On the Formation of Galleries of Art

IT is barely fifty years since England refused the gift of the pictures that now constitute the Dulwich Gallery. So rapidly, however, did public opinion and taste become enlightened, that twenty-five years afterwards Parliament voted seventy-three thousand pounds for the purchase of thirty-eight pictures collected by Mr. Angerstein. This was the commencement of their National Gallery. In 1790 but three national galleries existed in Europe,—those of Dresden, Florence, and Amsterdam. The Louvre was then first originated by a decree of the Constituent Assembly of France. England now spends with open hand on schools of design, the accumulation of treasures of art of every epoch and character, and whatever tends to elevate the taste and enlarge the means of the artistic education of her people,—perceiving, with far-sighted wisdom, that, through improved manufacture and riper civilization, eventually a tenfold return will result to her treasury. The nations of Europe exult over a new acquisition to their galleries, though its cost may have exceeded a hundred thousand dollars.

We are in that stage of indifference and neglect that one of our wealthiest cities recently refused to accept the donation of a gallery of some three hundred pictures, collected with taste and discrimination by a generous lover of art, because it did not wish to be put to the expense of finding wall-room for them. But this spirit is departing, and now our slowness or reluctance is rather the result of a want of knowledge and critical judgment than of a want of feeling for art.

To stimulate this feeling, it is requisite that our public should have free access to galleries in which shall be exhibited in chronological series specimens of the art of all nations and schools, arranged according to their motives and the special influences that attended their development. After this manner a mental and artistic history of the world may be spread out like a chart before the student, while the artist with equal facility can trace up to their origin the varied methods, styles, and excellences of each prominent epoch. A gallery of art is a perpetual feast of the most intense and refined enjoyment to every one capable of entering into its phases of thought and execution, analyzing its external and internal being, and tracing the mysterious transformations of spirit into form. It has been well said, that a complete gallery, on a broad foundation, in which all tastes, styles, and methods harmoniously mingle, is a court of final appeal of one phase of civilization against another, from an examination of which we can sum up their respective qualities and merits, drawing therefrom for our own edification as from a perpetual wellspring of inspiration and knowledge. But if we sit in judgment upon the great departed, they likewise sit in judgment upon us. And it is precisely where such means of testing artistic growth best exist that modern art is at once most humble and most aspiring: conscious of its own power and in many respects superior technical advantages, both it and the public are still content to go to the past for instruction, and each to seek to rise above the transitory bias of fashion or local passions to a standard of taste that will abide world-wide comparison and criticism.

An edifice for a gallery or museum of art should be fire-proof, sufficiently isolated for light and effective ornamentation, and constructed so as to admit of indefinite extension. Its chief feature should be the suitable accommodation and exhibition of its contents. But provision should be made for its becoming eventually in architectural effect consistent with its object. The skeleton of such a building need not be costly. Its chief expense would be in its ultimate adornment with marble facings, richly colored stones, sculpture or frescoes, according to a design which should enforce strict purity of taste and conformity to its motive. This gradual completion, as happened to the mediaeval monuments of Europe, could be extended through many generations, which would thus be linked with one another in a common object of artistic and patriotic pride gradually growing up among them, as a national monument, with its foundations deeply laid in a unity of feeding and those desirable associations of love and veneration which in older civilizations so delightfully harmonize the past with the present. Each epoch of artists would be instructed by the skill of its predecessor, and stimulated to connect its name permanently with so glorious a shrine. Wealth, as in the days of democratic Greece and Italy, would be lavished upon the completion of a temple of art destined to endure as long as material can defy time, a monument of the people's taste and munificence. There would be born among them the spirit of those Athenians who said to Phidias, when he asked if he should use ivory or marble for the statue of their protecting goddess, “ Use that material which is most worthy of our city.”

Until recently, no attention has been paid, even in Europe, to historical sequence and special motives in the arrangement of galleries. As in the Pitti Gallery, pictures were generally hung so as to conform to the symmetry of the rooms,—various styles, schools, and epochs being intermixed. As the progress of ideas is of more importance to note than the variations of styles or the degree of technical merit, the chief attention in selection and position should be given to lucidly exhibiting the varied phases of artistic thought among the diverse races and widely separated eras and inspirations which gave them being. The mechanism of art is, however, so intimately interwoven with the idea, that by giving precedence to the latter we most readily arrive at the best arrangement of the former. Each cycle of civilization should have its special department, Paganism and Christianity being kept apart, and not, as in the Florentine Gallery, intermixed,— presenting a strange jumble of classical statuary and modern paintings in anachronistic disorder, to the loss of the finest properties of each to the eye, and the destruction of that unity of motive and harmonious association so essential to the proper exhibition of art. For it is essential that every variety of artistic development should be associated solely with those objects or conditions most in keeping with its inspirations. In this way we quickest come to an understanding of its originating idea, and sympathize with its feeling, tracing its progress from infancy to maturity and decay, and comparing it as a whole with corresponding or rival varieties of artistic development. This systematized variety of one great unity is of the highest importance in placing the spectator in affinity with art as a whole and with its diversities of character, and in giving him sound stand-points of comparison and criticism. In this way, as in the Louvre, feeling and thought are readily transported from one epoch of civilization to another, grasping the motives and execution of each with pleasurable accuracy. We perceive that no conventional standard of criticism, founded upon the opinions or fashions of one age, is applicable to all. To rightly comprehend each, we must broadly survey the entire ground of art, and make ourselves for the time members, as it were, of the political and social conditions of life that give origin to the objects of our investigations. This philosophical mode of viewing art does not exclude an æsthetic point of view, but rather heightens that and makes it more intelligible. Paganism would be subdivided into the various national forms that illustrated its rise and fall. Egypt, India, China, Assyria, Greece, Etruria, and Rome, would stand each by itself as a component part of a great whole : so with Christianity, in such shapes as have already taken foothold in history, the Latin, Byzantine, Lombard, Mediaeval, Renaissant, and Protestant art, subdivided into its diversified schools or leading ideas, all graphically arranged so as to demonstrate, amid the infinite varieties of humanity, a divine unity of origin and design, linking together mankind in one common family.

Beside statuary and paintings, an institution of this nature should contain specimens of every kind of industry in which art is the primary inspiration, to illustrate the qualities and degrees of social refinement in nations and eras. This would include every variety of ornamental art in which invention and skill are conspicuous, as well as those works more directly inspired by higher motives and intended as a joy forever. Architecture and objects not transportable could be represented by casts or photographs. Models, drawings, and engravings also come within its scope; and there should be attached to the parent gallery a library of reference and a lectureand reading-room.

Connected with it there might be schools of design for improvement in ornamental manufacture, the development of architecture, and whatever aids to refine and give beauty to social life, including a simple academic system for the elementary branches of drawing and coloring, upon a scientific basis of accumulated knowledge and experience, providing models and other advantages not readily accessible to private resources, but leaving individual genius free to follow its own promptings upon a well-laid technical foundation. As soon as the young artist has acquired the grammar of his profession, he should be sent forth to study directly from Nature and to mature his invention unfettered by authoritative academic system, which more frequently fosters conventionalism and imposes trammels upon talent than endows it with strength and freedom.

Such is a brief sketch of institutions feasible amongst us from humble beginnings by individual enterprise. Once founded and their value demonstrated, the countenance of the state may be hopefully invoked. Their very existence would become an incentive to munificent gifts. Individuals owning fine works of art would grow ambitious to have their memories associated with patriotic enterprise. Art invokes liberality and evokes fraternity. The sentiment, that there is a common property in the productions of genius, making possession a trust for the public welfare, will increase among those by whose taste and wealth they have been accumulated. Masterpieces will cease to be regarded as the selfish acqtusitions of covetous amateurs, but, like spoken truth, will become the inalienable birthright of the people,— finding their way freely and generously, through the magnetic influences of public spirit and pertinent examples, to those depositories where they can most efficaciously perform their mission of truth and beauty to the world. Then the people themselves will begin to take pride in their artistic wealth, to honor artists as they now do soldiers and statesmen, and to value the more highly those virtues which are interwoven with all noble effort.

In 1823, when the National Gallery of England was founded, the English were nearly as dead to art as we are now. A few amateurs alone cultivated it, but there was no general sympathy with nor knowledge of it. Yet by 1837, in donations alone, the gallery had received one hundred and thirty-seven pictures. Since that period gifts have increased tenfold in value and numbers. Connected with it, and a part of that noble, comprehensive, and munificent system of art-education which the British government has inculcated, are the British and Kensington Museums. Schools of design, with every appliance for the growth of art, have rapidly sprung into existence. Private enterprise and research have correspondingly increased. British agents, with unstinted means, are everywhere ransacking the earth in quest of everything that can add to the value and utility of their national and private collections. A keen regard for all that concerns art, a desire for its national development, an enlightened standard of criticism, and with it the most eloquent art-literature of any tongue, have all recently sprung into existence in our motherland. All honor to those generous spirits that have produced this,—and honor to the nation that so wisely expends its wealth ! A noble example for America ! England also throws open to the competition of the world plans for her public buildings and monuments. Mistakes and defects there have been, but an honest desire for amendment and to promote the intellectual growth of the nation now characterizes her pioneers in this cause. And what progress! Between 1823 and 1850, in the Museum alone, there have been expended $ 10,000,000. Within twelve years, S 450,000 have been expended on the National Gallery for pictures, and yet its largest accession of treasures is by gifts and bequests. Lately, beside the Pisani Veronese bought for $ 70,000, eight, other paintings have been purchased at a cost of $50,000. In 1858, $36,000 were given for the choice of twenty, of the early Italian schools, from the Lombardi Gallery at Florence, — not masterpieces, but simply characteristic specimens, more or less restored. The average cost of late acquisitions has been about $6,000 each. In 1858, there were 823,000 visitors to both branches of the National Gallery. Who can estimate not alone the pleasure and instruction afforded by such an institution to its million of annual visitors, but the ideas and inspiration thence born, destined to grow and fructify to the glory and good of the nation? At present there are seventy-seven schools of art in England, attended by 68,000 students. In 1859, they and kindred institutions received a public grant of nearly $450,000. The appropriation for the British Museum alone, for 1860, is £77,452.

To the Louvre Louis XVIII. added one hundred and eleven pictures, at a cost of about $132,000 ; Charles X., twenty-four, at $12,000; Louis Philippe, fiftythree, at $14,500; and Napoleon III., thus far, thirty paintings, costing $200,000, one of which, the Murillo, cost $125,000. Russia is following in the same path. Italy, Greece, and Egypt, by stringent regulations, are making it yearly more difficult for any precious work to leave their shores. If, therefore, America is ever to follow in the same path, she must soon bestir herself, or she will have nothing but barren fields to glean from.