The Royal Academy Exhibition, 1875
This, I suppose, we must assume to be the principal historical piece of the year; a work showing artistic skill and classic learning, both in high degree. But both parallel in their method of selection. The artistic skill has succeeded with all its objects in the degree of their unimportance. The piece of silver plate is painted best; the griffin bas-relief it stands on, second best; the statue of the empress worse than the griffins, and the living personages worse than the statue. I do not know what feathers the fan with the frightful mask in the handle, held by the nearest lady, is supposed to be made of; to a simple spectator they look like peacock's, without the eyes.2 And, indeed, the feathers, under which the motto "I serve" of French art seems to be written in these days, are, I think, very literally, all feather and no eyes―the raven's feather, to wit, of Sycorax.3The selection of the subject is similarly―one might say, filamentous―of the extremity, instead of the centre. The old French Republicans, reading of Rome, chose such events to illustrate her history, as the battle of Romulus with the Sabines, the vow of the Horatii, or the self-martyrdom of Lucretia. The modern Republican sees in the Rome he studies so profoundly, only a central establishment for the manufacture and sale of imitation-Greek articles of virtu
(1)[In the Art of England, §61, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema is named by Ruskin as representatively "classic," as "a careful and learned interpreter of certain phases of Greek and Roman life, and as himself a most accomplished painter, on long-established principles." In the same lecture (§77) Ruskin mentions Alma-Tadema as "differing from all the artists I have ever known, except John Lewis, in the gradual increase of technical accuracy, which attends and enhances together the expanding range of his dramatic invention." Tadema was elected A.R.A. in 187(5, and R.A. in 1879.]
(2)[Compare the letter in Hortus Inclusus, cited in a note in Stones of Venice, vol. i.(Vol. IX. p. 288).]
(3)[The Tempest, i.2:―
Caliban. As wicked dew as e'er my mother brushed
With raven's feather from unwholesome fen
Drop on you both ! . . .
This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother.
The passage is quoted and commented upon in Munera Pulveris, §134.]
The execution is dexterous, but more with mechanical steadiness of practice than innate fineness of nerve. It is impossible, however, to say how much the personal nervous faculty of an artist of this calibre is paralyzed by his education in schools which I could not characterize in my Oxford inaugural lectures otherwise than as the "schools of clay,"1 in which he is never shown what Venetians or Florentines meant by "painting," and allowed to draw his flesh steadily and systematically with shadows of charcoal and lights of cream-soap, without ever considering whether there would be any reflections in the one, or any flush of life in the other. The head on the extreme left is exceptionally good; but who ever saw a woman's neck and hand blue-black under reflection from white drapery, as they are in the nearer figure? It is well worth while to go straight from this picture to the two small studies by Mr. Albert Moore,2 356 and 357,3 which are consummately artistic and scientific work. Examine them closely and with patience ; the sofa and basket especially, in 357, with a lens of moderate power; and, by way of a lesson in composition, hide in this picture the little honeysuckle ornament above the head, and the riband hanging over the basket, and see what becomes of everything! Or try the effect of concealing the yellow flower in the hair, in the "Flower Walk." And for comparison with the elementary method of M. Tadema, look at the blue reflection on the chin in this figure; at the reflection of the warm brick wall on its right arm; and at the general modes of unaffected relief by which the extended left arm in "Pansies" detaches itself from the background. And you ought afterwards, if you have an eye for colour, never more to mistake a tinted drawing for a painting.
(1)[See Lectures on Art, chs. v. and vii. 139, 173, 185, etc.]
(2)[Albert Moore (1841-1893), brother of Henry Moore. There is a characteristic example of his work in the Tate Gallery (No. 1549, " Blossoms").]
(3)[356."A Flower Walk." 357. "Pansies."]