The Royal Academy Exhibition 1859
I have no doubt the beholder is considerably offended at first sight of this picture―justifiably so, considering what might once have been hoped for from its painter; but unjustifiably, if the offence taken prevents his staying by it, for it deserves his study. "We are offended by it." Granted. Perhaps the painter did not mean us to be pleased. It may be that he supposed we should have been offended if we had seen the real nun digging her real grave;* that she and it might have appeared to us not altogether pathetic, romantic, or sublime, but only strange or horrible; and that he chooses to fasten this sensation upon us rather than any other.
* I believe, in point of fact, nuns neither dig their own graves nor erect tombstones; but we will take the picture on its own terms.
(1)["Where the weary find repose" (see Job iii. 17) was added in the catalogue as a motto. This picture is now in the Tate Gallery (No. 1507). The Athenaeum (April 30, 1859) had referred to the unpleasantness of "the red skull of a face and staring coarse black eyes" in the nun. "Year Mr. Millais gave forth those terrible nuns in the graveyard"― thus did Punch characterise 1859. In 1862 Millais repainted the head of the seated nun. For various particulars about the picture, see E. T. Cook's Popular Handbook to the National Gallery (British schools).]
It is a temper into which many a good painter has fallen before now. You would not find it a pleasant thing to be left at twilight in the church of the Madonna of the Garden at Venice, with the last light falling on the skeletons―half alive, dreamy, stammering skeletons―shaking the dust off their ribs, in Tintoret's " Last Judgment."1 Perhaps even you might not be at your ease before one or two pale crucifixes which I remember of Giotto's and other not mean men, where the dark red runlets twine and trickle from the feet down to the skull at the root of the cross.2 Many an ugly spectre and ghastly face has been painted by the gloomier German workmen before now, and been in some sort approved by us; nay, there is more horror by far, of a certain kind, in modern French works―Vernet's Eylau and Plague,3 and such like which we do not hear any one declaim against; nay, which seem to meet a large division of public taste―than in this picture which so many people call "frightful.
"Why so frightful? Is it not because it is so nearly beautiful?― Because the dark green field, and windless trees, and purple sky might be so lovely to persons unconcerned about their graves?
Or is it that the faces are so ugly? You would have liked them better to be fair faces, such as would grace a drawing-room; and the grave to be dug in prettier ground―under a rose-bush or willow, and in turf set with violets―nothing like a bone visible as one threw the mould out. So, it would have been a sweet piece of convent sentiment.
I am afraid that it is a good deal more like real convent sentiment as it is. Death―confessed for king before his time―asserts, so far as I have seen, some authority over such places; either unperceived, and then the worst, in drowsy unquickening of the soul; or felt and terrible, pouring out his white ashes upon the heart―ashes that burn with cold. If you think what the kind of persons who have strength of conviction enough to give up the world might have done for the world had they not given it up; and how the King of Terror must rejoice when he wins for himself another soul that might have gone forth
(1) [This is the picture described in Modern Painters, vol. ii. (Vol. IV. pp. 274-277).]
(2)[The MS. shows that Raskin first wrote "foot" of the cross, altering the word afterwards to "root."]
(3)[For Horace Vernet, see Vol. V. pp. 124 n., 126. Many of his battle pictures are at Versailles, but the editors have been unable to trace the Eylau and Plague.]
to calm the earth, and folds his wide white wings over it for ever (He also gathering his children together);1 and how those white sarcophagi, towered and belfried, each with his companies of living dead, gleam still so multitudinous among the mountain pyramids of the fairest countries of the earth―places of silence for their sweet voices; places of binding for their faithfullest hands; places of fading for their mightiest intelligences;―you may, perhaps, feel also that so great wrong cannot be lovely in the near aspect of it; and that if this very day, at evening, we were allowed to see what the last clouds of twilight glow upon in some convent garden of the Apennines, we might leave the place with some such horror as this picture will leave upon us; not all of it noble horror, but in some sort repulsive and ignoble.
It is, for these reasons, to me, a great work. Nevertheless, part of its power is not to the painter's praise. The crude painting is here in a kind of harmony with the expression of discord which was needed. But it is crude―not in momentary compliance with the mood which prompted this wild design, but in apparent consistency of decline from the artist's earlier ways of labour.
Pass to his other picture―the "Spring"2―and we find the colour not less abrupt, though more vivid. And when we look at this fierce and rigid orchard―this angry blooming (petals, as it were, of japanned brass); and remember the lovely wild roses and flowers scattered on the stream in the "Ophelia";3 there is, I regret to say, no ground for any diminution of the doubt which I expressed two years since 4 respecting the future career of a painter who can fall thus strangely beneath himself.
(1)[See Matthew xxiii. 37.]
(2)[No. 298. This picture, better known under the title "Apple Blossoms," is now in the possession of Mr. Clarke. The central figure was painted from Miss Georgiana Moncrieff (afterwards Countess of Dudley). The history of the picture "the most unfortunate of Millais's pictures/' Lady Millais called it is given in his Life and Letters, i. 323.]
(3)[Exhibited at the Academy in 1852. For other references to it, see above, p. 107, and below, p. 496 .]
(4)[See above, p. 107.]
The power has not yet left him. With all its faults, and they are grievous, this is still mighty painting: nothing else is as strong, or approximately as strong, within these walls. But it is a phenomenon, so far as I know, unparalleled hitherto in art history, that any workman capable of so much should rest content with so little. All former art, by men of any intellect, has been wrought, under whatever limitations of time, as well as the painter could do it; evidently with an effort to reach something beyond what was actually done: if a sketch, the sketch showed a straining towards completion; if a picture, it showed a straining to a higher perfection. But here, we have a careless and insolent indication of things that might be; not the splendid promise of a grand impatience, but the scrabbled remnant of a scornfully abandoned aim.
And this wildness of execution is strangely associated with the distortion of feature which more or less has been sought for by this painter from his earliest youth; just as it was by Martin Schöngauer1 and Mantegna. In the first picture (from Keats's "Isabella") which attracted public attention, the figure in the foreground writhed in violence of constrained rage; in the picture of the "Holy Family at Nazareth" the Virgin's features were contorted in sorrow over a wounded hand; violent ugliness of feature spoiled a beautiful arrangement of colour in the "Return of the Dove," and disturbed a powerful piece of dramatic effect in the "Escape from the Inquisition." And in this present picture, the unsightliness of some of the faces, and the preternatural grimness of others, with the fierce colour and angular masses of the flowers above, force upon me a strange impression, which I cannot shake off that this is an illustration of the song of some modern Dante, who, at the first entrance of an Inferno for English society, had found, carpeted with ghostly grass, a field of penance for young ladies, where girl-blossoms, who had been vainly gay, or treacherously amiable, were condemned to recline in reprobation under red-hot apple blossom, and sip scalding milk out of a poisoned porringer.
(1)[See Vol. VI. p. 400.]
(2)["Lorenzo and Isabella" (1848) is now in the Corporation Gallery at Liverpool. For the "Holy Family at Nazareth," otherwise known as "Christ in the House of His Parents" (1849) and "The Return of the Dove to the Ark" (1851), see Vol. XII. pp. 920, 323. For "The Escape of a Heretic"(1857), see above, p. 110. Ruskin had called attention to the point noticed above in his second letter to the Times on "The Pre-Raphaelite Brethren," Vol. XII. p. 325.]