I was lately walking home after lecturing, when a number of my audience (you are now my friends, gentlemen, and there can be no objection to my telling you this)— these persons, then, came to me and introduced themselves, with the air of admiring hearers. They accompanied me a considerable way, with such laudatory exclamations that I was reduced to blushing at the discrepancy between praise and thing praised. Their chief point, which they were absolutely unanimous in emphasizing, was that the substance of my work was so fresh, so crammed with novelty. I had better give you their actual phrases: ‘How new! What paradoxes, to be sure! What invention the man has! His ideas are quite unequalled for originality.’ They said a great deal of this sort about my fascinating lecture, as they called it; they could have had no motive for pretending, or addressing such flatteries to a stranger who had no independent claims on their attention.
These commendations, to be quite frank, were very far from gratifying to me; when at length they left me to myself, my reflections took this course:— So the only attraction in my work is that it is unusual, and does not follow the beaten track; good vocabulary, orthodox composition, insight, subtlety, Attic grace, general constructive skill — these may for aught I know be completely wanting; else indeed they would hardly have left them unnoticed, and approved my method only as new and startling. Fool that I was, I did indeed guess, when they jumped up to applaud, that novelty was part of the attraction; I knew that Homer spoke truly when he said there is favour for the new song; but I did not see that novelty was to have so vast a share — the whole, indeed — of the credit; I thought it gave a sort of adventitious charm, and contributed, its part to the success, but that the real object of commendation — what extracted the cheers — was those other qualities. Why, I have been absurdly self-satisfied, and come very near believing them when they called me the one and only real Greek, and such nonsense. But behold, my gold is turned to ashes; my fame, after all, is little different from that enjoyed by a conjuror.
Now I should like to give you an illustration from painting. The great Zeuxis, after he had established his artistic supremacy, seldom or never painted such common popular subjects as Heroes, Gods, and battle-pieces; he was always intent on novelty; he would hit upon some extravagant and strange design, and then use it to show his mastery of the art. One of these daring pieces of his represented a female Centaur, nursing a pair of infant Centaur twins. There is a copy of the picture now at Athens, taken exactly from the original. The latter is said to have been put on ship — board for Italy with the rest of Sulla’s art treasures, and to have been lost with them by the sinking of the ship, off Malea, I think it was. The picture of the picture I have seen, and the best word-picture I can manage of that I am now to give you; I am no connoisseur, you must understand, but I have a vivid recollection of it as I saw it in an Athenian studio not long ago; and my warm admiration of it as a work of art may perhaps inspire me with a clear description.
On fresh green-sward appears the mother Centaur, the whole equine part of her stretched on the ground, her hoofs extended backwards; the human part is slightly raised on the elbows; the fore feet are not extended like the others, for she is only partially on her side; one of them is bent as in the act of kneeling, with the hoof tucked in, while the other is beginning to straighten and take a hold on the ground — the action of a horse rising. Of the cubs she is holding one in her arms suckling it in the human fashion, while the other is drawing at the mare’s dug like a foal. In the upper part of the picture, as on higher ground, is a Centaur who is clearly the husband of the nursing mother; he leans over laughing, visible only down to the middle of his horse body; he holds a lion whelp aloft in his right hand, terrifying the youngsters with it in sport.
There are no doubt qualities in the painting which evade analysis by a mere amateur, and yet involve supreme craftsmanship — such things as precision of line, perfect mastery of the palette, clever brush-work, management of shadow, perspective, proportion, and relation of the parts to the whole; but I leave all that to the professionals whose business it is to appreciate it; what strikes me especially about Zeuxis is the manifold scope which he has found for his extraordinary skill, in a single subject. You have in the husband a truly terrible savage creature; his locks toss about, he is almost covered with hair, human part as well as equine; the shoulders high to monstrosity; the look, even in his merry mood, brutal, uncivilized, wild.
In contrast with him, the animal half of the female is lovely; a Thessalian filly, yet unbroken and unbacked, might come nearest; and the human upper half is also most beautiful, with the one exception of the ears, which are pointed as in a satyr. At the point of junction which blends the two natures, there is no sharp line of division, but the most gradual of transitions; a touch here, a trait there, and you are surprised to find the change complete. It was perfectly wonderful, again, to see the combination of wildness and infancy, of terrible and tender, in the young ones, looking up in baby curiosity at the lion-cub, while they held on to breast and dug, and cuddled close to their dam.
Zeuxis imagined that when the picture was shown the technique of it would take visitors by storm. Well, they did acclaim him; they could hardly help that, with such a masterpiece before them; but their commendations were all in the style of those given to me the other night; it was the strangeness of the idea, the fresh unhackneyed sentiment of the picture, and so on. Zeuxis saw that they were preoccupied with the novelty of his subject, art was at a discount, and truth of rendering quite a minor matter. ‘Oh, pack it up, Miccio,’ he said to his pupil, ‘and you and the others take it home; these people are delighted with the earthy part of the work; the questions of its aim, its beauty, its artistic merit, are of no importance whatever; novelty of subject goes for much more than truth of rendering.’
So said Zeuxis, not in the best of tempers. Antiochus Soter had a somewhat similar experience about his battle with the Galatians. If you will allow me, I propose to give you an account of that event also. These people were good fighters, and on this occasion in great force; they were drawn up in a serried phalanx, the first rank, which consisted of steel-clad warriors, being supported by men of the ordinary heavy-armed type to the depth of four-and-twenty; twenty thousand cavalry held the flanks; and there were eighty scythed, and twice that number of ordinary war chariots ready to burst forth from the centre. These dispositions filled Antiochus with apprehension, and he thought the task was too hard for him. His own preparations had been hurried, on no great scale, and inadequate to the occasion; he had brought quite a small force, mostly of skirmishers and light-armed troops; more than half his men were without defensive armour. He was disposed to negotiate and find some honourable composition.
Theodotas of Rhodes, however, a brave and skilful officer, put him in heart again. Antiochus had sixteen elephants; Theodotas advised him to conceal these as well as he could for the present, not letting their superior height betray them; when the signal for battle was given, the shock just at hand, the enemy’s cavalry charging, and their phalanx opening to give free passage to the chariots, then would be the time for the elephants. A section of four was to meet the cavalry on each flank, and the remaining eight to engage the chariot squadron. ‘By this means,’ he concluded, ‘the horses will be frightened, and there will be a stampede into the Galatian infantry.’ His anticipations were realized, thus:
Neither the Galatians nor their horses had ever seen an elephant, and they were so taken aback by the strange sight that, long before the beasts came to close quarters, the mere sound of their trumpeting, the sight of their gleaming tusks relieved against dark bodies, and minatory waving trunks, was enough; before they were within bow-shot, the enemy broke and ran in utter disorder; the infantry were spitted on each other’s spears, and trampled by the cavalry who came scurrying on to them. The chariots, turning in like manner upon their own friends, whirled about among them by no means harmlessly; it was a Homeric scene of ‘rumbling tumbling cars’; when once the horses shied at those formidable elephants, off went the drivers, and ‘the lordless chariots rattled on,’ their scythes maiming and carving any of their late masters whom they came within reach of; and, in that chaos, many were the victims. Next came the elephants, trampling, tossing, tearing, goring; and a very complete victory they had made of it for Antiochus.
The carnage was great, and all the Galatians were either killed or captured, with the exception of a quite small band which got off to the mountains; Antiochus’s Macedonians sang the Paean, gathered round, and garlanded him with acclamations on the glorious victory. But the King — so the story goes — was in tears; ‘My men,’ he said, ‘we have more reason for shame; saved by those sixteen brutes! if their strangeness had not produced the panic, where should we have been?’ And on the trophy he would have nothing carved except just an elephant.
Gentlemen, de me fabula; are my resources like those of Antiochus — quite unfit for battle on the whole, but including some elephants, some queer impositions, some jugglery, in fact? That is what all the praise I hear points at. The things I really relied upon seem to be of little account; the mere fact that my picture is of a female Centaur exercises fascination; it passes for a novelty and a marvel, as indeed it is. The rest of Zeuxis’s pains is thrown away, I suppose. But ah, no, not thrown away —; you are connoisseurs, and judge by the rules of art. I only hope the show may be worthy of the spectators.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52