On viewing the works of ancient art, we are naturally led to inquire into the causes which produced such early and almost unrivalled excellence in statuary and sculpture. The answer is to be found in the manners of the Greeks, which peculiarly encouraged the progress of talent in these pursuits, and offered the finest opportunities for study. Every ceremony of their poetic religionthe rites observed at their marriages and public festivalstheir funeral processions and public games, were so many occasions for rousing talent, and presenting to the artist the finest models for his imitation and study.
This was peculiarly the case with regard to sculpture. In the Olympic games, and other exhibitions of the same kind, where the highest honours were bestowed upon personal prowess, the artist had the best opportunity of studying the perfection of the human figure. He saw, in these displays of agility and strength, the noblest forms in all the animation of contest; and roused to the greatest exertion by that hope of distinction, which the rewards bestowed on the successful competitor were so well calculated to produce.
But besides this, the artists themselves were honoured and distinguished in a manner unknown in modern times. The riches lavished in rewarding their labours is a matter of history, and personal honours of the highest degree were bestowed upon them. The effect that this must have had in exciting animation and talent is evident.
The nature of their mythology was equally important. In our religion the subjects are grand, noble, and impressive; but almost too sacred for the pencil or chisel. The mythology of the Greeks was, on the contrary, gay and animating. Even while seeking to represent the splendour of the Deity, grand and severe in dignity, the ancients have surpassed us. There is no comparison between the Almighty, by Raphael, and the Jupiter of Ghidias, as described by ancient writers. The artist, whether in statuary or painting, owes his happiest efforts to imagination, to which imitation and recollection alone contribute.
When Rembrandt paints a Sorcerer enchanting a Sea God, he paints a being as purely ideal as the Heavenly Father, by Michael Angelo. When Salvator Rosa paints Banditti in a Cave, he in part only copies from what he may have seen; all the horror and effect is produced by the efforts of imagination. Thus, in every subject there is poetry. Composition may be styled the sentimentthe pencil and chisel the language, of painting and sculpture.
The delight of an artist must indeed be infinite in imagining and producing a fine group, or in forming a beautiful and perfect model of the human body. With what fascination does the eye rest on such an object ! Such representations command every sympathy. With what interest do you trace the open forehead, the long line of eyebrows, the fine nose giving nobleness to the countenance, the rounded cheek, the square chin, the broad shoulders spreading over the chest in manly grace, the breadth of the pectoral, the rounding of the rutis cruris, the line of the tibia, and especially the head of the bone, where the sartorius passes ! In all the fine youthful statues of the ancients, when personal beauty was the object, they were at great pains to represent the head inclined with a sweet expressive air, the neck finely turned, and the breast full and fleshy, as in the statues of Antinous, &c.
It has long been a matter of debate whether the ancients were, or were not, acquainted with anatomy, and the subject, with its various bearings, has been much and keenly agitated by the learned. If anatomy had been much known to the ancients, their knowledge would not have remained a subject of speculation. We should have had evidence of it in their works; but, on the contrary, we find Hippocrates spending his time in idle prognostics, and dissecting apes, to discover the seat of the bile. If more of anatomy had been known than could be seen through the skin, or discovered from a skeleton found on the sea-shore, it would not have been left an imperfect and nearly unknown science. The ancients had no opportunity of becoming acquainted with the formation of the human body, except what might be the result of accident; after death the body was burnt, and the funeral urn contained its ashes. Their emblems of death were not like ours, the representations of the form into which the body is at length resolved; their signs were expressed by mourning genii, with an extinguishing torch. Various instruments of surgery have been found among the innumerable objects discovered in different excavations, as well as in those of Pompeii and Herculaneum, but no specimens nor traces of anatomy.
The ancients kept records of the perfections of the human body, and these consisted in the aptitude for exercises. At the Olympic games statues were made of those who had been often victors, when the exact size, the peculiar forms, all the beauties, and even the very defects of their bodies, were carefully preserved, that they might serve as models of manly strength, of swiftness, and prowess. When such various peculiarities and practices are carefully detailed, how could a matter so eventful as the first introduction of anatomy, an object so important in its application, be omitted !
It is evident that in these public opportunities the ancients possessed advantages for which the profoundest knowledge of anatomy, even when combined with taste and judgment, can never be a substitute. Anatomy is to a statuary what compasses are to an architect. If the celebrated Torso be that of a Hercules, (as it is supposed to be,) we here find the poetic artist aiming at a beautiful and dignified representation of strength, without any forced or coarse delineation of fibre and muscle demonstrating the signs and actions of anatomy. The bad effects of exaggeration on this point, are demonstrable in the Farnesian Hercules. His coarse, clumsy, vast trunk, loaded with superfluous masses of muscle, his knotted calves, and long ankles, designate the strength of a heavy cumbrous body, calculated to work the lever, or sustain the ponderous weight, which the gift of rude material forms enables it to raise, but without any portion of energetic powers of action, to struggle, throw, or strike. The stooping head and lowering ferocious eye of this Hercules, his long round forehead, divided across the temples, and separated from his flat, coarse, unexpressive countenance, mark as little of the spirit of grace and animation appertaining to an heroic character, as his bulky fibres do of the first principles of anatomy.
This science should not be brought into evidence in a statue,it is the beautiful, round, fleshy forms of the living body only, that should be displayed even in high energetic action. Far from exposing naked knotty bones, nature has been indulgent to our finer feelings. The bones, muscles, and tendons, are involved in a cellular substance, and covered with ligaments, the interior machinery is hidden and protected by sheaths peculiar to each limb, while a thick skin covers the whole with one unvaried, smooth, and beautiful surface, which only becomes wrinkled, thin, and meagre, when the machine is to be taken to pieces, and again resolved into its elements.
In youth, round, full, powerful, but light and elegant forms, with a well nourished skin, hide all individual marks.
The advantages possessed by the Greek artists were not confined to the rude figure alone; their beautiful living models presented continually to their view a simple, flowing, and ever-varying drapery. A vigorous fine-made Greek, whichever way he cast his cloak, whether carelessly as Socrates, or gracefully as Alcibiades, gave a new cast to the figure, presenting the elegant bendings of youth, or more noble forms of manhood. To represent drapery, finely managed, falling into light and easy folds, is among the most difficult and precious talents of an artist. Perhaps the most exquisite combinations of this art are exemplified in the Apollo Belvidere, displaying a spare and elegant drapery, light, airy, and graceful, giving at once richness and grandeur to the whole figure; and such is the manner in which heroic figures should be clothed. If instead of hanging the skin of the Nemean lion on the resting Hercules, as if it were on a tree, it had been carelessly flung over his shoulders, with the broad and characteristic hanging paw, how noble would have been the effect, compared to the coarse-made forms now presented in this statue !
In a draped figure the most striking effects are often produced by an artist working for particular parts; for instance, a shoulder, a thorax, an arm, a springy trembling thigh, a firm-set foot, a fine-turned head, an expression of nobleness, of fierceness, or strenuous courage, will give singular beauty or character to a whole figure, provided always the artist is careful to preserve, in his mind’s eye, the entire forms of the nude figure.
One circumstance strongly indicating that the chief studies of the Greek artist had been in the Circus, is, that nearly all their male figures are nudes, especially when in action, such as their wrestlers, athletae, gladiators, and discoboli. The ancients were also particularly well acquainted with one great principle in the fine arts, viz. that exaggerated expression, caricatured violent or strong action, instead of bespeaking the sympathy of the beholder, only weakens the effect, producing disgust rather than pleasure. In representing the most powerful attitudes, they are ever true to nature. The most perfect specimen of this style of composition is to be seen in the fighting gladiator, now in the Louvre in Paris, in which the manner of the ancients is finely exemplified. The figure is in high action, full of grace, in which sinews, tendons, and muscles, are all in play, but hid as in the beautiful forms of youth, not strongly expressed or obtruded on the eye.
A fighting gladiator is not the most noble or feeling exhibition by which to express dignity, passion, or suffering; but this statue is the boldest effort, ever made by any sculptor, to represent the beautiful forms, and high energies, of the human body.
The limbs are thrown out with an animation which exhibits all their elasticity and youthful strength. The protruded shield repels the foe, and covers all the ex-tended line of the body, which appears ready to spring with a force and action of intense velocity and irresistible power. The head and youthful countenance is turned round to face danger, with a lively and daring animation, which expresses a sort of severe delight in the immediate prospect of it, and foretells the deadly thrust that is aimed, while the right hand and arm are drawn back, strong, and every fibre is ready for the forward and active spring. All the parts, and all the action, even to the extremities, are peculiar, and could not be transferred to any other figure. The effect is confined to no one part, but animates the whole. The fine youthful head, the vigorous limbs, the animated form, strong for action, the lively courage and spirit expressed in every point, the hope and suspense excited from action begun, the result being yet undetermined, give me, in viewing this statue, sensations of admiration and delight beyond what I have ever received from any other work of art.
In seeking to discover whether the ancients knew anatomy, the importance of the question, as it relates to statuary, is not so much to ascertain whether they had this knowledge, as whether it would have injured or improved their works, and in what degree an acquaintance with the science would be advantageous to a modern artist. To the first query I should reply by asking, what need had they of anatomy, who studied so well a surer rule? what could it offer to those, who like them had the means of viewing, in the living body, the most perfect forms of manly beauty? To the second I should answer, that anatomy, skilfully and sparingly applied, is the best substitute for the more animated exhibitions of the circus and theatre.
While I maintain that the statuary who has only anatomy for his master, possesses advantages very inferior to those enjoyed by the spectator at the games of the Circus, I neverthless admit, that a man skilled in anatomy will never produce anything very bad or offensive; his science must correct the eye, although it cannot ex-cite the imagination. I also think that an acquaintance with the great outlines and leading rules in anatomy, would, in any circumstances, prove advantageous to an artist. Polycletus, a man of learning, as well as an able sculptor, wrote a treatise on statuary; and, to give permanence to his rules, formed an exquisitely beautiful statue, demonstrative of the proportions and measures of the human body, which he himself styled the canon, or regulator, of Polycletus. Every artist should endeavour to teach his eye some canon, and thus have fixed rules impressed on his mind. This might be done with advantage, by setting the nude upright, and carefully observing the fall of the limbs.
In the second stage of his studies, the artist is called upon to observe the changes formed by the bendings of the figure, the consequent swell of muscle, the increased sharpness of the elbow joint, the turning of the hand and wrist-bones, viz. the radius and ulna, the curving of the spine, the projection of the haunch, and flattening of the knee. All this, of course, is so simple, that it requires only letters marking the parts on the clay figure, to render the whole perfectly clear; being the preliminary principles leading to the higher points, those of embodying sentiment, rendering internal feelings and passions visible by exterior forms, which is the primary and great aim of the artist. I should recommend to a statuary, who hopes to rise to excellence, not to practise too long, or assiduously, the modelling in basso or alto relievo. It is a manner chiefly adapted to sketches, being rapid and pleasing, and having an air of delicacy, elegance, and even a touch of antiquity, which renders it too seducing, and may thus spoil his hand, and retard his progress. The clay is so plastic, and so little is required in the filling up, that the artist runs the risk of being too easily satisfied. There is also danger from working in this manner, of his acquiring a flatness of style. The whole figure may rise boldly from the ground; but still the parts may be flat, tame, and well proportioned only in their length; the artist learns nothing of the balance of the figure, or of the fine, round, and simple forms; he loses sight of grandeur and bulk, or strenuous actions; he is apt also to take delight in a little style, and thus vitiate his taste.