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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
170 occurrences of ideology
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170 occurrences of ideology
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In the present context “individualism” and “genius”
are sister terms and considerations of the one implicitly
illuminate the other. This is particularly striking when
we consider some of the roots of the modern concep-
tion of genius that emerged in the course of the eight-
eenth century.

1. Natural Talent. In his History of Modern Criticism
René Wellek said: “The terms 'genius,' 'inspiration,'
poeta vates, furor poeticus are the stock in trade of
Renaissance poetics, and even the most rigid critic...
never forgot to say that poets need 'inspiration,' 'imag-
ination,' 'invention'.... They believed in a rational
theory of poetry but not that poetry was entirely ra-
tional.” All the terms here mentioned are closely tied
up with the concept of genius, but the key to the ideas
later associated with original genius is to be found in
the irrational element always acknowledged in poetry
and art. The idea that the poet is born with his talent
had first taken shape in Hellenistic thought, when
writers and artists first became conscious of the vital
importance of individual artistic endowment (Schweit-
zer, 1925). The concept appears in the writing about
art theory even before the publication in 1554 of
Longinus' Peri hupsous (On the Sublime), which ex-
erted a steadily growing influence on literary criticism
(Monk, 1935). According to Leonardo painting “cannot
be taught to those not endowed by nature” (Richter,
1939). The great Aretino was a passionate champion
of inborn artistic genius; he voiced his view repeatedly


and in a letter of 1547 expressed epigrammatically:
“Art is the gift of bountiful nature and is given to us
in the cradle” (Aretino, 1957). His friend Lodovico
Dolce, also a Venetian, in his Dialogue on Painting
(1557) made this opinion his own, and later art critics
such as G. P. Lomazzo (1590) reiterated that “those
who are not born painters can never achieve excellence
in this art.” Thereafter this view became an often
repeated topos (Kris and Kurz, 1934).

If the artist owes his individual talent to a gift of
the gods, his art, too, defies rational analysis. Ancient
authors—Cicero, Quintilian, Pliny—made allowance
for the irrational element in works of art and called
it venustas (“grace”). From the sixteenth century on-
ward classical art theory was permeated with this
concept. “Grace” for the Italians from Baldassare
Castiglione to Vasari and beyond was un non so che,
which in the French theory of the seventeenth century
became the je ne sais quoi and in England, in Pope's
immortal phrase, “A Grace beyond the Reach of Art”
(Monk, 1944).

Critics and artists of the Renaissance had definite
ideas of how talent ought to be displayed. Pedantic,
slow, laborious execution smacked of the artisan's craft.
The work of the artist richly endowed by nature cannot
be measured and valued in terms of working hours
spent on manual execution. As early as the mid-
fifteenth century a distant “rumbling” may be noticed.
The Archbishop Saint Antonino of Florence explained:
“Painters claim, more or less reasonably, to be paid
for their art not only according to the amount of work
involved, but rather according to the degree of their
application and experience” (Gilbert, 1959). But it was
not until well into the sixteenth century that artists
stated with vigor that the compensation for a work
of art depended on the ingenuity and not on the length
of time that had gone into its making. Thus Michel-
angelo supposedly said to Francisco de Hollanda: “I
value highly the work done by a great master even
though he may have spent little time over it. Works
are not to be judged by the amount of useless labor
spent on them but by the worth of the skill and mastery
of their author” (Holt, 1947).

The modern artist had to perform in a way that
matched his new status, and thus we find from the
second half of the sixteenth century onward most the-
orists insisting on facility of execution, on a manner
of painting that would give the impression of rapid
work and effortless skill hiding the toil that had gone
into the making of the work of art. As early as 1550
Vasari made the memorable observation that “many
painters... achieve in the first sketch of their work,
as though guided by a sort of fire of inspiration...
a certain measure of boldness; but afterwards, in finish
ing it, the boldness vanishes” (Wittkower, 1967).
Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
a number of progressive artists attempted to preserve
something of the brio of spontaneous creation, with
the result that the finish itself became sketchy. The
masters working with a free, rapid brushstroke assumed
steadily greater importance and led up to the position
of painters like Delacroix, for whom the first flash of
the idea was “pure expression” and “truth issuing from
the soul.” It was in the context of this development
that the painter's sketch as well as the sculptor's
sketchy clay model (bozzetto) were conceded the status
of works of art in their own right. The appreciation
of individual manner and style in the drawing, the
sketch, and the bozzetto—first savored by the eight-
eenth-century virtuoso—cannot, of course, be sepa-
rated from the recognition of genius emerging at the
same time.

2. Talent and Genius. But one must be careful not
to confuse talent and genius. The qualities with which
the term “genius” has been invested ever since the
mid-eighteenth century, such as spontaneity, out-
standing originality, and exceptional creativity were
not implied in the Latin ingenium and the Italian
ingegno, meaning natural disposition, i.e., talent. The
Elizabethans still employed the term ingenium, or its
counterpart at that time, “wit.” In the course of the
seventeenth century the use of the term genius in-
creased and gradually supplanted “wit,” absorbing
ingenium in the process (Kaufman, 1926). But before
the end of the seventeenth century Sir William Temple
distingushed between “high flights of wit” and “the
pure native force or spirit of genius.” Nonetheless
talent and genius remained synonyms for a considerable
time. It was only after the men of the German “Storm
and Stress” had aggressively turned their attention to
the comparatively loose English ideas on genius “that
the distinction between genius and talent... was
sharpened into the strong antithesis which is now uni-
versally current...” (Murray, New English Diction-
IV). Thus we see, about a hundred years after Sir
William Temple's time, genius and talent taking on
their present-day meanings. William Jackson in
Whether Genius be born or acquired (1798) declared
that “a man of genius must have talents, but talents
are possessed by many without it [i.e., genius]....
Genius is inventive, a creation of something not before
existing; to which talents make no pretence...”
(Kaufman, 1926). Again, about a hundred years later,
the poet James Russell Lowell laid down epigrammat-
ically: “Talent is that which is in a man's power; genius
is that in whose power a man is.”

Despite such semantic distinctions the term “talent”
has been used in the preceding paragraph to charac-


terize the pre-eighteenth-century concept of inborn
genius, because during the Renaissance the accretion
of distinct ideas defining the modern term genius were
still lacking. In the following sections these charac-
teristics will be briefly discussed, one by one.

3. Imitation and Originality. The literary criticism
of the sixteenth century knew of no breach between
originality and imitation. On the contrary, Marco
Girolamo Vida's dictum (1527) that the highest origin-
ality was the most ingenious imitation of the ancients,
quoted here in lieu of many others, had a long life
and also reverberated for a long time in the theory
of art. An Aristotelian and pseudo-Aristotelian theory
of imitation informed both literary criticism and art
theory, and to a certain extent even artistic practice
(Wittkower, 1965). It was only in the course of the
eighteenth century that some great artists differenti-
ated between copying and imitating (Anton Raphael
Mengs) or copying and borrowing (Sir Joshua Rey-
nolds). Borrowing from great masters was, according
to Reynolds, “the true and only method by which an
artist makes himself master of the profession.... Such
imitation is so far from... the servility of plagiarism,
that it is... a continual invention.” Horace Walpole,
in the Anecdotes of Painting in England (1762), val-
iantly rose in defense of the great painter concluding:
“... a quotation from a great author, with a novel
application of the sense, has always been allowed to
be an instance of parts and taste; and may have more
merit than the original.” But in the last decades of the
eighteenth century this meant defending a lost position.
A growing number of artists were in revolt. Their
criticism is epitomized in Chardin's Singe peintre
(Louvre) showing an ape who copies an antique statue
which on his canvas also turns into an ape. Hogarth,
in his famous tailpiece of the Spring Gardens Catalogue
of 1761, used the same simian formula to ridicule the
antiquarian adulation of masters of past ages.

Many artists were clamoring for a new kind of
originality, a search for new values independent of
imitation. But it was literary critics rather than artists
who defined the changed meaning of originality. The
primary contribution came from England, perhaps
influenced by Giordano Bruno's Eroici furori, published
in London in 1585 and dedicated to Sir Philip Sidney.
Bruno had a clear notion of the character of genius:
“The rules are derived from the poetry, and there are
as many kinds and sorts of true rules as there are kinds
and sorts of true poets.” Such a premiss opened up
the problem posed by Shakespeare's work: obviously,
it could not be fitted into the traditional Aristotelian
categories, and the modern alliance of originality and
genius was probably due to Shakespearean criticism.
Alexander Pope in the preface to his edition of Shakes
peare (1715) noted: “If ever any Author deserved the
name of an Original it was Shakespeare....” Charac-
teristically, “original” and “original genius” appear in
titles of books after 1750 (Edward Young, 1759;
William Duff, 1767; Robert Wood, 1769, 1775).

In one of his famous Spectator articles on Genius
(No. 160, 3 September, 1711), Addison still regarded
his subject as “so uncommon.” It was only after the
mid-century that a vigorous analysis of “genius” was
undertaken. Next to Alexander Gerard's, the most re-
markable of the many publications was Edward
Young's Conjectures on Original Composition (1759),
in which the aged author intended to show genius the
way out of the obstructions of Augustan dogma: the
“meddling ape imitation... destroys all mental indi-
viduality” was the new creed. The little book contains
such well-known and often quoted passages as “An
Original may be said to be of a vegetable nature; it
rises spontaneously from the vital root of genius; it
grows, it is not made.” What has been called Young's
“vegetable concept of genius” (Abrams, 1953) has been
looked upon askance by some modern critics (Fabian,
1966), because the links to sub-rational processes
turned genius into an occult phenomenon. But Young's
compelling language and metaphors assured his suc-
cess. The book was immediately translated twice into
German and created—as Herder wrote—an electrify-
ing effect. Young actually adumbrated the notions of
the romantic concept of genius. In his claims of origi-
nality Young had gone far beyond Duff, the author of
An Essay on Original Genius (1767), who, despite his
adulation of originality and exorcism of imitation,
demanded that an exuberant imagination must be re-
strained by a proportionate share of reason and
judgment—herein apparently following Gerard's An
Essay on Genius,
a work largely written in 1758, but
not published until 1774 (Fabian, 1966). Already in his
An Essay on Taste (1759) Gerard had made the point
that “Diligence and acquired abilities may assist or
improve genius: but a fine imagination alone can pro-
duce it.”

At the end of the century the radical dedication to
original creation found eloquent apostles in John
Pinkerton and William Blake; in their revolt against
imitation both used violent language unheard before.
In his Letters of Literature (1785) Pinkerton attacked
“the complete folly of instituting Academies of Paint-
ing... that is, Schools of Imitation. Did ever any one
good painter arise from an academy? Never....” And
Blake in his utter condemnation of Reynolds' Dis-
exclaimed “What has Reasoning to do with the
Art of Painting?” His dictum “One power alone makes
a poet: Imagination, the Divine Vision” contains the
gist of his view of genius (Keynes, p. 770).


4. Invention and Creation, Fancy and Imagination,
Spontaneity and Inspiration.
Blake may be the most
violent exponent of spontaneity and divine inspiration
but his ideas are less his own than is sometimes be-
lieved. He enthroned originality and called it imagina-
tion. The terms heading this paragraph have their own
complex history and, at the same time, they are all
closely interwoven with the growth of the concept of

“Invention,” a term of classical rhetoric, one of the
pillars of Renaissance literary and art theory (Zilsel,
1926), was, it might be said, demoted in the course
of the eighteenth century and increasingly replaced by
“creative” and “creation,” terms more indicative of the
spontaneity of genius. It has been suggested (L. Pearsall
Smith) that this changeover began with the critical
study of Shakespeare. Dryden, discussing the character
of Caliban, said: “Shakespeare seems there to have
created a person which was not in Nature, a boldness
which, at first sight, would appear intolerable.” Yet
Alexander Gerard in his Essay on Taste (1759) still
stated: “The first and leading quality of genius is in-
vention...,” and he returned to this in his Essay on
(1774): while “Genius is properly the faculty
of invention,” he wrote, “it is imagination that pro-
duces genius....” The new concise terminology ap-
peared in the Essay on Original Genius (1767) of
William Duff, who found that “creative Imagination
[was] the distinguishing characteristic of true Genius.”
Thereafter the concept “creative imagination” was
assimilated by the German Storm and Stress movement
and became a catchword during the romantic era. Kant
in the Critique of Judgment (1790) propounded au-
thoritatively: “Creative imagination is the true source
of genius and the basis of originality.”

German criticism also hammered out the distinction
between fancy (Einbildungskraft) and imagination
(Phantasie), the former referring to human awareness
and the latter, the higher power, to “divine infusion.”
Coleridge, steeped in German aesthetic speculations,
likewise distinguished genius and imagination from the
lower faculties, talent and fancy (Wellek [1955], II).
And Ruskin still accepted these distinctions.

It was also in eighteenth-century criticism that the
vital function of spontaneity and inspiration was con-
stantly reiterated. William Sharpe in his Dissertation
on Genius
(1755), the first book on the subject, re-
marked on the natural untrained powers of genius.
Edward Young (1759) laid down that genius creates
“spontaneously from the vital root” of our individual
natures. George Colman in his papers on Genius pub-
lished in The St. James Chronicle (1761-62), claimed
that “A Genius is a character purely modern, and of
so late an origin that it has never yet been described
or defined....” He recognized egotistical reliance on
untutored spontaneity as a hallmark of genius
(Kaufman, 1926). William Duff (1767) singled out irre-
sistible spontaneity. This list could be endlessly pro-
longed, for next to the emphasis on originality and
creative imagination, spontaneity and inspiration were
basic to the cult of genius. No more need be said here
since a great deal of ingenuity has been devoted by
modern scholars to an epistemological exploration of
these terms. But a few comments on other charac-
teristics of genius are in place.

5. Genius without Learning. While Renaissance and
post-Renaissance theory could not envisage great
achievement without the control of the reasoning
faculties and without solid intellectual grounding, those
who shaped the new concept of genius created a thor-
oughly anti-intellectual image of the select few: they
were deemed capable of producing from pure inspira-
tion. Sir William Temple had already suggested that
learning might weaken the force of genius (Of Poetry,
1690). And Addison made the memorable remark
(Spectator, No. 160, 3 September, 1711) that genius
creates “by the mere Strength of natural Parts and
without any Assistance of Arts or learning.” By the
mid-century this idea must have been current to such
extent that Dr. Johnson denounced as “the mental
diseases of the present Generation... Impatience of
Study, Contempt of the great Masters of antient [sic]
Wisdom, and a Disposition to rely wholly upon unas-
sisted Genius...” (The Rambler, No. 154, 7 Septem-
ber, 1751). Literary evidence of this concept abounds
in the second half of the century; witness such remarks
as the following by George Colman (1761-62): “The
Genius... needs neither diligence nor assiduity”; or
Young (1759), “Many a Genius, probably, there has
been, which could neither write, nor read”; “To the
neglect of learning, genius sometimes owes its greatest
glory.” And on to Schiller, Coleridge, and Nietzsche.

It was only natural that primitivism now appeared
as an asset favoring original genius. Adam Ferguson
had expressed the idea quite simply in An Essay on
the History of Civil Society
(1767, p. 265): a primitive
poet is always original because “he delivers the emo-
tions of the heart, in words suggested by the heart:
for he knows no other.” And in the same year William
Duff made the more daring assertion that “original
genius will in general be displayed in its utmost vigour
in the early and uncultivated periods of society...
and that it will seldom appear in a very high degree
in cultivated life.”

It must be emphasized, however, that most practic-
ing artists were rather conservative. Few accepted the
extravagant claims made by literary critics for natural
genius. Sir Joshua Reynolds, for instance, condemned


the opinion “too prevalent among artists, of the imagi-
nary powers of native genius, and its sufficiency in
great works.” Despite his classic-idealistic convictions,
he was not unmoved by the new ideas, but opposed
the notion that “rules are the fetters of genius. They
are fetters to men without genius.” An insistence on
freedom tempered, however, by study, learning, and
imitation prevailed with other great practitioners.
Robert Adam, who almost monopolized important
architectural commissions in England between 1760
and 1790, held that the freedom permissible to genius
gave him liberty “to transform the beautiful spirit of
antiquity with novelty and variety.” But at the same
time he maintained that architecture needed “to be
informed and improved by correct taste,” and the
models of correct taste were the works of the ancients
(Works, 1773). Adam's Roman friend, the great Gio-
vanni Battista Piranesi, in his Parere su l'architettura
(1765) ridiculed reason and rule and advocated imagi-
native instead of imitative art. But despite this stress
put on originality, he admonished his readers: “Let us
borrow from their stock” (i.e., that of the ancients).
Even Goya, the greatest genius of Blake's generation
and, like Blake, an advocate of unfettered imagination,
intended to inscribe on the title page to his series of
Caprichos: “The sleep of reason produces monsters.”
In his comment to this plate Goya added: “Imagination
deserted by reason produces impossible monsters.
United with reason, imagination is the mother of the
arts and the source of their wonders.”

6. The Artist as Second God. The Renaissance con-
cept of the divino artista (“the divine artist”) had a
double root. On the one hand, it was derived from
Plato's theory of the furores, the inspired madness of
which seers and poets are possessed; on the other hand,
it looked back to the medieval idea of God the Father
as artist, as architect of the universe. When, as early
as 1436, Leon Battista Alberti suggested in his treatise
On Painting that the artist may well consider himself,
as it were, another god, an alter deus, he was probably
prompted by the medieval deus artifex. Whatever his
source, the simile suggested that the artist was divorced
from the rank and file of “normal” people.

The tertium comparationis between God and the
poet or artist is the act of creation. This was often
expressed (for examples, Zilsel, 1926). Leonardo called
the artist signore e Dio (Ludwig, 1888; Panofsky, 1962),
while Scaliger (Poetics, 1561) returned to Alberti's
dictum: the poet was “as it were a second god” (velut
alter deus
). Similarly, the influential Lomazzo in an-
other work, Trattato... (1584), regarded the fare e
of the painter as a lower form of divine activity.

The epithet “divine” (divus, divino) for living poets
or artists appears rarely before the sixteenth century
(Zilsel [1926], p. 276); it becomes more common with
the diffusion of Renaissance Neo-Platonism. The su-
preme example is, of course, Michelangelo, whom
Aretino addressed as “divine” and to whose name
Ariosto gave a fashionable meaning in the punning

Michael più che mortal>
Angel divino
(“Michael more than mortal/ Angel Divine”)

that was in every one's mouth and is still a standard
quotation. Francisco de Hollanda poignantly charac-
terized the new position by saying: “In Italy one does
not care for the renown of great princes, it's a painter
only that they call divine.”

The concept of the divinity of artistic creation lives
on (Kris and Kurz, 1934) and reappears imaginatively
and forcefully in Shaftesbury's Platonic vision of ar-
tistic inspiration as “divine enthusiasm.” Shaftesbury,
who according to Ernst Cassirer (1932; 1955) rescued
the term “genius” “from the confusion and ambiguity
that had previously attached to it,” goes on to charac-
terize the inspired poet, the real Master, as “a second
Maker; a just Prometheus under Jove.” The idea of
the divine metaphysical power of genius became an
inalienable part of English and also Continental con-
siderations—“Genius has ever been supposed to par-
take of something Divine,” “Genius is from Heaven,
Learning from man” (Young, 1759). Meanwhile, the
Prometheus motif as presented by Shaftesbury influ-
enced German thought with archetypal power. This
story was fully explored in a classic paper by Oskar
F. Walzel (1910).

7. Genius, Madness and Melancholy. Plato not only
opened up for all times the concept of divine rapture,
but was indirectly also responsible for the entrenched
alliance between genius and madness. Seneca's often
quoted dictum “There never has been great talent
without a touch of madness” which referred to the
Platonic fire of divine inspiration, was usually misun-
derstood. Dryden's “Great wits are sure to madness
near allied,/ And thin partitions do their bounds di-
vide,” and even Schopenhauer's “Genius is nearer to
madness than the average intelligence” echo the mis-
interpreted line from Seneca. But the myth of a close
alliance between genius and madness was not but-
tressed until the nineteenth century by professional
psychologists (such as J. Moreau, C. Lombroso, P. J.
Moebius, W. Lange-Eichbaum) and pseudo-clinical
evidence, so that many great nineteenth-century minds
such as Balzac, Rimbaud, and Taine took the supposed
connection between mental illness and artistic genius
for granted, and the belief in this connection has spread
so widely that it has become, in Lionel Trilling's phrase,


“one of the characteristic notions of our culture.” The
catchword “mad artist” of the vox populi, however,
does not refer simply to lack of mental or emotional
stability. The notion nowadays implies “a mythical
picture of the creative man: inspired, rebellious, dedi-
cated, obsessive, alienated, as well as neurotic” (Philips,

For an understanding of the idea of the mad artist
before the nineteenth century, familiarity with Aris-
totle's doctrine of the Saturnine temperament is neces-
sary. Developing the Hippocratian humoral pathology,
Aristotle postulated a connection between the melan-
cholic humor and outstanding talent in the arts and
sciences. “All extraordinary men distinguished in phi-
losophy, politics, poetry, and the arts,” he maintained,
“are evidently melancholic.” But the melancholy of
such men is a precarious gift for, although only the
homo melancholicus can rise to the loftiest heights, he
is also prone to conditions bordering on insanity. It
was Marsilio Ficino who, in his De vita triplici
(1482-89), revived Aristotle's half-forgotten doctrine.
Moreover, he took the important step of reconciling
Aristotle's and Plato's views by maintaining that mel-
ancholy, the ambivalent temperament of those born
under the equally ambivalent planet Saturn was simply
a metonymy for Plato's divine mania (Klibansky,
Panofsky, and Saxl, 1964). Ficino's conclusion was
widely accepted: only the melancholic temperament
was capable of Plato's enthusiasm.

From then on gifted men were categorized as
saturnine and, conversely, no outstanding intellectual
or artistic achievement was believed possible unless its
author was melancholic. In the sixteenth century a
veritable wave of “melancholic behavior” swept across
Europe (Babb, 1951). Many great artists—and not only
they—were described as melancholic, among them
Dürer, Raphael, and Michelangelo (Wittkower, Born
Under Saturn,
p. 104). Michelangelo's use of the terms
“madness” and “melancholy” in reference to himself
will now be more readily understood. They echo
Ficino's uniting of Platonic “madness” and Aristotelian
“melancholy,” and there is reason to assume that it
was this alliance that many a Renaissance artist re-
garded as essential for his own creativity.

But even at the height of the vogue of melancholy,
doubts were voiced, and eventually the Renaissance
concept of the melancholicus was supplanted by the
new image of the conforming artist. None of the great
seventeenth-century masters—Rubens and Bernini,
Rembrandt and Velázquez—was ever described as
melancholic and, indeed, showed any traces of the
affliction. It was not until the romantic era, with artists
such as Caspar David Friedrich (Hartlaub, 1951), that
melancholy appears once again as a condition of men
tal and emotional catharsis. Nevertheless, the Greek
humoral pathology was forever dethroned as early as
1697 with the publication of G. E. Stahl's Lehre von
den Temperamenten.

8. Sanity of Genius. In 1826, at a time when the
conviction of the abnormality of genius was widely
shared, Charles Lamb raised the voice of common sense
in his essay on “The Sanity of True Genius” (1826).
Not only did he deny any connection between genius
and madness, but even maintained that genius “mani-
fests itself in the admirable balance of all the faculties.”
Lamb had some following among psychologists and
psychiatrists even in the twentieth century (Wittkower,
Born Under Saturn, pp. 100f.), and what is perhaps
more remarkable, took up and continued—maybe
unknowingly—ideas well established before him.

Indeed, Leon Battista Alberti in the fifteenth cen-
tury, Vasari, the Venetian Paolo Pini, and others in the
sixteenth had a clear vision of the many accom-
plishments with which talent must be endowed, and
even when the modern conception of genius began to
make its entry, it was first the exalted, lofty, and har-
monious qualities that were regarded as characteristic
of the very greatest. In his Réflexions critiques sur la
poésie et sur la peinture
(1719) the Abbé Du Bos spoke
of the nobility of the heart and mind of genius, of the
vivacity and delicacy of feeling inseparable from it,
and said that the artist of genius must have “much more
exquisite sensibility than normal people.” Even much
later, reasonableness and perfect balance appear as the
touchstone of true genius. Thus James Northcote (1818)
left the following character sketch of his master

He had none of those eccentric bursts of action, those fiery
impetuosities which are supposed by the vulgar to charac-
terize genius, and which frequently are found to accompany
a secondary rank of talent, but are never conjoined with
the first. His incessant industry was never wearied into
despondency by miscarriage, nor elated into negligence by

The concept of the sanity of genius is linked with
the idea that exceptional work can only be accom-
plished by exceptional characters and, moreover, that
there is a kind of mirror-image relationship between
personality and work. As Vasari informs his readers,
the lofty art of Raphael could only result from a lofty

9. Union of, and Dichotomy between, Man and his
The mirror-image concept has a pedigree lead-
ing back to Plato's Politeia and Gorgias. Aristotle too
believed in a union of the morality of the poet and
that of his work. This theory had a long life; we find
it in the Stoa, in Cicero, and in Quintilian (Heitmann


[1962], pp. 9ff.). And the Renaissance assimilated it,
mainly owing to Marsilio Ficino's Theologia Platonica,
the cornerstone of Renaissance philosophy. To quote
an essential passage: “We can see in them [i.e., paint-
ings and buildings] the attitude and the image, as it
were, of his [the artist's] mind; for in these works the
mind expresses and reflects itself not otherwise than
a mirror reflects the face of a man who looks into it”
(Gombrich [1945], p. 59). This ancient conception,
which in due course became part and parcel of the
humanist Renaissance tradition, can be traced through
the sixteenth century (Weinberg, 1961) and even
through the seventeenth and into the eighteenth.
Boileau, in L'Art poétique (1674), expressed firm belief
in the correlation of character and artistic qualities:

Que votre âme et vos moeurs peintes dans vos ouvrages
N'offrent jamais de vous que de noble images....

And probably not independent of Boileau, Jonathan
Richardson in An Essay on the Theory of Painting
(1715), a pioneering work for England, enlarged on
the topic that “The way to be an Excellent Painter,
is to be an Excellent Man.” The theory of a mirror-
image relationship between character and work has
found a following into our own days. In fact, it is often
naively applied by art historians, who are forgetting
that ambiguity is a specific characteristic of the visual
image: what looks chaste to one beholder may appear
obscene to the next. Reflections upon the man behind
the work must therefore be regarded with considerable
skepticism. There are, however, also some deliberate
attempts—such as in Hartlaub and Weissenfeld (1958)—
to present the old Platonic concept in a modern psy-
chological dress.

This story would not be complete without taking
note of the fact that a theory diametrically opposed
to that of the mirror image had found advocates at
an early date. There are passages in Catullus, Pliny,
Apuleius, Ovid, and others (Heitmann [1962], pp. 16f.)
denying a connection between the morality of the
author and that of his work. And from Boccaccio on,
the assertion is repeated that no link exists between
the author and the character of the stories told by him.
The theory culminates in Diderot's axiom, published
in his article “Platonism” in the Encyclopédie, that
great men may be morally deficient and a burden to
those close to them, and that nevertheless their work
remains untouched by such personal shortcomings.
There is, in short, no link between grand auteur et
homme de bien.
In le Neveu de Rameau Diderot
maintained that geniuses are hypertrophically devel-
oped in one direction, but are failures as persons: Ils
ne sont bons qu'à une chose, passé cela, rien; ils ne
savent ce que c'est d'être citoyens, pères, mères, parents,

It has been noticed that Diderot's forcefully stated
thesis was readily taken up in the nineteenth century:
Goethe, Victor Hugo, Paul Bourget, and others learned
their lesson from him, and from here, of course, there
opened anotehr avenue to the nineteenth-century
theme of the alliance of genius and madness. But it
has also been shown (Heitmann [1962], pp. 30ff.) that
Diderot, far from being a pedant, could happily con-
tradict himself. Discussing François Boucher (whom he
detested) in the Salon of 1765, Diderot remarked that
the degradation of taste, color, composition, etc., re-
sulted from a degraded personality. Other passages too
show that he had not entirely dismissed the old mirror-
image theory. It is, in fact, remarkable how vigorously
the doctrine of a harmony between man and work
reasserted itself. This is demonstrated by material col-
lected by M. H. Abrams (1953, Ch. IX) and K. Heit-
mann (1962).

The apparent impasse that mars a solution to this
problem is understandable: common sense insists that
every work of art bears the personal stamp of its maker.
Nonetheless, it would be absurd to postulate that a
fierce brush reveals an unruly temperament or that
“tame” painters or writers have gentle characters, are
morally healthy, law-abiding, and pleasant to deal with.
Diderot himself tried to resolve these contradictions
by drawing new conclusions from the Platonic concept
of divine frenzy. In De la poésie dramatique he sub-
mitted that the artist in the ecstasy of creation is a
being very different from his normal self. We must
clearly differentiate, he argued, between ourselves and

... L'homme enthousiaste, qui prend la plume, l'archet, le
pinceau.... Hors de lui, il est tout ce qu'il plaît à l'art
qui le domine. Mais l'instant de l'inspiration passé, il rentre
et redevient ce qu'il était; quelquéfois un homme commun

(Heitmann [1962], p. 20);

(“... the enthusiast who takes up pen, fiddlestick,
paintbrush.... When in a frenzy he is everything he
desires to be in the art that dominates him. But the
very moment the inspiration is over, he returns to earth
and becomes what he has been before, quite often an
ordinary man”). Basically in the same vein Flaubert
postulated much later (1853) the principle vivre en
bourgeois et penser en demi-dieu
(“live like a bourgeois
and think like a demi-god”). Baudelaire seems to have
deepened this insight by explaining that there are men
whose art must be regarded as the result d'une vaste
énergie vitale inoccupée
(“a vast latent vital energy”).
Art here assumes a cathartic function, a theme dis-
cussed in an illuminating chapter of M. H. Abrams'
work (1953). It appears that as early as the 1830's John
Keble, who held the Oxford Chair of Poetry, progressed
to a “proto-Freudian theory, which conceives of liter-
ature as disguised wish-fulfillment....” Psychoana-


lytical dialectics offer a deepened awareness and new
methodology in approaching the problem of interac-
tion between the artist and his work. In psychoan-
alytical opinion (Kris, 1953) artistic products add a
new dimension to the artist's personality, because the
works result from the resolution and sublimation of
repressions. In this way the unity of work and person-
ality is preserved, for we are made to understand why
a retiring character may be a bold artist, or an outgoing
artist timid in his work. Discreetly handled, this ap-
proach may also throw more light on the still mysteri-
ous resources on which artistic genius thrives.

Although we are reminded that the man of the
second half of the twentieth century no longer believes
in geniuses (Lowinsky, 1964), they can hardly be abol-
ished by an act of “cultural will.” Geniuses will appear
and be acknowledged both in the arts and sciences as
long as Western man regards free development as the
inalienable right of the individual. The extreme self-
interest normally associated with genius and conceded
to it by society without a murmur is and will remain
at the very core of the problem of individualism.