoyment of individual places on the lower slopes. In the same way, a far-ranging train of thought need not impair our eager delight in the wondrous and mysterious workings of art. Rather, just as any true investigation of natural history conducts us to the threshold of higher mysteries with a yet more sacred awe, we may expect an open-minded consideration of art to do the same; though we can hardly blame artists for their irritation at much of the claptrap that currently passes for aesthetic dis- cussion, both in print and in the lecture hall.
You too, my dear Ernst, must surely have felt that there is some miraculous
Letter I
power in artistic genius, with its ability to re-create, to imitate an eternal, cosmic creative process, to produce and reproduce in perfect freedom.
Where else can man create even the least thing that has life? What science have we that directly brings life rather than (as in dissection)death?
A leaf of a plant is dissected into its cells, its respiratory pores, its vascu- lar and fibrous structure; comparative anatomy9 teaches us to divide even the smallest creature into yet smaller structures; and yet, with all this science, who has ever brought to life the smallest mite or assembled even the smallest leaf?
And now look at the creations of art, which, though not alive in the real world, are able to seem alive for us; created by human beings, they testify to the kinship between man and the world spirit. Think of those fictional char- acters whose ideas and words, created by the poet, bring them before us as real individuals:
Ich weifi es, sic sind ewig, derm sie sind!10 [I know they are eternal: they exist!]
says Tasso, or rather Goethe, speaking of his own creations: and rightly so. Achilles, Odysseus, Orlando, Sigismund, Hamlet, Eleonora d’Esté, Ophelia, Gretchen: are not all these, as we know them, the creatures of a divine art? Is it not as if they had walked among the living? Do we not know their thoughts and actions as well as those of a departed friend?
He who thus brings a mind forth from his own mind: has he not a power beyond the reach of many? And should not man be uplifted by finding such power in man?
Let us turn from poetry to the harmony of sounds!
Swifter and more fleeting than poetry, music cannot so readily create a whole human spirit, with all its sorrows and its actions; but music can encom- pass a moment, a mood of the soul, and bring it to life with infinite power, so that we are caught up in it despite ourselves, as if the sounds of the music were intimate friends, dragging us willy-nilly into their circle, their turn of mind.
Architecture does the same, albeit in a different and more tranquil way. Both arts hold aloof from the imitation of nature as such;11 both express themselves through pure proportion, in time and in space respectively. Together with poetry, they comprise the supreme triad, the noblest chord that stirs —and must stir—the human heart; for in it, through the handiwork of a single human individual, the divine freely and directly approaches and uplifts all men alike.
Do you not feel, as I do, that some inner analogy must exist between these three arts and the three realms of nature, the three fundamental forms of thought, the threefold inner organization that physiologists discover within man, the three primary colors, and the three fundamental notes:12 an inner connection so profound as to be guessed at but never fully explored?
My dear Ernst, in these matters I feel as if I were standing on a mountain precipice, with a mighty river crashing into the depths beside me; wave upon wave surges forward, and all plunge into the bottomless depths; and yet the river remains full, and the rock onto which I step stands no less firm.
I can write no more today.
Letter II
O n these glorious winter days I have been spending much of my time in the open air, delighting in the varied and exquisite interplay of light between blue sky and snow-covered earth. Countless beautiful effects of refracted color present themselves to the practiced eye: these are truly won-
drous and magnificent!
There, a bright gleam of snow-light sparkles on a rocky ledge, set off by
the brownish stone with its sparse covering of moss and lichen; here, snow- drifts lie in shade, and the raised parts of their surfaces show as bluish, occa- sionally purplish tones. Down below, the mountain stream splashes between banks of ice; against the dazzling brightness of the snow, its surface catches and refracts the light in greens and purples, partly as true and partly as physi- ological colors.13
It was a delight that I was unable to share with you, my dear Ernst; but to spend this very evening with you, to spin out with you today’s newly started train of thought on the art of landscape – this meeting of minds should not be hindered by any intervening distance.
In my previous letter I took the free, poetic impulse, at the point where it begins to assume a form and enter life as a work of art, and traced it in those three aspects in which it remains free of all literal reproduction of nature and expresses itself instead through the pure proportional relationships of speech, musical sound, and solid mass. Here was one realm of the fine arts, the first realm, complete in itself.
We now enter the second circle, in which the enduring forms of nature supply the substance that will embody the Promethean spark of art. For noth- ing is ever entirely beyond art’s reach; art is true humanity; everything that man perceives and measures must in some sense be available to art. Art can mold the realm of thought into a poem; shape our innermost bodily stirring, palpitation, or resonance into music; and shape rigid, inanimate substance into architecture; equally, images of everything in the three realms of nature spring forth to serve the ends of representational art; and we could readily draw analogies between the depiction of inorganic nature and architecture, between that of the plant world and music, or between that of the higher ani- mal world, notably the human race itself, and poetry.
The productions of representational art are made in one of two ways: either in the round and truly corporeal, that is, in the mass; or through shading or
coloring on a surface, that is, in light. They thus divide into sculpture and painting;14 unless we are to count as a third, hybrid kind the rearrangement of natural objects themselves, as practiced in the arts of gardening, acting, and dancing.
The sculpture of natural objects is limited by its materials to the rendering of animal and human figures; painting, by contrast, embraces all three king- doms of nature (and indeed also reproduces works of architecture and sculp- ture), further subdividing itself into landscape and history painting. Land- scape painting employs an alphabet made up of the phenomena of inorganic nature and of the plant world; history painting uses the animal kingdom, mostly through its noblest representative, the human figure. These distinc- tions are half-obscured by countless transitional cases: thus sculpture and painting combine together in relief; landscape painting often incorporates human and animal figures; and landscape, in turn, frequently does service as a setting for history painting.
And so the creative force of art works unceasingly, and in its hands the world before our eyes takes shape anew. In its works all manner of things speak to us, in pursuit of the artist’s ends, in a wonderful language that is all its own. Sun and moon, air and clouds, mountain and valley, trees and flow- ers, the beasts in all their variety, man in his nobler and still more various indi- viduality: in art, all these are reborn and affect us with all their intrinsic force: now gloomy, now full of cheer, but always lifting us above the common ground through contemplation of the divine, that is, the creative power within man himself. Art thus comes before us as the messenger of religion;15 it brings to us the primal power and soul of the universe, which as a whole remains beyond human understanding, and makes it known to us through one of its particles: the human mind itself. The artist must accordingly regard himself as a consecrated vessel, exempt from all that is impure, base, or pre- sumptuous. At the same time the work of art must never adhere too closely to nature but must rise above it; for, if we ever forget that this is the work of the human spirit, art will lose its human reference.
Dear friend, let us move on to look more closely at the purpose and signif- icance of landscape painting. This is an art with origins in recent times, and one that still awaits perfect definition; an art whose full flowering may still lie in the future, whereas most other arts either recall the backward-looking face of Janus or adorn the sepulchers of the past as emblems of better days. Every imitative form of art affects us in two ways: first, through the nature of the object depicted, which will affect us in an image very much as it does in real- ity; and second, insofar as the work of art is a creation of the human mind, which, by truthfully manifesting its thoughts (just as, in a higher sense, the universe may be called a manifestation of divine thoughts), elevates a kindred spirit above the common ground.16
Let us take these two effects of the art of landscape one at a time, with an eye to a productive conclusion that will embrace them both. What then is the effect produced by objects in the real landscape? To pose that question first
will better enable us to assess their effect in painting. The solid ground, in all its manifold forms of rock, mountain, valley, and plain; the waters, whether at rest or in motion; the air and clouds, with all their diverse phenomena: such, in essence, are the forms in which earth manifests its life: a life so far beyond us that we human beings, in our littleness, barely acknowledge or accept it as life at all. Then there is the life of plants, which is both higher and closer to ourselves; and this, in conjunction with the other phenomena just mentioned, forms the true subject of landscape painting.17
In nature these phenomena give us no feeling that our passions have been powerfully addressed; they seem too remote from us—if, indeed, they can be said to produce any aesthetic effect at all. Clearly, the beauty of the surf cannot be of interest to shipwrecked mariners, or that of the lighting to the victims of a fire. Only what touches us directly and is closely bound up with us can involve our passions in its changes, filling us with desire or hate; but the natural landscape appears to us in a light of total objectivity, and in it we perceive a quiet, self-contained, consistent, law-abiding life. The alternation of hours and seasons; the motion of the clouds, and all the majestic colors of the sky; the ebb and flow of the tides; the slow but sure transformation of the earth’s surface; the weathering of bare mountain crags into grains of earth that are washed downstream and eventuallycreate fertile ground; the emer- gence of springs, which follow the lie of the land and combine to form streams and finally great rivers: all of these obey peaceful and eternal laws, to which we ourselves are subject; which carry us along, resist how we may; and which, in compelling us by some secret power to contemplate a great, indeed gigantic cycle of natural events, distract us from ourselves, making us feel our own littleness and weakness; and yet their contemplation serves to calm our inward storms and to give us peace in every way. Climb to the topmost moun- tain peak, gaze out across long chains of hills, and observe the rivers in their courses and all the magnificence that offers itself to your eye- what feeling takes hold of you? There is a silent reverence within you; you lose yourself in infinite space; silently, your whole being is purified and cleansed; your ego disappears. you are nothing; God is all.
Not only immensity, as it appears in the life of a planet, but any true obser- vation of the quiet joys of plant life operates in a similar way. See how the plant slowly but powerfully raises itself from the earth; how its leaves unfold stage by stage; how in quiet evolution they transform themselves into the calyx and the flower, concluding the cycle with the seed that simultaneously launches it anew. When we find ourselves in the midst of an unspoiled, luxuri- ant world of plant life; if we take in at a single glance the diverse life cycles of many organisms; if we come upon some venerable tree, almost old enough to put us in mind of the lifetime of the earth, in which millennia pass like days: the effect in every case is similar to that described above. Tranquil reflection takes hold of us; we feel our unruly ambitions and aspirations held in check; we enter into the cycle of nature and transcend ourselves. Remarkably enough, the vegetable kingdom produces similar effects on our physical being: the
fragrances of flowers—that is, of the plant in its highest state of evolution— often tend to make us drowsy, inducing sleep and bodily repose; certain juices, frequently associated with blossoms, produce this effect to an extreme degree, even provoking a total dissolution into ambient nature, or death. The ancients pictured the lair of the god of dreams as a cave stocked with herbs and somniferous poppies. What is more, an exclusivelyvegetable diet tends to make both animals and human beings mild and quiet, whereas meat eating seems to incline them toward violent desires and actions.
In themselves, these observations cast some light on the effects produced by landscape subjects in painting; they reveal the source of that grateful sensation of inner peace and clarity that we enjoy in the presence of true works of land- scape art, and they will afford further guidance in the course of this exposition. But enough for the moment. Dear friend, I look forward to your response.
Letter III
spring came; the trees blossomed, and the blossom fell; the rose season came and went; now, even the pretty, late-flowering elders have shed their tiny star-shaped blossoms, and summer draws to an end: here and there the leaves are on the turn; autumnal mists hang over the fields on some early mornings; and I, dear Ernst, have still found neither the leisure nor the inspi- ration to send you, as you requested, the next installment of the observations on landscape on which we embarked.
It is rather as if the life of nature in its joyous prime had forbidden dissec- tion and analysis. The true masters of art live such full lives, both inwardly and outwardly, that they can seldom bring themselves to engage in such inquiries; and we too, with so much to contemplate all around us, feel too happy to be able to reflect on why we are happy. But before pursuing the path on which I started earlier I must first deal with the remarks in your last letter. First, you suggested that the relationship between science and art, on which I touched in my first letter, should be more precisely defined, lest science be dis- missed as inferior and destructive to the life of art. Second, in response to my account of the effect of nature on man you argued that the sense of liberation and elevation provoked in us by the beauty of landscape derives not so much from the loss of our ego amid the all-encompassing life of nature as from our gaining a clear and vivid sense of our own position in this world.
First of all, let us look for a closer consensus on these matters. We have, after all, long felt that there can be only one truth and that differences of opin- ion mean only that our cognitive powers are impeded by a veil, which must and will sooner or later fall away.
All that we feel and think, all that is, and all that we are, rests on an eter- nal, supreme, infinite unity. A deep, inner consciousness, which as the source of all knowledge, proof, and explanation can never in itself be explained or proved (just as the equation a = a is incapable of further proof but must be recognized as true in and by itself), persuades us of this truth with greater or lesser clarity according to the degree of our individual development. Our lan- guage indicates this immeasurable something by using the word God.
To us, this supreme reality is manifest both inwardly, through the rational mind, and outwardly, through nature; but we feel ourselves to be a part of this same revelation, in that we are both natural and rational; we are a whole that carries both nature and reason within itself and is therefore, to that extent,
divine. In our higher, mental life two possible paths present themselves: either we set out to reduce all that is multiple and infinite in nature and reason to its original divine unity; or else the ego itself grows productive, and inner unity manifests itself through outward multiplicity. In the latter case, we show skill; in the former, we show awareness. From awareness comes knowledge, or sci- ence; and from skill comes art. In science, man feels himself in God; in art, he feels God in himself.
Art cannot therefore be regarded as superior to science; for science, as the path that leads man to supreme unity, clearly remains supreme. At the same time it is evident that science, as the diametrical opposite of art, annuls indi- vidual existence: it kills the body so that the mind may live; and this is cor- roborated by what I have said above about science. You cite the construction of an edifice of scientific theory as proof that science too is able to create form; but surely such a creation forms no part of our present concern, as it is not part of science at all but of art. In this, as in other respects, man can man- ifest himself only as a whole; and art and science, though distinct in our minds, can never wholly be so in reality. Science can never be expounded without the assistance of art (without an artistic ordering of ideas and words); conversely, no work of art can ever be made without science (skill without knowledge).
We can even more readily agree on your second point. When I say that man, when he contemplates nature as a single, magnificent whole, becomes aware of his own pettiness —and that, once he feels that all of this exists directly in God, he himself becomes caught up in all this infinitude and, as it were, surrenders his individualexistence —I feel that I have said nothing more or less than what you mean. For such surrender is no loss: it is pure gain. Something that is otherwise attainable only in the mind—namely, a convic- tion of the unity within infinity —here becomes almost accessible to the bodily eye, and it is for us to refine, more and more, our awareness of our own true position, our relationship with nature.
Now, however, let me retrieve the thread that was lost from view at the end of my last letter, and let us consider further the effect of the beauty of landscape in the pictorial image.
First, however, I must draw some distinctions among landscape images in terms of their truth, their meaning, and their subject matter. Truth of repre- sentation is naturally our first concern; this is, as it were, the body of the work of art, through which it exists in the first place and is brought from realms of purely arbitrary form into the reality in which all visual art must function. How is it that you are moved when you find in a good painting a pure remote- ness of depth, the clear or troubled surface of water, the play of delicate foliage on bushes and trees, or any other form of the inexhaustible wealth of natural landscape well and faithfully depicted?
Surely, insofar as you have evolved the requisite knowledge and imagina- tion—the organs with which to interpret the colored marks of the brush, though this has only a limited connection with “truth to nature” —surely you
Letter III
find yourself, as you look, progressively transported into the landscape in question.18 You have the sensation of breathing that bright, pure air; you long to walk beneath those trees; you seem to hear the very rushing of the waters. Drawn into the sacred circle of nature’s mysterious life, your mind expands; you sense the eternal life of creation; all petty, individual concerns fall away; you are strengthened and uplifted by this immersion in a higher world, like an Achilles made invulnerable by being dipped in the river Styx.
Yet mere truth is not in itself the noblest feature or sole attraction of the painting, as can be shown by comparing it with its mirror image.19 Make the experiment! Look at the natural landscape in a mirror. You will see it repro- duced with all its charms, all its colors and its forms; but hold that image in your mind, compare it with the impression produced by a perfect work of landscape painting, and what do you observe?
In terms of truth, of course, the painting is infinitely inferior; the charm of beautiful natural forms, the luminosity of the colors, is not even half cap- tured; but at the same time you feel that the genuine work of art is a coherent whole, a world in miniature (a microcosm) in its own right. The mirror image, by contrast, will appear to you only as a fragment: some portion of infinite nature, severed from its organic context and unnaturally confined within bounding lines. The work of art is the self-contained creation of a mental force akin to our own, one that lies within our grasp. The mirror image is a single note extracted from an immeasurable harmony; it cries out for more and yet more to be added; it can never offer the inner calm that springs either from a free and unconstrained surrender to nature itself or from the contemplation of a true work of art.
From this it clearly follows that in a landscape painting truth as such can- not satisfy us. In this or any work of art, as I pointed out in my first letter, it must additionally be possible for us to sense that the work owes its exis- tence to the creative power of a human mind; that it is the product of a unity and must itself therefore be a self-contained and, as it were, organic whole. This being so, and since the mind that devised a particular work of art can- not be imagined except in some specific state or tendency, it follows that the work itself must express a state of mind. In landscape painting, this can be so only where the natural landscape is apprehended and depicted from an aspect that coincides exactly with the inner mood in question. Furthermore, since this meaning is conveyed solely through the depiction of objects, its articulation depends on the right choice of object (of which more anon). We can therefore refine our definition of the principal task of landscape painting as follows:
The representation of a certain mood of mental life (meaning) through reproduc- tion of a corresponding mood of natural life (truth).20
In order to enter into more detail on the way in which this task is per- formed, we must: (1) summarize the correspondences between the emotions
of the mind and the states of nature; (2) review the individualobjects that are reproduced in terms of the effects that they create; (3) consider in what way, in this reproduction of natural life, the idea of beauty is attained.
I am sending you my views on these matters in brief essays, which I enclose with this letter; please let me know your views on all of this before I go on to formulate the further ideas that I have in mind on allied subjects.
On the Correspondences between Mental Moods and Natural States
When man’s classifying mind looks into its own depths and explores the various motions of the soul, the first distinction that it is able to draw is that between notion and feeling [Empfindung].* These relate to each other as form to substance, language to music, or individuality to totality. They arise, respectively, when man appears to himself as a unity (when he becomes able to form a notion of the relationship between individual external objects and himself) and when he perceives himself to be part of a greater, indeed infinite whole (when he becomes aware of the relationship between his own self and the totality of external nature). The latter, because it relates to the infi- nite, is itself unbounded (hence the depth, the inexpressibility of the feeling); the former, as a reaction to the finite, is bounded (hence the possibility of a clear, precise notion). Our ability to feel and our ability to form notions are thus the elements within which our whole mental life operates. They are inseparable, just as man cannot survive either as an individual in isolation or as a being devoid of individuality within the whole; nevertheless, they take turns to predominate, and sometimes notions determine feelings, sometimes feelings determine the sequence of notions. When we look at nature or at a work of art we apprehend objects as notions in that we refer them to our own consciousness; and yet, at the same time, because in the process the ego is itself referred to a new aspect of the external world (that is, put into a differ- ent inner state), a feeling must also arise, which will be homogeneous with the mood that either manifests itself through individual phenomena in the life of nature or corresponds to the feeling from which, as from an inner unity, first the notion and then the physical form of the work of art arose.
* This word has many different connotations; here I use it in the sense of what is also called mood [Stimmung], the state of the feelings.
Letter III
What, then, are the specific moods expressed in the countless metamor- phoses of natural landscape?
All those metamorphoses are simply forms of natural life; therefore, the diverse moods expressed in them can be nothing other than states of life, stages in the life of nature. Now, life in its essence is infinite; but its forms are subject to ceaseless change, constantly emerging and receding; and so every individual life-form exists in four phases, which may be defined as evolution, maturity, decline, and extinction. Many other states arise from combinations of these four: as where evolution is pathologically curtailed; mature strength battles against impending extinction; or extinction yields up a new evolution. All are abundantly represented in those aspects of the life of nature that offer themselves to the landscape painter. Most obviously there is the constant suc- cession of times of day and year. The four phases are exemplified by morning, noon, evening, and night, and by spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Their combinations appear in countless guises: when, for example, the early morn- ing clouds over; trees in blossom are caught by a late frost; plants shrivel and die in the summer heat; a thunderstorm breaks at noon; the moon rises at night; or new shoots spring from a dead stock.
What of the mind itself and its successive moods?
Clearly, as with the rise and decline of individual life-forms in nature, indi- vidual manifestations of mental life will have their own growth and decay within the eternal life of the soul.
Here, the feeling of aspiration, reassurance, and evolution; the feeling of true inner clarity and calm; the feeling of blight and despondency; and the absence of feeling in apathy represent the four phases that are fundamental to the life of the mind in all its infinite variety. Here, as in nature, the archetypal states combine in countless ways: in a state of aspiration, the feeling of the impossibility of attainment may lead to melancholy; inner conflict may arise when the feeling of perfect strength is assailed by external, destructive forces; renewed courage may spring from apathy; and so forth.
Sound a string on an instrument, and the corresponding string in a higher or lower octave will vibrate in sympathy; similarly, kindred impulses respond to each other, both in nature and in the mind. Here, again, the human individ- ual appears as part of a higher whole. The unpreoccupied mind draws encour- agement and stimulus from the aspiring, vigorous life of nature, from pure morning light, and from a bright, spring scene; is cheered and calmed by the clear, blue air of summer and by the sheer abundance of forest leaves in calm air; turns melancholy as nature slows to a halt in the autumnal gloom; and is driven in on itself and bound fast by the shroud of winter darkness. The pre- occupied mind, by contrast, being under the sway of some overwhelming emotion, tends to impose that emotion on the impressions that it receives from elsewhere, coloring them to a greater or lesser degree. The sick mind, indeed, may well be affected by everything in reverse: oppressed by a spring morning and perfectly at home, even cheered, amid extremes of hardship and
outward adversity; but this need not detract from our own observations, which are confined to the healthy and the natural.
Observe, finally, that the antithesis between feeling and notion (between totality and individuality) is there, in essence, within the very notions afforded to us by the natural landscape. Those notions may include an opposition between color and form: clearly, one and the same scene will differ in char- acter and address different moods when it is clad in tender green or in lifeless yellow, brown, or gray.* Notably, of all the notions prompted by natural landscapes, those that most directly appeal to our feelings are those connected with the weather. Indeed, it might well be said that the succession of different moods in the atmosphere (the weather) is to the life of nature precisely as the succession of different moods is to the life of the psyche.
On the Effect of Individual Landscape Objects on the Mind
The same must apply to these specific objects as to the meaning of natural life as a whole: they exert an effect in keeping with the sense of life that manifests itself in them. If this is unorganized, the effect will be chilling; if emergent, stimulating; if complete and perfect, calming.22 Take, for instance, the bare rock masses of the earth’s core in their rough form, offering no sustenance or security to higher forms of organic life: they make us feel strangely withdrawn and hard. But let the rock begin to weather, and the influences of air, water, light, and heat foster the first vestiges of vegetation in the shape of lichens and mosses; then our feelings become both milder and warmer, as we contemplate the emergence of new form. The same applies to the difference between bare sand and fertile soil. Again, a perfectly clear sky is the essence of air and light and the true image of infinity: and, as we have already observed that our own feelings are inherently founded on an aspiration toward the infinite, so the sky, as its image, profoundly and powerfully sets the mood of the whole land- scape over which it arches, and indeed establishes itself as the most glorious, the most indispensable component of landscape itself. When our view of this infinity is narrowed down, constrained, and obscured by clouds or by tall accumulations of other objects, the mind is proportionately constrained and oppressed; but let the veil of cloud break into silvery cloudlets, or disperse in the steady glow of the rising moon or of the sun, and our inner gloom is dispelled; we are uplifted by the thought that the infinite has prevailed over
* The observation of natural landscape through glasses of different colors affords some important evidence in this regard.21
Letter III
the finite idea of the victory of something infinite over something finite. Finally, water, the fourth basic element of natural life, from which all earth- life emerges, and which reflects the infinity of the sky (heaven on earth, indeed), exerts a twofold attraction on us: its lively turbulence excites and enlivens our feelings, and its still surface, whether light or dark, moves us to infinite longing.
Between water, earth, and sky, the plant world arises in all its unmeasured variety; and here, too, our feelings respond to the vital states and the meaning of the object. The dense vegetation that covers a valley floor evokes a sense of the luxuriant vitality of life; a mature tree in full leaf invites tranquil contem- plation; and a yellowed or lifeless tree induces melancholy.
As for sentient creatures,23 these of course form no part of the landscape as such and may thus be dispensed with; but they powerfully reinforce the effect of other objects by underlining their significance. The shy roe deer, a dweller in deep forest shades, will accentuate the effect of a dark cluster of trees; a skein of migrating birds will vividly illustrate the time of year; a hovering bird of prey animates a mountain scene; indeed, the same applies to human fig- ures, and only this can justify their presence in a landscape. The figure of a hunter clambering over the rocks in the morning mist will concentrate the meaning of the landscape; a solitary figure rapt in contemplation of the tran- quil scene will move the viewer to set himself in the figure’s place; a pilgrim will remind us of the idea of distance, the immeasurable vastness of the earth’s surface. In every case, however, the landscape will define the sentient figure, which must spring from it and must belong to it, so long as the landscape in question is meant to remain a landscape.
On Rendering the Idea of Beauty in Natural Landscape
Before venturing to investigate in more detail the way in which the idea of beauty is conveyed through the expression of mental life in the life of nature, we must touch on a question that many consider unanswerable, though its answer may prove to lie closer at hand than some others. The question is this: What isbeauty?
First, let us consider why so many previous attempts to answer this ques- tion have invariably proved misleading. The answer would seem to be that no one has viewed the idea of beauty in its true light, as something essentially limitless; instead, a mass of limitations have been applied in the attempt to capture the spirit in a single sonorous word —all for want of the ability to rise to the contemplation of the eternal and the divine. Much the same has
happened with attempts to define the concept of life: this, too, has been pre- sented in realist terms as a specific, self-contained, discrete entity among other entities in nature: never divining that we must either treat it as the fountain- head of all natural phenomena, or we will be left embracing a cloud in place of Juno.
As to the definition of beauty, my answer is this. Beauty is what makes us feel the divine essence in nature (i.e., in the world of sensory phenomena); just as truth is the cognitive awareness of divine essence, and virtue the life of divine essence in this world. The direct surrender of nature to the supreme absolute, which is its fountainhead, is what we call religion (brotherly com- munion, unification).
The beautiful can be none other than the perfect interpénétration of rea- son and nature. Since supreme unity manifests itself only under the forms of nature and reason, it follows that, as soon as nature appears to us, imbued with and shaped by reason, the idea of divine essence will also appear to us. The ego then relates itself to this dawning infinity, and it becomes clear that our capacity for feeling, our emotional sensibility (founded, as shown above, on an attraction toward the infinite), is addressed as a sense of beauty: the sense in which this whole aspect of human nature attains its focal point, its goal (aesthetic gratification). The beautiful is thus the triad of God, nature, and man; and its essence can be contemplated only in the steadfast conviction (founded on the authentic consciousness that underlies all knowledge and feeling) of a supreme absolute. In the absence of a living connection between man and God, there can no more be a sense of beauty than there can be a sense of truth or justice; and, precisely because that connection never can be truly absent, this holy triad lives within every human breast, though veiled or even obscured to varying degrees.
Let us now consider the phenomenal manifestation of beauty. It follows from the above that we can call nothing beautiful if it is outside nature, not real, not present to the senses: for instance, a mathematical concept or an abstract concept of any kind. Indeed, who would ever describe the uncreated and infinitely sublime primordial essence as beautiful in and for itself? Beauty is implicit in that essence; but only the phenomenal manifestation of that essence can be called beautiful.
Nothing, however, even among objects perceptible to the senses, could ever be beautiful in which the divine essence did not express itself as eternal reason and law.
Since nothing in nature can exist except in consequence of divine laws, it follows that in relation to the pure human mind nature is absolutely and entirely beautiful. It is because of the defects of human vision —barely ade- quate to detect the indwelling law in the objects closest to hand —that beauty appears less than universal, and perfect beauty (for want of a perfect and com- prehensive view) is nowhere to be found. All in all, the same applies to good- ness (the presence of evil in nature being an illusion) and to truth (error in nature being unthinkable). In any phenomenon in which nature prevails, suffi-
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ciently undistorted, pure, free, and powerful to achieve its true significance within the great totality of nature—undisturbed by extraneous influences which, though always natural in origin, must inevitably introduce a type for- eign to the essence of the phenomenon itself—in any such phenomenon, man himself profoundly senses the operation of eternal law: he recognizes beauty. He describes as unbeautiful, or ugly,* those individual phenomena that pres- ent themselves to his view without ever having attained their full development or fulfilled their own true significance: phenomena that have been perverted into a type entirely foreign to their essence (have become unnatural).
To be yet more fully convinced, by examples, of the truth of these princi- ples, we have only to compare the forms of the various natural objects around us, each and every one of which goes to confirm the principle. What can it be but the expression of imperfect evolution, of thwarted aspiration toward higher form, that makes us regard as ugly those animal forms that the science of zoonomy has shown to be transitional: mollusks, worms, spiders, lump- fish, flatfish, toads, and the rest? (A view that is gradually dispelled only in the mind of the naturalist, who in due course discovers the workings of a higher law, here as elsewhere.)
Is not this the only reason why we see even the shapes of human embryos, with their potbellies and large heads, as the acme of ugliness?
So clear does this seem that only the calamitous divorce between sound observation and pure speculation, which are apparently deemed eternally incompatible, can explain to us how the causes of beautiful form in general ever came to be discussed without reference to the meaning of forms as organic entities.
But let us press on!
Surely it is a sense of unnaturalness, of inherent law violated by some external foe, that causes us to regard any deformity in an animal or human body, such as crooked limbs, ill-proportioned facial features, and the like — or indeed a tree deformed by unskillful pruning or cramped location —as unbeautiful? As ugly?
Is not inner law the foundation of all beauty in architecture?
Finally, of all organic forms known to us, why is the human form the purest and most beautiful, if not because it contains the type of a perfect and complete organization, as demonstrated by zoonomy?
Why, if not because we have this perfection in mind, do we apply the epi- thet beautiful to those other organisms in which nature has attained some well-defined stage of evolution? Hence we delight in the structure of the eagle, or of the slender horse, in whose forms the very idea of strength and speed seems to have found its incarnation; we find beauty and nobility in the build of the mighty lion or bull, animals in which nature has brought a specific
* The application of this is very much the same as that of the term lifeless, or dead, which we apply to those individual entities that as such betray no signs of inner life, although they participate in the life of the totality of nature, in which absolute death is utterly impossible.
evolutionary sequence to its conclusion; we take pleasure in the glorious, leafy vault of a hundred-year-old oak tree, which is the expression of a free and endlessly varied evolution. Nor does this apply to physical beauty alone: wherever inner law and divinity shines through, in words, in music, or in the affirmation of will in action, the mind perceives beauty.
After these preliminary considerations, we shall have no difficulty in deter- mining how the idea of beauty is to be attained in the depiction of landscape. Nature as such is necessarily and entirely beautiful, and is recognized as beautiful in the degree to which its inwardness, the divinity of its essence, manifests itself; accept this, and it follows that the depiction of landscape in art will conform to the idea of beauty precisely insofar as it fulfills its allotted artistic function: to express the life of the mind by representing a moment in the collective life of nature on earth. Achieve this, and you thereby create
The relationship between the beauty of landscape in nature itself and in art
is consequently defined as follows. In nature, our sense of the true and direct embodiment of divine essence elevates us; in art, our perception of the divin- ity of the human spirit, which expresses its feelings by depicting or rather re- creating divine forms in nature, binds us to itself with weaker and yet more intimate bonds.
Natural beauty is more divine; artistic beauty is more human. And this explains why the feeling for nature truly emerges only through art. It is as if the infinite wealth of nature were written in a language that man needed to learn, and as if he could learn it only by receiving some of the words of that language translated into his mother tongue, whether through inspiration from a higher spirit or through the agency of a kindred spirit. This is how art prepares and promotes the cognitive awareness of nature, which is natural science.
Anyone can readily trace, in his own development, the process whereby increasing familiarity with the purposes of art —if, that is, his chosen art was one that pursued a true and consequently noble tendency —taught him to rec- ognize the power and beauty of nature. [Salomon] Gessner bears witness to this in his letter on landscape painting.24 [Friedrich] Schiller expresses himself in more general terms, but powerfully and magnificently (perhaps more so than in his essays on aesthetics), in his poem “Die Kunstler” [The artists], in which he addresses artists thus:
Eh’ ihr das Gleichmafi in die Welt gebracht,
Dem allé Wesen freudig dienen—
Ein unermefiner Bau im schwarzen Flor der Nacht, Nàchst um ihn her,mit mattem Stral beschienen, Ein streitendes Gestaltenheer,
Die seinen Sinn in Sklavenketten hielten,
Und, ungesellig, rauh wie er,
Mit tausend Kràften auf ihn zielten,
So stand die Schopfung vor dem Wilden.
Letter III
Durch der Begierde blinde Fessel nur An die Erscheinungen gebunden, Entfloh ihm ungenossen, unempfunden Die scheme Seele der Natur.
[Before you first brought measure to the world, Measure, which every being serves with joy— An edifice immense, veiled in black night
With all around, lit by faint, glimmering beams, A multitude of faint contending figures, Holding its meaning chained in servitude;
All rough and uncouth as the thing itself, Pitting their puny strengths against it —thus Creation to the savage first appeared.
Tied to phenomena by nothing more
Than chains of blind desire, he never felt Nor yet enjoyed the beauteous soul
Of nature, which still passed him by.]
And yet:
Jetzt wand sich vo[n de]mSinnenschlafe Die freie, schóne Seele los,
Durch euch entfesselt, sprang der Sklave Der Sorge in der Freude Schoos.
Jetzt fiel der Thierheit dumpfe Schranke,
Und Menschheit trat auf die entwolkte Stirn, Und der erhabne Fremdling, der Gedanke, Sprang aus dem staunenden Gehirn.25
[Now from the sleep of sense the soul awoke To perfect beauty and to liberty;
By you set free, the erstwhile slave now sprang From Care’s embrace into the lap of Joy.
The shackles of brute life now fell away; Humanity upon the unclouded brow Appeared; and the exalted stranger, Thought, Sprang forth from the astonished brain.]
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Letter IV
A utumn is now still further advanced. The chill, damp, misty air, and the bare branches, on which only an occasional brownish yellow leaf still hangs, send me home earlier than usual from my walk today. True, man should ascribe no troubling influence to the tranquil, regular cycle of nature, even when it confronts him with its darker side; but for today I find this beyond
my powers.
So let me recover, in an exchange of thoughts with you, my old and well-
tried friend, the inner equanimity and tranquillity that you and I have always believed to be the only true source of happiness.
And so I turn once again to the reflections on which we embarked before. I now have it in mind to take the general principles and apply them to actual works of art that either exist or might exist in reality.
First, however, I shall try to set out for you my views on a subject to which I have given much thought, that of the different kinds of style, character, and execution in landscape painting.26 This will ensure that we do not go on to consider works of art as such without clearly defining our terms; we must, in fact, settle in advance the language in which we shall describe their qualities.
By style I mean the way in which the chosen idea, the meaning of the work of art, is translated into practical reality. From this I distinguish the character of the work of art, which denotes the category of idea expressed, and its exe- cution, which refers solely to the artistic presentation, the technique. One might say that character corresponds to the mind, execution to the body, and style to the union of mind and body, which is life itself. Different kinds of style can and inevitably will arise from different combinations of its two con- stituent elements. Reality may represent meaning in such a way that the idea predominates, so that the real representation, the object, is suggested by its most general, though authentic, properties: and that is the style of the sketch. Or the objective, faithful apprehension of reality predominates, without being infused with and governed by an inner mental life: and that is the style of common naturalism. Or, again, the idea may predominate in such a way as to divert the truth of objective representation from its natural course by forcibly and arbitrarily altering the type of the objects depicted: this is the fantastic style. Or objectivity prevails, not by virtue of inherent truth to nature but through a technique that has become second nature to the artist; and this is the mannered style.
In the ultimate case, idea and truth appear in equal force and concentra- tion; and when both are felt in their true essence —the idea in divine purity, the representation in tranquil obedience to law and perfect clarity—this yields the only true, pure, or perfect style. By contrast, where both the idea and its expression appear equally weak, hesitant, and unclear, the result is yet another aberrant form, the nebulist style.
As for execution, here too we may distinguish a number of very different kinds of drawing, of shading, and of coloring, which may be combined in countless ways. Where drawing is concerned, the execution may be exagger- ated, violent, and coarse; or else noble; or else petty, timid, and effete. (The second of these three options may also be described as correct, the others as incorrect. )
In the execution of shading we find the dark, the somber, the clear, the light, and the flat. Finally, in coloring we distinguish a bright coloring in pure tones from a dull or impure coloring.
Always, however, the right and true course is a happy medium, and all other choices are false trails.
Some may possibly suppose that to limit all style and all execution to a single authentic category is to limit the artist’s freedom; they fear the imposi- tion of universal monotony. It should be borne in mind, however, that —just as the one, eternally valid process of refraction and color formation does not limit the multiplicity of colors; and just as the law of reason does not limit the freedom of the human soul —it is not at all limiting to the human genius to represent its innate, divine ideas through one and the same natural or sensory manifestation. In the fine arts this plain and simple principle has not been so well observed as it ought to be; whereas in poetry, for example, it has long been acknowledged that a uniform and perfect obedience to the laws of philol- ogy and scansion denotes not the peril of monotony but the seal of excellence. Nor does anyone suppose that the rules of counterpoint could ever impair the beauty and diversity of musical creation.
The truth is that this law holds good for the visual arts no less than for any other, and I am glad to find that [Carl Ludwig] von Fernow has said of sculp- ture precisely what I find to be true of landscape painting: namely, that there can be only one pure style and truly correct execution; that in this respect individuality must be subsumed within the work; and that a true sign of excel- lence in a work of art is that we forget the hand and remember only the mind.27 This is why we find that all the noblest productions of ancient sculp- ture appear to be the work of a single artist. It may be said of them, as of the works of nature, that some are more beautiful than others, but that they are all veritably there: that they are alive within one and the same reality.
I do not mean to infer that the artist whom some God-given idiosyncrasy prevents from ascending to the pure and luminous heights of noble truth, and who is thus compelled to express himself from time to time in a fantastic, sketchy, commonplace, or nebulist style, must necessarily produce unworthy works of art. Undeniably, in all of these anomalous forms a powerful mind
Letter IV
can often accomplish something that compels our admiration. Nevertheless, set this alongside any work of pure style and correct execution, and it is liable to appear unfinished, or else as an aberration of genius.
Where, then, if not in style and execution, are we to find the expression of the artist’s individuality, on which, after all, his own existence and that of his works are founded? The question immediately leads us to consider how works of art may differ in character. A moment’s reflection will show that, since like must be understood and expressed by like, the only true manifesta- tion of the character of the artist must be in the character of the work. For example: Salvator Rosa28 expresses the energy of his mind through beetling crags, huge and jagged tree stumps, storm clouds, and strong, directional flashes of light; but this would have been none the worse if the representation itself had been more rounded and truer to life, the aerial perspective more accurate, and the color (while still appropriate to the artist’s chosen subjects) as natural and as pure as in those gracious landscapes that reflect the clear and gentle mind of Claude [Lorrain].29 It is entirely understandable, even excusable, that the artist’s individual character should reveal itself both in style and in execution, so that an effervescence of mental power often leads to a sketchy, even fantastic style and a wild, abrupt execution, while a less pro- ductive talent tends to manifest itself in a commonplace or mannered style and in petty, timid execution; but that is not to say that such a thing is to be commended. I deplore Rosa’s harsh, perfunctory, untrue representation of individual forms as much as I admire the grandeur and energy of the concep- tion of his work as a whole. If this appears paradoxical, we had best turn to the other arts for confirmation of these principles, which are still very inade- quately recognized in reference to landscape painting.
Look, then, at the colossus of Phidias:30 inspect, or rather palpate, the torso of Hercules.31 This, if nothing else, will persuade you that the supreme power of noblest heroism is perfectly compatible with true perfection of form: that is, with the pure and only true style and execution. Indeed, only such an execution can truly express it. Need I remind you of the works of Raphael: the wrathful Archangel who thrusts the insurgent Lucifer down to hell; or the image of Jehovah in all his might and splendor, reposing upon the three mys- tic beasts, surrounded by angels?32 All are in the same perfection of style and execution that delights us in the transfigured Madonna.
Shall I recall to you the works of Greek or of Germanic architecture: ide- ally immortal, and created in temporal reality as if for eternity: works that combine supreme grandeur and power with inexpressible fidelity and love, whether this be in the freest, noblest temple building or in some heavenward- aspiring cathedral?
Here as elsewhere, whatever may be the ideal tendency of a work of art, the realization of that idea, the intimate combination and interpénétration of reason and nature, can and must be the same in every case.
And so I fear no excessive monotony, since the pure style that we have in mind here is an ideal: it is, as it were, the center of a measureless circumference
from which we can strike an infinity of radii without ever quite reaching the center. Every artist travels along one of these radii toward that ideal center; no artist will ever reach it as a finite being; no artist is entirely like any other, both because he is an individual and because he is moving along a different radius, close though those radii may sometimes be. One thing is certain: the most elevated, most excellent, purely beautiful achievements will always be the closest to each other. Conversely, the more blatant the artist’s individual- ity, the farther his achievement will fall short of the ideal.
The fear of monotony, as the consequence of a single, uniform style, is nowhere so groundless as it is in the art of landscape. Here, if anywhere, the artist has before him the infinity of the universe. All around him, nature oper- ates with a seeming lack of constraint, even of law; and yet it obeys laws that are unalterable and eternal. There is no hard-and-fast linear scale, such as exists for the depiction of the human form; nevertheless, every particularity has its defining causes, enshrined in a law that prevails forever.
Let life in all its inner purity be apprehended by the artist’s individual mind with clarity and therefore with originality; let him reproduce life’s forms with fidelity and truth; and we shall always be given an original and purely beauti- ful representation.
So much for definitions, for the time being at least.
Letter V
Ihave been looking at a number of works of landscape painting, and today this prompts some further thoughts on the artistic representation of nature, on which I would like to have your views.
First of all, I must say that it struck me as surprising that the ancients, although richly talented in so many arts and sciences, have left us no land- scape painting and indeed never mention any such thing; that this art emerged in the early seventeenth century, intact, without ancient prototypes, like Minerva from the head of Jove.33
How can it be, thought I, that the Greeks, whose sculpture, architecture, and poetry are so free, pure, and magnificent in feeling and in execution, felt no inclination toward landscape painting? And might it be possible to find reasons why such an inclination on their part was animpossibility?
The answer long continued to elude me, but in the end an understanding began to dawn on me, as follows.
In looking back on earlier epochs in the life of the human race, we com- monly have recourse to the analogy of a human lifetime, which is all that we know from direct experience. Applying this analogy to the point at issue here, we cannot but observe that early youth invariably concerns itself with the per- ception of man: heaven and earth, plants and animals, interest us at first only in relation to human states. Man feels his own active strength; he beholds the whole of nature as an element to be shaped, and necessarily sees it, for the moment, purely as something to use for his own ends. Initially, neither his notions nor his aspirations extend beyond humanity and its successive states; and his lively imagination impels him to attach human individuality to things that are at one extreme lifeless and at the other extreme divine.
I detect an analogous impulse in the youth of nations; and this, it seems to me, furnishes the clearest explanation for the emergence of pagan religion, which I have always respected as a belief entirely necessary at a certain stage in the evolution of the human race. Here, man acknowledges something divine outside himself but can apprehend this only through its diverse effects. Since he cannot detach it from phenomena, it can never appear to him as a unity but always as a multiplicity. For him, the divine power that dwells in the currents of the sea becomes Poseidon; the moon is guided in its noctur- nal course by Diana; the thrusting energy of the tree is a living Dryad; the storms are subject to Aeolus; and, when at last some faint intimation of a
future, finer understanding leads him to guess at the existence of a single divine being, he expresses this to his own satisfaction by erecting above the celestial vault a kingly throne from which the Thunderer holds sway over the other gods.
At this stage of human existence, man thus sees the external world solely as the element that serves his own needs, and therefore not as a fit subject for visual art (thus, he appreciates a rock, say, as material for a temple; but it is unlikely to occur to him that it is so beautiful in itself as to be worthy of artis- tic representation). Again, if he ever acknowledges an indwelling, transcen- dental presence in such an element, he reveres and represents not the outward appearance of the thing but its deity, not in the guise of a tree, wave, moun- tain, or cloud but in human form, the noblest that he knows.
This seems to me to explain why the Greeks desired to depict nature only by deifying and simultaneously humanizing it; and how they came to fashion images of nymphs, oreads, naiads, and the rest. However, to attain perfect clarity on this subject, we must go on to consider the materials that they chose for those images.
In the individual, the evolution of the senses begins with that of touch, and the finer senses of hearing and sight emerge only as the organism attains its perfection. In much the same way, man starts out as a sculptor: he wants to shape something that will stand before him, massive, spatial, and tangible. Painting, like the higher forms of music, is always the product of later ages.
Sculpture is inevitably the earlier art,34 not for this reason alone but because it is the art of the heroic age.
By its nature, sculpture must principally confine itself to the rendering of the human form. Sculptures of animals, even, encroach on alien territory; and, when more general ideas intervene, such as the cycle of generations in Goethe’s beautiful interpretation in “Myrons Kuh,”35 the sculpture becomes, in a sense, romantic, because it addresses us through symbols. The true goal of sculpture is, as was said, the glorification of the human figure, principally in its physical strength and beauty. By nature, sculpture is therefore entirely realistic: it seeks the figure as such, not the expression thereof. It is disquali- fied for any other purpose by its inability to express the true mirror of the soul, the look of the eye, or the alternation of colors on the surface of the body. Once raise man above a state of nature, and he is inevitably drawn to admire either the mighty strength of the hero or the perfection of physical beauty; these are transient phenomena, which sculpture is best qualified to fix in our thoughts. Was it not inevitable that sculpture would flourish as the art of the heroic age? And that it would decline as soon as the Christian religion turned its attention to the supernatural and came to respect the body only as the instrument of the soul; so that painting, as the more ideal art of the two, supplanted sculpture?
As for the art of landscape in itself, it evidently demands a degree of supe- rior education and experience. There is an element of abstraction and abnega- tion involved in treating the external world no longer simply as the element in
Letter V
which we live and act but as something with a beauty and sublimity of its own. It requires philosophical training to see or even to guess that the whole of phenomenal nature is the revelation of one infinitely exalted deity who is not only impossible to individualize in human terms but altogether inaccessi- ble to the senses; and accordingly to acknowledge the supreme beauty of the universe as a whole, and of the parts of it perceptible to us, and choose them as the specific objects of artistic representation. For this, man must cease to relate the whole of nature selfishly to himself and must internalize a pure vision of the beauty of the universe. Whether as a clear awareness or as a dim surmise, this idea had first to be present in the artist before there could be such a thing as an art of landscape. Man had first to recognize the divinity of nature as the true bodily revelation or —in human terms —language of God; he had first to learn that language, and develop a sensibility in keeping with nature (for a lifeless simulacrum of it would not do, as the example of the mirror image shows),36 before he could ever become able to proclaim to men, in that same language (just as poets are aptly said to speak with the tongues of angels), the secular gospel of art.
The origins of the art of landscape are thus not to be found in the painted views of cities and the like, mentioned by several ancient authors. Work of that kind is by definition done to serve human ends: its prime purpose is to supply an identifiable image of some place of historical or political impor- tance. This can become a true and significant work of art only if the artist is so steeped in the spirit and character expressed in the given landscape that he can, as it were, create its forms anew.37 Hence, it is often observed that the character of a scene is best represented by those paintings in which the artist is not following a drawing made on the spot but reproducing freely and faith- fully, from his own mind, the scene of natural life that filled his soul.
The painting of prospects is thus very like the painting of portraits. The world is awash with common family portraits, works that aim simply to make one person recognizable; their interest dies with the sitter, and the same goes for the painted prospect. Both portrait and prospect pay the penalty for their neglect of the higher truths of nature. By contrast, a painting of La Fornarina by Raphael, or of a Sicilian seashore by Claude,38 will give delight for as long as it continues to exist, with no need for the viewer to know the identity of the prototype from which the artist worked. For this reason we remain unsatis- fied by any work that sacrifices or depreciates inner truth to nature for the sake of a poetic idea, an expression of feeling, however beautiful and pure the feeling may be in itself. This is the case with those works that we are inclined to call sentimental: works in which nature is valued only as a symbol or hiero- glyph, and the artist is content to make his objects just recognizable enough to convey their symbolic significance. Take, for example, the landscape described by [Ludwig] Tieck in Sternbalds Wandemngen,39 in which a pilgrim is seen making his way along a narrow valley toward the heights, where the cross atop a church can be seen shining in the moonlight. This is the expres- sion of a Christian and moral idea to which, in itself, we cannot deny our
whole-hearted assent; but for the painting itself to be worthy of praise, this message is not enough; nor are neat and skillful rendering and arrangement enough. The whole must be couched in terms of such innocence and such pure naturalness that we might disregard the idea and still take delight in the specific scene of natural life faithfully expressed therein; that even a total stranger to Christian ideas would be enabled to feel with pleasure the coolness of the valley, the mysterious clarity of the moonlight, the truth of the path winding its way up to the heights. Here, after all, the observer is required to be in the same situation as in viewing nature, which can look quite different to different people at different times, and remains beautiful in every guise: no other person’s individual vision must be imposed on him, and his individual freedom of vision must be left entirely unimpaired. When a poodle circles around Faust and Wagner on their walk, Faust senses something demonic in it; to Wagner it is just a dog. On his own terms, each is right.40
But it is ideas like this that are liable to tempt the artist to sacrifice truth and to show less respect for nature itself. He paints just enough, according to the rules of painting, to make valley, moonlight, and church adequately recog- nizable, and then he supposes that he has completed the bridge that will carry the beholder across into the land of ideas —never pausing to reflect that closer scrutiny might reveal it as a mere bridge of laths and himself as an unskillful architect.
Such would be the inadequacy of the artistic treatment that I would call sentimental landscape. And this brings us back to the principle that, just as only a healthy soul in a healthy body makes a true human being, and just as the universe consists only in the equal mutual penetration of reason and nature, the true art of landscape resides only in true harmony: that is, a per- fect union of meaning and truth.
After all these general reflections, let us consider some genuine achieve- ments in the art of landscape. As I told you, I was moved to write this letter by looking at a number of paintings by the fathers of true landscape painting, Claude and Ruysdael,41 now held in the Galerie in Dresden. You know those two magnificent paintings by Claude, before which you and I could never stand without involuntarily drawing a deep breath, filled with the sense of a cheerful, warmer, southern air; but you also remember the waters, both rush- ing and still, and the grave beech and oak trees, which Ruysdael presents to us with such infinite freedom and truth that our beloved native landscape seems almost to speak to us directly. Here we may say that the artist’s inner meaning has assumed objective form; both artists’ work convinces us that they had absorbed the life of nature into themselves, in all its beauty and grandeur, and that it pulsed through their veins and sinews, enabling them to speak to us in nature’s language, and to reflect its forms in all their pristine beauty. Hence the feeling of freedom and well-being that overcomes us when we stand before these paintings: we are aware of a beautiful, human individuality that allows us to contemplate its inner essence reflected in the mirror of the true divine word —that is to say, in the truth of nature—and does so freely and
Letter V
calmly, making no attempt to direct us toward any particular view, but at ease in its own blissful contentment; thereby moving us to lay aside all our petty, one-sided concerns and to join the artist in the peace of his life in God.
For in this temporal life everyone is to some extent one-sided, with views of his own that no one else can fully share; because, after all, everyone is dif- ferent and wants —rightly, as far as temporal life goes —to assert his unique- ness. We must not expect any man to be a perfect saint; but we must expect him, when faced with a moment of decision, to take himself in hand and act in perfect accordance with virtue and divine will. The expectation, likewise, is that for the exalted purposes of art and science man shall free himself from all that is contingent and less than fully human in his nature: all that is merely his opinion or inclination. In art and in science, the work that is perfect and clas- sic is the work that reveals, not one human view or another, but the fully human.
We have so many works of science and learning that are ingenious and praiseworthy in many respects but pervaded by a partial view, a personal opinion: “system” is the word that immediately springs to mind. We conclude that the work is good in itself, but that in one or other of his views the author remains trapped within his own system.
Those who share that view find the work very much to their taste, and indeed consider it excellent; they warmly defend their own opinion against those who think otherwise; adherents are recruited; a school emerges, and endures until a new system displaces the old. A truly classic work, by contrast, is like the universe itself, its truth calmly evident for all to see. Its power to delight every reader is timeless; and (since there is some truth in every one- sided view) it leaves that reader at liberty to find in it his own cherished view, the way the world looks to him; just as all Christian sects have invariably found evidence in the Bible to prove their own particular opinions.
All of this is no less applicable to the work of art. The work that is a pure manifestation of the primal idea of beauty, the utterance not of one individual but of man, as he was from the beginning and ever more shall be, is the work that is true and classic for all times.
It is impossible to imagine that any true human being can fail to be delighted and uplifted by the works of the Greek sculptors. In just the same way, though not perhaps to the same degree, the paintings of a Claude remain true and magnificent for all ages and for all persons who have schooled them- selves to revere the beauty of natural landscape, in general, and of the land- scape that the artist saw, in particular.
You will not make the mistake of assuming that I want all landscape paint- ings to look like those of Claude: far from it! But this concentration on the archetypal truth of nature itself, with all preconceptions subordinated to the pure, innocent rendering of nature, in keeping with its presence before us as a divine revelation (whether the artist has been thinking of something specific, a particular idea or the character of a certain locality, as apparent only to a like- minded person or to one with local knowledge; or whether he freely and
purely depicts for us the clarity of his own mind as mirrored in nature): this, as I tried to explain at greater length in my last letter, is what we may and must expect to find in the classic, perfect landscape.
I am well aware that this is an immensely difficult requirement to fulfill. It has, in fact, very seldom been adequately done: a truth that you will, I hope, bear in mind as I proceed to consider ways and means of attaining so exalted an aim.
It is noteworthy, first of all, that in landscape painting, as in so many other arts, those artists who are the first of their nation to discover the art in ques- tion are those who achieve the most. Homer and Ossian, the inventors of the epic poem, remain the unequaled bards of the heroic age; and Claude and Ruysdael, the earliest painters in whose work true landscape appeared, are still also the best. In reflecting on the causes of this, we find ourselves led back to the idea that the arts evolve organically within humanity as a whole; so that any capability based on the senses, like an individual organism, has its finest, unrepeatable flowering at the precise moment when it has just attained its perfect development. The freshly blown flower pleases us best; and the alert and supple strength of youth is never recaptured. The moment when any art first spreads its wings is necessarily the moment when it shines with its freshest, most enchanted radiance. On closer consideration, the principle is still further confirmed.
The idea of the divine is profoundly ingrained within man’s breast. When he is filled with love for the revelation of that idea in external nature; when, holding to his own chosen path, undistracted by outworn concepts or by the derivative work of other artists, he confides himself purely to the bosom of nature; when he has truly and faithfully absorbed the message of nature and mastered the working of his material: must he not be capable of the most glo- rious achievements in the rendering of a spiritualized nature?
In history painting we observe the earliest great masters, still grappling with their subject matter, but convinced of the sublimity of their goal, ascend- ing toward that goal in the absence of precedents and in all true innocence. Art appears to be a pious, earnest child until, with Raphael, it appears in all the joyous youth and splendor of its prime. Has art ever risen so high since then? Or has not art been increasingly engulfed by its own material, since artists first erred by dividing their allegiance between nature and the prece- dents set by the ancients or by Raphael himself?
An analogous process has taken place in landscape painting. The beauty of landscape forms was first glimpsed by a number of history painters, and hinted at in the works of Titian42 and Raphael; then P[aul] Bril43 made his first childlike essays in the depiction of landscape; finally, the art burst forth, in all the beauty of its youth, like clear moonlight from behind dark clouds.
Just as an idea is often observed to stir in several minds at once, when humanity grows ripe to receive it, the talent for this art emerged simultane- ously in a number of temperaments, so that we encounter a true sense of land- scape in the works of the seventeenth-century painters Claude, Ruysdael,
Letter V
[Anthonie] Waterloo,44 and to some extent (though with a bias toward his- tory painting) Salvator Rosa and Nicolas Poussin.45 As for the succeeding generation, led astray by these near-contemporary models, it retreated from the heights that they had reached, taking refuge in the derivative mannerisms of [Herman van] Swanefeldt, C. Poussin, [Frederic de] Moucheron, [Nicolaes] Berghem,46 and others, in which the technique of painting progresses, but the art is lost.
In this connection, it is worth inquiring into the methods used by Claude in his paintings; for in them all the technical skill that we praise in many other painters, the power and precision of brushwork and of execution in general, is almost entirely absent. Consider, for example, the treatment of individual objects, such as trees and rocks, in the painting of the Sicilian coast mentioned above. This is so curiously inert, almost clumsy, that we might be looking at a child’s drawing. Seen individually,the cloud forms in both paintings are strange, heavy, and almost unpleasant; Claude’s sea seems, as painted, to be laboriously assembled from innumerable tiny brushstrokes. But look again at the painting as a whole, and it displays such a cheerful aspect, such an intimate sense of natural beauty! The most delicate mist links the mountains and the woods; the gentle swell of the sea is magnificently rendered; and the clouds hang freely and lightly above the warmer levels of air. We have a clear and certain feeling that these images were distinctly present, thus and not oth- erwise, in the mind’s eye; and that they unfailingly transferred themselves thus to the canvas, inept though the painter’s hand might have been in itself. The old saying that the Lord is mighty in the weak seems to be confirmed; mind has itself created a capability through which to impart form. The hand is nothing; it is all the work of the mind, which has created magnificence despite its clumsy tools: a truth that speaks directly to our innermost selves. This being so, it at once becomes clear that any imitation of the so-called Claudian style —of its letter, rather than its spirit —must be hollow and empty: which explains the strangely irksome feeling that we receive from the paintings of [Richard] Wilson47 and his like. Goethe’s blunt words are entirely apposite here:
Ja, sitzt nur immer! Leimt zusammen!
Braut ein Ragout aus Andrer Schmaus
Und blast die kiimmerlichen Flammen
Aus eurem Aschenhàufchen raus! Bewunderung von Kindern und Affen,
Wenn euch danach der Gaumen steht! — Doch werdet ihr nie Herz zu Herzen schaffen, Wenn es euch nicht von Herzen geht.48
[Yes, there you sit, and cut and paste, Cook up a stew from others’ feasts, And fan the guttering flames to life From your poor little pile ofash!
Be admired by babes and apes,
If so be that you’re thus inclined—
But heart to heart you’ll never speak, Unless it comes straight from the heart.]
Very much the same can be said of Ruysdael as of Claude, except that in Ruysdael we find not childishness and technical incompetence, but sketchi- ness. Seen in isolation, his handling often seems crude: he dashes brushstrokes onto the canvas to stand for masses of earth here, grass there, foliage there; in his celebrated Churchyard, for example, the clouds are wild and dispropor- tionately dark in execution; and in lieu of a rainbow we are left with two mas- sive, arching brushstrokes. But in all this there is great truth and spirit. Our cup runneth over; nothing is to be taken too literally. We feel, in short, that the innermost feelings of a fine and accomplished human being have been expressed in the true language of nature.
One gratifying conclusion that emerges from all this is that a school is not indispensable for high attainment in art. Once the idea of divinity has taken shape in the mental life of a man, and once he has absorbed nature into him- self, purely and without distortion the nature, through which he intends to express his own state of mind, then the capability to express it will present itself. Schooling is no more than the echo and aftermath of the works of genius; and an artificial training of the capability in advance of the mind, which the school aims at, can often be a disadvantage.
Another consequence seems to be that the age of naivete, which directly follows the infancy of art, and in which man follows the innocent aspirations of his inner self, without recourse to artistic models, is the authentic period for the production of true works of art. For at every subsequent stage he is bound to be misled to some degree by the influence of existing work; and the latter-day artist, whatever he does, can no more revert to former innocence than the adult can recapture the mentality, the inclinations, and the other qualities of the child.
Given this progressive dulling of vision, will the future afford our posterity any hope of true salvation? And, if so, where might such a hope be found? Let us continue our exchange of thoughts on this matter in days to come.
Letter VI
M y dear Ernst, for years on end I hesitated to write again, because I felt the weight of the responsibility that I assumed in promising to give you in a further letter my ideas on how a significant work of landscape painting might be produced, now and in the future, despite the multitude of artistic precedents that constantly mislead us and seek to draw us into their own ambit. One thing was clear from the outset: here, as elsewhere, we must keep
in mind Schiller’s momentous words:
Gleich sei keiner dem andern, doch gleich sei jeder dem Hóchsten; Wie das zu machen? —es sei jeder vollendet in sich.49
[None must resemble another, but all must resemble the Highest. How is that to be done? Perfect be each in itself.]
How this might be done, amid a multitude of distractions, in such a way as to achieve that inner perfection without being caught up in the wake of some brilliant prior achievement; how to capture the pure and innocent perceptions of childhood in this Age of Reason: I sensed within me the first inklings of an answer but found myself unable to view it clearly or to formulate it in words. I was in a state that reminds me of those cloudy nights at full moon, when the moon’s orb is nowhere to be seen, and yet its gentle light suffuses the cloud and illuminates the earth on every side without ever casting a shadow; what we perceive is not the source of the light but the light itself. We may guess at the existence of a law, and draw benefit from it, without for the moment being able to see it directly.
Often when we harbor such an idea in its beclouded form some external stimulus then makes it spring forth like Minerva from the head of Jove. Indeed, the ancients no doubt had this kind of sudden revelation in mind when they first conceived the myth.
I believe that something of this kind happened to me, and my ideas on landscape painting were set free, when I recently had the good fortune to read in the third fascicle of Goethe’s papers on natural science his views on cloud formations, together with the beautiful poem that he appended to them (“Howard’s Ehrengedàchtnis”).50 If you ask what it was in this poem that so moved me, I can only answer approximately as follows.
In our active life we realize that perfect purity of action comes to us only in two states: the naive, original state, in which the obscure sense of an immanent
divinity within us points directly to what is true and right, with no need for further deliberation; and the state in which, after all life’s vagaries, we clearly see our relationship with God and the universe, and our life embodies its own formerly unconscious purity in all clarity and consciousness. All of which goes to suggest that art may be thought of in terms of a similar duality of inner perfection.
In a number of earlier letters I have pursued lines of thought arising from the first of these polar opposites, that of naive and original perfection in art; but Goethe’s poem has brought into my mind, with sudden clarity, the idea of a second kind of artistic beauty, one which rests on higher understanding. In his later life Goethe himself has given us a number of similar works, in which the perfect scientific understanding of certain vital processes has permeated the poet’s soul before undergoing a higher, spiritual rebirth in the form of poetic vision and interpretation.
This poem on clouds could never have been written without long and hard prior study of the atmosphere; the poet had to observe, judge, distinguish, until he attained not only knowledge of the formation of clouds, as known from the evidence of the senses, but the insight that is the fruit of scientific investigation alone. After all this, the mind’s eye brought into focus all the separate rays given off by the phenomenon and reflected the essence of the whole in an artistic apotheosis.
Seen in this light, art appears as the apex, the summit of science; by clearly envisioning the mysteries of science and by clothing them in beauty, art becomes mystic in the truest sense of the word: or, as Goethe has also called it, orphie.
“Now,” I hear you say, “surely you don’t intend to apply this to landscape painting? Surely you don’t want mystic, orphie landscapes?”51
And why not?
Of course, I have no time for the petty, not to say superstitious, mys- ticism that attempts to smuggle into living art some symbol supplied by convention and tradition: by which I mean the kind of cross-and-rosary mysticism that belongs—if anywhere—to the ambit of religious faith from which it arose, and to which, alone, it remains intelligible. No, I mean the mysticism that is as eternal as nature itself, because it is nature, “mysterious in the full light of day,” and because it seeks nothing beyond inward natural and divine communion and must therefore remain intelligible for all time and to all nations.
What does landscape painting depict, if not the earthly nature that sur- rounds us? And what is more sublime than to apprehend the mysterious life of that nature? Surely an artist steeped in the knowledge of the wonderful reci- procities of earth and fire and sea and air will speak more powerfully to us through his work; he will more purely and more freely unlock the viewer’s soul, so that the viewer too may have some inkling of the mysteries of nature, and may understand that the motion of clouds and the forms of mountains,
Letter VI
the outlines of trees and the waves of the sea, are not random, chance events, but that all this has a higher, indwelling purpose and an eternal meaning. For these things are the handiwork of that spirit who says of himself:
So schaff ‘ ich am sausenden Webstuhl der Zeit Und webe der Gottheit lebendiges Kleid.52
[I ply the whirring Loom of Time,
And weave the living robe of God.]
What landscapes can we not imagine with this in mind!
The earliest, naive landscape painters either kept close to the nature that
surrounds us every day, unwittingly showing us much that was significant by dint of sheer faithful concentration on their own surroundings, or else sought to invest their paintings with a higher interest by alluding to human history and myth. But any painter who attains true knowledge of the life of nature must find the purest and most sublime subject matter on every side. With what eloquence and power the history of the mountains speaks to us; how sublimely it makes of man a thing divine, in direct relation to God, by sweep- ing away all the vanities of his transient, earthly existence; and how clearly that history speaks to us in certain stratified formations and mountain out- lines: so clearly as to suggest even to the uninitiated that such a history exists! And is not the artist free to bring out such truths, and to show us landscapes that are, in a higher sense, historical?
The type of vegetation53 is of the highest importance in establishing the character of the landscape. It would surely be a noble undertaking for art to present to us, clothed in beauty and intelligence, the history of the great for- mations of the vegetable kingdom; for there is a secret kinship among those silent living things, and a rich, poetic life lies concealed in their leaves and flowers.
Finally, how infinitely varied and delicate are atmospheric phenomena!
Whatever finds a resonance in the human breast; processes of lightening and darkening, evolving and dissolving, building and destroying: all this displays itself to our senses in the delicate forms of the clouds. Rightly appre- hended, spiritualized by the artist’s genius, all of this can wonderfully exhila- rate even a mind unmoved by the reality of the same phenomena.
It would be too much to ask me to describe to you in detail how such a work of landscape art should be made, what specific objects to select, and what the execution should be like in form and color; to do this, I myself would have to be the artist whose coming I anticipate. But come he will; of that I am certain. One day, there will be landscapes of a loftier, more mean- ingful beauty than those of Claude and Ruysdael. They will be unadulterated images of nature; and yet in them nature will appear in its higher truth, as it is seen in the mind’s eye; and progress toward technical perfection will lend them a luster that earlier works could never have possessed.
This ideal of landscape painting is still far in the future; yet I would not like you to suppose that these thoughts of mine have nothing of practical value to offer to the present-day study of landscape painting. On this matter I must give you my ideas shortly. Enough for today!
Letter VII
M y dear Ernst, you are probably quite right to urge me to make myself clearer on the kind of landscape painting that I so fancifully described in my last letter —lest anyone misunderstand me so grievously as to suppose that I want landscape to have a didactic purpose. You ask for examples of such orphie landscapes, to remove all misunderstanding. This is all very well, if only it were not so confoundedly hard to give a full answer about things that are yet to come! Readers, help yourselves. As in Goethe’s poem, when the artist asked for instructions that he could carry out directly, and the connois-
seur loftily answered: “See to it!”54
All the same, let us see what we can do by way of clarification. To make
matters easier, I think I may assume that we are all agreed on the major issue, and that you yourself will fill in any gaps: you will step in wherever I fall short and mentally complete what I must leave unfinished. After all, every book relies on the reader to meet it halfway, and to give assent, however temporarily, to the author’s way of thinking; it is well known that without such a meeting of minds, and if the reader is totally unresponsive, there can be no understanding. And so I shall take courage and do what I can with this difficult material.
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg says somewhere that in education what mat- ters is not so much that the teacher should teach the subject thoroughly and completely as that he should possess the subject thoroughly and completely.55
Who would deny that Lichtenberg is right? Who has not experienced how enlightening a few words can be when they come from a man who is perfectly at home in his subject? Grant this, and we may go one step further and remark that it suggests a degree of direct communication between minds, whereby even the slightest outward sign, or none at all, enables one person to divine what it is that occupies the mind of another. Herein lies a great mys- tery, and one that is of the utmost importance in the process of mutual educa- tion between human beings; but I can say no more of it here. The best of it, in any case, is not to be expressed in words.
To take the argument a step further: might not a work of art, too, exert a lasting effect in tune with the initial feelings of the artist? And if within the artist there were some deeper vision of vast movement and constant interac- tion within the earth, its atmosphere, its waters, and its living creatures, might not this endow a work of landscape painting with a special character, a new and distinctive effect on the mind of the viewer?
Surely we are of one mind in this, and you are convinced that this has nothing to do with didacticism in the vulgar sense: the effect is rather to shift the viewer directly to a higher view of the universe and of the earth. And this, I believe, brings us a step closer to a true understanding of my meaning.
If examples be required, let me take poetic descriptions of landscape. Poetry existed long before landscape painting and is more spiritual than painting can ever be; and so, here as elsewhere, poetry supplies the noblest prototypes.
Here we find our most notable models in the work of a poet who embod- ies within himself the destiny of the modern age: to be led by art to scientific knowledge, and from that knowledge to evolve superior artistic achievements.
Of whom could this be said with greater truth than of Goethe? In his later works in particular we find not poetic evocations of landscape so much as a profound poetic vision of specific aspects of the vast, mysterious life of the earth. In addition to the poem on clouds, which presents atmospheric phe- nomena to the inner eye in terms of their higher significance, there are the scenes of elemental force and power described by the archangels in the pro- logue to Faust, a work full of poetic vistas of earth-life. With great immediacy, these and other descriptions convey Goethe’s intimate knowledge of every aspect of the phenomena in question. No one who had not profoundly known and truly felt the life of the waters and the meaning of colors could have given us this unparalleded description of the surface of water:
Lockt dich der tiefe Himmel nicht, Das feuchtverklàrte Blau,
Lockt nicht dein eigen Angesicht Nicht her in ew’gen Thau?$6
[Does not the deep sky lure you on, The moist-transfiguredblue?
Does not your own face lure you on, Here into eternal dew?]
A poet’s works, if their source lies deep, always allow us to sense the whole of his mental life.
To take another instance: who does not immediately feel when Humboldt sets before us in words his prairie landscapes and his vistas of America’s vast waterfalls57 that this is a narrator who is steeped in an immense variety of direct experience?*
Having supplied these examples I believe that I have plainly set out my mental ideal of a latter-day art of landscape; but I must add something con-
* I think it desirable to include firm evidence of what I have said here, and so I enclose with this letter an extract from Das System der Pilze und Schtvamme [The system of mush- rooms and other fungi] by the excellent [Christian Gottfried Daniel] Nées von Esenbeck.58 Read what he says of autumnal vegetation,and you will find that pure knowledge of nature, artistically formed, turns of its own accord into the noblest poetry.
Letter VII
cerning the name of the art itself. Seen from our present viewpoint the name itself, “landscape,” begins to appear trivial and inadequate. There is some- thing artisan-like about it that revolts my entire being. Another term must be found and introduced, and for this I propose Erdlebenbild, Erdlebenbildkunst [earth-life painting, or earth-life art].
At any rate, more of the ideal that I have attempted to establish is con- tained in this term than in the word landscape.
In reading over what I have written I see that there might be room for a misunderstanding of a different kind; and this I must deal with straightaway. My remarks on earth-life art might be taken to mean that artists must now depict nothing but gigantic scenes on the largest scale; that pictures of earth- life must henceforth show nothing but Alpine scenery, storms at sea, great forests at high altitudes, volcanoes, and waterfalls.
I mean no such thing. Rightly treated such scenes would of course repre- sent the earth-life art at its most sublime; but even the quietest and simplest aspect of earth-life —if only its true meaning, the divine idea concealed within it, be rightly perceived —is a worthy and beautiful subject of art.
What Goethe says of human life, we might apply to earth life:
Greift nur hinein ins voile Menschenleben, Bin jeder lebt’s, nicht vielen ist’s bekannt; Und wo ihr’s packt, da ist’s intéressant.5′ [Dip into the full flood of human life,
The life that all do live, but few do know; T is interesting, grasp it where you will.]
The quietest forest nook, with its diverse, thrusting vegetation, or the simplest grassy knoll, with its delicate plants, viewed against a blue haze of distance and overarched by a fragrant blue sky, will afford the most beautiful picture of earth life. Let the scale of execution be small or large; if the work has soul in it, it will never be found wanting.
This is not to say that the painting of earth-life must show only nature pristine and intact, with no traces of human life: after all, the earth’s most beautiful production is man, and the earth without man is no more perfect than man without the earth could be perfectly human. Earth life and its repre- sentation in art are incomplete without the traces of human life; and a true painting of earth life can therefore perfectly well include human beings and their works; except that earth life as such must predominate, as required by the principle of unity: a work of art can never perform more than one task at a time. For this reason, human beings and their works must be seen in subjec- tion to the natural laws of earth. Empirically, it has long been understood that, to avoid an inner contradiction, a landscape painting should not contain a newly built, sharply angular, freshly painted building; and that in such set- tings human figures expressive of life in the midst of nature (such as hunters or shepherds) are more appropriate than Homeric heroes and the like: all of
which naturally ensues from the premises outlined above. I hope that this has clearly set forth my own ideal view of the future of landscape, or rather of earth-life painting. The consequences for the study of that art must now wait for a future letter.
From Nées von Esenbeck, Das System der
Pilze unâ Schwamme
Spring and Autumn Vegetation
All vegetative processes are embraced within the cycle of vernatio and tio. The archetype of germination (vernatio) is the generation of algae.
In mushrooms, autumn pursues its decline; the leaves fall. The plant world dreams of its coming spring.
What I have just said is neither a poetic image nor a simile. The dedicated observer of nature will seek to interpret, through observation, the dream over which autumn spreads its mantle of mists.
It would be desirable that experienced observers should take exact eudio- metric readings of the composition of the atmosphere in the layers closest to the earth’s surface at different seasons, and in summer and autumn especially. The results would undoubtedly bear a relevance to the theory of the origin of fungi. What has been said here of the development of such vegetation is not to be subjected to any strict annual chronology: here, as everywhere in nature, formative activity is universal and omnipresent; mushrooms and other fungi, as well as algae, develop at all times. But the formative process is most evident in autumn, the season that unites all the visible outward requisites for that process: just as the spring predominantly favors confervae.
In spring, the atmospheric tension that launches vegetative growth is balanced by the quietude of plant life. Water is predominant, dissolving and liberating the elements of defunct organisms, and the sun moves into the reju- venated opposition that brings forth life. What now emerges seems to spring from a new Creation, in a freedom that no established tendency among extant organisms can override or obstruct. This formative process is thus of a pri- mary nature, and science can classify both subsisting and cyclically returning forms according to first principles.
But by autumn the atmosphere has emerged from its conflict with the vital vegetative process and is in a process of regression toward the opposite of its present state. For an action is never one-sided but always reciprocal; and so, if
Letter VII
vegetative growth produces a chemical effect in the plant, it must also pro- duce an equal and opposite effect in the atmosphere with which the organ- isms in question come into contact —though our chemistry can as yet give no account of the difference that this makes. Concerning the chemistry of veg- etative growth, [Henrich] Steffens (see [Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von] Schell- ing and [Adalbert Friedrich] Markus, [eds.,] Jahrbücher d[er] M[edicin als Wissenschaft] 3, no. 2) has drawn some remarkable conclusions from avail- able data. Of late, chemistry has taken powerful strides forward, and the way will soon be open for a future proportional theory of plant elements. [Lorenz] Oken and Schelwer have touched on the significance of vegetative growth from the more exalted viewpoint of philosophy. To obviate misunderstanding, I need only refer the reader to their definitions before proceeding to describe the process of tension and resolution in terms borrowed from chemistry. The earth is refined to purest (living) carbon; and oxygen, suppressed in the process of organic development, proportionately strives for discharge and for combustion.
So the autumn begins. Falling leaves gradually cover the earth; mists and the strangely clinging moisture of the rains penetrate the dead matter that has lain undeveloped through the dry summer months. The higher vegetation is but newly spent, and on every twig, on every leaf, and on the ruin of their own kin, its emerging, primordial elements find a humus of their own, which adheres to them even while the vegetative process still continues within it, and while the violent conflict in the atmosphere organically both defines and ends its existence.
Note. In autumn how often have I rested in tranquil woods and surren- dered to the influences of the natural life around me, just as I have done in the corresponding period of spring! The accompanying sensations I need hardly describe, as they will be familiar to many readers. In spring the damp ground beneath us generates warmth; the skin tautens; the sun attracts; we seem to feel movements impinging on us from all sides; and we ourselves feel heavier and weightier on the darker-hued earth. Memory, though no less clear than ever, shifts into the remote distance, and the ear hears all sounds less distinct from each other.
How different in autumn, though the temperature is the same! Even dry ground feels damp as one lies on it, and damp ground strikes a chill. One feels supple, more slender, more agile. The sun strikes mildly through a thin veil of cloud; but when we are at rest its direct rays penetrate and torment us with heat, so that movement is a relief; in spring, by contrast, movement becomes wearisome and requires a conscious decision. All is quiet; falling leaves mark the passage of time; every sound is discrete and distinct, as if heard at a spe- cific range. The field of view is narrower, whether through bright light or blurring. Sight is clear at close quarters and coincides with memory. Even enfeebled, the eye actively, almost longingly, searches in nature for the little things whose time has come. Overnight, beneath the canopy of foliage, where moisture always lingers for a moment longer, there appears —constantly
changing, like a scattered shower of blossom —the generation of molds and mushrooms: a twilight people. On dying tree trunks, Hysterium and the Sphaeriaceae extend and open; in the humus, wherever any vegetative capac- ity persists, the last little fungi germinate. Who does not know the distinctive autumnal smell, like carbonized hydrogen, allied to the olfactory effect of a resin electrophorus, and the urgent, admonitory, warning message that it sends into the still, dark recesses of our sense of self? Now is the time when the last stirring of spring falls silent.
In the season of the declining sun, the earth’s surface is absorbed in the formation of humus. This is heralded by a process analogous to that of infu- sion: namely, a progressive release of materials from organic combination, in the earlier stages of which (for just so long as the organism that is to be dis- solved retains its defining organization) formations emerge that can hold their own against the outside world and, for a longer or shorter time, sustain life. To us, these materials are the essential elements of plant organization: carbon and oxygen. But they enter the new conflict not in this universal significance or in their generalized terrestrial role but in a vegetative capacity, as pure plant substance or vegetative product, and as the element of unquenchable formative force in which the cyclic life of the plant disperses. I prefer to use the terms “vegetative earth” and “vegetative gas,” respectively, to embody the matter and spirit of pistil and filament.
The autumnal infusion is subject to the prevalent influence of the air; in it, therefore, the earth and the gas are physically divorced and renew the opposi- tion between earth and air in carbon and water.
The vegetative tension still prevails, and the fluid, as an unpolarized medium, recedes; and so that the elements released must evolve under the law of vegetative processes, and can neither achieve the spontaneous generation of life in infusorial motion, nor attain that saturation in which the joint product, inwardly spiritualized and nourished, turns outward in alternating evolution and metamorphosis.
Note. This is not to deny that, in the course of the desegregation of veg- etable constituents, infusoria may arise from these, too, as from the separa- tion of the vegetative elements in animal bodies, and complete their natural life cycles in the fluid element, which is all they require. Pick up a handful of leaves from the earth, dip them in water, and you will find infusoria. But these infusoria are few and far between by comparison with the teeming multitudes that dwell in the drop-forming infusion; and their relationship to the fungi most closely related to them, such as the various kinds of mildew, is wholly distinct from the affinity between infusoria and algae. The infusorial fungi are of plant origin, since they derive from blossoms, pollen, and seeds reduced to elemental form.
Letter VIII
L andscape painting has often been likened to music,60 and today I would add one more to the many parallels that indeed exist between the two: a little-noticed analogy that is nevertheless striking, not to say humbling; namely, that both have been equally profaned. When we reflect on the sub- lime significance of music, its supreme grandeur and nobility when worthily represented, then it is acutely painful to witness the myriad desecrations and humiliations that have been visited upon it, demeaning it to the vilest, most
worthless uses.
Landscape painting has fared no better. If we seriously consider its lofty
significance as the art of earth life, and cast an eye on the myriad daubs that circulate under the guise of landscape; if we reflect that every fumbler on whom God has bestowed neither the eyesight nor the skill to learn drawing nonetheless confidently tries his hand at landscape; how, indeed, every lady who lacks the inclination to trouble herself with disciplined drawing never- theless deems herself talented enough to embroider a landscape or scrawl one on an album leaf: then well may our gall rise.
I have been looking through a number of these travesties of landscape, and you must therefore make allowances for the state of rage in which I begin this letter. Such an opening may not, after all, be inappropriate: it is time to con- sider the future study of landscape painting, a topic that affords much room for melancholic reflection, since we can hardly speak of its future without reflecting on its dismal present.
Of late the academies have been much condemned as prime causes of the decline of the true art of painting. This may well be quite right in general terms, but it is safe to say that they have done little damage to landscape painting. And why not? They have taken no notice of it.
The truth is that the academies have always treated this branch of art very much as a poor relation. They have supposed either that a landscape painter had not much to learn; or that mistakes in landscape drawing would never be noticed (just as the gravedigger in Hamlet says that the mad Prince has been sent to England because “it would not be seen there, as there the men are as mad as he”);61 or that a landscape painter could not really go wrong. Or else they never gave it a thought, but merely followed tradition, as often seems to be the case in academies, and not only there.
And so, if a man wanted to learn landscape painting, he was largely cast 123
back on chance and his own genius. Most often he was speedily ruined by copying bad and mannered drawings: a pair of eyeglasses was set on his nose, through which to see and to paint nature, and in most cases he was only too proud to keep them on and make a successful career out of them. If ever he went so far as to look at nature for himself (probably in the teeth of his teach- ers’ disapproval), he was likely to lose the best years of his life before he gained any true and inward understanding of the spirit of nature; far from arriving at the nub of the matter, he would never master the outward shell. A few were gifted with a stronger inward light that conducted them to the true fountainhead of life; often enough their achievements remained unacknowl- edged and ignored, simply because they departed from the handy cursive script that had been devised to represent cloud forms, “foliage,” ocean waves, or mountain slopes.
In short, what is wrong with the contemporary study of landscape paint- ing is, first, the early inculcation of mannerisms through constant copying of other artists’ landscape drawings and paintings, and, second, a faulty and inadequate observation and apprehension of nature. The former has given us feeble imitations of earlier work, which relate to their prototypes as bedizened dolls to living human beings, and which seem to be engendered not from sound and spiritual minds, fertilized by the spirit of nature, but from unnatu- ral intercourse between a human soul and the form of a given work of art. This seems to be a principal source of the evils of modern landscape painting; for it gives rise to thousands of paintings that remind us only of paintings and never of nature itself.
The second factor is closely related to the first. Nature will never show itself in her true guise to anyone who makes a habit of observing her through other men’s glasses;62 least of all will she lift her veil and admit him to her mysteries. She remains mysterious in the full light of day. As everyone surely knows, it is no easy task to apprehend her truly: this has, indeed, always been the prerogative of genius. Who could fail to see, therefore, that now and forevermore the best of this cannot betaught?
And yet, if teaching and study have any part to play in the perception of nature, there is one path on which even the lesser talent, the individual who is less than supremely productive, but who is nonetheless filled with a heartfelt love of nature and a longing to take hold of it as an artist, is able to ascend to its wellsprings: and that path is none other than science. And that word, my dear Ernst, strikes the keynote of all my further thoughts on how best to direct the study of earth-life painting.
In all this I shall constantly bear in mind what it is that can be taught; what conduces to a purer public taste for the right and the true in art; what promotes the development of genius itself; and what may lead even a person of inferior natural gifts to produce a faithful and competent representation of natural landscape.
Outwardly all visual art is governed by two organs, the eye and the hand; but inwardly it draws its true life from the birth of divine ideas in a pure
Letter VIII
mind. And so all instruction, all teaching of the outward practice of art, can aspire no further than to develop the organs of eye and hand. To purify and ennoble the innermost life of the soul, which will uplift and ennoble the actions of the whole man and the essence of his art, is the business of some other endeavor than artistic instruction.
This topic, that of the education of the whole man in inward reverence and moral and intellectual beauty, is both too exalted and too vast to be discussed merely in passing. To me, at least, it calls for silent meditation rather than for lengthy written exegesis. Let us together look more closely at the external part of the subject, the part that directly governs the making of art through eye and hand; for in art this alone can form the object of instruction and teaching.
The eye must be opened to the true and wondrous life of nature, and the hand must be trained to do the soul’s bidding quickly, easily, and beautifully. This alone can be the aim of instruction in any of the pictorial arts. Let us consider, therefore, how this ultimate aim may be most surely and perfectly attained.
First and foremost, we must train the eye to perceive nature in its divine, essential life and in its forms; for wherever the eye perceives clearly and purely the hand cannot help but follow and develop in skill.
There are two ways in which the eye must rightly apprehend the objects of nature. It must learn, first, to apprehend the shapes of natural objects not as arbitrary, undefined, lawless, and consequently meaningless but as defined by primordial divine life, eternally law-abiding, and meaningful. Second, it must discern the diversity of substance in natural objects, observe the difference in the appearance of one and the same form embodied in different substances, and detect the connection, the affinity, between specific differences of sub- stance and particular forms.
Neither is easily attained: to both, the mind grows receptive only by stages. The gradual intensification of that awareness is the work of a lifetime.
To the untutored mind, much of nature appears to be arbitrary, fortuitous, and lawless; for such a mind still stands outside the law, and is therefore unqualified to judge. To such a mind, it is immaterial whether a mountain range has this or that outline; whether a cloud moves this way or that, or a wave adopts this or that configuration, or whether a tree grows this way or that; such a mind will barely register the differences of outline between differ- ent species of trees. These crude perceptions will no doubt remain with the artist all his life, unless a strong and aspiring soul saves him, or science inter- venes to awaken him. Hence the indifference, not to say the unscrupulous- ness, shown by so many landscape painters in their work; they have no idea that their treatment of nature is impious and unworthy, because it has never occurred to them that there is divine life in nature. Allied with long practice and a vigorous temperament, such neglect may lead to the sheerest effrontery; and many of the worst offenders in this respect are artists of high reputation. How else are we to describe those works in which, say, Caspar Poussin shows us a smiling prospect, with the sea stretching away to the horizon, and, in the
foreground, rivers that form waterfalls in such a way that the water cascades down from sea level —as if the sea were overflowing into the rivers and plung- ing into who knows what abyss; or other painters deck out the sky in all the colors that it displays after sunset, while bathing the foreground in bright sun- shine; or yet others depict real landscapes while so altering the outlines of mountain ranges that almost nothing remains of their true and distinctive forms? And all this, not for any higher artistic purpose (for the human spirit is perfectly free to imbue a fairytale with inner necessity and transform it into a superior artistic truth) but out of sheer carelessness and contempt for all meaning and consistency in nature.
Nothing can better protect the youthful mind against such barbarity than the intelligent and lively teaching of the laws that govern nature in its outward forms. Lead the young landscape painter on, to see the necessary connection between the outward forms of mountain ranges and the inner structure of their masses, and the necessity with which that inner structure follows from the history of those mountains; the inevitability of specific plant growth in specific places; the entirely regular and law-abiding inner structure of a plant; the conditions that modify the growth of a plant, tree, or bush, now in one way and now in another; and the differences in the nature and movement of different bodies of water. Instruct him in the specific laws of atmospheric phe- nomena, the variations in the nature of clouds, their formation and dissolu- tion, and also their motion. Once he has gained some familiarity with the deeper elements of earth, water, and air, as foundations of all the diverse phe- nomena of terrestrial life, explain to him in particular the vital effects of the fourth and most spiritual element, that of fire and light, which alone enables him to see and to create; show him something of the laws of vision, the vari- ous refractions and reflections of light, the origins and the mysterious con- trasts and affinities of color. Although his chosen calling precludes any deeper exploration of these mysteries, make him aware at least that there is a mean- ing in those aspects of earth life that he undertakes to depict, in order that he may do so joyously, but with some sense of reverence, even of religious awe.
Ernst, there is no doubt in my mind that, if an artist draws thus, he cannot draw badly. I have seen the most striking examples of this. I have held in my hands drawings of mountain ranges made by geologists, who, without in any way being artists, had felt the necessity of recording a certain remarkable mountain formation; and in those drawings there was so much inner life, so much character, that one entirely overlooked such technical shortcomings as were present. One could not but prefer these, by far, to other and similar drawings made by experienced artists who failed to understand the true nature of the object represented. Indeed, the discriminating observer was as likely to take one of these latter drawings for an image of a mushroom as of a mountain range. The same may be said of any drawing of a plant or animal that is made by one who knows.
Among artists, too, I know that there have always been some pious and faithful souls to whom, by their very nature, every object is so important and
Letter VIII
so sacred that nothing must be omitted and nothing treated in a careless or unnatural way. To them, such teaching may not be so necessary but will always be of use, for the best of intentions are often not enough. There must be knowledge and experience; and we shall always feel the benefit of sound researches and long experience, since the task before us is one that has no end.
Here I have one remark to add concerning the delivery of such instruction — though I need hardly mention this to you, since you already understand what I meant when I said, just now, that it must be intelligent and lively. For there is such a thing as dead knowledge, knowledge of the letter and not of the spirit: and this afflicts the artistic temperament like mildew. Spare us this, at all costs! In all freedom, and in the presence of nature, may the young artist be led to the steps of the sanctuary of Isis, there to pass tranquil and unclouded hours in receiving enlightenment from the initiate, the man of experience. Then such knowledge will bear the finest fruit.
It is truly curious that the need for a scientific element has been so com- pletely overlooked in the teaching of landscape painting; especially since else- where in the fine arts scientific studies have been so readily accepted as indispensable. In figure drawing, for instance, it was soon recognized that the study of the articulation of the human form, the configuration of bone and muscle, and so forth, would greatly assist the artist in grasping and reproduc- ing the pure type of the human form.
So much for my views as to the general ways in which the young artist’s eye might be trained to perceive nature rightly. To this may I add two more observations, concerning, first, the education of the artist’s sense of beautiful form and, second, the education of the population at large to recognize and understand true excellence in earth-life painting.
First, then, we have already agreed to recognize as beautiful anything that purely expresses the divine essence in natural phenomena; or, in other words, anything in which nature clearly reveals itself in keeping with its innermost essence. Now, just as the ancients were right to define a virtuous action as one performed by a virtuous person, we must say that a form or a line is beautiful when it is perceived as part of an entirely beautiful natural entity. Just as no action is virtuous in itself, no line can be beautiful in itself: it becomes so only through the body that it delineates (for which reason it is hard to imagine an idea more ill conceived than [William] Hogarth’s belief that the undulating line is the sole “line of beauty”).63
Once the artist learns to apprehend the beauty of nature in general, he cannot fail to perceive how such beauty is expressed in individual linear pro- portions and relative sizes. However, it will do no harm to give specific instruction on this matter, too, in the early stages.
Take the component objects of earth life, as they present themselves indi- vidually to us: we perceive that they all too often clash with each other, devi- ate from their true essence, and thus become unbeautiful. A subtle distinction must thus be drawn between those forms in which nature expresses its inner- most will and essence, clear and plain and therefore beautiful, and those in
which it appears to be diverted from that essence, decrepit, disordered, unbeautiful. To draw this distinction is not so easy as it might at first appear; it demands a subtle awareness of just proportion, and is fully possible only to a mind that retains all of its native purity and tenderness: a mind steeped in the specificity of organic form, and in the beautiful equilibrium that per- meates and sustains the whole of nature. To perceive such intrinsically and purely beautiful forms, and to distinguish them from those that are less beau- tiful (or even unbeautiful), naturally becomes more difficult and the whole that is to be apprehended becomes more composite and more stratified. The more limited the phenomenon under observation, the easier this becomes.
The surest way is to lead the youthful artist from the easy to the difficult. Take a single plant that has grown strong and free. Once he has become aware of the beauty of its outlines, the delicate balance in the spread of its stalks, the grace and delicacy of form in the tissue of veins and in the overall shape of its leaves, the obedience to law that is visible throughout, and the gracefully veiled rigor of its organization, let him exercise his eye in appreciat- ing beauty of form in larger organisms, in bushes, in trees, in groups of trees; then in rocks, masses of earth, the courses of rivers, and so on. Then he will readily perceive the defining character and therefore the beauty that exists in the grandest views, in the outlines of great mountain ranges, in processions of clouds, in the waves of the sea, and in all other scenes expressive of earth life. He will have learned to distill with a sure eye and to reproduce the beauty thus revealed in all of nature.
This development of the eye will stand him in good stead, and not only when he sets out to imitate nature directly (though here such training will cer- tainly bear good fruit, since there can be no drawing in the higher sense of the word without it). At the same time, the beautiful harmony evolved by nature in pursuit of its divine essence will become so much a part of his mind that, when he works freely and in response to an inner impulse, not only will his individual objects enshrine the living archetype of nature: the entire work—in its inner balance, in the harmonious regularity of its parts, in the pure and noble drawing of the whole —will inevitably reflect the archetype of a struc- ture that springs from divine will and lives in the mind.
As for my second point, the education of the population at large to appre- ciate true landscape painting, you may well dismiss all that I can say on the subject as a flight of fancy; it is true that there seems at present to be very little hope of any such thing. But this will not be the only flight of fancy in these let- ters: you may set it alongside the others.
The truth is that this branch of art has been in a sad way of late, not only internally but externally: that is to say, people do not much appreciate it as a true art. Prospects, that is to say well-known views, brightly painted on little copper plates, worth no more and no less than workaday portraits, and addressed in the same way to the egotism of the crowd: such things find a wel- come, but nobody will put himself out on behalf of anything else.
When we reflect on the reason for this low state of esteem, it soon becomes 128
Letter VIM
apparent that people are strangers to the natural landscape itself. They look up at the sky just so much as is necessary to gauge the weather, in order to see whether it is fine enough for a drive or a journey; when they see a tree, they think of the shade that it will provide for a picnic; on seeing a meadow, they think that there will be a good crop of hay, or that a good, rich green strength- ens the eyes. To them, in the vast majority of cases, the inner, physical life in all of these things, as related to human life—the poetic quality of these phe- nomena —is a book with seven seals.
Why is so little done to draw attention to this plenitude of natural life? In most cases, all that is needed is a stimulus; the obstacle in the way of such knowledge, as of so many good things, is sheer inertia. I have had this experi- ence many times: once introduce people, who need only be in full possession of their faculties, to artists of talent, or to naturalists who can impart their knowledge in a lively and ingenious way, and their eyes are soon opened; they learn to distinguish the beauty in individual natural forms, and eventually, to their heartfelt delight, they discover the inner meaning of all these things.
Where are people in general to find such awareness and such encourage- ment? I know of few books that could lead to any such result; and in those few the author most often seeks to present one particular aspect of nature (as, for instance, in the excellent views of Humboldt).64
It would therefore be desirable to have a book that would present earth life to the reader in all of its many aspects, with a Grecian simplicity and in all pure humanity, unfettered by the schools. Walking hand in hand with science and art, with no overbearing didacticism from either side, but as if in conver- sation with two dear friends, he would be stimulated to look about him, as he passes along the highway that so many tread without lifting their eyes from the stones, like pack beasts to the mill. May there soon be such a book!
At the same time, the scientific training given to artists would have its own influence upon the people, for every artist would naturally exert an influence in his own walk of life. Spontaneously, almost imperceptibly, a knowledge of better things would spread by word of mouth; and, indeed, just as the artists would assist the public, they would themselves be assisted by a livelier public response. Clearly, however, the higher development of art is a matter for the artists themselves; just as artists are to blame for its decline, only they can improve it.
So much for ways and means of educating the eye toward a pure percep- tion of natural landscape; as for the education of the hand, what I have to add may be said in a few words.
First, what I mean by educating the hand. I consider that the painter’s hand is fully educated and firm when it can readily and securely satisfy the soul’s wish for a representation of the object reflected in the outward or inward eye.
Now, for any organ that does not exist purely for its own and other organs’ sake, the skill to work with perfect certainty in pursuit of an end chosen by the soul, and extrinsic to itself, can be acquired only in one way:
and that way is practice. For the hand, therefore, practice in forming lines and their relationships, practice in covering surfaces with shadow or color, will always come first. Through this practice the eye in turn will gain practice in measurement and comparison, and its proficiency will in turn promote and develop the effectiveness of the hand.
How all this is to be organized in detail, where to begin, and how to ascend from easy to difficult, are matters to which I have devoted some thought. However, it is not entirely possible to lay down universal principles, since individual differences of character and disposition must be taken into account; besides, it would be too much to expect you to bear with me through all the lengthy disquisitions that would be necessary. One thing I must empha- size, however: and that is my conviction that the first and most effective exer- cise for the hand —the logic of drawing, as it were —consists in the frequent, careful freehand copying and independent construction of basic geometric fig- ures. I know of nothing that so sharpens the eye, or that so fortifies the hand against the temptations of carelessness, as working with these pure forms and ratios. The logic of this becomes evident if we reflect that these forms are the first principles of all organic forms: the closer any organism is to its first gene- sis, the more clearly it displays the simplest geometric configurations.
Once the hand has acquired some sureness in reproducing these rigorous forms, and once the student is sufficiently familiar with the modifications that apply to such figures according to the direction in which they appear (perspec- tive), and also with the effects of lighting; in short, once he has grasped and practiced the means of achieving the representation of solids on a plane, then preliminary exercises are at an end, and the student may be led on to depict living things. The portrayer of the phenomena of earth life now finds before him an immensely wide field, in which he can progress only by constant prac- tice. He must impress on himself the true types of a wide variety of forms, in order that the lineaments of just those forms may seem to impress themselves spontaneously on his work; that forms derived from his own imagination may nevertheless appear clad in the pure truth of nature; that he may be privileged to naturalize his own ideas as citizens of the real world.
The artist must therefore learn to speak the language of nature; and the place of such instruction can only be the natural landscape itself: the woods, the fields, and the sea; the mountain, the river, and the valley. All through his life, their forms and colors must be his constant study; here, learning and practice can have no end, and we may say, in the words of the Divan:
Dai? Du nicht enden kannst,
Das raacht Dich groE!65
[That you can never come to anend: This makes you great!]
When the soul is saturated with the inner meaning of all these different forms; when it has clear intimations of the mysterious, divine life of nature;
Letter VIII
when the hand has taught itself to represent securely, and the eye to see and acutely; and when the artist’s heart is purely and entirely a conse joyous vessel in which to receive the light from above: then there will in be earth-life paintings, of a new and higher kind, which will uplift the into a higher contemplation of nature. These works will truly deserv named mystic and orphie; and earth-life painting will have attained its nation.66
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Letter IX
o nee more the evenings are drawing in, and winter is upon us; once more the room is pleasantly warm, and the lamp is lit early, casting its tran- quil light across my desk. I have been reflecting that it is now all of nine years since that first evening, so like the present one, on which I tried to give you, my dear Ernst, some account of my ideas on landscape painting. I feel as if these remarks of mine had run full circle, and as if this were the moment to
conclude the series for the time being.
The truth is that we have now discussed almost all that was most urgently
on my mind in connection with the purpose of this art, the many ways in which it can be practiced, and its past and future evolution.
Here, as everywhere, the human mind can and does continue forever; but, just as there are times when a period of one’s life must be summed up and brought to a conclusion, for the sake of a fresh start, in the same way trains of thought and lines of inquiry must sometimes be broken off, not because they are finished or exhausted but to make room for a constant succession of new and therefore often also finer mental activity. However, one more considera- tion demands to be added to the present train of thought, since it is the living focus of the whole business: this is the artist’s own life, his relationship with the world and his fellow men.
Many meetings with landscape painters, and much reflection on the inner mystery of earth-life painting, have inspired a variety of thoughts on the posi- tion of such an artist, his joys and sorrows, and the ways in which he isjudged and misjudged. I have hitherto tended to regard all this as too fragmentary to be written down; but now that I intend to bring these reflections to at least a temporary close, I had better set out for you what seem to me the most con- vincing parts of it.
A disgruntled painter once said to me: “The world no longer needs us. Art as such is neither political, statistical, nor mercantile; it is not even comfort- able. It demands devotion, seriousness, silent contemplation, before it yields up its depths; no one has time for that. The world regards us merely as the ser- vants of luxury; and even for that purpose stage spectacles, elegant wallpa- pers, and copper engravings are making us superfluous. Our time is past!”
The man was quite right, in his own terms; and there is no denying that the artist who seriously means to absorb himself in contemplation of the great mysteries of earth life, and to embody that contemplation in art —such an
artist, like everyone else who concerns himself with matters beyond the grasp of the population at large, cuts himself off from the world. He must begin by renouncing all worldly advancement, honors, and rewards; and he himself will have to educate those few who will understand him and appreciate his sentiments. This is not to say that the age of true art and true artists is past, just because the world at large seems to ignore them: the time for true art can never be past, if only because it transcends time: it is eternal.
Wer wird von der Welt verlangen,
Was sie selbst vermiEt und tràumet!
Ihr Bemuh’n ist guter Wille,
Hinket nach dem raschen Leben,
Und das was Du heute brauchtest, Môchte sie dir morgen geben.67
[Who can ask the world to offer
What the world still lacks and dreams of!
Its labor, its good will,
Limps behind Life’s flying heels;
And the thing you need today It will offer you tomorrow.]
But one conclusion is incontrovertible: self-abnegation is the lot of any artist whose heart is in landscape painting, in the higher sense of the term; of one who, unconcerned by the wishes of the uneducated majority, pursues only the divine ideas to which his soul aspires; of the artist who is filled with love for this world in the guise of nature, but whose kingdom cannot be of this world.
“But in that case,” a well-wisher might anxiously inquire, “how is the poor wretch to live? How is he to get the means to procure shelter, food, clothing, leisure: all those things that allow the activity of the mind to flourish?” To our mind, a balance must be struck, as follows. First, the nobler his aspirations, the fewer worldly goods he will desire or need. He is:
Freigesinnt, sich selbst beschrànkend, Immerfort das Nàchste denkend, Thàtig treu in seinem Kreise,
Still beharrlich jeder Weise,
Nicht vom Weg dem geraden weichend Und zuletzt das Ziel erreichend.68
[Free in his mind, and self-restraining, Always thinking of what falls to hand,
Faithfully working in his own domain,
Quietly steadfast in every way, Keeping to his own straight path, He will reach his goal at last.]
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Let him go his own free-spirited way, in all simplicity and austerity of life; let him be ahead of his time, for a while: he will not always lack for recognition. The best of his contemporaries will assuredly find him out; and they will ease his life in the ways in which ease depends on others.
Even so, this is by no means the only way to provide for the artist in his capacity as a citizen of this world. I must touch on another way: one that might well find a wide application, and not to art alone.
Jean Paul [Friedrich Richter], who is now beyond all earthly cares, has this to say in his last work: “It may be —and I do not mean to deny it, since my let- ters will appear in print when I am gone —that in them I have advised my jun- iors, and young poets generally, to learn a trade: just as by law the Great Sultan is obliged to practice some other craft besides statecraft, and just as Rousseau would have the scholar do likewise, let the youthful artist in prose and poetry practice not only literature but some science, such as astronomy, botany, geography, or the like.”69
For our present purposes, this passage is important for two reasons. First, it tends to confirm our earlier observation that the art of today springs from science; second, it indicates that the flower need not be its own root: that the fruits of unconstrained mental activity on an elevated level need not also be the means whereby the artist puts a coat on his back or a roast on his table. The vulgar and the sublime can never unite; and, if they are ever forced to do so, it is not the vulgar that ascends but the sublime that is dragged down.
Rousseau copied music for a living, in order to pursue his higher concerns in independence of the vulgar necessities of life.
The artist aspires to a goal that the vulgar world ignores; why then should he not gain the ordinary necessities of life by some entirely ordinary activity? Indeed, I would say that even this struggle with ordinary life —in which it will be open and indeed natural to him to see the most ordinary things in a mag- nificent and noble light —will give him inner strength and complete his educa- tion as a human being; just as a healthy body appears truly healthy only if all its organs and faculties, both lower and higher, are active and vigorous.
Sad to say, I have watched all too many artists, and scholars too, treating their own art or science as a mere milk cow, and asking, like artisans, only “What pleases the crowd? What flatters the follies of the day?” As they became more and more embroiled in such concerns, their brief flush of youthful enthusiasm gave way to a philistine dullness in which the brush or pen was ruled no longer by the head and heart but by the stomach.
Here I would gladly embark on a lengthy jeremiad on the misuse of art and science as means of livelihood, on the fees paid by booksellers to writers and poets, on hireling art and hireling poetry, on the practice of paying poets for their good ideas by the page, and so forth; but basta! You yourself will have seen quite enough of such things, and have been disgusted by them, without my now reviving the disgust.
No, just as a church must be kept free and clean of kitchen odors and workshop clatter, so the artist, the true landscape painter, must keep his art
sacrosanct, his heart free of all that is base and bad, and his mind open to the wonders that the world lays out before him in such profusion. May he have always before him the words of Dante, most spiritual of poets:
Quello n’finito ed ineffabil bene,
Che lassù è, cosí corre ad amore Com’ a lucido corpo raggio viene,
Tanto si dà, quanto truova d’ardore.70 [.. .The highest good
Unlimited, ineffable, doth so speed
To love, as beam to lucid body darts, Giving as much of ardour as it finds.
The sempiternal effluence streams abroad Spreading, wherever charity extends.]
My dear Ernst, along with this letter you will receive a number of enclosures extracted from the papers of our friend C., which he has passed to me in the belief that here and there they may cast light on the matters discussed in our letters.
The first is an essay on the physiognomy of mountain ranges: a topic that would certainlymerit close study in the scientific treatisethat we wish to seepub- lished as an aid to the study of landscape painting. The second contains pages from a journal, begun but unfortunately not continued by our friend, in which he desired to record in a few words the pictures that offered themselves to him in the presence of nature, in the ever-inspiring environs of Dresden. However sub- jective their interest, these notes may serve, I think, as examples of the way in which a moment in nature may be instantly apprehended as a finished picture.
A single picture of the same kind, but at greater length, forms the third enclosure.
And so I greet you heartily and remain, in steadfast love,
Notes toward a Physiognomy of Mountain Ranges
In the observation of nature, more than in any other endeavor, everyone must first settle upon the viewpoint most suitable for himself, but must then recog- nize that all other lines of investigation are no less valid. In all of my succes- sive approaches to nature, I have tried to define the path best suited to my
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own individual disposition; I soon became aware that in acquainting myself with any natural object I find it best to envisage it first as a whole, as dis- tinctly and from as many angles as possible, but then to explore its parts and, still keeping the image of the whole present in my mind, to subdivide and investigate these in turn. I became aware, also, that this exactly corresponded to an innate tendency in me to depict objects by first tracing an outline and then eventually progressing to the complete form. As my skill improved, art became valuable to me not only for its effect on the mind but as another and more generalized form of nature study. Similarly, when in my work in zootomy I made drawings of internal organs as part of a methodical study of animals, and when in my study of landscape I recorded the form of a rock as a component of the earth’s huge skeleton, I did so in the conviction that both were governed by archetypal, divine, formative laws. And when in drawing the rock I was compelled to reduce the original to a fraction of its size and thus to pass over many details, I had to remind myself that in a small area of skin or bone, which I had drawn in all the detail available to me, powerful microscopes would reveal an infinite multiplicity of structure that would never appear even in the most meticulous drawing.
In studying anatomy and physiology I found it of great assistance to draw the various forms of animal structure; and the same combination of art and science in pursuit of natural knowledge furthered my interest in the practice of landscape painting. In learning to see the outlines of mountain ranges and clouds as so many different states within the single organic whole that is the earth and its atmosphere, I could not but develop a profound reverence for every feature of the natural world around me. Everything I saw incited me to pursue a strict truthfulness: not one line in a mountain range, not one varia- tion in the outline of a tree (unless artificially deformed), could ever seem to me accidental or undeserving of precise reproduction.
No doubt for this very reason, my artistic recreations often supplied mate- rial that I could exploit for scientific purposes. Before I saw Humboldt’s Ideen zu einer Physiognomik der Gewàchse [Ideas toward a physiognomy of plant growth],71 I was already familiar with the physiognomies of the flowers and plants known to me, and was well aware that their overall outlines were no more devoid of significance as an indication of character than is a human physiognomy, or the build of an animal as an indication of inner structure.
My attention was likewise drawn to a number of specific atmospheric processes relative to cloud formation, refraction of color, and so on, of which I may one day attempt to give some account. This same path ultimately led me to the intimations that have prompted the present essay, concerning the undiscussed and indeed unnamed topic of the physiognomy of mountain ranges. In the investigation of all natural objects we are led to draw a distinc- tion between the exterior and the interior: the exterior enabling us to form a mental image of the whole, and the interior showing us its parts. Only when these two combine do we gain a global idea of the nature of the object in itself. Botany and zoology deal with organisms that present themselves as
individuals within the totality of nature: that is, to some extent as self-con- tained wholes (though always dependent on a greater whole). The naturalist therefore describes a plant or an animal partly as seen from the outside and partly as dissected and internally explored. The mineralogist relates differ- ently to his objects of study; he can consider only the parts of the earth’s body, since the whole is beyond the capacity of our senses. Every specimen is no more than a piece, a fragment; only in crystals do such fragments show any affinity with the regular internal structures that we find as parts within organisms. Geology considers the earth’s body as a whole, but only in respect of its inward form; it affords us some knowledge of the concentric shells that compose the planet, and has discovered some of the laws govern- ing their stratification. The outward surface presents an additional, and for its human inhabitants a paramount, need for close investigation: a need that is partly satisfied by physical geography. Bear in mind, also, that individual components of the earth —the limbs, as it were, of its body —may perfectly well be considered in isolation; thus, in mountain ranges we may detect both an outward appearance and an inward structure. Both are accordingly included in descriptions of individual mountain ranges. The outward descrip- tion most commonly limits itself to a statement of the height of the range, the situation and form of the valleys, and so on. In all of this, however, one thing cannot be captured in any description: the total impression conveyed by the form of a mountain range, the quality of the lines that shape its outlines, the gentleness or asperity of its profiles, and so on. Here drawing must come to our aid, just as it aids the zoologist or the botanist in conveying the general make or build of an animal or a plant. As we gain no idea of an animal’s inherent character from a lifeless tracing of its outlines, but only through the lively apprehension of an artist’s eye, it seems that the true type and individ- uality of a mountain range can be conveyed only by a genuinely artistic rep- resentation: a true geognostic landscape. Not much has ever been done in this line, presumably because—unlike history painters, who at least study anatomy —most landscape painters know too little of nature. Some, indeed, seem to have no idea that a sandstone crag differs in character from one composed of porphyry, and that this in turn differs from one composed of granite; indeed, they go so far as to confound all the specific forms of tree growth in an imaginary substance that they call “foliage.”
Only grasp the individual character within the outward appearance of a mountain formation, and it becomes possible to discover the consistent con- nection between this and the inner structure: in other words, to devise a phys- iognomy of mountain ranges. If intelligently applied, this, like all new insights into nature, will infallibly yield interesting results.
Remarkably enough, the physiognomy of mountain ranges has been stud- ied in the mountains of the moon in advance of those that lie closer at hand here on earth; for only observation of the curious, conical peaks of the lunar mountains, and of the strange, circular ramparts around them —of their phys- iognomy, in other words —can account for the hypothesis of lunar volcanoes.
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As for terrestrial mountains, an observer inadequately versed in mineral- ogy and geology, whose modest intention is simply to submit to the reader’s judgment a view of nature that has occurred to him, cannot be expected to contribute significantly to the establishment of a discipline of physiognomy. But some contribution I shall attempt to make.
First of all, the physiognomy of Primary mountain ranges after weathering is distinctive and unmistakable.72 These are broad ridges that combine power- ful, gently swelling grandeur and height with an extreme beauty of delicate, undulating outline. As we trace, for instance, the glorious, broad, arching crest of the Riesengebirge, we liken its forms not to a choppy sea but to the gentle surge of a rolling swell. These vast and spacious heights are believed to correspond to a stable, crystalline formation that dates from the earliest times. The changes in its surface also suggest an antiquity beyond human reckoning: as a result of thousands of years of weathering, there is fertile ground for organized life almost everywhere; the rocks are covered with a layer of soil and clothed in a multitude of plants. The rugged, angular forms are softened; and we are tempted to liken a mountain range such as this to a shapely human body, in which the form of the skeleton is apparent only at a few isolated points, the whole being clad and rounded with flesh and skin. There is little exposed rock to be seen in the Riesengebirge; what there is, has either been stripped bare by the masses of water that hurl themselves down the mountainsides in the spring, as in the walls of snow clefts, the rock faces of the Aupengrund and Teufelsgrund, the Elbwànde, and so on —in which case the detail of the rock is rugged and angular, proclaiming its solidity —or else forms the last vestiges of the primordial crags of the mountain crest, which have everywhere else been weathered and eroded out of existence. At such locations as the Rubezahlkanzel or the Dreisteine, great slabs of granite lie piled in their original strata, with the look of ruined towers and ramparts; in some places, the summits of these primordial crags have been eroded away, and their enormous fragments, rounded by weathering, have been tossed into piles like so many cobblestones (as on the Grosses Rad and Kleines Rad). All in all, this produces a distinctive mountain physiognomy, perfectly comple- mented by the native alpine vegetation that grows on the broad, humped back of the range, above the line where forest gives way to long, hedgelike rows of knee pine (Pinus pumilio).
The trachyte and Secondary mountains present a very different physiog- nomy; and I have observed this very contrast in the valley of Teplitz. On the north side are the Erzgebirge of Saxony, which present themselves to the eye as fine, grand, rounded masses; these are Primary mountains, very similar in form to the Sudeten, although not so high. On the south are the very different forms of the Mittelgebirge in Bohemia, essentially composed of clingstone and constituting part of the trachyte formation. Here we observe the traces of a more mobile configuration, conditioned by mechanical upheavals; the out- lines of the mountains are more broken and made up of smaller formations; steeper and more acute, the peaks remain bare, with little or no soil cover but
only scree, the sign of incipient (not, as with the Primary ranges, advanced) erosion. Stark, rocky, island formations such as the Biliner Berg stand out at intervals. A close walking survey of this range would certainly reveal a still greater variety of external characteristics.
Nor can I fail to remark on the existence of a physiognomy peculiar to sandstone mountain ranges, since it is highly pronounced: clear stratification of the rock; traces of comparatively rapid erosion by recent watercourses, due to its relative softness and to the fissures left by past upward movements; abrupt rock faces, always weathered and rounded in detail; narrow, fissured ravines (think of the Ottowald and Rathen gorges, in so-called Saxon Switzer- land); isolated rectangular masses (such as the Lilienstein and Konigstein); gaps cut through the rocks (includingthe Prebischtor) and many other distinc- tive features.
Finally, of all the mountain formations known to me, none seems so strongly distinctive in its physiognomy as the basalt. Tall, steep, pointed, iso- lated peaks proclaim it from afar; as we approach, we observe the dark color of the stone, the rough, jagged surface of the rock faces, and, in the case of columnar basalt, the prominent stack formations, ranged like organ pipes and mostly leaning at an angle. I have observed these characteristics around Zittau, in particular, where there are many basalt outcrops. Near Waltersdorf, two hours’ walk to the west of Zittau, a number of very fine basalt columns, some of them two or three feet in diameter, stand out in their intact, primitive state.
Analogous sets of characteristics might be identified in mountains com- posed of other rocks, such as limestone. However, although I have some knowledge of limestone mountains, as found notably in Thuringia, I no longer have them clearly enough in my mind to attempt an account of their physiognomy. I shall merely add a few comments on the Secondary mountains and the chalk and clay sedimentary hills along the Baltic coast.
Whereas the outlines of basalt mountains are abrupt and vertical, here all is broad and even. The island of Rugen, which is entirely composed of deposits of this kind, rises to a very modest height above the Baltic Sea; although the coast rises in steep cliffs on the north and east, the ascent from the interior is mostly gradual and almost imperceptible, until we find ourselves on the edge of a sheer drop, presumably created in earlier times by the force of the sea. This, too, is a strikingly individual physiognomy, though in the interior we stand on ordinary, flat, fertile terrain. The cliffs, which are three, four, or five hundred feet in height, clearly reveal their earthy consistency in the gullies cre- ated by rainwater; in occasional ridges, edges, and promontories, eroded on both sides; and in the accumulations of fallen earth or chalk at their feet, which often reach to almost half of their height. Even at a distance, therefore, these cannot be mistaken for true rocky crags. If we add the dazzling white color of the chalk, with its layers of countless large and small flints —some of which, washed out by rain or brought down by cliff falls, are strewn on the beach —this is an unmistakable physiognomy, further defined and completed by the large, erratic granite blocks, probably washed across from Sweden,
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which appear all along the coast and are also found in places in the center of the island.
In conclusion I need add only that this essay has achieved its purpose if it has shown that, in the hands of careful and experienced geologists, the phys- iognomy of mountain ranges is potentially a topic of great interest.
I completed this essay at a time when I had yet to see the Alps. Since then the sight of them has still further justified, in my eyes, the idea of such a physiog- nomy. There, Primary mountain ranges appear in their true, abrupt, and more crystalline guise; whereas the account of Primary ranges in this essay refers rather to their state subsequent to erosion. *
Fragments from a Painter’sJournal
Ich sah die Welt mit liebevollen Blicken,
Und Welt und ich,wir schwelgten in Entziicken, So duftig war, belebend, immer frisch,
Wie Pels, wie Strom, so Bergwald und Gebiisch.74 [I saw the world with eyes all full of love;
And world and I were rapt in gladness still; Scented, exhilarating, ever fresh
Were rock and river, bush and wooded hill.]
Evening in the GroSer Garten [Great park]. Bitterly cold, but pure, hazy sky. Fresh snow decks the spruces and pines, standing out clearly, but in shadow it looks violet, contrasting with the flush of sunset in the air; even against the earth’s shadow in the east,75 the snow looks dark.
At the forest edge, by the Krahenhiitte, a beautiful, snow-covered hill with a lone pine stands out brightly against gray cobalt air.
At full first quarter, in the evening, after 4 o’clock, looking across the Briihl terrace and bridge toward the palace gardens.
* Later still, I became acquainted with the volcanic mountain ranges of southern Italy, and I have commented at length on their highly distinctivephysiognomyin the first discourse of my Analecta, published in 1829.73
December 1822, moon at first quarter
A fine picture at the Elbe Gate. Three arches of the bridge in hazy brown gray, with the snow-capped, triangular gables that surmount the piers; on the near side of this is the principal source of light, a wide expanse of snow; fore- ground interspersed with very dark stones. Beneath the arches, hazy under- growth and distant view; above, gray cobalt sky shading to ochreous red, filled with cloudy vapor; the moon finally breaking through, not yet shining but ringed with a yellowish glow.
To one side the Frauenkirche, dark violet gray.
Also from the hill by the palace, view back toward the city, in fine grada- tions; foreground snow brilliant, trees now very dark; areas of light and dark fading with distance, but even the remotest snow-covered roofs bright against the hazy sky.
January 1823, last quarter
Evening walk to Grower Garten after 4 o’clock.
Outside the gate, biting cold, clear sky; in the west much reddish gray mist, sunset red above.
The bluish mist (light-filled, cloudy anticipation of darkness, therefore blue) shrouded the upper half of the trees in Antons Garten. Snow on the ground, this side of the trees, tending toward violet gray, always darker than the sky, in which the brightest objects were tiny, pinkish red, flocculent clouds, visible in the west through the upper and thinner portions of the mist.
There was a lovely vista through the woods to the east: snow bright against the encroaching twilight, which faded above to pure blue. The nearest trees ranged from violet to brown; a jutting branch, bearing ocher yellow leaves, was prettily highlighted with snow, as were all the other horizontal limbs. Further on, the violet turned more hazy, and one prominent tree, which spread its branches even wider, was swathed in a misty, bluish gray.
I had also walked through the GroSer Garten a few days previously. At noon there had been signs of a thaw, but the frost set in again by nightfall. The sky was overcast; in the distance, especially in the east, dark, bluish clouds lowered above the white mantle of snow.
Just then, with the distant view obscured by a snowfall, and by those dark clouds, and with the earth receding from view in a perfect series of grada- tions, a postilion with two unsaddled black horses dashed past me and on into that hazy distance. A good picture. Also beautiful on that evening: the violet-brown of the fir woods against the gray mass of cloud.
January, full moon
Evening, between 4 and 5. The horizon shrouded in mists. 16° below. Glow- ing yellowish red, the moon rises out of the gray violet eastern mists. At the Belvedere, on the Briihl Terrace, the upper terrace with the iron balustrade afforded a good picture. Before me, on the right, the base of the Sphinx;
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beyond the steps, the buildings on the Elbberg came into view through the wintry haze. Main source of light, the moon, though not yet brilliant. Shad- ows deepest on the pedestal of the Sphinx; the snow lighter than the haze on the horizon, especially on the terrace to the left, but darker than the sky, which was a lovely, muted blue above the moon.
Downstream of the bridge, the Elbe was still free of ice; on it, a cloud of white mist, in the shape of a perfect stratus, hung eighteen feet or so above water level.
Then, on the Zwinger rampart, the great pediment of the theater joined with the nearer, smaller, snow-covered roofs, the Catholic church, and the palace tower, to present an image full of character. Smoke from the theater, thick and whitish gray, ascended obliquely toward the right in a dense column that obscured the central portion of the palace tower. The hazy gray of the Catholic church and the winter mist that shrouded the lower part of the Frauenkirche were also lovely.
The snow-covered earthworks of the Bastion made a fine spectacle against the western sky. The lower part of the sky was shrouded in violet brown haze, shading above to red and eventually to a yellowish twilight glow. The snow, by contrast, was all blue and violet, and intensely bright against the crepuscular haze of the horizon, though still, even at its lightest, darker than the bright sky.
The shadows cast by the uneven surface of the snow were always darker even than the eveninghaze.
February, new moon
Evening, toward 5 o’clock, in the Grotëer Garten. There had been a thaw over the previous few days, but now the earth was hardened again by a new frost. Sky bright in parts; snow-bearing clouds; a good picture afforded by the cor- ner of the moat toward Recknitz.
The sun had gone down; against the dull yellow sunset sky, a wide band of gray snow cloud, uniform in tone, extended down to the horizon; in the bluish sky above, scattered cumulus clouds still caught the light of the departed sun. The distant view was shrouded in brownish, greenish, and finally violet tones. Streaks of snow, lighter than the gray cloud but darker than the light sky, punctuated the dark surface of the ground.
In the foreground, on the edge of the moat, two massive, ancient willows stretched out their gaunt branches, nearly black; around their trunks the snow had thawed and then refrozen, so that, close to the strong dark tone of the tree trunks, a sparkling light reflected the bright sky; it was lighter than any- thing else in the foreground, for even the jagged ice on the frozen pool could be seen only in a subdued light.
On the way home, the wind brought the snow cloud nearer, setting up an eerie roaring in the bare treetops and in the spruces, and a man walking in front of
me in a voluminous cloak and flat cap, with a black dog at his side, animated the scene in a way entirely appropriate to the somber mood of the landscape.
February, before full moon
At evening, walking by moonlight toward the Frauenkirche, the hazy moonlight afforded me a magnificent view. I could not see the moon itself; scattered, hazy cloudlets hung in the dark sky, and the row of houses to my left was in shade and cast a strong shadow obliquely across the street; there was a fountain, also in shadow, and its ascending, dark mass produced a good effect against the distant haze. The houses to my right caught the moonlight; their roofs and gutters cast long shadows, and the roofs, although in the light, were dark against the buildings beyond. The hazy mass of the dome of the Frauenkirche loomed into the sky; in the row of houses to the left, still visible in outline, a lighted window gleamed through the mist. The principal source of light was on the square before the church and on the moonlit portion of the street.
February, full moon
Beautiful moonrise on the Briihl Terrace. High in the sky, great nocturnal clouds, darker toward the moon; below them strips and flecks of cloud, pret- tily flushed with red just beneath the moon. Toward the moon itself, yellow, even ultimately greenish. The clouds and the visible areas of clear sky darken toward the moon.
The reflection in the surface of the Elbe, too, gentle and most lovely in color.
The muting of the light in the water makes the colors still more distinct from each other.
May, Ascension Day, Plauen, evening
How pure and holy was the spring air in this churchyard! Birches and blos- soming trees shed their gentle fragrance. Warm sunlight on the plants that grew vigorously among the gravestones and the new wooden crosses! How the sun lights up the window at the back corner of the sacristan’s house, so that it can be seen through the front window, and how the little house is encompassed with flowering vegetation!
Earlier, too, in the village, I took delight in the graceful grouping of a blos- soming tree with the ancient, plastered gable of a farmhouse. Of course, the divinely cheerful spring air creates some, indeed most, of the effect.
In general, one could date, to a day, the moment this spring when the air and the clouds turned mild and summery.
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May, the following evening
On the dismantled bastion behind the Kreuzkirche; sun just down. Stormy sky; main tones cream, reddish, blue, violet! Swarms of whirring swallows! On the left, a bank of piled rubble; above this, the ruin of a spiral staircase, a stone spindle enclosed by towerlike walls. Then an old parapet with star- shaped embrasures; then old buildings and, looming above them, dark against a bright sky, the Kreuzkirche tower.
Looking down from the Bastion, you could see a passageway behind the star- shaped embrasures. Old masonry inward, with wooden balustrades, and on top of all this a wretched little garden. Who would not be reminded of Gôtz in his little tower garden!76
October, after full moon
There had been a long spell of clear, bright weather; most days began with mist, after which the air had a powerful elasticity that eventually dispelled all vapors. Finally, one evening, the vapors coalesced in the higher regions of the sky into long strands of cirrostratus; the earth was shrouded in a light mist, the sun dipped into the diaphanous veils that lined the horizon, and the most wondrous color effects became visible. I stood facing long rows of linden trees on the bank of the Elbe. Toward the west, horizontal strands of flocculent cloud, lying one behind the other like waves, spanned the vault of the sky. Their silvery strands were gilded by the intense orange of the setting sun, and these tones accorded beautifully with the azure blue of the strips of sky between the waves of cloud.
Farther to the north and east, the atmospheric veil on the horizon faded to a delicate rose red; in the magical light, this rose red reflected from the shadow side of every object. To the west, in front of me, was the magnificent array of ancient linden trees that line the enclosure, their leaves already autumnal. But how red was the glow that suffused the brown local tone of their foliage; how beautifully this interplay of violet and golden brown combined with the color triad of the sky, and contrasted with the intense but shadowed green of the pastures in the foreground; and, where the trees ended, how the gentle, reddish tone of the distant view peeped through between them!
One of the most delightful views that nature here has ever afforded me!
1824, August, after new moon
One bright, sunny afternoon, on the bank of the Elbe between Pirna and Wehlen, a great diversity of pictures demonstrated to me the joys of living in a circumscribed space.
How beautiful was the little, round-topped house door, in a bright, white- 145
washed arch, at the top of the shady flight of steps in front of the house, flanked with a tangle of squashes and hops.
In the morning I was delighted by a view of the plain outside Pirna. A field of rape in flower, next to green flax fields that were past blooming; the willow- lined Elbe; the steel-blue mountains; silver cumulus clouds on the horizon!
November, first quarter
In the evening, gray, overcast sky; isolated patches of bright yellow light breaking through in the west. On the Elbe, past the bridge, a ship lay along- side the bank with all sail slack. All dark; beyond the sail a flash of yellow.
Over toward the south, the Catholic church and palace, huge, dark, and precise in outline; beyond, a lighter, curiously animated patch of cloud.
A Picture of the Breaking of the Ice on the River Elbe nearDresden
Early on the morning of 14 January 1821 a cannon shot announced the breakup of the ice on the Elbe.77 The sky was a hazy gray, intermittently coa- lescing into clouds; the wind was a light easterly; the barometer was falling; and the thermometer showed +6° Reaumur. When the second gunshot was heard, at half past nine, I went out to the Briihl Terrace. The nearby river still had its complete covering of ice, on which wheeled traffic had been moving until a few days previously; but there was open water upstream, and the jagged floes displaced from there had been shoved up and crushed on the edge of the standing ice. The massive force of the descending current worked on, invisibly, in the depths; until finally, over toward the far bank, a gap appeared, forming a river-within-the-river that whirled huge floes of ice along, only to leave them massed at the point where it descended once more beneath the ice. In the end, the force of the current on the far side of the river shifted the masses of ice on the near side, and great floes majestically thrust their way up the Elbberg shore, like petrified ocean breakers. Then all quiet again.
To take a closer look at those masses of ice, I went out to the Elbberg. There I stood near the ice sheets that had recently come ashore. They were half a foot to a foot and a half thick; their color was yellowish in parts, and a translucent greenish blue elsewhere; they were four, six, and up to eight feet wide. Beyond lay the white, firm coating of ice, fissured in many places, with smaller floes and sometimes branches of trees caught in the gaps. Beyond, the river surged on its way, casting up a second mass of ice floes on the projecting bank opposite.
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Around and beside me, the boatmen were alert and active. A number of big Elbe barges were firmly moored to posts set farther inland, and the men stood by to haul them closer inshore if they became endangered by the pres- sure of the ice.
Observing all of this, I wandered slowly along the bank, and finally, stand- ing on a balk of timber behind an Elbe barge, I noticed a little swirl of water that was rising from an opening barely a foot wide in the ice floe closest to me. As I watched, the opening gradually enlarged; the water, which had been confined below by the weight of ice, burst out with increasing force, and soon formed a little stream of its own, ten to twelve feet wide, which tirelessly carried away the shore ice and floes, but remained unable to dislodge either the sheet ice that flanked it or the barrier of floes that massed behind its own source.
All this remained stable for some time. Then, suddenly, movement began to be visible behind the new current; jagged masses of ice rose and fell; a dull boom was heard within the ice barrier just upstream; the force of the water increased, and all at once the surface of the ice lifted. Carried by the impetus of the swollen river, long ice fields, with their borders of piled ice, began to float downstream on the ever-rising waters with the unhurried grandeur of a departing storm cloud.
Audible only in the rumble of the floes and the crackle of breaking ice along its edges, the grave and sedate motion of so vast and varied an expanse, and one that had so long appeared so firm and so enduring, could only be called magnificent and sublime. Repeated cannon fire announced to localities downstream the approach of the much-feared masses of ice.
Truly delighted and fortified by these newly observed stirrings of the spirit of nature, and giving thanks to the fate that had conducted me to the river bank at precisely the right moment, I turned back to the city.