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Notes On Art
by [?]

Few men are endowed with such a brain as Hugh Miller–huge, active, concentrated, keen to fierceness; and therefore few men need fear, even if they misuse and overtask theirs as he did, that it will turn, as it did with him, and rend its master. But as assuredly as there is a certain weight, which a bar of iron will bear and no more, so is there a certain weight of work which the organ by which we act, by which we think, and feel, and will–cannot sustain, blazing up into brief and ruinous madness, or sinking into idiocy. At the time he wrote to me, Mr. Miller and I were strangers, and I don’t think I ever spoke to him: but his manner of doing the above act made me feel, that in that formidable and unkempt nature there lay the delicacy, the generosity, the noble trustfulness of a gentleman born–not made.

Most men have, and almost every man should have a hobby: it is exercise in a mild way, and does not take him away from home; it diverts him; and by having a double line of rails, he can manage to keep the permanent way in good condition. A man who has only one object in life, only one line of rails, who exercises only one set of faculties, and these only in one way, will wear himself out much sooner than a man who shunts himself every now and then, and who has trains coming as well as going; who takes in as well as gives out.

My hobby has always been pictures, and all we call Art. I have fortunately never been a practitioner, though I think I could have made a tolerable hand; but unless a man is a thoroughly good artist, he injures his enjoyment, generally speaking, of the art of others. I am convinced, however, that to enjoy art thoroughly, every man must have in him the possibility of doing it as well as liking it. He must feel it in his fingers, as well as in his head and at his eyes; and it must find its way from all the three to his heart, and be emotive.

Much has been said of the power of Art to refine men, to soften their manners, and make them less of wild beasts. Some have thought it omnipotent for this; others have given it as a sign of the decline and fall of the nobler part of us. Neither is, and both are true. Art does, as our Laureate says, make nobler in us what is higher than the senses through which it passes; but it can only make nobler what is already noble; it cannot regenerate, neither can it of itself debase and emasculate and bedevil mankind; but it is a symptom, and a fatal one, when Art ministers to a nation’s vice, and glorifies its naughtiness–as in old Rome, as in Oude–as also too much in places nearer in time and place than the one and the other. The truth is, Art, unless quickened from above and from within, has in it nothing beyond itself, which is visible beauty–the ministration to the lust, the desire of the eye. But apart from direct spiritual worship, and self-dedication to the Supreme, I do not know any form of ideal thought and feeling which may be made more truly to subserve, not only magnanimity, but the purest devotion and godly fear; by fear meaning that mixture of love and awe, which is specific of the realization of our relation to God. I am not so silly as to seek painters to paint religious pictures in the usual sense; for the most part, I know nothing so profoundly profane and godless as our sacred pictures; and I can’t say I like our religious beliefs to be symbolized, even as Mr. Hunt has so grandly done in his picture of the Light of the World. But if a painter is himself religious; if he feels God in what he is looking at, and in what he is rendering back on his canvas; if he is impressed with the truly divine beauty, infinity, perfection, and meaning of unspoiled material nature–the earth and the fulness thereof, the heaven and all its hosts, the strength of the hills, the sea and all that is therein; if he is himself impressed with the divine origin and divine end of all visible things,–then will he paint religious pictures and impress men religiously, and thus make good men listen, and possibly make bad men good. Take the landscapes of our own Harvey. He is my dear old friend of thirty years, and his power as a painter is only less than his fidelity and ardor as a friend, and that than his simple, deep-hearted piety; I never see one of his transcripts of nature, be they solemn and full of gloom, with a look “that threatens the profane;” or laughing all over with sunshine and gladness, but I feel something beyond, something greater and more beautiful than their greatness and their beauty–the idea of God, of the beginning and the ending, the first and the last, the living One; of whom, and through whom, and to whom are all things; who is indeed God over all, blessed forever; and whom I would desire, in all humbleness of mind, to sanctify in my heart, and to make my fear and my dread. This is the true moral use of Art, to quicken and deepen and enlarge our sense of God. I don’t mean so much our belief in certain articulate doctrines, though I am old-fashioned enough to think that we must know what as well as in whom we believe–that our religion, like everything else, must “have its seat in reason, and be judicious;” I refer rather to that temper of the soul, that mood of the mind in which we feel the unseen and eternal, and bend under the power of the world to come.