This section is from the book "Ideals In Art: Papers Theoretical Practical Critical", by Walter Crane . Also available from Amazon: Ideals in Art: Papers Theoretical, Practical, Critical.
Despite the invention of oil painting (which Cennino considered only fit for lazy painters) and the fact that many easel pictures now produced appear to have a very remote relation to decorative art as generally understood, I am still of the opinion that the easel picture, properly considered and placed in its right relationship to its surroundings, by judicious treatment and hanging, and above all by a certain mural feeling, may be the acme of decoration. Its relation to a scheme of decoration may be like that of a jewel in a dress.
Of course, everything depends upon the point of view of the painter, in the first place, and in the present age the easel picture has been a favourite medium not only for the display, strange to say, of that individualism and experi-mentalism which are supposed to be special modern characteristics, but also for the merging of individuality in schools, types, and modes of painting, or frank imitation of fashionable masters.
The easel picture differs from any conscious piece of decoration by not being necessarily associated with, or consciously related to, any other piece or scheme of design. Yet, practically, it must be related to something. It is related, in the first place, if a sincere work, to something in the painter's mind. Most painters are impressionable and sensitive to the effect of their surroundings. It is a common saying how much better a picture looks in the studio in the light in which it was painted, but probably it is not only the lighting but the surroundings also, and the picture has been perhaps unconsciously painted in harmony with its surroundings, its colour scheme affected by the colour of the studio walls, draperies, and furniture. Certain it is that, as a rule, painters are known by a favourite scheme and key of colour, quite apart from the fact that commercial considerations often encourage them to repeat themselves.
The modern picture-exhibitions - I mean big shows like that of the Royal Academy - have perhaps done more to destroy the decorative relationship of the easel pictures than anything. An analogous effect is produced on the mind by the sight of so many pictures of so many different sorts, subjects, and scales, and treatments crowded together, to that produced by a surfeit of ornament, and pattern on pattern, in internal decoration. This seems to point to the fact that true decoration lies rather in the sense of proportion and arrangement or distribution than in the use of particular units of ornament, styles, colours, or materials, and that one may destroy decorative effect by the very means of decoration - but we have only to remember the meaning of the word.
I have spoken of mural feeling in a picture being important to its decorative quality or relationship, and it is the most obvious and necessary relationship, since it establishes a relationship with the destined place of the picture - the wall. Its frame, which separates a picture from its surroundings, also helps to unite it again to its original home, where it becomes a movable instead of a fixed panel enclosed by a moulding. No word is perhaps oftener on the pen of the prattler about pictures (or art critic) than the word "decorative," which seems very variously understood and applied to all sorts and conditions of painting. What is really comprehended by the phrase is appropriate treatment, or mural feeling. A satisfactory definition of mural feeling would be difficult, since it is a quality composed of many elements, but I think most artists know what they mean by it. To my mind it includes a certain flatness of treatment with choice of simple planes, and pure and low-toned colours, together with a certain ornamental dignity or architectural feeling in the structure of forms and lines of composition, and is generally antithetic to accidental or superficial characteristics or what might be called landscape effects. Does this then exclude landscapes from the decorative relation, it might be asked?
Vast distances, large sky spaces, wind-tossed trees, turbulent seas and flying shadows certainly do not tend to the repose of a wall - but it is precisely to "give interest" (to people not interested in "mere patterns") that pictures are hung upon it, and to some tastes there cannot be too much drama going on. Others would rather keep it bound up in another form in their libraries and only let it loose occasionally.
But I am far from saying that even the sky-landscape has no decorative place. But you must not mix it or have too much of it. A window may be an important decorative element in the scheme of an interior, and a landscape three parts sky may have something of the value of a window in a room. But it might be possible to decorate with landscapes alone, though one would prefer tapestry landscapes without sky, or with very high horizons, at least for the lower walls; certainly there never ought to be sky below the eye level on a wall. The Turner room has a certain unity and splendour of its own, regarded simply from a particular decorative point of view, and Turner would be pronounced I suppose the least decorative in feeling of modern artists - rather the epic poet in paint. Every age, too, has its own notions of decoration - indeed one might say even every decade now, or even a less period, we live so fast! No rules or canons of taste in art are of universal application or acceptable to all periods. As decoration is primarily fitness and harmony, with this central idea one may produce decorative effects with very different materials, and we have only to glance back to our historic periods to see how it was accomplished.
The standard of the Beautiful undoubtedly shifts, or perhaps changes hands in the unceasing struggle to win it, and what is worshipped at one epoch or in one century is cast out and trodden under foot in the next. Perhaps we have (during the past century) gained a little historic balance or toleration, and all of us are not prepared to make a clean sweep of the work of the other centuries in favour of the favoured one.
But a harmonious effect is always more difficult with mixed materials (which may account in some degree for the marked success of "the tulip and the bird" in modern decorative patterns).
Certain material conditions, too, favour the growth of a higher type of art at one period than another. We can never elude the economic basis which necessarily affects our forms of art as of other things.
"Pictures, furniture, and effects" is the auctioneer's favourite phrase in describing the property of a gentleman. He might be describing pictures alone. We have heard of "furni-ture pictures" - but remove the reproach, is it not in the fitness of things that pictures should be furniture, and their highest destiny to decorate a room?
But when pictures become counters in the game of speculation, your decorative relations along with your social relations may take care of themselves. They become, in fact, very poor relations.
The portability of the easel picture may have something to do with its unrelatable character in some cases. Destined for nowhere in particular as a rule, it goes on tour - a member of a performing and often very diverse company, to all the provincial towns, and even on the continent. Yet there were portable and even folding pictures in classical and mediaeval times, and certainly there was no want of decorative relationship in the latter period when, as we know, they were often most beautiful pieces of furniture and wall decorations, as well as pictures. Even the gold-framed oil picture was frankly treated by the Venetians as a decoration - and a ceiling decoration - as witness the Tintorettos in the Ducal palace.
It would not be difficult to select pictures from the National Gallery from the Italian, Flemish, and even the Dutch and Spanish schools, which would not only be admirable pieces of decoration but also furnish the decorator with beautiful decorative schemes of colour.
An easel picture might be made the central point of its own scheme of colour and tone, and led up to, as it were, by everything in the room.
There may be, as I have said already, room for the open sky in decoration, too, if you "sky" it enough, or put it in a frieze, and this touches a rather important point of decorative relationship, too often ignored by the hanger of easel pictures, that is the placing of the picture so that its horizon or vanishing point shall be on a level with the eye of the spectator.
Checked by such considerations, and due selection of scale and tone in placing pictures,
From a Photograph by Alinarl, Pictorial Decoration,
Ducal Palace, Venice
I would not say that decorative effects are not possible with the most easel of easel pictures - only you must add the decorator to the painter to bring them off.
Some facetious friends of William Morris once proposed to send him a circular asking subscriptions to an association for the protection of the poor easel-picture painter, since he was being frozen out by designers of wall-papers and hangings of such mere ornamental interest that people did not want anything else on their walls.
It was a joke, but there was meaning in it, and, thrown as we are on the world-market, the floating of one man or one kind of art is too often at the expense of the sinking of another. Pictures, like other things, should, in an ideal state, be produced for use and pleasure not for profit, and there would then be less doubt of their decorative relationship; and, although, if this method were adopted generally, it would greatly reduce the output, I cannot help feeling the Japanese show a true instinct for the decorative relation of pictures when they only show one kakimono at a time; but, after, all that would only mean that we could keep the rest of our collection - as so many masterpieces have been kept - rolled up or with their faces to the wall.