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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Fascination of the Remote
By Philip Gilbert Hamerton (1834–1894)
 
From the ‘Life of J. M. W. Turner’

IT has been remarked before, that whereas with most men the maturing of the faculties leads from imagination to reason, from poetry to prose, this was not the case with Turner, who became more and more poetical as he advanced in life; and this might in some measure account for his ever-increasing tendency to desert the foreground, where objects are too near to have much enchantment about them, in order to dream, and make others dream, of distances which seem hardly of this world.  1
  The fascination of the remote, for minds which have any imaginative faculty at all, is so universal and so unfailing that it must be due to some cause in the depths of man’s spiritual nature. It may be due to a religious instinct, which makes him forget the meanness and triviality of common life in this world, to look as far beyond it as he can to a mysterious infinity of glory, where earth itself seems to pass easily into heaven. It may be due to a progressive instinct, which draws men to the future and the unknown, leading them ever to fix their gaze on the far horizon, like mariners looking for some visionary Atlantis across the spaces of the wearisome sea. Be this as it may, the enchantments of landscape distances are certainly due far more to the imagination of the beholder than to any tangible or explicable beauty of their own. It is probable that minds of a common order, which see with the bodily eyes only and have no imaginative perception, receive no impressions of the kind which affected Turner; but the conditions of modern life have developed a great sensitiveness to such impressions in minds of a higher class. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to name any important imaginative work in literature, produced during the present century, in which there is not some expression proving the author’s sensitiveness to the poetry of distance. I will not weary the reader with quotations, but here is just one from Shelley, which owes most of its effect upon the mind to his perception of two elements of sublimity—distance and height; in which perception, as in many other mental gifts, he strikingly resembled Turner. The stanza is in the ‘Revolt of Islam’:—
    “Upon that rock a mighty column stood,
    Whose capital seemed sculptured in the sky,
  Which to the wanderers o’er the solitude
    Of distant seas, from ages long gone by,
    Had made a landmark; o’er its height to fly,
  Scarcely the cloud, the vulture, or the blast
    Has power; and when the shades of evening lie
  On earth and ocean, its carved summits cast
The sunken daylight far through the aerial waste.”
  2
  This was written in 1817, just about the time when Turner was passing from his early manner to the sublimities of his maturity; and there is ample evidence, of which more may be said later, that Turner and Shelley were as much in sympathy as two men can be, when one is cultivated almost exclusively by means of literature and the other by graphic art. But however great may have been the similarity of their minds, whatever susceptibility to certain impressions they may have had in common, the two arts which they pursued differed widely in technical conditions. It may, or it may not, be as easy to write verses as to paint, when both are to be supremely well done; but it is certain that poetic description requires less realization than pictorial, so that less accurate observation will suffice for it, and an inferior gift of memory. In the whole range of the difficulties which painters endeavor to overcome, there is not one which tries their powers more severely than the representation of distant effects in landscape. They can never be studied from nature, for they come and go so rapidly as to permit nothing but the most inadequate memoranda; they can never be really imitated, being usually in such a high key of light and color as to go beyond the resources of the palette; and the finest of them are so mysterious that the most piercing eyesight is baffled, perceiving at the utmost but little of all that they contain. The interpretation of such effects, however able and intelligent it may be, always requires a great deal of good-will on the part of the spectator, who must be content if he can read the painter’s work as a sort of shorthand, without finding in it any of the amusement which may be derived from the imitation of what is really imitable.  3
  For all these reasons it would be a sufficiently rash enterprise for an artist to stake his prospects on the painting of distances; but there is another objection even yet more serious. Such painting requires not only much good-will in the spectator, but also great knowledge, freedom from vulgar prejudices, and some degree of faith in the painter himself. When people see a noble effect in nature, there is one stock observation which they almost invariably make; they always say, or nearly always, “Now, if we were to see that effect in a picture we should not believe it to be possible.” One would think that after such a reflection on their own tendency to unbelief in art and to astonishment in the presence of nature, people would be forewarned against their own injustice; but it is not so. They will make that observation every time they see a fine sunset or a remarkable cloud in the natural world, and remain as unjust as ever to the art which represents phenomena of the same order. Turner had to contend against this disposition to deny the truth of everything that is not commonplace. He was too proud and courageous to allow it to arrest his development, and would not submit to dictation from any one as to the subjects of his larger pictures. He knew the value of money, and would work very hard to earn it, but no money consideration whatever was permitted to interfere between him and the higher manifestations of his art.  4
 
 
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