[the convent of St. Catherine in the distance. The picture comprises portraits of an English nobleman and his suite; Mahmoud, the Dragoman, etc.; Hussein, Scheikh of Gebel Tor, etc.]
Society of painters of watercolours.(1)
(1) [The Society of Painters in Water-Colours, often referred to as the "Old" Water-Colour Society, was founded in 1805; its first exhibitions were held at No. 20 Lower Brook Street. After various moves, it settled in 1809 at Spring Gardens. In 1813 it was reconstituted as "The Oil and Water-Colour Society." In 1821 the Society was again reconstructed as a Water-Colour Society only, and it established itself in Pall Mall, East. In the Notes on Prout and Hunt, Ruskin gives a pleasant description of the exhibitions held there in his earlier days (p. 389 of this volume, and compare The Art of England, 159). Ruskin was elected an honorary member in 1873, and " was very proud of the honour. He said at the time to a visitor ―'Nothing ever pleased me more. I have always been abusing the artists, and now they have complimented me. It's very nice to think they give me credit for knowing something about art'" (W. G. Collingwood's Prefatory Notes to the Ruskin Exhibition held at the Society's Gallery in 1901, p. ix.). Ruskin occasionally showed drawings in the Society's rooms. In 1881 the Society was permitted to make use of the name and style of "The Royal Society of Painters in Water-Colours. "The gallery was extended and rebuilt in 1875.]
If this picture is painted in firm colours, and will stand against time : and if it gets into good hands, and is safely kept, it will one day be among things which men will come to England from far away to see, and will go back to their homes saying, "I have seen it," as people come back now from Venice, saying they have seen Titian's "Peter Martyr";(1) or from Milan, saying they have seen the "Sposalizio." I have no hesitation in ranking it among the most wonderful pictures in the world ; nor do I believe that, since the death of Paul Veronese, anything has been painted comparable to it in its own way.
(1) [This picture perished by fire in the sacristy of SS. Giovanni e Paolo in 1866; see Vol. III. p. 28, and compare p. 399, below. Raphael's "Sposalizio "is in the Brera.]
I rank it with Veronese's work, because it is painted on the same principles of colour and design; and shows just as much ease of hand, though the execution is modified by the smallness of scale, and by the resolution to obtain certain effects of light which the Venetian would not have cared for : but if this picture were magnified so as to show the figures the size of life, it would be felt at once that no work but Veronese's could stand against it for a moment; and I only regret that its admirableness of detail should be concentrated so as to become, to most people, all but invisible. If the reader will take a magnifying glass to it, and examine it touch by touch, he will find that, literally, any four square inches of it contain as much as an ordinary water-colour drawing; nay, he will, perhaps, become aware of refinements in its handling which escape the naked eye altogether. Let him examine, for instance, with a good lens, the eyes of the camels, and he will find there is as much painting beneath their drooping fringes as would, with most painters, be thought enough for the whole head; or let him look at the cane-work of the back of the chair on the right, and he will find as many touches in one of its meshes as, according to the notion of water-colour painting ordinarily, would suffice for the tracery of a Gothic window.
Yet, marvellous as this quantity of detail is, the quantity is not the chief wonder, but the breadth. It is amazing that there should be so much, but far more amazing that this Much should all be Right. Labour and delicacy we may find, unwearied and unsurpassable, in missal painting, and in old Flemish work of the Van Eyck school. But labour thus concentrated in large purpose ―detail thus united into effective mass― has not been seen until now. All minute work has been, more or less, broken work; and the most precious pictures were divisible by segments. But here, gradations which are wrought out through a thousand threads or meshes, are as broad and calm in unity as if struck with a single sweep of the hand. Look at the way the pale circle of the tent is gradated, through its woven pattern, with the effect of transparent light beneath. I have never seen anything quite comparable to it reached by art.*
* Merely as a piece of technical composition, note the way in which this canopy is repeated and balanced by the matting below; hide the matting with the hand, and see how top-heavy the canopy becomes. The dead fawn, in like manner, repeats and relieves the colour-mass of the principal standing camel.
Let us, however, recovering as best we may from our amazement at this toil, and this success, look for a little while at the meaning of the picture―meaning which we find indicated by the painter in the most subtle way. The hand of the principal figure droops negligently at its side, yet so as to point to an unfolded map. The letters on this map are of course reversed, as it lies open rightly for its owner, therefore upside down to the spectator; but the title of it is carefully made legible―
“ MAP OF"
''ANCIENT AND MODERN."
and the picture itself is a map of antiquity and modernism in the East the Englishman encamped under Mount Sinai.
The reader must pardon me a momentary allusion to work of my own ; for it has not been without some toil that I, also, have been lately endeavouring to trace the kind of contrast which exists between the ancient and modern temper of the human race. Mr. Lewis was wholly ignorant of my work, and I of his. In closing an inquiry into the modem feeling respecting scenery consecrated by solemn associations, I said,―
"I do not know if there be game on Sinai, but I am always expecting to hear of some one shooting over it."(1)
(1) [The reference is to Modern Painters, vol. iii. (1856) ch. xvi. ("Of Modern Landscape") §11 (Vol. V. p. 324).]
Some of those semi-serious people who never know earnest from jest, accused me of levity in saying this. I said it not in levity, but in stern soberness; yet certainly it was with strange surprise that I saw that this great painter had given his year's labour to develop a similar thought, and that, four months only after the sentence was written, the most notable picture on the exhibition walls of London was an accurate fulfillment of its words: ―Mount Sinai, with a foreground of dead game.
Special examination of the points of various interest in this picture is, of course, impossible ―it would need a separate essay. I shall only note one or two things which, under any circumstances, the reader should not miss.
Note first the labour in the sky. The whole field of it is wrought gradually out with touches no larger than the filaments of a feather. It is, in fact, an embroidered sky ―Penelope's web was slight work compared to it―; such a thing, as far as I know, never painter endured to do before. The purpose of this is to get the peculiar look of heat haze, and depth of colour, with light, which there is in all skies of warm climates. It cannot be got otherwise: but, inasmuch as whatever work may be given to it, it cannot, in some respects, be got at all, the light of it being unapproachable, it almost grieves me to see the labour spent to obtain only an approximate result. Still in this one picture, I feel that it ought to have been done, in order that all might be as well as it could be.
Secondly, examine the rock drawing of the Sinai, exquisite alike in hue and form, and conquering, stone by stone, the difficulty which, to all landscape painters but Turner, has been hitherto unconquerable, of expressing fallen masses of débris in their endless complexity.
If I venture to speak of a fault in this part of the work, it is only as acknowledging that human strength must always fail somewhere: Veronese is sometimes too flat Tintoret sometimes too dark Leonardo sometimes too hard Turner sometimes too mysterious Lewis sometimes too definite. Throughout this picture we may trace, here and there, a slightly linear violence; as, for instance, in the black outline round the lower part of the dead fawn in the foreground, which is not entirely true, and gives the work, here and there, a slight aspect of meagreness. The lines of fissure and shadow on the rocks, and round the stones of the distant Sinai, are thus a little too sharp and thin; indicating some remains of the painter's old manner of using the pencil point, as in his sketches in Spain.
The faces, however, as well as the draperies, are entirely free from this fault, and the intensity of character reached in them surpasses, I think, all the painter's former efforts. Even the more distant figures are full of portrait character of the most perfect finish. It may be useful to any reader who is himself fond of drawing, to note the subtlety of truth on which all depends. Take, for instance, the head of the Arab between the Sheikh and the camel, and note the dim sparkle of light in one eye, missed in the other. A common painter would have put it into both; but he would have spoiled the head, for it could not have been in both. The point of light in the right one is the reflection, on the under part of the ball, of the light from the nose, which could, of course, be seen on the sunlighted side only. The Arab, whose face is half seen behind the tassel of the housings of one of the camels, which takes the place of his beard, is another thoroughly grand piece of character. There seems much difference of opinion as to the type of head adopted for the figure of the Englishman. I think it very right; quiet, delicate, firm, and Coeur-de-Lion-like.(1) The two dogs, like all Lewis's animals, are inimitable.
(1) [Ruskin was fond of taking Richard as a type: see, e.g., Vol. V. p. 198, and devoted Letter iii. of Fors Clavigera to " Richard of England."]
I have nearly exhausted terms of praise, and have none left, now, strong enough for the complexity and skill of the composition. The deliciousness of some of the bits of grey and pale flickering colour, and the way the innumerable lines and hues flow together, without flaw or a fallacy anywhere, complete the strange merits and marvels of this work. I trust, whatever its destination, that measures may be taken to preserve it from excess of light and from damp. Body-colour preserved (as in manuscripts) in shade, and kept dry, has stood unchanged for six hundred years; but the slightest adverse influences are to be dreaded for a work of this delicacy, when so much depends upon so little, and when every gleam of colour is precious.(1)
(1)[Elsewhere Ruskin refers to this drawing (with Turner's of "Hornby Castle” in the South Kensington Museum) as "unsurpassable standards of water-colour painting" (see below, p. 340]
It will be observed that on each side of this brilliant and delicate picture is hung a drawing of excessive darkness and boldness, by David Cox.(1) This was thoroughly well judged there is no rivalship but a kindly and effective contrast. The two drawings of English moors (128, 140) gain in gloom and power by the opposition to the Arabian sunlight ; and Lewis's finish is well set off by the impatient breadth of Cox. No. 140 is a very interesting example of this master; so also the smaller ones, 234, 240.(2)
(1)[See below, p. 195 n.]
(2) [128. "Driving the Flock." 140. " Peat Gatherers, North Wales." 234. "Twilight” 240. " Wind and Rain."]