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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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On The Study of the Beautiful

by E. H. Farnell
Volume 12, 1901, pgs. 177-185


"...the human attributes which are rendered in the finest of Greek sculptures--such as symmetry, grace, purity, dignity, majesty and self-control--are essential truths for all time. On the other hand, the ugly Byzantine art, though professing to set forth true religion--that of Christianity--expressed through its stiff, attenuated figures not the ideal truths of Christ's teaching, but the narrow, rigid, ascetic perversions of the Greek church."


"The reaction from the over-severity in the treatment of children of one or two generations past has brought about a laxity, a mistaken kindness that has resulted in a self-assertiveness on their part that tends to resist authority of any kind: thus when they leave home or mix with outside companions they are easily infected by the 'spirit of the age,' and learn only too quickly to speak flippantly of people and thing that should inspire them with awe."


Read before the Eastbourne Branch of the P.N.E.U.

In attempting to treat of so wide a subject within the limits of a single paper, I have felt in the position of the child of S. Augustine's vision beginning with a ladle to empty the ocean into a hole he had made on the sea-shore. It is indeed difficult to do justice in forty-five minutes to a subject that for about 3,000 years has been occupying men's minds and imagination: to bring within the scope of practical suggestions, ideas connected with so evanescent and intangible a thing as beauty! Illusive and spirit-like as it is, it seems to defy so common-place a title as that of an educational factor or instrument. I must, however, endeavour to avoid high-flown sentiment or rhapsodizing on the one hand, and, on the other, the laying down of dull mechanical rules by which the young mind may be influenced by various manifestations of beauty.

I do not pretend that the cultivation of the aesthetic sense should come before that of the general understanding and intellect or of the moral and spiritual sense in children; but I feel that in the present day, with all the attention bestowed upon the training for the practical purposes of life or for the University examiner, the training of the taste--of the sense of beauty, is apt to be overlooked, or at least underrated, as an influence in the formation of character and in the conduct and brightening of life. It is strange that this should be so, for of all faculties possessed by the young, that most often found in excess is the Imagination. An exuberant imagination--of a healthy kind--insures, as a rule, an affinity for beauty whenever it is presented to it, and it is therefore an important thing for us to consider how best to develop and strengthen that high faculty. Neglect of this duty on our part may lead to morbid and unhealthy developments, while careful attention to it may largely conduce to the happiness and general well-being of the race.


"Herbert Spencer calls the Fine Arts the 'efflorescence of civilized life--the flower of the plant of life'..."


I must restrict myself to-night mainly to the study of beauty as revealed in the Fine Arts. Fortunately the young will readily drink in the beauty of nature without our intervention; but though tender fancy, poetic instinct, strong emotions all help them to understand the language of their mother nature, they require the revelations of science and of art to interpret her deeper meaning to their ripening intelligence. Herbert Spencer calls the Fine Arts the "efflorescence of civilized life--the flower of the plant of life," but he denies that they are requisites of happiness though conducive to it. Now it seems to me that life that is merely utilitarian can never be really full and happy: the end and aim of material wealth should ultimately be to bring to all of us leisure hours in which we may drink in wisdom and beauty. In Plato's Republic, Socrates is made to speak of the Fine Arts as life's "fair humanities"; and after showing how music and the other arts are necessary to education, he continues: "Thus with fair graceful forms everywhere around them, our youth will drink into their souls, 'like gales blowing from healthy lands,' all inspirations of truth and beauty."

As beauty is the crown of nature's work--the soul, the finer essence of material things--so is Fine Art the crown, the quintessence of natural beauty. Nature, with all her harmony and loveliness, is to the true artist as clay to the potter. She offers him the crude, rough materials, out of which (while observing her laws) he creates something new, distinct, and above nature, which yet gives us the highest truth of visible things. It is in this sense that the idealist is the truest realist. To the poet or artist has been given the high task of completing the work of the Creator, and it is the true seal of his sonship. Shelley's description, in "Prometheus Unbound," of the visionary poet applies to all artists:--

          He will watch from dawn to gloom
          The lake-reflected sun illume
          The yellow bees in the ivy bloom,
          Nor heed nor see what things they be;

          But from these create he can
          Forms more real than living man,
          Nurslings of immorality.

This brings to our mind the important question of the oneness of beauty and truth. In his "Ode on a Grecian Urn," the poet Keats says,--

          Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all
          Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.

To proclaim that beauty is one of the higher realities of life, a great part if not the whole of truth, was indeed the high mission of that young poet, whose clear spirit flamed itself away on the altar of beauty. It is a fact well known to us that, in the history of religion, truth has been outwardly expressed by beautiful forms and falsehood by ugliness. The exquisite human beauty of the Greek deities is no exception to this rule; for although we do not worship Greek gods and goddesses as such, the human attributes which are rendered in the finest of Greek sculptures--such as symmetry, grace, purity, dignity, majesty and self-control--are essential truths for all time. On the other hand, the ugly Byzantine art, though professing to set forth true religion--that of Christianity--expressed through its stiff, attenuated figures not the ideal truths of Christ's teaching, but the narrow, rigid, ascetic perversions of the Greek church.

When once we acknowledge that beauty is truth or can best express truth (at least it is that form of truth about which there is least wrangling), then we must realize how imperative a duty it is for us to bring it into the lives of children and young people in such a measure as will best enable them to assimilate it: in other words, we must form and direct their taste. "Perfect taste," says Ruskin in his Modern Painters, "is the faculty of receiving the greatest pleasure from those material sources which are attractive to our moral nature in its purity and perfection." It may be thought by some that our youth does not show any backwardness in receiving pleasure from material sources; pleasure indeed seems to be becoming more and more the end and aim of the life of the young people of England; pleasure, I mean, as distinct from mental exercise. Too often our young men and maidens regard their working hours and days as long and trying intervals between one excitement and the next. The craving for pleasure, however, I may safely say, will continue to exist in human beings to the end of time; and perhaps, indeed, it is an essential law of our being that prevents our becoming machines. What we have, therefore, to do is raise the conception of what constitutes pleasure: to make of it a kind of excitement that will not result in weariness as so much excitement does, but will serve to stimulate and quicken the mental and moral powers. This is certainly done by the pleasure derived from a true study of artistic beauty, whether that of poetry, music, or painting.

I have not had enough experience in the teaching and training of young children--before the school-life begins--to speak with any authority on that most important period of education; but the few general principles I would suggest for aesthetic culture might be made to apply to the young at any stage of their development.

First and foremost, I would urge that the spirit of reverence should be awakened and nurtured from the earliest possible age: I say awakened, for I believe that it lies, latent or active, in every young mind and only needs to be developed. I know that the spirit of this age has become, in some respects, antagonistic to it; but if it is to be found lacking in the young, it is not because they have ceased to trail "clouds of glory" or to be susceptible to visible and invisible beauty, but because, in many cases, they are not led in early years to stand in awe of thing that it would be their nature to reverence. The reaction from the over-severity in the treatment of children of one or two generations past has brought about a laxity, a mistaken kindness that has resulted in a self-assertiveness on their part that tends to resist authority of any kind: thus when they leave home or mix with outside companions they are easily infected by the "spirit of the age," and learn only too quickly to speak flippantly of people and thing that should inspire them with awe.

The mood suggested by Schumann in his Kinder-scene, "Der Dichter Spricht" ["The Poet is Speaking"], may possibly be true to the feeling of little German children in the presence of a poet, but it does not exactly represent that of the intelligent little English girl who once told me in class, with an air of self-satisfaction and greatly to the amusement of one or two others, that she thought all poets must be stupid, as poetry was so stupid! No child that had been seriously taught to look up to a poet as a being belonging to another sphere, whose works are half divine, could, without shame, use the word "stupid" of those works any more than a child taught to be religious could dare thus speak of the Bible. I have often been struck by the fact that intelligent young girls who may have been otherwise well taught and grounded, and who have learned verses every day from the Bible from earliest childhood, have not been taught to find in it, together with high spiritual and moral teaching, all that is most beautiful in language, rhythm and poetic inspiration. If children were always made to look upon the Bible as the highest standard of beauty, some of the reverence they feel for it might be communicated to secular works in harmony with it. While I am on the subject of reverence, I may refer to the dishonour done to our beautiful English language by the growing use of slang among young people. The glossaries and elaborate notes of the Clarendon Press edition of our great poets and prose writers, the preparation of special books for public examinations, the study of Shakespearian grammars, do little to preserve the integrity and purity of our noble English tongue, enriched and beautified by so many geniuses, whilst the rising generation--students or otherwise--continue to distort it and corrupt it by the use of illiterate and ugly slang.

A second principle to bear in mind in dealing with the young is that those forms of art first presented to the eye and ear should be of the simpler kind. In the complex accumulation of material wealth in this age of redundancy, over-ornateness and elaboration of detail should be carefully guarded against in the nursery and the schoolroom. In the decoration of either, a definite scheme of decoration might be carried out that would be restful to the eye and satisfactory to the mind. If it is desirable to hang pictures on three walls of a nursery, for instance, on one might be the coloured prints of landscape, few in number; on another the flowers and animals, and on the third, the most important pictures, coloured or black and white, of human forms and faces. In the place of honour among these, there should be one larger dominant picture, simple in subject and action, such as "The Sistine Madonna," "The Madonna del Granduca," or "La Belle Jardinière"; a picture with clear definite lines and perfect curves, poetic in spirit, exalted in feeling. [All three of these Madonnas are by Raphael.] The advantage of having only a limited number of really beautiful things about a room is that it conduces to concentration of thought. Young people require to be made to think much and to the purpose about a few things and not superficially about several. There should be mystery in the chief picture--something that can be felt, if not understood--awe-inspiring, full of suggestiveness as to ideas, but simple in all details.

Ruskin, in his Modern Painters, insists repeatedly upon the fact that the imagination is a weariable faculty, that it is delicate and cannot well bear fatigue. I think we are all ready to agree to this, and that it has especially been brought home to us after we have made the round of large picture galleries. Even a visit to the Royal Academy (which some people may think taxes any of our powers rather than that of the imagination) renders our mind jaded and fatigued, so that before we are half through it we sink down listless on a seat and are glad to gaze upon common-place citizens of the world in reality, that in every variety of costume interpose themselves between us and the so-called ideal world. But even supposing in the Royal Academy it is our patience, and not our sense of beauty, that is exhausted, the same lassitude of spirit overtakes us in a Florentine or Venetian gallery, where it is actually from surfeit of beauty that we suffer, and the most lovely Madonnas, the most enchanting Venuses, have no longer power to charm us.


"Contrast does much in matters of pleasure."

If we fully-developed creatures can only take in a limited amount of beauty at a time, how much less ought we to expect of the young. The more sensitive the faculty, the more easily may it become paralyzed. I have read somewhere that the father of a French essayist used every morning to play a lute under his son's window in order to awaken him by soft strains that would not jar; a proceeding which I fancy must have had one of two effects--either he gradually came to sleep soundly through it or he gradually became a prig. It is probable that the delight we now feel in travelling among the mountains of Switzerland or Italy would diminish if we permanently lived in the midst of that ideal grandeur; and it may be that the pleasure with which we return to the more modest landscape of England after continental travel is not all owing to love of the mother country as such, but to the necessity we feel of giving rest to the imagination. Without tolerating ugliness or things of bad taste in our immediate surroundings, we should perhaps reserve for special days or season the enjoyment of the highest beauty, so that it comes upon the spirit with renewed force and freshness and with the added charm of contrast. Contrast does much in matters of pleasure. It is as well to go to the National Gallery through Charing Cross Road or St. Giles'. The treasures of the Gallery win distinction from their proximity to Seven Dials.

I think it a most important duty, considering the shortness of life, not to let young students waste generous admiration of what is not admirable. We cannot expect a child of five to grasp the beauty of the "Elgin Marbles," or to be much interested in Leonardo's "Last Supper." There must be milk for babes, and we should not assist their mental digestion if we supply them with meat too early in life; but girls gifted with ordinary intelligence and imagination ought, in these days, to be able at fifteen to discriminate between the merely pretty and the beautiful. It ought to be impossible for them to admire the "Soul's Awakening," [the 1899 painting by James Sant?] or the works of Ary Scheffer or Maclise [Daniel Maclise?]. In former days young people had fewer opportunities of acquiring a knowledge of works of art. I can well remember walking at the age of fifteen through the long gallery of the Louvre, and wondering how long I should take to learn to understand and appreciate those large allegorical pictures, attributed to Rubens, in which Marie de Medici figures as a portly goddess, surrounded by ladies and gentlemen of the French Court, in attitudes natural to the French Court, but absolutely impossible to the Greeks. I now know that Rubens never touched them, and that no one need admire them, except for the colour harmony that appears in all his pupils' works. [There was a whole cycle of paintings depicting Marie de Medici in various stages of her life as a Greek goddess surrounded by angelic glory. Some are here.]

To walk through galleries of Europe without knowing what to look for, or what constitutes great and true art, without any knowledge of what has been the artistic and intellectual aim of each important school of painting, seems to mean undertaking that should make purgatory unnecessary. From the age of twelve any intelligent child can be made to understand the essential qualities of true art. The repose, majesty, simplicity of the greatest works done by the Greeks, or by Renaissance artists inspired by them, can be shown, if not in the originals in the British Museum, at least in photographs easy to obtain. Then, gradually, other characteristics, as seen in works in our collections or in reproductions of Italian pictures, can be pointed out, such as grouping, composition, scheme of colour, and of light and shade, until the eye has become accustomed to a high standard of work and can no longer derive pleasure from what is meretricious or inferior. The absence of false sentiment or sentimentality from great works of art, whether of poetry, music or painting, would alone render the study of them for young girls a corrective of the emotional tendency so often found to excess in them. It is good for the youthful spirit, with its feverous excitement, to dwell at times in an atmosphere of calm in which intellect is dominant--in which there is nothing purely emotional or theatrical.

But there are other reasons which make it desirable for young people frequently to hear and to see works of highest art. Those who are themselves studying music and drawing should have the goal towards which they are striving kept steadily before them. Only the faint-hearted are discouraged by hearing the work of a great master in music rendered by a gifted and finished performer, or by seeing the high thought of a great artist's mind perfectly expressed on canvas by the skilled hand: there the student sees the fruit of such labours as his own, the reward of the technical drudgery; his own aims realized, the real meaning of art as a whole. He knows he may not be a Mozart or a Beethoven, but he is proud to labour in the same vineyard. "Good painting," said Michel Angelo once in a conversation that he held with Vittoria Colonna, "is in itself noble and religious. Nothing elevates a good man's spirit and carries it further on towards devotion than the difficulty of reaching that state of perfection nearest to God which unites us to Him. Good painting is an imitation of this perfection: the shading of his pencil, a music--in fine, a melody." Again, Goethe says, "Art rests on a sort of religious sense or a deep-rooted earnestness of character, and this earnestness it is which so readily leads it to form a union with religion."

It is a question of opinion as to whether art should ever be didactic [moralistic], should have purpose in its teaching, or should be left to exalt the mind and heart by the intrinsic power of its beauty. I do myself consider that the greatest works of art have never been inspired by the mere desire to teach, any more than the noblest deeds have been done in order to set a good example. Genius does not do its best work self-consciously; hence it follows that symbolic painting and sculpture, as also allegorical poetry, do not rank among the greatest works. If we can gaze with deep pleasure upon Holman Hunt's "Scape-goat," I do not think it is because it exalts the doctrine of the Atonement--far otherwise--but because of the pathetic, appealing loneliness of the weary hunted creature, the splendour of the landscape, and the marvelous art in the rendering of its remote beauty. If art be only transfigured nature, it must follow nature in abstaining from preaching; for the very sermons in stones are read into the innocent things by conscientious man. Art, like nature, elevates and controls by truth and beauty: no lesson on the moral law can convince us of its power for good as does the image of a noble human being. As our literature in the past has been--especially in poetry--the exponent of the enthusiasms and aspirations of the people of England, may we not hope that literature and art may revive in the coming century to express new and lofty aspirations, and that, as Shakespeare prophesied, the spirit of beauty, with its "plastic stress," shall sweep through

          The dull, dense world,
          Torturing the unwilling dross to its own likeness?

When that day comes--when, to use again Plato's words, art comes to us as if it were a breeze bringing health from places strong for life, "may we be there to see."


Proofread May 2011, LNL