Why melancholy?

Possibly it is a purely subjective impression, but I seldom face a masterpiece in art without suffering a slight melancholy, and this feeling is never influenced by the subject. The pastoral peace that hovers like a golden benison about Giorgione’s Concert at the Louvre, the slow, widowed smile of the Mona Lisa, the cross-rhythms of Las Lanzas, most magnificent of battle-pieces, in the Velasquez Sala at the Prado, even the processional poplars of Hobbema at the National Gallery, or the clear cool daylight which filters through the window of the Dresden Vermeer—these and others do not always give me the buoyant sense of self-liberation which great art should. It is not because I have seen too often the bride Saskia and her young husband Rembrandt, in Dresden, that in their presence a tinge of sadness colours my thoughts. I have endeavoured to analyse this feeling. Why melancholy? Is great art always slightly morbid? Is it because of their isolation in the stone jails we call museums? Or that their immortality yields inch by inch to the treacherous and resistless pressure of the years? Or else because their hopeless perfection induces a species of exalted envy? And isn’t it simply the incommensurable emotion evoked by the genius of the painter or sculptor? One need not be hyperæsthetic to experience something akin to muffled pain when listening to certain pages of Tristan and Isolde, or while submitting to the mystic ecstasy of Jan Van Eyck at Ghent. The exquisite grace of the Praxiteles Hermes or the sweetness of life we recognise in Donatello may invade the soul with messages of melancholy, and not come as ministers of joy.

From James Huneker’s “The Melancholy of Masterpieces.” Collected in Ivory, Apes and Peacocks (1915).

Johannes_Vermeer_-_Girl_Reading_a_Letter_by_an_Open_Window_-_Google_Art_Project
Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Johannes Vermeer
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1 thought on “Why melancholy?”

  1. Beautiful writing, that. Mood evocative. Melancholy is one of the noble emotions, to me, anyway. Along with love, yearning, desire, compassion, happiness, among others. Paintings, such as this Vermeer, create a mood in me of stillness in time. Not so much as timelessness, but without time. Photon surfing somehow.

    Liked by 1 person

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