This section is from the book "Chromatography; Or, A Treatise On Colours And Pigments, And Of Their Powers In Painting", by George Field. Also available from Amazon: Chromatography, or A Treatise on Colours and Pigments, and of Their Powers in Painting.
For this there can be no just excuse in natural subjects, whatever there may be in the romantic and poetical, where the obscure (oscuro) is, or is pretended to be, essential to sublimity and beautv; whence the poets deal in fable and the seeming, rather than in the real. If this be just, then black so appropriated is allowable in historic painting as a chromatic fiction only.
From the contrasting and harmonizing efficacy of black with all colours, and in particular with the lively and gay, the goddess Flora has been not ineptly decorated by mycologists with a mantle of black; and the moral sentiment, arising from the same cause, has not escaped the elegant imagination of the poet, thus beautifully and succincdy expressed by Gray, -
"The hues of bliss more brightly ylow, Chosten'd by subler tints of woe: And, blended, form with artful strife, The strength arid harmony of life."
Black is emblematical of mental degradation and crime; the garb of Alecto, the Harpies and Furies, the daughters of Night * Poets and My-thologists have represented Mors, or Death, as pale or wan, with black robes and sable wings; the latter of which they also ascribe to Somnus the brother of death, and god of sleep, whom the sculptors also appropriately formed of black materials, such as marble, basalt, and ebony. Finally, to Night, the mother of all these figurative beings, they have attributed broad sable wings, an ebon car, and a coal-black mantle studded with silver stars.
* Virg. Æn. vii.
In its moral effects individually, black is gloomy and terrific both in nature and art; * hence fear and horror are excited and augmented by darkness; hence it has been the livery of woe, and the ensign of death and the devil, among every civilized people; and hence the poets, priests, and rhetoricians, have employed it ideally in designating the dismal, the dreadful, the criminal, the mournful, the horrible, and in every sentiment of melancholy, of which the very name denotes blackness and darkness. Such also are its expressive uses in painting, in which it is the instrument of solemnity, obscurity, breadth, and boundlessness; the terrible, the sublime, and the profound: hence, according to Spence, in his Polymelia, the antient sculptors executed their statues of Jupiter the terrible in black marble, as they did Jupiter the mild in white. By some black is regarded as the symbol of constancy, prudence, resolution, silence, secrecy, obstinacy, and permanence in general.
* The youth couched by Cheselden had an impression of great uneasiness the first time he saw black; and was, some months after, struck with great horror at the sight of a negress.
Black is by contrast the prime power whereby the whole magic of the chiaroscuro is produced, - and upon this power of the neutral Rembrandt depended, as much too much, perhaps, as Rubens did upon the contrast of positive colours: the works of Rembrandt afford, nevertheless, the best examples of this power generally; and, in the particular department of landscape, we know of none so varied and perfect as the admirable series of mezzotintos recently published by our English Constable, in a mode of engraving, by the bye, peculiarly qualified for exhibiting the powers of the pencil in light and shade.*
If we compare these neutral, sensible, and moral powers of black with those of white, which colours are the true symbols of night and day, we shall be struck by the immense latitude of light and shade which lies between them, and the correspondence of opposition which belongs to them equally by nature and the consent of mankind, and be led to infer the similar, moral, and sensible analogies of other colours; not as conventional fancies of the poet and painter only, but as natural and real relations and attributes, although dimly understood. By insisting too earnestly upon such paradoxical powers, we may, perhaps, incur from some persons the reproach of the antient musician who deduced every thing from his own art; and yet we confess we are among the most reluctant to join in this censure of the harmonist, being entirely convinced that, throughout nature and science the Great Author of all does but manifest the same Identical Wisdom in a variety of ways, and that He has capacitated man to comprehend, to imitate, and to enjoy them. In this, man does but follow at an infinite distance the Great Prototype, who thus produced and made him in some measure all things; for in whatever he does, he does hut as it were repeat himself, and stamp his own character upon all his works. How essential to good and excellent performance it is, therefore, that man should apply the utmost of his powers to modify himself to Nature in his works, and to God in his ways. Man is, however, in all respects but too prone to idolatry - to idolize and follow his fellows, in preference to the emulating of Divinity, in his works; and to this obliquity it is that be owes at all times his degeneracy, in morals, in nature, and in art.
* See " Landscapes Characteristic of English Scenery," by John Constable, R .A., engraved by D. Lucas.