"London Exhibitions--Conflict of the Schools." Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 86.526 (Aug. 1859): 130-139. Excerpts.

The works of the two younger Linnells will perhaps be received as the most favourable examples of that laborious detailed study of nature, which now goes strangely under the name of pre-Raphaelitism. They offer to the world a result somewhere between nature, the pre-Raphaelites, and the works of Mr Linnell their father. From nature they take their subject, from the pre-Raphaelites an excess of detail not actually to be seen; and from their father, a golden lustrous colour. Thus do they love to paint the golden "Harvest," fields ripe and heavy with the waving corn gathered in by peasantry, set like lustrous jewels in among the clustering sheaves. . . . Mr Knight's "Barley Harvest on the Welsh Coast" is certainly among the more praiseworthy works executed under so-called pre-Raphaelite influence, careful and truthful throughout; the detail of rock, field, and wave kept duly subordinate to an unobtrusive general effect. . . .

The study of nature is of course the only sure basis upon whcih art can rest, the only certain condition of a healthful progression. Yet it will always be a question fo some doubt and difficulty how the infinitude which is in nature shal be brought within the limits of a canvass, how the multitudinous detial of leaf and herbage, or the illimitable vastness of earth and sky, the might of the passing storm, the power of the dashing wave, shall be brought within the inanimate surface of a few square feet or inches. The very difficulty, not to say the impossibility of the task, has proverbially led to a bold compromise and surrender. Art has thus in all countries and in all times, under the consciousness of absolute inability, renounced the pretension to illusive and literal imitation, taking refuge in the grand breadth of a sweeping shadow, and trusting for the most part to a dexterous or generalised execution for the suggestion of an impracticable detail. This, we say, has been the uniform theory and practice of art in all ages and countries. But now in these latter days has arisen a strange and unheard-of attempt, which claims consideration, on the one hand, by its conscientious effort and on the other by its mischievous, not to say ridiculous, results. Mr Brett's "Val d'Aosta" is the latest and most astounding attempt made in this direction. Mr Brett, we may presume, is a pet protégé of Mr Ruskin. His picture of last year, "The Stonebreaker," obtained in the Notes the special praise due to "the most perfect piece of painting." "If," says Mr Ruskin, "he can paint so lovely a distance from the Surrey downs and railway-traversed vales, what would he not make of the chestnut groves of the Val d'Aosta! I heartily wish him good speed and long exile." Accordingly, in the present Exhibition Mr Brett astounds the world by mountains and chestnuts taken from this chosen, "Val d'Aosta," a work which the laureate of pre-Raphaelite art greets with these words: "Yes, here we have it at last--some close coming to it at least--historic landscape, properly so called--landscape-painting with a meaning and a use." "Historical landscape" indeed! An art of as much dignity as the labour of the drill-plough, or the plodding of spade husbandry, with its dotting-in of seeds and its digging of furrows. A mosaic of chopped stones, straw, and rubble; a worsted-work tapestry of "stitch-stitch-stitch," "work-workwork," "till the heart is sick and the brain is benumbed, as well as the weary hand." "Yes, here we have it at last;" all that is small and insignificant, moss-grown, dew-dotted, needle-pointed; chestnuts growing on the distant trees, which yet you may gather with the outstretched hand, a vineyard lying down the valley-slope, where you may count pole for pole; a man in black breeches and white shirt tilling an arable field at half a mile's distance, dotted in so sharp and near that yon are sure he would willingly walk into the foreground, and thence out of the picture, if you but call or beckon. Yet after all this heartless drudgery of weary days and flagging months, we would ask Mr Brett whether he succeeded in putting in one-tenth of the leaves on every tree, one-twentieth part of the herbage wherewith nature clothes herself without thought or toil. Did he not feel himself defeated even on his chosen ground; and that nature, were it not for compassion, would have disowned him for her own? But it would appear that the mercy of less faithful man already fails him. With some heartlesness of cruelty, even Mr Ruskin can declare that the work is "wholly emotionless." His kind patron bid him seek long exile in Italy, and then, when returning with his accomplished task, the hard labour of weary hours and days and weeks, endured under the burning sun, in the driving rain, or the buffeting wind, at once he is welcomed by the rebuke, this "is mirror's work, not man's" work. Yes, assuredly. How could it have been otherwise? You sink your artist into a drudge, a mere machine to copy and manufacture. Take the work, then, such as it is, and be content. But for mercy's sake say not a word of the artist's soul. That, of course, from the first you have resolved to sacrifice. In art there are two kinds of labour, the one of head, the other of hand. You have chosen the small stippling handicraft, the acknowledged refuge of mental weakness; yon have contracted for your picture by the square inch; and commencing in the farthest corner, you will find so many thousand or ten thousand dots in the square foot. You must take the work for what it is worth, and only be too thankful that it is not still worse. You have made your choice, and henceforth have nothing in common with the man of passion, who sweeps in the broad shadow of the passing storm. You are wide as the world asunder from those giants of large soul and mighty hand, who, like Michael Angelo, hewed Titons [sic] from the solid rock; or, like Salvator among the tempest-tost Apennines, or Tintoret in the vast ceilings of St Roch, threw upon canvass with rapid hand the grandeur and dramatic intensity of mountain and rock, sea and sky. Train up a school to feeble servility of hand, and these master-strokes of nature are beyond your reach.

The same melancholy tale is told in other works. The "King's Orchard" by Mr Hughes, is one of the saddest examples of intellect prostrated, and sound common-sense turned to ridicule, which has ever come within our notice. Apple-blossoms for a landscape, and dolls for the figures may well convince Mr Ruskin that one man at least has rightly understood the purport of his teachings. Thanks, we presume, to this manly tuition, the painter has here given us an art hopelessly emasculate; silks and velvets dotingly dotted with purposeless detail; childhood lifelessly lying on trunk of tree; youth crippled upon knees maundering mawkish music. This is the noble art which has at length been secured to our English school; this the fitting exponent of tinsel words and bauble eloquence--childhood hopelessly childish--impotent in body to play or to sport, and in mind incipient of idiotcy [sic].

It is with deep regret that we have to record still another reputation wrecked in devotion to a cause which has this year betrayed its votaries into even more than accustomed extravagance. Mr Wallis, honoured as the painter of the "Chatterton," has now dishonoured both himself aud his cause by the "Return from Marston Moor." This artist, with others of his school, would seem to hold that genius is best shown in the transgression of the limits and the laws which all previous genius had hitherto observed. The story and intention of the picture are undoubtedly simple and heartfelt. The return of a worn and wounded knight to home and anxious parents; the eager attitude of the father rising to meet the son's approach; the homeish housewife mother, the model of domestic solicitude, are sufficient to show what power of expression is within this artist's reach, did he but soberly follow the simplicity of nature. The imitation of nature which was once the watchword of the school, is here seen in colour the most ontrageous, and detail absolutely impossible. The blaze of a sunset sky, red, green, and saffron yellow, the knight's features gory with blood, or glowing from the heat of battle; roses and flowers of brazen face and staring eye, verily blind the sober vision, and darken and dazzle by excess of light. In infinity of detail the work is not less distracting. The father's beard is counted hair for hair; the swallow swooping down with swift flight is yet painted with all the detail of beak, eye, and plumage; pigeons are cooing on the distant dovecot; a barn-door fowl is crowing between the stirrup of the rider and the horse's leg, and thus from centre to furthest corner is every inch crowded with incident, till the picture, like a drop of Thames water seen in the oxyhydrogen microscope, is amazingly wonderful, but monstrously diaagreeable.

There are other works--"Too Late," for example, by Mr Windus, and "The Burgesses of Calais"--which might challenge our criticism, did time permit. We must, however, at once hasten to the pictures of Mr Millais--the "Vale of Rest," and "Spring"--which, even after the notorious "Sir Isumbras" and hiswondrous wooden horse, have taken the world by a fresh surprise. "The Vale of Rest" of the present year is undoubtedly a work of power, but it is the power of repulsion; it attracts attention only to repel sympathy. The crudest green of a grass-grown churchyard; the unmitigated black, conflicting with the chalky white of the nuns' attire; the two nuns themselves, the one inveterate in labour, the other desperate in ugliness,--constitute that high success which is not to be distingished from the depth of failure. In the churchyard itself is a certain black solemnity, in the whole scene a shuddering horror;--the black-white dress, the dirty face of the nun shovelling away the murky mould of decayed mortality; the companion nun seated on tombstone, with clasped hands and mask-like face, as of a death's-head skull, with large wandering eyes, finding no rest even in this vale of rest; nuns which seem in robust, rude, massive health and vigour, fitted to win heaven by physical assault,--these certainly are sufficient claims to attract round this astounding work crowds of curious gazers, who hasten with eager curiosity, pause in murmuring dismay, linger, and then at length steal away with horrors of memory not to be wiped out. This desperate attempt, which insults good taste and outrages all established usage--which is painted with a rude, coarse, and slovenly haste, as if meant for a designed reversal of former careful years of study--retains yet some casual reminiscence of better days. The sapphire of the evening sky, in which a purple cloud silently floats; the darkness of solemn trees, which stand as mourning mutes around the abode of death; the earnest intent of the grave-digging nun, throwing out the death-laden mould with the earnestness of duty, as the servant who, in George Herbert's poem, swept a room to the glory of God,--these are the only remnants of that genius which obtained recognition in the painting of "The Huguenots" and "The Order of Release."

"Spring" is the second work in which Mr Millais has condescended to arrest attention by the ruin of his previous reputation. Spring--yes, spring with a vengeance--in the rank growth of orchard grass, in the heavy profusion of apple-blossoms; spring in the budding, pouting, flowery youth of eight young maidens decked with garlands, junketting, standing, kneeling, lying, in every possible posture of awkward unrest and ill-humoured discontent. We have often heard of truth versus beauty; but that even being now a worn-out novelty, a new surprise is sought in the overthrow of both truth and beauty conjoined. Apple-blossoms of fourfold their natural size--an execution in which conscientious labour seems designedly set at naught--are strange protests coming from a man who, in his picture of "The Huguenots," devoted, it is said, three months to the painting of a brick wall. That avowed despisers of beauty should at length degenerate into devoted disciples of ugliness, is perhaps not so surprising. Yet for so bold and so bald an exposition of the theory, few probably will have found themselves prepared. Hair moulded of ruddy sand, lying lank upon the shoulders as dishevelled rope-ends; features without form or delicacy; lips poutingly pettish,reproduced in eight examples of this remarkable family, constitute a sisterhood deliberately dedicated to the ungraceful.

With these two desperate works we close our notice of a school which year by year taxes the public taste to the utmost limits of endurance. Starting, some seasons now gone by, with al the aspects of a hostile yet united schism from the old established faith, we now find at length internal division within the narrow limits of its communion. On the one hand we have seen certain men still servilely prostrated and bound down to the mere letter and dead detail of a miscalled nature, wholly losing its larger spirit, and forgetful of that greater life and glory which rule within the elements. This is the school of apple-trees and cherry-blossoms--the mero dotting-in of primroses, blue-bells, and foreground flowers, at the dictation of a critic whose service has at length become an insufferable thraldom. We protest against a tyranny which year by year prostrates the strength of our rising men, and has gone far to blight the promise of our English school. Mr Millais has, however, at last broken loose from the binding fetters, but with a reaction so desperate that shipwreck threatens on the further shore. In this secession from the bonds of the once sacred "brotherhood," we see still further confusion falling on the new school, now left without its leader. For ourselves, in this reigning discord, we would wish to inculcate the widest toleration. Nature, like heaven itself, has room enough and to spare. Public taste, too, is so widely various as not only to tolerte but demand genius the most various, and art the most diversified. Let every school of art, then--every manifestation of honest talent, both great and small--live and prosper. But what we specially regret is this--that men, manifestly meant to embrace the universe, should sell all that is great and noble within their souls to a petty paltry calling, in which the slowest and the weakest intellects must obtain the greatest glory. What we condemn most strongly is, tha men richly endowed, as Mr Millais, should, to a mistaken and pretended truth, sacrifice that earthly, nay heavenly beauty, which, under the sway of graces and muses, and even under the later revelation of angels, has been ever the brightest heritage of art.

. . . Lambinet, again, who has been claimed as a French pre-Raphaelite--what gentle repose, what healthful healing to the eye, in the simple modest nature, in the retiring bashfulness of shadowy greys, which, in his small landscape pictures, seem to upbraid our modern English school of skies as of a consuming firmament, and figures as if caught from the furnace of Abednego. . . . What a contrast in the humble subordination of this work to the ostentatious and flagrant excess of our English pre-Raphaelite pictures, where every colour strives to kill and blind its neighbour; where every detail, instead of bashfully retiring into shadow, protrudes its small conceit.


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Copyright © 2000 Thomas J. Tobin.

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