[Rossetti, William Michael]. "The Fine Art of 1858–Oil Pictures." Saturday Review 5.133 (15 May 1858), 500-506.

excerpts

In the shifting diorama of artistic style, the eye gets soon disused to the form which passes, and used to the form which succeeds. But for this, an exhibition-room of the present day would be an object of genuine wonderment. Since art was art, the aim which now exists of representing natural facts both in their general effect on the eye and their literal minutenesses has never had a precedent. The ancients, as far as we can gather, did not represent effects at all, but only objects–and even these in the main, it is to be inferred, with something of the same largeness and ideal character in painting as in their sculptured works. The mediævalists dwelt tenderly on a few effects, and, in some schools, minutely on a multiplicity of objects; but the union of the two was hardly attempted, and never realized. The moderns have experimented progressively on effects, and dealt with objects on the large scale, but not with their minutenesses–a Dutchman here and there plodding through the minutenesses, but only with a technical aim, and losing the effects and the natural balance and keeping. Now it is naturalism in its entire gamut–the French and its allied schools running the race side by side with the British in this respect, though it is to the British more especially that we owe the realization of the effect through its minute details.

This movement is of very recent date. Turner, indeed, initiated and accomplished it with a splendour which may wait long for its parallel, and with multiform and multitudinous resources altogether unrivalled; and his example gave an impulse to naturalism such as it had never received before, and cannot lose henceforth save by some blight or convulsion of art which would baffle forecasting. But the peculiar form in which the alliance of effect and minuteness is now distinctively pursued dates only within the last decade of the British school. It is the spirit which has been too frequently restricted to what is unfortunately termed pre-Raffaelitism, co-operating with the lessons of photography, which has changed the face of our exhibitions. To throw oneself back in imagination to an exhibition of 1848 or of 1849–the year in which the leaven of a real searching after nature first touched the lump–is to gaze upon a state of things now superseded, and rapidly taking itself off into the holes and corners of art. The reform was announced, opposed, abused, derided, challenged to fight its way. It fought it, gained adherents–willing and bitterly reluctant–and is now regnant and installed. Pre-Raffaelitism is no longer the name or badge of an aggressive minority. In its narrower and tentative sphere, indeed, it has passed away, and there remains of it a large and genial influence, better than itself, which pervades, with few exceptions, the entire body of whatever is progressive or accepted in our art. The term is too convenient a laconism to be superseded for some while yet; it is a regretable [sic] one in itself, and in too many cases it survives only to apologize for crudity and incapacity, and, so far as it appears to imply a protest rather than a general influence, it is already, as it ought to be, out of date.

The effect of the reform has been on the whole a levelling one. It sets every man on his mettle–not to display his cleverness, but to do his work well. The student begins with it, and paints harshly and faithfully; he assures every successive step in his progress; and, as his mind expands, and his hand avails to realize his perceptions of fact, the harshness vanishes, and the faithfulness expresses itself aright. The level is merely the level of consistent practice, and a common aim after truth. It cannot repress originality of conception–this works its way as soon as the means of realization are assured. It cannot repress individuality of perception, or preference of subject–these determine the form of effort from the very first. What it does is to make men work rightly who would otherwise work at random, and fritter away any capacity they may possess in undisciplined experiment and feeble self-assertion. But neither Pre-Raffaelitism nor any other ism will hatch great works. There is only one recipe for that–the great mind; and great minds are, and will ever remain, the God-given gift of the few. . . .

We do not hesitate to single out the Dead Stonebreaker of Mr. Wallis as the master-work of the gallery. It is at the head both of its thought and of its art, and presents a notable combination of the great qualities in the new movement. It takes the hard fact of our own day as its inspiration, finds that this too has elements of eternal pathos and significance, associates and calms its bitter human literality with the glory of external nature, and realizes all–the mournfulness, the strangeness, the beauty, the actual truth–to the uttermost. Mr. Wallis tells his meaning so well in the mottoes which he has selected, that we shall let them speak for him. The full-fraught line from Tennyson, inscribed on the frame, is almost enough of itself–

Now is done thy long day’s work;

to which the catalogue adds that other from Carlyle–"Hardly entreated brother! for us was thy back so bent, for us were thy straight limbs and fingers so deformed: thou wert our conscript on whom the lot fell, and, fighting our battles, wert so marred. For in thee too lay a God-created form, but it was not to be unfolded; encrusted must it stand with the thick adhesions and defacements of labour; and thy body, like thy soul, was not to know freedom." The painter has probed low for his subject, but only to show us that we are wrong in calling it low. An old pauper set to break stones by the road-side, who has died over his work–that is all. No horror, no grimace no anti-poor-law stump oratory. It is mournful and terrible; yet there is more of peace at the heart of it than of terror. The old man is not a scarecrow, but a strong-knit stalwart labourer, not long past the vigour of his manhood. His task has been steadily worked at–the hammer has slipped quietly from his hand– grey under the twilight shadow, his face, which the inquisitive stoat stands to look at, has settled into calm. The yellow sunset broods over the blue bills, and, reflected in the still river, the sky comes nearer to the dead man than the hollow gloom of earth–

Now is done thy long day’s work:

the great deliverer and changer has come. There is certainly no painter of the time who deserves better of the public than Mr. Wallis. He always gives them of his best. Whatever it is in him to think and do, he thinks gravely and does thoroughly.

Mr. Egg also is quite in earnest this year with a subject of modern life, which he tells in three acts. The story is that of a wife fallen, and a family destroyed. In the first scene, the husband, come home unexpectedly, learns his misery from a letter of the seducer, which he finds, as we conjecture, by chance. Both are equally overwhelmed by the discovery. The husband sinks into a chair, and stares out giddy and death-pale; the wife, as if felled by a blow, has fallen prostrate to the floor; the shock of her fall shatters the card-castle which her two unconscious little girls were building further back in the room–an incident most ingeniously exact in its moral analogy. The wife is an admirable figure, rendered with extreme power–the husband rather uninteresting, and with an expression which suggests more perplexity than anguish. In colour and daylight effect, this compartment of the picture suffers by coming between the two moonlights at the sides. These scenes are simultaneous. At one side the lost wife, a haggard outcast with her unfathered child, crouches under one of the Adelphi arches, and gazes with vacant heart-sinking at the bright August moon over the polluted river. At the other side the two daughters of the opening scene, now young girls advancing toward womanhood, are praying, with their window open, in presence of the same moon in a bare room–their father dead, their mother dead to them. We are left to suppose that listlessness in the affairs of daily life, and reverse of fortune, have followed the wreck of the husband’s peace, and that his orphans are left unprovided for. In artistic vigour and completion this is a very remarkable work–the moonlight singularly mellow and brilliant, and true in tone without the usual coldness. A number of minor points assist to tell the story; and we think that the difficulty which many profess to find in reading it is due to their own dulness or wilful indifference, rather than to the artist’s shortcoming. The, picture, like its subject, is a painful one; but every vestige of offence in detail is excluded from it; and its power and purpose, which reach deeper than any previously developed by Mr. Egg, will materially enhance his reputation. . . .

Another man who paints for delight, and not for profundity, is Mr. Lewis, who has abandoned this year, we believe, together with the presidency of the Water-Colour Society, the regular practice of water-colour art itself. We anticipate no gain from this change, except in the permanence of his work; but the pictures here prove that Mr. Lewis, as was to be expected from so wonderful a manipulator, has conquered the difficulties which beset his early attempts in oil, and can do what he likes with it now. Two of his present works are much the most exquisite he has yet produced in that material. The "Inmate of the Hhareem [sic], Cairo," is a most dainty young creature, bringing in a dainty tray with coffee-cups and glasses; she smiles a bewitching smile at you out of her bright eyes under the shadow of the arched entrance. "A Kibah Shop, Scutari," is a more important work, and it would be a splitting of golden hairs to call it a shade less enticing. There is a thorough sense in it of the pleasure of getting into the shade, and having your slippers off, and sitting down to a nice kibab or a thousand-and-first pipe, in the hot East–and this though we see little or nothing of the heat, but only of the shade. The fluttering and pecking pigeons in the foreground are surprising specimens of delicacy of action and drawing. These are the two masterpieces among the five contributions of Mr. Lewis. "The Arab of the Desert of Sinai," however, is the most conspicuous of all his oil-paintings for strength. "The Interior of a Mosque at Cairo, Afternoon Prayer," is an interesting record of quietism, but Mr. Lewis rather trifles with the subject in painting his own head to the principal figure, instead of a genuine Arab type. "Lilies and Roses, Constantinople," is, of course, choice in execution, yet, does not realize much truth of colour or effect. To pass from Mr. Hook and Mr. Lewis to Mr. Hughes, is to pass from rustic and costume art to sacred art; but it is still to remain with art whose chief quality is its delightfulness. This may seem faint praise for a work possessing a sacred character. In calling this artist’s "Nativity" a delightful work, however, we imply its possession of religious tenderness and purity, at least, or it could not be otherwise than repugnant. Mr. Hughes has painted his little picture very simply and very beautifully, contenting himself with the expression of an idea, and the indication of some heavenly supernaturalism, and not aiming at any extreme point of artistic completeness. The fair girl-mother and girl-angels are full of pure happiness and reverent love. The tone of feeling in the picture partakes of the naïveté of the early Catholic art, contemplated in sympathy, not in a spirit of imitation. The colour and effect are brilliant and unearthlike. They are not positively original, but "original one remove," being a reminiscence from one of Mr. Hughes’s artistic colleagues. A little more work upon this picture will make it in all respects, as it already is in the most essential, the best which Mr. Hughes has produced. . . .

Mr. S. Solomon is new to our exhibitions, but the exhaustless fertility and quaintness of invention which he has displayed in years scarcely exceeding those of boyhood are bruited abroad already in artistic circles. His subject is that dread patriarchal trial, "And the Lord said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, and offer him for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of." It was much to be feared that, entering the lists so early, and with so good a right to rely upon genius apart from labour, this young artist would rather indicate a vivid thought than paint a sterling picture, but such apprehensions are now set at rest. He paints with manly breadth and decision, and with evident resolve to put his thoughts thoroughly into shape, displaying unmistakeably [sic] the qualities of a draughtsman and a colourist. At the height where the picture is hung, its oddness at first sight is more apparent than the details of expression; but we discern enough to satisfy us that there is real depth of bitter love in the father as he holds his son’s head for the last hard moment to his bosom, and filial reliance in the boy. Mr. S. Solomon must not mind being told that his picture is "so funny." With the modest self-confidence of genius he may reply, that it is essentially right. We believe that he has a career of greatness before him such as rarely opens to a young man, and which it only depends upon himself to assure. . . .

Mr. Egg’s "Scene from Thackeray’s Esmond," where Beatrix affects to knight him, is, like his previous picture from the same tale, one of his strongest pieces of work–Beatrix considerably more beautiful than before, but somewhat less distinguée. Still the picture is not a pleasant one. "The Bluidy Tryste," in which a "proude ladie" has stabbed a "knycht," and groans to find that he was her "trewest lover" after all, is catalogued as the work of Mr. Noel Paton. We strongly suspect, however, that the singularly graceful and delicate landscape of this picture is due to Mr. Waller Paton. If so, Mr. Noel Paton’s share in the performance reduces itself to having marred a beautiful landscape by two figures, equally painstaking and nicely handled indeed, but insignificant–if otherwise, he has made a great stride on the road towards real finish. . . .

Mr. Cave Thomas’s "Boccaccio in Naples" is a manly graceful figure, very finely studied throughout, and notably in the drapery. Though Mr. Thomas is not a colourist, he pays a great deal of attention to the combination of his colours, and has succeeded here in producing a sound, clear, neutral harmony. Every detail of the picture shows design and knowledge. . . .

The most exceptionally excellent landscape of all is "The Stonebreaker," by Mr. Brett. Pre-Raffaelite pictures of much higher aim and standard have been painted, but none of more finished achievement within its limits. The white-and-tan dog worrying the stonebreaking boy’s cap, the thistle-bush all in white down, the chalk hill-side–tree-clad in patches and bald in patches–and the blue distance–are altogether extraordinary in clear assertion of the facts of form and colour, though there is rather too little space in the first, and too much coldness in the second. The mechanical persistence also with which the stonebreaker plods through his work, is excellently given. After this, Mr. Brett may do almost what he chooses in the way of direct representation. . . .

The National Institution shares with the Suffolk-street Exhibition in a predominance of landscape, tolerably observant in the first instance, and continually practised with a facility which does not wait long to degenerate into mechanism; and it derives a distinctive character besides from domestic pictures supplied by a knot of young men who are on the sure road to advance and reputation, though hardly of the most brilliant kind. . . . Messrs. Smallfield (who paints chiefly in water-colours), Rossiter, and Moore, in his figure-subjects, are less vivid and self-confident, which induces them to paint more thoroughly. What they paint from is always evidently nature; but they seem unable to do otherwise than paint after something or some one also. All are pupils of pre-Raffaelitism–and satellites, Mr. Moore of Hook, Mr. Smallfield of Hook and William Hunt, Mr. Rossiter of Hunt, as interpreted by Smallfield. This is not a great phase of mind or art, nor will it produce great things; but it is producing good things, and will follow them up with better. Mr. Rossiter especially is a singular instance of the advantage of being set once for all in the right way. His first pictures, dating some six or seven years ago, seemed utterly sad and hopeless; but now he has colour, handling, fair design and expression, and is progressing towards character. His picture of "Village Coquettes" is the most considerable among all of its class at the National Institution, and though not quite the best, has noticeably good points. . . . Mr. Moore above-mentioned has made, in landscape, a very daring attempt at the real colour and play of light in country sunshine, under the title, "A Coast Woodland, North Devon"–an attempt such as we may venture to say was never so much as thought of till within the last few years, and here repaid by a large amount of honourable success.


This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

Return to the list of reviews