Story type: Essay
Animum pictura pascit inani.
VIRG., AEn. i. 464.
And with the shadowy picture feeds his mind.
When the weather hinders me from taking my diversions without-doors, I frequently make a little party, with two or three select friends, to visit anything curious that may be seen under cover. My principal entertainments of this nature are pictures, insomuch that when I have found the weather set in to be very bad, I have taken a whole day’s journey to see a gallery that is furnished by the hands of great masters. By this means, when the heavens are filled with clouds, when the earth swims in rain, and all nature wears a lowering countenance, I withdraw myself from these uncomfortable scenes, into the visionary worlds of art; where I meet with shining landscapes, gilded triumphs, beautiful faces, and all those other objects that fill the mind with gay ideas, and disperse that gloominess which is apt to hang upon it in those dark disconsolate seasons.
I was some weeks ago in a course of these diversions, which had taken such an entire possession of my imagination that they formed in it a short morning’s dream, which I shall communicate to my reader, rather as the first sketch and outlines of a vision, than as a finished piece.
I dreamt that I was admitted into a long, spacious gallery, which had one side covered with pieces of all the famous painters who are now living, and the other with the works of the greatest masters that are dead.
On the side of the living, I saw several persons busy in drawing, colouring, and designing. On the side of the dead painters, I could not discover more than one person at work, who was exceeding slow in his motions, and wonderfully nice in his touches.
I was resolved to examine the several artists that stood before me, and accordingly applied myself to the side of the living. The first I observed at work in this part of the gallery was Vanity, with his hair tied behind him in a riband, and dressed like a Frenchman. All the faces he drew were very remarkable for their smiles, and a certain smirking air which he bestowed indifferently on every age and degree of either sex. The toujours gai appeared even in his judges, bishops, and Privy Councillors. In a word, all his men were petits maitres, and all his women coquettes. The drapery of his figures was extremely well suited to his faces, and was made up of all the glaring colours that could be mixed together; every part of the dress was in a flutter, and endeavoured to distinguish itself above the rest.
On the left hand of Vanity stood a laborious workman, who I found was his humble admirer, and copied after him. He was dressed like a German, and had a very hard name that sounded something like Stupidity.
The third artist that I looked over was Fantasque, dressed like a Venetian scaramouch. He had an excellent hand at chimera, and dealt very much in distortions and grimaces. He would sometimes affright himself with the phantoms that flowed from his pencil. In short, the most elaborate of his pieces was at best but a terrifying dream: and one could say nothing more of his finest figures than that they were agreeable monsters.
The fourth person I examined was very remarkable for his hasty hand, which left his pictures so unfinished that the beauty in the picture, which was designed to continue as a monument of it to posterity, faded sooner than in the person after whom it was drawn. He made so much haste to despatch his business that he neither gave himself time to clean his pencils nor mix his colours. The name of this expeditious workman was Avarice.
Not far from this artist I saw another of a quite different nature, who was dressed in the habit of a Dutchman, and known by the name of Industry. His figures were wonderfully laboured. If he drew the portraiture of a man, he did not omit a single hair in his face; if the figure of a ship, there was not a rope among the tackle that escaped him. He had likewise hung a great part of the wall with night-pieces, that seemed to show themselves by the candles which were lighted up in several parts of them; and were so inflamed by the sunshine which accidentally fell upon them, that at first sight I could scarce forbear crying out “Fire!”
The five foregoing artists were the most considerable on this side the gallery; there were indeed several others whom I had not time to look into. One of them, however, I could not forbear observing, who was very busy in retouching the finest pieces, though he produced no originals of his own. His pencil aggravated every feature that was before overcharged, loaded every defect, and poisoned every colour it touched. Though this workman did so much mischief on the side of the living, he never turned his eye towards that of the dead. His name was Envy.
Having taken a cursory view of one side of the gallery, I turned myself to that which was filled by the works of those great masters that were dead; when immediately I fancied myself standing before a multitude of spectators, and thousands of eyes looking upon me at once: for all before me appeared so like men and women, that I almost forgot they were pictures. Raphael’s pictures stood in one row, Titian’s in another, Guido Rheni’s in a third. One part of the wall was peopled by Hannabal Carrache, another by Correggio, and another by Rubens. To be short, there was not a great master among the dead who had not contributed to the embellishment of this side of the gallery. The persons that owed their being to these several masters appeared all of them to be real and alive, and differed among one another only in the variety of their shapes, complexions, and clothes; so that they looked like different nations of the same species.
Observing an old man, who was the same person I before mentioned, as the only artist that was at work on this side of the gallery, creeping up and down from one picture to another, and retouching all the fine pieces that stood before me, I could not but be very attentive to all his motions. I found his pencil was so very light that it worked imperceptibly, and after a thousand touches scarce produced any visible effect in the picture on which he was employed. However, as he busied himself incessantly, and repeated touch after touch without rest or intermission, he wore off insensibly every little disagreeable gloss that hung upon a figure. He also added such a beautiful brown to the shades, and mellowness to the colours, that he made every picture appear more perfect than when it came fresh from the master’s pencil. I could not forbear looking upon the face of this ancient workman, and immediately by the long lock of hair upon his forehead, discovered him to be Time.
Whether it were because the thread of my dream was at an end I cannot tell, but, upon my taking a survey of this imaginary old man, my sleep left me.