William Blake writes in the marginalia to his copy of Reynold’s Discourses that, “singular and particular detail is the foundation to the sublime.” (Blake, Marginalia to Reynold’s Discourses, Discourse III, 1808) When I reflect on ancient Greek sculpture, I find two things- the Ideal form combined with a particularness of detail- the detail being not of a specific individual but the anatomical detail carefully observed and understood, a combination of what one sees in the living model combined with an aesthetics of beauty. When I reflect on the wonderful portraits of Frans Hals, I see in them the love of humanity and the individual. His paintings are very specific and their beauty depends on his truthfulness to what is before him. Are these two poles, the ideal and the individual, struggling against one another or are they two sides to the same coin? In the nineteenth century this was hotly debated. Today, we seem to favor the specific over generalization as a philosophy of beauty.
Truth is specific. I believe Henri and Hals would agree. Their deep love of humanity connecting them to the individual. Their work honors man in all his particular qualities yet somehow it still taps into a broader and greater “self”. Henri referred to those he painted as “my people”, “The people I like to paint are “my people”, whoever they may be, wherever they may exist, the people through whom dignity of life is manifest…whose love, poetry, simplicity and humor have enriched my existence, just as completely as though each of these people were of my own country…” (Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, p.143). Does not the specific lead us to a broader connection – the individual particulars guiding us to a greater underlying truth?
Blake states again in the Discourses, “Knowledge of Ideal Beauty is not to be Acquired. It is Born with us. Innate Ideas are in Every Man Born with him. they are truly Himself.” ( Blake, Ibid.)(the capitals are Blake’s) The Ideal seems to be innate whereas the specific must be sought for. I have a Japanese woodblock print of three crows in a tree. I purchased it when I lived in the city of New Haven because I had a pair of crows nest in the highest part of a maple behind a third floor apartment I rented. I could see them directly from my window and they provided a connection to the natural world that was lacking in the city. Later, I moved to the Catskill mountains. Behind my property was a dead tree and peculiarly there are four pairs of crows who rest there every night. My print hangs next to my back window and from this vantage I am amazed how many times my crows directly reflect the print itself. Or possibly I should say the print directly reflects the crows. The artist, by capturing the specific characteristics of the crows, somehow tapped into the very essence of what a crow inherently is and its larger connection to the natural world. The exterior manifestation leading to an interior understanding. The specific guiding us to something we know innately to be true.
I believe Ralph Waldo Emerson hits it on the mark. The first page of my journal contains this quote from Emerson’s essay on Nature, 1856– “The eros of the eye that is visual art: striking the viewer so deeply, with such authority, the merely personal is obliterated and something like an archetypal self is evoked.” The artist by rendering the particulars of what is before him, and rendering them with force and skill, he allows the psyche to enter into a deeper understanding of self and one’s relationship to the world. In a sense, the modern tendency to admire the specific has its roots here. Henri, being an advocate of this philosophy, did not allow himself to ignore his over arching belief in the oneness of all things. In the end, both Henri and the Greeks sought the “real” from two different perspectives but with the same goal- a self knowledge that renders a greater understanding and appreciation of the world. Henri compares the old masters with the moderns, “All his science and all his powers of invention must be brought into practice to capture the vision of an illusive moment. It is as though he were in pursuit of something more real which he knows but has not as yet fully realized…” (Henri, Ibid.,p.63)