The Royal Academy Exhibition 1859
Yes, here we have it at last―some close-coming to it at least―historical landscape, properly so called―landscape painting with a meaning and a use. We have had hitherto plenty of industry, precision quite unlimited; but all useless, or nearly so, being wasted on scenes of no majesty or enduring interest. Here is, at last, a scene worth painting―painted with all our might (not quite with all our heart, perhaps, but with might of hand and eye). And here, accordingly, for the first time in history, we have, by help of art, the power of visiting a place, reasoning about it, and knowing it, just as if we were there, except only that we cannot stir from our place, nor look behind us. For the rest, standing before this picture is just as good as standing on that spot in Val d'Aosta, so far as gaining of knowledge is concerned; and perhaps in some degree pleasanter, for it would be very hot on that rock to-day, and there would probably be a disagreeable smell of juniper plants growing on the slopes above.
(1)[The view of the valley was taken near the village of Villeneuve.]
So if any simple-minded, quietly-living person, indisposed towards railroad stations or crowded inns, cares to know in an untroublous and uncostly way what a Piedmontese valley is like in July, there it is for him. Rocks overlaid with velvet and fur to stand on in the first place: if you look close into the velvet you will find it is jewelled and set with stars in a stately way. White poplars by the roadside, shaking silvery in the wind: I regret to say the wind is apt to come up the Val d'Aosta in an ill-tempered and rude manner, turning leaves thus the wrong side out; but it will be over in a moment. Beyond the poplars you may see the slopes of arable and vineyard ground, such as give the wealth and life to Italy which she idly trusts in―ground laid ages ago in wreaths, like new cut hay by the mountain streams, now terraced and trimmed into all gentle service. If you want to know what vines look like under Italian training (far from the best), that is the look of them―the dark spots and irregular cavities, seen through the broken green of their square-set ranks, distinguishing them at any distance from the continuous pale fields of low-set staff and leaf, divided by no gaps of gloom, which clothe a true vine country. There, down in the mid-valley, you see what pasture and meadow land we have, we Piedmontese, with our hamlet and cottage life, and groups of glorious wood. Just beyond the rock are two splendid sweet chestnut trees, with forming fruit, good for making bread of, no less than maize; lower down, far to the left, a furlong or two of the main stream with its white shore and alders: not beautiful, for it has come down into all this fair country from the Courmayeur glaciers, and is yet untamed, cold, and furious, incapable of rest. But above, there is rest, where the sunshine streams into iridescence through branches of pine, and turns the pastures into strange golden clouds, half grass, half dew; for the shadows of the great hills have kept the dew there since morning. Rest also, calm enough, among the ridges of rock and forest that heap themselves into that purple pyramid high on the right. Look well into the making of it―it is indeed so that a great mountain is built and bears itself, and its forest fringes, and village jewels―for those white spots far up the ravine are villages―and peasant dynasties are hidden among the film of blue. And above all are other more desolate dynasties―the crowns that cannot shake―of jagged rock; they also true and right, even to their finest serration. So it is that the snow lies on those dark diadems for ever.1 A notable picture truly; a possession of much within a few feet square.
Yet not, in the strong, essential meaning of the word, a noble picture. It has a strange fault, considering the school to which it belongs―it seems to me wholly emotionless. I cannot find from it that the painter loved, or feared, anything in all that wonderful piece of the world. There seems to me no awe of the mountains there―no real love of the chestnuts or the vines. Keenness of eye and fineness of hand as much as you choose; but of emotion, or of intention, nothing traceable. Not but that I believe the painter to be capable of the highest emotion: anyone who can paint thus must have passion within him; but the passion here is assuredly not out of him. He has cared for nothing, except as it was more or less pretty in colour and form. I never saw the mirror so held up to Nature;2 but it is Mirror's work, not Man's. This absence of sentiment is peculiarly indicated by the feeble anger of the sky. Had it been wholly cloudless―burning down in one calm field of light behind the purple hills, all the rest of the landscape would have been gathered into unity by its repose; and for the sleeping girl we should have feared no other disturbance than the bleating of the favourite of her flock, who has returned to seek her his companions wandering forgetful. But now she will be comfortlessly waked by hailstorm in another quarter of an hour: and yet there is no majesty in the clouds, nor any grand incumbency of them on the hills; they are but a dash of mist, gusty and disagreeable enough―in no otherwise to be dreaded; highly un-divine clouds―incognizant of Olympus what have they to do here upon the hill thrones―Κορυϕὓις ίεραἳς χιονοβλήτοισι3
(1)[It may be interesting to read in connexion with this passage Ruskin's impressions of the Val d'Aosta. The passage occurs in a letter to his father from Ivrea, August 26, 1851:―" I was more than satisfied yesterday of the justice of the Val d'Aosta's reputation. We came some fifty miles through scenery of continually increasing magnificence. The part just below Aosta is comparatively uninteresting, but from Chatillon here it is far more wonderful as rock scenery than anything I have seen among the Alps. There are no glaciered mountains; therefore it is not altogether in my way, but the rocks rise from the level of the plain of Piedmont until their tops are sprinkled with snow, giving a clear height of at least 8000 feet, and this attained not in the unbroken precipices which the eye never can measure, but in rolling curves of massy crag, divided into myriads of knolls and ravines and minor precipices―a perfect world of winding glen and iron rock, which as it descends into the valley is literally roofed over with continuous trellises of vines, only here and there a huge fallen mass of the size of the hull of a ship of the line lying in the midst of the green ranges of trellis and clusters of grapes, and sometimes a bank of turf shadowed with huge chestnut trees, springing out four and five trunks in a cluster, and as if that were not enough, throwing forth from their roots whole clusters of saplings and large-leaved copse of jagged green. Fort Bard is an ugly fort in itself, but on the noblest rock I ever saw―so clean and pure, no dusty fractures or débris, but velvet brown lichenous surface and mighty chasms between the bastions, and the mountains on each side all the same, up to their crests."]
(2)[Hamlet, iii. 2.]
(3)[Aristophanes, The Clouds, line 270.]
Historical landscape it is, unquestionably; meteorological also; poetical―by no means: yet precious, in its patient way; and, as a wonder of toil and delicate handling, unimpeachable. There is no such subtle and precise work on any other canvas here. The chestnut trees are like a finished design of Dürer's―every leaf a study; the poplar trunks and boughs drawn with an unexampled exquisiteness of texture and curve. And if it does not touch you at first, stay by it a little; look well at the cottage among the meadows; think of all that this Italian life might be among these sacred hills, and of what Italian life has been, and yet is, in spite of silver crosses on the breast, and how far it is your fault and mine that this is so, and the picture may be serviceable to you in quite other ways than by pleasing your eyes with purple and gold.1
(1)[This picture (reproduced as frontispiece to this volume), which was bought by Ruskin, was lent in 1880 to an exhibition at Douglas. Ruskin then supplied the Following Note in the catalogue (described in Vol. XIII. p. Ivi.):― "Painted in the summer of 1858. When I was myself in Italy, Mr. Brett visited me at Turin to consult about this picture, which he was then painting from the window of his lodgings, in a grand castle half-way up the valley between Aosta and Courmayeur. I at that time hoped much from his zeal and fineness of minute execution in realizing, with Piirer-like precision, the detail of Swiss landscape. Had he sympathized enough with Swiss and Italian life, his work might have become of extreme value; but, instead, he took to mere photography of physical landscape, and gradually lost both precision and sentiment. How lovely an old-fashioned Swiss or Italian village would have been, painted like this single cottage, some future disciple of the school may consider and hope to show. There is no pretence of composition, or, as usually understood, of painter's skill in this picture. It is the careful delineation of what is supposed to be beautiful in itself; and it has lost, instead of benefited, by the unwise introduction of storm on the hills for the sake of variety. In good, permanent, and honourably finished oil-painting this picture cannot be surpassed; it is as safe as a piece of china, and as finished as the finest engraving." For the personal reminiscences of 1858, here referred to, see above, Introduction, pp. xxiii., xxiv.; and for a criticism of the picture, made by Millais at the time of its first exhibition, see above, p. 22 n.]