Hippolyte Taine combines a historical interest in his subjects with an interest that is philosophical. Two of his wide-ranging works are Histoire de la littérature anglaise (1863-1864, 4 vols.; The History of English Literature, 1871) and Les Origines de la France contemporaine (1876-1894, 6 vols.; The Origins of Contemporary France, 1876-1894). In his studies, he regarded history and philosophy as sciences; he believed that a study of the nature of art and of art production could proceed, in the manner of any scientific study, by attention to the observable facts and by the framing of inductive generalizations. Consequently, his Philosophy of Art is to some extent a description of some predominant art periods and to some extent an attempt to generalize philosophically from the data of his historical inquiries. Taine’s studies include those of the art of Greece, the Netherlands, and Italy.
Taine’s working assumption is that no work of art is isolated, and that the only way to understand a particular work of art or the nature of art in general is by attending to the conditions that lead to a work of art. According to this theory, the character of a work of art is determined by the artist, but that artist is shaped by a number of inescapable cultural influences. Taine believes that works of art present, in perceptible form, the essential character of the time and place in which the artist works. In his words, “The work of art is determined by an aggregate which is the general state of the mind and surrounding manners.” Taine points out, for example, that the nude statues of Greek art reflect the Grecian preoccupation with war and athletics and with the development of the healthy human animal; that the art of the Middle Ages reflects the moral crisis resulting from feudal oppression; that the art of the seventeenth century reflects the values of courtly life; and that the art of industrial democracy expresses the restless aspirations of human beings in an age of science.
The work of art itself is conditioned by the wholes of which it is a part and a product. In the first place, according to Taine, the work of art exhibits the artist’s style, that prevailing mode of aesthetic treatment that runs through all the works of an artist, giving them an underlying resemblance to one another. Second, the work of art reflects the prevailing manner of the school of artists to which the individual artist belongs. Finally, it expresses the times and the social milieu of taste, conviction, and manners within which the artist is working and by which he or she must be affected. Taine summarizes his belief when he writes that “to comprehend a work of art, an artist or a group of artists, we must clearly comprehend the general social and intellectual condition of the times to which they belong.”
In addition to the influence of taste and style, Taine also believes in considering “moral temperature,” the spiritual milieu, whether mystic or pagan or something foreign to both, that infects the artist and, consequently, his or her work. The philosophy of art, as Taine understands it, is the attempt to study the art of various countries and ages to discover the conditions under which the art of a particular place and time is created and, finally, the conditions in general for any art whatsoever. A report of those general conditions would be a philosophy of art.
In examining individual works of art, the first step in aesthetics, Taine finds that imitation is an important feature in most of them, particularly in works of poetry, sculpture, and painting. Taine is interested in arriving by inductive means at a theory of the nature of art. He speculates whether...
(The entire section is 1527 words.)