Bernard Mandeville – The Fable of the Bees, 1714

fableofthebeesCleomenes.

…But since my Eyes have been open’d I have found out that Truth and Probability are the silliest Things in the World; they are of no manner of use, especially among the People de bon gout.

Horatio.

I thought what a Convert you was: but what new Madness has seiz’d you now?

Cleomenes.

No Madness at all: I say and will maintain it to the World, that Truth, in the Sublime, is very impertinent; and that in the Arts and Sciences, fit for Men of Taste to look into, a Master cannot commit a more unpardonable Fault, than sticking to, or being influenc’d by Truth, where it interferes with what is agreeable.

Horatio.

Homely Truths indeed—-

Cleomenes.

Look upon that Dutch Piece of the Nativity: what charming Colouring there is! what a fine Pencil, and how just are the Out-Lines for a Piece so curiously finish’d! But what a Fool the Fellow was to draw Hay and Straw and Cattle, and a Rack as well as a Manger: it is a Wonder he did not put the Bambino into the Manger.

Fulvia.

The Bambino? That is the Child, I suppose; why it should be in the Manger; should it not? Does not the History tell us, that the Child was laid in the Manger? I have no Skill in Painting, but I can see whether things are drawn to the Life or not; sure nothing can be more like the Head of an Ox than that there. A Picture then pleases me best when the Art in such a Manner deceives my Eye, that without making any Allowances, I can imagine I see the Things in reality which the Painter has endeavour’d to represent. I have always thought it an admirable Piece; sure nothing in the World can be more like Nature.

Cleomenes.

Like Nature! So much the worse: Indeed, Cousin, it is easily seen that you have no Skill in Painting. It is not Nature, but agreeable Nature, la belle Nature, that is to be represented; all Things that are abject, low, pitiful and mean, are carefully to be avoided, and kept out of Sight; because to Men of the true Taste they are as offensive as Things that are shocking, and really nasty.

Fulvia.

At that rate, the Virgin Mary’s Condition, and our Saviour’s Birth, are never to be painted.

Cleomenes.

That’s your Mistake; the Subject it self is noble: Let us go but in the next Room and I’ll shew you the Difference.—Look upon that Picture, which is the same History. There’s fine Architecture, there’s a Colonnade; Can any thing be thought of more Magnificent? How skilfully is that Ass removed, and how little you see of the Ox; pray mind the Obscurity they are both placed in: It hangs in a strong Light, or else one might look ten times upon the Picture without observing them: Behold these Pillars of the Corinthian Order, how lofty they are, and what an Effect they have, what a noble Space, what an Area here is! How nobly every thing concurs to express the majestick Grandeur of the Subject, and strikes the Soul with Awe and Admiration at the same time!

Fulvia.

Pray Cousin, has good Sense ever any Share in the Judgment which your Men of true Taste form about Pictures?

Horatio.

Madam!

Fulvia.

I beg pardon, Sir, if I have offended: but to me it seems strange to hear such Commendation given to a Painter, for turning the Stable of a Country Inn into a Palace of extraordinary Magnificence: This is a great deal worse than Swift’s Metamorphosis of Philemon and Baucis; for there some Shew of Resemblance is kept in the Changes.

Horatio.

In a Country Stable, Madam, there is nothing but Filth and Nastiness, or vile abject Things not fit to be seen, at least not capable of entertaining Persons of Quality.

Fulvia.

The Dutch Picture in the next Room has nothing that is offensive: but an Augean Stable, even before Hercules had clean’d it, would be less shocking to me than those fluted Pillars; for no body can please my Eye that affronts my Understanding: When I desire a Man to paint a considerable History, which every body knows to have been transacted at a Country Inn, does he not strangely impose upon me, because he understands Architecture, to draw me a Room that might have serv’d for a great Hall or Banquetting-house to any Roman Emperor? Besides that the poor and abject State in which our Saviour chose to appear at his coming into the World, is the most material Circumstance of the History: it contains an excellent Moral against vain Pomp, and is the strongest Persuasive to Humility, which in the Italian are more than lost.

Horatio.

Indeed, Madam, Experience is against you; and it is certain, that even among the Vulgar the Representations of mean and abject Things, and such as they are familiar with, have not that Effect, and either breed Contempt, or are Insignificant: whereas vast Piles, stately Buildings, Roofs of uncommon Height, surprizing Ornaments, and all the Architecture of the grand Taste, are the fittest to raise Devotion and inspire Men with Veneration and a Religious Awe for the Places that have these Excellencies to boast of. Is there ever a Meeting-house or Barn to be compared to a fine Cathedral, for this purpose?

Fulvia.

I believe there is a Mechanical Way of raising Devotion in silly superstitious Creatures; but an attentive Contemplation on the Works of God, I am sure——

Cleomenes.

Pray, Cousin, say no more in Defence of your low Taste: The Painter has nothing to do with the Truth of the History; his Business is to express the Dignity of the Subject, and in Compliment to his Judges, never to forget the Excellency of our Species: All his Art and good Sense must be employ’d in raising that to the highest pitch: Great Masters don’t paint for the common People, but for Persons of refin’d Understanding: What you complain of is the Effect of the good Manners and Complaisance of the Painter. When he had drawn the Infant and the Madona, he thought the least glimpse of the Ox and the Ass would be sufficient to acquaint you with the History: They who want more fescuing and a broader Explanation he don’t desire his Picture should ever be shewn to; for the rest, he entertains you with nothing but what is Noble and worthy your Attention: You see he is an Architect, and compleatly skill’d in Perspective, and he shews you how finely he can round a Pillar, and that both the Depth and the Height of Space a may be drawn on a Flat, with all the other Wonders he performs by his Skill in that inconceivable Mystery of Light and Shadows.

Fulvia.

Why then is it pretended that Painting is an Imitation of Nature?

Cleomenes.

At first setting out a Scholar is to copy things exactly as he sees them; but from a great Master, when he is left to his own Invention, it is expected he should take the Perfections of Nature, and not paint it as it is, but as we would wish it to be. Zeuxis, to draw a Goddess, took five beautiful Women, from which he cull’d what was most graceful in each.

Fulvia.

Still every Grace he painted was taken from Nature.

Cleomenes.

That’s true; but he left Nature her Rubbish, and imitated nothing but what was excellent, which made the Assemblage superior to any thing in Nature. Demetrius was tax’d for being too Natural; Dionysius was also blamed for drawing Men like us. Nearer our times, Michael Angelo was esteem’d too Natural, and Lysippus of old upbraided the common sort of Sculptors for making Men such as they were found in Nature.

Fulvia.

Are these things real?

Cleomenes.

You may read it your self in Graham’s Preface to The Art of Painting: the Book is above in the Library.

Horatio.

These Things may seem strange to you, Madam, but they are of immense Use to the Publick: The higher we can carry the Excellency of our Species, the more those beautiful Images will fill noble Minds with worthy and suitable Ideas of their own Dignity, that will seldom fail of spurring them on to Virtue and Heroick Actions. There is a Grandeur to be express’d in Things that far surpasses the Beauties of simple Nature. You take Delight in Opera’s, Madam, I don’t question; you must have minded the noble Manner and Stateliness beyond Nature, which every thing there is executed with. What gentle Touches, what slight and yet majestick Motions are made use of to express the most boisterous Passions! As the Subject is always lofty, so no Posture is to be chosen but what is Serious and Significant as well as Comely and Agreeable; should the Actions there be represented as they are in common Life, they would ruin the Sublime, and at once rob you of all your Pleasure.

Bernard Mandeville, 1670-1733          Fable of the Bees: private vices, publick benefits, 1714. Volume II

The First Dialogue between  Horatio, Cleomenes, and Fulvia

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Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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