The Royal Academy 1855.
This is a very important and very beautiful picture. It has both sincerity and grace, and is painted on the purest principles of Venetian art that is to say, on the calm acceptance of the whole of nature, small and great, as, in its place, deserving of faithful rendering. The great secret of the Venetians was their simplicity. They were great colourists not because they had peculiar secrets about oil and colour, but because, when they saw a thing red, they painted it red ; and when they saw it blue, they painted it blue; and when they saw it distinctly, they painted it distinctly. In all Paul Veronese's pictures, the lace borders of the table-cloths or fringes of the dresses are painted with just as much care as the faces of the principal figures; and the reader may rest assured that in all great art it is so. Everything in it is done as well as it can be done. Thus, in the picture before us, in the background is the Church of San Miniato, strictly accurate in every detail; on the top of the wall are oleanders and pinks, as carefully painted as the church; the architecture of the shrine on the wall is well studied from thirteenth-century Gothic, and painted with as much care as the pink; the dresses of the figures, very beautifully designed, are painted with as much care as the architecture ; and the faces with as much care as the dresses that is to say, all things, throughout, with as much care as the painter could bestow. It necessarily follows, that what is most difficult (i.e., the faces) should be comparatively the worst done. But if they are done as well as the painter could do them, it is ail we have to ask; and modern artists are under a wonderful mistake in thinking that when they have painted faces ill, they make their picture more valuable by painting the dresses worse.
The painting before us has been objected to, because it seems broken up into bits. Precisely the same objection would hold, and in very nearly the same degree, against the best works of the Venetians. All faithful colourists' work, in figure-painting, has a look of sharp separation between part and part. I will not detain the reader by explaining why this is so, but he may convince himself of the fact by one walk through the Louvre, comparing the Venetian pictures in this respect with those of all other schools. Although, however, in common with all other works of its class, it is marked by these sharp divisions, there is no confusion in its arrangement. The principal figure is nobly principal, not by extraordinary light, but by its own pure whiteness; and both the master and the young Giotto attract full regard by distinction of form and face. The features of the boy are carefully studied, and are indeed what, from the existing portraits of him, we know those of Giotto must have been in his youth. The head of the young girl who wears the garland of blue flowers is also very sweetly conceived.
Such are the chief merits of the picture. Its defect is, that the equal care given to the whole of it, is not yet care enough. I am aware of no instance of a young painter, who was to be really great, who did not in his youth paint with intense effort and delicacy of finish. The handling here is much too broad; and the faces are, in many instances, out of drawing, and very opaque and feeble in colour. Nor have they, in general, the dignity of the countenance of the thirteenth century. The Dante especially is ill-conceived far too haughty, and in no wise noble or thoughtful. It seems to me probable that Mr. Leighton has greatness in him, but there is no absolute proof of it in this picture ; and if he does not, in succeeding years, paint far better, he will soon lose his power of painting so well.
[Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896), was at this time little known in art circles in London, for he studied and worked abroad. He had been introduced to Ruskin by Browning (see Vol. V. p. xlv.) It was not till 1864 that he was elected A.R.A.; he became R.A. in 1868, and President in 1879. The "Cimabue" was bought by Queen Victoria, and made Leighton famous: the picture now hangs in the visitors' corridor, private apartments, Buckingham Palace. Other contemporary criticisms by high authorities may be read in D. G. Rossetti's Letters to William Allingham, and in Madox Brown's Diary printed in W. M. Rossetti's Pre-Raphaelite Diaries and Letters, p. 183. For the subject of the picture, see Vol. III. p. 644 n.]