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Lecture to Art Students

IN the lecture which it is my privilege to deliver before you to-
night I do not desire to give you any abstract definition of beauty
at all. For we who are working in art cannot accept any theory of
beauty in exchange for beauty itself, and, so far from desiring to
isolate it in a formula appealing to the intellect, we, on the
contrary, seek to materialise it in a form that gives joy to the
soul through the senses. We want to create it, not to define it.
The definition should follow the work: the work should not adapt
itself to the definition.

Nothing, indeed, is more dangerous to the young artist than any
conception of ideal beauty: he is constantly led by it either into
weak prettiness or lifeless abstraction: whereas to touch the
ideal at all you must not strip it of vitality. You must find it
in life and re-create it in art.

While, then, on the one hand I do not desire to give you any
philosophy of beauty - for, what I want to-night is to investigate
how we can create art, not how we can talk of it - on the other
hand, I do not wish to deal with anything like a history of English

To begin with, such an expression as English art is a meaningless
expression. One might just as well talk of English mathematics.
Art is the science of beauty, and Mathematics the science of truth:
there is no national school of either. Indeed, a national school
is a provincial school, merely. Nor is there any such thing as a
school of art even. There are merely artists, that is all.

And as regards histories of art, they are quite valueless to you
unless you are seeking the ostentatious oblivion of an art
professorship. It is of no use to you to know the date of Perugino
or the birthplace of Salvator Rosa: all that you should learn
about art is to know a good picture when you see it, and a bad
picture when you see it. As regards the date of the artist, all
good work looks perfectly modern: a piece of Greek sculpture, a
portrait of Velasquez - they are always modern, always of our
time. And as regards the nationality of the artist, art is not
national but universal. As regards archaeology, then, avoid it
altogether: archaeology is merely the science of making excuses
for bad art; it is the rock on which many a young artist founders
and shipwrecks; it is the abyss from which no artist, old or young,
ever returns. Or, if he does return, he is so covered with the
dust of ages and the mildew of time, that he is quite
unrecognisable as an artist, and has to conceal himself for the
rest of his days under the cap of a professor, or as a mere
illustrator of ancient history. How worthless archaeology is in
art you can estimate by the fact of its being so popular.
Popularity is the crown of laurel which the world puts on bad art.
Whatever is popular is wrong.

As I am not going to talk to you, then, about the philosophy of the
beautiful, or the history of art, you will ask me what I am going
to talk about. The subject of my lecture to-night is what makes an
artist and what does the artist make; what are the relations of the
artist to his surroundings, what is the education the artist should
get, and what is the quality of a good work of art.

Now, as regards the relations of the artist to his surroundings, by
which I mean the age and country in which he is born. All good
art, as I said before, has nothing to do with any particular
century; but this universality is the quality of the work of art;
the conditions that produce that quality are different. And what,
I think, you should do is to realise completely your age in order
completely to abstract yourself from it; remembering that if you
are an artist at all, you will be not the mouthpiece of a century,
but the master of eternity, that all art rests on a principle, and
that mere temporal considerations are no principle at all; and that
those who advise you to make your art representative of the
nineteenth century are advising you to produce an art which your
children, when you have them, will think old-fashioned. But you
will tell me this is an inartistic age, and we are an inartistic
people, and the artist suffers much in this nineteenth century of

Of course he does. I, of all men, am not going to deny that. But
remember that there never has been an artistic age, or an artistic
people, since the beginning of the world. The artist has always
been, and will always be, an exquisite exception. There is no
golden age of art; only artists who have produced what is more
golden than gold.

WHAT, you will say to me, the Greeks? were not they an artistic

Well, the Greeks certainly not, but, perhaps, you mean the
Athenians, the citizens of one out of a thousand cities.

Do you think that they were an artistic people? Take them even at
the time of their highest artistic development, the latter part of
the fifth century before Christ, when they had the greatest poets
and the greatest artists of the antique world, when the Parthenon
rose in loveliness at the bidding of a Phidias, and the philosopher
spake of wisdom in the shadow of the painted portico, and tragedy
swept in the perfection of pageant and pathos across the marble of
the stage. Were they an artistic people then? Not a bit of it.
What is an artistic people but a people who love their artists and
understand their art? The Athenians could do neither.

How did they treat Phidias? To Phidias we owe the great era, not
merely in Greek, but in all art - I mean of the introduction of the
use of the living model.

And what would you say if all the English bishops, backed by the
English people, came down from Exeter Hall to the Royal Academy one
day and took off Sir Frederick Leighton in a prison van to Newgate
on the charge of having allowed you to make use of the living model
in your designs for sacred pictures?

Would you not cry out against the barbarism and the Puritanism of
such an idea? Would you not explain to them that the worst way to
honour God is to dishonour man who is made in His image, and is the
work of His hands; and, that if one wants to paint Christ one must
take the most Christlike person one can find, and if one wants to
paint the Madonna, the purest girl one knows?

Would you not rush off and burn down Newgate, if necessary, and say
that such a thing was without parallel in history?

Without parallel? Well, that is exactly what the Athenians did.

In the room of the Parthenon marbles, in the British Museum, you
will see a marble shield on the wall. On it there are two figures;
one of a man whose face is half hidden, the other of a man with the
godlike lineaments of Pericles. For having done this, for having
introduced into a bas relief, taken from Greek sacred history, the
image of the great statesman who was ruling Athens at the time,
Phidias was flung into prison and there, in the common gaol of
Athens, died, the supreme artist of the old world.

And do you think that this was an exceptional case? The sign of a
Philistine age is the cry of immorality against art, and this cry
was raised by the Athenian people against every great poet and
thinker of their day - AEschylus, Euripides, Socrates. It was the
same with Florence in the thirteenth century. Good handicrafts are
due to guilds, not to the people. The moment the guilds lost their
power and the people rushed in, beauty and honesty of work died.

And so, never talk of an artistic people; there never has been such
a thing.

But, perhaps, you will tell me that the external beauty of the
world has almost entirely passed away from us, that the artist
dwells no longer in the midst of the lovely surroundings which, in
ages past, were the natural inheritance of every one, and that art
is very difficult in this unlovely town of ours, where, as you go
to your work in the morning, or return from it at eventide, you
have to pass through street after street of the most foolish and
stupid architecture that the world has ever seen; architecture,
where every lovely Greek form is desecrated and defiled, and every
lovely Gothic form defiled and desecrated, reducing three-fourths
of the London houses to being, merely, like square boxes of the
vilest proportions, as gaunt as they are grimy, and as poor as they
are pretentious - the hall door always of the wrong colour, and the
windows of the wrong size, and where, even when wearied of the
houses you turn to contemplate the street itself, you have nothing
to look at but chimney-pot hats, men with sandwich boards,
vermilion letter-boxes, and do that even at the risk of being run
over by an emerald-green omnibus.

Is not art difficult, you will say to me, in such surroundings as
these? Of course it is difficult, but then art was never easy; you
yourselves would not wish it to be easy; and, besides, nothing is
worth doing except what the world says is impossible.

Still, you do not care to be answered merely by a paradox. What
are the relations of the artist to the external world, and what is
the result of the loss of beautiful surroundings to you, is one of
the most important questions of modern art; and there is no point
on which Mr. Ruskin so insists as that the decadence of art has
come from the decadence of beautiful things; and that when the
artist cannot feed his eye on beauty, beauty goes from his work.

I remember in one of his lectures, after describing the sordid
aspect of a great English city, he draws for us a picture of what
were the artistic surroundings long ago.

Think, he says, in words of perfect and picturesque imagery, whose
beauty I can but feebly echo, think of what was the scene which
presented itself, in his afternoon walk, to a designer of the
Gothic school of Pisa - Nino Pisano or any of his men (22):

On each side of a bright river he saw rise a line of brighter
palaces, arched and pillared, and inlaid with deep red porphyry,
and with serpentine; along the quays before their gates were riding
troops of knights, noble in face and form, dazzling in crest and
shield; horse and man one labyrinth of quaint colour and gleaming
light - the purple, and silver, and scarlet fringes flowing over
the strong limbs and clashing mall, like sea-waves over rocks at
sunset. Opening on each side from the river were gardens, courts,
and cloisters; long successions of white pillars among wreaths of
vine; leaping of fountains through buds of pomegranate and orange:
and still along the garden-paths, and under and through the crimson
of the pomegranate shadows, moving slowly, groups of the fairest
women that Italy ever saw - fairest, because purest and
thoughtfullest; trained in all high knowledge, as in all courteous
art - in dance, in song, in sweet wit, in lofty learning, in
loftier courage, in loftiest love - able alike to cheer, to
enchant, or save, the souls of men. Above all this scenery of
perfect human life, rose dome and bell-tower, burning with white
alabaster and gold: beyond dome and bell-tower the slopes of
mighty hills hoary with olive; far in the north, above a purple sea
of peaks of solemn Apennine, the clear, sharp-cloven Carrara
mountains sent up their steadfast flames of marble summit into
amber sky; the great sea itself, scorching with expanse of light,
stretching from their feet to the Gorgonian isles; and over all
these, ever present, near or far - seen through the leaves of vine,
or imaged with all its march of clouds in the Arno's stream, or set
with its depth of blue close against the golden hair and burning
cheek of lady and knight, - that untroubled and sacred sky, which
was to all men, in those days of innocent faith, indeed the
unquestioned abode of spirits, as the earth was of men; and which
opened straight through its gates of cloud and veils of dew into
the awfulness of the eternal world; - a heaven in which every cloud
that passed was literally the chariot of an angel, and every ray of
its Evening and Morning streamed from the throne of God.

What think you of that for a school of design?

And then look at the depressing, monotonous appearance of any
modern city, the sombre dress of men and women, the meaningless and
barren architecture, the colourless and dreadful surroundings.
Without a beautiful national life, not sculpture merely, but all
the arts will die.

Well, as regards the religious feeling of the close of the passage,
I do not think I need speak about that. Religion springs from
religious feeling, art from artistic feeling: you never get one
from the other; unless you have the right root you will not get the
right flower; and, if a man sees in a cloud the chariot of an
angel, he will probably paint it very unlike a cloud.

But, as regards the general idea of the early part of that lovely
bit of prose, is it really true that beautiful surroundings are
necessary for the artist? I think not; I am sure not. Indeed, to
me the most inartistic thing in this age of ours is not the
indifference of the public to beautiful things, but the
indifference of the artist to the things that are called ugly.
For, to the real artist, nothing is beautiful or ugly in itself at
all. With the facts of the object he has nothing to do, but with
its appearance only, and appearance is a matter of light and shade,
of masses, of position, and of value.

Appearance is, in fact, a matter of effect merely, and it is with
the effects of nature that you have to deal, not with the real
condition of the object. What you, as painters, have to paint is
not things as they are but things as they seem to be, not things as
they are but things as they are not.

No object is so ugly that, under certain conditions of light and
shade, or proximity to other things, it will not look beautiful; no
object is so beautiful that, under certain conditions, it will not
look ugly. I believe that in every twenty-four hours what is
beautiful looks ugly, and what is ugly looks beautiful, once.

And, the commonplace character of so much of our English painting
seems to me due to the fact that so many of our young artists look
merely at what we may call 'ready-made beauty,' whereas you exist
as artists not to copy beauty but to create it in your art, to wait
and watch for it in nature.

What would you say of a dramatist who would take nobody but
virtuous people as characters in his play? Would you not say he
was missing half of life? Well, of the young artist who paints
nothing but beautiful things, I say he misses one half of the

Do not wait for life to be picturesque, but try and see life under
picturesque conditions. These conditions you can create for
yourself in your studio, for they are merely conditions of light.
In nature, you must wait for them, watch for them, choose them;
and, if you wait and watch, come they will.

In Gower Street at night you may see a letter-box that is
picturesque: on the Thames Embankment you may see picturesque
policemen. Even Venice is not always beautiful, nor France.

To paint what you see is a good rule in art, but to see what is
worth painting is better. See life under pictorial conditions. It
is better to live in a city of changeable weather than in a city of
lovely surroundings.

Now, having seen what makes the artist, and what the artist makes,
who is the artist? There is a man living amongst us who unites in
himself all the qualities of the noblest art, whose work is a joy
for all time, who is, himself, a master of all time. That man is
Mr. Whistler.

* * * * * * * *

But, you will say, modern dress, that is bad. If you cannot paint
black cloth you could not have painted silken doublet. Ugly dress
is better for art - facts of vision, not of the object.

What is a picture? Primarily, a picture is a beautifully coloured
surface, merely, with no more spiritual message or meaning for you
than an exquisite fragment of Venetian glass or a blue tile from
the wall of Damascus. It is, primarily, a purely decorative thing,
a delight to look at.

All archaeological pictures that make you say 'How curious!' all
sentimental pictures that make you say, 'How sad!' all historical
pictures that make you say 'How interesting!' all pictures that do
not immediately give you such artistic joy as to make you say 'How
beautiful!' are bad pictures.

* * * * * * * *

We never know what an artist is going to do. Of course not. The
artist is not a specialist. All such divisions as animal painters,
landscape painters, painters of Scotch cattle in an English mist,
painters of English cattle in a Scotch mist, racehorse painters,
bull-terrier painters, all are shallow. If a man is an artist he
can paint everything.

The object of art is to stir the most divine and remote of the
chords which make music in our soul; and colour is indeed, of
itself a mystical presence on things, and tone a kind of sentinel.

Am I pleading, then, for mere technique? No. As long as there are
any signs of technique at all, the picture is unfinished. What is
finish? A picture is finished when all traces of work, and of the
means employed to bring about the result, have disappeared.

In the case of handicraftsmen - the weaver, the potter, the smith -
on their work are the traces of their hand. But it is not so with
the painter; it is not so with the artist.

Art should have no sentiment about it but its beauty, no technique
except what you cannot observe. One should be able to say of a
picture not that it is 'well painted,' but that it is 'not

What is the difference between absolutely decorative art and a
painting? Decorative art emphasises its material: imaginative art
annihilates it. Tapestry shows its threads as part of its beauty:
a picture annihilates its canvas: it shows nothing of it.
Porcelain emphasises its glaze: water-colours reject the paper.

A picture has no meaning but its beauty, no message but its joy.
That is the first truth about art that you must never lose sight
of. A picture is a purely decorative thing.

Oscar Wilde