EXHIBITION OF THE ROYAL ACADEMY, 1858
THE Academy walls present us this year with much matter for curious speculation, or rather for careful and earnest forecasting of the probable course of our schools of art in this their transitional stage of effort. Accidentally, there are no leading pictures, and the rooms are filled with more or less successful works by the disciples of the Pre-Raphaelite school, which, as I stated five years ago it would,* has entirely prevailed against all opposition ; sweeping away in its strong current many of the opposers themselves, whirling them hither and thither, for the moment, in its eddies, without giving them time to strike out; and tearing down in its victory a few useful old landmarks, which we shall have to build up again by-and-by. But the main question forced upon our thoughts this year is the result of the new modes of study on minds of average or inferior power. For what was done in the first instance by men of singular genius, under intense conditions of mental excitement, is now done, partly as a quiet duty, partly in compliance with the prevalent fashion, by men of ordinary powers in ordinary tempers―resulting, of course, not in brilliant, but only in worthy and satisfactory work; respecting which commonplace completeness there are several points of interest for our consideration. For a year or two considerable disappointment may be felt by the disciples of the new school. Conscious in themselves of an entire change in their modes of thought, and a vigorous advance in powers both of sight and execution, they will be necessarily mortified to find that the advance is unrewarded by distinction; that their pictures, which before were unnoticed in the midst of others as wrong, are now unnoticed in the midst of others as right; and that they have become no more conspicuous in reformation than they were in heresy. There is, however, this comfort for them (without counting the comfort in the mere consciousness of being right, whether noticed or not), that the kind of painting which they now practise is capable of far more extended appeal to the popular mind. The old art of trick and tradition had no language but for the connoisseur; this natural art speaks to all men: around it daily the circles of sympathy will enlarge ; pictures will become gradually as necessary to domestic life as books; they will be largely bought though little wondered at ; the painter will have to content himself with being as undistinguished as an author, and must be satisfied in this unpraised usefulness.
*Edinburgh Lectures on Architecture and Painting, 136 [Vol. XII. p. 160].
Secondly, the pictures of the rising school will in a few years be much more interesting than they are now. In learning to work carefully from Nature, everybody has been obliged to paint what will stay to be painted; and the best of Nature will not wait. Moreover, a subject which must be returned to every day for a couple of months must necessarily be near the house door; and artists cannot always have their lodgings where they choose: many of them, unable to quit their usual residences, must paint the best thing they can find in their neighbourhood; and this best accessible bit, however good as a study ―(anything will do for that)― will usually be uninteresting to the public. The evil is increased by affectations of Wordsworthian simplicity; also by a good deal of genuine simplicity; and of more or less foolish sentiment. Formerly, when people were forced to draw by rule, and were never allowed either to think or feel, we were at least untroubled by foolish thoughts and weak feelings; now, when the rage is for sentiment, and everybody is encouraged to tell us all that is in or near their hearts, we must not be surprised to find that naivete' may sometimes be tiresome as well as formalism, and the exaggeration of sensibility as offensive as the pedantry of science. The compensation is in this case greater than the evil : we are sure that whatever thoughts or passions truly possess the painter, will be truly expressed by him ; while in old times they would have been silenced or constrained. The extent of these two adverse influences, however, is curiously shown in the present Academy. Because it is necessary to paint on successive days from the same object, in order to realize it to perfection, we have hardly a single interesting sky in the whole gallery― 'Mr. Dillon's sunset on the Nile (273) and Mr. E. W. Cooke's at Venice (557)(1) are almost the only pictures of merit which acknowledge the existence of clouds as a matter of serious interest― and because the humblest subjects are pathetic when Pre-Raphaelitically rendered, the two pieces most representative of the school in the rooms are both of stonebreakers : one (Mr. Brett's) of a boy hard at work on his heap in the morning, and the other (Mr. Wallis's) of an old man dead on his heap at night.(2) Taking which facts in their full significance, it is pleasant to think what this new school of ours will do when it once gets fairly to work on materials worth its while. Here we have literally only experiments and early lessons: trials of strength on fragments of landscape in serene weather; quiet little mill-streams and corners of meadows, slopes of sand-hills, farmyard gates, blackberry hedges, and clumps of furze. But what shall we say when the power of painting, which makes even these so interesting, begins to exert itself, with the aid of imagination and memory, on the splendid transience of Nature, and her noblest continuance; when we have the courses of heaven's golden clouds instead of squares of blue through cottage casements; and the fair river mists and mountain shrouds of vapour instead of cottage smoke pine forests as well as banks of grass, and fallen precipices instead of heaps of flints. All this is yet to come; nay, even the best of the quiet, accessible, simple gifts of Nature are yet to come. How strange that among all this painting of delicate detail there is not a true one of English spring!(3)― that no Pre-Raphaelite has painted a cherry-tree in blossom, dark-white against the twilight of April ; nor an almond-tree rosy on the blue sky; nor the flush of the apple-blossom, nor a blackthorn hedge, nor a wild-rose hedge; nor a bank with crown-circlets of the white nettle ; nor a wood-ground of hyacinths;* no, nor even heather, and such things of which we talk continually. Nobody has ever painted heather yet, nor a rock spotted richly with mosses; nor gentians, nor Alpine roses, nor white oxalis in the woods, nor anemone nemorosa, nor even so much as the first springing leaves of any tree in their pale, dispersed, delicate sharpness of shape. Everything has to be done yet; and we must not think quite so much of ourselves till we have done it, even though we have got to be so profoundly moral that we make everybody who looks at our work the wiser for it. We must take care not always to make them sadder also. Indeed, I look with deep respect and delight on the steady purpose of doing good, which has thus in a few years changed the spirit of our pictures, and turned most of them into a sort of sermons;― only let it always be remembered that it is much easier to be didactic than to be lovely, and that it is sometimes desirable to excite the joy of the spectator as well as his indignation.
* That is to say, so as to bring out their beauty for a principal subject. Mr. Inchbold painted some wood hyacinths and gentians, but too few, and half hidden in a litter of other flowers. Mr. Oakes painted a beautiful lichened rock, but obscured with furze and rubbish not brought out in its power. [See above, pp. 96 and 115.]
(1)[273. "Emigrants on the Nile." 557. " Sunset on the Lagune : San Giorgio in Alga and the Euganean Hills in the distance."]
(2)[1089. "The Stonebreaker." See below, p. 171. 562. "Thou wert our Conscript." See below, p. 170.]
(3)[For some remarks on this criticism, see above, Introduction, p. xxiv.]
What, however, I have to say this year of particular pictures will cast itself, to my regret, a little into the form of carping; for now that nearly all are careful and well intended, there is no possibility of praising the universal care, or describing the universal intention; while, on the other hand, there are no leading pictures of the class that silence fault-finding, but several which just miss of being leading pictures, owing to faults which it therefore becomes a duty to find. I hope it will be understood that in my statement of these blemishes, I do not in general fix upon them because the picture in question has more faults than others, but because its merits make them more to be regretted