TRUTH VERSUS VERISIMILITUDE
THE ART OF PAINTING
William Paxton, astute painter that he was, liked to quote an anonymous French artist, the name having escaped Paxton’s memory, who averred that what really mattered-in painting was "verisimilitude rather than truth" -- this being my attempt at a literal translation of the phrase. But the somewhat esoteric utterance calls for citation in its native tongue, "En peinture ce n'est pas la verite qui compte, mais le vraisemblaince." The dictum is memorable in that it formulates a pivotal tenet of representational painting as the art was practiced by European cultures from the incipience of the Italian Renaissance well into the nineteen-fifties. Since then its caliber has deteriorated to the vanishing point. Today's would-be practitioners who seek to revive the aims, ideals and methods which vitalized the noble art of the past, would be well-advised to ponder the wisdom latent in the aphorism to which I am calling attention.
The dictum in question could very properly be freely translated as follows: "The kernel of the representational painter's art lies in his capacity to convince the viewer rather than in his recording of factual truths." The coiner of the French maxim, who could well have been the formidable Edgar Degas himself, would in all likelihood have repudiated the implication of trompe l'oeil illusionism which haunts both of my English synonyms for veracity. Unabashed optical trickery has regularly been disdained by front-rank artists unless the deception was justified by exceptional circumstances. Recently the all too obvious dependence of most of our contemporary figurative painters on photography has vividly sundered their efforts from painting originated by exceptionally fertile minds equipped with eyes expertly sensitized by first-rate teachers and backed up by a vast arsenal of laboriously acquired professional skills.
But, once a painter has been ensnared by the blandly mechanical distortions of a camera, he can only extricate himself from their deceptive toils with the utmost difficulty. Therein lies the cogency of this inquiry. A painter investigates visual phenomena to discover aesthetic factors which will exalt his heartfelt messages and give his pictures lasting status as works of art. Our present quest seeks to ascertain the nature of the visual truths which further this purpose.