"Fine Arts. Royal Academy. Paintings." Athenaeum 2 Jun. 1849, 575.



There is so much ability and spirit in two works by men young in age and in fame, mixed up with so much that is obsolete and dead in practice, that some remark is demanded on a system whose tendency may be hurtful to our growing artists and to our school. The Isabella [sic] (311) of Mr. J. E. Millais, imagined from a poem by Keats, and Rienzi vowing to obtain Justice for the Death of his younger Brother slain in a skirmish between the Colonna and Orsini Factions (324), by Mr. Hunt, are both by artists with whose names we have had before but a slight acquaintance. Both are a recurrence to the expression of a time when the art was in a state of transition or progression rather than of accomplishment. If the artist must have some particular model for his practice, the perfect rather than the imperfect would surely be a wise adoption. When a German critic recommends "clinging to the old masters assiduously, emulating their unalterable truth and beauty, till they become a second nature to eye and soul," his advice must be accepted in an enlarged and philosophic sense, not in that literal and narrow view which would reproduce a mere phase in the gradual development of the art. As unwise would it be were the literary student to recur to days when our vernacular was under the immediate influence of German or French association for his phraseology in a time when our language is rich and complete. The German authority above alluded to, speaking of the spirit in which previous practice may be followed, very justly observes,–"To attempt to engraft the genius of foreign nations upon our own is indeed a most dangerous experiment. National art and taste are infallibly destroyed, and foreign excellence is rarely if ever attained. The justice of these remarks as applied to the imitative style in painting must be evident, and the inconsistency to which it leads is subversive of all national characteristics," &c. The faults of the two pictures under consideration are the results of the partial views which have led their authors to the practice of a time when knowledge of light and shade and of the means imparting due relief by the systematic conduct of aërial perspective had not obtained. Without the aid of these in the treatment of incident and costume, we get but such pictorial form of expression as seen through the magnifying medium of a lens would be presented to us in the medieval illumination of the chronicle or the romance. Against this choice of pictorial expression let the student be cautioned. He may gain admirers by it among those whose antiquarian prejudices may be gratified by the clever revival of the merely curious; but he will fail to win the sympathies of those who know what are the several integral parts necessary to making up the great sum of truth.

In classing together these two works, it should be understood that reference is made merely to the correspondence of view which has actuated both artists. In their several elaborations there is a marked difference. Mr. Millais has manifested the larger amount of resource. There is excellent action, painting, and character in the several heads of his picture–well distinguished in age and sex,–and in certain occasional passages of incident and of form: but the picture is injured by the utter want of rationality in the action of a prominent figure,–carried almost to the verge of caricature. This figure extends his unwieldy leg in the immediate front of the picture so as not merely to divide attention with but to appropriate all the interest from the love-sick Lorenzo and the fair Isabel–who

Could not sit at meals but felt how well

It soothed each to be the other by.

In addition to this absurd piece of mannerism, there is in the picture that inlaid look–that hard monotony of contour and absence of shadow–which are due to the causes before stated.–In Mr. Hunt’s picture it is the intention or design alone which can be estimated: and there are force of thought and concentration of purpose, though expressed in such affected language.

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Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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