Old water-colour society 1858
Very beautiful and right up― to the point sought. I have perhaps never before seen a piece of the Italian limestone, scorched dry in the sun, so thoroughly realized, whether in the lie of the oblique beds under the shrine, or in the mass on this side of the path spotted with black lichen. The distant mountain is very soft and lovely in colour, and quite as true as lovely. The reflected light in the roof of the shrine is rightly cast and richly glowing. What can possibly be the matter with this picture―making it not a great one―for a great one assuredly it is not?
I believe the same things are the matter with it, only in a far less painful degree, which destroys so much of the value of Carl Haag's figure pieces; namely, a delight in texture rather than in forms or undulations of surface―or (in rougher words) in the skin rather than the make of things; further, a delight in violent contrasts of colour rather than in finely invented harmonies of it (the same thing as the endeavour of a composer to get effect by passages of flute and harp after drum and trumpet, instead of by real invention of successions in chords); and lastly and chiefly, a tendency to stage sentiment rather than life sentiment, making him insist always more on costume than expression―nay, in fact, always see costume first. And, observe, this error is not merely the common one of which the Pre-Raphaelites are so often accused (for the most part falsely), of painting accessories better than principalities, when the principalities are nevertheless seen and tried for. For in Carl Haag's work the principal things are not seen. A peasant offers herself to his eyes as a kind of book of patterns: the main phenomena of her are her cap and bodice; he cannot recover from the sensation of astonishment at her dress so as to discern that there is a human being within it. A man is, in his eyes, mainly different from a chamois in wearing leggings: if Cadmus had sown hobnails instead of teeth, one might have expected a crop of such men as these. I verily believe that the best thing the painter could do would be to go to the Tyrol, and himself wear green breeches and a conical hat till he got quite used to them, and perceived that there was really nothing so awful nor wonderful in either, but that he might paint without being overpowered by their presence.
He is, however, doing better every year. This landscape seems to me a great step in advance, and I hope we shall have more of the kind. Carl Haag's forte, as it has been in worsted among men, will evidently be in lichens among rocks; but that is no reason why these respectable and long-lived vegetables should not have their painters. By the way, they and the fungi have all fortune's favour this year; for William Hunt's beautiful little picture (244)2 is the first, so far as I know, painted entirely in honour of the little ephemeral beauties, as Carl Haag's is the first which has entirely expressed the character of the black stains of mountain life which hardly change their shapes in a thousand years.
(1)[Carl Haag (b. 1820)―afterwards known chiefly for his Eastern drawings―a native of Bavaria, settled in England in 1847, and became an Associate of the Water-Colour Society in 1850. For an interesting notice of him, see the History of that Society, ii. 341-352.]
(2)[See below, pp. 203, 205.]