"French Criticism on British Art: M. Maxime du Camp." Art Journal 8 (1 Mar. 1856): 77-79. Excerpts.

[W]e present our readers with a chapter on the English portion of the Beaux Arts Exhibition, from the general criticism of Mons. Maxime Du Camp, which was not written with precipitancy, or the flippancy of the newspaper press, but deliberately digested, as deliberately published, and to which, in the Parisian circles, has been given the authoritative position amongst the various brochures on the Exhibition which have appeared. . . .

"Cold and calm by acclimated temperament, English artists never allow themselves to be borne along by those excitement of imagination, which frequently but terminate in some violent miscarriage-but which also sometimes attain the sublime-and which, least, intimate the pursuit of an ideal. They appear only to labour in virtue of certain premonitory rules, the observance of which is sure to lead them to their desired result. With them all is regular, foreseen, directed, and detailed. It is obvious that they paint with colours of incomparable quality-ground between slabs of porphyry, hard and fine-grained as the diamond-with marvellous vehicles, with exquisite varnish, and with pencils plucked from the rarest martins' tails. They should, like Gerard Dow, after having withdrawn the veil which covered their pictures, stand motionless and long, to avoid agitating the dust.

"but devotedness to minute precision of finish frequently narrows the import of their works, for on their canvas each part has for them an equal importance-a shoe and a face are equivalent. This over-wrought minuteness of detail which degenerates into foible, fatigues the scrutiny and dissipates the interest of the spectator. I shall cite as an example of what I assert, Mr. Millais's 'Return of the Dove to the Ark.' I care but little for the picture, over-laden as it is with ill-harmonised rainbow and blue tints, and I should not have at all noticed it had it not presented, in the mode in which the litter, which covers the floor of the ark, and extreme example of the abuse of detail. This is in truth an absolute illusion: it is not art, but coloured photography. Every sprig of hay and stalk of straw, each hair from the hide of ruminant, or feather from wing of bird, is drawn and painted up to reality. Neither is there a particle of exactitude omitted in the erect figures of the two girls, who almost press in their hands the messenger dove. The almost imperceptible reticulated lines which mark their hands, the lashes of their eyes, each individual hair of their heads, are given with astounding precision. But this is all frigid and shallow. The obvious effort, which, after all, is in default of its model, is only painful. The same opinion holds good respecting 'Ophelia,'-a strange, almost ridiculous, and assuredly puerile production, representing a young female gradually sinking in water, which seems wholly undisturbed by the proceeding. All the slender grasses, all the small flowers, all the delicate plants, that grow on the banks of streamlets, are, as it were, gaily accumulated round this wax doll, that drowns itself, as unlike as possible to the Ophelia of the poet. This picture may be compared to an enamelled toy. To the two, I strongly prefer 'The Order of Release,' which, notwithstanding the undue interest given to some of its accessories, such as the falling primroses, the coat of the prisoner, and the dog's tail, represents, nevertheless, a scene vivid, empassioned, and true. If we have spoken at length of Mr. Millais, it is not because we accord him an estimate of great importance, but because he sums up plenarily an error common to the majority of his brother artists, the immoderate and irrational abuse, which leads quickly to puerility, and consequently to ennui.[" . . .]

The critic proceeds, and falls into the thoroughly ludicrous error disclosed in the following paragraph:-"Sir Edwin Landseer has some imitators, who, as happens ever in such cases, copy by an exaggeration of his defects. Mr. Hunt in his 'Strayed Sheep' has tried to be more subtle, more minutely particular than his master, and he succeeds, though the power of false and fantastic tints, in completing a picture, which seems as if beheld though a solar spectrum, and is curious from the singularity of its discordant tones of colour."

Sir Edwin Landseer will probably be not a little surprised to find that, after all, he is the parent of the school of Hunt and Millais, and that Perugino and Van Eyck, to whom the honour had been freely assigned, must vanish back, poor slighted shades, to the shores of the Styx. This will surely console him for the foregone severities of his French Critic.

This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

Return to the list of reviews