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HIS vast theme, to the illustration of which the
finest intellects and the most assiduous study
a “garland” of literary leaves, destined to be laid at the feet of our illustrious sovereign, I will do my best to justify the compliment.
Whilst renouncing the pretension to offer any novel or striking views on the subject, I propose to take a short survey of the comparative position occupied by the arts, and of the character imparted to them by cotemporary influences, at different stages of the history of mankind.
That the function of art is to act upon the imagination through the senses, is a proposition familiar to all of us. The
precise form, however, in which this action shall exert itself must depend upon the state in which the popular imagination of the period happens to be. In an early stage of social development the prevalent ideas are few, simple, and deepseated. The ancient architecture of the world accordingly combines grandeur and simplicity with perfect adaptation to its ends. In pictorial efforts, the primitive features of interest ever present in early societies constitute the subjects; as war, hunting, and pompous ceremonials. In proportion as the course of human thought advances, subjects multiply. The introduction of female figures attests a certain improvement in the social habits. Farther on, a conception of grace united with strength is engendered by the habitual contemplation of the unclothed human body; and the pourtrayal of this, under diversified action, comes to be regarded with pleasure. It was among the small Greek communities that this power of producing, in marble and on canvas, examples of the finest forms of both sexes reached its climax. An attentive study on the part of their artists of the living beauty and symmetry continually present to their eye, was of incalculable importance in the culture and practice of imitative art.
To this they superadded the closest devotion to the technical branch of their art; the “treatment," the disposition of drapery, the composition and character of their figures. The minute study of external configuration did, in fact, with the Greek sculptors, supply the absence of anatomical science; and it may admit of a question whether a knowledge of this would have enhanced the effect or the accuracy of their delineations; such was the familiarity of their eye with the situation and functions of the muscles, and with the mutual relations of the osseous structure. The
sources from whence we derive our widest acquaintance with the pictorial genius of the ancient Greeks, are their vessels of earthenware, to which may be added a small number of fresco paintings. In the urns and vases, of which innumerable specimens are to be found in public collections and many in private dwellings, the subjects almost exclusively consist of men, women, and animals, of which endless groups are arranged, illustrative of habits, manners, and, sometimes even, of passions; not unfrequently the mythology of the heathen world furnishes the matter of the composition, and nothing can surpass the charm which is present in these poetical representations when executed by the best artists of the period.
In the relics of ancient Greece, then, are to be found the highest examples of that branch of art which is devoted to the human form and its attributes. That nations, sprung into existence since that time, have reached considerable excellence in art, is indisputable; but not one has arrived at equal mastery with the Greeks, in the creative vein of sculpture. To enter upon a speculative disquisition, as to the causes which gave rise to this acknowledged supremacy, would be a task too comprehensive for the present occasion. If I may be permitted to express an opinion, it is that the two main sources whence this supremacy took its rise, were-1. The peculiar cast of the Greek mind, demanding, as it did, to be occupied with the study of man, to the exclusion of the rest of creation, and thus craviny, at the hands of art ministers, exhibitions of the human efligy under interesting aspects, suggestive of some dominant sentiment, whether heroic, religious, or amorous; and 2. The advantages enjoyed by the artists of constant, familiar observation of the nude figure,