"‘Our Critic’ Among the Pictures." Punch 22 May 1852, 216-217.


There is another comfort for me. I have this year experienced a new sensation at the Exhibition of the Royal Academy. And I hasten to record my sense of the obligation to Mr. Millais. I offer my hand to that Pre-Raphaelite brother. I bow down to him, and kiss the edge of his palette. I have rapped him over the knuckles, in former years, with my pen. He is at liberty to return the compliment, this year, with his maul-stick.

Before two pictures of Mr. Millais I have spent the happiest hour that I have ever spent in the Royal Academy Exhibition. In those two pictures I find more loving observation of Nature, more masterly in the reproduction of her forms and colours, more insight into the sentiment of our greatest poet, a deeper feeling of human emotion, a happier choice of a point of interest, and a more truthful rendering of its appropriate expression, than in all the rest of those eight hundred squares of canvas put together.

I owe the painter this acknowledgment of a great and enduring pleasure, and I rejoice to make it–not for myself only, but for the thousands who have felt as I felt before these pictures. I may he heretical. I cannot help it. R.A.s and A.R.A.s, I admire you–I respect you–I appreciate your skill, and I would gladly purchase your works, if I could afford it. But for this year give me Mr. Millais.

He has painted Ophelia, singing, as she floats to her death, with wide open unconscious eyes, gazing up to heaven. The woven flowers have escaped from her relaxing fingers, and are borne idly with the long mosses of the stream, past the lush July vegetation of the river bank. The red-breast pipes on the willow spray, the wild roses give their sweetness to the summer air, the long purples peer from the crowding leaves, the forget-me-nots lift their blue eyes from the margin as she floats by, her brown hair drinking in the weight of water and slowly dragging down the innocent face with its insane eyes, till the water shall choke those sweet lips, now parted for her own death-dirge.

Talk as you like, M’Gilp, eminent painter, to your friend Mr. Squench, eminent critic, about the needless elaboration of those water mosses, and the over making-out of the rose-leaves, and the abominable finish of those river-side weeds matted with gossamer, which the field botanist may identify leaf by leaf. I tell you, I am aware of none of these. I see only that face of poor drowning Ophelia. My eye goes to that, and rests on that, and sees nothing else, till–buffoon as I am, mocker, joker, scurril-knave, street-jester by trade and nature–the tears blind me, and I am fain to turn from the face of the mad girl to the natural loveliness that makes her dying beautiful.

If a painter were ever pardonable for painting after a poet–and such a poet–Mr. Millais may be forgiven for this picture of Ophelia.

There is another work by the same hand–"A Huguenot, on St. Bartholomew’s day, refusing to shield himself from danger, by wearing the Roman Catholic badge."

The Roman Catholic lady and her Huguenot lover are standing under a garden wall. She has stolen out to meet him, and warn him of the danger. It has not been without doubt and hesitation that she has nerved herself to do so. The petals of the flower she has plucked to pieces in her tremor, are lying at his feet. Her passionate, earnest face, is turned up to his with the gaze of one that pleads for life, while her eager fingers try to fasten the white scarf round his arm. He will not have it, and with a gentle force impedes her tremulous effort. What do you read in his face? Love and pride, and fearlessness, and a shade, perhaps, of incredulity. Some may find one of these sentiments, some another, some all of them together, some none of them. This is the rare quality of the picture. It has many meanings–admits of various interpretations–may be read in divers ways. The moment is rightly chosen, when nothing is decided–when two fates hang trembling in the balance, and the spectator finds himself assisting in a struggle, of which he may prophesy the issue, as his sympathy with the love of woman or the strength of man happens to be strongest.

Of this picture, also, I boldly say, as I said of the other, there is not a whit too much of nicety, or precision, or finish in the details and accessories. Here, again, what I first see, in spite of myself, is the subtle human emotion of those two faces. All the rest I may find out when I have satisfied myself with that. But it is not without an effort that I can turn from those faces to the flowers that grow at the lovers’ feet, or the creeper that mats the wall above their heads.

There is all that accuracy of eye and power of hand can do in these pictures, but there is still more of thought and brains. The man who painted these pictures thought them out. He had a meaning to express, and he has expressed it.

He felt his subject, and he makes me feel it. He cannot go on reproducing these pictures year after year, for the simple reason that the emotion and sentiment in them belongs to the particular subject, and to no other. He may paint as elaborate river banks, as true brick wall, as brilliant plush, and as real a silk dress, but the heads are not stereotype, and once conceived and painted, are conceived and painted for ever.

To all R.A.s and A.R.A.s, whether their subjects be rustic or heroic, fanciful or historical, of the past or of the present, I say, go and do likewise. Unless you can give me a pleasure of the same kind as these pictures give me, you do nothing. Before them I commune with the painter’s thoughts; before your works I criticise coloured canvas.

I say it in no disparagement of you. The same thing is true of your elders and betters; of many Italians and Flemings, whose pictures now fetch their weight in sovereigns, and are hung in high places.

In you and in them I recognise the triumph of skill, and the perfection of imitation. But here I see skill and imitative power subservient to thought, and embodying it with a power equal to the best of you.

I have now the honour, Gentlemen, to bid you good-bye till next week.

This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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