The Royal Academy Exhibition, 1857
(1)[For Ruskin's other references to Mulready (1786-1863) see Vol. IV. p. 386 and n. The picture noticed above was painted for the gallery of pictures presented to the nation by Mr. Vernon, in pursuance of his will. It has now been removed from the National Gallery to Dublin. It depicts a boy in arms crouching on his sister's neck, to escape the fingers of his brother, who playfully offers to pinch his ear.]
Without exception, the least interesting piece of good painting I have ever seen in my life. I call it a "piece of painting," not a "picture," because the artist's mind has been evidently fixed throughout on his modes of work, not on his subject if subject it can be called. Is it not sorrowful to see all this labour and artistical knowledge appointed, by a command issued from the grave, to paint and employed for a couple of years in painting for the perpetual possession and contemplation of the English people, the ill laced bodice of an untidy girl? Yet the picture will be a valuable one; perhaps the most forcible illustration ever given of the frivolous application of great powers. For this is not, observe, the commonplace littleness of an inferior mind, nor commonplace wantonness of a great one. We have had examples enough of mean subjects chosen by the trifling, and slight subjects chosen by the feeble: nor is it a new thing to see great intellects overthrown by impetuosity, or wasted in indolence ; stumbling and lost among the dark mountains, or lying helpless by the wayside, listless or desolate. All this we have seen often; but never, I think, till now, patience disappointed of her hope, and conscientiousness mistaken in her aim; labour beguiled of her reward, and discretion warped in her choice. We have not known until now that the greatest gifts might be wasted by prudence, and the greatest errors committed by precision.
For it is quite curious how, throughout this composition, the artist seems to have aimed at showing the uselessness of all kinds of good. There is an exquisite richness of decoration in the pattern of the yellow dress, yet the picture is none the richer for it; an exquisite play of colour in the flesh, yet the girl is none the fairer for it: her dress is loose, without grace; and her beauty hidden, without decency. The colour of the whole is pure, but it does not refresh; its arrangement subtle, but it does not entertain: the child laughs without gaiety; and the youth reclines without
We may be sure, however which is some comfort that failure of this total kind cannot take place unless there is somewhere a willful departure from truth; for truth, however ill-chosen, is never wholly uninteresting. For instance, here, the sense of country life is destroyed by the false forms of the trees, which are only green horizontal flakes of colour, not foliage; and the dead blue dress of the youth, though it seems at first well painted, is shaded either with pure dark blue, dirty green, or violet, wholly at random, and of course, therefore, with destruction of brilliancy as well as of relief ; while the folds of the girl's gown, though they at first look well drawn, are mere angular masses, without either flow or fall.
Works (14, 100-102)