Of Verbs and Vision: William Hazlitt’s Art Criticism

hb_24.45.1.jpgNicolas Poussin: Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun (1658)

One remarkable aspect of William Hazlitt’s art criticism is how he uses verbs to invigorate  and intensify his description of artworks. Contemporary critics stand to learn a lot from him in this regard. For instance, here’s a bit of his description of Nicolas Poussin’s painting, Blind Orion in Search of the Rising Sun (1658):

He is represented setting out on his journey, with men on his shoulders to guide him, a bow in his hand, and Diana in the clouds greeting him. He stalks along, a giant upon earth, and reels and falters in his gait, as if just awaked out of sleep, or uncertain of his way; ––you see his blindness, though his back is turned.

Of course, it could be argued that he’s merely describing a figure, which in “real life” would be exerting itself in accordance with these verbs. Yet Hazlitt does not reserve verbs for the self-evidently animate:

Mists rise around him, and veil the sides of the green forests; earth is dank and fresh with dews, the ‘grey dawn and the Pleiades before him dance,’and in the distance are seen the blue hills and sullen ocean.  

Mist almost begs to be described in passive terms, yet here mists “rise” and “veil the sides of the green forest” and even the quote from Milton (Paradise Lost, bk VII) animates the sky and stars.

Hazlitt concludes:

Nothing was ever more finely conceived or done. It breathes the spirit of the morning; its moisture, its repose, its obscurity, waiting the miracle of light to kindle it into smiles: the whole is, like the principal figure in it, ‘a forerunner of the dawn.’ The same atmosphere tinges and imbues every object, the same dull light ‘shadowy sets off’ the face of nature: one feeling of vastness, of strangeness, and of primeval forms pervades the painter’s canvas, and we are thrown back upon the first integrity of things.

I’m especially interested in Hazlitt’s description of how the painting hits the viewer: “we are thrown back upon the first integrity of things.” I’d argue that this serves as an analog for how Hazlitt’s masterful use of verbs works upon the reader. Nouns name and contain; they assign a static identity to things, rendering them somewhat passive. But verbs are dynamic and visceral; we feel them. When applied to a painting, they help it push beyond its frame.

Compare all this to a passage from a recent review of contemporary figurative painting (artist/work/reviewer omitted):

. . . a nearly six-foot-high canvas featuring two young men on a sofa, one with his head in the other’s lap, and a young woman sitting on a patterned carpet on the floor, gazing absently beyond the picture plane. The scene seems almost irradiated, with various components rendered in glowing oranges and pinks, and a T-shirt in blinding white. Looking closely, one notices that the faces are composed of mere suggestions: a few swift strokes add up to a likeness. Despite an atmosphere of relative contentment, things in L_____’s works often feel impermanent. Edges blend and passages are wiped or scraped away to reveal the canvas underneath. Such techniques convey the sense of fading memories.

The description is entirely serviceable, but any capacity the artwork might have to stagger or stun or entice the viewer is blunted by the verb-starved language.  The prepositions mark missed opportunities for compelling verb work; most of the actual verbs are art-review throwaways: “featuring,” ”rendered,” “composed.” The remaining verbs are a matter of the artist’s technique: “blend” and “scraped away.” Perhaps the most telling is the ghost of a viewer, masquerading as an abstract “one” who merely “notices.”—worlds away from  being “thrown back upon the first integrity of things.”