Fifty Years Of Modern Painting – Introductory

THE period in. the history of painting, chosen for consideration in this book, is the latter half of the nineteenth century; and the choice might be taken to imply the writer’s belief that conspicuous changes or developments in art keep even pace with the passing of half-centuries and centuries. He does not, however, hold so crude a theory. We do indeed map out history, and art also, by centuries; but we understand, or at least we ought to understand, that such a measure, equally with that of the reigns of kings and queens, is only a rough one. We might as well expect to find charming prospects at every mile-post along a high road, as changes of great moment exactly at each new century’s beginning. It is true that a hundred, or even fifty years, are sufficient for important developments in many departments of human activity. This is certainly true for art. Only we shall find that the crucial dates or periods in art are by no means to be given exactly in round numbers. But it did happen that the years immediately around 1850 saw changes of the utmost importance for modern painting; that a new period in the history of the art did then actually begin. Let us first test the truth of this statement with regard to the art of our own country.

In the year 1821, Constable prophesied that within thirty years English art would have ceased to exist; he feared that within that time all the life would be crushed out of it by the heavy weight of tradition. After a brilliant career of only about a hundred years, it did indeed seem as if such a fate might, temporarily at least, befall our national art.

Constable’s fear might well have been occasioned by his own experience of the tyrannous power of tradition. Of all our landscape painters up to his own time he was the most single-eyed in his outlook on nature. He loved, quite simply, for their own sake, the Suffolk stream-sides and woodlands, the reaches of level country, the prospects from gently-sloping hill-sides, and the alternation of sun and shade and shower over all. He painted them so that we are hardly conscious of the art by which they are agreeably composed within the stiff boundaries where frame and canvas meet. We get from his pictures the same kind of pleasure as we get from nature itself; and our enjoyment of nature is quickened if we be familiar with his ,works. It is one function of the artist to teach others to see. Of course, there is much more to see in nature than Constable saw, and infinitely more to see than he recorded. But he went to nature, and has taught others to go to nature, mainly to take pleasure in its various aspects, and not, as other painters had chiefly done, to find material that could be wrought in the studio into elaborate works of art. I am far from suggesting that work of the latter kind is unprofitable. If any one will say that it is the more profitable of the two, I will not say him nay. Turner, whose art was of the latter kind, shall, at the moment, be greater than Constable, or Constable greater than Turner, as any one will.

I am not concerned just now to argue the point. I will only express my gratitude to both.

But Constable’s frank enjoyment of nature gave great offence to his contemporaries. He painted the sparkle of sunshine on wet leaves, and it was derisively called “Constable’s snow.” Chantrey, one varnishing-day, took a brush and passed a brown glaze over it all ! Sir George Beaumont took offence because Constable, who loved the spring and the summer, painted the woodlands green, as he saw them in those seasons, and did not put in the brown tree of the conventional recipe. The painter who suffered thus from tradition might well fear that it would soon have a fatally deadening effect on art.

A general comparison of past and present would help to confirm his fear. The great race of portrait painters had passed away, leaving a much feebler succession. Reynolds and Gainsborough were long dead ; Romney only more recently ; Hoppner died in 1810 ; Raeburn in 1823 ; Lawrence had still several years to live ; but he does not rank with those who have already been mentioned. Only the student easily calls to mind the next generation of portrait painters. Howard, Hilton, and Haydon, the painters of historical subjects, however we may estimate their success, were still seeking to emulate the great Italian masters of the late Renaissance. This is true also of Etty, though he ranks high as a colourist, and was an enthusiastic painter of flesh. The painters of genre subjects, Wilkie, Mulready, Leslie, and others, worked according to academic rule ; and one need not be hostile to the subject in art to weary of their generally commonplace treatment of trivial subjects. By the great majority of the painters of this period, neither nature, nor living men and women, nor contemporary life, nor legend, history and literature, were intensely, passionately, interpreted. Learned dulness or triviality was the rule. This, of course, means no denial either of great ability or of inspiration here and there ; but this is not sufficient. A national school of art should interpret what is best in the many-sided life of a nation, and react upon the national life and outlook as a quickening, enlightening force. Constable’s fear for the art of his own country, it must be admitted, was not an unreasonable one. But only three years before the exact end of the term that Constable fixed for the fulfilment of his prophecy that is, towards the close of 1848, almost at the mid-century was formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which had the avowed purpose of throwing off the weight of tradition and of bringing art into closer relation with life and nature ; and this it succeeded in doing. During the next few years the Brotherhood did a strenuous work, and then lapsed as a formal body; its influence upon art, however, by no means ending with its own dissolution. The Pre-Raphaelite movement, and its influence upon art, will find material for many pages in this book.

If we cross over into France we shall find that there, also, important changes in art, destined to have great and wide-spreading results, were taking place just about the middle of the nineteenth century. It was then that Corot came to his later manner; Jongkind and Boudin were then carrying the realisation of atmospheric effects past the point to which Corot and his contemporaries had taken it. In 1856 Boudin founded the ” École Saint Simeon,” of which more will be said hereafter, and inaugurated a movement that has been to painting in France even more important than the Pre-Raphaelite movement has been to painting in England; that has, indeed, spread far beyond the borders and the shores of France, even into our own country, to the displeasure nay, to the righteous indignation of many English painters and critics. It has not therefore been a mere toss of the coin, or a crude periodical theory, that has led to the selection of the middle of the nineteenth century as the beginning of an epoch in the history of modern painting.

We have chosen our starting-point, then, for reasons thus briefly stated. But we may compare ourselves to mountain climbers, who, having reached a level place, and rested for a while, recommence their ascent. The climb that lies before them is a continuation, not a fresh start. More adequately, perhaps, we may compare art to life as a whole, of which it is a part. Art, like life, is at any time only to be under-stood by reference to what has already happened. The recent art-movements that are our immediate subject can only be understood by reference to the antecedent history of art. It may be assumed, however, that the reader has a general knowledge of the history of art; and that we need only indicate here, so that we may have them freshly before us, the leading characteristics of art in the periods that immediately led up to the one we are specially to study.

In the Middle Ages art had been almost entirely subordinated to the purposes of religion as then understood by the Christian Church. This world, according to the then prevailing belief, was of no importance except as a preparatory stage for a world to come. This life was a prelude to eternity, not an integral part of it. The Church alone had the secret of eternal well-being. This was the theory. But life is more than all theories of life, and could not be for long was in reality never entirely confined within the limits of this one. When life broke loose from the mediaeval theory, art, the interpreter of life, broke loose with it. Men said to themselves and to each other that life was not wholly bad ; they looked at the world and found that it was fair. They did not entirely throw over the old beliefs. Some held closely to them; others held them in a modified form. There were some who bound the bonds or tried to bind them even more tightly than before. But the old unanimity was gone ; and with it went the forcible control of men by the Church. We of these days shall probably be seen in the future not to have wholly emerged from the Middle Ages. In an eclipse of the sun the earth only passes gradually beyond the shadow cast by the moon. Matthew Arnold found himself, and he was but one among many, Art has reflected, and still reflects, the confused state of mind from which we have not yet passed; and there has been a further complication : the rediscovery and steadily growing understanding of the art and thought and life of the earlier, pre-Christian world. We are indeed the heirs of the ages, and our intellectual inheritance is by no means easy to see in its true proportions.

Let us take, not exactly at random, but still without rigid insistence on arrangement, some examples of the variety of influence and impulse under which modern artists have come. Sir Joshua Reynolds painted his portraits of the men, women, and children of the England of the eighteenth century, thinking, not only of his sitters, but of Michael Angelo and Raphael, of the colour of Titian, and of what constituted the grand style. Richard Wilson began Iand

Wandering between two worlds, one dead The other powerless to be born.

scape painting amid the ruins of the Roman Campagna, because in his day all good things were supposed to come from Italy, and most if not all eyes were turned to Rome as summing up Italy. Gainsborough, as he painted his portraits, thought of Vandyck, the pupil of Rubens, whose northern freedom had yielded in part only to the domination of Italy. Turner painted landscapes thinking of Wilson, of Claude, from whom also Wilson had learned, and of the Dutch landscape painters, who had courageously looked at nature with their own eyes. John Crome, and his friends of the Norwich school, painted English landscape in a modified Dutch manner. John Constable, on the other hand, as we have already seen, painted English landscape as it looked to him and as it gave him pleasure ; and, as we shall see hereafter, this independence of his had widely important results for art. Etty painted historical and legendary subjects, thinking of, and trying to rival, the flesh painting and colour of the Venetians. G. F. Watts came under the influence of Etty. He also studied the Greek sculpture preserved in the British Museum. He went to Italy, and his work shows the influence both of Florence and Venice. He went out with Sir Charles Newton to Halicarnassus, and was present when the ruins of one of the most famous monuments of ancient Greece, the tomb of Mausolus, were unearthed.

Much the same story has to be told of other countries. In France, tradition was stronger than in England. Hogarth, who stands at the head of the English school of painting, waged war against the tyranny of tradition. For good or for evil, or partly for both, a comparatively independent spirit has possessed English art. French writers make it a boast that, as Napoleon overran the whole of Europe except this country, so has French art overrun Europe with the like exception. Thus M. de la Sizeranne says, that in any international exhibition of fine arts, the galleries set apart for any nation except England bear witness to the French influences under which its artists have come. The assaults of realism and of impressionism are broken on the aestheticism of English painters, “like the squadrons of Ney on the squares of Wellington. There are German, Hungarian, Belgian, Spanish, Scandinavian painters, but there is an English school of painting.”

Not that the French writer maintains this widely prevailing tradition of art to have been entirely a creation of French genius. He speaks of the Latin point of view. That is, we are taken back to Italy once more ; and, it has to be said, to a particular period in Italian art, the sixteenth century, when, at the end of a long period of technical development, less importance was attached to what was said than to the manner of utterance.

Of French painters in the seventeenth century, M. Bayet says, in his Précis d’Histoire de l’Art, that Michel Fréminet, the court painter of Henri IV, produced bad Michael Angelo, that Simon Vouet, the chief painter of Louis XIII, French by birth, was wholly Italian by education. Le Sueur never went to Italy, but Nicholas Poussin lived there for a time, and with him, in Rome, there was quite a colony of Frenchmen Gaspar Poussin, Jacques Stella, Claude Lorrain, Charles Le Brun, and others. French art in the seventeenth century, this same writer tells us-it is common knowledge, but we may as well let a Frenchman say it—” breaks with the past of France, unjustly despises its worth, admires nothing but antiquity and Italy. These tendencies, which had gradually developed in the sixteenth century, now triumph completely. A sojourn on the other side of the Alps is almost an absolute necessity for every young artist. In 1666, Louis XIV founds the French Academy at Rome. Henceforth the young men judged worthy of the favour are entertained in Rome for several years at the royal expense. For others a mere stay in Italy is not sufficient ; they spend their life there, in the company of antiquities, and the works of the masters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.”

In the eighteenth century French art came under the influence of the Netherlands. Watteau was a Fleming; and he and Boucher and Fragonard translated the heavy jollity of the art of the Low Countries into terms of graceful French gaiety, frivolity, and, it has to be said, vice not that we must fall into the error, to be mentioned hereafter, of assuming vice .to be peculiarly French ; Hogarth in the same century, with his pictorial attacks on English vice, may be our witness that this is not so. Greuze, rather later than the three French painters just named, may almost be called, as to his art, a French Dutchman, with a moralising tendency; Chardin was a French Jan Steen, who differed from Greuze in that he did not obviously moralise ; he painted quite exemplary people, chiefly women and children, as he saw them in daily life. Art gets into closer touch with life than in the seventeenth century, even though it be often life of a frivolous kind. Yet, even so, tradition weighed more heavily upon art in France than in England. It was thus, also, with landscape painting, which was in France much more a thing of artificial compositions than in this country, deriving from the Poussins and Claude, and only distantly related to nature. Such painters as Bidault and Michel, though they show an advance on the landscape painting of the previous century, are far behind the contemporary art of England.

Before the end of the eighteenth century, French art returned to its allegiance to Rome and the Italian art of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries ; even, indeed, as it was supposed, to the art of ancient Rome. The leader of this movement was Jacques Louis David, who was born in 1748 and died in 1825. It was the tyranny reimposed by him that was thrown off by the revolutionists of the middle of the nineteenth century. The very titles of such of his principal pictures as The Oath of the Horatii and The Rape of the Sabines are eloquent of the effect upon his outlook of study in the French Academy at Rome. We shall have more to say about him when we come to consider, in order to lead up to the changes in French art at the beginning of our special period, the character of the art of the period immediately preceding it.

We need not give examples from the art of other countries of the action and reaction upon each other of contemporary life and nature on the one hand, and tradition on the other. Enough has been said to show that there is in art abundant material for orthodoxies and heresies, for tyrannies and revolutions.

The purpose of this book, it may be said here, is not to pass judgment on the various developments and tendencies, the orthodoxies and the heresies, of art during the last fifty years; nor to hold a brief for any particular school. Idealism, Realism, Impressionism, all have their value, and therefore ought to have their place. And in using such terms we ought to bear in mind that the qualities for which they respectively stand are not the absolutely peculiar possession of any particular school. It is only that one or other of them occupies a larger place here than there.

And no one of them has any right always to claim the first place. We who are not artists do not want our pleasure to be limited by what any particular school has to give us ; or, if we do so restrict our pleasure, it is to our own loss. Artists are not unfrequently good critics only in the particular field of art in which they themselves are working. How cautious one has sometimes to be in conversation with them if one does not wish suddenly to have one’s head almost blown off ! The dyer’s hand is subdued to what it works in. There are critics also who violently take sides. Perhaps there are occasions on which sides ought violently to be taken. Still, it has been said that new constitutions are built up out of the wisdom of those whose heads have been cut off in revolutions. In the following pages, if preference be shown and sides taken, it will not be by intention that this is done violently. Whistler shall not be charged with throwing pots of paint in the face of the public; Burne-Jones shall not be called a degenerate ; Holman Hunt shall not be dismissed as near-sightedly inquisitive, though, at the same time, we will not go with him in saying that Impressionism had its origin in the profligacy of Parisian student life. Whatever may be the value of such judgments, they are too bold for us.

There is another much debated matter as to which a moderate and wholly unexciting attitude will be taken up here. It will not be maintained that a painting, to be good art, must have nothing of any particular moment in the way of subject. On the other hand, it is at once admitted that artists may well apply to their work an old-time injunction, given in regard to other, but still human concerns, that nothing should be accounted common or unclean. We ought to be grateful to any one who will open our eyes to any beauty that may be about us in our daily life. And if a painter, or a whole school of painters, should do nothing more than this, should imagine for us no angels or saints, should symbolise no virtues, nor represent any virtuous deeds, we ought to be grateful for what they do give to us, and look elsewhere for what else we need. Art we want often for art’s sake : beauty for the sake of beauty, as sweetness for the sake of sweetness. But we need not rule out expression for the sake of expression, or strength for the sake of strength. And art has not done all it can do, or the best it can do, and ought to do, when it has produced something that is sensuously beautiful and nothing more. If we are to have any quarrel here and quarrels do at least relieve life and books of tameness it will be with those who will not have one thing because it is not another, and will not let other people enjoy themselves in their own way. We are like Russell Lowell, who would not have his pleasure limited by people who said that if a thing were Gothic and not Greek, it could not be good.

Also we will try to avoid a narrow patriotism in art as in other things. We will not sing ” Rule, Britannia !” We will gladly sing ” God bless our native land,” if immediately afterwards, or previously, we may ask that the native land of other people shall be blessed also. Herbert Spencer advocated a just balance of egoism and altruism as being in the end the best for everybody. Is it a solitary experience to have been accused by an English artist of want of patriotism in promoting in this country the exhibition of works by foreign artists ? One has been told that foreigners will not buy English pictures, and that therefore English people ought not to buy foreign pictures. The protectionist gospel or heresy is preached in art as well as in commerce. This book will adopt the free trade position ; although it is not so much purchases that will concern us as methods and ideas. Our art, at any period of our history, would have been a sorry thing but for foreign example and influence. Neither men nor nations can profitably live unto themselves, and of nothing is this truer than of art.

It might be thought that this was so obvious as to be in no danger of being overlooked, much less denied. But it is not so. M. de la Sizeranne says that Madox Brown, one of the first English painters with whom we shall be concerned here, expected to gratify his countrymen by offering them something ” anti-French, anti-continental, absolutely original and autonomous,” and quotes him as saying, ” In Paris I first formed the idea of making pictures realistic because no Frenchman did so.” This saying notwithstanding, I doubt if Madox Brown was really the Chauvinist that the French writer alleges him to have been. Certainly, in one place, he finds fault with French art, not because it is French, but on account of certain specified deficiencies. ” The Parisian ateliers,” he says, ” I always entertained the greatest aversion for. Cold pedantic drawing and heavy opaque colour are impartially dispensed to all in those huge manufactories of artists, from which, however, every now and then a man of feeling or genius surges up and disentangles himself.” We shall see later that it was against precisely this state of things that some of the French painters of the mid-nineteenth century revolted. But if we hesitate to endorse an accusation of crude insular prejudice against Ford Madox Brown, born in Calais and spending the early part of his life abroad, must not the charge of Chauvinism be transferred to his accuser, a Frenchman who apparently can only think of an adverse criticism of French art by an Englishman as being dictated by prejudice ?

Whatever we may think of Madox Brown, however, we can hardly free Mr. Holman Hunt from such a charge. In the course of his reminiscences, in Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, he says : “All manly in their vindication of virtue, although some spoke in an over-feminine tone, our exemplars in letters had all been in accord to prune English imagination of unwholesome foreign precedent, tawdry glitter, and theatrical pomposity, corruptions which had descended from the attitudinisers of the two earlier reigns. The literary reformers, still declaiming in our day, had already revived the robust interest in humanity exercised by British men of genius in past centuries.” This is coming very near to saying that all the virtues are British and all the vices foreign ; and Mr. Hunt writes about art in the same strain. ” Hogarth, Reynolds, Raeburn, Gainsborough, and Romney,” he says, ” were too strong to be suppressed, and they produced an art that was pre-eminently altogether in unison with the spirit of British poetry, healthy, robust, and superior to maudlin sentimentality and vice glamoured over with fevered tears”; and he further dilates on ” the glory which, since Hogarth, English painters have wrested from the maws of ignorance, indifference, and shallow self-confidence.” It was perhaps not wholly unnecessary for me to say that I was not going to invite the reader to sing “Rule, Britannia! If prejudice so vehemently expressed do not carry with it its own condemnation, the reader will find that a quiet consideration of facts, which is the main purpose of this book, will make us wish, incidentally, that so earnest a man as Mr. Holman Hunt had not been misled into a great in-justice. We gain nothing, and lose much, by indiscriminate glorification of ourselves and depreciation of others. We shall find an entente cordiale useful in art as well as in politics. It is in this spirit that the subsequent pages have been written.