A SOMEWHAT singular circumstance has taken place this year, in the choice of their principal or master piece by two important societies of English artists.
The Society of British Artists placed, as the central attraction of their rooms, an illustration of Shakespeare.* The New Water-Colour Society honoured with a similarly central position an illustration of Tennyson.†
Duly allowing for privileges of seniority and presidentship, it would not be just towards either body of artists if we supposed that the places assigned to these works of art were entirely trustworthy indications of the estimate formed of them. But whether promoted by law, by courtesy, or by admiration, those pictures stood forth to the English―and more than the English―public as in some central or typical way exponents of the power of the two societies ; and foreigners, at least, would be justified in concluding that the sanction given by two important bodies of English painters to these readings of the greatest dead and greatest living English poets, indicated with some truth the measure of general understanding of poetry in the artist mind of the country; and perhaps also (as the appeal to public judgment was made so frankly) something of the public mind of this country on the same matter.
I am not going to criticise those pictures. If the reader is not of my mind about them, I should not have any hope of being able to make him so―nor even any wish to make him so. If he is of my mind about them, he will understand why they should have set me thinking―not on the whole pleasurably―of the course and probable prospects of the curious group of English personages to whom art now addresses itself. For it would not be difficult to show, if necessary, that these two works do verily express the final and entirely typical issue of the most popular modern views on the subject of poetry in general: and more than this, there is a certain typical character even in the hero and heroines of the pictures―the " Hamlet" not unworthily representing what is popularly considered as Philosophy; the "Jephthah's Daughter"2 what is popularly accepted as Piety; and the "Cleopatra" what is popularly displayed as Splendour.
* No. 53. "Hamlet, Prince of Denmark" (F. Y. Hurlstone).
† No. 212. "A Dream of Fair Women" (E. H. Corbould). The illustrations of Shakespeare by Mr. Gilbert, which occupy a conspicuous position (on each side of Mr. Burton's centre piece) in the rooms of the Old Water-Colour Society, curiously involve that society also in a parallel manifestation of opinion.
1.[No. 125. " Sir Andrew Aguecheek writes a Challenge," and No. 132. " The Banquet at Lucentio's House."]
xiv. 241 Q
2.["Jephthah's Daughter" and "Cleopatra" were among the figures in Corbould's illustration of Tennyson's poem.]
Or, in a nearer and narrower view, these pictures contain a concentrated expression of the character which distinguishes a modern English exhibition of paintings from every other that has yet been, or is likely to be. Bad painting is to be found in abundance everywhere, so that we do not distinguish ourselves by our weakness; foolish painting in greater abundance still, so that we do not distinguish ourselves by our imbecility ; more or less meritorious painting, at least in all principal French and German schools, as well as in ours, so that we do not distinguish ourselves by our merit : but purely and wholly vulgar painting is not to be found developing itself elsewhere with the same naivete as among the English ; and we do distinguish ourselves by our vulgarity. So, at least, it appears to me. As I have just said, I do not wish to argue with anyone who disputes the fact, but to trace thence one or two conclusions with those who admit it.
What vulgarity is, whether in manners, acts, or conceptions, most well-educated persons understand; but what it consists in, or arises from, is a more difficult question.1 I believe that on strict analysis it will be found definable as "the habit of mind and act resulting from the prolonged combination of insensibility with insincerity";* and I think the special manifestation of I among artists has resulted, in the first place, from the withdrawal of all right (adecuación, apropiado, justo), and therefore, all softening (delicadeza, ternura), or animating (estimulante) motive for their work; and, in the second place, from the habit of assuming, or striving by rule to express, feelings which did not, and could not, arise out of their work under such conditions.
* It would be more accurate to say, "constitutional insensibility"; for people are born vulgar, or not vulgar, irrevocably. An apparent insensibility may often be caused by one strong feeling quenching or conquering another; and this to the extent of involving the person in all kinds of cruelty and crime: yet, Borgia or Ezzelin, lady and knight still; while the born clown is dead in all sensation and capacity of thought, whatever his acts or life may be.
Cloten, in Cymbeline, is the most perfect study of pure vulgarity which I know in literature; Perdita, in Winter's Tale, the most perfect study of its opposite (irrespective of such higher virtue or intellect as we have in Desdemona or Portia). Perdita's exquisite openness, joined with as exquisite sensitiveness, constitute the precise opposite of the apathetic insincerity which, I believe, is the essence of vulgarity.2
1.[Compare Modern Painters, vol. iii. (Vol. V. pp. 117-118), and vol. v. pt. ix. ch. vii., "Of Vulgarity"; Elements of Drawing, 240; Sesame and Lilies, 28; and Art of England, 161.]
2.[For Lucrezia Borgia, see Two Paths, 187; for Ezzelin, Vol. XII. p. 137 n.; for Cloten (as a contrast to Imogen), Modern Painters, vol. iii. (Vol. V. p. 112); for Perdita, ibid. (Vol. V. p. 99), and vol. iv. (Vol. VI. p. 442).]
I say first, by the withdrawal of all softening or animating motive, and chiefly by the loss of belief in the spiritual world. Art has never shown, in any corner of the earth, a condition of advancing strength but under this influence. I do not say, observe, influence of "religion," but merely of a belief in some invisible power god or goddess, fury or fate, saint or demon. Where such belief existed, however sunk or distorted, progressive art has been possible, otherwise impossible.1 The distortion of the belief, its contraction or its incoherence, contract or compress the resultant art; still the art is evermore of another and mightier race than the art of materialism. Be so much of a Pythagorean as to believe in something awful and impenetrable connected with beans, and forthwith you are not weaker, but stronger, than your kitchenmaid, who perceives in them only an adaptability to being boiled. Be so much of an Egyptian as to believe that some god made hawks, and bears up their wings for them on the wind, and looks for ever through the fierce light of their eyes, that therefore it is not good to slay hawks, and some day you may be able to paint a hawk quite otherwise than will be possible to you by any persistency in slaughter or dissection, or help of any quantity of stuffing and glass beads in thorax or eyesocket. Be so much of a Jew as to believe that there is a great Spirit who makes the tempests his true messengers, and the flaming fire his true servant, and lays the beams of his chambers upon the unshrinking sea,2 and you will paint the cloud, and the fire, and the wave, otherwise, and on the whole better, than in any state of modern enlightenment as to the composition of caloric or protoxide of hydrogen. Or, finally, be so much of a human creature as to care about the heart and history of fellow-creatures, and to take so much concern with the facts of human life going on around you as shall make your art in some sort compassionate, exhortant, or communicative, and useful to anyone coming after you, either as a record of what was done among men in your day, or as a testimony of what you felt or knew concerning them and their misdoings or undoings, and this love and dwelling in the spirits of other creatures will give a glory to your work quite unattainable by observance of any proportions of arms and collar-bones hitherto stated by professors of Man-painting. All this is irrevocably so; and since, as a nation concerning itself with art, we have wholly rejected these heathenish, Jewish, and other such beliefs―and have accepted, for things worshipful, absolutely nothing but pairs of ourselves―taking for exclusive idols, gods, or objects of veneration the infinitesimal points of humanity, Mr. and Mrs. P., and the Misses and Master P.'s,―out, I say, of this highly punctuated religion, which comes to its full stop and note of admiration after the family name, we shall get nothing, can get nothing, but such issues as we see here. The whole temper of former art was in some way reverential―had awe in it: no matter how carefully or conventionally the workman ruled and wrought the psalter page, he had every now and then a far-away feeling that it was to be prayed out of―somebody would pray out of it someday―not entirely mechanically, nor by slip of bead. No matter how many Madonnas he painted to order from the same outlines, the sense that the worst of them was sure, late or soon, to be looked up to through tears, could not but thrill through him as he arched the brow and animated the smile: nay, if he was but a poor armourer or enameller, the feeling that those chased traceries of cuish and helmet would be one day embossed in hot purple, deeper, perhaps, through fault of his, would every now and then make his hammer smite with sterner, truer tone―awe and pity ruling over all his doings, such as now are unattainable. For Mr. and Mrs. P. are not in that sense awful―not in that sense pitiable: both in another and deeper sense, but not in this.
1.[With the following passage―a central one in Ruskin's writings― compare (among other places where he insists on religion in this sense―of the recognition of spiritual being―as the root of great and progressive art), Lectures on Art, 37 seq.; Stones of Venice, vol. iii. (Vol. XI. p. 70); Modern Painters, vol. ii. (Vol. IV. p. 6).]
2.[Psalms civ. 3, 4.]
Then the second source of the evil is the endeavour to assume the sentiment which we cannot possibly have. Let us accept our position, and good scientific, or diagrammatic, or politely personal and domestic art is still possible to us―still may be made, if not majestic work, yet real work. There is use in a good geological diagram; and there is good riding in Rotten Row, to be seen any day between four and six; but if we profess to paint ghosts, when we believe in no immortality or ―Iphigenias and daughters of Jephthah, when we believe in no Deity―this is what we come to: not but that even ghosts are indeed still to be seen, and Iphigenias found (though perhaps sacrificed not altogether to Diana) by sharp -sighted persons upon occasion.
It may be thought, I speak too seriously―or speak seriously in the wrong place―of this matter. I do not. The pictures are ludicrous enough. That which they signify is not ludicrous. And, as if to make us think out their signification fully, the Tennyson picture has a companion―an opposite at least―another illustration of English poetry by English art: the gate of Eden, with a Peri at it―an interesting scene to people who believe in Eden.1 We suppose ourselves to be rather nearer that gate do not we?―than any of the old shepherds who saw ladders set to it in their dreams. And this is the aspect assumed by the gate, and the aspect of the angels in―or outside of it―upon such closer acquaintance. A "strait gate" truly.2
This being so, I cannot enter with any pleasure into examination of the works of the two Water-Colour Societies this year. For in their very nature those two societies appeal to the insensitiveness and pretence of the public: insensitiveness, because no refined eye could bear with the glaring colours, and blotted or dashed forms, which are the staple of modern water-colour work; and pretence, because this system of painting is principally supported by the idle amateurs who concern themselves about art without being truly interested in it; and by pupils of the various watercolour masters, who enjoy being taught to sketch brilliantly in six lessons.
1.[New Water-Colour Society, No. 73 : "The Peri," by Henry Warren.]
2.[For the Biblical references, see Genesis xxviii. 12 and Matthew vii. 13.]
In spite of all the apparent exertion, and reflex of Pre-Raphaelite minuteness from the schools above them, the Water-Colour Societies are in steady descent. They were founded first on a true and simple school of broad light and shade―grey touched with golden colour on the lights. This, with clear and delicate washes for its transparent tones, was the method of all the earlier men ; and the sincere love of Nature which existed in the hearts of the first watercolour masters―Girtin, Cozens, Robson, Copley Fielding, Cox, Prout, and De Wint formed a true and progressive school, till Hunt, the greatest of all, perfected his art. Hunt and Cox alone are left of all that group, and their works in the Old Water-Colour are the only ones which are now seriously worth looking at; for in the endeavour to employ new resources, to rival oil colour, and to display facility, mere method has superseded all feeling and all wholesome aim, and has itself become finally degraded.1 The sponge and handkerchief have destroyed water-colour painting; and I believe there are now only two courses open to its younger students―either to "hark back" at once to the old grey schools, and ground themselves again firmly on chiaroscuro studies with the flat grey wash, or to take William Hunt for their only master, and resolve that they will be able to paint a piece of leafage and fruit approximately well in his way before they try even the smallest piece of landscape. If they want to follow Turner, the first course is the only one. Steady grey and yellow for ten years, and lead pencil point all your life, or no "Turnerism."2 No "dodge" will ever enable you otherwise to get round that corner. Those are the terms of the thing; we may accept or not as we choose, but there are no others. I name, however, a few of the works in the rooms of the two societies which are at least indicative of power to do well, if the painters choose.
1 [Compare Vol. XIII. p. 247.]
2 [Compare Vol. XIII. pp. 241-249, 260, etc.]