Wornum, R. N. "A General Discussion of the Young England School." Art-Journal 1 Sep. 1850, 270-271.

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The most remarkable perhaps of all the modern moves in Art is the recurrence to an old and imperfect style of design in painting; and in sculpture likewise to a slight extent, but in this case it is only a Gothic harmony with a Gothic revival. In painting, this revival has been conspicuous for the last two or three years in the London exhibitions, the painters who have given themselves up to this crotchet, are sometimes styled "the Young England," and sometimes the "Pre-Raphael School;" they certainly have gone back to the style of design of the painters of the fifteenth century, the style technically known as the quattrocento.*

This peculiar revival, which, if it were to maintain itself, would amount to a sacrifice of one of the noblest of Arts, appears to have arisen solely from a mistaken impression that there is something inherently prejudicial to Art in the prevailing excellence in its sensuous or technical development, that is, in painting. It is either this notion or the idea that where there is less material there must be more spiritual; or at all events it seems evident that spirit and matter (except of a certain kind) are incompatible. There may certainly be a sentimental school and a sensuous school; but why not sentimental and sensuous at the same time; there is surely nothing antagonistic between soul and body; the soul can operate through the body only, and the less perfect or efficient its instrument, the less perfect and efficient must be its operation.

As in nature we do not infer a superior soul or sentiment from a deformed, imperfect) or diseased body, how can such an idea possibly obtain recognition in Art–and if it did, wherein would society be the gainer? What is disagreeable in nature, is disagreeable in Art, and to stereotype the disagreeable is an abuse of Art.

It is not so difficult to trace the source of this peculiar movement in Art; though new to this country, it is by no means new to Europe; it is about half a century old. It has been rather somewhat late in crossing the channel, and we will hope that it has crossed it only to pass onward to the ungenial north, and there for ever lose itself in the arctic regions.

The German painter Carstens was one of the first to deprecate the purely physical tendency of the last cinquecento and subsequent schools, which arose out of the intemperate and indiscriminate imitation of Michelangelo and his immediate follower Overbeck, another German settled in Rome, comprised the works of Michelangelo himself in the deprecation as the source of the corruption: making it altogether a religious question, and transplanting the most morbid asceticism of the cell to the hitherto glowing face of Art.

This decided revival of the earlier schools, with all their defects and peculiarities, ten times more conspicuous in the copy than in the original, has met with considerable, though generally very temporary, responses, in the ultramontane schools, and it appears now in Europe gradually subsiding, a natural death.

It is a purely ascetic movement, corresponding to that intolerable idea that sanctification consists in the mortification of the body; and in so far it is a monastic resuscitation in perfect harmony with its sister revival of the ecclesiastical Gothic: in point of time, likewise, they are in good historic harmony.

But how different the spirit of the originals, in both cases, from their copies! In painting, the quattrocento masters did their utmost to attain perfection of form and expression in accordance with the prevailing religious sentiment of the day: and the architectural decorators, likewise, strove their utmost in the attainment of beauty without the slightest deference to what had been previously done, or with the slightest reverence for a single one of their minute details: many of these forms were derived from Byzantine symbolism, but the manner in which they were perpetually disregarded, changed, or altogether superseded, for something new, shows that their Spirit was long gone, and that they were then mere forms.

The mere accidental materials, therefore, of a superstitious priest-ridden age are, in the nineteenth century, to be thrust before us as special objects of veneration; veneration which it would very much puzzle the old quattrocentisti themselves to account for; with them, it certainly never existed: each successive generation used its utmost endeavours to improve upon its present, and none more than those very painters, sculptors, and architects, whose works it is now pretended must be the key and standard of posterity. We may now examine this peculiar revival in its details.

Setting aside the swaddling clothes or incunabula of Art, it has undergone three stages; these are the Quattrocento, the Cinquecento, and the Eclectic or Academic, the rise, the establishment, and the decline: these have been subdivided into many schools, all similar in essentials, differing only in technical details, or in the prevalence of some one or other of the essentials. The quattrocento is that in which the Art was gradually developing itself, and it ceases with the accomplishment of a fair individual representation of nature, independent of any aesthetical or theoretical influence. It appears in three distinct characters or styles, in which Sentiment, Form, and Colour, respectively, dominate; to the first school belong Gentile da Fabriano and Fra Angelico da Fiesole; to the second the great mass of the remaining quattrocento painters of Florence and many of those of Rome; and to the third the early Venetians, the Vivarini, Giovanni Bellini, Marco Basaiti and many others; and the old School of Cologne.

Such painters as Perugino and Francia, combining all the excellences of the style in a nearly equal degree (and the large Francia in the National Gallery is a fine example), are the quattrocento masters par excellence; Francia, perhaps, best represents the beau ideal of the style.

Masaccio, Filippo Lippi, Luca Signorelli, and a few others, whose great excellence in form contributed much to the advancement displayed in the cinquecento, belong strictly to neither one nor the other; they exhibit the transition but they are generally reckoned with Perugino and Francia as the great masters of the quattrocento. This first great stage of Art is sufficiently well represented in all its beginnings by the following six masters: Gentile da Fabriano and Fra Angelico, Masaccio and Lippi, Perugino and Francia.

With these masters, or with Francia rather, closes the first great epoch of modern painting, the Quattrocento; Michelangelo marks the era of the Cinquecento, and this is the epoch of its greatest perfection among the moderns. Now the quattrocento is essentially a period of progress, all that it displays was accomplished by long and slow degrees, and it exhibits only the victory over the essential difficulties of the Art, more especially those of a technical character, and it is a matter of necessity that the technical difficulties of an Art must be overcome before that Art can appear in all the glory of its fully developed powers. The quattrocento exhibits the Art simply in detail, many perfect parts but no unity, no whole, the imitative faculty is fully developed, but it was always displaying a faculty without using it; it was ever painting. Compared with the cinquecento, or with the school of Raphael, there is neither life nor motion in the quattrocento. The compositions of this period are full of sentiment certainly, but only to those who can sympathise with it, knowing the sentiments of the age to which the works of this style belong, we recognise and can appreciate their sentiment, but it is all thoroughly conventional. Every figure, as a general rule, is an actor hired for the express attitude in which we find it; it seems to say "this is the position which essentially belongs to me, and I fit for any other." The best figures in the best quattrocento works seem all to have assumed their attitudes for a particular effect, they have sentiment, but it is nearly always the same, chiefly a parade of pious resignation, and has, like their attitude, been put upon them, and not proceeded naturally from any emotions of their own affections.

In this style then, interiorly, there is little if anything of genuine nature, what is natural in it is on the surface, and this it owes to its skill in individual imitation, and certainly not to generic knowledge or power, such as characterises the antique. Perhaps no painter was ever more capable of making an exact picture of an individual model set before him, than Francia, and yet it would probably have been utterly impossible for Francia to have given even three figures a unity of action; in ornamental apposition he was sufficient master but dramatic unity of composition was no better appreciated by him than by painters who preceded him a hundred years; Masaccio indeed understood it far better, and this is just one of the points which constitutes Masaccio one of the masters of the transition.

If Francia’s model had happened to be deformed or mis-shapen, so would most certainly his picture have been: but doubtless so great a master as Francia would select his model; still, having selected it, he would scrupulously abide by its peculiarities at least, such from their works; seems to have been the principle of the best quattrocento masters. In sentiment they were thoroughly, what we now term in Art-criticism, subjective; that is, all their figures had to be imbued with their own prevailing idea, religious aspiration in some shape or other, but chiefly in the spirit of resignation or mortification; this feeling, which seems to have been a characteristic of the age, pervaded the whole province of Art, and therefore, in so far as this is only a very limited field indeed in the human emotion, so the Art of the period was only a very limited picture of nature, even in its own conventional Art sphere, and therefore, if we are correct in our view, the quattrocento presents not only an imperfect picture of the species, but also an imperfect picture of the individual, for though the body is often given with surprising skill and fidelity of imitation, it is a body with little life and a very limited and conventional spirit. The merit accordingly of this style, to put it for the sake of argument, in its most disadvantageous shape, is a mere isolated elaborate objective finish, and the sentiment being a species of "fixed quantity," it is only a kind of shell painting.

This is said without the slightest idea of depreciating the quattrocento masters, than which nothing can be further from our. sentiments, but solely with a view to fairly contrast the nature of these two great historic stages of Art, the quattrocento and cinquecento, and by laying down clearly the peculiarities or characteristics of each, and bringing them into critical comparison, to show their relative merits; and it is in this spirit of criticism that we term the quattrocento mere shell painting compared with the cinquecento.

It is literally true that every defect or deficiency of the quattrocento is supplied in the cinquecento. The mere individual representation becomes generic; for simple, ornamental, or symmetrical opposition, we have dramatic action, and to the expression of an austere a piety, pity, or despair, is added that of every human emotion joyful or painful. And though we cannot predicate perfection of any of its individual works, still the style is, in its broad principles, perfect in itself. As the large picture of Francia in the National Gallery served as our illustration of the quattrocento, we may take the cartoons of Raphael as our examples of the cinquecento.

We have not in these works that minute elaboration of external accidents such as we find in the more limited style; but such finish, however, is not incompatible with the cinquecento; it is only unnecessary, for it may be fairly disputed with, as too trivial a merit to add either truth or dignity to the grand qualities of this consummate style of Art. With the impressive dramatic action, imposing dignity of appearance on the actors, extraordinary fitness of incident, accessory and principal, and the interesting and exalted nature of the subjects, there is but slight occasion to regret a clean line, a glossy surface, or a rosy complexion. Such superficial excellencies can be of importance only in the absence of more substantial merits, and where imitation, and not representation, constitutes the chief aim of the artist. If then this style exhibits such great qualities as to render mere superficial beauties immaterial to its effect, though perfectly admissible, how much more easily can it dispense with local accidents of the skin, superficial blemishes; they are so thoroughly out of place, that admit them, and they at once become the picture, as in the "lame Man at the beautiful Gate," and many other similar great cinquecento designs. Individual treatment in works of this kind, in which great events or sentiments constitute the subject, are so generally irrelevant, that, when they occur, they must be a part of the subject, as in "Christ Healing the Sick," "Curing the Leper," or in a picture of a lazar-house or a lunatic asylum.

If age is to be represented, give the characteristics of age, but universal, not individual; so with youth, grief, or joy; a general treatment will be universally understood, while a special treatment to those unacquainted with the special symptoms adopted, is sure to be understood; and by those who might understand them there is danger of the work being mistaken for a "pathological" illustration.

When painting is the mere handmaid to morbid anatomy, its path is clear, and its duties fixed; it is then no longer Art, but an administrator to science, and it is without the pale of artistic criticism; but so long as painting is employed as an Art, its duty is to instruct and delight, certainly not to disgust. Should a painful subject be its theme, which it often may be, it will be the effort of the great painter to render his picture as becoming as his subject will admit, as instructive as a lesson, and as attractive as a work of art, as it is in his power to make it. Indeed the lesson is clearly lost if the mode of conveying it is revolting or disagreeable; the very end of the work is completely counteracted, which is the more deplorable in proportion as the subject or its motive be good or great.

It is the high ground, in point of subject generally, taken by the "Young England School," which renders their mistaken treatment so much the more to be deprecated. None can hail with more delight than we do their recourse to the higher realms of sentiment for their subjects; for the gradual encroachment of dogs and horses, threatening to completely overrun the province of taste in this country, is calculated to drive the true lovers of Art almost to despair, unless a few stalwart champions on the other side rise up to dispute the field with these four-footed favourites.

So it is that we argue their principles with this school rather than condemn their works. We wish them to persevere, but in the spirit of world artists, not ascetic fanatics. The school exhibits, in our own opinion, two capital defects; it breathes in the spirit of its works the miserable asceticism of the darkest monastic ages exhibits in their execution quite the extremest littleness of style that ever disfigured the works of any of the early middle-ages masters.

In the first place it appears to assume sorrow or gravity as the normal state of man; whereas all our faculties teach us that exactly the reverse is our normal state, and that we bring all our miseries on ourselves by the abuse or neglect of these faculties. In the second, disregarding the fruits of the earnest and skilful labour of ages, it goes back to the puerile achievement of the infants of Art–an illusive elaboration of a local accident; as the skilful rendering of the dirty corrugated skin of an emaciated frame; thus giving prominence to a condition which a master of a healthier school would not even twice look at, unless he wished for a specimen for a lazar-house much less select as that of his model for a sacred or historic character.

No exalted sentiment can possibly be aided by either ugliness or disease; it is true that there are certain physical conditions that are admitted to be antagonistic to certain moral conditions, but their antagonisms are as well defined as the physical conditions themselves. Neither health nor comeliness are incompatible with sorrow or piety, though the combination would require greater artistic skill to represent it.

No painter probably would dream of selecting the Hercules of Glycon as his model for John the Baptist preaching in the Wilderness, because this figure of Hercules is a generic or ideal figure of physical power, which John the Baptist was not; and none but the most incompetent could overlook the incompatibility of character. the same tune, it would be less absurd to give this robust character to John the Baptist, than to imitate the example of those who have represented him as an emaciated lazar, for his very office proves that he must have been a man both of healthful vigour, and of great powers of endurance.

There is certainly not a more paltry subterfuge in Art than that of attempting to represent intellectual or spiritual power at the expense of the physical condition, it was all very well for a middle-age monk who saw little more of humanity than his cloister fellows, among whom some such test between the fat and the lean might induce him to suppose that indolence and indifference were the characteristic of the former, and assiduity and devotion of the latter; but the very fact of such being extremes proves the mean to be the true state. Those minds sufficiently strong to overcome bodily defects are rare exceptions, and that mens sana in corpore sano is the rule, is the perpetual experience of the world.

Directly the activity of the mind encroaches upon the resources of the body, both fall together. The physical ideal alone can harmonise with the spiritual ideal: in Art, whatever it may be in Nature in its present condition, the most beautiful soul must have the most beautiful body; lofty sentiment and physical baseness are essentially antagonistic; even in the lowest sinks of poverty in the world, the purest mind will shine transcendent, there will always be a comparative cleanliness of person and calmness of expression, which will widely distinguish its possessor from those whose debasement of physical condition is reciprocated by that of the soul. No darkness is so thick that the light of innocence will not shine in it, and no body can be so debased that true nobility of soul will not envelop it with a halo of dignity.

We have all of us, beyond the age of boyhood, had opportunities of experiencing the truth of these observations; and how strange does it appear that we should have educated artists in the nineteenth century, selecting physical misery of condition for the special incorporation of the very beau ideal of the moral greatness of which humanity is capable!

We may pardon the quattrocento masters for doing this occasionally, both because asceticism was one of the virtues of the monastic age in which they lived, and because as artists they had not yet attained to the grand power of idealising or generalising; their skill was still limited to making a faithful copy of the individual model set before them. However, as it was with the quattrocento, so it is with the "Young England School," the ugliness of their figures is as much in the sentiment as in the physical treatment.

There are perhaps only two great essentials to the healthy expression of exalted sentiment generally, and these are the appearance of cleanliness, and the absence of disease; mere form of feature is not essential either way, either for the expression of beauty or of ugliness; beauty of expression consists in the management of the features more than in their shape, as very ordinary features may be rendered extremely agreeable by a noble expression, and the most beautiful features are capable of the most diabolical expression. It shows, therefore, that, where the figures of various compositions are uniformly disagreeable, in works of this quattrocento class of Art, their authors are as circumscribed in their range of sentiment as they are limited in the appreciation of physical beauty; for, notwithstanding their meagre forms, the utmost variety of effect might still be produced by a comprehensive grasp of character, as indeed we find in many of the best works of Fra Angelico and other great masters of this school, in its genuine original development.

It is, therefore, a wholly groundless notion that there is anything antagonistic to sentiment in the magnificent physical development of the cinquecento. The greatest cinquecento masters themselves, as Raphael or Michelangelo, were always true to the spirit of their style, soul and body were equally refined upon, equally generalised; and they did not surpass the quattrocento masters less in sentiment than they did in their physical development.

That the cinquecento degenerated into the Academic in the seventeenth century, is no fault of the style itself; the eclectics of Bologna, though they might profess to bestow equal attention upon the exalted character and the physical of the cinquecento, could not so easily point out to their pupils in what this elevation of character consisted; but as it was evident something was to be imitated, these naturally fell upon the more obvious characteristics of technical qualities–form, colour, light, and shade; hence the utter preponderance of these qualities in all the Eclectic and subsequent Academic schools, even to this day. Commendation and blame, themselves, are almost comprised in six notions: a picture is well or badly drawn; is rich, or dull and muddy in its colour; is flat, or masterly in its light and shade. Whether the subject is dramatically treated, historically or aesthetically true or probable, common-place or judicious in its selection, hackneyed or new, instructive or mischievous, worthily or inferiorly rendered, painful or delightful, are all considerations too subordinate to participate in the absorbing question as to the mechanical handiness with which the paint has been laid upon the canvas.

This is a matter the "Young England School" may attempt to remedy without retrograding four hundred years, or visiting the high qualities of Art developed in the cinquecento, with that judgment which is due alone to those who have made only a partial or improper use of them, and we leave them with a hope that they will fulfil this great destiny for Art.

R. N. Wornum

* Quattrocento is opposed to Cinquecento; we prefer using these established terms in art literature, though Italian, to the coining of new ones in the English language. The quattrocento prevailed immediately before the cinquecento which completely superseded it: the quattrocento, which means simply four hundred, signifies the Art which flourished about and after the year 1400, and the cinquecento (five hundred) that which superseded it about and after the year 1600. The word millc or thousand is in both cases understood, on the same principle that we occasionally date 50 for 1850. Therefore broadly, quattrocento and cinquecento mean respectively fifteenth and sixteenth century Art.


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Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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