[Collins, Wilkie] "The Exhibition of the Royal Academy." Bentley’s Miscellany 29.174 (Jun. 1851), 617—627.

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Mr. Brown’s large and elaborate picture of "Chaucer reading the Legend of Custance to Edward the Third," deserves to be mentioned by us with that respect which hard work honestly persevered in throughout, should always command. It must be confessed, however, that we looked with regret at the whole composition, as a work in which the confusion of the figures, and the absence of any attention to harmony, had seriously damaged the effect of many detached parts that were individually excellent. We hope to see Mr. Brown doing more justice to his own industry and intelligence on a future occasion. . . .

Mr. C. Collins’s "Convent-Thoughts" we intend to notice further on, with the works exhibited in the West and North Rooms, by Messrs. Hunt and Millais–the novel and strongly-marked style which these three artists have adopted alike, warranting us in reserving their pictures for special and separate remark. . . .

In truth, the chief attractions to us, in the North Room, are the landscapes, which we have yet to notice. We remember nothing which it is necessary to particularise, but two clever animal pictures by Mr. Ansdell, and the "Woodman’s Daughter," by Mr. Millais. The mention of this last work reminds us that it is now time to offer our promised remarks on, what is called the "new," or "Pre-Raphael" style.

The characteristics of this style, in the eyes of the general spectator, may, we think, be pretty correctly described as follows:–an almost painful minuteness of finish and detail; a disregard of the ordinary rules of composition and colour; and an evident intention of not appealing to any popular predilections on the subject of grace or beauty. The most prominent representatives of this new school are Messrs. Millais, Collins, and Hunt; whose pictures we are now about to notice.

Mr. Collins’s picture, in the Middle Room, is entitled Convent Thoughts and represents a novice standing in a convent garden, with a passion-flower, which she is contemplating, in one hand, and an illuminated missal, open at the crucifixion, in the other. The various flowers and the water-plants in the foreground are painted with the most astonishing minuteness and fidelity to Nature–we have all the fibres in a leaf, all the faintest varieties of bloom in a flower, followed through every gradation. The sentiment conveyed by the figure of the novice is hinted at, rather than developed, with deep poetic feeling–she is pure, thoughtful, and subdued, almost to severity. Briefly, this picture is one which appeals, in its purpose and conception, only to the more refined order of minds–the general spectator will probably discover little more in it, than dexterity of manipulation. Mr. Millais aims less high, and will therefore be more readily understood. He exhibits three pictures. The first represents a girl standing in an attitude of extreme weariness, in the chamber of an ancient mansion. The dress of the figure, the stained glass on the windows, the stool from which she has risen, all display the most dazzling and lustrous richness of colour, combined with high finish of execution. In the second picture, "The return of the Dove to the Ark," we have only the wives of two of Noah’s sons; one holding the dove, the other caressing it. Here, every stalk of the straw on which the figures are standing, is separately painted; the draperies are studied and arranged, with great skill and power; and the flesh-tints are forcible in an extraordinary degree. The third picture, "The Woodman’s Daughter," is more remarkable for the landscape than the figures. The woody background of the scene is really marvellous in its truthfulness and elaboration. Mr. Hunt exhibits one work–"Valentine receiving Silvia from Proteus;" and exceeds, in some respects, even Mr. Collins and Mr. Millais in the intricacies of high finish, and in minute imitation of the minutest objects in nature. "Silvia" is kneeling upon some dry leaves, treated with an elaboration beyond which art cannot go. The drapery, too, of this figure is painted with the most masterly firmness, brilliancy, and power; every inequality of the wooded background is represented with admirable fidelity to nature; and the patches of sunlight falling upon shady places through gaps in the trees above, shine with a dazzling brightness which never once reminds us of the trickeries of the palette–which is the evident result of the most intelligent and the most unflinching study.

Such are some of the most prominent peculiarities of these pictures which come within the limits of so brief a notice as this. If we were to characterise, and distinguish between, the three artists who have produced them, in a few words, we should say that Mr. Collins was the superior in refinement, Mr.Millais in brilliancy, and Mr. Hunt in dramatic power. The faults of these painters are common to all three. Their strict attention to detail precludes, at present, any attainment of harmony and singleness of effect. They must be admired bit by bit, as we have reviewed them, or not admired at all. Again, they appear to us to be wanting in one great desideratum of all art–judgment in selection. For instance, all the lines and shapes in Mr. Collins’s convent garden are as straight and formal as possible; but why should he have selected such a garden for representation? Would he have painted less truly and carefully, if he had painted a garden in which some of the accidental sinuosities of nature were left untouched by the gardener’s spade and shears? Why should not Mr. Millais have sought, as a model for his "Woodman’s Daughter," a child with some of the bloom, the freshness, the roundness of childhood, instead of the sharp-featured little workhouse-drudge whom we see on his canvas? Would his colour have been less forcible, his drawing less true, if he had conceded thus much to public taste? We offer these observations in no hostile spirit: we believe that Messrs. Millais, Collins, and Hunt, have in them the material of painters of first rate ability: we admire sincerely their earnestness of purpose, their originality of thought, their close and reverent study of nature. But we cannot, at the same time, fail to perceive that they are as yet only emerging from the darkness to the true light; that they are at the critical turning point of their career; and that, on the course they are now to take; on their renunciation of certain false principles in their present practice, depends our chance of gladly welcoming them, one day, as masters of their art–as worthy successors of the greatest among their predecessors in the English school.


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Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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