Studies: On the imitation of statues

Peter Paul Rubens

On the imitation of statues

[The manuscript of Ruben's assay was owned by Roger de Piles, who first published it in his book: "Cours de peinture par principes", Paris, 1708. The translation given here is that of the English edition: "The principles of painting", London, 1743. ]

To some painters the imitation of the antique statues has been extremely useful, and to others pernicious, even to the ruin of their art. I conclude, however, that in order to attain the highest perfection in painting it is necessary to understand the antiques, nay, to be so thoroughly possessed of this knowledge that it may diffuse itself everywhere. Yet it must be judiciously applied and so that it may not in the least smell of the stone. For several ignorant painters, and even some who are skilful, make no distinction between the matter and the form, the stone and the figure, the necessity of using the block, and the art of forming it.

It is certain, however, that as the finest statues are extremely beneficial, so the bad are not only useless but even pernicious. For beginners learn from them I know not what that is crude, liny, stiff, and of harsh anatomy: and while they take themselves to be good proficients do but disgrace nature: since instead of imitating flesh they only represent marble tinged with various colours. For there ate many things to be taken notice of and avoided which happen even in the best statues, without the workman's fault: especially with regard to the difference of shades, where the flesh, skin and cartilages by their diaphanous nature, soften, as it were, the harshness of a great many outlines, and wear of those rugged breaks which in statues, by the force and depth of their shade, make the stone, tho' very opaque, appear still more opaque and impenetrable to light than it really is. There are, besides, certain places in the natural which change their figure according to the various motions of the body and, by reason of contracted. These are avoided by the generality of sculptors: yet are sometimes admitted into use by the most excellent, and are certainly necessary to painting; but must be used with moderation. To this we extremely different form the natural; for the gloss of the stone and sharpness of the light that strikes it raise the surface above its proper pitch or at least fascinate the eye.

He who has, with discernment, made the proper distinctions in these cases cannot consider the antique statues too attentively nor study them to carefully; for we of this erroneous age are so fear degenerate that we can produce nothing like them: Whether it is that our grovelling genius will not permit us to soar to those heights which the antients attained by their heroick sense and superior parts; or that we are wrapt up in the darkness that overclouded our fathers; or that it is the will of God, because we have neglected to amend our former errors, that we should fall from them into worse; or that the world growing old, our minds grow with irrecoverably weak; of in fine, that nature herself furnished the human body, in those early ages, when it was nearer its origin and perfection, with everything that could make it a perfect model; but now being decay'd and corcupted by a succession of so many ages, vices and accidents has lost its efficacy, and only scatters those perfections among many, which it used formerly to bestow upon one. In this manner, the human natrure may be proved from many authors to have gradually decreased: For both scared and profane writers have related many things concerning the age of heroes, giants and Cyclopes, in which accounts, if there are many things that are fabulous, there is certainly some truth.

The chief reason why men of our age are different form the antients is sloth and want of exercise; for most men give no other exercise to their body but eating and drinking. No wonder therefore if we see so many paunch-bellies, weak and pitiful legs and arms, that seem to reproach themselves with their idleness: whereas the antients exercised their bodies every day in the academies and other places for that purpose and exercised them so violently as to sweat and fatigue them perhaps, too much. See in "Mercuraialis de arte gymnastica" how many various exercises they took, how difficult, and what vigour of constitution they required. Thus all those parts of the body which are fed by idleness were worn away, the belly was kept within its bounds, and what would have otherwise swelled it was converted into flesh and muscles: For the arms, legs, neck, shoulders, and whatever works in the body, are assisted by exercise and nourish'd with juice drawn into them by heat, and thus increase exceedingly both in strength and size: as appears from the backs of porters, the arms of prize fighters, the legs of dancers, and almost the whole body of watermen.

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