"Fine Arts: Royal Academy." Athenaeum 1282 (22 May 1852), 581-583.

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ROYAL ACADEMY.

In this Exhibition, the Pre-Raphaelites, as they are called, attract great attention,–and however the minds of beholders may be perplexed, curiosity at least is active. These neologists, or palæontologists, in Art are not losing ground;–their strict observations and minute imitation of Nature seem even to have awakened some of the "older masters" of the Royal Academy to the necessity of paying more attention than they hitherto have to colour and detail. In fact, Raphaelism in Art seems in some respects to be a part and parcel of the spirit of the present age and akin to tractarianism in faith. It is the reaction and an antagonism to the conventional, the sensual and the unbelieving–and has the falsehood and exaggeration common to reactions in general. Its object is, to give new life to dry bones, and to spiritualize the formal and the material. It is the protest of the nineteenth century against the seventeenth and the eighteenth especially. This psychological reaction commenced some fifty years ago in metaphysical Germany; and what Tieck, Schlegel and Plattner thought, Overbeck and Cornelius painted, with others who thought that Art was purer and truer and holier one hour before Raphael was born than one hour after he died. Such is the faith of the Pre-Raphaelites. Art, they say, culminated in him,–after a gradual, healthful, beautiful growth. Its downfall was rapid,–as must be the descent from heights the hardest to be scaled,–its decay was hateful, as must be the corruption of the best. The great men who preceded Raphael were truly animated by a divine spark. They laboured and struggled to embody and give forms to feelings, and utterance to sentiments, which earnestly welled up within them. They had to contend with imperfect means when striving to attain their ends; and it was only step by step that Art having painfully mastered mechanical and technical difficulties, and casting aside her fetters, found a vehicle worthy to give expression to inner aspiration. Art, from infancy and youth the handmaid of Religion, served truly and humbly, and was sanctified in return. But the leading strings once laid aside, the change was sudden. Already under Leo X. the principles of real faith were sapped. The scoffer, with Pagan beauty, siren form and basilisk colour in his suite, invaded St. Peter’s itself;–and desecrated Art, flying from the altar to the gallery, was forced to administer to the lust of the eye,–until, no longer the elevator of the soul, she fell–and great was the fall. Soon, however, instinctively yearning for some worship, she turned from heaven to earth. Then, naturalists succeeded to religionists–and the study of the practical took the place of that of the ideal. Art passed through the Carraccis and the Murillos into depths darker than the dark ages, down to the bathos of Mengs and West,

Europe's worst painter and poor England’s best.

Then flourished the eclectic conventionalists–the plagiarist picking and stealing school of veneerers and mosaic mongers, who reconstructed other men’s thoughts, who looked at the creation through the eyes of the created, who bowed down to Raphael as their prophet,–and ended from over-deference to the master in forgetting and deserting Nature herself. The modern Art Reformation affects to aim at upsetting this idolatry, and leading once more to the earnestness and simplicity of truth. A twig long warped in a wrong direction must before it is again straightened be bent the other way:–and so, this violent effort of the ardent and inexperienced has, in the spirit of opposition, led to extravagance and caricature.

We shall not repeat our former remarks on the obvious blemishes of these reformers,–nor dwell on their conceits, puerilities, pedantries or finical prettinesses of thought and of treatment, at variance with and beneath true Art. We have pointed out their contempt of aerial and linear perspective and of chiar-oscuro. One trick may be substituted for another,–and in the close but misdirected observance and imitation of everything, and in a neglect of selection, the relative value of form and colour may be lost sight of, until the surfeited eye sickens at an atomic analysis which demands the microscope to examine and the leisure of monastic illuminators to execute it. In some measure this is the reaction against ultra-Turnerism; which left too much to the imagination, and only shadowed forth what might and ought to have been better expressed by outline and detail. But this reaction carried to the extreme involves a sacrifice of the end to the means. Assuredly, neither Giotto nor Cimabue, were they now living, would reject the modern discoveries and appliances of science and cling to the ways and means of the painters of missals and of glass windows. These pioneers of Art toiled to clear the way for progress,–and never would have retrograded by restoring the obsolete, reproducing the faulty, or for a moment ignoring the advantages hardly won in so long a battle. Nor have we much ultimate fear of men like Mr. Millais. Mind and talent will manifest themselves whatever the vehicle, and will pierce through and ultimately reject the eccentric and the fantastic; and already we see, to some extent, the bursting of his self-imposed bonds. The danger to be apprehended is, that the disciples of this modern antique school will out-Herod their teacher, and imitate blemishes rather than excellencies,–restoring the form without revivifying the spirit,–regathering the rubrical symbolic husks without the kernel. They will labour in vain,–for the incredulity, scepticism and science of the nineteenth century are not to be contented with the pictorial pap and panada that satisfied the simple faith and ignorance of mankind’s mediæval infancy.

Mr. Millais–the Raphael of our Pre-Raphaelites, and whose powers of thought, execution and industry are undeniable–contributes three pictures. Ophelia (No. 556) has been the subject of much discussion and difference of opinion, condemnation and admiration. The moment chosen is,

that of the drowning of the ill-fated maiden, as told in ‘Hamlet.’ The willow branch on which she has clambered has broken; and she floats awhile on the "glassy stream"–rendered, however, too much like a still pond,–borne up by her clothes, and chanting snatches, until she is pulled down by her "garments, heavy with their drink." On looking closely into the painting, the finish is marvellous. The pollard trunk, the velvetty green rind of the "envious sliver," the moss and flowers and vegetable details, are positively mirrored as in a glass. The water-lily is the botanical study of a Linneus:–every incident and accident is depicted. Some of the leaves are green and vigorous, others are spotted, corroded and broken:–no form or phase is unobserved or omitted. Ophelia sinks so composedly and gradually, that the idea of one of Dr. Arnott’s comfortable water-beds is suggested. Gorgeous as is her fantastic dress and gay the blue and red flowers of her "weedy trophies," the flesh tints of her face and hands entirely hold their own. The expression aimed at is, that of an incapability of estimating "her own distress." The open mouth is somewhat gaping and gabyish [sic],–the expression is in no way suggestive of her past tale. There is no pathos, no melancholy, no one brightening up, no last lucid interval. If she die swanlike with a song, there is no sound or melody, no poetry in this strain. Rightly to appreciate the general chromatic effect, this picture should be looked at from a little distance,–when it becomes quite luminous. . . .

Mr. Millais's best work is, No. 478. A Huguenot refuses to permit his Catholic mistress to bind round his arm her handkerchief as a white badge by which he might escape the massacre on St. Bartholomew’s Day. The lovers meet under an ivy-mantled mossy red brick wall; and minute delineation cannot be carried further than in this wall. The weather stains and infinite variety of tints convey the impression of reality itself. Nothing is left to the imagination. Equal attention has been lavished on the nasturtium and red flowers in the foreground:–for, to particularize details instead of aiming at general effects is one end which these worshippers of truth hold too sacred to be compromised. If this principle is to be logically carried out, critics have a right to inquire how these nasturtiums bloom and flower so tenderly on the 24th of August, and whether jonquils and dog-roses blossom simultaneously. To pass, however, from the almanack to Art.–The lovers are locked in a close embrace,–and, for want of atmospheric perspective, seem somewhat jammed into the wall. Some additional awkwardness arises in the attitude of the lover from only one of his legs being shown,–and that one not of the most elegant shape. A full daylight falls on the wan face which is upturned to his with a touching expression of mingled beseeching, imploring, saddened, and terrified tenderness. Her pure perfect love is for him and for his soul, for this world and for the next. He looks wistfully down on her,–fully conscious of the sacrifice he is about to make in this struggle between love and creed; and while he draws her nearer to his heart with one hand, with the other–truer to his Calvinism–he firmly unlooses the scarf which she fondly tries to fasten. Her pale countenance is heightened by her sable costume, and the pathos is increased by the rich fantastic purple of the once gay lover. The depth of colour and luminous glow will be best felt by the killing effect which this picture produces on some of its unfortunate neighbours. . . .

Mr. Hunt follows closely on Mr. Millais with The Hireling Shepherd (592). The neglected sheep "lie in the corn," while the stout peasant idles with a buxom lass. Mr. Hunt who has "an oath in heaven" to tell "the whole truth and nothing but the truth," carries anti-eclecticism to the absurd. Like Swift, he revels in the repulsive. These rustics are of the coarsest breed,–ill favoured, ill fed, ill washed. Not to dwell on cutaneous and other minutiæ,–they are literal transcripts of stout, sunburnt, out-of-door labourers. Their faces, bursting with a plethora of health, and a trifle too flushed and rubicund, suggest their over-attention to the beer or cider keg on the boor’s back. The youth holds a death’s-head moth up to his sweetheart, and presses on while she draws back half scared, half amused. The faces and arms are stippled in with miniature care, and tinted as if both had fed on madder or been busy with raspberries, and would be none the worse for a course of brimstone. Downright literal truth is followed out in every accessory; each sedge, moss, and weed–each sheep–each tree, pollard or pruned–each crop, beans or corn–is faithfully imitated. Summer heat pervades the atmosphere,–the grain is ripe,–the swifts skim about,–and the purple clouds cast purple shadows. The woman cools her red-hot feet near some scanty water, which is cold, chalky, and white. The romp and rubicundity of this pair contrast with the pallor and pathos of Mr. Millais’s picture. . . .

Some of the disciples of Mr. Millais already evince a tendency to exaggerate his mannerisms. Thus, Mr. Collins shows us May in the Regents Park (55) from a window in Sussex Place; and so minute is the scale–the very "form and pressure" of the flowers, red, white and blue, and of the shrubs–that we could creep about and through them. The botanical predominates altogether over the artistical,–and to a vicious and mistaken extreme. In nature there is air as well as earth,–she masses and generalizes where these fac-similie makers split hairs and particularize. They take a branch, a flower, a blade of grass, place it close before them and as closely copy it,–forgetting that these objects, at the distance imagined in the picture, and reduced to its scale, could by no means be seen with such hortus siccus minuteness. In No. 374 Mr. Collins gives us a young girl who–we are to imagine–preserves her "chrysom" purity by wearing a sort of white, flannelly nun-robe; but her cherry-ripe lip and plump cheek are hardly in keeping with the sentiment of the downcast eye and ascetic costume. No. 1091 is taken from the legend of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. This maiden of precocious piety was wont, when she found the chapel door shut, to kneel at its outside. The representations of texture are prefect; the strong wall is as true as the oak graining of the door. The hinges are most mediæval and Puginesque,–the costume of blue and green shot silk is Byzantine. The hands and face of the maiden adhere nicely to the flat surface,–but the expression is rather pouting than devout, and the countenance is more pinky and school-girlish than saint-like.

Mr. W. H. Millias [sic] in No. 1120 carries his minute imitations into the farm yard,–and depicts with much care and patience red bricks and buildings, brown trees, pigs, poultry, and straw litter. . . . The composition is well studied,–although the general tones are flat and lame. Here, as is common in the case of these ultra Pre-Raphaelites, the mediæval missal recurs to the spectator.–No. 463, by Mr. F. M. Brown, is more ambitious:–The Saviour washes Peter’s Feet. This artist appears to have studied at Valencia, where mulberries are plentiful as blackberries. He has closely observed the works of Joannes, where the purple tone is so predominant. In this picture it pervades everyhting–the hair, the naked limbs of the Saviour, and the dress of St. Peter,–who either feels himself unworthy of the honour done him by his divine Master, or by his feet’s action makes us feel the water to be too hot. Certainly the copper utensil which contains it seems filled with either blood or raspberries undergoing the jam process. The Apostles in general, seated at a table, take no interest in the lavation,–appearing rather bored:–so much has the artist rejected the conventional attitudes usual on this occasion. St. John must be cited as an exception; he leans over with affection and attention.


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Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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