Portrait Painting in Artistic History
The old type of history, one might say, was a species of portrait-painting which had often every merit except that of close likeness to the original. Whether it is quite just to say this will be presently considered. But it cannot be denied that the old writers generally thought more of the brilliancy of their colours and the effectiveness of their pictures than of their exact truth. "My siege is finished," said Vertot, when offered new documents which stultified his narrative.
The old masters of history resembled, it is to be feared (if so honourable a comparison can be considered derogatory), the masters of painting. Both thought little of what we call "local colour," of close conformity to the scene or object delineated, provided they produced striking composition with grand outline and rich tints which were attractive and beautiful for their own sake.
When to this conception of their art we add their general apathy in research, the measure of their sins appears to be filled up in the eyes of generation like ours, which has brought historical evidence under conditions nearly as stringent as those regulate the depositions of a court of justice.
Still it may occur to some persons that there is another side to this matter, and that the great men of old are not wholly without defence. They were indolent in research no doubt, or rather they did not attach the value that we do to it (if they had, they were not men to have spared their pains), but they were large, sympathetic, and humane. They and not of specialists. Their manner is somewhat off-hand, but they are neither prigs nor pedants.
After all, the most important facts of history, as Auguste Comte has weightily remarked, are the best known and the least dependent on minute rectification for their true appreciation. History has an ethical and psychological side as well as a documentary side supported by elaborate citation of chapter and verse for every statement. Chapter and verse, important as they are, are sometimes a little oppressive and overbearing. The most exhaustive knowledge of authorities will not give a dull man insight into character, or enable him to realize and paint a great historic scene, or teach him to use with skill the mass of erudition under which he staggers.
It may be said generally, exceptions of course excepted, that the old historians were strong where their successors are weak, and the converse. Aiming chiefly at portraiture, they succeeded in it, as was only natural.
Amid a crowd of errors on smaller matters, they often catch the true expression of a physiognomy, and hit off the salient points of a character with a insight and success which subsequent inquiry is often unable to modify. Bacons portrait of Henry VIII remains substantially correct, though he wrote his book in four months, remote the means of knowledge accessible even in his day, which did not represent a tithe of the knowledge accessible now.
Even down to the practice of introducing fictitious speeches into their histories, the old writers are not without defence. Nothing more than these speeches has moved the contempt and indignation of modern critics. Macaulay says the practice was absurd, and that if an English writer were to attempt it now he would be laughed to scorn. Yet men of the calibre of Macchiavelli, Grotius, and Bacon resorted to it. It is more a question of form and less of substance than at first glance appears.
It amounts to this -- How are we to render our impression of a past epoch? We may give in broad statement, in carefully reasoned argument, supported by apt quotation and appropriate footnotes. This is the modern plan, and, to speak frankly, unquestionably the best.
But it is well to listen without impatience to what can be said or the old plan by other side. Mr Spedding, referring to the speeches which Bacon introduced into his history of Henry VII, says :-- "My own opinion is that the reader is less liable to be deceived by history written on this principle than upon the modern plan, though the modern be apparently the more scrupulous. The records of the past are not complete enough to enough to enable the most diligent historian to give a connected narrative in which there shall not be many parts resting on guesses or influences or unauthenticated rumours. He may guess for himself, or he may report other peoples guesses ; but guesses there must be. The advantage of the old practice is that the invention appears in the undisguised form of invention ; whereas the modern practice, by scrupulously eschewing everything like avowed and deliberate invention, leaves it to be supposed that what remains is all fact, whereas in most cases of the kind the writers is but reporting his own or another mans conjecture, just as if he had sat down deliberately to compose a soliloquy or a speech in the first person" (Speddings Bacon, vol. vi. p. 76)
Every one must be glad to see even plausible reason suggested for not regarding the funeral oration of Pericles or the speech of Galgacus as "absurdities." Perhaps the truest view of this introduction of speeches into their histories by the ancient and their modern imitators is that it was their mode of offering generalizations. They adopted the concrete and dramatic form when we should use the abstract and impersonal, and perhaps, as Mr Spedding remarks, this practice was not necessarily exposed to more error than ours.
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