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NORTH AMERICAN REVIEW.
ART. I. - Catalogue of One Hundred Drawings by Mi
chael Angelo, composing the Tenth Exhibition of the Lawrence Gallery, at 112 St. Martin's Lane. London.
July, 1836. W koeler!
There are few lives of eminent men that are harmonious ; few that furnish, in all the facts, an image corresponding with their fame. But all things recorded of Michael Angelo Buonaroti agree together. He lived one life; he pursued one career. He accomplished extraordinary works; he uttered extraordinary words ; and in this greatness was so little eccentricity, so true was he to the laws of the human mind, that his character and his works, like Sir Isaac Newton's, seem rather a part of nature than arbitrary productions of the human will. Especially we venerate his moral fame. Whilst his name belongs to the highest class of genius, his life contains in it no injurious influence. Every line in his biography might be read to the human race with wholesome effect. the materials of bis activity, were coarse enough to be appreciated, being addressed for the most part to the eye; the results, sublime and all innocent. A purity severe and even terrible goes out from the lofty productions of his pencil and his chisel, and still more from the more perfect sculpture of his own life, which heals and exalts.
" He nothing common did, or mean," and dying at the end of near ninety years, had NO. 94.
He is an
not yet become old, but was engaged in executing his grand conceptions in the ineflaceable architecture of St. Peter's.
Above all men whose history we know, Michael Angelo presents us with the perfect image of the artist. eminent master in the four fine arts, Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, and Poetry. In three of them by visible means, and in poetry by words, he strove to express the idea of Beauty. This idea possessed him, and determined all his activity. Beauty in the largest sense, beauty inward and outward, comprehending grandeur as a part, and reaching to goodness as its soul, — this to receive and this to impart, was his genius.
It is not without pleasure that we see, amid the falsehood and griefs of the human race, a soul at intervals born to be-. hold and create only beauty. So shall not the indescribable charm of the natural world, the great spectacle of morn and evening which shut and open the most disastrous day, want observers. The ancient Greeks called the world xóquos, Beauty; a name which, in our artificial state of society, sounds fanciful and impertinent. Yet, in proportion as the mind of man rises above the servitude to wealth and a pursuit of mean pleasures, he perceives, that what is most real is most beautiful, and that, by the contemplation of such objects, he is taught and exalted. This truth, that perfect beauty and perfect goodness are one, was made known to Michael Angelo; and we shall endeavour by sketches from his life to show the direction and limitations of his search after this element.
In considering a life dedicated to the study of Beauty, it is natural to inquire, what is Beauty ? Is this charming element capable of being so abstracted by the human mind, as to become a distinct and permanent object ? We answer, Beauty cannot be defined. Like Truth, it is an ultimate aim of the human being. It does not lie within the limits of the understanding. “The nature of the beautiful,” — we gladly borrow
. the language of Moritz, a German critic, — " consists herein, that because the understanding in the presence of the beautiful cannot ask, "Why is it beautiful ? ' for that reason is it so. There is no standard whereby the understanding can determine, whether objects are beautiful or otherwise. What other standard of the beautiful exists, than the entire circuit of all harmonious proportions of the great system of nature ? All particular beauties scattered up and down in nature are only so far beautiful, as they suggest more or less in themselves this
entire circuit of harmonious proportions.” This great Whole,
” the understanding cannot embrace. Beauty may be felt. It may be produced. But it cannot be defined.
The Italian artists sanction this view of beauty by describing it as il più nell
' uno, “ the many in one,” or multitude in unity, intimating that what is truly beautiful seems related to all nature. A beautiful person has a kind of universality, and appears to have truer conformity to all pleasing objects in external nature than another. Every great work of art seems to take up into itself the excellencies of all works, and to present, as it were, a miniature of nature.
In relation to this element of Beauty, the minds of men divide themselves into two classes. In the first place, all men have an organization corresponding more or less to the entire system of nature, and therefore a power of deriving pleasure from Beauty. This is Taste. In the second place, certain minds, more closely harmonized with nature, possess the power of abstracting Beauty from things, and reproducing it in new forms, on any object to which accident may determine their activity; as stone, canvass, song, history. This is Art.
Since Beauty is thus an abstraction of the harmony and proportion that reigns in all nature, it is therefore studied in nature, and not in what does not exist. Hence the celebrated French maxim of Rhetoric, Rien de beau que le vrai; “ Nothing is beautiful but what is true.” It has a much wider application than to Rhetoric ; as wide, namely, as the terms of the proposition admit. In art, Michael Angelo is himself but a document or verification of this maxim. He labored to express the beautiful, in the entire conviction that it was only to be attained unto, by knowledge of the true. The common eye is satisfied with the surface on which it rests. The wise eye knows that it is surface, and, if beautiful, only the result of interior harmonies, which, to him who kvows them, compose the image of higher beauty. Moreover, he knew well, that only by an understanding of the internal mechanism, can the outside be faithfully delineated. The walls of houses are transparent to the architect. The symptoms disclose the constitution to the physician ; and to the artist it belongs by a better knowledge of anatomy, and, within anatomy, of life and thought, to acquire the power of true drawing. “ The human form," says Goethe,“ cannot be comprehended merely through seeing its surface.
ing its surface. It must be stripped of the mus
cles; its parts separated ; its joints observed ; its divisions marked ; its action and counter action learned ; the hidden, the reposing, the foundation of the apparent, must be searched, if one would really see and imitate what moves as a beautiful inseparable whole in living waves before the eye.' Michael Angelo dedicated himself, from his childhood to his death, to a toilsome observation of nature. The first anecdote recorded of him shows him to be already on the right road. Granacci, a painter's apprentice, having lent him, when a boy, a print of St. Antony beaten by devils, together with some colors and pencils, he went to the fish-market to observe the form and color of fins and of the eyes of fish. Cardinal Farnese one day found hin, when an old man, walking alone in the Coliseum, and expressed his surprise at finding him solitary amidst the ruins ; to which he replied, “ I go yet to school that I may continue to learn.” And one of the last drawings in his port-folio, is a sublime hint of his own feeling ; for it is a sketch of an old man with a long beard, in a go-cart, with an hour-glass before him; and the motto, Ancora imparo. "I still learn."
In this spirit he devoted himself to the study of anatomy for twelve years; we ought to say rather, as long as he lived. The depth of his knowledge in anatomy has no parallel among the artists of modern times. Most of his designs, his contemporaries inform us, were made with a pen, and in the style of an engraving on copper or wood ; a manner more expressive, but not admitting of correction. When Michael Angelo would begin a statue, he made first on paper the skeleton ; afterwards, upon another paper, the same figure clothed with muscles. The studies of the statue of Christ in the Church of Minerva at Rome, made in this manner, were long preserved.
It strikes those who have never given attention to the arts of design, as surprising that the artist should find so much to study, in a fabric of such limited parts and dimensions as the human body. But it is the effect of reflection to disclose evermore a closer analogy between the finite form and the infinite inhabitant. Man is the highest, and indeed the only proper object of plastic art. There needs no better proof of our instinctive feeling of the immense expression of which the human figure is capable, than the uniform tendency which the religion of every country has betrayed towards Anthropo