"British and French Art in New-York." Knickerbocker, or New York Monthly Magazine 51 (Jan. 1858), 52-61.


John Bull, in the plenitude of his good nature–but we must digress thus early from our subject, after the fashion of the veritable history of Tristram Shandy, to defend this expression, lest some one of our downright Yankee brethren, with his prejudices refreshed by a glance from his window at his pet granite obelisk, should take us to task for advancing such heresy as that John Bull is ever good-natured. Now, albeit that our male parent (we take him to be the husband of our mother country) has gained the reputation of being a grumpy and somewhat belligerent old codger, yet we cannot but give him credit for an occasional amiable low, when we see him caring for the amusement of his herd by Sydenham Crystal Palace and Manchester Exhibition, even while all Europe is shaking red flags at him across the Channel, and black ban-dogs are worrying his fair cows and tender calves in the far-off pasture-field of India.

John Bull, then, in the plenitude of his good nature, has not even forgotten his prodigal offspring in these troublous times, but has sent over for our admiration and instruction, an Exhibition of British Art, with a royal good fellow of a British custodian to aid our weak perceptions in the discovery of its beauties. Let no captious grumbler whisper in our ear, that may be, after all, it is but a trading speculation of some London print-seller, who did not go to see Church’s Niagara, and never heard of Cropsey or Kensett, but believed that ‘the Americans do not know what pictures are, and will buy any thing that has a name to it.’ Did he, too–good, honest advocate of the French Alliance–promote the sending of a more showy representative congress of Gallic painters, and calling it ‘The Exhibition of Paintings by Modern Artists of the French School,’ forward the interest of each sales-room by generous rivalry! Out upon such damnable heresy, and let us learn gratefully our first lessons in the appreciation of high art, without making faces at our kind preceptor. Let us premise that we have never been to ‘the other side,’ and knowing only Ruskin, the ‘Art Magazine,’ and kindred publications, let us enter humbly upon the task of discovering, first in the British Exhibition, the beauties of art, in the works of painters whose talents are therein exalted. Hermes! Thot! or by whatsoever name thou art called, tutelar divinity of artists, forefend that we should discover, within this thy shrine, the Bathos of Art !

Our unaccustomed eyes are first attracted to strange, bright-colored pictures, vividly distinct in all their details, of impossible boys and unearthly infants, with grass of brightest green, running up into where we look for the sky; we do not like to exhibit our ignorance before the Briton, so we appeal privately to our countryman, quondam editor of the ‘Crayon,’ who has lent his taste and judgment to aid in the arrangement of the galleries and hanging of the pictures. These are works of the new school of Pre-Raphaelite painters, [sic] We approach the representation of a yellow-haired boy, whom, at first sight, we judge to have lain so long upon his mother’s grave, that his white-duck sailor-trowsers have become mildewed, but the improbability of this theory leads us to the conclusion, that these gray spots are the shade of a tree, which, as it does not appear, we receive on faith. In the back-ground (if the remembrance of there being no perspective taught in this school had not flashed upon us, we should have thought it up a grassy hill) a lamb hidden from its mother by an intervening tomb-stone, is intended as an allegorical coädjutant to the main subject, the presence of which is one of the technical characteristics of this school; but so awkward is the whole composition, an otherwise pure and touching sentiment is spoiled by the bad company it has got into. Finally we turn away with fixed determination, in our secret mind, to gyrate our small brother in order to discover whether it be possible for the most flexile of mortals to assume the position of that boy upon the grass.

‘–––quam quam ridentum dicere verum

Quid vetat.’

This is not Art; neither do we conceive it to be a fair exponent of that school of art, which, still new to our times, has called itself by the unfortunate and undescriptive name of Pre-Raphaelite. We are fully mindful that the school is an infant one, yet in its primary department, but we submit that too many square feet of daubed canvas (of which the picture we have first come upon is no unfair sample) go to prove, that the spirit and intention of its teachings are misunderstood by many professing to call themselves by its name, who are bringing it into disrepute, if not into ridicule, by their false representations. If we rightly understand the animus of its founders, its Pre-Raphaelism consists not in an assumed unlearning of all that art has gained since the days of Raphael, in absence of perspective, in glaring tapestry coloring, or in a mock religious sentimentality. The all-pervading spirit which gives it life are those elements of ideal beauty, which Ruskin has, with quaint force, named the Lamp of Truth and the Lamp of Religion. Much maudlin talk there has been of Earnestness and Earnest men, but there is behind, or shall we not rather say above, all this, elevated upon a height from which the unreal has fallen, a genuine love, inborn with every noble heart, that craves for that truth and energy of purpose which constitute real earnestness? Herein, therefore, we find the power, after which this school of painting is now half-blindly groping. Seeking no aid from melo-dramatic contrasts of light and coloring, it needs not to rob itself of all that Art has learned; it may be all truth, and yet have breadth, and depth, and effective force of composition; foreground and back-ground need not to be rolled out flat, like the pie-man’s crust, and plastered, thus distorted, on the canvas; your crag, two miles away, needs not to topple over the heads of sheep here at our feet, that the artist may prove himself too much in earnest with his main design for any care of such trivial considerations as distance, relative distinctness, or real appearance to the eye.

The marked feature of the paintings of this school, as they strike the mere casual observer, is the finish which is given to all the details, even to those of the most trivial importance; every leaf and every blade of grass seems to have been made the subject of a study, and in an extended landscape the effect is displeasing and false. The eye, in looking, rests but upon few objects, and these the ones to which it is attracted by some exciting cause; so in painting, the objects, which give the name and character to what is painted, have a distinctness to which all their surroundings must be subordinate. Thus in portraits, the most pleasing finish, more common in crayon drawings than in painting, is that which makes the head a finished study, but leaves the figure a mere blur of hasty pencil-strokes. Where but few objects are represented, and no great extent of surface painted, we are not affected by this glare. ‘Middlemas’ Interview with his Unknown Parents,’ by Windus, would not be immediately detected as belonging to this school; but three figures are introduced, and, as the interest centres naturally on them, the elaborate finish does not so stare us in the face. The same effect of unity subduing this too great distinctness is observable in ‘Ophelia,’ and ‘April Love,’ by Arthur Hughes, the painter of what we have already described as the ‘Mildewed Boy,’ a name which has universally supplanted that of the Catalogue, ‘Home from Sea; The Mother’s Grave;’ but we cannot say as much for ‘A Finished Sketch,’ by the same artist, of a fearsome maiden, who is braiding long strands of yellow tow, no doubt a wig, for no such hair ever grew on human head.

Happily for the reputation of the Pre-Raphaelite brethren, there is in the collection a small copy of Holman Hunt’s noble and now world-renowned painting, ‘The Light of the World.’ We cannot convey any idea of its beauty by mere description. The design is simple and quaint; the Saviour is standing at a door, strong barred, and grown over with ivy, thorns, and worthless weeds; He has just knocked, and, with anxious face and half-bowed head, listens for the soul’s reply; the time is evening, and the pale-green shimmer of an English moon-lit night but half reveals the objects in the back-ground, while the Saviour’s figure and the door are brought out in strong relief by the gleam of the lantern which He carries, hung by a chain from His left hand. Christ is represented with the golden crown and royal jewelled robe of His exalted state; but we cannot better embody both the details of the picture and its religious sentiment than by copying from a letter of Ruskin, in which he gives his conception of its meaning:

‘ . . . I speak of the picture called ‘The Light of the World,’ by Mr. Holman Hunt. Standing by it yesterday for upwards of an, hour, I watched the effect it produced upon the passers-by. Few stopped to look at it, and those who did, almost invariably, with some contemptuous expression, founded on what appeared to them the absurdity of representing the Saviour with a lantern in His hand. Now it ought to be remembered that, whatever may be the faults of a Pre-Raphaelite picture, it must at least have taken much time, and therefore it may not unwarrantably be presumed that conceptions, which are to be so laboriously realized, are not adopted in the first instance without some reflection. So that the spectator may surely question with himself whether the objections which now strike every one in a moment might not possibly have occurred to the painter himself, either during the time devoted to the design of the picture, or the months of labor required for its execution; and whether, therefore, there may not be some reason for his persistence in such an idea, not discoverable at the first glance.

‘Mr. Hunt has never explained his work to me; I give what appears to me its palpable interpretation.

‘The legend beneath it is the beautiful verse: ‘Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and sup with him, and he with Me.’ (Rev. 3:20.) On the left-hand side of the picture is seen the door of the Human Soul: it is fast barred; its bars and nails are rusty; it is knitted and bound to its stanchions by creeping tendrils of ivy, showing that it has never been opened. A bat hovers about it; the threshold is overgrown with brambles, nettles, and fruitless corn–the wild grass ‘whereof the mower filleth not his hand, nor he that bindeth sheaves his bosom.’ Christ approaches it in the night-time– Christ, in His everlasting offices of Prophet, Priest, and King. He wears the white robe, representing the power of the Spirit upon Him; the jewelled robe and breast-plate, representing the sacerdotal investiture; the royal crown of gold, inwoven with the crown of thorns; not dead thorns, but now bearing soft leaves, for the healing of the nations.

‘Now when Christ enters any human soul He bears with Him a two-fold light. First, the light of conscience; its fire is red and fierce; it falls only on the closed door, on the weeds which encumber it, and on an apple shaken from one of the trees of the orchard, thus marking that the entire awakening of the conscience is not merely to committed but to hereditary guilt.

‘This light is suspended by a chain, wrapped about the wrist of the figure, showing that the light which reveals sin appears to the sinner also to chain the hand of Christ.

‘The light which proceeds from the head of the figure, on the contrary, is that of the hope of salvation; it springs from the crown of thorns, and, though itself sad, subdued, and full of softness, is yet so powerful that it entirely melts into the glow of it the forms of the leaves and boughs, which it crosses, showing that every earthly object must be hidden by this light, where its sphere extends.

‘I believe there are very few persons on whom the picture, thus justly understood, will not produce a deep impression. For my own part, I think it one of the very noblest works of sacred art ever produced in this or any other age.

‘It may, perhaps, be answered, that works of art ought not to stand in need of interpretation of this kind. Indeed, we have been so long accustomed to see pictures painted without any purpose or intention whatsoever, that the unexpected existence of meaning in a work of art may very naturally at first appear to us an unkind demand on the spectator’s understanding. But in a few years more, I hope the English public may be convinced of the simple truth, that neither a great fact, nor a great man, nor a great poem, nor a great picture, nor any other great thing, can be fathomed to the very bottom in a moment of time; and that no high enjoyment, either in picture-seeing or any other occupation, is consistent with a total lethargy of the powers of the understanding.

‘As far as regards the technical qualities of Mr. Hunt’s painting, I would only ask the spectator to observe this difference between true Pre-Raphaelite work, and its imitations. The true work represents all objects exactly as they would appear in nature in the position, and at the distance, which the arrangement of the picture supposes. The false work represents them with all their details, as if seen through a microscope. Examine closely the ivy on the door in Mr. Hunt’s picture, and there will not be found in it a single clear outline. All is the most exquisite mystery of color; becoming reality at its due distance. In like manner, examine the small gems on the robe of the figure. Not one will be made out in form, and yet there is not one of all those minute points of green color, but it has two or three distinctly varied shades of green in it, giving it mysterious value and lustre.’

That there is but one step from the sublime to the ridiculous, was never perhaps more practically illustrated than when that step carried us from this glorious work of true art, to Miss Liddal’s [sic] ‘Clerk Saunders and May Margaret.’ ‘Sketch for a Picture’? We hope, for the fair artist’s sake, that she does not call it, like Hughes’ Rosamond, a ‘finished’ sketch. If this be not the Bathos of Art, where shall we seek it? We would fain describe this effort of Pre-Raphaelism run mad, but, like the notorious swearer when the freshet carried away his mills, we are ‘not equal to the occasion.’

In another painting, ‘King Lear,’ by Mr. F. Madox Brown, we find, in strange medley, faults of the artist, and faults of his school, mingled with high merit of both. The figure of Lear, and the face of the Fool, are above all praise; but Cordelia, in the effort of the artist to make her true to her ancient Briton character, is a Billingsgate fishwife gone into high tragedy on the boards of a provincial theatre. We are pleased too, with the bright sunshiny landscape, looked out upon through an open window, but it did not need to be made tumbling in at the window to give it greater truth. Why will not these soldiers of a new crusade in art, learn wherein their power lies? But one more long look at Hunt’s ‘Eve of St. Agnes,’ (also a small copy of the original) and we have done with the Pre-Raphaelites.

Although their pictures are not in greater number, or, with few exceptions, of greater merit, than the productions of other British artists, whose names, if not their talents, are here represented, yet in them centres most of the interest of the Exhibition. Their style is new, quaint, and attractive; and, if they are no fairer samples of what this school has done, than are the other pictures of the present state of British art, even in its infancy the school is stalwart.

This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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