"French Criticism on British Art." Art Journal 17 (1 Sep. 1855): 250-252. Excerpts.

In our last number, we presented our readers and artistic friends with some rather piquant samples of the criticism with which the British contributors to the Palais des Beaux Arts were cheered by the Parisian periodicals. We shall now sum up a fitting sequence in some of their detailed notices of individual artists, in which, while a similar ungenial element will be found to exist, it will be very considerably neutralised by its obvious inconsistency,-the willing to wound and the erring flight of the barbed weapon being equally apparent. . . .

Without going further at present, we shall introduce one group more of singular exceptions to the British singularity, which had no exception. It is that of the pre-Raffaelite schismatics, touching whom the Athenæum Français holds forth.

"Could Reynolds and Hogarth, those fathers of the English school of painting, but thrust aside their tombstones, and come forth again to shed influence over Royal Academicians, they assuredly would visit with their strictures the style introduced by the leaders of a new school,

whose works, bearing the name of Schaw (Shaw), Millais, and Hunt, are honoured by the attention of the crowd at the Palais de l'Exposition. Messrs. Schaw, Millais and Hunt represent the matter-of-fact school, such as it is understood to be by our allies beyond Boulogne; and as they are exceptions to the rule-singularities-amongst the British exhibitors, it seems to us that we should open our notice of the latter by an examination of them. They have, on other grounds, something of a right to this forecast, inasmuch as they have been to us, as it were, a revelation-they have assuredly excited our wonder, beguiled us into a scrutiny, and, to say the truth, after a pause of momentary disdain, led us away captive.

"Before the Palais des Beaux Arts was opened, we were perfectly ignorant of the existence of Messrs. Schaw, Millais and Hunt-the whole English school was to us bounded by the studios of Mulready and Landseer, two great minds familiarised to us by engravings.

"We owe then a reparation to these realists; we recognise in them an imaginative power which looks upon nature through no trivial lens,-which would not degrade into a vulgar simplicity the representation of heaven's handiwork, while rescuing it from the wayward fancies of Art.

"Schaw, Millais and Hunt are not the representatives of British precursors. They are not the children of Reynolds nor of Hogarth; they have no kindred with Benjamin West; as little have they been disciples of Sir Thomas Lawrence. Wilkie has not been their model, nor have their dreams been bewildered by the pictorial nightmares of John Martin. Thus, in the British school, these three painters may be taken for three students of nature illumined, at a certain epoch of their existence, by a new aspect, under which she revealed herself, freeing them from the common and low precepts of the studio, as well as from those by which the artists of the United Kingdom have been bound in allegiance to Sir Joshua Reynolds, one of the greatest portrait-painters of modern times, as well as one of the most powerful of recognised colourists.

"But must we then look upon them as pure innovators, or trace them to some affiliation-discover a master, whom they have followed, even in England herself? This last surmise will, if we mistake not, lead us upon the truth, and we shall therefore take it up.

"There happens to be in London and in Trafalgar Square, a building of very indifferent architectural pretensions, which bears inscribed upon the lintel of its doorway the words, 'National Gallery.' We have visited this National Gallery, and amongst some few works which we admired in it, carried off more especially the remembrance of two. One of these was a noble portrait of a man-it had the name of Reynolds attached to it-we have no occasion at present to dwell upon it; the others, placed unfortunately under glass, and in a saloon but ill-lighted, has given birth to the English school of realists. This painting, justly attributed to Hubert Van Eyck, is like all the works of this Flemish master, of marvellous peculiarity. Greatness and simplicity are combined in his productions, with minuteness of adherence to nature. All the world know his two pictures in the square saloon of the Louvre, 'L'Agneau Mystique de Gaud,' and 'La Vierge an Donateur,' which have been ever admired for their unaffected grace of expression, scrupulousness of manner, and prodigious pervading finish.

"Mr. Millais and Mr. Schaw spring straight from the great artist of the fifteenth century; Mr. Hunt may claim the same honour, but less directly. We shall, however, analyse the works of the three artists, and place them in their due rank as the ultimate pupils of Van Eyck, the fellow students of Pieter Christophsen, one of the first initiated into a style which was rather brought to perfection than invented by the painter of Bruges. Mr. Millais, the first of the three modern scholars of Van Eyck, is like the attendants of 'The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood,' who, awakening after an hundred years' sleep, found themselves living and moving with the language and ideas of the epoch when they had fallen asleep; certainly he must have been profoundly astonished on the day when he, who had sunk into slumber in the palace of Duc Philip le Bon, found himself a living man at South Cottage, Kingston-upon-Thames. He cast his eyes around, men and things were not those he had known; he sought his brothers in Art, but he found that they understood nature differently from that in which it had been interpreted by his beloved master. Therefore he dissociated himself from these modern schools, and he paints the life of the nineteenth century with the pencil which the artist of the fifteenth had at his death bequeathed to him.

"It would be difficult to say what is Mr. Millais' method of painting-what is the secret of his strength of colour; whether his vehicle be oil or albumen, or his touch that of the oil or the miniature-painter; the plate-glass, which protects his canvas, forbids all close scrutiny on this head; at the same time be it remembered that these questions of manner are of little importance in the appreciation of a work of Art. The three pictures of Mr. Millais, 'The Order,' 'The Return of the Dove to the Ark,' and 'Ophelia,' have that within, which seizes upon the connoisseur, compels him to pause and ponder, and gives birth to discussions on the possible and the impossible in an effort of Art, to enter into a contest with Nature herself. We give the preference to 'The Order.' The wounded prisoner, to whom his wife and infant are the messengers of liberty, and the soldier gaoler who receives his order for dismissal, are one and all designed, and painted with great vigour-an astonishing impress of truth-a something of the very silliness of naïveté, which attains the force of the dramatic without seeming to search for it. Each part in the group is correct in its action; the soldier, whose figure is half concealed by the prison door, which he holds cautiously open, and whose profile alone is given; the prisoner, a Scotch highlander in his national costume, overcome with emotion at the restoration to freedom conveyed to him by his affectionate wife and his child,-the wife lit up with the joy of saving him whom she loves. All this is truth itself; all well felt and well presented, without any trace of the trivial or commonplace. The child, which is sleeping on that side of the wife's bosom next the husband's head, which bends on it in deep emotion, is 'd'une adorable gentilesse;' its little naked limbs are drawn with the purest correctness, and tinted in happiest accord with nature.

"But the dramatic force-the leading action of the group-is centered in the soldier and the wife. There is ideal beauty in their truthfulness of expression. This soldier is no truculent gaoler: nothing in his aspect, attitude, or dress, indicates such to be his nature. He shakes no heavy bundle of keys, but he examines scrupulously the order of liberation, which the young woman holds over to him across the shoulder of her husband: he has, as yet, but half released his prisoner. This man personifies law, rule, and obedience; he is calm and immovable. The woman concentrates in herself all the touching feeling of our nature. She is the wife in the sublimest morale of that being; her maternal love; her glow of heart; her flashing exultation of success; for, in the name of all the affections to which she is devoted, she has combatted and has vanquished; she has beat the judge, the magistrate; and she comes to bid the prison gates give up her husband."

After this very liberal eulogium, the critic proceeds to visit the pupil of Van Eyck with a due portion of set-off.

"Mr. Millais," he says, "zealously seeks, like his model, the perfection of detail; he studies each part of his picture with impartial equality of attention: man, or animal, or the blade of grass, are favoured by his pencil with indiscriminate attention. He surely has read and retained the line of Lamartine,--

'L'insecte vaut au monde, il ont autant coûté.'

This equality of treatment, this scrupulous study not to give living nature any preeminence over still life, the human being to the decorative accessories, injures not a little the works of the English artist. The dress of the prisoner, the red coat of the soldier in the 'Order of Release,' are so perfectly executed, that they withdraw the spectator's attention from the parties themselves; the latter fade in contiguity with tissues so intense in tone,-of such substantial reality. In 'The Return of the Dove to the Ark,' the plumage of the dove and the hay of its nest quickly secure the eyes of the spectators; and in the early days of the exhibition, before the name of Mr. Millais was familiarly known, visitors might be heard ask each other, 'Have you seen the English artist's hay?' The hay thus became the action of the tale-its prominent interest; and it would have been necessary to re-christen the picture, and name it 'The Happiness of Hay on the Return of the Dove.'"

After having enlarged upon the higher judgment of Van Eyck in this particular, more especially as instanced in his celebrated Louvre picture, "La Vierge au Donateur," where, amid an infinite elaboration of detail, the prominent interest is concentrated in La Vierge, the critic proceeds:-"Mr. Millais cannot make up his mind to sacrifice a single detail, be it ever so devoid of interest, much less can he subserve an ill-timed intensity of tone.

"That red coat of the English soldier must be substantial scarlet broad-cloth, as the Scotchman's tartan in to the eye so thoroughly the plushy woollen stuff that one must needs handle it. These miracles of imitation in setting forth the inanimate, have the effect of impoverishing the animate of its prominence-of impress of vitality.

"Mr. Millais would be superlatively perfect: divide his pictures into parts, and each one will be worthy of all praise; reunite them, and they forthwith injure each other by the level of their perfection, and make one wish that here and there had been a faux pas of the pencil; the result, mayhap, of an eye or a hand wearied with minute elaboration.

"We have a reproof, however, still more grave, to visit withal this artist so skilful and so over-scrupulous,-it is the use of so opaque a brown in his backgrounds, as to deprive them of both air and light. The groups in 'The Order of Release,' and 'The Return of the Dove,' are as sharply cut as silhouettes on a ground of paper jet; behind them there is, as stated, neither air nor light, and, consequently, no middle distance nor depth of background. Here again Mr. Millais overlooks the precepts of Van Eyck."

The critic proceeds in like manner to animadvert on the transcendental accessories of the Ophelia, in which, however, he but retreads the ground already worn to a dead level by his precursors of the London press, and thus concludes with a potent salve for much of his severities:-

"We have lingered long in the work of analysing Mr. Millais's pictures, because we recognise in him an artist of no ordinary talent, and foresee the influence which his success in the '55 exhibition will exercise not alone on the English school, but on the schools of the Continent. Our Meissonier has been followed by a shoal of small fry, who have vainly endeavoured to imbibe the quality of his genius. Before a year is over, Mr. Millais will have an awkward squad of imitators exaggerating all his defects, but unembarrassed by a particle of his power." To Mr. Shaw,* who, if we are not much mistaken, is wholly innocent of any petty larceny imitation of Van Eyck, or of any privity with pre-Raffaelite cliques-but who had won for himself an honoured name before the latter came into entity, and were so christened-by his devotion to mediæval pictorial research, and the publication of exquisite copies of mediæval illuminations and quaint gems of Art, it is but due to give this glowing tribute of the Frenchman's admiration:--

"M. Schaw" he says, "where water colour drawings are ranged in the gallery above amongst [sic] designs by English architects, is, in simple truth, a painter of the inanimate, who surpasses in delicacy of pencil, not only Van Eyck and the Memlings, but all the miniature painters of the Duke of Burgundy-all those of the famous Abbey of St. Gall-nay, even the Saxon artistic decorations of the famed Gospels in the British Museum. Never were objectives, really represented with more precision, and, let us add, with more art, than in his picture of 'The Funeral Pall belonging to the Fishmongers' Company of London.' This drapery, the date of which is obviously of the fifteenth century, glows with golden ornaments and figures embroidered in brilliant colours. M. Schaw has painted this pall, thread for thread, with an art so perfect as to make even a German Don despair, notwithstanding his tapestry in the picture of 'La Femme Hydropique.'"

"We cite," continues the critic, "M. Schaw after M. Millais, because they both proceed, although in different lines, from the same master, and because there is not merely a wondrous patient elaboration in the German vase and in the funeral pall, but because they indicate a most delicate sensitiveness in regard to colour and a very striking artistic intelligence."

All this time many of our readers, moderately familiar with our native men of rank in the walks of Art, may be lost in perplexity as to the identity of this new leader of the pre-Raffaelites--this Monsr. Schaw: we confess to have ourselves been for some time in the same predicament, until having visited the pall and the beaker, and eliminated the Teutonic c from the name, we found a most estimable artist, Mr. Shaw, known, as we have just intimated, to the literary as well as the artistic world, before young England had learned to lisp the names of Van Eyck, or, Perugino, as a most skilful archaeologist-a retrospective reviewer of the old monkish illuminations; some of the choicest of which he gave with a singularly faithful pencil to the public, and who little dreamt that he was becoming the apostle of the new and true school of painting while making facsimiles of those quaint curiosities, wherein the infant struggles of Art are so conspicuous, and in which the suggestions of perspective both of line and tint are so unceremoniously dealt withal. Mr. Shaw will probably be as much surprised as any of us at the paragraph commencing in the Parisian periodical with the words "MM. Schaw, Millais et Hunt represent l'école de realisme." While however he may repudiate the precise kind of honour intended for him by the French critic, he may with a safe conscience, receive, in its fullest metre, the eulogium passed upon the exquisite delicacy and finesse of his pencil, the microscopic minutiæ of which might raise up from the vasty deep the spirits of Van Eyck--the Memlings and Gerard Dow.

Mr. Hunt is not quite so fortunate in the hands of the critic as his companions.

"M. Hunt, a devotee, like M. Millais, to the manner of the painters of the fifteenth century, has not attained an equally potent grasp of realities. Even more than Millais, he has become bewildered in an infinitude of detail, and his pictures sin in giving the same exaggerated importance to their accessories. The Christ seeking for a believer who slept not, and entitled 'The Light of the World,' has in it traits of imagination and expression worthy of applause, but minuteness of tint is carried to such a degree in its elaboration, that even Johann Van Kessel can scarcely compete with it. The drops of dew, which moisten the bottom of the robes of Christ are painted one by one, with their separate reflections and transparent shadows: the grass gives forth its each particular blade, the bushes every briar, and if the eye could but trace detail within detail, it doubtless would discover the insects that dwell in all these brambles, or nestle within the tufts of herbage. * * * The mission of Art is not to reproduce all that exists, but to substitute for the animation of life an harmonious ensemble, to convey the impression of reality rather by its general characters than by details-minute exactitude leads Art from the truth and produces but false results of aspect most ungenial.

"The picture of 'Wandering Sheep' affords a best proof of our correctness--on it M. Hunt has exhausted much talent and much time, to, so to say, a perfect loss of both. As a painting, it totally wants harmony; it is harshly crude, and yet never did artist of any epoch study more scrupulously his models. The fleece of the sheep, if closely examined, is found subdivided into small patches of wool; the grass gives the individuality of each blade, each with its own light, its reflection and its shadow--each part astonishes by the truthfulness of its reproduction, and nevertheless the whole wants truth, and wholly fails to recall nature."

* Mr. Henry Shaw, F.S.A., author of "Mediæval Costumes," &c., &c.


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Copyright © 2000 Thomas J. Tobin.

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