The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Aesthetic Emotion in a Child

by By Professor Luigi Ferri (Translated by Ada Heather Bigg)
Volume 1, 1890, pg. 828

In talking to children of three and four years old, we often use, and they as often repeat, the words "pretty," "beautiful." For the most part, however, it is easy to see that they either fail to apply the words properly, or that the application, when appropriate, is not understood. At the best, the words are simply associated with the sensations which accompany or precede aesthetic sense. This is scarcely to be wondered at when we remember that the aesthetic sense depends upon conceptions and judgments, which involve a certain stage of experience and reflection, and are slowly formed.

In my little girl, the feelings of utility, sympathy, and justice, so far as these depend upon more or less generalised experiences, preceded the sense of the beautiful.

Various trifling circumstances proved to me that, from the age of five or six, Betty was already able to discriminate in very obvious cases between great excellences and marked defects in material forms--in other words, could recognise strongly-accented disproportion. Her intuitions, however, did not develop into a precise judgment, as they did later on.

At five years old, the qualities in virtue of which an object was good, useful, or pleasurable, the qualities which made it interesting to her, and excited her liking and sympathies, the beautiful is distinguished in her mind by some mark peculiarly its own, especially by the conformity of its parts and ornamentation.

Take the following instance.

One day she was telling her nurse that her mother had put a new head on her doll. "Oh," said the nurse, "how I wish your mamma would give me a new head; how nice I should look!" "Oh, no," cried the child, "a new head would not do at all for you." "Why not?" asked the nurse in surprise. "Because it would not match everything else." "But how can you tell that?" cried her nurse. "I am dressed, so you can't see how the head should look on my body." "But," insisted Betty, "don't you see that your hand is full of creases and wrinkled."

In other words, Betty had brought out "You are old and wasted, and the new head you would like would be fresh and young, and would not harmonise with the rest of your body." This certainly is the aesthetic sense shown with a judgment on the conformity of parts with the whole.

From that time onwards, Betty often evinced aesthetic judgment in the perception of proportional relations. She condemned as ugly the substitution of a big head for that which belonged by rights to a little body--an intuition for the rest simple enough in a child accustomed to copy in pencil and embroidery patterns of small and symmetrical designs, and who, not less than other children, constantly hears assertions like the following: "This or that part of the given object is too big or too small."

On the other hand, we must exclude from the sphere of her aesthetic judgments all those cases in which her affections are involved, since when her mother is in question she refuses to recognise any distinctions--her mother is not only good and beautiful, but better and more beautiful than all the other women she knows, with reference to whom we try to elicit an aesthetic judgment.

The difference between the condition of an object, which though not beautiful in itself is furnished with some ornament, and the condition of the same object deprived of all ornamentation, is capable of suggesting a judgment to her, in which she joins the beautiful to the presence of the ornament and severs it from a naked uniformity. In our house in two adjoining rooms hang a couple of lamps of similar shape, and almost similar size. Asked to say which of the two she preferred, she placed first the ornamented one.

From the age of two (and I fancy this is pretty usual) she would indulge in cries of joy at the finest and most varied parts of a display of fireworks. The shower of rockets which are sent off from the Castle of St. Angelo at the commencement and close of what are known as Catherine wheels attracted and excited her singularly, and her ejaculations were most strongly accented at the moment when a certain number of rockets having blazed across the skies fell to earth in a feathery shower of fiery globules of varied and contrasting colour.

Here, however, the processes involved in the aesthetic judgment were not yet present, or if present not palpably so--the faculties of abstraction, comparison, and judgment had not yet been exercised and perfected sufficiently to give rise to that intuition of the relations between unity and multiplicity, the parts and the whole of a determinate reality, through which fitness, harmony, and proportion become so many aspects of the beautiful.

At the point where Betty now is, however, intelligence has reached that stage of development where these relations can be apprehended in concrete cases, assimilated to other instances of the same kind, and can so lead up to an order of more generalised reflections, in which these various aspects of the aesthetic judgment get united by one common link.

With all this, Betty cannot even now judge the beautiful except in cases which, like the foregoing, are exceedingly simple. For instance, facial expression--that most important of factors in our estimate of the beauty of human beings, and in the artistic reproduction of their lineaments--facial expression is not yet the object of her reflection although not extraneous to her intuitions and her preferences. I give an example.

Betty and her sister went to a party at which children of both sexes were present. Some days after, I asked her which of them all she liked best, and she named just that little boy and girl to whom an artist and some other person of taste had assigned the pain. These children in the opinion of every one displayed in marked measure elegance of form, and a certain gracefulness of movement which they preserved even in the midst of the most violent games. Above all, their eyes were full of expression, and their faces bright and animated.

"Why do these please you most?" we asked. The answer would have been easy if the other children had been in any way deformed or unprepossessing. But as the gathering had consisted solely of pleasing, winning little people, an exact answer would have necessitated on the part of the child an analysis quite incompatible with the scale of her reflections and cognitions, an analysis, we may add, beyond the powers of many adults, even to say nothing of the half-educated. Pestered with direct questions as to why she preferred G., she cried at last with animation, "Because I have seen him." Despite the difference of her sex--a fact perhaps not altogether unconnected with the impression which provoked this reply--she could not be induced to say more. I further observed that the smallness of her size, and the range of her sight, affecting as these did her power of vision, are not without importance in determining her interest or indifference.

We were in a garden in which were a great many different plants and shrubs, and, amongst the trees, some pines. Those, with their slender rounded trunks and symmetrically-disposed branches, produced for the eye the effect of a spherical top dominating in form and height over the others. Told to look round the green enclosure surrounding her, and to say which of the tallest trees in it pleased her most, the finest there failed to strike her, and she still remained indifferent even when her attention was directed to it. Yet she has seen many trees, and, as the foregoing pages prove, is not insensible to regularity and harmony of form. The fact is, however that in order to receive a due impression of the beautiful, it does not suffice to be capable of forming the aesthetic judgment which a given object suggests. It is essential, also, that no unpleasing sensation should clash with the aesthetic impression.

Now in the case under consideration there was just this undesirable clashing, for, from the spot on which Betty was standing, it was only with difficulty she could see the top of this particular tree. She had to throw her head back and almost force herself to take in an object too large for her immediate apprehension, and for the unity required by the aesthetic intuition.

Ignoring the tree then, she stooped down and picked up a fragile little twig, which, with its tiny branches and its gossamer leaves, seemed to be a pigmy tree suited for the garden of her doll. "I like this," she said, and in effect it was graceful and elegant in its diminutiveness.

Betty, in her power of feeling and estimating the beautiful, much surpasses her sister of four and a-half. Elena has the intuition, but it is more immediate and more bound up with sensation. For instance, she deems a lizard ugly because it crawls and is like a serpent, and she passes the same judgment upon a slug because it has horns. But there appears to be in these two verdicts a sentiment of repugnance rather than a true aesthetic impression.

Elena, besides, is susceptible to the perfection and freshness of a living form, and at once gives it the preference over that which is withered and old. Shown two roses, one with the rich crimson of its closely-folded leaves contrasting with the vivid green of its outer sheath, the other overblown with brown-tipped petals faded and falling, she unhesitatingly chose the first as the one she liked best and thought beautiful. Further examples are unnecessary. These suffice to make plain a truth already dwelt upon by Monsieur Perez in his books "Psychology of the Infant" and "Education from the Cradle." The sense of the beautiful is preceded by the sense of the agreeable--in other words, by the pleasure of that which conforms to the regularity of the most familiar forms, and to the immediate consciousness of life. The feeling of the ugle has just the opposite set of facts for antecedents. But the agreeable and the repulsive, which are sensible aspects of things conforming with or contrary to the subjective conditions of our sensibility, remain in the beginning joined to the emotions and dependent on them. Up to that point the aesthetic feeling is not born, and the word beautiful is associated with an element not belonging to it. To lessen the force of this association, it is needful that judgment aided by abstraction can consider forms apart from their accompanying emotions and from any internal reproduction of the same.

It is needful, too, that regularity of form, proportion of parts, unity in diversity, should be furnished by intellect, and should give rise to feelings which depend upon the exercise of intellect, and upon the ideas and relations derived from it.

These feelings are not to be confounded with the organism's sensations of pleasure and pain. They depend upon an objective view of things, and bear a stamp altogether different from subjective utility and egoism.

Typed by happi, June 2017