"Music and Fine Arts." Guardian 1 Jun. 1850, 396.

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As we anticipated, much difference of opinion prevails upon the merits and importance of the two paintings by Messrs. Hunt and Millais, to which we have previously called attention. By some these works are regarded as a retrograde step in art, and attempt to revive an exploded and obsolete style. Others admit the force and truth of their execution, but look upon them as a clever mistake.

A repeated examination of these pictures has convinced us that they possess qualities and merits of a high order, and just those which we desiderate most in the attempts of the English school in the historical and dramatic line. We find here intensity of expression breathing from every detail, and a faithful and unaffected adherence to nature is made ancillary to the impression intended to be produced by the whole. In the picture (518), by Millais, the power of mere representation is so great that surrounding pictures look faint and conventional in comparison, and they fade into flatness when the eye turns to them after gazing for a few minutes on the rich depths of colour here exhibited. But this is only one manifestation of the quality of truthfulness which pervades each countenance and figure in the picture. The artist, it is true, has chosen a subject little likely to be comprehended or entered into by the multitude, or even by many of the more cultivated classes of our day. It rest upon an interpretation of a doubtful passage in the prophet Zechariah, chap. 13, verse 6. "And one shall say unto him, what are these wounds in thine hands? Then he shall answer, those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends." The idea that certain incidents of our Lord’s childhood were typical of circumstances in his subsequent career, and recognised as such by him, is not altogether new. One of the noblest productions of English art, the Prevision of the Cross painted by Herbert three or four years ago, is founded on such a legend. We do not know whence these anecdotes are derived, having searched for them in vain in the apocryphal narratives of the childhood of Jesus. As for the passage in Zechariah, Jerome and other early commentators understand it to have reference to a false prophet, and not to the Messiah. In defect of exact information, it is nor clear whether in the picture now in question the wound occasioned by the nail is to be supposed accidental, or by what means it has been inflicted. Notwithstanding this drawback, there is a living interest in the figures which gives the whole the appearance of an actual transaction, and which attracts and wins us to a prolonged study and examination. The Mother of our Lord kneels by him with hands clasped in an agony of maternal grief, and a countenance of the deepest tenderness and solicitude, while she holds out her cheek for his kiss. Her face is older than might be historically supposed to belong to the Virgin at the time of this occurrence, as though the study and observation of her wondrous child had wrought habitual anxiety of mind, and drawn premature wrinkles on her brow. John the Baptist, who bears with cautious steps a basin of water to wash to wounded hand, has also a face of more than boyish seriousness and wondering awe, intimating that the young prophet has already divined something of the mystery attaching to the character of his cousin and companion. Joseph and the ancient woman, Elizabeth as we presume, have less penetrated the heart of the secret, and seem to offer merely material advice and aid, while the journeyman to the left of the picture pays little attention to the matter, and is intent upon his business.

We have heard objections made to the vulgarity of the picture; the too faithfully pourtrayed imperfections of the feet of Joseph and the Virgin offend some delicate eyes; others find the subject itself too painful to be contemplated with pleasure; to many it savours of profanity. Without denying that a subject more suitable to the tastes, knowledge, or creed of the present day might have been found, we are willing to take the artist’s work as he presents it to us, distinguished in truth of painting and force of expression.

Mr. Hunt’s picture, A Converted British Family sheltering a Christian Missionary from the persecution of the Druids, would appear at first sight to have little in common with that which we have just been discussing. In force of colouring it is perhaps inferior; the action is lessconcentrated [sic] and there is something in the expression of the faces which threatens to degenerate into mannerism. The physiognomy of the principal character is noble and intellectual, and his whole figure is in contrast with the half-clothed natives who exert themselves for his protection, and whose wild yet serious faces exhibit the germ and promise of future mental development. It is a time of tyranny, when the act of sheltering the evangelic teacher imperils the whole family; yet all contribute, to the best of their power, to the heroic deed. The women tend the exhausted saint with the cares becoming their sex, while the men are providing for the probability of attack. A boy lays his ear to the ground to catch the sounds of the multitude seen in the distance, who, urged by their priests, have led out another missionary to execution. An avenue of colossal stones leads to a Druidical temple on the right, in the background, in front of which stands a white-robed Druid. Within the hut, the symbol of the cross is rudely marked upon a stone forming part of the wall, and near it burns a feeble lamp. It is the hour of darkness and prostration, but the courage and unanimity of the converted family, which thus dares to harbour the persecuted teacher of truth within hearing of the sounds of martyrdom, tells of future triumphs to the cause.

In this work, then, not less than in the former, we gladly recognise and hail an earnestness of meaning and a power of touching the deeper and more solemn chords of the heart, which we fail to find many of the accredited academical productions of the day; nor can we believe but that in an age which has learnt from Wordsworth the value in poetry of the simple materials which Nature offers to those who look upon her with a true and loving eye. Pictures thus conceived and executed must find extensive and increasing appreciation.

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Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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