(1)[Better known by the title in the catalogue, "Sir Isumbras at the Ford." An interesting account of the painting of this picture, and of its hostile reception by the critics, is given in The Life and Letters of Millais, vol. i. pp. 306-323, where also a reproduction of the skit by Fred. Sandys is given. Millais, Rossetti, and Holman Hunt are represented crossing the ford on a braying ass, which is labelled "J. R., Oxon" ―entitled "A Nightmare." The satirical verses below Sandys's print are said to be taken from the “Metrical Romance of the Man in Brasse and his Asse, by Thomas le Tailleur." Millais both resented Ruskin's criticism and took it to heart. "Ruskin said it was not a failure but a fiasco," said Millais once; "so I kicked it over in a passion. The hole is there now" (Millais and his Works, by M. H. Spielmann, p. 96). He proceeded, however, when the picture was returned unsold from the Academy, to repaint the horse entirely. The picture was bought in the following year by the painter's friend, Charles Reade. It next belonged to Mr. John Graham, and on his death Mr. R. H. Benson bought it. In 1892, at Mr. Benson's suggestion, Millais again repainted some portions of the horse, and added the trappings. The reproduction here given is of the picture in its present state.]
The high praise which I felt it my duty to give to this painter's work last year(1) was warranted by my observing in it, for the first time, the entirely inventive arrangement of colour and masses, which can be achieved only by the highest intellect. I must repeat briefly here what I have had occasion hundreds of times to explain elsewhere, but never yet often enough to get it generally understood that painters are broadly divisible into three classes(2) first, the large class who are more or less affected or false in all their work, and whose productions, however dexterous, are of no value whatever; secondly, the literally true painters, who copy with various feeling, but unanimously honest purpose, the actualities of Nature, but can only paint them as they see them, without selection or arrangement; whose works are therefore of a moderate but sterling value, varying according to the interest of the subject; lastly, the inventive painters, who are not only true in all they do, but compose and relieve the truths they paint, so as to give to each the utmost possible value; which last class is in all ages a very small one; and it is a matter to congratulate a nation upon, when an artist rises in the midst of it who gives any promise of belonging to this great Imaginative group of Masters.
(1)["Titian himself could hardly head him now,” p. 56, above.]
(2)[The nearest approach to an explicit classification of painters into (1) false, (2) true, and (3) inventive may now be read in the additional passage from the MS. of Stones of Venice, vol. iii., which is printed in Vol. XI. pp. xvii.-xxi. But the division of painters into these classes is, as Ruskin says, implied "hundreds of times" in his previous works. See, for instance, Vol. III. p. 165, and Vol. X. p. 217 seq.]
And this promise was very visible in the works of Millais last year; a new power of conception being proved in them ―to instance two things among many― by the arrangement of the myrtle branches in the "Peace," and the play of the colours in the heap of "Autumn Leaves." There was a slovenliness and imperfection in many portions, however, which I did not speak of, because I thought them accidental ―consequent, probably, on too exulting a trial of his new powers, and likely to disappear as he became accustomed to them. But, as it is possible to stoop to victory, it is also possible to climb to defeat; and I see with consternation that it was not the Parnassian rock which Mr. Millais was ascending, but the Tarpeian. The change in his manner, from the years of "Ophelia" and "Mariana" to 1857, is not merely Fall―it is Catastrophe; not merely a loss of power, but a reversal of principle: his excellence has been effaced, "as a man wipeth a dish―wiping it, and turning it upside down."(1) There may still be in him power of repentance, but I cannot tell: for those who have never known the right way, its narrow wicket-gate stands always on the latch; but for him who, having known it, has wandered thus insolently, the by-ways to the prison-house are short, and the voices of recall are few.
(1)[2 Kings xxi. 13.]
I have not patience much to examine into the meaning of the picture under consideration. If it has one, it should not have been disguised by the legend associated with it, which, by the way, does not exist in the Romance from which it professes to be quoted, and is now pretty generally understood to be only a clever mystification by one of the artist's friends, written chiefly with the view of guarding the awkward horse against criticism. I am not sure whether the bitterest enemies of Pre-Raphaelitism have yet accused it of expecting to cover its errors by describing them in bad English.(1)
(1)[The lines written for the picture by Tom Taylor began thus:―
"The goode hors that the knyghte bestrode,
I trow his backe it was full brode,
And wighte and warie still he rode,
Noght reckinge of rivere ;
He was so mickle and so stronge,
And thereto so wonderlich longe,
In lande was none his peer.
N'as hors but by him seemed smalle.
The knyghte him ycleped Launcival,
But lords at horde and grooms in stalle
Ycleped him Graund Destrere."
They were described as being "from the Metrical Romance of Sir Ysumbras."]
Putting the legend, however, out of question, the fancy of the picture is pretty, and might have been sublime, but that it is too ill painted to be dwelt upon. The primal error in pictorial grammar, of painting figures in twilight as bright as yellow and vermilion can make them, while the towers and hills, far above and far more exposed to light, are yet dark and blue, could hardly have been redeemed by any subsequent harmonies of tone, much less by random brilliancy; and the mistake of painting the water brighter than the sky which it reflects, though constant among inferior painters in subordinate parts of their work, is a singularly disgraceful one for a painter of standing.
These, and the other errors or shortcomings in the work, too visible to need proving, and too many to bear numbering, are all the less excusable because the thought of the picture was a noble one, and might seem both justly to claim, and tenderly to encourage, the utmost skill and patience in its rendering. It does not matter whether we take it as a fact or as a type: whether we look verily upon an old knight riding home in the summer twilight, with the dust of his weary day's journey on his golden armour, taking the woodman's children across the river with him, holding the girl so tenderly that she does not so much as feel the grasp of the gauntlets, but holds the horse's mane as well, lest she should fall; or whether we receive it as a type of noble human life, tried in all war, and aged in all counsel and wisdom, finding its crowning work at last to be bearing the children of poverty in its arms, and that the best use of its panoply of battle is to be clasped by the feeble fingers, wearied with gathering the sheddings of the autumnal woods. It might bear a deeper meaning even than this: it might be an image less of life than of the great Christian Angel of Death, who gives the eternal nobleness to small and great, and clasps the mean and the mighty with his golden armour―Death, bearing the two children with him across the calm river, whither they know not; one questioning the strange blue eyes which she sees fixed on heaven, the other only resting from his labour, and feeling no more his burden. All this, and much more than this―for the picture might be otherwise suggestive to us in a thousand ways―it would have brought home at once to the heart of every spectator, had the idea but been realized with any steadiness of purpose or veracity of detail. As it stands, it can only be considered as a rough sketch of a great subject, injudiciously exposed to general criticism, and needing both modification in its arrangement and devoted labour in its future realization.
I am sorrowfully doubtful, however, how far Mr. Millais may yet be capable of such labour. There are two signs conspicuous in his this year's work, of augury strangely sinister: the first, an irregularity in the conception of facts, quite unprecedented in any work that I know in the Realistic schools of any age ; the second, a warped feeling in the selection of facts, peculiar, as far as I know, to Millais from his earliest youth.
I say, first, an irregularity of conception. Thus, it seems only to have struck the painter suddenly, as he was finishing the knight's armour, that it ought to be more or less reflective; and he gives only one reflection in it of the crimson cloth of the saddle, that one reflection being violently exaggerated: for though, from a golden surface, it would have been, as he has rendered it, warmer than the crimson, no reflection is ever brighter than the thing reflected. But all the rest of the armour is wholly untouched by the colour of the children's dresses, or of their glowing faces, or of the river or sky. And if Mr. Millais meant it to be old armour, rough with wear, it ought to have been deadened and darkened in colour, hacked with edges of weapons, stained with stains of death; if he meant it merely to be dusty, the dust should have lain white on some of the ridges, been clearly absent from others, and should have been dark where it was wet by the splashing of the horse. The ripple of the water against the horse itself, however, being unnoticed, it is little wonder if the dash of the chance spray is missed. A more manifest sign still of this irregular appliance of mind is in the fact that the peacock's plume, the bundle of wood, and the stripes of the saddle-cloth are painted with care; while the children's faces, though right in expression, are rudely sketched, with unrounded edges, half in rose colour and half in dirty brown. Vestiges of his old power of colouring, still unattainable by any other man, exist, however, in that saddle-cloth and in the peacock's feather. But the second sign, the warping of feeling, is a still more threatening one.
The conception of his second picture (408)(1) is an example of the darkest error in judgment―the fatalest failure in the instinct of the painter's mind. At once coarse and ghastly in fancy, exaggerated and obscure in action, the work seems to have been wrought with the resolute purpose of confirming all that the bitterest adversaries of the school have delighted to allege against it; and whatever friendship has murmured, or enmity proclaimed, of its wilful preference of ugliness to beauty, is now sealed into everlasting acceptance. It is not merely in manifest things, like the selection of such a model as this for the type of the foot of a Spanish lady, or the monstrous protrusion of the lover's lip in his intense appeal for silence ; but the dwelling perpetually upon the harshest lines of form, and most painful conditions of expression, both in human feature and in natural objects, which long ago, when they appeared in Millais's picture of the "Carpenter's Shop,"(2) a restrained the advance of Pre-Raphaelitism; and would arrest its advance now, unless there were other painters to support its cause, who will disengage it from unnaturalness of error, and vindicate it from confusion of contempt.
(1)["The Escape of a Heretic, 1559." A scene, as described in an illustrative note in the catalogue, from the Spanish Inquisition. A Spanish lover, disguised as a monk, rescuing his mistress, who has already been robed in her fiery gabardine for the auto-da-fe ; in the background a monk, bound and gagged. The subject was suggested to Millais by some engravings and documents shown to him by Stirling-Maxwell (see Life and Letters of Millais, i. 319). The picture is now in the possession of Sir W. Houldsworth, M.P.]
(2)[In the Academy of 1850 : see Vol. XII. p. 320.]
For Mr. Millais there is no hope but in a return to quiet perfectness of work. I cannot bring myself to believe that powers were given to him only to be wasted, which are so great, even in their aberration, that no pictures in the Academy are so interesting as these, or can be for a moment compared with them for occasional excellence and marvellousness of execution. Yet it seems to be within the purpose of Providence sometimes to bestow great powers only that we may be humiliated by their failure, or appalled by their annihilation ; and sometimes to strengthen the hills with iron, only that they may attract the thunderbolt. A time is probably fixed in every man's career, when his own choice determines the relation of his endowments with his destiny; and the time has come when this painter must choose, and choose finally, whether the eminence he cannot abdicate
Works (14, 106-111)