It may be seriously questioned by the reader how much of painting talent we really lose on our present system, and how much we should gain by the proposed trial schools. For it might be thought, that as matters stand at present, we have more painters than we ought to have, having so many bad ones, and that all youths who had true painters' genius forced their way out of obscurity.
This is not so. It is difficult to analyse the characters of mind which cause youths to mistake their vocation, and to endeavour to become artists, when they have no true artist's gift. But the fact is, that multitudes of young men do this, and that by far the greater number of living artists are men who have mistaken their vocation. The peculiar circumstances of modern life, which exhibit art in almost every form to the sight of the youths in our great cities, have a natural tendency to fill their imaginations with borrowed ideas, and their minds with imperfect science; the mere dislike of mechanical employments, either felt to be irksome, or believed to be degrading, urges numbers of young men to become painters, in the same temper in which they would enlist or go to sea; others, the sons of engravers or artists, taught the business of the art by their parents, and having no gift for it themselves, follow it as the means of livelihood, ill an ignoble patience; or, if ambitious, seek to attract regard, or distance rivalry, by fantastic, meretricious, or unprecedented applications of their mechanical skill; while finally, many men earnest in feeling, and conscientious in principle, mistake their desire to be useful for a love of art, and their quickness of emotion for its capacity, and pass their lives in painting moral and instructive pictures, which might almost justify us in thinking nobody could be a painter but a rogue. On the other hand, I believe that much of the best artistical intellect is daily lost in other avocations. Generally, the temper which would make an admirable artist is humble and observant, capable of taking much interest in little things, and of entertaining itself pleasantly in the dullest circumstances. Suppose, added to these characters, a steady conscientiousness which seeks to do its duty wherever it may be placed, and the power, denied to few artistical minds, of ingenious invention in almost any practical department of human skill, and it can hardly be doubted that the very humility and conscientiousness which would have perfected the painter, have in many instances prevented his becoming one; and that in the quiet life of our steady craftsmen —sagacious manufacturers and uncomplaining clerks —there may frequently be concealed more genius than ever is raised to the direction of our public works, or to be the mark of our public praises.
It is indeed probable, that intense disposition for art will conquer the most formidable obstacles, if the surrounding circumstances are such as at all to present the idea of such conquest, to the mind; but we have no ground for concluding that Giotto would ever have been more than a shepherd, if Cimabue had not by chance found him drawing; or that among the shepherds of the Apennines there were no other Giottos, undiscovered by Cimabue. We are too much in the habit of considering happy accidents as what are called "special Providences"; and thinking that when any great work needs to be done, the man who is to do it will certainly be pointed out by Providence, be he shepherd or sea-boy; and prepared for his work by all kinds of minor providences, in the best possible way. Whereas all the analogies of God's operations in other matters prove the contrary of this; we find that "of thousand seeds, He often brings but one to bear", often not one; and the one seed which He appoints to bear is allowed to bear crude or perfect fruit according to the dealings of the husbandman with it. And there cannot be a doubt in the mind of any person accustomed to take broad and logical views of the world's history, that its events are ruled by Providence in precisely the same manner as its harvests; that the seeds of good and evil are broadcast among men, just as the seeds of thistles and fruits are; and that according to the force of our industry, and wisdom of our husbandry, the ground will bring forth to us figs or thistles. So that when at seems needed that a certain work should be done for the world, and no man is there to do it, we have no right to say that God did not wish it to be done, and therefore sent no man able to do it. The probability (if I wrote my own convictions, I should say certainty) is, that He sent many men, hundreds of men, able to do it; and that we have rejected them, or crushed them; by our previous folly of conduct or of institution, we have rendered it impossible to distinguish, or impossible to reach them; and when the need for them comes, and we suffer for the want of them, it is not that God refuses to send us deliverers, and specially appoints all our consequent sufferings; but that He has sent, and we have refused, the deliverers; and the pain is then wrought out by His eternal law, as surely as famine is wrought out by eternal law for a nation which will neither plough nor sow. No less are we in error in supposing, as we so frequently do, that if a man be found, he is sure to be in all respects fitted for the work to be done, as the key is to the lock; and that every accident which happened in the forging him, only adapted him more truly to the wards. It is pitiful to hear historians beguiling themselves and their readers, by tracing in the early history of great men, the minor circumstances which fitted them for the work they did, without ever taking notice of the other circumstances which as assuredly unfitted them for it; so concluding that miraculous interposition prepared them in all points for everything and that they did all that could have been desired or hoped for from them: whereas the certainty of the matter is that, throughout their lives, they were thwarted and corrupted by some things as certainly as they were helped and disciplined by others; and that, in the kindliest and most reverent view which can justly be taken of them, they were but poor mistaken creatures, struggling with a world more profoundly mistaken than they; —assuredly sinned against, or sinning in thousands of ways, and bringing out at last a maimed result —not what they might or ought to have done, but all that could be done against the world's resistance, and in spite of their own sorrowful falsehood to themselves.
And this being so, it is the practical duty of a wise nation, first to withdraw, as far as may be, its youth from destructive influences; —then to try its material as far as possible, and to lose the use of none that is good. I do not mean by "withdrawing from destructive influences" the keeping of youth out of trials; but the keeping them out of the way of thing, purely and absolutely mischievous. I do not mean that we should shade our green corn in all heat, and shelter it in all frost: but only that we should dyke out the inundation from it, and drive the fowls away from it. Let your youth labour and suffer; but do not let it starve, nor steal, nor blaspheme.
It is not, of course, in my power here to enter into details of schemes of education; and it will be long before the results of experiments now in progress will give data for the solution of the most difficult questions connected with the subject, of which the principal one is the mode in which the chance of advancement in life is to be extended to all, and yet made compatible with contentment in the pursuit of lower avocations by those whose abilities do not qualify them for the higher. But the general principle of trial schools lies at the root of the matter-of schools, that is to say, in which the knowledge offered and discipline enforced shall be all a part of a great assay of the human soul, and in which the one shall be increased, the other directed, as the tried heart and brain will best bear, and no otherwise. One thing, however, I must say, that in this trial I believe all emulation to be a false motive, and all giving of prizes a false means. All that you can depend upon in a boy, as siguificative of true power, likely to issue in good fruit, is his will to work for the work's sake, not his desire to surpass his schoolfellows; and the aim of the teaching you give him ought to be, to prove to him and strengthen in him his own separate gift, not to puff him into swollen rivalry with those who are everlastingly greater than he: still less ought you to hang favours and ribands about the neck of the creature who is the greatest, to make the rest envy him. Try to make them love him and follow him, not struggle with him.
The Natural Pre-Eminence Of One Man Over Another
There must, of course, be examination to ascertain and attest both progress and relative capacity; but our aim should be to make the students rather look upon it as a means of ascertaining their own true positions and powers in the world, than as an arena in which to carry away a present victory. I have not, perhaps, in the course of the lecture, insisted enough on the nature of relative capacity and individual character, as the roots of all real value in Art. We are too much in the habit, in these days, of acting as if Art worth a price in the market were a commodity which people could be generally taught to produce, and as if the education of the artist, not his capacity, gave the sterling value to his work. No impression can possibly be more absurd or false. Whatever people can teach each other to do, they will estimate, and ought to estimate, only as common industry; nothing will ever fetch a high price but precisely that which cannot be taught, and which nobody can do but the man from whom it is purchased. No state of society, nor stage of knowledge, ever does away with the natural pre-eminence of one man over another; and it is that pre-eminence, and that only, which will give work high value in the market, or which ought to do so. It is a bad sign of the judgment, and bad omen for the progress, of a nation, if it supposes itself to possess many artists of equal merit. Noble art is nothing less than the expression of a great soul; and great souls are not common things. If ever we confound their work with that of others, it is not through liberality, but through blindness.