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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
2 occurrences of Ancients and Moderns in the Eighteenth Century
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CHANCE IMAGES
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2 occurrences of Ancients and Moderns in the Eighteenth Century
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CHANCE IMAGES

Images made by chance (or chance images, for short)
are meaningful visual figurations perceived in mate-
rials—most often rocks, clouds, or blots—that have not
been, or cannot be, consciously shaped by men. An
awareness of such images is probably as old as mankind
itself; evidence of it has been found in the art of the
Old Stone Age. The thoughts stimulated by this aware-
ness, however, are not recorded before classical antiq-
uity. As a chapter in the history of ideas, these thoughts
have become the subject of investigation only very
recently, so that the following account cannot be more
than provisional in many respects.

Strictly speaking, an image made by chance is an
absurdity. Explicit, fully articulated images, our expe-
rience tells us, must be the result of purposeful activity,
which is the very opposite of chance in the sense of
mere randomness. The dilemma can be resolved either
by (1) attributing a hidden purpose to chance, which
thus becomes an agency of the divine will personified
under such names as Fate, Fortune, or Nature; or by
(2) acknowledging that chance images are in fact rudi-
mentary and ambiguous, and are made explicit only
in the beholder's imagination. The former view, char-
acteristic of prescientific cultures, is akin to all the
beliefs based on the “ominous” meaning of flights of
birds, heavenly constellations, the entrails of sacrificial
animals, and countless other similar phenomena. It was
prevalent until the Renaissance and has not entirely
lost its appeal even today. The latter view, although
adumbrated in classical antiquity, found adequate ex-
pression for the first time in fifteenth-century Italy; it
has been adopted and verified by modern scientific
psychologists who made it the basis of projective tests
such as the ink blot series named after Hermann
Rorschach. Both views, however incompatible, are
strongly linked with past and present ideas concerning
the nature of artistic activity, in theory as well as in
practice.

I

Classical antiquity seems to have confined its atten-
tion to chance images of three kinds: those in rocks,
blots, and clouds. For the first two, our earliest source
is Pliny's Natural History, although his references to
these phenomena are clearly derived from Greek
(probably Hellenistic) literature. He tells of an image
of Silenus found inside a block of Parian marble that
had been split open with wedges (XXXVI, v) and of
“the agate of Pyrrhus on which could be seen Apollo
with his lyre and the nine muses, each with her proper
attribute, rendered not by art but by nature, through
the pattern of the spots” (XXXVII, i). The context from


341

which Pliny lifted these passages cannot be recon-
structed; the images, absurdly perfect down to the last
iconographic detail, are apparently cited as evidence
of the miraculous generative powers of Nature, supe-
rior to any man-made artifact. Somewhat more illumi-
nating is Pliny's story about a panting dog in a picture
by the famous Hellenistic painter Protogenes (XXXV,
x). The artist tried in vain to represent the foam issuing
from the mouth of the animal until, in a rage, he hurled
a sponge at his panel and thereby achieved the desired
result. This dog, Pliny states, “was wondrously made,”
since the natural effect was the work of fortuna. The
same story, he informs us, is told of another famous
painter, Nealces, with a horse taking the place of the
dog. A variant of the latter version, substituting Apelles
for Nealces, occurs in the sixty-fourth oration of Dio
Chrysostom, which deals with the workings of fortuna.
Here again the chance image is so perfect as to surpass
any human intention. The inference to be drawn from
the sponge story, it would seem, is that Fortune re-
serves such “strokes of luck” only for the greatest of
artists, as if on occasion she took pity on their ambition
to achieve the impossible.

It must have been these accounts of incredibly per-
fect chance images that provoked the following skep-
tical rejoinder from Cicero:

Pigments flung blindly at a panel might conceivably form
themselves into the lineaments of a human face, but do
you think the loveliness of the Venus of Cos could emerge
from paints hurled at random?... Carneades used to tell
that once, in the quarries of Chios, a stone was split open
and the head of a little Pan appeared; well, the bust may
not have been unlike the god, but we may be sure that
it was not so perfect a reproduction as to lead one to
imagine that it had been wrought by Scopas, for it goes
without saying that perfection has never been achieved by
accident

(De divinatione I, xiii).

This early hint at the rationalist explanation of chance
images corresponds to the classicistic taste that domi-
nated Roman art of the late Republic and the Augustan
era (note the references to classic Greek masters). The
story of the sponge-throwing painter, in contrast, re-
flects an admiration for spontaneity, for inspired grop-
ing by a great individual as against an impersonal ideal
of perfection. If fortuna favors only artists of the stat-
ure of Protogenes, Nealces, or Apelles, is she not just
another name for genius? Such an unclassical (one is
tempted to call it romantic) attitude seems to have
existed in Hellenistic art, although it cannot be docu-
mented from surviving examples. An echo of it may
be found in another passage of Pliny's Natural History
(XXXV, cxlv) that speaks of painters whose unfinished
pictures were sometimes even more admirable than
their completed work, because they still showed the
lines of the original sketch and thus revealed the work-
ing of the artist's mind.

The agate of Pyrrhus, too, although obviously myth-
ical, has a bearing on artistic practice. Greeks and
Romans greatly admired carved gems of varicolored
semiprecious stones, as attested by the large number
of preserved specimens. In many of these, the design
takes advantage of, and may indeed have been sug-
gested by, the striations of the material. Thus the value
of a gem stone was probably measured by its potential
in this respect even more than by its rarity, and those
that lent themselves particularly well to carving would
have been looked upon as miraculous “images made
(or at least preshaped) by Nature.” How far human
skill has been “aided by Nature” in any given case is
of course difficult to assess after the carving is finished,
although certain gems indicate that the artist wanted
to suggest that such aid had been considerable.

The ancient marble sculptor's interest in chance
effects, suggested by the tales of images found in
cracked blocks, is even harder to verify. One wide-
spread feature of later Greek and Roman decoration,
the foliage mask (Figure 1), may have originated in
this way. Ladendorf has proposed that it developed
from the acanthus ornament crowning Attic grave
steles, which sometimes tends to assume the appear-
ance of a human face (Figure 2). This physiognomic
effect is so unobtrusive that, in the beginning at least,
it could hardly have been intentional. A stele (an up-
right stone slab or pillar) evokes the image of a standing
figure, and its upper terminus thus may be viewed as
its “head.” Perhaps this notion was unconsciously pres-
ent in the carver's mind. In any event he must have
become aware at some point of the face hidden among
the foliage, and from then on the effect was exploited
quite explicitly. The foliage mask, then, could be
termed an “institutionalized chance image.”

Figures that are seen in clouds are noted by Aristotle
(Meteorology I, ii) and briefly mentioned in Pliny's
Natural History (II, lxi) and other ancient authors.
Because of their instability and remoteness, however,
they were not given the significance of the miraculous
images made by Nature or Fortune in rocks and blots,
and their origin rarely excited speculation. An excep-
tion is Lucretius (De rerum natura IV, 129ff.), who
found them a challenge to his theory that all images
are material films given off by objects somewhat in
the manner of snakes shedding their outer skin. Since
cloud figures are unstable, there cannot be any objects
from which these image films emanate; Lucretius
therefore postulates the spontaneous generation of such
films in the upper air—an ingenious but hardly persua-
sive solution. By far the most interesting analysis of
the phenomenon, linking it for the first time with the


342

process of artistic creation, occurs in a memorable
dialogue in Philostratus' Apollonius of Tyana (II, 22).
Apollonius and his interlocutor, Damis, agree that the
painter's purpose is to make exact likenesses of every-
thing under the sun; and that these images are make-
believe, since the picture consists in fact of nothing
but pigments. They further agree that the images seen
in clouds are make-believe, too. But, Apollonius asks,
must we then assume that God is an artist, who amuses
himself by drawing these figures? And he concludes
that those configurations are produced at random,
without any divine significance; it is man, through his
natural gift of make-believe, that gives them regular
shape and existence. This gift of make-believe (i.e.,
imagination) is the common property of all. What
distinguishes the artist from the layman is his ability
to reproduce his mental images in material form. To
Philostratus the difference between cloud figures and
painted images would thus seem to be one of degree
only: the artist projects images into the pigments on
his panel the way all of us project images into the
random shapes of clouds, but he articulates them more
clearly because of his manual skill. Although this view
clearly reflects the growing ascendency of fantasia
over mimesis—of imagination over imitation—that had
been asserting itself in the attitude of the ancients
toward the visual arts ever since Hellenistic times, it
retains the traditional conception of painting and
sculpture as crafts or “mechanical arts” as against the
“liberal arts.” That the artist might be distinguished
from the nonartist by the quality of his imagination
rather than by his manual training did not occur to
Philostratus. If it had, he would have anticipated an
achievement of the Renaissance by more than a thou-
sand years. Nor did ancient painters think of the pig-
ments on their panels as a “hunting ground” for images
analogous to clouds; they seem, in fact, to have been
repelled by clouds—the skies in ancient landscapes are
devoid of them, and even where the subject requires
them (as in The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, Naples) they
appear as the merest wisps. This aversion was clearly
a matter of aesthetics, not of disability. Ancient paint-
ers commanded all the illusionistic techniques for
rendering clouds, and bequeathed them to Early
Christian art, where clouds are conspicuous.

II

The Middle Ages inherited most of the classical
accounts of chance images, but did not respond to all
of the three types discussed above. The “lucky blot,”
known from Pliny's story of Protogenes, seems to have
evoked neither repetition nor comment. References to
cloud figures occur as a rhetorical device in theological
writings, stressing their instability and lack of sub-
stance, as when Anselm of Canterbury (Cur Deus homo,
ed. F. S. Schmitt, Darmstadt [1960], p. 16) compares
certain fallacious arguments to “figments painted on
clouds” (perhaps indirectly echoing Philostratus);
Michael Psellus, in a similar vein, says that demons


343

can change their appearance as easily as the ever-
changing configurations of clouds, which may resemble
the shape of men, bears, dragons, etc. Albertus Magnus
seems to have been the only one to attribute material
substance to cloud figures, although his explanation
differs from that of Lucretius: exhalations from the
earth, he claims, if aided by heavenly constellations,
can form in the clouds perfect though lifeless animal
bodies, which may actually drop from the sky (On
Meteors,
III, iii, 23, citing Avicenna).

Elsewhere he also records the chance images inside
blocks of marble, stressing their miraculous characters;
he even reports that he himself once saw the head of
a bearded king on the cut surfaces of such a block that
had just been sawed in two (On Minerals, II, iii, 1);
all who witnessed the event agreed that Nature had
painted this image on the stone. Both of these accounts
of “natural miracles” were given popular currency
toward the end of the Middle Ages by Franciscus de
Retza, who cited the animal body dropping from the
sky as well as the head in the marble as arguments
for the Immaculate Conception in his Defensorium in-
violatae virginitatis Mariae
(ca. 1400). The scenes were
even illustrated in an early printed edition (Figure 3).

By far the most widespread chance images, however,
were those of the “agate-of-Pyrrhus” type. The an-
cients' love of gems continued undiminished through-
out the Middle Ages; indeed, these stones were the
only artistic relics of the pagan past to enjoy continuous
and unquestioned appreciation. Thousands of them
were incorporated in medieval reliquaries and other
sacred objects, regardless of their pagan subject matter,
and reports of chance images recur in treatises on
mineralogy from the lapidary of Marbod of Rennes to
Ulisse Aldrovandi and Athanasius Kircher. (The ac-
counts of these pierres imagées have been collected and
analyzed by Baltrušaitis.) Their effect on artistic prac-
tice, however, is difficult to measure. One clear-cut
—and so far unique—instance was discovered by
Ladendorf: the tiny faces hidden among the striations
of the multicolored marble columns on the canon table
pages of the Gospel Book from Saint Médard, Soissons(Figure 4).
The artist who painted these columns in
the early years of Charlemagne's reign may have seen
such faces in early Christian manuscripts, or he could
have “discovered” them in his own brushwork while
he was at work. In either case, his intention must have
been to characterize the material of these columns as
miraculous and uniquely precious—and hence worthy
to frame the words of the Lord.

A certain propensity toward chance images seems
to have existed throughout medieval art, even though
the subject is far from fully explored. Thus, in the
Nativity scene of an early Gothic German Psalter, there
are no less than three faces on the ground in the imme-
diate vicinity of Saint Joseph (Figure 5). The one far-
thest to the left appears to have been developed from
a piece of drapery; the other two fill interstices be-
tween clumps of plants. Perhaps the most plausible
explanation for them is that the artist “found” (i.e.,


344

projected) them in the process of copying an older
miniature whose stylistic conventions he did not fully
understand. His readiness to interpret unfamiliar details
physiognomically suggests that he knew the “institu-
tionalized chance image” of the foliage mask, which
had been revived at least as early as the twelfth century
and was well-established in the repertory of Gothic
art (Figure 6). Since these masks sometimes carry in-
scriptions identifying them as images of pagan nature
spirits or demons, the faces in our Nativity may have
been intended to evoke the sinister forces overcome
by the Savior.

That Gothic art continued to be receptive to chance
images even in its final, realistic phase is strikingly
shown by the Hours of Catherine of Cleves, a Nether-
landish manuscript of ca. 1435-40 distinguished for its
elaborate painted borders. One of these consists of
butterflies, rendered with painstaking attention to the
colorful patterns of their wings. Among them is a
butterfly (Figure 7) whose wing pattern resembles a
cavernous human face, like that of a decaying corpse
come back to life. There can be no question that the
effect is intentional, yet it could hardly have been
planned from the start; in all likelihood the artist
became aware of it only in the process of painting,
and then chose to elaborate upon it so that the beholder
could share his experience. What made him do so, we
may assume, was not only an interest in chance images
(there is evidence of this on other pages of the same
manuscript) but the role of the butterfly as a symbol
of vanitas, which associated it with death. Despite such
links with orthodox iconography, there is a strong
element of playfulness in medieval chance images. The
purest instance of this is a drawing of 1493 by the
young Albrecht Dürer, one side of which shows a
self-portrait, a sketch of his left hand, and a pillow,


345

while six more pillows appear on the other side (Figure
8). Ladendorf was the first to recognize the purpose
of these pillows: a search for faces hidden among the
folds. Most easily recognizable is the one in the lower
left-hand corner—a bearded Turk with a huge turban.
Turning the sheet upside down, we also discover that
the pillow in the upper left-hand corner contains the
craggy face of a man wearing a pointed hat. Since these
are the only image-bearing pillows we know of in the
history of art, Dürer presumably discovered their
physiognomic potential by accident, perhaps while
sketching a pillow in preparation of a print or a paint-
ing. What enabled him to play this game, however,
must have been a familiarity with chance images in
other, more traditional materials such as stone. He
might indeed have looked upon his pillows as “mal-
leable rocks” from which such images could be elicited
by manipulation. Yet he seems to have kept his dis-
covery to himself, so that the pillow-faces never be-
came “institutionalized.”

III

The Renaissance phase in the history of our subject
begins with the opening sentences of Leone Battista
Alberti's treatise De statua, written about 1430. Here
the origin of sculpture is described as follows:

Those [who were inclined to express and represent... the
bodies brought forth by nature] would at times observe in
tree trunks, clumps of earth, or other objects of this sort
certain lineaments which through some slight changes could
be made to resemble a natural shape. They thereupon took
thought and tried, by adding or taking away here and there,
to render the resemblance complete.

Before long, Alberti adds, the primeval sculptors
learned how to make images without depending on
such resemblances latent in their raw material. This
passage is the earliest statement of the idea that what
sets the artist apart from the layman is not his manual
skill but his ability to discover images in random
shapes, i.e., his visual imagination, which in turn gives
rise to the desire to make these images more explicit
by adding or taking away.

How did Alberti arrive at this astonishing insight?
Classical art theory provides no etiology of sculpture,
and its etiology of painting is purely mimetic: the first
artist traced a shadow cast by the sun. Moreover, in
contrast to the agate of Pyrrhus and the heads suppos-
edly discovered in cracked blocks of marble, the chance
images in Alberti's tree trunks and clumps of earth are
rudimentary rather than miraculously complete. Per-
haps the key to the puzzle is the fact that Alberti
postulates wood and clay, not stone or marble, as the
sculptor's aboriginal materials. If he started out by
wondering what the earliest statues were made of, he
could have found an answer in Pliny (XII, i), who
concludes a discussion of the central importance of
trees in the development of religious practices by
stating that the statues of the gods, too, used to be
ex arbore. In view of the anthropomorphic shape of
certain trees, reflected in such myths as that of Daphne
turned into a laurel, this must have seemed plausible
enough. Another early work of Alberti, the dialogue
Virtus et Mercurius, has Virtus complaining of persist-
ent abuse at the hands of Fortuna: “While I am thus
despised, I would rather be any tree trunk than a
goddess,” a notion suggestive both of the Plinian tree
deities and of the tree trunks in De statua. This “trun-
kated” Virtue-in-distress was translated into visual
terms by Andrea Mantegna (Figure 9), whose image
of her might almost serve as an illustration of the De
statua
text. It also resembles actual idols such as the
pair of tree-trunk deities carved by a Teutonic con-
temporary of Pliny and recently unearthed in a bog
near the German-Danish border (Figure 10).

Like many another explorer of new territory, Alberti
did not grasp the full significance of what he had


346

discovered. His chance-image theory is subject to two
severe limitations: it applies to sculpture only, and to
the remote past rather than to present artistic practice.
In his treatise on painting, written a few years after
De statua, he merely cites the ancient shadow-tracing
theory but adds that “it is of small importance to know
the earliest painters or the inventors of painting.”
When he mentions the chance images in cracked blocks
of marble and on the gem of Pyrrhus recorded by Pliny,
he does so in order to fortify his claim that painting
is a noble and “liberal” activity, since “nature herself
seems to take delight in painting.” He also explicitly
denies that painting is comparable to the kind of
sculpture “done by addition,” even though the painter
works by adding pigments to a bare surface.

This puzzling gulf that existed in Alberti's mind
between the two arts reflects the singular importance
he attached to scientific perspective as the governing
theory of painting. His treatise focuses on painting as
a rational method of representing the visible world,
rather than as a physical process, and hence leaves little
room for the chance-image etiology he had proposed
in De statua. We do not know who first applied it to
painting and to present-day conditions. The earliest
explicit statement occurs in the writings of Leonardo,
but the passage strongly suggests that he learned it
from older artists:

If one does not like landscape, he esteems it a matter of
brief and simple investigation, as when our Botticelli said
that such study was vain, because by merely throwing a
sponge full of diverse colors at a wall, it left a stain...
where a fine landscape was seen. It is really true that various
inventions are seen in such a stain.... But although those
stains give you inventions they will not teach you to finish
any detail. This painter of whom I have spoken makes very
dull landscapes

(Leonardo's Treatise on Painting, ed. and
trans. Philip McMahon, Princeton [1956], I, 59).

Apparently Leonardo here records an experience he
had about 1480, shortly before his departure for Milan;
Botticelli, then at the height of his career, plays the
role of an “anti-Protogenes” whose views Leonardo
turns to his own advantage. In another passage,
Leonardo recommends that painters look for land-
scapes as well as figure compositions in the accidental
patterns of stained walls, varicolored stones, clouds,
mud, or similar things, which he compares to “the
sound of bells, in whose pealing you can find every
name and word you can imagine.” The spotted walls,
clouds, etc., here obviously play the same role as the
tree trunks and clumps of earth in De statua. Leonardo,
moreover, states more clearly than Alberti does that
chance images are not objectively present but must
be projected into the material by the artist's imagina-
tion. While he presents his idea as “a new discovery,”
there can be little doubt that he did in fact derive it
from Alberti, whose writings are known to have influ-
enced his thinking in a good many instances.

That Leonardo should have transferred the chance-
image theory from the remote past to the present and
from sculpture to painting is hardly a surprise in view
of his lack of interest in historical perspectives and his
deprecatory attitude toward sculpture. At the same
time, the reference to Botticelli (whose remark may
well have been aimed at Leonardo himself) suggests
that there was some awareness among early Renais-
sance painters of the role of chance effects in actual
artistic practice before Leonardo formulated his
chance-image theory of pictorial invention.

That such was indeed the case may be gathered from
some visual evidence which in point of time stands
midway between Alberti's De statua and “Botticelli's
stain.” Interestingly enough, these are images in clouds,
rather than in the more palpable substances that had
yielded chance images in medieval art, thus indicating
a new awareness of the unstable and subjective charac-
ter of chance images. The best-known instance is the
tiny horseman (Figure 11) in Mantegna's Saint Sebas-
tian
in Vienna, which has resisted all efforts to explain


347

it in terms of the overt subject matter of the panel.
Not only is the image so unobtrusive that most viewers
remain unaware of it; it is also incomplete, the hind
quarters of the horse having been omitted so as not
to break the soft contour of the cloud. Did Mantegna
plan it from the very start, or did he discover the
horseman only in the process of painting that particular
cloud and then, like the primeval sculptors of De
statua,
added or took away a bit here and there in
order to emphasize the resemblance? Be that as it may,
we can only conclude that he must have been taken
with the idea of cloud images, and that he expected
his patron, too, to appreciate the downy horseman.
This patron would seem to have been a passionate
admirer of classical antiquity, for the panel is excep-
tionally rich in antiquarian detail; the artist even signed
it in Greek. Apparently the horseman is yet another
antiquarian detail, a visual pun legitimized by the
discussion of cloud images in Greek and Roman litera-
ture. It has been kept “semi-private” so as not to offend
less sophisticated beholders. If this view is correct, the
horseman need have no connection at all with the
chance images of Alberti, even though Mantegna must
have been well acquainted with Alberti's writings.

We know rather less about a second cloud image,
contemporary with Mantegna's horseman, that occurs
in the Birth of the Virgin by the Master of the Barberini
Panels. Here a cloud assumes the shape of a dolphin(Figure 12).
A possible clue to its meaning is the flight
of birds next to it, which may be interpreted as a good
omen for the newborn child according to Roman belief.
Since the scene takes place in a setting filled with
references to pagan antiquity, an “auspicious” flight
of birds would be in keeping with the rest; and the
cloud-dolphin would then be a further good omen
(dolphins having strongly positive symbolic connota-
tions), whether the image was planned or accidentally
discovered. Flights of birds as a means of divination
are mentioned so frequently in Roman literature that
they must have been well-known among fifteenth-
century humanists.

These early cloud images, however small and unob-
trusive, are the ancestors of a wide variety of figures
made of clouds in sixteenth-century painting. Man-
tegna himself institutionalized the technique in his late
work (Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Grove of
Virtue,
1501-02, Paris, Louvre), Raphael introduced
cloud-angels in his Madonna of Foligno and Sistine
Madonna,
and Correggio depicted the amorous Jupiter
as a cloud in his Io (Figure 13). Even the human soul,
hitherto shown as a small figure with all the substance
of living flesh, could now be given a cloudy, “ectoplas-
mic” shape, as in El Greco's Burial of Count Orgaz(Figure 14).
What began as a semi-private visual pun
had become a generally accepted pictorial device for
representing incorporeal beings.

It would be fascinating to know whether Leonardo
practiced what he preached. If he did, no evidence
of chance images derived from spotted walls or similar
sources has survived among his known works. A Ma-
donna and Saints
by one of his Milanese followers
indicates that Leonardo's advocacy of chance images
was not confined to the theoretical plane. The group
is posed against an architectural ruin among whose


348

crumbling stones we discern the face of a bearded man
wearing a broad-brimmed hat (Figure 15). Evidently
the artist, alerted by Leonardo's teachings, felt that
no ancient wall surface was complete without a chance
image. The influence of Leonardo's chance-image the-
ory can be seen also in the work of the Florentine
painter Piero di Cosimo, who according to Vasari was
in the habit of staring at clouds and spotted walls,
“imagining that he saw there equestrian combats and
the most fantastic cities and the grandest landscapes.”
Some of Piero's pictures show extravagantly shaped
willow trees with pronounced chance-image features
(Figure 16)but based on a close study of actual trees,
which he must have gone out of his way to find. Finally,
Leonardo's discussion of chance images may have in-
spired a curious pictorial specialty that flourished

349

mainly in Florence from the late sixteenth to the
eighteenth century. These paintings are done on the
polished surfaces of agates or other strongly patterned
stones in such a way that the colored veins become
part of the composition, providing “natural” back-
grounds of clouds, landscape, etc., for the figures. They
were prized as marvels of nature no less than of art
(a description cited by Baltrušaitis terms them “an
interplay of ars and natura”) and tended to accumulate
in the cabinets of royalty. Linked with the legendary
gem of Pyrrhus, they might be defined as elaborated
chance images were it not for the fact that the painter's
share always remains clearly distinguishable from na-
ture's. Apparently a real merging of the two spheres
was deemed aesthetically undesirable.

Despite his interest in unorthodox techniques—
confirmed by recent studies which show that he often
painted not only with brushes but with his fingers—
Leonardo did not favor homemade chance images
such as “Botticelli's stain.” Nor does he reveal how
the images found in spotted walls, etc., are to be
transformed into works of art. Apparently he thought
of this process as taking place in the artist's mind,
rather than on the surface of the painting, where the
task of “finishing the detail” would be impeded by the
inherent vagueness of images resulting from thrown
sponges. His ideal of objective precision, inherited from
the early Renaissance, gave way in sixteenth-century
art theory to values more attuned to the concept of
genius. Among them was sprezzatura, a recklessness
mirroring inspired frenzy at the expense of rational
control, which meant a disregard of accepted usage
in literature and a rough, unfinished look in the visual
arts. The story of the sponge-throwing Protogenes
could now provide a supreme example of such reck-
lessness, as it does for Montaigne (Essays, I, xxiv, xxxiv),
who cites it to illustrate the close relationship between
chance (good luck, fortuna) and inspiration.

IV

The chance images discussed so far all have one
feature in common—the artist finds them, or pretends
to find them, among the random shapes of the outside
world. He does not create them but merely discovers
them and “makes the resemblance complete” while
leaving the identity of the matrix (stone, foliage, pil-
lows, clouds, etc.) untouched. This limitation may help
to explain why Leonardo's advice to painters, even
though enshrined in the text of his Treatise on Painting,
had little practical effect until the dawn of the modern
era. At that time it was suddenly revived, with appro-
priate modifications, by the British landscape painter
and drawing teacher Alexander Cozens, who in
1785-86 published an illustrated treatise entitled A
New Method of Assisting the Invention in Drawing
Original Compositions of Landscape.
It describes “a
mechanical method... to draw forth the ideas” of
artists, which consists of making casual and largely
accidental ink blots on paper with a brush, to serve
as a store of compositional suggestions (Figure 17).
Cozens recommends that these blots be made quickly
and in quantity, and that the paper be first crumpled
up in the hand and then stretched out again. The next
step is to select a particularly suggestive sheet of blots,
place a piece of transparent paper over it and make
a selective tracing; the author cautions us to “preserve
the spirit of the blot” by not adding anything that is
not suggested by it. The drawing is then finished by
adding ink washes.

Cozens cites Leonardo's words about the images to
be seen on dirty walls, etc., but adds proudly that he
thinks his procedure an improvement, since it permits
the artist to produce his chance images at will, without
having to seek them out in the world of nature. Oddly
enough, he fails to quote the Leonardo passage dealing


350

with “Botticelli's stain,” which anticipates his own
procedure so closely that one wonders if he was really
ignorant of it. The ink blots of Cozens' Method, how-
ever, are not meant to be entirely accidental; he defines
them as “a production of chance, with a small degree
of design,” since the artist is expected to think of a
landscape subject in general terms while producing
them. His own sample of such a “blotscape” is clearly
a work of art, displaying a highly individual graphic
rhythm. Its purpose, he makes clear, is to free the artist
from involuntary servitude to conventional schemes of
landscape composition by making him relinquish de-
liberate control of his movements as much as possible
in the beginning; the selective tracing of the blots is
intended to redress the balance.

To his contemporaries, on the other hand, Cozens'
blots seemed sheer chaos, and an occasion for endless
ridicule. Neo-classic taste was so opposed to the ideas
implicit in the Method that it rejected even the hal-
lowed story of Protogenes. In a critique of the pictures
shown at the Paris Salon of 1783 (Le Triumvirat des
arts, ou dialogue entre un peintre, un musicien et un
poète,
published anonymously as a pamphlet) the poet
ridicules one painting by pronouncing it a masterpiece
à la manière de Protogène. Henry Fuseli notes that
“many beauties in art come by accident that are pre-
served by choice,” but is quick to add that these have
nothing in common with the sponge of Protogenes or
“the modern experiments of extracting compositions
from an ink-splashed wall,” an obvious reference to
Cozens (Aphorism 153). Yet Cozens' very notoriety kept
his Method from being forgotten. Its liberating effect
on Constable and Turner, the great Romantic landscape
painters of the early nineteenth century, must have
been profound.

That Cozens anticipated a general trend toward free,
spontaneous brushwork transcribing the artist's crea-
tive impulse more directly than before, is amusingly
attested by a French cartoon of 1844 (Figure 18) which
shows the Romantic painters, with Delacroix in the
foreground, as simian virtuosos who do not even bother
to look at their canvases while they paint. The Method
also seems to be the ancestor of the Rorschach ink-blot
test. A parlor game based on it enjoyed a certain vogue
in England and may have helped to popularize it on
the Continent, especially among amateurs. Elaborated
blots are to be found in the drawings of Victor Hugo,
and in the 1850's the German physician and poet
Justinus Kerner produced Klecksographien, ink blots
on folded paper which he modified slightly to empha-
size the chance images he had found in them (Figure
19). He wrote little descriptive poems based on these
images and collected this material in his Hadesbuch,
which remained unpublished until 1890. The belated


351

rediscovery of Kerner's Klecksographien makes it likely
that they were known to Hermann Rorschach, who
used the same folded-paper technique for his tests but
substituted oral for graphic interpretation of images.

Meanwhile, Alberti's hypothesis about the origin of
sculpture was also being put to the test. In the 1840's
Boucher de Perthes, one of the pioneer students of
Paleolithic artifacts, collected large numbers of oddly
shaped flint nodules which he claimed had been treas-
ured by the men of the Old Stone Age because of their
accidental resemblance to animal forms. As evidence
he adduced what he regarded as efforts by these pri-
meval sculptors to modify the shape of these “figure
stones” so as to make the likeness more palpable. His
discovery caught the imagination of other students of
“antediluvian antiquity,” and figure stones soon turned
up in England as well (Figure 20), while the skeptics
denounced Boucher de Perthes and his followers as
self-deluded or fraudulent. The skeptics eventually won
out, but the issue may never be fully resolved; after
all, the men of the Old Stone Age might have prized
these nodules for their image-bearing quality even if
there is no proof that they modified their shapes. Nor
was the controversy useless, for it probably alerted
students of the Paleolithic to the existence of modified
chance images in the cave art of Spain and the Dor-
dogne, which was discovered a few decades later.

The aesthetic attitude of the Romantics not only
favored impulsiveness at the expense of rational con-
trol; it also undermined the classic view that “painting
is mute poetry” by enthroning music as the highest
of the arts. To those who espoused this belief, the
subject of a picture was little more than a peg on which
to hang attractive combinations of form and color.
Their most articulate spokesman, James Whistler,
began in the early 1860's to call his works “sympho-
nies,” “harmonies,” “nocturnes,” or “arrangements,” in
order to stress his convinction that descriptive values
in painting are as secondary as they are in music; the
subject proper was mentioned only as a subtitle, for
the benefit of the ignorant public.

Whistler's attitude toward chance effects, far more
radical than Cozens', became a matter of public record
during his famous libel suit against John Ruskin, who
had charged him with “flinging a pot of paint in the
public's face.” In painting a Nocturne, Whistler stated,
“I have... meant to indicate an artistic interest alone
..., divesting the picture from any outside sort of
interest which might have been otherwise attached to
it. It is an arrangement of line, form and colour first,
and I make use of any incident of it which shall bring
about a symmetrical result.” By “incident,” he clearly
meant accidental, unforeseen effects, and “symmet-
rical” to him was a synonym for “harmonious.” Some
of Whistler's works are indeed so divested of “outside
interest” that without the aid of the subtitle we would
be hard put to recognize the subject. How much acci-
dent went into the painting of them is impossible to
say, for we are approaching the point where chance
and intention become inseparable.

Unlike Cozens, who still wanted his blots to yield
recognizable images, Whistler solicits chance effects


352

for the sake of “symmetry”; representation, taken for
granted as the aim of art from the beginning of time,
is about to give way to a new primary reality, that
of the brush stroke itself, and when this happens we
lose the frame of reference that enables us to differen-
tiate between accident and purpose. The nonfigurative
art of the twentieth century is strikingly forecast in
Whistler's thinking (and to a lesser extent his practice).

The retreat from likeness that began with Impres-
sionism would seem to leave no room for the concept
of images made by chance. Not surprisingly, the subject
is disregarded—as extra-aesthetic, we may assume—in
theories keyed to Cubism and abstract art. Still, an
awareness of it persisted, as evidenced by the following
story, which Picasso told to Françoise Gillot. During
the most austere phase of “Analytical Cubism,” when
he and Braque were working in closely related styles,
Picasso one day went to look at his friend's latest work.
Suddenly, he became aware that there was a squirrel
in the picture, and pointed it out to Braque, who was
rather abashed at this discovery. The next day Braque
showed him the picture again, after reworking it to
get rid of the squirrel, but Picasso insisted he still saw
it, and it took yet another reworking to banish the
animal for good. Whatever its literal truth, this anec-
dote suggests that the artist's imagination remains ba-
sically iconic, and hence ready to find images where
none were intended, even under the discipline of an
abstract style. Picasso's own later work, from the 1930's
on, abounds in chance images of every sort. The most
striking cases occur among his sculpture, such as a
bull's head composed of the seat and handlebars of a
bicycle, or a monkey's face made of a toy automobile(Figure 21).
Making the resemblance explicit here
involves, in the first instance, no more than putting
the bicycle parts together in a novel way; in the second,
the artist forces us to share his interpretation of the
toy automobile by constructing the rest of the animal
around it. Perhaps it was visual adventures of this kind
that made him recall the story of Braque's squirrel some
thirty years after the event.

During the interval, the artistic climate of the West-
ern world had been thoroughly transformed by Dada
and Surrealism, which acclaimed chance as the basis
of aesthetic experience. As early as 1916-17, Hans Arp
was producing compositions of torn bits of paper which
he claimed were “arranged according to the laws of
chance”; later, he wrote eloquently in praise of “the
Muse of Chance.” Marcel Duchamp, the most influen-
tial member of the movement, was an equally persua-
sive advocate and practitioner of chance effects. What
the Dadaists sought to elicit was not chance images
so much as “chance meetings”—unexpected juxtaposi-
tions of objects which by their very incongruity would
have a liberating effect on the imagination. The crea-
tive act to them was a spontaneous gesture devoid of
all conscious discipline. Surrealism supported this out-
look with an elaborate theoretical framework invoking
the authority of Sigmund Freud for its view of the
unconscious. It also invented a number of new pictorial
techniques, or variations of older ones such as ink blots,
for soliciting chance images, its orientation being una-
bashedly iconic. Nor was this reversal of the retreat
from likeness confined to the Surrealists; the same trend
can be found among artists independent of or only
loosely linked with the movement. The result has been
a renewed awareness of the link between chance and
inspiration. The sponge-throwing Protogenes, were his
story better known today, would be the ideal hero of
many mid-twentieth-century artists.

V

The history of our subject in Western civilization
has a close parallel in the Far East, although the evi-
dence is even more fragmentary and its frame of refer-
ence difficult to interpret. As early as the eighth cen-
tury, toward the end of the T'ang dynasty, there were
Chinese painters using procedures astonishingly similar
to Cozens' Method. Their style, called i-p'in (“untram-
meled”), is known only from literary accounts such as
that concerning one of them, Wang Mo:

Whenever he wanted to paint a picture, he would first drink
wine, and when he was sufficiently drunk, would spatter
the ink onto the painting surface. Then, laughing and sing-
ing all the while, he would stamp on it with his feet and
smear it with his hands, besides swashing and sweeping it
with the brush. The ink would be thin in some places, rich
in others; he would follow the shapes which brush and ink
had produced, making these into mountains, rocks, clouds,
and water. Responding to the movements of his hand and


353

following his inclinations, he would bring forth clouds and
mists, wash in wind and rain, with the suddenness of Crea-
tion. It was exactly like the cunning of a god; when one
examined the painting after it was finished he could see
no traces of the puddles of ink

(S. Shimada, 1961).

Such a display of sprezzatura was surely an extreme
manifestation of the i-p'in style. Yet Wang Mo and the
other “untrammeled” painters had a catalytic effect
upon the development of Sung painting analogous to
that of Cozens on the Romantics. Their works may
not have survived for long, but descriptions of their
methods did, providing future artists in both China and
Japan with a model of the creative process stressing
individual expression and an exploratory attitude to-
ward the potentialities of ink technique.

There are later accounts, ranging from the eleventh
to the nineteenth century, of painters soliciting chance
images in ways comparable to those of the i-p'in pio-
neers. None of the surviving examples, however, ap-
proach the freedom of Cozens' “blotscapes.” It is hard
to say, therefore, how accurately the literary sources
reflect actual practice. One recurrent element in these
accounts is the claim that the work—almost invariably
a landscape—looks as if “made by Heaven” or
“brought forth with the suddenness of Creation,” rather
than like something made by man. Such terms of praise
imply that the picture in question seems completely
effortless and unplanned; a work of nature, not a work
of art. This aesthetic ideal must have led the Chinese
to the discovery that certain kinds of veined marble
could be sliced in such a way that the surface suggested
the mountain ranges and mist-shrouded valleys charac-
teristic of Sung landscapes. The marble slabs would
be framed like paintings and supplied with an evoca-
tive inscription (Figure 22). Since they were small,
durable, and produced in large quantities, it seems
likely that some of them reached the West with the
expansion of the China trade in the eighteenth century.
If so, these Far Eastern chance images may have helped
to stimulate the train of thought that produced Cozens'
Method.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Jurgis Baltrušaitis, “Pierres imagées,” Aberrations, quatre
essais sur la légende des formes
(Paris, 1957). Ernst Gom-
brich, Art and Illusion (New York, 1960). H. W. Janson,
“After Betsy, What?”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 15
(1959), 68ff.; idem, “The 'Image Made by Chance' in Ren-
aissance Thought,” De Artibus Opuscula XL, Essays in
Honor of Erwin Panofsky
(New York, 1961), pp. 254-66.
Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz, Die Legende vom Künstler (Vi-
enna, 1934). Heinz Ladendorf, “Zur Frage der künstler-
ischen Phantasie,” Mouseion, Studien... für Otto Förster
(Cologne, 1960), pp. 21-35. John Plummer, The Hours of
Catherine of Cleves
(New York and London, 1966). Patrik
Reuterswärd, “Sinn und Nebensinn bei Dürer,” Gestalt und
Wirklichkeit, Festgabe für Ferdinand Weinhandl
(Berlin,
1967), pp. 411-36. Karl Schefold, “Zur Frage der künstler-
ischen Phantasie,” Antike Kunst, 4, No. 2 (1961), 79. S.
Shimada, “Concerning the I-p'in Style of Painting—I,”
Oriental Art, n.s. 7, No. 2 (1961), 3-11. Osvald Siren, Chinese
Painting,
3 vols. (New York, 1956), I, 216.

H. W. JANSON

[See also Chance; China; Fortune, Fate, and Chance; Ge-
nius;
Iconography; Mimesis; Virtù;.]