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.
By what mysterious power colours and sounds thus vibrate and reflect these affections, is beyond our present inquiry; if the fact be established, by investigating its instances we may induce or ge-neralogize a theory, or advance our practice, in which we already acknowledge the powers of colours to soothe and delight by gradation of hue and shade, to excite and animate by their various contrasts, and to distract and repel by infraction and discordance.
It may be doubted, indeed, whether the expression of colour is not naturally more powerful than that of form or figure; for, though form has also its natural expression, it owes its chief force to the auxiliaries of custom, association, and consent; whence lines and forms have almost usurped the office of expression with the painter, but, aided by the influence of colour, they become irresistible. Perhaps colour and form have peculiarities of expression which ought to be distinguished; and, if we may venture an opinion on this head, the expression of form is more powerful in figuring the passions; and that of colour, in representing and exciting the more delicate perceptions of internal feeling and sentiment: the one is the expression of sculpture, dependent on external signs alone; the other dependent on internal movement, more indicative of the soul, compared with which the former is cold and inanimate: - the first is the rhythmus of expression, and, like those of poetry and music, strikes every eye; the other is the harmony that touches certain natural chords, which vibrate to an eye gifted or cultivated to perceive and feel it.
The choice of colours then which the artist infuses into, and with which he clothes and surrounds his figures, or his scenes and compositions, is by no means arbitrary nor local, or merely an affair of conformity to the natural object, or of sensible satisfaction to the eye; but has also, in its highest view, a rational and moral reference to the mind, dependent on the subject, and the sentiment or moral lie means to excite or convey: and our common habits of thinking and speaking coincide herein when we attribute moral and sensible qualities to colours, by denominating them faint or strong, true or false, foul or fair, harmonious or discordant, dead or lively, sedate, fresh, good and bad, modest and meretricious, solemn, gloomy and gay, etc.; and it is hence by tone and colouring that the artist is able to aid and excite the ruling and subordinate sentiments of his performance in the manner of the musician; and that, although he should copy nature in his colouring, he will not do so servilely, but with taste, discrimination, and reference to these ends. There is the ideal in colouring, as well as in forms, which belongs to the perfection of beauty and sentiment, which it is the highest office of the painter to attain; and it is that in all these arts to which the philosophic minds of the Greeks aspired: "Is not painting, Panhasius, a representation of what we see? By the help of canvass and a few colours you can easily set before us hills and caves, light and shade, straight and crooked, rough and plain, and bestow youth and age where and when it best pleaseth you; and when you would give us perfect beauty (not being able to find in any one person what answers your idea) you copy from many what is beautiful in each, in order to produce this perfect form."' - Xenoph. Mem. c. x. p. 167. It is the same in colouring, it must be induced or ge-neralogized. But of ideal beauty, in every case, nature must supply the means, - not individually, but in the way of selection, generalisation, and refinement; for there is no other source of fine ideas in science or in art.
It is in the election of his colours, not less than in their use and arrangement, that the artist merits the reputation of a colourist; and he may perhaps borrow from, as well as contribute something to, the poet, who has not failed to avail himself of the powers of colours on the imagination in exciting, heightening, and extending ideas and sentiments, - in the construction of epithets, the decoration of figures natural and rhetorical, and in all the imagery and witchery of his art. We may indeed truly remark, with respect to the poets, that many of the most exquisite passages of their works are indebted to colours principally for their beauty and effect.
The expression of colour in poetry must of course be limited to the signification of terms, which, with respect to colours, is hitherto confined to their simple names and relations: poetry, therefore, falls far short of nature and painting in this respect; it is nevertheless open to all the refinements of language and art, on which point much remains to be done by the poet, and herein the painter may refund part of the obligation he owes to the bard:
" Blend the fair tints, and wake the vocal string." Collins.
Poets, like painters, are comparatively good or bad colourists; and it is remarkable that the poets of nature are invariably the best, while the poets of art, and imitators, are as indifferent colourists as those painters and copyists are who have studied colouring in pictures only. Hence some of the earlier poets, who probably drew their images more immediately from nature, have availed themselves more, and more truly, of the powers of colours than later poets; whence Spenser, and Shakspere in particular, are painter poets; and Lessing attributes the qualification of a perfect colourist - another Titian - to the poet Ariosto.* This remark is not quite applicable to the schools of painting in which, as before observed, colouring has been the latest attainment of the art, although not without exception, nor without traces of natural colouring in early examples of the art.
* Lessing: "Du Laocoon: on, Des Limites de la Poesie et dela Peinture." p. 180.
But if the poet is indebted to colours for the decoration of his figures and descriptions, much more so is the painter, who owes more to the effects of light, shade, and colour for expression and sentiment, than to either of the other branches of his practice; yet the latitude and license of the poet with regard to the use and expression of colour is even wider than that of the painter, and hardly bounded by the usage of nature herself when it suits his sentiment to deviate in this respect; hence with the poet, the sea becomes "the black ocean," "the green ocean," "the purple main," "the azure deep," " the white waves," etc.; and so it is with the sky, the land, the forest, or other natural objects. Such also are the coloured garbs in which he clothes the animate figures of gods and goddesses, etc, whereby the various parts of nature, etc, are poetically designated and expressed.