In his preface to The Renaissance, Walter Pater outlines the role of the aesthetic critic. Because the same natural laws that apply to "a herb, a wine, a gem" also apply to art, the critic can act as a scientist in his analyses of beauty (p. 2). Such a writer has three main objectives: to reduce art to its most basic sensation-producing elements, to analyze these elements by removing them from the context of the work, and finally to present his findings to the reader in a clear and accessible manner. The critic that obeys Pater's rules captures beauty in concrete definitions and brings it out of the realm of the abstract.

The aesthetic critic, then, regards all the objects with which he has to do, all works of art, and the fairer forms of nature and human life, as powers or forces producing pleasurable sensations, each of a more or less peculiar or unique kind. This influence he feels, and wishes to explain, by analyzing and reducing it to its elements. To him, the picture, the landscape, the engaging personality in life or in a book, La Gioconda, the hills of Carrara, Pico of Mirandola, are valuable for their virtues, as we say, in speaking of a herb, a wine, a gem; for the property each has of affecting one with a special, a unique, impression of pleasure. Our education becomes complete in proportion as our susceptibility to these impressions increases in depth and variety. And the function of the aesthetic critic is to distinguish, to analyse, and separate from its adjuncts, the virtue by which a picture, a landscape, a fair personality in life or in a book, produces this special impression of beauty or pleasure, to indicate what the source of that impression is, and under what conditions it is experiences. His end is reached when he has disengaged that virtue, and noted it, as a chemist notes some natural element, for himself and others; and the rule for those who would reach this end is stated with great exactness in the words of a recent critic of Sainte-Beuve: — De se borner a connaitre de pres les belles choses, et a s'en nourrir en exquis amateurs, en humanistes accomplis. [p. 2]

Questions

What techniques does Pater use in this passage that reflect his argument for a scientific approach to criticism? Are there specific words, or sentence constructions that seem particularly scientific?

Does Pater follow his own rules when he analyzes Da Vinci's Mona Lisa? Does Ruskin, in his critiques of Turner?

Can Pater's critic-as-scientist approach be applied to social and cultural criticism? Do Wolfe, Didion, Carlyle or Thoreau follow any of his advice?

References

Text of "Preface."


Victorian Web Overview Walter Pater Leading Questions

Last modified 6 April 2005