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The poem of M. Du Fresnoy, when considered as a treatise on Painting, may unquestionably claim the merit of giving the leading principles of the art with more precision, conciseness, and accuracy, than any work of the kind that has either preceded or followed it; yet as it was published about the middle of the seventeenth century, many of the precepts it contains have been so frequently repeated by later writers, that they have lost the air of novelty, and will, consequently, now be held common; some of them too may, perhaps, not be so generally true as to claim the authority of absolute rules: yet the reader of taste will always be pleased to see a Frenchman holding out to his countrymen the study of nature, and the chaste models of antiquity, when (if we except Le Sueur and Nicolo Poussin, who were Fresnoy's contemporaries) so few painters of that nation have regarded either of these archetypes. The modern artist also will be proud to emulate that simplicity of style, which this work has for more than a century recommended ; and which, having only very lately got the better of fluttering drapery and theatrical attitude, is become one of the principal tests of picturesque excellence.
But if the text may have lost somewhat of its original merit, the notes of M. du Piles, which have hitherto accompanied it, have lost much more. Indeed it may be doubted whether they ever had merit in any considerable degree. Certain it is that they contain such a parade of common-place quotation, with so small a degree of illustrative science, that I have thought proper to expel them from this edition, in order to make room for their betters.
As to the poetical powers of my author, I do not suppose that these alone would ever have given him a place in the numerous libraries which he now holds; and I have, therefore, often wondered that M. de Voltaire, when he gave an account of the authors who appeared in the age of Louis XIV. should dismiss Fresnoy, with saying, in his decisive manner, that “ his poem has succeeded with such persons as could bear to read Latin verse," not of the Augustan* age.
* Du Fresnoi (Charles) né à Paris 1611, peintre et poête. Son poême de la peinture a réussi auprès de ceux qui peuvent lire d'autres vers Latins que ceux du siècle d'Auguste.
Siècle de Louis XIV. Tom. I.
This is the criticism of a mere poet. Nobody, I should suppose, ever read Fresnoy to admire, or even criticise his versification, but either to be instructed by him as a painter, or improved as a virtuoso.
It was this latter motive only, I confess, that led me to attempt the following translation; which was begun in very early youth, with a double view of implanting in my own memory the principles of a favourite art, and of acquiring a habit of versification; for which purpose the close and condensed style of the original seemed peculiarly calculated, especially when considered as a sort of school exercise. However, the task proved so difficult, that when I had gone through a part of it I remitted of my diligence, and proceeded at such separate intervals, that I had passed many posterior productions through the press before this was brought to any conclusion in manuscript; and after it was so, it lay long neglected, and would certainly have never been made public, had not Sir Joshua Reynolds requested a sight of it, and made an obliging offer of illustrating it by a series of his own notes. This prompted me to revise it with all possible accuracy; and as I had preserved the strictures which my late excellent friend Mr. Gray had made
many years before on the version, as it then stood, I attended to each of them in their order with that deference which every criticism of his must demand. Besides this, as much more time was now elapsed since I had perused the copy, my own eye was become more open to its defects. I found the rule which my author had given to his painter full as useful to a writer:
(Ast ubi consilium deerit sapientis amici,
And I may say with truth, that having become from this circumstance, as impartial, if not as fastidious, to my own work, as any other critic could possibly have been, I hardly left a single line in it without giving it, what I thought, an emendation. It is not, therefore, as a juvenile work that I now present it to the public, but as one which 'I have improved to the utmost of my mature abilities, in order to make it more worthy of its annotator.
In the preceding Epistle I have obviated, I hope, every suspicion of arrogance in attempting this work after Mr. Dryden. The single consideration that his version was in prose were in itself sufficient; because, as Mr. Pope has justly observed, verse and even rhyme is the best mode of conveying preceptive truths, “ as in this way they are more shortly expressed and more easily retained."* Still less need I make an apology for undertaking
See his advertisement before his Essay on Man.
it after Mr. Wills, who in the year 1754 published a translation of it in metre without rhyme.t
This gentleman, a painter by profession, assumed for his motto,
Tractant fabrilia fabri; but however adroit he might be in handling the tools of his own art, candour must own that the tools of a poet and a translator were beyond his management: attempting also a task absolutely impossible, that of expressing the sense of his author in an equal number of lines, he produced a version, which (if it was ever read through by any person except himself) is now totally forgotten. Nevertheless I must do him the justice to own, that he understood the original text; that he detected some errors in Mr. Dryden's translation, which had escaped Mr. Jervas (as. sisted, as it is said, by his friend Mr. Pope) in that corrected edition which Mr. Graham inscribed
+ I call it so rather than blank verse, because it was devoid of all harmony of numbers. The beginning, which I shall here insert, is a sufficient proof of the truth of this assertion :
As Painting, Poesy, so similar
Mute verse is this, that speaking picture called. From this little specimen the reader will easily form a judgment of the whole.