The Reading Selection from Über das Verhältnis der bildenden Künste zu der Natur

[Imitation Theory of Art is Mistaken]

We hope, therefore, in considering plastic art in relation to its true prototype and original source, nature, to be able to contribute something new to its theory—to give some additional exactness or clearness to the conceptions of it; but, above all, to set forth the coherence of the whole structure of art in the light of a higher necessity.

But has not science always recognized this relation? Has not indeed every theory of modern times taken its departure from this very position, that art should be the imitator of nature? Such has indeed been the case. But what should this broad general proposition profit the artist, when the notion of nature is of such various interpretation, and when there are almost as many differing views of it as there are various modes of life?…

But is, then, the disciple of nature to copy everything in nature without distinction?—and, of everything, every part? Only beautiful objects should be represented; and, even in these, only the beautiful and perfect.

Thus is the proposition further determined, but, at the same time, this asserted, that, in nature, the perfect is mingled with the imperfect, the beautiful with the unbeautiful. Now, how should he who stands in no other relation to nature than that of servile imitation, distinguish the one from the other? It is the way of imitators to appropriate the faults of their model sooner and easier than its excellences, since the former offer handles and tokens more easily grasped; and thus we see that imitators of nature in this sense have imitated oftener, and even more affectionately, the ugly than the beautiful.

If we regard in things, not their principle, but the empty abstract form, neither will they say anything to our Soul; Our own heart, our own spirit we must put to it, that they answer us.

[Creative Principle]

But what is the perfection of a thing? Nothing else than the creative life in it, its power to exist. Never, therefore, will he, who fancies that nature is altogether dead, be successful in that profound process (analogous to the chemical) whence proceeds, purified as by fire, the pure gold of beauty and truth.

Nor was there any change in the main view of the relation of art to nature, even when the unsatisfactoriness of the principle began to be more generally felt; no change, even by the new views and new knowledge so nobly established by Winckelmann. He indeed restored to the soul its full efficiency in art, and raised it from its unworthy dependence into the realm of spiritual freedom. Powerfully moved by the beauty of form in the works of antiquity, he taught that the production of ideal nature, of nature elevated above the actual, together with the expression of spiritual conceptions, is the highest aim of art.…

Nature meets us everywhere, at first with reserve, and in form more or less severe. She is like that quiet and serious beauty, that excites not attention by noisy advertisement, nor attracts the vulgar gaze.

How can we, as it were, spiritually melt this apparently rigid form, so that the pure energy of things may flow together with the force of our spirit and both become one united mold? We must transcend form, in order to gain it again as intelligible, living, and truly felt. Consider the most beautiful forms; what remains behind after you have abstracted from them the creative principle within? Nothing but mere unessential qualities, such as extension and the relations of space. Does the fact that one portion of matter exists near another, and distinct from it, contribute anything to its inner essence? Or does it not rather contribute nothing? Evidently the latter. It is not mere contiguous existence, but the manner of it, that makes form; and this can de determined only by a positive force, which is even opposed to separateness, and subordinates the manifoldness of the parts to the unity of one idea-from the force that works in the crystal to the force which, comparable to a gentle magnetic current, gives to the particles of matter in human form that position and arrangement among themselves, through which the idea, the essential unity and beauty, can become visible.

Not only, however, as active principle, but as spirit and effective science, must the essence appear to us in the form, in order that we may truly apprehend it. For all unity must be spiritual in nature and origin; and what is the aim of all investigation of nature but to find science therein? For that wherein there is no understanding cannot be the object of understanding; the unknowing cannot be known. The science by which nature works is not, however, like human science, connected with reflection upon itself; in it, the conception is not separate from the act, nor the design from the execution. Therefore, rude matter strives, as it were, blindly, after regular shape, and unknowingly assumes pure stereometric forms, which belong, nevertheless, to the realm of ideas, and are something spiritual in the material.

The sublimest arithmetic and geometry are innate in the stars, and unconsciously displayed by them in their motions. More distinctly, but still beyond their grasp, the living cognition appears in animals; and thus we see them, though wandering about without reflection, bring about innumerable results far more excellent than themselves: the bird that, intoxicated with music, transcends itself in soullike tones; the little artistic creature, that, without practice or instruction, accomplishes light works of architecture; but all directed by an overpowering spirit, that lightens in them already with single flashes of knowledge, but as yet appears nowhere as the full sun, as in man.

This formative science in nature and art is the link that connects idea and form, body and soul. Before everything stands an eternal ideal formed in the infinite understanding; but by what means does this idea pass into actuality and embodiment? Only through the creative science that is as necessarily connected with the infinite understanding, as in the artist the principle that seizes the idea of unsensuous beauty is linked with that which sets it forth to the senses.

If that artist be called happy and praiseworthy before all to whom the gods have granted this creative spirit, then that work of art will appear excellent which shows to us, as in outline, this unadulterated energy of creation and activity of nature.

It was long ago perceived that, in art, not everything is performed with consciousness; that, with the conscious activity, an unconscious action must combine; and that it is of the perfect unity and mutual interpenetration of the two that the highest in art is born.

Works that want this seal of unconscious science are recognized by the evident absence of life self-supported and independent of the producer; as, on the contrary, where this acts, art imparts to its work, together with the utmost clearness to the understanding, that unfathomable reality wherein it resembles a work of nature.

[Art and Nature]

It has often been attempted to make clear the position of the artist in regard to nature, by saying that art, in order to be such, must first withdraw itself from nature, and return to it only in the final perfection. The true sense of this saying, it seems to us, can be no other than this—that in all things in nature, the living idea shows itself only blindly active; were it so also in the artist, he would be in nothing distinct from nature. But, should he attempt consciously to subordinate himself altogether to the actual, and render with servile fidelity the already existing, he would produce larvae, but no works of art. He must therefore withdraw himself from the product, from the creature, but only in order to raise himself to the creative energy, spiritually seizing the same. Thus he ascends into the realm of pure ideas; he forsakes the creature, to regain it with thousandfold interest, and in this sense certainly to return to nature. This spirit of nature working at the core of things, and speaking through form and shape as by symbols only, the artist must certainly follow with emulation; and only so far as he seizes this with genial imitation has he himself produced anything genuine. For works produced by aggregation, even of forms beautiful in themselves, would still be destitute of all beauty, since that, through which the work on the whole is truly beautiful, cannot be mere form. It is above form—it is essence, the universal, the look and expression of the indwelling spirit of nature.

Now it can scarcely be doubtful what is to be thought of the so-called idealizing of nature in art, so universally demanded. This demand seems to arise from a way of thinking, according to which not truth, beauty, goodness, but the contrary of all these, is the actual. Were the actual indeed opposed to truth and beauty, it would be necessary for the artist, not to elevate or idealize it, but to get rid of and destroy it, in order to create something true and beautiful. But how should it be possible for anything to be actual except the true; and what is beauty, if not full, complete being?

What higher aim, therefore, could art have, than to represent that which in nature actually is? Or how should it undertake to excel so-called actual nature, since it must always fall short of it?

For does art impart to its works actual, sensuous life? This statue breathes not, is stirred by no pulsation, warmed by no blood.

But both the pretended excelling and the apparent falling short show themselves as the consequences of one and the same principle, as soon as we place the aim of art in the exhibiting of that which truly is.

Only on the surface have its works the appearance of life; in nature, life seems to reach deeper, and to be wedded entirely with matter, But does not the continual mutation of matter and the universal lot of final dissolution teach us the unessential character of this union, and that it is no intimate fusion? Art, accordingly, in the merely superficial animation of its works, but represents nothingness as nonexisting.

How comes it that, to every tolerably cultivated taste, imitations of the so-called actual, even though carried to deception, appear in the last degree untrue—Nay, produce the impression of specters; whilst a work in which the idea is predominant strikes us with the full force of truth, conveying us then only to the genuinely actual world? Whence comes it, if not from the more or less obscure feeling which tells us that the idea alone is the living principle in things, but all else unessential and vain shadow?

On the same ground may be explained all the opposite cases which are brought up as instances of the surpassing of nature by art. In arresting the rapid course of human years; in uniting the energy of developed manhood with the soft charm of early youth; or exhibiting a mother of grown-up sons and daughters in the full possession of vigorous beauty—what does art except to annul what is unessential, time?

If, according to the remark of a discerning critic, every growth in nature has but an instant of truly complete beauty, we may also say that it has, too, only an instant of full existence. In this instant it is what it is in all eternity; besides this, it has only a coming into and a passing out of existence. Art, in representing the thing at that instant, removes it out of time, and sets it forth in its pure being, in the eternity of its life.…

[The Essence of Beauty: the Universal in the Particular]

Certainly we desire to see not merely the individual, but, more than this, its vital idea. But if the artist has seized the inward creative spirit and essence of the idea, and sets this forth, he makes the individual a world in itself, a class, an eternal prototype; and he who has grasped the essential character needs not to fear hardness and severity, for these are the conditions of life. Nature, that in her completeness appears as the utmost benignity, we see, in each particular, aiming even primarily and principally at severity, seclusion and reserve. As the whole creation is the work of the utmost externization and renunciation, so the artist must first deny himself and descend into the particular, without shunning isolation, nor the pain, the anguish of form.…

The outer side or basis of all beauty is beauty of form. But as form cannot exist without essence, wherever form is, there also is character, whether in visible presence or only perceptible in its effects. Characteristic beauty, therefore, is beauty in the root, from which alone beauty can arise as the fruit. Essence may, indeed, outgrow form, but even then the characteristic remains as the still efficient groundwork of the beautiful.…

But whether that high and independent beauty should be the only standard in art, as it is the highest, seems to depend on the degree of fullness and extent that belongs to the particular art.…

For, although character can show itself also in rest and equilibrium of form, it is only in action that it becomes truly alive.

By character we understand a unity of several forces, operating constantly to produce among them a certain equipoise and determinate proportion, to which, if undisturbed, a like equipoise in the symmetry of the forms corresponds. But if this vital unity is to display itself in act and operation, this can only be when the forces, excited by some cause to rebellion, forsake their equilibrium. Everyone sees that this is the case in the passions.


Here we are met by the well-known maxim of the theorists, which demands that passion should be moderated as far as possible, in its actual outburst, that beauty of form may not be injured. But we think this maxim should rather be reversed, and read thus—that passion should be moderated by beauty itself. For it is much to be feared that this desired moderation too may be taken in a negative sense-whereas, what is really requisite is to oppose to passion a positive force. For as virtue consists, not in the absence of passions but in the mastery of the spirit over them, so beauty is preserved, not by their removal or abatement, but by the mastery of beauty over them.…

This essence, not to be seized, as we have already remarked, but yet perceptible to all, is what the language of the Greeks designed by the name charis, ours as grace.

Whenever, in a fully developed form, grace appears, the work is complete on the side of nature; nothing more is wanting; all demands are satisfied. Here, already, soul and body are in complete harmony; body is form, grace is soul, although not soul in itself, but the soul of form, or the soul of nature.

Art may linger, and remain stationary at this point; for already on one side at least, its whole task is finished. The pure image of beauty arrested at this point is the goddess of love.

But the beauty of the soul in itself, joined to sensuous grace, is the highest apotheosis of nature.

The spirit of nature is only in appearance opposed to the soul; essentially, it is the instrument of its revelation; it brings about indeed the antagonism that exists in all things, but only that the one essence may come forth, as the utmost benignity, and the reconciliation of all the forces.


All other creatures are driven by the mere force of nature, and through it maintain their individuality; in man alone, as the central point, arises the soul, without which the world would be like the natural universe without the sun.

The soul in man, therefore, is not the principle of individuality, but that whereby he raises himself above all egoism, whereby he becomes capable of self-sacrifice, of disinterested love, and (which is the highest) of the contemplation and knowledge of the essence of things, and thus of art.

In him it is no longer concerned about matter nor has it immediate concern with it, but with the spirit only as the life of things. Even while appearing in the body, it is yet free from the body, the consciousness of which hovers in the soul in the most beauteous shapes only as a light, undisturbing dream. it is no quality, no faculty nor anything special of the sort; it knows not, but is science; it is not good, but goodness; it is not beautiful, as body even may be, but beauty itself.

In the first instance, it is true, in a work of art, the soul of the artist is seen as invention in the detail, and in the total result as the unity that hovers over the work in serene stillness. But the soul must be visible in objective representation, as the primeval energy of thought, in portraitures of human beings, altogether filled by an idea, by a noble contemplation; or as indwelling, essential goodness.

Each of these finds its distinct expression even in the completest repose, but a more living one where the soul can reveal itself in activity and antagonism; and since it is by the passions mainly that the peace of life is interrupted, it is the generally received opinion that the beauty of the soul shows itself especially in its quiet supremacy amid the storm of the passions.…

[Gradations in Art]

Everyone acknowledges that greatness, purity, and goodness of soul have also their sensuous expressions. But how is this conceivable, unless the principle that acts in matter be itself cognate and similar to soul?

For the representation of the soul there are again gradations in art, according as it is joined with the merely characteristic, or in visible union with the charming and graceful.

Who perceives not already, in the tragedies of Æschylus, the presence of that lofty morality which is predominant in the works of Sophocles? …

The same is true of the plastic productions of the early and severe style, in comparison with the gentleness of the later.

If grace, besides being the transfiguration of the spirit of nature, is also the medium of connection between moral goodness and sensuous appearance, it is evident how art must tend from all points toward it as its center. This beauty, which results from the perfect interpenetration of moral goodness and sensuous grace, seizes and enchants us when we meet it, with the force of a miracle. For, whilst the spirit of nature shows itself everywhere else independent of the soul, and, indeed, in a measure opposed to it, here, it seems, as if by voluntary accord, and the inward fire of divine love, to melt into union with it; the remembrance of the fundamental unity of the essence of nature and the essence of the soul comes over the beholder with sudden clearness-the conviction that all antagonism is only apparent, that love is the bond of all things, and pure goodness the foundation and substance of the whole creation.

Here art, as it were, transcends itself, and again becomes means only. On this summit sensuous grace becomes in turn only the husk and body of a higher life; what was before a whole is treated as a part, and the highest relation of art and nature is reached in this—that it makes nature the medium of manifesting the soul which it contains.

But though in this blossoming of art, as in the blossoming of the vegetable kingdom, all the previous states are repeated, yet, on the other hand, we may see in what various directions art can proceed from this center. Especially does the difference in nature of the two forms of plastic art here show itself most strongly. For sculpture, representing its ideas by corporeal things, seems to reach its highest point in the complete equilibrium of soul and matter—if it give a preponderance to the latter it sinks below its own idea—but it seems altogether impossible for it to elevate the soul at the expense of matter, since it must thereby transcend itself. The perfect sculptor indeed, as Winckelmann remarks apropos of the Belvedere Apollo, will use no more material than is needful to accomplish his spiritual purpose; but also, on the other hand, he will put into the soul no more energy than is at the same time expressed in the material; for precisely upon this, fully to embody the spiritual, depends his art. Sculpture, therefore, can reach its true summit only in the representation of those natures in whose constitution it is implied that they actually embody all that is contained in their idea or soul; thus only in divine natures. So that sculpture, even if no mythology had preceded it, would of itself have come upon gods, and have invented such if it found none.

Moreover as the spirit, on this lower platform, has again the same relation to matter that we have ascribed to the soul (being the principle of activity and motion, as matter is that of rest and inaction), the law that regulates expression and passion must be a fundamental principle of its nature.

But this law must be applicable not only to the lower passions, but also equally to those higher and godlike passions, if it is permitted so to call them, by which the soul is affected in rapture, in devotion, in adoration. Hence, since from these passions the gods alone are exempt, sculpture is inclined from this side also to the imaging of divine natures.

The nature of painting, however, seems to differ entirely from that of sculpture. For the former represents objects, not like the latter, by corporeal things, but by light and color, through a medium therefore itself incorporeal and in a measure spiritual. Painting, moreover, gives out its productions nowise as the things themselves, but expressly as pictures. From its very nature therefore it does not lay as much stress on the material as sculpture, and seems indeed for this reason, while exalting the material above the spirit, to degrade itself more than sculpture in a like case; on the other hand to be so much more justified in giving a clear preponderance to the soul.

Where it aims at the highest it will indeed ennoble the passions by character, or moderate them by grace, or manifest in them the power of the soul: but on the other hand it is precisely those higher passions, depending on the relationship of the soul with a supreme being, that are entirely suited to the nature of painting. Indeed, while sculpture maintains an exact balance between the force whereby a thing exists outwardly and acts in nature and that by virtue of which it lives inwardly and as soul, and excludes mere suffering even from matter, painting may soften in favor of the soul the characteristicness of the force and activity in matter, and transform it into resignation and endurance, making it apparent that man becomes more generally susceptible to the inspirations of the soul, and to higher influences in general.

This diametrical difference explains of itself not only the necessary predominance of sculpture in the ancient, and of painting in the modern world (since in the former the tone of mind was thoroughly plastic, whereas the latter makes even the soul the passive instrument of higher revelations); but this also is evident—that it is not enough to strive after the plastic in form and manner of representation, but that it is requisite, before all, to think and to feel plastically, that is, antiquely.

And as the deviation of sculpture into the picturesque is destructive to art, so the narrowing down of painting to the conditions and forms belonging to sculpture is an arbitrarily imposed limitation. For while sculpture, like gravitation, acts toward one point, it is permitted to painting, as to light, to fill all space with its creative energy.

This unlimited universality of painting is demonstrated by history itself, and by the examples of the greatest masters, who, without injury to the essential character of their art, have developed to perfection each particular stage by itself, so that we can find also in the history of art the same sequence that may be pointed out in its nature—not indeed in exact order of time, but yet substantially.…

After the earlier violence and the vehement impulse of birth is assuaged, the spirit of nature is transfigured into soul, and grace is born. This point art reached, after Leonardo da Vinci, in Correggio, in whose works the sensuous soul is the active principle of beauty.…

We have seen how the work of art, springing up out of the depths of nature, begins with determinateness and limitation, unfolds its inward plenitude and infinity, is finally transfigured in grace, and at last attains to soul. But we can conceive only in detail what, in the creative act of mature art, is but one operation. No theory and no rules can give this spiritual, creative power. It is the pure gift of nature, which here, for the second time, makes a close; for, having fully actualized herself, she invests the creature with her creative energy. But as, in the grand progress of art, these different stages appeared successively, until, at the highest, all joined in one; so also, in particulars, sound culture can spring up only where it has unfolded itself regularly from the germ and root to the blossom.

The requirement that art, like everything living, should commence from the first rudiments, and, to renew its youth, constantly return to them, may seem a hard doctrine to an age that has so often been assured that it has only to take from works of art already in existence the most consummate beauty, and thus, as at a step to reach the final goal. Have we not already the excellent, the perfect? How then should we return to the rudimentary and unformed?

Had the great founders of modern art thought thus, we should never have seen their miracles. Before them also stood the creations of the ancients, round statues and works in relief, which they might have transferred immediately to their canvas. But such an appropriation of a beauty not self-won, and therefore unintelligible, would not satisfy an artistic instinct that aimed throughout at the fundamental, and from which the beautiful was again to create itself with free original energy. They were not afraid, therefore, to appear simple, artless, dry, beside those exalted ancients; nor to cherish art for a long time in the undistinguished bud, until the period of grace had arrived.

Whence comes it that we still look upon these works of the older masters, from Giotto to the teacher of Raphæl, with a sort of reverence, indeed with a certain predilection, if not that the faithfulness of their endeavor, and the grand earnestness of their serene voluntary limitation, compel our respect and admiration.

The same relation that they held to the ancients, the present generation holds to them. Their time and ours are joined by no living transmission, no link of continuous, organic growth; we must reproduce art in the way they did, but with energy of our own, in order to be like them.

Even that Indian summer of art, at the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth centuries, could call forth only a few new blossoms on the old stem, but no productive germs, still less plant a new tree of art. But to set aside the works of perfected art, and to seek out its scanty and simple beginnings, as some have desired, would be a new and perhaps greater mistake; it would be no real return to the fundamental; simplicity would be affectation, and grow into hypocritical show.

But what prospect does the present time offer for an art springing from a vigorous germ, and growing up from the root? For it is in a great measure dependent on the character of its time; and who would promise the approbation of the present time to such earnest beginnings, when art, on the one hand, scarcely obtains equal consideration with other instruments of prodigal luxury, and, on the other, artists and amateurs, with entire want of ability to grasp nature, praise and demand the ideal?

Art springs only from that powerful striving of the inmost powers of the heart and the spirit, which we call inspiration. Everything that from difficult or small beginnings has grown up to great power and height, owes its growth to inspiration. Thus spring empires and states, thus arts and sciences. But it is not the power of the individual that accomplishes this, but the spirit alone, that diffuses itself over all. For art especially is dependent on the tone of the public mind, as the more delicate plants on atmosphere and weather; it needs a general enthusiasm for sublimity and beauty, like that which, in the time of the Medici, as a warm breath of spring, called forth at once and together all those great spirits.…

To different ages are given different inspirations. Can we expect none for this age, since the new world now forming itself, as it exists in part already outwardly, in part inwardly and in the hearts of men, can no longer be measured by any standard of previous opinion, and since everything, on the contrary, loudly demands higher standards and an entire renovation?

Should not the sense to which nature and history have more livingly unfolded themselves, restore to art also its great arguments? The attempt to draw sparks from the ashes of the past, and fan them again into universal flame, is a vain endeavor. Only a revolution in the ideas themselves is able to raise art from its exhaustion; only new knowledge, new faith, can inspire it for the work by which it can display, in a renewed life, a splendor like the past.

An art in all respects the same as that of foregoing centuries, will never return; for nature never repeats herself. Such a Raphael will never be again, but another, who shall have reached in an equally original manner the summit of art. Only let the fundamental conditions be fulfilled, and renewed art will show, like that which preceded it, in its first works, its aim and intent. In the production of the distinctly characteristic, if it proceed from a fresh original energy, grace is already present, even though hidden, and in both the advent of the soul already determined. Works produced in this manner, even in their rudimentary imperfection, are necessary and eternal.