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Joseph Joubert (1754–1824). Joubert: A Selection from His Thoughts. 1899.

Chapter XIX.

Of the Fine Arts

[1]ART is skill reduced to theory.

[2]Far from relegating the arts to the class of useful superfluities, we should rank them among the most precious and important possessions of human society. Without the arts it would not be possible for the greatest minds to make the larger part of their conceptions known to us. Without them, the most perfect and upright man could not enjoy all the pleasures of which his own goodness makes him susceptible, or all the happiness that nature designed for him. Some emotions are so delicate, and some objects so enchanting, that they can only be expressed by colour and sound. The arts ought to be regarded as a kind of separate language; as our only means of communication with the inhabitants of a sphere higher than our own.

[3]The doctrine that imitation is the principal foundation of the fine arts has a truer meaning and a wider application than people think. A man paints himself in his works, and is only satisfied with them when he has succeeded in making them adequately render the proportions of his own nature; I do not mean those which he clearly perceives in himself, but those that are hidden there, and that only become visible in the copy that he unconsciously makes of them.

[4]Imitation should proceed by suggestion only. If the poet makes a passionate man speak, he should put into his mouth only the suggestions of the words that a really passionate man would employ. If the painter colours some object, the colours must only suggest the true colours. A musician should only employ what suggests the real sounds, and not the real sounds themselves. The same law should be observed by the actor in his choice of tones and gestures. This is the great rule, the first rule, the only rule. All successful artists have perceived it, and observed it….

[5]The most beautiful forms of expression in all the arts are those that seem to be the fruit of a moment of high contemplation.

[6]What is the beautiful?—beauty seen by the eyes of the soul.

[7]It should be the aim of intelligence to produce results like itself—that is to say, sentiments and ideas; and the arts should aim at the effects of intelligence. Artist! if you rouse nothing in us but sensations, what are you doing with your art that the prostitute with her trade, and the hangman with his, cannot do as well as you? If your work recognise only the bodily, if it appeal only to the senses, you are but a workman without a soul, and your skill is merely of the hands.

[8]Ordinary fact, mere reality, cannot be the object of art. Illusion based upon truth; that is the secret of the fine arts.

[9]There are in art many beauties which only become natural by force of art.

[10]All that is capable of exact analysis, and therefore of easy imitation, should be banished from works of art; we do not want to see too clearly whence comes the effect that they make upon us. The naïad, in art, should hide her urn; the Nile its source.

[11]A work of art should be an entity, and not a thing at random. It should have its own proportions, character, and nature; a beginning, a middle, accessories, and an end. We must be able to distinguish in it a body and members, a whole figure—in short, a personality.

[12]In art, look for that line of life and of beauty which, even whilst expressing nothing, adds loveliness to the forms which it defines and the surfaces over which it passes. It should flow unbroken in the mind; but the hand cannot trace it without breaking off, and beginning again, many times.

[13]Elegance comes from clearness of forms, which makes them easy to grasp, and even easy to number.

[14]To be natural in art is to be sincere.

[15]Grace is the natural garb of beauty; in art, force without grace is like an anatomical figure.

[16]Architecture should be representative not only of the place, but of the man; a building should make evident to the eye the man who dwells within. The stones, the marble, the glass should speak, and say what they hide.

[17]In portraying moral nature what the artist has most to fear is exaggeration; just as in portraying physical nature what he has most to fear is weakness.

[18]A crucifixion should represent, at the same time, the death of a man and the life of a God. Whilst setting before our eyes a body destined for the grave, the painter should nevertheless make us see in it the element and germ of a near and supernatural resurrection. If he choose for the subject of his picture the moment of the pangs of death, he must so represent the victim as to show the God learning how man suffers. The impression of divinity and blessedness should mingle with all the signs of suffering and death.

[19]When a painter wishes to represent an event, he can hardly put too many figures on the scene; but when he wishes to express a passion only, he can hardly employ too few.

[20]A painter or a sculptor who does not know how to show the intangible and immortal soul in all his works, produces nothing that is really beautiful.

[21]To look at a bad picture with respect, and at a good one with delight, is, I think, the most seemly, and I will even say, the most honourable attitude of mind that honest ignorance can either adopt or display.

[22]Dramatic art has no aim but representation. An actor should be half-real, and half a shadow of the real. His tears, his cries, his words, his gestures should be half feigned and half true. In fact, to make a scene fine, the spectator must think that he is imagining what he hears and sees, and everything in it must seem to him like a beautiful dream.

[23]The object of all representation is to produce a fixed idea, which can be reproduced, at all times, with certainty. Now, to succeed in this the representation should be very definite—that is to say, very exact and very finished in all those parts of it which are meant to produce the effect at which we aim.

[24]Dancing should give you the idea of a lightness and a suppleness that are not of the body. The sole merit of the arts, and the object at which they all should aim, is to make the soul imaginable by means of the body.

[25]All modulations of sound are not a song, and all voices that execute beautiful airs do not sing. Song should produce enchantment. But for this, a disposition both of soul and throat is necessary, which is uncommon even among great singers.

[26]Melody consists in a certain flowing of sweet and liquid sounds, like the honey from which it takes its name.

[27]In the time of danger, music lifts our thoughts above it.

[28]Songs with a refrain only suit the expression of feelings in which the soul loves, so to speak, to turn round and round, and from which she can only separate herself after a long circuit. All emotions that we express, just in order to breathe them forth and calm ourselves, admit of recurrent melody only in its most short and broken form, like the famous air, ‘Che farò senza Euridice?’

[29]The music of a dirge seems to let sounds die.

[30]It is not always necessary in music to express a marked movement or a distinct emotion. The song itself can be the object of the song. If it paints a soul in tune, a gift rising and falling through a lovely scale of sounds, a power which, in careless freedom, the sport of a thousand swift and passing affections, plays between earth and heaven—a mind at leisure, so to speak, which flies at random like the bee, touches a thousand things, without resting on any, and caresses every flower, humming its pleasure as it goes—you need ask for nothing more.