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.
The partial restoration of this branch of the art of Painting, if not even its invention, seems to have been coeval with oil painting; and the glory of it belongs to the Venetians, to whom the art passed with the last remains of the Grecian schools and their productions, after their capture of Constantinople at the beginning of the thirteenth century, and among whom Giovanni Bellini laid its foundation, and Titian carried it to its highest perfection. From the Venetian it passed to the Lombard, Flemish, and Spanish schools. It is to be doubted, notwithstanding, whether there was not as much of instinct as principle in the practice of these schools, and that colouring remains yet to be established in its perfection as a science.
* Bell's " Hist. Ess. ou the Origin of Painting," c. iv. p. 41.
The historical distribution of Painting according to the schools is not, perhaps, exactly coincident with its true, natural, and philosophical classification, according to which there are but three principal classes or schools; viz. the gross and material, which aims at mere nature, to which belong the Dutch and Flemish schools; the sensible, which aims at refined and select nature, which accords with the Venetian school; and the intellectual, which corresponds with the Greek, Roman, and Florentine schools, and aims at the ideal in beauty, grandeur, and sublimity: and it is somewhat remarkable, in a scientific view, that these schools should have retrograded.
If the excellence of the Roman and Florentine schools in the high departments of figure, composition, and expression, must be admitted, they fail, nevertheless, in the just effect of an art which addresses itself to the mind through the sight. Their works, accordingly, have often as little effect upon the eye, as the finest poetry badly set to music has upon the ear; and, as this would be better without the music, so those would often be better without their colour. True, natural, and unaffected taste, which admits no unresolved discordance among its objects, will therefore prefer generally the Venetian to the Roman and Florentine schools, because it excels in that which is the essential basis of the art and its end of pleasing, by the medium of sensible impression.
Upon the same principle, the sublimest sentiments delivered, however accurately, in language unmeasured and inharmonious, will never redeem the performance of the poet, nor raise it above more ordinary thoughts delivered in the true measure and melody of speech; for these are the first essential, - the constituent matter, - the very colour of the poet's art.
"Poets are Painters; Words are their paint by which their thoughts are shewn, And Nature is their object." - Granville.
Or, as Horace thus briefly expresses it: - "Ut Picture, Poesis erit."
So also, according to a correct analogy, colouring may be called the eloquence of painting, - the animating principle which gives life and action to the fine thoughts of the painter.
"Among the several kinds of beauty," says Addison, "the eye takes most delight in colour. We nowhere meet a more glorious or pleasing show in nature than what appears in the heavens at the rising and setting of the sun, which is wholly made up of those different stains of light, that shew themselves in clouds of a different situation. For this reason we find the Poets, who are always addressing themselves to the imagination, borrowing more of their epithets from colour than from any other topic." If, then, the purpose of painting be analogous to that of poetry, how much more powerful and important must the expression of colour be to the painter than to the poet; and how absurd the affectation of the artist or critic who undervalues colouring - the sole object of sight - the sole matter of Painting, whose mistress is Nature; and to her only we need appeal for evidence of its powerful effects in grandeur, as well as in sublimity and beauty.
In the practice of the individual in Painting, as well as in all the revolutions of pictorial art, in antient Greece as in modern Italy, colouring, in its perfection, has been the last attainment of excellence in every school;* thus Apelles succeeded and excelled Zeuxis in colouring, as Titian did Raffael. There is hence just reason to hope the artists of Britain will transcend all preceding schools in the chromatic department of Painting, if even in their progress they should not surpass them in all other departments, and in every mode and application of the art, as they have already done in an original and unrivalled use of water-colours in particular, in the perfection of landscape, in the new and beautiful device of panoramic perspective, and in engraving.
* And that also of rarest occurrence, if not of greatest difficulty; hence Du Pile justly remarks, "that for near three hundred years since Painting was revived, we could hardly reckon six painters that had been good colourists." He might have added, among thousands who had laboured to become such. - Du Pile's Dialogue, p. 28.
Happily, too, a school of colouring has arisen among us, that confirms this expectation, strengthened also by the suitableness of our climate to perfect vision, - by that mean degree of light which is best adapted to the distinguishing of colours, - by that boundless diversity of hue in nature, relieved by those fine effects of light and shade which are denied to more vertical suns, - and by those beauties of complexion and feature in our females, by which we are perpetually surrounded; respects in which at least our country is not unfavourable to art. In many obvious references, too, this country resembles Venice of old, the greatest of whose antient glories is still her Titian, her Giorgione, and her school of colouring; and England has had her Reynolds and Wilson, and still has living colour-ists, of whom we will not offend the modesty, nor distinguish invidiously. It has, however, been urged to the disparagement of the British school, that it excels in colouring; as if it were incompatible with any other excellence, or as if nature, the great prototype of art, ever dispensed with it.