its secondary sense atmosphere is a word which is only
lately come into common use. The artists, I suppose, have
introduced it and given it currency. Atmoshpere is to
fact what the bloom is to the grape, – the mark
of immaculate perfection, imperceptible to the casual
or careless glance, yet full of wonder and charm to the
thoughtful observer. Atmosphere is the aroma of spirit,
the aura or emanation of being; and he is a happy artist
who has the least command of such a perishable finish
for his work.
One sees so often a picture or
piece of sculpture, immensely clever, apt, refined, full
of dignity, graceful in proportion, restful in line, or
rich and harmonious colour, the idea transferred [Page
291] to the very life, and yet one can say of
it: “Yes, but it has no atmosphere!” And there
is the fatal sentence pronounced. Again, you come upon
a creation which seems upon scrutiny to be a tissue of
faults. There is nothing right about it; bad colour, bad
drawing, false execution, slovenly technique; yet somehow,
in spite of all that, even so poor a thing as this may
tug at your sympathy; it may be able to cast a glamour
over you for the moment, for all its badness. It may have
atmosphere. True, this is unlikely, and a touch of atmosphere
alone will not save a poor creation. Yet, how welcome,
how delightful it is!
In people, too, as well as in
facts and objects, atmosphere counts for so much. There
are many personalities, only too many, in whom it is lacking.
They are excellent, even irreproachable, citizens, and
exemplary friends maybe; but they are purely negative
or neutral; they seem to be invested with not a particle
of mysterious envelopment which lends glamour to the individual,
and irradiates [Page 292] the character.
Without atmosphere there may be force, directness, even
beauty, but the utmost reach of power will be wanting.
The hard light of character needs to be somewhat diffused
and tempered by an atmospheric quality in its expression.
And since expression is a matter of art, one is almost
tempted to say that art consists in the creation of atmosphere.
Be as faithful to reality (or to romance) as you please,
but surround your transcription with an atmosphere; bestow
upon it the magic air and colour which are its own indeed,
but which shall still convince and transport us beyond
little more, and how much it is;
less, and what worlds away.”
In matters of art it is “the
little more” which is so important; and the absolute
reproduction of an incident or an object, if such a feat
were possible, would mean something very like failure.
Also the painter is in danger
of seeing too [Page 293] much. He half
closes his eyes for fear of seeing things exactly as they
are. He would preserve the charm of atmosphere at all
costs. He must either add something of his own to the
canvas, or omit the minuteness of detail in his rendering
of a subject, in order to arrest the air and the illusion
of nature. But at all hazards he will avoid what science
would count the truth. Your line must have just sufficient
indecision to betray (I should say, to reveal) the human
hand that drew it. For this is the touch of living sympathy,
more important than the dead accuracy of the machine.
To transfer to canvas or print something of the vitality
of the original is the first concern of the craftsman,
the more nearly exact the better, but living at all costs.
We are apt to forget that the circle and the straight
line are mathematical fictions, forms of speech which
have been approached but never realized in a material
world. For to apprehend absolute perfection is not given
to man, though he be a prince of artists; while ever to
strive [Page 294] after that apprehension
is one of his most delightful joys. The pursuit of the
unattainable is the piety of art.
To create an atmosphere, to produce
an illusion, having been always the artist’s prime
aim and most elementary need, it follows that in every
art there have been evolved its own peculiar laws which
facilitate and enforce that object. In poetry, for instance,
versification, with all its complex beauty of rhythms
and metres, helps to enshroud the theme with atmosphere.
I had almost said that versification provides the atmosphere.
For although it is so easy to be hopelessly banal in verse,
there must still cling even to the worst poetry some of
the inalienable charm of numbers. A foreigner at least
might hear it with satisfaction.
So that if a man will abandon
verse, and betake himself, as he fondly says, to the freedom
of prose, he will find the burden of art laid upon him
more than twice as heavy as [Page 295] before.
He is cast utterly upon his own resources, and yet the
obligations of his art are not diminished one jot. There
is the same old tale of illusion and atmosphere to be
made up, and not a shred of material in stock. One thinks
of prose as the simplest, most natural means of expression,
and of poetry as laboured in comparison. I fancy, however,
that if we could interrogate those who have been masters
of both arts, we should find the reverse to be true. “Prose
is toil,” they would say, “while poetry is
At all events, there is atmosphere
in form; and it is the engrossing business of the artist
to manipulate his form, to humour it, to coax it, to compel
it, to woo it, so as to make it yield the greatest possible
amount of atmosphere for his purpose. In all this he must
take care to call to his aid every available resource
of his craft. In the first place he must enlist the sympathetic
help of words by using them kindly and rightly according
to their nature [Page 296] and genius,
and as they belong, and not antagonize them by misapplication.
I have known writers who established a reputation for
great cleverness simply by the misuse of words. Their
style was called original. It was. For pure unmitigated
cruelty to our tiny, long-suffering servants, these patient
words, it was unmatched. Now a man who will mutilate his
mother tongue merely to display his own agility is no
better than a heathen. It is so needless, too. For to
the generous and sedulous master, what revelations of
undreamed beauty, what marvels of import, will not words
I would not speak as a pedant,
nor as a dilettante, on this topic, but only as a sober
bystander in this great gallery of art, this lovely world
which we are permitted to wander through. I see how much
things are enhanced in my eyes by the atmosphere that
surrounds them; I see how naked and poverty-stricken they
appear without it; and I say to myself, “I love
atmosphere, in art and in life [Page 297].
I will surround myself with it, whenever I can do so unselfishly.
And if I were an artist of any sort, it is atmosphere
I should seek first of all [Page 298].”