Page images

poets wrote, orators spoke, and artists modelled was all past and gone; it could neither be inherited nor revived, and the Grecian renovations of Canova are the weakest of all his productions.

Complete success was indeed impossible, and for the little he gained he paid a heavy penalty. He disobeyed the internal craving of the heart to stamp upon the natural offspring of imagination the forms and characters which live around us. He was obliged to forget his native country and all the emotions which home and kindred excite-in short, to think for a remote age and a strange people. He was compelled to surrender himself as far as he could to Greece, feel with other men's hearts, see through Athenian eyes, make judgment an alien, and wean his affections from all that he naturally loved. All this required some fortitude, a a little bad taste, and-after all-it perhaps could only be accom⭑ plished by a second rate spirit. Genius of a high and commanding order would always, in the language of Schiller, 'guide the fu ture rather than follow the past;' it finds matter fit for its use in the world it lives in, evokes, from among the materials of living life, forms of beauty and dignity, and impresses upon them a distinct image of its own time and nation. In this way Homer sung and Phidias carved, and indeed all the master minds of the world have never failed to embody in their works the form and pressure of their own days, purified and exalted according to their peculiar taste and genius. Against this historical precept Canova, in common with most modern sculptors, was a frequent rebel. Let no one say that he was driven into antiquity, by the rigour of modern dress-that he fled to Greece to enjoy the luxury of unattired nature. The free manners of Italy, the generous hardihood of her maidens and matrons, the splendid images strewn over the pages of Dante, Tasso and Ariosto, the heroes of his country, the saints whom he worshipped, and the miracles in which he believed, all cry out against Canova.

It will however be observed by those who examine carefully the works of Canova that he has attempted something of an union between Italian nature, his own feelings and the Grecian antique. He did strive to engraft a tree of a sweeter fruit on the old heathen stock; and for such an undertaking he had certainly many qualifi, cations. From his childhood he had lived all day among works of ancient inspiration and the sculptures of Michael Angelo, and at night he had lain down to dream on the very dust of classic works. The living beauties of Italy crowded round him, eager to afford his chissel the unreserved advantage of all their charms, and, with a liberality which would bring blushes to the cheek of the most magnanimous lady in our island, princesses and peeresses, for the encouragement of art and the glory of their country, sat and stood

as Eve did of old and were not ashamed. No man therefore could come with more knowledge to this elected task-how he has acquitted himself the world knows. With the antique in his eye, and the lost works of the ancients in his mind, it is remarkable how little of these high influences are visible in his works. He has lessened the serene majesty of the antique; he has given sweetness and smiles for meekness and gravity, softness for beauty, languor for strength, and the subordinate prettinesses of art for the true manliness of sentiment. There are few of his figures with ancient names which are free from affectation: the very Venus of the Greeks was of a staid character; with them all passion was subdued, and even pain was spiritualized; but Canova did not feel, or disobeyed this visible lesson; he seemed to put his strength in the polished beauty of his workmanship, and in the vitality of his flesh, rather than in the idea which the work was to express. The nature which he did infuse often mingles ungracefully with the materials supplied by old art; his Dancers and his Nymphs are only modest modifications of the girls of the opera, his Graces a renovation of a Grecian group, or an amplification of an antique gem, or a copy from a painting by Rubens, but made his own by an affectation which overpowers the varied elegance of their forms and their exquisite grouping.

In some few instances, nevertheless, in his Perseus with the Medusa's Head, his Mars and Venus, his Hebe, his Endymion, he more than approaches the majesty of ancient sculpture.

His historical works of a civil and religious kind are not his happiest. The eminent painters and sculptors of Italy, with Raphael and Michael Angelo at their head, had filled the churches and palaces as well as the hearts of the people with divine subjects-saints, legends, miracles. Something new was wanted, and as nothing that Canova could create was likely to divide with Raphael the admiration of mankind, his religious works are generally cold, obscure abstractions, which excite curiosity without informing the mind or touching the heart. The grace and airiness of his style was out of place in a statue of Religion, and he has sought by colossal magnitude to excite awe and express the grandeur of our faith. Such austere subjects were far too heavy for his handling. Whatever action can tell he accomplished, and he gave buoyancy and motion to his nymphs and his youths such as no sculptor has ever surpassed; but he had little mind to give, and less loftiness of thought. There was something of truth, though more of malignity, in the accusation of his fellow artists that he wrought without taste or fire. The vanity of the artist brought him ready relief. He flew to the Vatican, gazed on the antique, and returned satisfied with himself and with his works.

A man

A man must be on very good terms with himself who can come from before those great works without feeling their godlike serenity and their unattainable excellence. But at that time the barren mannerism of the Roman school had supplanted nature, and the antique was held up as the only model of excellence; the Gothic notions of beauty were tried by the standard of Greece; and to copy, plunder is the right word, with a servile hand, and transfer ancient limb and lineament to the sculptor's model, was held worthier of ambition than the awakening of a new and natural feeling. Canova was, therefore, perhaps prudent in sheltering himself behind his antique shield from the venomous missiles of the Roman critics. It was clever to inlist on his side those venerable prejudices; but a man who works from the fullness of nature will look neither to the right nor to the left, but fulfil in silence his own desires, and create according to his own spirit, regardless of the counsel of friends or the censure of critics.

Yet here again we must admit that the rule has its exceptions. Some of the devotional labours of the artist are of very peculiar beauty; the Recumbent Magdalen, in the possession of Lord Liverpool, has a pathos which goes to the heart. The John the Baptist is simple and innocent-though the young prophet wants that divine wildness with which the early painters of Italy invested him.*

But beautiful as these exceptions are, the true and lasting fame of Canova must flow from another source. One class of his works faintly reflects the antique, another personifies religious feeling; but the third and best class embodies Italian life and Italian beauty, and rises into originality of thought and form worthy of the fame of the sculptor. It was from this living source that the artists of Greece themselves drew their images of classic loveliness, and no one has been more successful in finding beauty at his own door, when he condescended to seek it there, than Canova. His statues of the Buonapartes are a proof of this. His Napoleon, his Pauline and his Madame Buonaparte all show with what skill he could idealize on the human form-avoid a gross and literal copy -extract from it the proportion and beauty which the poetry of sculpture requires, yet still keep nature for his guide, and never for a moment, from his love of the visionary, lose sight of the family character of form and face-that distinguishing stamp of intellect which nature gave so liberally, and which some of its possessors so grievously abused. The majesty of Napoleon, the matron-like gravity of his mother, and the voluptuous beauty of his favourite sister are only three natural personations: and while we admire the skill and grace of the sculptor's work we The model, with all its brass points of admeasurement, is in the gallery of Chantrey. feel

H 3

feel assured that we stand in the presence of forms which have lived and breathed. Had he always wrought in this way, his fame would have been far higher than it is likely to be. He suf fered the idle cry which was raised about the antique, the levity of his countrymen and the affectation of stage heroines, to influence him too much; and it was not until life had begun to decline that he turned himself sincerely and boldly to the simple modesty of


We cannot say farewell to Canova, without pausing to say something of the Sculpture of our native island, and we shall endeavour to do so with perfect honesty and freedom; we shall try its merits by the standard of nature, by the truth of history; we shall spare no censure where it speaks in an unnatural or unintelligible tongue, neither shall we be avaricious of our praise when it appears in a shape worthy of the genius of our country. A glance at what other nations have done before us, will establish the great vital principles-nature and nationality-and serve to explain the strange and absurd mixture of heathen gods, abstract personification and pure nature, which is so lamentably predominant in our public and private monuments. It will show that every nation wrought after its own heart; that every great people had an original spirit of their own; and that the wise and unfettered use of the native genius of the land is the only way to eminence in anything that the world accounts noble and great. The student will also learn that the works by which he may safely hope for fame must originate not in the antique, but in his own heart and imagination; and that, where nature has denied her highest gift, the most incessant study and the most consummate skill can only carry sculpture to where genius begins, and there leave it in despair.

The earliest sculpture was in its nature like poetry, historical and religious. Man's reverence of super-human power and admiration of his own actions have moved him in every age. The ancient gods of Egypt were like the present gods of the East, an insult to the human form. The sculpture of the Egyptian fell below the mark of manhood; that of Greece rose above it; and the works of the Romans were but a feeble or servile revival of the productions of Athens. Still the character of the works of those three powerful nations was expressly the same-heaven and history. The barbarians who ravaged the falling empire of Rome, if they brought not from their native woods the same principles of sculpture, at least carried them away, and the early churches of France and England are covered round and round with miracles wrought by the saints-the sufferings of the martyrs-legends of the church-devout processions and religious ceremouies. Na

tional pride added to religious vanity its kings, counsellors, and warriors, while domestic affection brought long after a sculpture: of its own, which forms one of the chief glories of our English art. How much of the old Egyptian spirit found its way into the works of Greece it is of no use to inquire; the manner in which those nations felt and wrought on similar objects is as different as inborn vulgarity is from natural grace. The men of Egypt were truly a wonderful race. They had notions of durability in their works which no other nation has succeeded in imitating-they seemed to work as if they laughed at time, war, barbarism. They hewed temples with all their columns and colossal gods out of hills of solid rock. They laboured on a scale almost as grand as nature herself. In sculpture they had just conceptions, but their execution was rude, hideous, and startling. They were a clumsy-handed race; quantity was every thing with them, or almost so, quality but little; they wished to please themselves and astonish posterity, and they succeeded. The colossal remains of their sculpture show us how far they carried the art and how they felt and acted. The first gigantic gropings of the genius of sculpture are there.

The Greeks took up this art as they did oratory, poetry and painting, and carried it to the highest excellence it has ever reached. They took it from the Egyptians and the Assyrians, rude in form, coarse in execution, poor in sentiment, and from the absence of genius, directed to no wise and salutary aim. Into this grim and shapeless creation of old art they poured their own sense and soul-they inspired it with heroism, majesty, beauty. They found all this in their own thoughts and within the limits of Greece. No country could truly call itself the foster-parent of their sculpture-the twin beauty of Castor and Pollux came from no Egyptian egg-the cubs of old Nile could never have been licked and moulded into the forms of Greece. To them sculpture was a passion, an existence, like poetry and eloquence; wherever they found the first notions of art, the sense which animated it was their own. They covered their hills with statues of nymphs and heroes, and filled their temples and groves with gods. Their cities were emblazoned with their history fabulous and real, and on every hand were fixed the statues of their warriors and legislators. On their homes and their household things they set the seal of their own imagination; their sculpture, like their poetry, was founded in belief, in history, and in good sense. They made nothing with the hope that posterity would find out a meaning for it. The very ornaments of their temples spoke, and their sculpture had a tongue as eloquent and clear as their oratory. Climate is a great patron of sculpture; and the vivid

H 4


« PreviousContinue »