sábado, 25 de febrero de 2012


The Royal Academy Exhibition, 1875.
A painting of great merit, and well deserving purchase by the Anthropological Society. For the varieties of character in the heads are rendered with extreme subtlety; while, as a mere piece of painting, the work is remarkable, in the modern school, for its absence of affectation: there is no insolently indulged indolence nor vulgarly asserted dexterity,―the painting is good throughout, and unobtrusively powerful.
It becomes a question of extreme interest with me, as I examine this remarkable picture, how far the intensely subtle observation of physical character and expression which rendered the painting of it possible, necessitates the isolation of the artist's thoughts from subjects of intellectual interest or moral beauty. Certainly the best expressional works of the higher schools present nothing analogous to the anatomical precision with which the painter has here gradated the feature and expression of the twelve waiting girls, from great physical beauty to absolute ugliness, and from the serene insolence and power of accomplished fleshly womanhood to the restless audacity and crushed resignation of its despised states of personal inferiority, unconsoled by moral strength or family affection. As a piece of anthropology, it is the natural and very wonderful product of a century occupied in carnal and mechanical science. In the total paralysis of conception without―attempt to disguise the palsy―as to the existence of any higher element in a woman's mind than vanity and spite, or in a man's than avarice and animal passion, it is also a specific piece of the natural history of our own century; but only a partial one, either of it, or of the Assyrian, who was once as " the cedars in the garden of God."2
1. [Edwin Longsden Long (1829-1891) was elected A.R.A. in the year following the exhibition of this picture (now in the collection at Holloway College). He was elected R.A. in 1881. In addition to his pictures of biblical and archaeological interest he painted some portraits; one of Sir Stafford Northcote is in the National Portrait Gallery.]
2.[Ezek. xxxi. 3, 8: "Behold, the Assyrian was a cedar in Lebanon. . . . The cedars in the garden of God could not hide him."]

The painter has in the first instance misread his story or been misled by his translation.1 This custom, called wise by Herodotus, is so called only as practised in country districts with respect to the fortuneless girls of the lower labouring population; daughters of an Assyrian noble, however plain-featured, would certainly not be exposed in the market to receive dowry from the dispute for their fairer sisters.* But there is matter of deeper interest in the custom, as it is compared to our modern life. However little the English educated classes now read their Bibles, they cannot but, in the present state of literary science, be aware that there is a book, once asserted to have been written by St. John, in which a spiritual Babylon is described as the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth, and her ruin represented as lamentable, especially to the merchants who trafficked with her in many beautiful and desirable articles, but above all in " souls of men."2

* The passage in Strabo3 which gives some countenance to the idea of universality in the practice, gives a somewhat different colour to it by the statement that over each of the three great Assyrian provinces a "temperately wise" person was set to conduct the ordinances of marriage.

1.["Herodotus records one of their customs, which, whether in jest or earnest, he declares to be the wisest he ever heard of. This was their wife-auction, by which they managed to find husbands for all their young women. The greatest beauty was put up first, and knocked down to the highest bidder; then the next in the order of comeliness―and so on to the damsel who was equidistant between beauty and plainness, who was given away gratis. Then the least plain was put up, and knocked down to the gallant who would marry her for the smallest consideration and so on till the plainest was got rid of to some cynical worthy, who placidly preferred lucre to looks. By transferring to the scale of the ill-favoured the prices paid for the fair, beauty was made to endow ugliness, and the rich man's taste was the poor man's gain."―Swayne's Herodotus. The reference is to Herodotus, book i. 196. For another reference to it, see Stones of Venice, vol. iii. (Vol. XI. p. 263).]
2.[Revelation xvii. 5, xviii. 11-13. "Once asserted," etc., but much doubted, even in very early times, and the book is now generally admitted to be a compilation of a Jewish apocalypse (written about 68 A.D.) with later Christian interpolations and additions (about 140 A.D.).]

3.[Book xvi. ch. i. § 20: "Three discreet persons, chiefs of each tribe, are appointed, who present publicly young women who are marriageable, and give notice by the crier, beginning with those most in estimation, of a sale of them to men intending to become husbands. In this manner marriages are contracted."]
Also, the educated reader cannot but be aware that the animosity of Christian sects―which we have seen the subject of another important national-historical picture in this―Academy1 has for the last three hundred years wasted much of their energy in endeavours to find Scriptural reason for calling each other Babylonians, and whatever else that term may be understood to imply.

There is, however, no authority to be found in honestly read Scripture for these well-meaning, but ignorant, incivilities. Read in their entirety, the books of the Bible represent to us a literal and material deliverance of a visibly separated people from a literal bondage; their establishment in a literally fruitful and peaceful land; and their being led away out of that land, in consequence of their refusal to obey the laws of its Lord, into a literal captivity in a small material Babylon. The same Scriptures represent to us a spiritual deliverance of an invisibly separated people from spiritual bondage; their establishment in the spiritual land of Christian joy and peace; and their being led away out of this land into a spiritual captivity in a great spiritual Babylon, the mother of abominations, and in all active transactions especially delightful to "merchants" persons engaged, that is to say, in obtaining profits by exchange instead of labour.

And whatever was literally done, whether apparently wise or not, in the minor fleshly Babylon, will therefore be found spiritually fulfilled in the major ghostly one; and, for instance, as the most beautiful and marvellous maidens were announced for literal sale by auction in Assyria, are not also the souls of our most beautiful and marvellous maidens announced annually for sale by auction in Paris and London, in a spiritual manner, for the spiritual advantages of position in society?

1.[See above, pp. 267, 269.]

martes, 22 de noviembre de 2011


The Royal Academy Exhibition, 1875

This, I suppose, we must assume to be the principal historical piece of the year; a work showing artistic skill and classic learning, both in high degree. But both parallel in their method of selection. The artistic skill has succeeded with all its objects in the degree of their unimportance. The piece of silver plate is painted best; the griffin bas-relief it stands on, second best; the statue of the empress worse than the griffins, and the living personages worse than the statue. I do not know what feathers the fan with the frightful mask in the handle, held by the nearest lady, is supposed to be made of; to a simple spectator they look like peacock's, without the eyes.2 And, indeed, the feathers, under which the motto "I serve" of French art seems to be written in these days, are, I think, very literally, all feather and no eyes―the raven's feather, to wit, of Sycorax.3The selection of the subject is similarly―one might say, filamentous―of the extremity, instead of the centre. The old French Republicans, reading of Rome, chose such events to illustrate her history, as the battle of Romulus with the Sabines, the vow of the Horatii, or the self-martyrdom of Lucretia. The modern Republican sees in the Rome he studies so profoundly, only a central establishment for the manufacture and sale of imitation-Greek articles of virtu

(1)[In the Art of England, §61, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema is named by Ruskin as representatively "classic," as "a careful and learned interpreter of certain phases of Greek and Roman life, and as himself a most accomplished painter, on long-established principles." In the same lecture (§77) Ruskin mentions Alma-Tadema as "differing from all the artists I have ever known, except John Lewis, in the gradual increase of technical accuracy, which attends and enhances together the expanding range of his dramatic invention." Tadema was elected A.R.A. in 187(5, and R.A. in 1879.]

(2)[Compare the letter in Hortus Inclusus, cited in a note in Stones of Venice, vol. i.(Vol. IX. p. 288).]

(3)[The Tempest, i.2:―

Caliban. As wicked dew as e'er my mother brushed
  With raven's feather from unwholesome fen
   Drop on you both ! . . .
  This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother.

The passage is quoted and commented upon in Munera Pulveris, §134.]

A Flower Walk. Albert Moore

The execution is dexterous, but more with mechanical steadiness of practice than innate fineness of nerve. It is impossible, however, to say how much the personal nervous faculty of an artist of this calibre is paralyzed by his education in schools which I could not characterize in my Oxford inaugural lectures otherwise than as the "schools of clay,"1 in which he is never shown what Venetians or Florentines meant by "painting," and allowed to draw his flesh steadily and systematically with shadows of charcoal and lights of cream-soap, without ever considering whether there would be any reflections in the one, or any flush of life in the other. The head on the extreme left is exceptionally good; but who ever saw a woman's neck and hand blue-black under reflection from white drapery, as they are in the nearer figure? It is well worth while to go straight from this picture to the two small studies by Mr. Albert Moore,2 356 and 357,3 which are consummately artistic and scientific work. Examine them closely and with patience ; the sofa and basket especially, in 357, with a lens of moderate power; and, by way of a lesson in composition, hide in this picture the little honeysuckle ornament above the head, and the riband hanging over the basket, and see what becomes of everything! Or try the effect of concealing the yellow flower in the hair, in the "Flower Walk." And for comparison with the elementary method of M. Tadema, look at the blue reflection on the chin in this figure; at the reflection of the warm brick wall on its right arm; and at the general modes of unaffected relief by which the extended left arm in "Pansies" detaches itself from the background. And you ought afterwards, if you have an eye for colour, never more to mistake a tinted drawing for a painting.

 Pansies. Albert Moore.

(1)[See Lectures on Art, chs. v. and vii. 139, 173, 185, etc.]

(2)[Albert Moore (1841-1893), brother of Henry Moore. There is a characteristic example of his work in the Tate Gallery (No. 1549, " Blossoms").]

(3)[356."A Flower Walk." 357. "Pansies."]

viernes, 18 de noviembre de 2011


The Royal Acdemy Exhibition, 1875

Here, at least, is one picture meant to teach; nor failing of its purpose, if we read it rightly. Very beautiful it might have been―and is, in no mean measure; but as years pass by, the artist concedes to himself, more and more, the privilege which none but the feeble should seek, of substituting the sublimity of mystery for that of absolute majesty of form. The relation between this grey and soft cloud of visionary power, and the perfectly substantial, bright, and near presence of the saints, angels, or Deities of early Christian art, involves questions of too subtle interest to be followed here; but in the essential force of it, belongs to the inevitable expression, in each period, of the character of its own faith. The Christ of the thirteenth century was vividly present to its thoughts, and dominant over its acts, as a God manifest in the flesh, well pleased in the people to whom He came; while ours is either forgotten, or seen, by those who yet trust in Him, only as a mourning and departing Ghost.

(1)[This picture, under its other title "The Spirit of Christianity," is among thosepresented by Watts to the nation. It now hangs in the Tate Gallery, No. 1637.]

domingo, 6 de noviembre de 2011


The Royal Academy Exhibition 1875

This is one of the pictures which, with such others as Holman Hunt's " Scapegoat," Millais's "Dove Returning to the Ark," etc.,1 the public owe primarily to the leading genius of Dante Rossetti, the founder, and for some years the vital force, of the Pre-Raphaelite school. He was the first assertor in painting, as I believe I was myself in art literature (Goldsmith and Moliere having given the first general statements of it),2 of the great distinctive principle of that school that things should be painted as they probably did look and happen, and not as, by rules of art developed under Raphael, Correggio, and Michael Angelo, they might be supposed gracefully, deliciously, or sublimely to have happened.

1.[For the "Scapegoat," see above, p. 61; for the "Dove," p. 165.

2.[Compare The Three Colours of Pre-Raphaelitism, 21: "It (the Pre-Raphaelite school) was headed, in literary power, by Wordsworth; but the first pure example of its mind and manner of art, as opposed to the erudite and artificial schools, will he found, so far as I know, in Moliere's song, 'J'aime mieux ma mie.'" See also Modern Painters, vol. iii. (Vol. V. p. 375). For other references to Goldsmith, see Modern Painters, vol. iii. (Vol. V. p. 45), and Val d'Arno, 208.]

The adoption of this principle by good and great men produces the grandest art possible in the world; the adoption of it by vile and foolish men, very vile and foolish art; yet not so entirely nugatory as imitations of Raphael or Correggio would be by persons of the same calibre. An intermediate and large class of pictures have been produced by painters of average powers ; mostly of considerable value, but which fall again into two classes, according to the belief of the artists in the truth, and understanding of the dignity of the subjects they endeavour to illustrate, or their opposite degree of incredulity, and materialistic vulgarism of interpretation.

The picture before us belongs to the higher class, but is not a fine example of it. We cannot tell from it whether Mr. Goodall believes Rachel to have wept over Ramah1 from her throne in heaven ; but at least we gather from it some suggestion of what she must have looked like when she was no more than a Syrian shepherdess.

That she was a very beautiful shepherdess, so that her lover thought years of waiting but as days, for the love he bore to her, Mr. Goodall has scarcely succeeded in representing. And on the whole he would have measured his powers more reasonably in contenting himself with painting a Yorkshire shepherdess instead of a Syrian one.* Like everybody except myself, he has been in the East. If that is the appearance of the new moon in the East, I am well enough content to guide, and gild, the lunacies of ray declining years by the light of the old Western one.

*Compare, however, at once 582 ["A Seller of Doves"], which is, on the whole, the most honourably complete and scholastic life-size figure in the rooms, with well cast, and unaffectedly well painted, drapery.

1.[Jeremiah xxxi. 15 ; and for the following reference, see Genesis xxix. 20.]

lunes, 31 de octubre de 2011


                                         A Dream of Fair Women, E.H Corbould.

A SOMEWHAT singular circumstance has taken place this year, in the choice of their principal or master piece by two important societies of English artists.

The Society of British Artists placed, as the central attraction of their rooms, an illustration of Shakespeare.* The New Water-Colour Society honoured with a similarly central position an illustration of Tennyson.†

Duly allowing for privileges of seniority and presidentship, it would not be just towards either body of artists if we supposed that the places assigned to these works of art were entirely trustworthy indications of the estimate formed of them. But whether promoted by law, by courtesy, or by admiration, those pictures stood forth to the English―and more than the English―public as in some central or typical way exponents of the power of the two societies ; and foreigners, at least, would be justified in concluding that the sanction given by two important bodies of English painters to these readings of the greatest dead and greatest living English poets, indicated with some truth the measure of general understanding of poetry in the artist mind of the country; and perhaps also (as the appeal to public judgment was made so frankly) something of the public mind of this country on the same matter.

I am not going to criticise those pictures. If the reader is not of my mind about them, I should not have any hope of being able to make him so―nor even any wish to make him so. If he is of my mind about them, he will understand why they should have set me thinking―not on the whole pleasurably―of the course and probable prospects of the curious group of English personages to whom art now addresses itself. For it would not be difficult to show, if necessary, that these two works do verily express the final and entirely typical issue of the most popular modern views on the subject of poetry in general: and more than this, there is a certain typical character even in the hero and heroines of the pictures―the " Hamlet" not unworthily representing what is popularly considered as Philosophy; the "Jephthah's Daughter"2 what is popularly accepted as Piety; and the "Cleopatra" what is popularly displayed as Splendour.

* No. 53. "Hamlet, Prince of Denmark" (F. Y. Hurlstone).

† No. 212. "A Dream of Fair Women" (E. H. Corbould). The illustrations of Shakespeare by Mr. Gilbert, which occupy a conspicuous position (on each side of Mr. Burton's centre piece) in the rooms of the Old Water-Colour Society, curiously involve that society also in a parallel manifestation of opinion.

1.[No. 125. " Sir Andrew Aguecheek writes a Challenge," and No. 132. " The Banquet at Lucentio's House."]
xiv. 241 Q

2.["Jephthah's Daughter" and "Cleopatra" were among the figures in Corbould's illustration of Tennyson's poem.]

Or, in a nearer and narrower view, these pictures contain a concentrated expression of the character which distinguishes a modern English exhibition of paintings from every other that has yet been, or is likely to be. Bad painting is to be found in abundance everywhere, so that we do not distinguish ourselves by our weakness; foolish painting in greater abundance still, so that we do not distinguish ourselves by our imbecility ; more or less meritorious painting, at least in all principal French and German schools, as well as in ours, so that we do not distinguish ourselves by our merit : but purely and wholly vulgar painting is not to be found developing itself elsewhere with the same naivete as among the English ; and we do distinguish ourselves by our vulgarity. So, at least, it appears to me. As I have just said, I do not wish to argue with anyone who disputes the fact, but to trace thence one or two conclusions with those who admit it.

What vulgarity is, whether in manners, acts, or conceptions, most well-educated persons understand; but what it consists in, or arises from, is a more difficult question.1 I believe that on strict analysis it will be found definable as "the habit of mind and act resulting from the prolonged combination of insensibility with insincerity";* and I think the special manifestation of I among artists has resulted, in the first place, from the withdrawal of all right (adecuación, apropiado, justo), and therefore, all softening (delicadeza, ternura), or animating  (estimulante) motive for their work; and, in the second place, from the habit of assuming, or striving by rule to express, feelings which did not, and could not, arise out of their work under such conditions.

* It would be more accurate to say, "constitutional insensibility"; for people are born vulgar, or not vulgar, irrevocably. An apparent insensibility may often be caused by one strong feeling quenching or conquering another; and this to the extent of involving the person in all kinds of cruelty and crime: yet, Borgia or Ezzelin, lady and knight still; while the born clown is dead in all sensation and capacity of thought, whatever his acts or life may be.

Cloten, in Cymbeline, is the most perfect study of pure vulgarity which I know in literature; Perdita, in Winter's Tale, the most perfect study of its opposite (irrespective of such higher virtue or intellect as we have in Desdemona or Portia). Perdita's exquisite openness, joined with as exquisite sensitiveness, constitute the precise opposite of the apathetic insincerity which, I believe, is the essence of vulgarity.2

1.[Compare Modern Painters, vol. iii. (Vol. V. pp. 117-118), and vol. v. pt. ix. ch. vii., "Of Vulgarity"; Elements of Drawing, 240; Sesame and Lilies, 28; and Art of England, 161.]

2.[For Lucrezia Borgia, see Two Paths, 187; for Ezzelin, Vol. XII. p. 137 n.; for Cloten (as a contrast to Imogen), Modern Painters, vol. iii. (Vol. V. p. 112); for Perdita, ibid. (Vol. V. p. 99), and vol. iv. (Vol. VI. p. 442).]

I say first, by the withdrawal of all softening or animating motive, and chiefly by the loss of belief in the spiritual world. Art has never shown, in any corner of the earth, a condition of advancing strength but under this influence. I do not say, observe, influence of "religion," but merely of a belief in some invisible power god or goddess, fury or fate, saint or demon. Where such belief existed, however sunk or distorted, progressive art has been possible, otherwise impossible.1 The distortion of the belief, its contraction or its incoherence, contract or compress the resultant art; still the art is evermore of another and mightier race than the art of materialism. Be so much of a Pythagorean as to believe in something awful and impenetrable connected with beans, and forthwith you are not weaker, but stronger, than your kitchenmaid, who perceives in them only an adaptability to being boiled. Be so much of an Egyptian as to believe that some god made hawks, and bears up their wings for them on the wind, and looks for ever through the fierce light of their eyes, that therefore it is not good to slay hawks, and some day you may be able to paint a hawk quite otherwise than will be possible to you by any persistency in slaughter or dissection, or help of any quantity of stuffing and glass beads in thorax or eyesocket. Be so much of a Jew as to believe that there is a great Spirit who makes the tempests his true messengers, and the flaming fire his true servant, and lays the beams of his chambers upon the unshrinking sea,2 and you will paint the cloud, and the fire, and the wave, otherwise, and on the whole better, than in any state of modern enlightenment as to the composition of caloric or protoxide of hydrogen. Or, finally, be so much of a human creature as to care about the heart and history of fellow-creatures, and to take so much concern with the facts of human life going on around you as shall make your art in some sort compassionate, exhortant, or communicative, and useful to anyone coming after you, either as a record of what was done among men in your day, or as a testimony of what you felt or knew concerning them and their misdoings or undoings, and this love and dwelling in the spirits of other creatures will give a glory to your work quite unattainable by observance of any proportions of arms and collar-bones hitherto stated by professors of Man-painting. All this is irrevocably so; and since, as a nation concerning itself with art, we have wholly rejected these heathenish, Jewish, and other such beliefs―and have accepted, for things worshipful, absolutely nothing but pairs of ourselves―taking for exclusive idols, gods, or objects of veneration the infinitesimal points of humanity, Mr. and Mrs. P., and the Misses and Master P.'s,―out, I say, of this highly punctuated religion, which comes to its full stop and note of admiration after the family name, we shall get nothing, can get nothing, but such issues as we see here. The whole temper of former art was in some way reverential―had awe in it: no matter how carefully or conventionally the workman ruled and wrought the psalter page, he had every now and then a far-away feeling that it was to be prayed out of―somebody would pray out of it someday―not entirely mechanically, nor by slip of bead. No matter how many Madonnas he painted to order from the same outlines, the sense that the worst of them was sure, late or soon, to be looked up to through tears, could not but thrill through him as he arched the brow and animated the smile: nay, if he was but a poor armourer or enameller, the feeling that those chased traceries of cuish and helmet would be one day embossed in hot purple, deeper, perhaps, through fault of his, would every now and then make his hammer smite with sterner, truer tone―awe and pity ruling over all his doings, such as now are unattainable. For Mr. and Mrs. P. are not in that sense awful―not in that sense pitiable: both in another and deeper sense, but not in this.

1.[With the following passage―a central one in Ruskin's writings― compare (among other places where he insists on religion in this sense―of the recognition of spiritual being―as the root of great and progressive art), Lectures on Art, 37 seq.; Stones of Venice, vol. iii. (Vol. XI. p. 70); Modern Painters, vol. ii. (Vol. IV. p. 6).]
2.[Psalms civ. 3, 4.]
Then the second source of the evil is the endeavour to assume the sentiment which we cannot possibly have. Let us accept our position, and good scientific, or diagrammatic, or politely personal and domestic art is still possible to us―still may be made, if not majestic work, yet real work. There is use in a good geological diagram; and there is good riding in Rotten Row, to be seen any day between four and six; but if we profess to paint ghosts, when we believe in no immortality or ―Iphigenias and daughters of Jephthah, when we believe in no Deity―this is what we come to: not but that even ghosts are indeed still to be seen, and Iphigenias found (though perhaps sacrificed not altogether to Diana) by sharp -sighted persons upon occasion.

It may be thought, I speak too seriously―or speak seriously in the wrong place―of this matter. I do not. The pictures are ludicrous enough. That which they signify is not ludicrous. And, as if to make us think out their signification fully, the Tennyson picture has a companion―an opposite at least―another illustration of English poetry by English art: the gate of Eden, with a Peri at it―an interesting scene to people who believe in Eden.1 We suppose ourselves to be rather nearer that gate do not we?―than any of the old shepherds who saw ladders set to it in their dreams. And this is the aspect assumed by the gate, and the aspect of the angels in―or outside of it―upon such closer acquaintance. A "strait gate" truly.2
This being so, I cannot enter with any pleasure into examination of the works of the two Water-Colour Societies this year. For in their very nature those two societies appeal to the insensitiveness and pretence of the public: insensitiveness, because no refined eye could bear with the glaring colours, and blotted or dashed forms, which are the staple of modern water-colour work; and pretence, because this system of painting is principally supported by the idle amateurs who concern themselves about art without being truly interested in it; and by pupils of the various watercolour masters, who enjoy being taught to sketch brilliantly in six lessons.

1.[New Water-Colour Society, No. 73 : "The Peri," by Henry Warren.]
2.[For the Biblical references, see Genesis xxviii. 12 and Matthew vii. 13.]

In spite of all the apparent exertion, and reflex of Pre-Raphaelite minuteness from the schools above them, the Water-Colour Societies are in steady descent. They were founded first on a true and simple school of broad light and shade―grey touched with golden colour on the lights. This, with clear and delicate washes for its transparent tones, was the method of all the earlier men ; and the sincere love of Nature which existed in the hearts of the first watercolour masters―Girtin, Cozens, Robson, Copley Fielding, Cox, Prout, and De Wint formed a true and progressive school, till Hunt, the greatest of all, perfected his art. Hunt and Cox alone are left of all that group, and their works in the Old Water-Colour are the only ones which are now seriously worth looking at; for in the endeavour to employ new resources, to rival oil colour, and to display facility, mere method has superseded all feeling and all wholesome aim, and has itself become finally degraded.1 The sponge and handkerchief have destroyed water-colour painting; and I believe there are now only two courses open to its younger students―either to "hark back" at once to the old grey schools, and ground themselves again firmly on chiaroscuro studies with the flat grey wash, or to take William Hunt for their only master, and resolve that they will be able to paint a piece of leafage and fruit approximately well in his way before they try even the smallest piece of landscape. If they want to follow Turner, the first course is the only one. Steady grey and yellow for ten years, and lead pencil point all your life, or no "Turnerism."2 No "dodge" will ever enable you otherwise to get round that corner. Those are the terms of the thing; we may accept or not as we choose, but there are no others. I name, however, a few of the works in the rooms of the two societies which are at least indicative of power to do well, if the painters choose.

1 [Compare Vol. XIII. p. 247.]
2 [Compare Vol. XIII. pp. 241-249, 260, etc.]

martes, 2 de agosto de 2011

908. VAL, D'AOSTA.(1) (John Brett.)

The Royal Academy Exhibition 1859

Yes, here we have it at last―some close-coming to it at least―historical landscape, properly so called―landscape painting with a meaning and a use. We have had hitherto plenty of industry, precision quite unlimited; but all useless, or nearly so, being wasted on scenes of no majesty or enduring interest. Here is, at last, a scene worth painting―painted with all our might (not quite with all our heart, perhaps, but with might of hand and eye). And here, accordingly, for the first time in history, we have, by help of art, the power of visiting a place, reasoning about it, and knowing it, just as if we were there, except only that we cannot stir from our place, nor look behind us. For the rest, standing before this picture is just as good as standing on that spot in Val d'Aosta, so far as gaining of knowledge is concerned; and perhaps in some degree pleasanter, for it would be very hot on that rock to-day, and there would probably be a disagreeable smell of juniper plants growing on the slopes above.
(1)[The view of the valley was taken near the village of Villeneuve.]

So if any simple-minded, quietly-living person, indisposed towards railroad stations or crowded inns, cares to know in an untroublous and uncostly way what a Piedmontese valley is like in July, there it is for him. Rocks overlaid with velvet and fur to stand on in the first place: if you look close into the velvet you will find it is jewelled and set with stars in a stately way. White poplars by the roadside, shaking silvery in the wind: I regret to say the wind is apt to come up the Val d'Aosta in an ill-tempered and rude manner, turning leaves thus the wrong side out; but it will be over in a moment. Beyond the poplars you may see the slopes of arable and vineyard ground, such as give the wealth and life to Italy which she idly trusts in―ground laid ages ago in wreaths, like new cut hay by the mountain streams, now terraced and trimmed into all gentle service. If you want to know what vines look like under Italian training (far from the best), that is the look of them―the dark spots and irregular cavities, seen through the broken green of their square-set ranks, distinguishing them at any distance from the continuous pale fields of low-set staff and leaf, divided by no gaps of gloom, which clothe a true vine country. There, down in the mid-valley, you see what pasture and meadow land we have, we Piedmontese, with our hamlet and cottage life, and groups of glorious wood. Just beyond the rock are two splendid sweet chestnut trees, with forming fruit, good for making bread of, no less than maize; lower down, far to the left, a furlong or two of the main stream with its white shore and alders: not beautiful, for it has come down into all this fair country from the Courmayeur glaciers, and is yet untamed, cold, and furious, incapable of rest. But above, there is rest, where the sunshine streams into iridescence through branches of pine, and turns the pastures into strange golden clouds, half grass, half dew; for the shadows of the great hills have kept the dew there since morning. Rest also, calm enough, among the ridges of rock and forest that heap themselves into that purple pyramid high on the right. Look well into the making of it―it is indeed so that a great mountain is built and bears itself, and its forest fringes, and village jewels―for those white spots far up the ravine are villages―and peasant dynasties are hidden among the film of blue. And above all are other more desolate dynasties―the crowns that cannot shake―of jagged rock; they also true and right, even to their finest serration. So it is that the snow lies on those dark diadems for ever.1 A notable picture truly; a possession of much within a few feet square.

Yet not, in the strong, essential meaning of the word, a noble picture. It has a strange fault, considering the school to which it belongs―it seems to me wholly emotionless. I cannot find from it that the painter loved, or feared, anything in all that wonderful piece of the world. There seems to me no awe of the mountains there―no real love of the chestnuts or the vines. Keenness of eye and fineness of hand as much as you choose; but of emotion, or of intention, nothing traceable. Not but that I believe the painter to be capable of the highest emotion: anyone who can paint thus must have passion within him; but the passion here is assuredly not out of him. He has cared for nothing, except as it was more or less pretty in colour and form. I never saw the mirror so held up to Nature;2 but it is Mirror's work, not Man's. This absence of sentiment is peculiarly indicated by the feeble anger of the sky. Had it been wholly cloudless―burning down in one calm field of light behind the purple hills, all the rest of the landscape would have been gathered into unity by its repose; and for the sleeping girl we should have feared no other disturbance than the bleating of the favourite of her flock, who has returned to seek her his companions wandering forgetful. But now she will be comfortlessly waked by hailstorm in another quarter of an hour: and yet there is no majesty in the clouds, nor any grand incumbency of them on the hills; they are but a dash of mist, gusty and disagreeable enough―in no otherwise to be dreaded; highly un-divine clouds―incognizant of Olympus what have they to do here upon the hill thrones―Κορυϕὓις ίεραἳς χιονοβλήτοισι3

(1)[It may be interesting to read in connexion with this passage Ruskin's impressions of the Val d'Aosta. The passage occurs in a letter to his father from Ivrea, August 26, 1851:―" I was more than satisfied yesterday of the justice of the Val d'Aosta's reputation. We came some fifty miles through scenery of continually increasing magnificence. The part just below Aosta is comparatively uninteresting, but from Chatillon here it is far more wonderful as rock scenery than anything I have seen among the Alps. There are no glaciered mountains; therefore it is not altogether in my way, but the rocks rise from the level of the plain of Piedmont until their tops are sprinkled with snow, giving a clear height of at least 8000 feet, and this attained not in the unbroken precipices which the eye never can measure, but in rolling curves of massy crag, divided into myriads of knolls and ravines and minor precipices―a perfect world of winding glen and iron rock, which as it descends into the valley is literally roofed over with continuous trellises of vines, only here and there a huge fallen mass of the size of the hull of a ship of the line lying in the midst of the green ranges of trellis and clusters of grapes, and sometimes a bank of turf shadowed with huge chestnut trees, springing out four and five trunks in a cluster, and as if that were not enough, throwing forth from their roots whole clusters of saplings and large-leaved copse of jagged green. Fort Bard is an ugly fort in itself, but on the noblest rock I ever saw―so clean and pure, no dusty fractures or débris, but velvet brown lichenous surface and mighty chasms between the bastions, and the mountains on each side all the same, up to their crests."]
(2)[Hamlet, iii. 2.]
(3)[Aristophanes, The Clouds, line 270.]

Historical landscape it is, unquestionably; meteorological also; poetical―by no means: yet precious, in its patient way; and, as a wonder of toil and delicate handling, unimpeachable. There is no such subtle and precise work on any other canvas here. The chestnut trees are like a finished design of Dürer's―every leaf a study; the poplar trunks and boughs drawn with an unexampled exquisiteness of texture and curve. And if it does not touch you at first, stay by it a little; look well at the cottage among the meadows; think of all that this Italian life might be among these sacred hills, and of what Italian life has been, and yet is, in spite of silver crosses on the breast, and how far it is your fault and mine that this is so, and the picture may be serviceable to you in quite other ways than by pleasing your eyes with purple and gold.1

(1)[This picture (reproduced as frontispiece to this volume), which was bought by Ruskin, was lent in 1880 to an exhibition at Douglas. Ruskin then supplied the Following Note in the catalogue (described in Vol. XIII. p. Ivi.):― "Painted in the summer of 1858. When I was myself in Italy, Mr. Brett visited me at Turin to consult about this picture, which he was then painting from the window of his lodgings, in a grand castle half-way up the valley between Aosta and Courmayeur. I at that time hoped much from his zeal and fineness of minute execution in realizing, with Piirer-like precision, the detail of Swiss landscape. Had he sympathized enough with Swiss and Italian life, his work might have become of extreme value; but, instead, he took to mere photography of physical landscape, and gradually lost both precision and sentiment. How lovely an old-fashioned Swiss or Italian village would have been, painted like this single cottage, some future disciple of the school may consider and hope to show. There is no pretence of composition, or, as usually understood, of painter's skill in this picture. It is the careful delineation of what is supposed to be beautiful in itself; and it has lost, instead of benefited, by the unwise introduction of storm on the hills for the sake of variety. In good, permanent, and honourably finished oil-painting this picture cannot be surpassed; it is as safe as a piece of china, and as finished as the finest engraving." For the personal reminiscences of 1858, here referred to, see above, Introduction, pp. xxiii., xxiv.; and for a criticism of the picture, made by Millais at the time of its first exhibition, see above, p. 22 n.]

jueves, 14 de julio de 2011

609. THE KING'S ORCHARD.(1)(A. Hughes.)

The Royal Academy Exhibition 1859

Mr. Hughes's exquisite sense of colour and delicacy of design are seen to less advantage than usual. He has been allowing himself to go astray by indulging too much in his chief delight of colour; and this picture, which was quite lovely when I saw it last year incomplete, is now throughout too gay, and wanting in sweetness of shade, but most accomplished and delicious in detached passages; and the apple-blossom, among all its ruddy rivals on the walls this year, is tenderly, but triumphantly, victorious― it is the only blossom which is soft enough in texture, or round enough in bud. There is the making of a magnificent painter in Mr. Hughes; but he must for some time yet stoop to conquer―be content with cottagers' instead of kings' orchards, and bow to the perhaps distressing but assured fact, that a picture can be no more wholly splendid than it can be wholly white.

* For the sake of simplicity of conception, Velasquez must be classed with the Venetians, to whom he belongs in right of his style, and Vandyck with the English; in fact, he, with Sir Joshua and Gainsborough, constitute the whole school.

(1)[The picture was suggested by Pippa Passes:―"And peasants sing how once a certain page Pined for the grace of her so far above His power of doing good to, 'Kate the Queen―'She never could be wronged, be poor,' he sighed, 'Need him to help her!'" In the Academy Catalogue, Browning's lines were unkindly printed as prose.]