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.
Indeed the greatest masters of design in every school have given ready testimony to the claims of colouring; and, according to Vasari, even Michael Angelo himself, the greatest of them all, conceded to Titian, on viewing his Danae, that he wanted nothing but the correctness of the Roman school to have rendered him the greatest painter that ever lived. There never was, indeed, is not, nor ever will be, any painter who does not colour well, for any other reason than because he is not able; and he who should teach neglect of colouring as a doctrine, will find no disciple of true feeling and ability who would follow him. No master individually, nor school collectively, can be regarded as perfect without this first and last accomplishment of the art; nor did painting attain its immortal reputation in Greece until Zeuxis and Apelles had conjoined colouring to the climax of its excellences, nor will such high repute ever attach itself to any modern school without it. Nor have we the slightest doubt that, from the moment when the British school fails in this excellence, it will begin to decline altogether.
Every one knows the false taste and absurdity which have sprung from the admiration of difficulty and novelty, in place of the natural and expressive, in the sister art of music; and it behoves the true lovers of art to guard against similar degeneracy in Painting, that she may not sink in like manner by quitting the charms of nature for those of artifice and false refinement, nor even abstract herself in those sublimities or excellences exclusively, which the artist alone can appreciate.
Considering that the evidence of the eye is superior to that of the ear, and that the science of colours should be naturally easier than that of sounds, it is remarkable that music should have taken the advance of other sciences, and that colouring, as a science, remains yet in the rear. This precedence the former may perhaps owe to its more sensual character, as well as to its connexion with poetry: since, however, these arts are intimately related and analogous, the colourist may justly trust to advance and perfect his science by following wherever the others lead, and particularly so by adopting, as far as possible, the harmonic principles of the musician.
We must not quit our subject without remarking that there is a vicious extreme in this branch of Painting, and it is that in which colouring is rendered so principal, as by the splendour of its effects on the eye to diminish all other powers of a work upon the mind, or by want of subordination in the general design to overlay the subject; - no excellence of the mere colouring can in this case redeem from censure the performance of the painter. Add to which, there is a negative excellence which belongs to colouring, whence the painter is not always to employ pleasing and harmonious colours, but to take advantage of the powerful effects to be derived from impure hues, or the absence of all colour, as Poussin did in his "Deluge," thus well commented on by Opie: - "In this work there appears neither black nor white, neither blue, nor red, nor yellow; the whole mass is, with little variation, of a sombre grey, the true resemblance of a dark and humid atmosphere, by which every object is rendered indistinct and almost colourless. This is both a faithful and a poetical conception of the subject. Nature seems faint, half-dissolved, and verging on annihilation* * *." But this want of colour is a merit of colouring, and not its reproach. Vandyke employed it with admirable effect in the background of a Crucifixion, and in his "Pieta;" and the Phaeton of Giulio Romano is celebrated for a suffusion of smothered red, which powerfully excites the idea of a world on lire, although this artist, like his school, was deficient in the more subtile graces of colouring. Even discordance herein, as in music, must sometimes he introduced for effect and harmony. It is thus in poetry also that occasional rugged lines are essential to the harmony of flowing verse, to excite the reader by contrast, and to relieve the tedium and cloying of continued sweetness. In no case, however, is any thing legitimate in art that has not an authority in nature; and in Painting, as in Poetry, the imaginative must be founded on the true. Without this basis, effect falls into extravagance - grace into affectation - beauty into deformity - and the sublime into the ridiculous. Where truth and nature end, vice and absurdity begin; hence the moral influence of pure art, in which the habits of truth and honesty conduce to success, and are essential in a high degree to all the attainments of genius. The painter may, notwithstanding, deviate from the real into the ideal or abstract, even so far as in some instances to violate probability, but never to transcend possibility. To deviate successfully from objective truth presupposes, nevertheless, both judgment and genius in the painter; that is, the power of justly imagining and generalising.
Of the rank and value of this department of painting there will be, as there has been, variety of judgment and opinion, as there is variety in the powers of the eye and understanding: but take from Rubens, Rembrandt, Titian, and other distinguished masters, the estimation of their colouring, and we fear that all that is left to them would hardly preserve their names from oblivion: nor can the art attain its appropriate end - that "eye-pleasing perfection," so happily expressed by old writers on the art, without the excellence of colouring. Had it fallen to the lot of colouring in its perfection to have made its first appearance in the Florentine school, the chance is that it would have been ranked as the highest quality of the art; but, having attained the chief place in the inferior schools of Holland and Flanders, it has been degraded from its true rank through low association: - we had otherwise heard a different account thereof from both artists and critics.
To conclude, it is not in painting and decorating, - in the sentiments it excites, nor in the allusions of poetry, nor in all these together, that the value of colouring is comprised; it has an intrinsic value, which, by augmenting the sources of innocent and enlightened pleasure, entitles it to moral esteem. We all know the delight with which music gratifies the ear of the musically inclined. The lover of art would not for worlds forego the emotion which arises from regarding nature with an artist's eye; - but he who can regard nature with the intelligent eye of the co-lourist, has a boundless source of never-ceasing gratification, arising from harmonies and accordances which are lost to the untutored eye; - rocks and caves, - every stone he treads on, mineral, vegetal, and animal nature, - the heavens, the sea, and the earth, are full of them: wherever eye can reach or optical powers can conduct, their beauties abound in rule and order, unconfounded by infinite variety; and to assert that colouring permeates and clothes the whole visible universe, incurs no hyperbole.