THE section of English paintings is, perhaps, of a higher average merit than any of the others. This is owing to the extremely judicious selection, not only of the work of the greater men, but also of the examples of the ” British Minor Masters,” and the almost total absence of the men who came after the preraphaelite movement had subsided the Ruskinized Royal Academy school, where most of the painters go for tootling on one sentimental flute.
England has no classic art, and never even felt the influence of the Renaissance; but, curiously enough, its art expression reached its fullest bloom during the 18th century that century which for all other schools was the Dark Age, when their anemic, invertebrate products gave evidence of decadence and death.
The taste for art long antedated its practice in England. Collections commenced to be formed already in the 16th century, and in the 17th century England became an excellent market for paintings.
In fact, many of the Dutch painters of their golden age sold more pictures to English collectors than to their own countrymen. This naturally led to personal visits on the part of the painters of longer or shorter duration, often resulting in permanent settlement. Mabuse, Holbein, Mor, Rubens, and van Dyck were the most prominent among many others. One who was in the suite of William of Orange, when this Prince came to marry the Princess Mary, was Peter van der Faes (1616-1680), a Haarlem painter, who succeeded to the place left vacant by van Dyck at his death in 1641. He retained his position as court-painter under Cromwell, and under the second Charles, who knighted him as Sir Peter Lely. Lely was under the same spell that affected all the portrait painters of this period van Dyck’s manner could not be shaken off. We see this in the ” Portrait of Nell Gwynne,” and in a bust-portrait of a lady. The ” Portrait of Sir William Temple,” the famous ambassador and publicist, bears also these marks in every part of the canvas except in the face, which seems to be more laboured, and lacks the firmness of expression we find in Sir William’s portraits left by wood-engravers.
Lely’s successor as court-painter was Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723), who came from Amsterdam to England when he was twenty-eight years of age, and resided there for almost fifty years, until his death. In that time. he painted the sovereigns that ruled over England, from Charles II to George I, whom he painted when he was seventy years old, for which he was knighted. The influence of van Dyck had run its course when Kneller appeared on the scene, and the instruction of Ferdinand Bol is noticeable in Sir Godfrey’s earlier work; but he came gradually under the same influences which had Frenchified the manner of Nicolaas Maes the daintier methods of Rigaud and Largilliere were not lost upon him. His ” Portrait of Lady Mary Berkeley,” a beautiful woman, beautifully painted, is an example.
Robert Walker, who died in 1658, was much earlier, and the first native Englishman who secured considerable reputation as a portrait painter. He was known as ” Cromwell’s painter,” but, nevertheless, a close imitator of van Dyck’s courtly manner. The portrait of Cromwell’s son-in-law, ” General Ireton,” is in the Museum.
Sir James Thornhill (1676-1734), popular during the reign of Queen Anne, and knighted by George I, does not show superior powers in his ” Portrait of Mrs. Benson.”
With William Hogarth (1697-1764) a unique character appeared, who by dint of personal vigour and undisputed originality established himself firmly and eminently a score of years before the native school became to be recognized as worthy of national support.
Hogarth’s talents were inborn and not acquired. He disdained the usual training of an artist. He himself said : ” Instead of burdening the memory with musty rules, or tiring the eyes with copying dry and damaged pictures, I have ever found studying from nature the shortest and safest way of attaining knowledge of my art.” The nature he referred to was that which abounded in the streets, in the ale-houses, wherever the jovial, obstinate, self-opinionated young fellow passed; and his pleasures and studies went hand in hand. Drawing was a natural gift to him, developed by his earliest apprenticeship with a copper-engraver; and after having ambitiously entertained hopes to succeed in ” what puffers in books call ` the Great Style of History Painting,’ ” as he expresses it, and found this to be out of his way, he bethought himself of something of a more novel mode, and more suitable to his spirit. This he found in making his canvas a stage, and men and women his players, who by means of dumb-show convey his preachments on the vagaries of every human passion. Then the ” Harlot’s Progress appeared, in 1731; ” A Rake’s Progress ” and the ” Marriage a la Mode” followed, and a number of other subjects, in which he scourged every vice, after having paraded it through every phase of degradation, dragging forth every absurdity. Thus he became the painter-moralist, profoundly ingenuous, illuminating, tragic and humorous, the Aristophanes of the brush. The nature and significance of the tales he chose to tell all had the strength of moral purpose it was biting satire, laughing reproof, for the sake of reformation. With unflinching scorn and scathing vehemency, often coarse in its loathsome and hideous realism, he does not blink to lay bare life and manners, the social blots, the fashionable vices of his day as Charles Lamb put it, Hogarth was the Juvenal of art.
We are so overwhelmed by what this wonderful philosopher tells us, and the manner in which he says it, that we are apt to forget all about the medium through which he informs us. When we look closer, however, and for the nonce seek to forget the moralist, we are startled at the paint that is on the canvas. Surely here is a fine colourist ; here is one positively masterful in passages of beauty in which reds, blues, yellows and grays delicately harmonize and run together. He catches with infinite subtlety the shades and lights, depicts the atmosphere. With facile succulence he paints still-life, silks and velvets, carpets and furniture unsurpassed by Netcher, Chardin or Dou. If he did not copy his scenes from actual theatrical comedies, then he was the first and greatest regisseur that ever managed a stage; for never were groups composed to serve his purpose so dexterously, naturally, and without over-elaboration. And soon we have almost forgot-ten Hogarth, the pictorial essayist, the satirical moralist, in Hogarth, the painter.
More yet do we think of him as such when we regard the portraits he painted, which are frank likenesses, his women especially are radiant with spirit and youth, rosy faces and delicate, sweet figures. A beautiful example of this we find in ” Peg Woffington,” in the Hearn collection, a charming, somewhat saucy face; and faultlessly painted from lace cap to pearl strings. John C. van Dyke has well said : ” There were only four great originals in old English painting Hogarth, Gainsborough, Constable and Turner. Hogarth was the first, and some there be who do not hesitate to say that he was the greatest of them all.”
Richard Wilson (1713-1782), at first a portrait painter, abandoned this for landscape after his Italian journey. The innovation might have been as successful as it was with Gainsborough had he, as the latter, chosen English scenery. Wilson’s landscapes, however, are too much echoes of Poussin, Claude Lorrain and Salvator Rosa to appeal greatly to the insular taste of the British. The grouchy spirit of our Welshman added personal unpopularity to professional neglect; and although his painstaking work is more appreciated at the present time, he himself reaped small benefit. Three examples show the Italian manner of his brush.
Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) was, with Wilson, the founder of English landscape art, which Crome, Constable and Turner a half century later fully established. Although Gainsborough is best known for his portraits, the ” English Landscape,” in the Hearn collection, demonstrates that for him landscape possessed the same sensuous beauty as the human figure. His early landscapes have some ideas of the Dutchmen, but his maturer landscapes have none of these, nor of the contemporary convention of Italy and the Romans, nor of the glowing champaigns of Rubens. They are the pertinent and powerful landscapes of a pastoral poet, with ever new combinations of sturdy tree-trunk and wavy bough and rising field-land, woods, pools and glades, volumes of sweeping leafage athwart the sky, broken ripples and reflections in a quiet stream. Such are the passages of nature, of English scenery, which with a pure, spontaneous expression of personality he fitly measures without forcing, full of beauty and charm.
In portraits as in landscapes and we have several of his human documents, the ” Portrait of the Rev. Humphrey Burroughs,” a self-portrait at the age of forty, ” Portrait of the Hon. Mrs. Hamilton, daughter of J. Williams, Esq., of County Pembroke ” he is as picturesque and attractive. This is the way his manner of painting a portrait is de-scribed : “Gainsborough makes an appointment of which he thinks no more, trusting to be duly re-minded of it by his faithful Margaret; he plays on the fiddle with Abel or listens to his son-in-law Fischer’s hautboy, and when the hour arrives he sits down before his easel with a mind as blank as the canvas before him. His sitter is a young lady; he eyes her intently, he chats with her, he draws her out, he gets excited, strange flashes of drollery and absurdity escape him ; she turns in her chair, her face lights up, and inspiration comes to him. ` Stay as you are ! ” he exclaims. He sees a picture ; he . seizes his palette and begins. . . .”
This impromptu touch of the pictorial chord, this flitting fancy fastened, this impulsiveness kept well in hand, all fecundated with a temperament which the Germans call “genialisch” and there we have Gainsborough, the portrait painter. With transparent lightness his figure poses in easy flexibility, eloquent in gesture or repose, the luminous air playing around the figure so that we feel the fair sitter could rise and walk away without getting out of the canvas.
Gainsborough was the antithesis of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), the calculating; logical reasoner, who carefully planned, laid out, thought over, judiciously conned, and analytically decided what-ever he did. No less than ten portraits by Reynolds are in the Metropolitan, which need not be described in detail, since general conclusions will enable us to understand his art.
Hogarth’s influence on English art had been but slight, and in Reynolds we must recognize the man who by precept and example provided in the highest degree the stimulus and the inspiration that tended to the growth of the English school. And yet, it must not be considered heretical if we cannot elevate him to the high station generally accorded him. With all the charms of grace, beauty and character wherewith he endows his portraits in such consummate taste, there are too many deficiencies which prevent his being named with the greatest painters that lived.
He had a fine sentiment of colour and a happy disposition of light. This, at a superficial glance, cannot be denied him, but his work lacks solidity, and, alas, is imperfect in the medium he used. His fateful experiments with vegetable pigments, and his dense ignorance of what even the dilettante today knows of chemical color-combinations, make his paintings the most insecure, evanescent possessions ; many are already blurred and blighted beyond hope of recovery. Well might Horace Walpole have suggested that his portraits be paid for by annuities so long as they lasted !
Reynolds, never through life, could draw firmly and correctly. His drawing was always slight, suggesting imperfectly, and often quite wrong. Hey endeavoured to hide his deficiencies in this respect by the charms of expression and sentiment, and the splendour and fascination of colour, but in this he only partly succeeded. It is true that he may not always have been to blame for this. He was engaged to paint such a mass of portraits, having often five or six sitters a day, that it is difficult to say what pictures, or parts of pictures, that came out of the Leicester Fields studio, or nest of studios, are the actual handiwork of the master. Only the faces he drew admirably, and the features and hands have always great character. Aside from this there is something ponderous, overweighted in his performance, which makes us smile at Ruskin’s appellation of him as ” lily-sceptred.”
His portraits truly are the courtliest, the most graceful of his craft. But not one of his portraits stirs a profound thought, or challenges inquiry. It seems that Reynolds had the gates of imagination closed and sealed against him, and he is unable, hence wise man ! unwilling to meddle with deeper moods or passions. In one instance only we ” grand style,” but with heartfelt pleasure and wholesouled devotion he rendered perfect portraits of cultivated English gentlemen, the gentler graces, full of amenity, of English womanhood, and the familiar and irresistible charm of children with their winning smiles and wondering eyes. In the painting of children he was never perfunctory note his ” Master Hare,” in the Hearn collection and these set the crown on Sir Joshua’s work.
We will further follow the portrait painters, born in this 18th century.
George Romney (1734-1802) has now taken a place beside Gainsborough and Reynolds in the affections of the collector, where shortly after his death one of his portraits was sold for a guinea and a half, despite his popularity during his life time, Recently feel a tugging in the portrait of Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse, in Grosvenor House, London but it was that famous actress more than Sir Joshua who put the spiritual element in it.
In this Reynolds is supreme accepting his limitations, and having the wit to perceive that the only service the public demanded of an artist was the record of the faces and figures of themselves and their friends, he gave the best that could be given of what was asked for. And to a world of fashion, taste, refinement, he gave their clearest reflection. He did not aim at the sublime, he did not affect the a Romney portrait sold in London for over $50,000, that could have been bought fifty years ago for a few pounds. Such the vicissitudes of fame!
Romney’s infatuation for Emma Lyon, also known as Emma Hart, later Lady Hamilton, is well-known. It resulted in about two dozen portraits of that notorious but bewitching woman, in which she appears as Circe, a Bacchante, Calypso, a Magdalene, and so on. The Museum possesses her portrait as “Daphne,” in the Hearn collection, and shows, as a loan from Mr. Thatcher Adams, her portrait as ” Ariadne.” Three other portraits of Romney’s brush are also here.
Few painters have been more essentially artistic than Romney ; he had the pictorial eye something which does not always coincide with painter’s talent. But he lacked the persistency of effort which would have trained his hand to reproduce what he saw with more consistent excellence. His best work ranks with that of Gainsborough and Reynolds, but most of his canvases reveal a fine frenzy soon burned out, an impulsive inspiration abandoned before it was expressed. When sufficiently interested to complete what he began, there was no man who grasped more the fleeting sprite of beauty, whose feeling for the winsomeness, gaiety and coquetry of women led him to show these with a tenderness unsurpassed. Without any training as readily seen in his defects of drawing, his lack of skill in composition, the flatness and thinness of his colouring he still possessed inborn gifts of taste and grace to produce the indescribable charm, the strange evanescent spirit of femininity. If any man worked by the divine afflatus it was Romney.
Portraits by John Russell (1745-1806), and by Robert Pine (1742-1790), denote the prevailing taste and technic. Pine died in Philadelphia, where he had settled to paint a large historical painting of the Revolutionary period, which was never accomplished. His ” Mrs. Reid as a Sultana ” has refinement and good technic, but is somewhat strained and lachrymal in the facial expression.
Another trio of artists, born within a few years of each other, occupy the step next to Gainsborough, Reynolds and Romney. These are Beechey, Raeburn and Hoppner.
Sir William Beechey (1753-1839), represented here by his ” Portrait of a Lady ” and ” Portrait of H. R. H. the Duke of York,” enjoyed uninterrupted favour as the painter of the fashionable world. His lines are svelt, suave, flowing ; there is sweetness and tenderness in his female, elegance and grace in his male portraits. They are the ideal of dexterous and clever accomplishment, superficially faultless, externally pleasing, and by their charm warding off profound analysis.
Sir Henry Raeburn (1756-1823) was the stronger man. Originally a goldsmith, finding his first success in miniature painting, this doughty Scotsman developed himself from a broad, perhaps somewhat vague treatment, to the highest stage of refinement and expressiveness. His ” Portrait of William Forsyth,” in the Hearn collection, is one of the finest products of his brush, which is saying enough when we add that it is on a par with his canvases in the Edinburgh Gallery, where alone this greatest Scottish master can be adequately appreciated. Technically he was the best painter of this 18th century, one who in the handling of the brush was to the manor born. His notion of colour was that of a modern Frenchman. In grasp of his material he has been put in the scale with Hals and Velasquez. While Lawrence in London was sinking portraiture to insipid prettiness, Raeburn in the north with naturalistic simplicity was unsurpassed in virile quality and suggestion of dignity.
In John Hoppner (1758-1810) the inherent defects of British art, its sentimentality of feeling and superficial technic, come already prominently into notice. The three portraits of women, which we find here, show the chief trait that led to insincerity the desire to please. This was aided by undoubted facility in working, and a native taste for beauty; still a certain depth of expression may not be denied him.
Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) reached the apogee of the spirit of his time. He flattered its vanities, pampered its weakness, and met its meretricious taste. He almost made a trade of being a courtier, thereby to please his sitters. With exceptional skill and happy facility he painted the artificial and pretentious crowds that flocked to his studio. But this facility became formulated, and his skill stiffened into mannerism. While his best work was done before he was twenty-five, the stress of calls for his brush hurried him into carelessness, and the easiest way to satisfy all demands was to follow a ready-made recipe. That his genius contrived to make such a shortcut to glory ‘speaks well for his talents. It must have been a pretty good prescription, for it cannot be denied that even to this day many French and American portrait painters have taken leaves out of his notebook, and large hints from his flashy facture.
Opie’s remark that ” Lawrence made coxcombs of his sitters, and his sitters made a coxcomb of Lawrence,” must be set down as the vapouring of a jealous rival; there is too much technical merit in much of what he has done. Few painters have had truer feeling for the living qualities of flesh, or for the intrinsic harmony of lines and colours. Take his portrait of ” Lady Ellenborough – as a painting it is a joy, bewitching in its loveliness, its grace of contours, the charm of its colouring. His ” Portrait of the Rev. W. Pennicott ” shows him to have at times left all artificiality and the ” blandishments of his pencil ” for greater strength and sincerity. The calm face, the gentle eyes, the serenity of the features make this an unusual performance.
The Irish painter, Sir Martin Shee (1769-1850), succeeded Lawrence as President of the Royal Academy. His ” Portrait of Daniel O’Connell ” is an excellent character study, suggesting mobility of countenance and fiery temper. The self-portrait of George Harlow (1787-1819) is in the Lawrence style, showing an attractive, somewhat hectic face. The promise of his career was cut short when this talented artist died at the early age of thirty-one.
Contemporaneously there was developed, under the leadership of John Crome of Norwich, an influential school of landscape painters, called the Norwich school. John Crome, known as ” Old Crome” (1769-1821), a keen student of nature, painted English scenery with simplicity and power. Although inspired by the Dutch landscapists his dying words were, ” Dear Hobbema, how I have loved you ! “ he never quite understood their methods, for his handling is often dry and mannered. His ” Hautbois Common ” is more luminous than ” The Landing,” which is deeper in tone.
His most notable follower was John Sell Cotman (1782-1842), of whom a ” Coast Scene ” and an ” English Village ” may be seen. In these, and in the ” Willows by the Watercourses,” by James Stark (1794-1859), and in the Landscape,” by George Vincent (1796-1832), the last of the Norwich group, we note a certain hardness of rendering and stiltedness of composition, which only can be ascribed to the usual pitfall of followers, to exaggerate defects and minimize the commendable qualities of their exemplar. None of these men, for instance, attained to the force and richness of colour which characterized ” Old Crome.” Vincent alone improved later through Constable’s influence.
Before we consider this artist we must notice the work of George Morland (1763-1804), his elder by thirteen years.
In his ” Midday Meal ” all the best qualities enter for which this artist has become famous. It is a rural scene of extreme simplicity and realism, in which his favourite pigs are shown no one has ever been able to render the scrubby hides of these porkers as convincingly. Although Morland carefully studied the works of other painters that appealed to him, he never borrowed from their inspiration. He was always original, both in choice of subjects and manner of painting. A dissolute life led him to choose often subjects of little nicety; more frequently we find him depicting the rusticity of English peasant life with their barnyard animals. His love for children made him introduce these with delightful naivete in his scenes, sometimes even making them the centre of interest, as in ” Miss Rich building a House of Cards.” The reports of his excesses, although most likely much overdrawn, as is usual in such cases, are not without foundation, for his life ended in a sponging-house at the age of forty-one, as a result of prolonged dissipation.
The chain of great landscape art has been Claude, Ruisdael, Constable, Barbizon, Giverny the future alone can tell the next link.
John Constable (1776-1837) bridged the gap of a century.
The artificiality of the then popular style of landscape painting was repellent to Constable, who alone of English landscapists of his day sought for a faithful representation of nature, with its ever-changing effects of light and shade. That this was antagonous to prevailing taste he himself perceived. ” My art flatters nobody by imitations,” he used to say, ” it courts nobody by smoothness, it tickles nobody by politeness, it is without either fal-de-lal or fiddle-de-dee; how then can I hope to be popular? ” And he added, ” There is room enough for a natural painter, for the great vice of the day is bravura, an attempt to do something beyond the truth.” But he had faith in himself, and remained true to his ideals. His popularity came when the French first recognized in his canvases the breath of purer air of nature’s freedom.
The striking innovation Constable made, which it took the public so long to accustom themselves to, was his relative position towards the sun in painting. The ordinary practice had been for the artist to paint with the sun behind him, out of the picture, low down on the horizon, suffusing the whole landscape with a golden haze, producing those effects which Claude and Cuyp rendered so finely. Con-stable, on the other hand, liked better to work with the sun high above his head, out of the canvas, but still in front of him ; and painted almost always under the sun. This produced a sparkle and glitter of white lights upon his foliage, whereby he indicated the reflection of light after rain in the count-less drops of moisture upon the leaves. This his adverse critics pronounced as spotty, splashy and meaningless, and dubbed it “Constable’s snow.
Although for pecuniary reasons he, at first, occasionally painted portraits and two. of these are in the Museum this was not his penchant nor his pleasure. He strove to be nature’s interpreter a sincere, studious, unflinching interpreter; and no one has ever caught the exact character of the English summer which he always painted, its breezes, its heat, its heavy colouring, so marvellously. No one has ever given us so devotedly true, without yielding a jot to preconceived theories of harmony, the English sky with its heavy cumulus and drifting rain-cloud, sun-shot or showery. There is not one single landscape in the Museum which for mastery of nature’s effects, for truth and beauty, can compare with the ” Bridge on the Stour,” the beloved river of his native Suffolk, that hangs in the Hearn collection. Even the other three landscapes, copies though they be, still give at second hand some faint impression of the beauty of ” that trinity of silver, ivory and a little gold,” as ” the Valley Farm ” has been described.
Much has been written about Constable’s art ; it has been unjustly depreciated by some (including Mr. Ruskin) ; but his claim to be considered the founder of the school of a faithful landscape art must stand accorded.
Although Sir Augustus Callcott (1779-1844) knighted at the accession of Queen Victoria as a pupil of Hoppner devoted himself at first to portraiture, he soon turned to the more congenial landscape painting. His being called ” the English Claude ” was rubbish, and the fulsome flattery of some sycophant. His ” Landscape ” here is attractive, somewhat negative in colour, and obtaining certain mannerisms which are, however, not displeasing. The Landscape,” by Patrick Nasmyth (1787-1831), has more of the Dutch Wynants in it, than either of Hobbema or Constable. It is, nevertheless, an able performance, and fully entitles him to a prominent position among the ” British Minor Masters.”
Richard Parkes Bonington (1801-1828) was more French than English, having been educated in Paris, and having studied with Baron Gros. His ” Sea Coast ” and his ” Normandy Coast Scene ” impress one with the transition from the academic to the romantic. The figures which he introduced in his composition lead me yet to speak of Gains-borough Dupont (1767-1797), a nephew of Thomas Gainsborough. Dupont made more of his figures than of the landscape wherein he placed them vide, ” A Girl with a Cat,” formerly ascribed to his uncle, but possessing scarcely any of the Master’s accomplishments. Another figure painter was Robert Haydon (1786-1846), a man obsessed by inordinate vanity, imagining himself the greatest historical painter of the age, yet being nothing but a half-barbaric classicist. His ” Napoleon at St. Helena ” is a painting that generally attracts attention. The reason for this may be that many seek to find in this large, empty canvas artistic qualities which do not appear at first glance. Once a visitor, standing before the painting, was overheard to say, ” I wish he would turn around and show us that ` imperturbable gaze ‘ the catalogue speaks of. I would dearly love to know what that looks like.”
The reflection of French tendencies is visible in the work of William Etty (1787-1849), as it is in most of the genre painters of his time. Etty was one of the best colourists among them, and in ” The Three Graces ” he shows his characteristic brilliancy of handling and fine feeling for the quality of paint.
J. M. W. Turner, born the year before Constable (1775-1851), must be considered by himself alone. His place is altogether above the plane of those we have just been considering.
The express purpose of Ruskin’s ” Modern Painters ” was to prove Turner the greatest landscape painter the world has ever known. Although it may have been timely when published to refute the attacks of blind critics, Ruskin’s analysis of Turner and his art, despite the impassioned brilliancy of its rhetoric, is too much of a partisan, too little that of a dispassionate critic to avail us now. A real estimate of Turner and the principal elements of his genius is better had from his own work than from the glowing pages of ” Modern Painters,” so prone to inconsequent digression, and so frequently self-contradicting truly a splendid medley.
A comprehensive survey of the paintings left by Turner to the English nation for the National Gallery, of those only a few years ago rediscovered in its basement and now in the Tate Gallery, and of a large number of his masterpieces gathered in public and private collections, bring the following conclusions. A born painter, Turner at first followed precedent, drew accurately, kept his colours subdued, but was heavy in handling his paint. Gradually colour becomes more insistent, the lights have a transparent radiance, even become brilliant, the shadows luminous with variegated hues, his drawing is more suggestive and tender. Then his landscapes become troubled and dramatic. He is preoccupied with the analytical division of light and he enters the realm of optical impressionism. Until at last his ripened powers run riot in apparently wanton extravagances of mere technical and chromatic audacity, but still vitalized by a power of genius, before which we stand appalled, even if we do not always understand.
Technically Turner was an excellent painter, but reckless experimenting makes him unequal, and unsafe to follow. He often becomes summary, ” negligé ” as Fromentin called it ; and with all the brilliancy of his colour, he is often crude and violent, and occasionally hot, heavy or dull. The very excess of his colour makes him often fall down. Only in his watercolour painting he was unquestionably the greatest master who has ever lived. Three of his watercolours, in the Vanderbilt Gallery, are the last word spoken in this medium.
The oils ” Grand Canal, Venice,” and ” Saltash ” belong to the middle period. They are idealized transcriptions, for Turner rarely grasped the identity, more the sensation, the spirit of locality. The ” Venice ” has the true Venetian colour, worked up to the utmost brilliance the palette will allow, the forms sketched, yet sufficient. In ” The Fountain of Indolence ” there is a higher flight of fancy and colour, a blue and gold and crimson still further carried to opulence and sensuous delight. ” The Whaleship,” in the Wolfe collection, fitly represents the acme of his art. Here is a phantomlike ship; the dark bulk of the dying leviathan, spouting blood and water mingling in mist and foam; a splendour of hues and tints flashing through the wetness of a lifting ocean-fog. I can conceive that the impression of this painting upon one to whom art is not intelligible, is like the sensation of one who does not comprehend music on hearing the love-duet in ” Tristan and Isolde ” uplifting, inspiring, ravishing; we don’t know how, nor care.
In the stagnant period between Constable, Turner, Etty and the Preraphaelites, a few men only escaped the general contagion of drowsiness. John Phillip (1817-1867) was one of these. His ” Gossips at the Well” is a reminiscence of his sojourn in Spain, full of excellent drawing and lively colour. Erskine Nicoll (1825-1886), whose ” Paying the Rent ” is here, paints subjects of the David Wilkie genre agreeably, in an academic way.
The fame of Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-1873), who during his life received flattery amounting to adulation, has dwindled to the normal praise ac-corded to a painstaking, serious, industrious artist of limited powers. Known as the most popular animal painter in England, his name cannot fitly be mentioned with the really great animal painters, like Potter, Snyders, Delacroix, Troyon, or even Rosa Bonheur. His art was sentimental, anecdotal, often leaning to mawkishness; his technic was painfully polished and showing the weakness of overelaboration. Only occasionally did he carry his sentiment beyond platitude, as in The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner,” in the South Kensington Museum, in which he almost humanizes the old dog’s grief. In such pictures as ” Alexander and Diogenes,” in the Museum, the petty introduction of human sense in animal instincts mars and disturbs the broad effects of nature.
The indifference shown for many years by the general public towards the work of G. F. Watts (1817-1904) forms a striking contrast with Land-seer’s celebrity, and is a fit commentary on the value of a popular estimate. To compare Watts with Landseer is as absurd as to place Gulliver before a Lilliputian in a trial of strength. It is true that the painter of ” Sir Galahad ” was also literary, but his art did not tell a story, it conveyed thoughts. With singleness of purpose he constantly aimed, as he himself expressed it, ” to paint pictures, not so much to charm the eye as to suggest great thoughts that will appeal to the imagination and the heart, and kindle all that is best and noblest in humanity.” He was, if the paradoxical form be allowed, an ideal realist. Thus, when he paints Death, it is not the Greek idea of Death the destroyer, of the grim and grisly spectre of Dürer’s ” Dance,” but rather the Angel of Death inevitable, inexorable, irresistible, but stripped of the dread and horror with which painters have loved to invest it. We may question his technic, that he is not always fortunate with his colours, leaving them stringy and impure, or muddy and morbid the result of his “playing with paint ” we can never question the ideas he strove to put on canvas.
Somewhere, in one of his letters, Lowell speaks of having been to hear a lecture of Emerson’s, and, while admitting that it was a rather incoherent performance, he adds that one could not help feeling that something fine had passed that way. It was the same with Watts. He had a deep fund of inspiration, and a noble spirit to cheer and comfort mankind with exalted ideas.
This makes his portraiture unusual. It shows a strongly marked individuality of an impersonal kind. Never stooping to that most popular of all portrait painters’ colour mediums flattery, he searched studiously for realizing the sitter’s habits of thought, disposition and character; at the same time according to facial resemblance all that was required. His wonderful array of canvases which he gave to the National Portrait Gallery, in which he commemorated the statesmen, poets, and other public men of the Victorian age, bespeak his high place as a limner of men.
His ” Ariadne in Naxos,” in the Museum, is a fine example of that idealism that conveys lofty thoughts, eloquently expressed.
Watts was very little affected by the movement which started some time after he had commenced painting. About 1847 the Brotherhood of the Preraphaelites was founded, which has left so powerful an influence on English art. Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) was one of the most notable of this fraternity, for his strong, mystical and poetical imagination, and the richness of his colouring.
Their object was to oppose the modern system of teaching, and paint nature as it was around them, with the help of modern science, and ” with the earnestness and scrupulous exactness in truth of the men of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.” It was a short-lived attempt to abandon all artistic conventions, and to substitute for them the pains-taking and accurate portraiture of natural facts.
It is, perhaps, rather unnecessary to put the question as to whether the Preraphaelites would really eventually have conquered, if they had carried on their crusade against narrow-mindedness to the bitter end. They received the support of Ruskin, who was quite ready to break a lance for the literary significance of a man like Rossetti; for the moral importance of a Ford Maddox Brown or Holman Hunt without being able to grasp their artistic potentialities. Ruskin theorized the movement, explained its basis and its aesthetic principles of faith which none of the members of the group them-selves had any idea of, or adhered to. They soon left their champion critic to defend his theories, which it had never been in their mind to practise. In fact, all of the brotherhood, with the single exception, possibly, of Holman Hunt, outgrew their first principles, without entirely forgetting the benefits derived from them.
As for Rossetti, the only one of the Preraphaelites represented in the Museum, he soon abandoned the early traits of execution for a decorative formula and the study of colour and sentiment. He was the painter-poet par excellence. The artistic value of his work lies in the supreme intensity of spiritual expression, even if he neglects the element of pure form. His poetic spirit would have us see in the ” Lady Lilith ” the image of Adam’s first wife, according to the Talmud, which Rossetti him-self describes in the House of Life as a snare to men. If we lack the wings of Pegasus to scale Olympian heights we may easily forego this poetic flight, and still admire this reclining woman for its richness of colour that flashes and glows like a jewel, or the fragment of some gorgeous painted window.
Sir John Millais (1829-1896) can scarcely be said ever to have belonged to the brotherhood, although he is usually counted with them. At first he manifested some interest in their ideals, he may be said to have somewhat flirted with their sentiments, but he was soon regarded by them as a renegade and apostate. Although he devoted some inventive effort to his subjects in his earlier years, he soon lost this in his evident desire to paint for money, and found a ready way in an unceasing stream of pretty women and children. Occasionally there were glimpses of the old Millais, of which his ” Bride of Lammermoor,” in the Vanderbilt collection, is an example.
Lord Frederick Leighton (1830-1896) was the high-priest of aestheticism. There is little or nothing of the mystic or the didactic in his art, which only exists to create beautiful images. Striving to make his colour beautiful he plunges into a maze of varied tints, of broken tones, of an affluent and luxurious gamut of an over-burdened palette dainty, luscious, decorative, highly polished, scrupulously smooth, if you please, but lacking the quietude, the fulness and the depth of a true colourist. The enchanting grace of form was his passion, the contours of a woman’s back, the softness of a woman’s limbs, the sweetness of a woman’s eyes, and the languor of a woman’s love these are the subjects of his pencil. But constantly pruning away human imperfections, continually obliterating ” the baseness of the earth,” striving for delicate correctness, smoothness and softness, he robs his work from every appeal to sympathy, from every human consanguinity, from any bond to stir emotion. Thus his ” Lachrymae,” one of his last works completed in the fulness of his powers, beautiful though it be, will never make us weep. His ” Odalisque,” treated with courageous purity, is one of art’s loveliest creations only this, and nothing more.
This sensuousness of form is less visible in the work of Sir Laurents Alma-Tadema, a painter who is nearest akin to Leighton in artistic spirit. He chooses more the exalted Greek ideal. Theirs is a pursuit of art, rather than its enriching and ennobling.
The half-dozen examples of Sir Laurents’s brush, in the Vanderbilt collection, have more classic austerity than the sugary and often mawkish sentiment of Lord Frederick’s compositions. It will, of course, not be necessary to point out Alma-Tadema’s painting of marble which is the first (perhaps the only) thing true Philistines look for in his canvases. Aside from this his work gives a distinctly aesthetic, close to intellectual pleasure.
George H. Boughton (1834-1905), an English-man trained in America, generally sought his subjects among the picturesque scenes and characters of old New England. ” A Puritan Girl ” is a good example of his work. His ” Edict of William the Testy ” is one of his more important pictures from Knickerbocker times.
Walter MacLaren’s ” Capri Life; The Embroiderers ” is pleasing and conventional; P. Wilson Steer’s ” Richmond Castle ” more modern in treatment, with a strong Monet influence.