IN a temperate and candid critique which appeared last year in the Economist(1) and expressed, as I have since found, the feelings of many readers respecting this publication, complaint was made of its imperfection as a record of the art of the season; and it was truly alleged that many pictures of merit were passed without notice, and many of demerit without blame. But the writer surely could not have considered what would be involved in an endeavour to give a complete account of the Exhibitions of the year. If there is any truly original power in a picture―nay, if it shows even any considerable quantity of good work and effort, it takes me at least half an hour to form judgment of it; and if it is a great picture, I want the half-hour twice or three times over on different days: and the time so spent is laboriously spent―in finding out as far as I can, first, what the painter is trying for, then in comparing his way of trying for it with this and the other condition of art already existing, and considering what likelihoods of success or error are involved in his present mode of work; determining not so much what the real facts are about the picture, which 1
[Economist, June 13, 1857. "Mr. Ruskin's Notes have by this time attained a degree of popularity that renders their verdicts of extreme practical importance to all exhibitors. They are in almost as universal use as the catalogues, and to many must serve as sole guide to the excellences of the yearly Exhibitions. Such success entails great responsibility upon their author. An incomplete and careless review of the pictures is as likely to damage individual artists as an unfair one, and a more elaborate and painstaking critique has therefore become a duty, not only for the sake of the public whom it undertakes to instruct, but also for the artists whom it has the power of drawing into notice." In writing to his father from Switzerland in the following year, Ruskin again referred to this criticism: "BELLINZONA, June 18 . Fine work I should have in May, instead of walks among the spring blossoms, if I did as the Economist would have me at the Royal Academy. Besides, one would get dull with writing so much of the same kind of thing, and then nobody would read at all."]
I can generally tell pretty soon, as how many of those facts the painter or the public ought to be told. Often a picture of merit is passed without notice, because it has heavy faults which, if I spoke of it at all, it would be necessary to point out in a way which might discourage and harm the painter more than the idea that his picture had been overlooked by chance. Often pictures of great demerit are passed silently, because there is no hope for their painters, and the kind of error they have fallen into may be pointed out quite as usefully in other cases, without multiplying offence Sometimes I pass over names of great reputation, because my estimate of their work is in opposition so direct to the public estimate of it that such influence as I might otherwise possess would only be weakened by expressing it; and sometimes I permit myself silence about personal friends who are doing the public little harm by their pictures, and whose friendship I should be sorry to lose. But the real and chief reason for my not speaking of such and such pictures is my not having had time to look at them. This pamphlet must, if it is to be useful, be printed within seven or eight days after the opening. Two of those days are needed for press correction and binding; five remain―that is to say, three for looking and two for writing.(1) I can neither look nor write for more than eight hours a day; which, allowing an average of a quarter of an hour to each picture, enables me even to look at no more than a hundred out of the thousand in the Academy; and the first choice of this hundred, out of which those to be written of must be finally chosen, of course depends, in some degree, on accident: the eye is often caught by something bright or energetic, with semblances of right, and it takes a minute or two to make quite sure there is nothing in it and many minutes in the aggregate are thus lost; or a noble and quiet picture may have got entangled in a company so contemptible that one passes it in a fit of indignation about its neighbours. But all this is unavoidable; nor is it to be regretted. It is precisely this losing sight here and there of a really good picture which permits me to lose sight also of the bad ones, when it is desirable to do so―nobody knowing whether the picture has been disliked or overlooked. Take the pamphlet simply for what I stated it to be in the preface to the first that was issued a circular letter to my friends about the pictures that most interest me in my first glance at the Exhibition―and it will be found serviceable; view it in any other light, and it will be wholly inefficient. Its value consists only in being trustworthy as far as it reaches; and guiding safely, though not guiding everywhere. I trust that I shall not often overlook any truly great and consummate picture; but it is better to lose sight of ten than to pass false judgment on one ; and I strive so to look and so to write, that the repentances which must necessarily follow all hurried work may be of my silences only, not of my words.
(1)[See above, Introduction, p. xxii.]