Prospects For British Art


INQUIRIES relating to the character and genius of any particular nation, whether as exhibited by its prowess in arms, or its progress in the arts of civilization,—in which, doubtless, deeds of renown, and triumphs as noble, may be achieved as in the former, seldom fail to be both interesting and instructive to every intelligent person. But of all the various topics towards which this investigation may be directed, that which concerns the character and turn of the national mind in regard to those arts, the nature of which we have been considering in the present work, is doubtless one of the most attractive, and deserving of the fullest consideration. In two of the preceding chapters I endeavoured to point out the capacity of art for the representation of human nature,* and to demonstrate the efforts of which it is capable in the sublime and lofty realms of imaginative creation. t The peculiar genius of each particular people necessarily and uniformly exercises important influence alike on the extent and on the direction of these efforts of both kinds, as also on the mode in which they are developed; and on that genius, those arts and those efforts reciprocally act in turn in a corresponding manner. In the case of each art, moreover, there is a characteristic feature discernible as regards the style and manner of its fructification in each particular country. And this characteristic feature is in every instance mainly affected by the peculiar cast and turn of the national mind.

As far as genius for art in any country extends, it may be fairly calculated that corresponding efforts in art will be attained; while, on the other hand, the extent of that genius must necessarily fix the limit which art will reach. The circumstances and character of the times will, in turn, materially influence the exercise, but can never actually affect the existence and the reality of the national genius.

In a former chapter,* reference was made to the particular influence upon art of special national characteristics in different countries. We have now to consider the mode in which these characteristics have affected the productions of art in our own country.

Although the arts of painting and sculpture have been for some centuries extensively cultivated among us, and considerable manual dexterity has been achieved in the production of works of art; yet, it must be at the same time acknowledged that we have not as yet rivalled the most celebrated of the ancient schools, either of Greece or of later times, the Roman, the Florentine, the Flemish, or even the Dutch. Hitherto, no painter in the highest walk in art, one who has been capable of adequately representing any of those stupendous transactions which formed the subjects of the principal productions of Raphael’s pencil, and which Michael Angelo depicted with such power and effect, and of describing them as they described them, has arisen in the English school. Nor in sculpture, al-though some of our artists in this branch have been endowed with very lofty genius, has any very great work of this character as yet been produced in this country.

In the epic or grand style, the lofty genius of Milton has conferred upon the English school of poetry the most exalted rank ; and the noblest performances both in imagination and picturesque design have been achieved by his pen. Shakespeare has not only rivalled, but far excelled the utmost efforts of genius which in dramatic poetry had been attempted in ancient or modern times.

Nor in certain other branches of art have we been less successful. In eloquence some efforts of the very highest character, fairly rivalling the choicest and most renowned productions of the great orators and writers of antiquity, have been produced in this country.

This renders it the more astonishing, and indeed unaccountable, that in painting and sculpture we should be thus deficient, more especially as it is not in mechanical skill that our performances in these arts fail, but in the intellectual excellence and superiority which so distinguish our efforts in the other sister arts. If, however, we compare any modern attempt at epic composition with one of the great works of the old masters, we shall at once see the inferiority of the former, in intellectual power, to the latter, according to the different rules and principles which have been here laid down. Indeed, the majority of those efforts in the epic style which we see occasionally attempted, are mainly distinguished by, principally attract attention from, and owe their chief merit to their possession of qualities and endowments which pertain rather to domestic and every-day scenes, than to productions in the grand style. In high polish and dexterity of execution we may rival, or even surpass many of the works of the ancient masters ; but we fall far below them in the noble and high intellectual characteristics of original conception, and the expression and delineation of character and feeling.

It should, indeed, ever be borne in mind that the real value of each art depends not on the manual dexterity of the artist, but on the mental power which his work exhibits. The painter of mere professional skill appeals to the eye only. The artist of genius appeals to the eye also, but to the intellect as well through the medium of the eye. The real defect of our artists is that they have too much practice and not enough principle. They devote themselves to mechanical excellence in the art, but they neglect that mental culture which is essential to infuse mind into the performances which the hand produces. Extensive practice is no doubt necessary to perfection in painting ; but it may nevertheless be reasonably questioned whether after a certain period, and ample manual facility has been acquired, any additional skill is obtained by the mere exercise of the hand, provided there is sufficient practice followed to keep the hand in use. Indeed, when they have attained proficiency in painting, artists do not appear to make any actual progress in this respect, and sometimes their earlier performances are the most perfect even in manual skill. When the body has attained maturity, no amount of exercise can make it continue its growth. Occasionally, indeed, a new style may be adopted; though not unfrequently, as in the case of Turner, the productions in the old style are superior to those in the new. In the performances of Michael Angelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Rubens, who followed other pursuits besides painting, we do not perceive any deficiency in execution owing to the want of daily practice in the art.

Even the French school is far superior to our own in many of the most important features of art, although far inferior to the ancients. Indeed, as regards several of the productions of the French school of painting, while they may possess greater defects than are exhibited in ours, it is by no means certain that they have not greater merits, and those of the highest and most valuable kind; particularly in the development of expression, and the power to exhibit feeling and passion. They are, moreover, in most cases classical in design, although occasionally rather effective than expressive, and too often more theatrical than passionate. In vigour they are seldom deficient; and frequently a considerable amount of character and emotion is displayed in their compositions. From that deadness and insipidity which are so frequent and fatal a failing in the productions of other countries, more especially our own, the French school is at any rate entirely free.

The manner in which science has eclipsed art in its progress, is evinced not merely by the comparative advancement of efforts in art and science in general, but by the mode in which the arts themselves have been followed. In modern times scientific merit appears to be usurping the place of artistic excellence, even in productions of an artistic nature. Our orations are as superior to those of the ancients in logical argument, as they are inferior to them in genuine eloquence.

The incapacity of our artists to produce great works of real intellectual merit, was some time ago fairly tested by the exhibition of the cartoons in Westminster Hall,. liberal prizes having been offered by the Government for the best designs in historical and imaginative composition. The general defect of the English school was peculiarly visible in these performances as regards the want of expression and character and feeling which they displayed, while in each the drawing and grouping were scrupulously correct. General insipidity, and want of individual appropriate character in the persons represented, while the composition was in entire accordance with all the formal rules of art, were the leading and marked features of these productions.

Tasks, however, seldom call forth any great efforts of original genius, which does not stand in need of such stimulants to exertion. It may be inferred, indeed, that precisely such a result would be produced by offering prizes for historical designs, as would have occurred if similar prizes in poetry had been offered with a view of ascertaining the degree of talent of this kind in the nation. Abundance of rhyming compositions would have been sent in which would have astonished all those who did not understand such matters, remarkable for high finish and correctness of composition ; but which, like the cartoons in Westminster Hall, would be utterly wanting in original conception, real feeling, expression, and suitableness of character. Any one with proper practice may draw a correct figure or compose smooth rhymes; but these acquirements will no more enable him to rival Raphael or Shakespeare, than possessing a good pen will confer the gift of writing with eloquence. Efforts of this kind will be successful so far as regards the strict observance of the principles of delineation ; but in all the higher qualities which a work of this character should possess as regards the principles of the picturesque, they will be found to be entirely deficient.