Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

difference in courage and abilities between Luther and his countrymen that gives him historic value. An instance from Daniel Deronda will show how the law works in fiction. If England were to be canvassed in order to find out how many Grandcourts there were in it, the result would no doubt be an extremely small showing; but yet, if the prevailing idea that his character is typical be correct, the man who has read and understood George Eliot's novel knows something more, not of one person merely but of the English people. The demands of the commonplace are satisfied, while the character itself is

rare.

But eminence in character is not purely negative in its influence; it may strongly aid the unfolding of general truths. The conspicuous commands attention. A tall man is always noticed in a crowd. The interest and regard which have to be laboriously drawn out toward the commonplace flow spontaneously toward the unusual. This becomes manifest, when authors depict qualities or intellectual processes, both of which exhibit themselves most clearly in their developed, and therefore their extreme, forms; yet extremes are, by their nature, rarities. Shylock is certainly no ordinary man, but every one will admit that he illustrates the passion of avarice far better than one of those individuals whom their neighbors call “just a little close.” The common man is a compromise between opposing tendencies, and, therefore, fitted to illustrate none.

The quality of oddity stands on much lower ground than that of eminence. It has no worth apart from its singularity. But, in spite of the fact that the feeling to which it appeals is a rather low curiosity, we cannot help thinking that it may be highly useful if enlisted in the service of better things. It is a curious fact that almost all the odd characters which have made for themselves a real home in men's hearts, from Sancho Panza down to Captain Cuttle, have done so not so much through the oddity itself as through the piquant force with which it has brought out a strong innate goodness of heart. The moral worth and the outward eccentricities have promoted each other's success. It is as certain that the goodness would have lost half its pungency, if enclosed in a less quaintly fashioned shell, as that the oddity would have lost half its worth, had it enveloped a less wholesome kernel. What a little singuJarity has here done for goodness, it may do for common facts The odd

may

be of inestimable use to the lover of the commonplace as a means of getting truth out of those conventional forms under which it is always hiding its real significance. The delicious piquancy which a slight accent will often impart to common speech and the relish which all men have for dialect-characters are very obvious instances of its effects. It is not necessary that the change be complete; a variation in one part will renew our interest in the whole. The most familiar objects, if placed in new surroundings, often borrow the originality of their setting and affect us like unfamiliar things. There is no need to dwell on the value of a force that can do this. The student of universal truths may look with disdain on the craving which men have for the singular and the anomalous, but he cannot deny that a force which can put freshness and novelty into familiar objects is nowhere so useful as in his own special task of teaching men to study common things.

The reason why men can learn universal truths from the contemplation of the eminent or the peculiar depends on the oneness of human nature. A great man is only the expansion of a common one; an odd man is only one whose substantial unity with his fellows is broken in a few unimportant points. If we can study anatomical structure as well in the arm of a Hercules as in that of a common laborer, there seems to be no reason why we cannot study intellectual and moral activities in their loftiest as well as in their commonest manifestations. The practice of authors certainly affirms this truth. George Eliot would doubtless have liked nothing better than to be regarded as the champion of common men and women, but the impulse to paint prodigies of virtue or intellect or ability was too strong for her, and in her later works she receded entirely from those early professions to which she was scarcely true even in the books of which they formed part. Mr. Howells, too, who would like to have us think that he paints common people, has an adroit way of skimming off the cream of humanity for his readers and serving it up with the graceful pretense of its being mere ordinary milk. Even Count Tolstoï would rather have his heroine a pretty girl than otherwise. In

fact the practice is so universal that it is rather hard to find an exception.

Our observations have led us, accordingly, to think that there is real excellence in this new principle which we have termed the commonplace, that its present development is the passage into fiction of tendencies which in other lines have wrought out some of the noblest achievements of modern progress. We admit its right to complete ascendency, but at the same time we do not believe that this right necessarily involves any sacrifice of those qualities by wbich fiction has hitherto won its successes. We believe, on the contrary, that these allurements are never so valuable as at a time when the assumption by the novel of a more and more serious and philosophical attitude is continually demanding a higher and therefore a sterner intellectual effort from its readers. We cannot afford, when the way is becoming a little rocky, to throw away the staff which helped us over its easy stages. The aim of the new writers is to induce men to look at life and character in that close and careful way which produces knowledge. But every one knows that men can look much longer without fatigue at an object which possesses charm or novelty than at one which is simply commonplace. That arrangement of life by which the rare is only the common modified in a few points is most happily fitted to satisfy the artist's double need of the commonplace and the novel. He is thus enabled to paint objects which are rare in some of their aspects in such a way that, while employing their universal qualities to make them valuable, he employs at the same time their exceptional ones to make them interesting. We have been greatly strengthened in these conclusions by the fact that they coincide with the practice of the great modern writers. A noble reciprocity of benefit, which exalts the frivolous, while it adorns the serious, parts of the work, has taught the modern novelist how to uplift his readers by the universality of his truth, while he wins them by the rarity of its setting

OSCAR W. FIRKINS.

ARTICLE IV.-A PIONEER OF GERMAN ART:

ASMUS JAKOB CARSTENS.

Asmus JAKOB CARSTENS, the unremembered subject of this sketch, was born in 1754, in the same decade that first saw Gøthe, Mozart, and Schiller, as though the generation which was to grow up with the great masters of letters, music, and song were loth to do without a leader in the sister art of design. Although his surroundings and influences were to be eminently German during his life, Carstens' birthplace and family were Danish, the former being at his father's mill of St. Jürgen near Schleswig, while the latter was of a long Scandinavian descent. The prospects and position of the household, when Asmus was nine years old, were seriously altered by the miller's death, and beyond the authority of a remarkable mother, whose spirit and capacity kept the family together, the boy was thrown at this early age almost entirely upon himself for guidance and instruction. He must have been endowed with some instinct for culture to have preferred the fight for a schooling to an easy decline into mere breadgaining ; but this we may not unjustly attribute to the mother, who was an extraordinary instance of the femme savante for her time, being conversant not alone with Greek and Latin and the politer modern tongues, but able also to sketch an embroidery design or color her own drawings of the Fates or Graces with a cleverness that showed some proficiency in as well as predilection for the fine arts. Her son accordingly attended classes, though his private inclination leaned not at all, it must be confessed, toward the dull round of dead languages taught there ; St. Jürgen being so near Schleswig as to allow the boy to trudge of a morning to the town school and return by night, his early days were pretty free from the direct interference of the learned old mother. And here first we catch a charming glimpse of the child's awakening to a love for art,—when he stole into the cathedral to munch his noonday crust and his eye found a humble little altar-piece by one Jürgen Ovens, an obscure pupil of Rembrandt's, which inspired the common-place urchin's soul with a spirit of grace that quickened and directed his entire life towards the highest aims. Again and again he visited the darkened chapel to contemplate this picture, and once, he tells us, falling on his knees he 'prayed that Almighty God would some day grant him

power and skill to produce such a beautiful painting as the one hung in this holy place. The impress was not a light one upon the young mind, and from this experience dates the beginning of a life devoted to art and art alone, in the face of every obstacle that came between him and his goal. It may be noted in passing as rather a curious fact that though stirred to such remarkable enthusiasm by this example of the Dutch school, his own compositions never revealed the least likeness to the great Rembrandt's manner.

Carstens now came to regard his school-books with increasing repugnance, preferring to dream of fine pictures and such graceful fancies as his fond imagination could create. The mother did not, perhaps, altogether despise this trace of inheritance from herself, and may have even given him some helpful hints on drawing when she discovered him with childish energy practising on his slate. He certainly from this time forward put all his spare moments to use in this direction, and passed the remainder of his boyhood intent solely upon this one delight. At the age of sixteen he left school “knowing nothing,' as those exclaimed who were baffled in the trial of bringing his education into conformity with the acquirements of others, and he himself confesses in a letter written many years later that his indifference to subjects he did not fancy was so complete as to earn him the title and reputation of dunce in all branches but one. In drawing, by dint of hard practice (though without a teacher) he was fairly proficient. Already he had been taken up by an unknown painter of Schleswig and informed upon a few of the technical details in his art, but he left him with no great loss when the family moved to Cassel, and there all but sank the talent that was in him in the unfortunate and contaminating influence of one Tischbein, a painter big with local pride and fame, an apostle of the miserable and degraded thing called art in those benighted days.

« AnteriorContinuar »