"The Royal Academy: II." Saturday Review 17 May 1856, 57-59.

excerpts

Perhaps the most remarkable picture in the Academy’s exhibition, in more senses than one, is the "Scapegoat," by Holman Hunt. It belongs to a class of subjects to which he has already shown a decided leaning, but which scarcely afford a legitimate field for the painter. A symbol which, in writing, finely conveys a certain thought, may, in the painter’s hands, inevitably lose all its beauty, and become repulsive from the very power with which it is forced upon us; and at any rate, in dealing with a solemn subject, the artist should choose the noblest type, especially when he combines with the symbolism such intense realism–as indeed he ought–in the working out. "The Light of the World" answered this requirement; for we could accept that noble figure, with the grand sorrowing countenance and jewelled crown, as a not unfitting representation of Christ. But we revolt from the emblem which the artist has chosen this year. It was doubtless necessary to impress upon the minds of the Jews the reality of Christ’s coming and Atonement by a constant symbolism, easy and forcible in application, carried through their daily lives and worship; but for us, who know that "He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows," these types have little teaching. Apart, however, from the fundamental error of taste shown in this picture, there is scarcely anything left for us but to wonder and admire. The scene is so strange and new to most of us that we take its truthfulness on trust from the artist, and from what may be called the internal evidence of the picture–viz., its intense carefulness, and that look of nature with which all true study from nature impresses us. The sky, glowing like an opal–the distant range of hills, with their heights flushed and burning in the sunset light, and their base in shadow–and the livid green of the level, lifeless water stretching far away–are inimitably fine in colour, drawing, and gradation. Coming nearer to the foreground, to the "salt-incrusted shallows," we are surprised to find the reflections from sky and mountains brighter than their realities; but even this we are inclined to take on faith from Mr. Hunt, as it seems almost impossible that he could have made a mistake in such a matter. The goat, feeble and exhausted, and soon to be counted among the skeletons already strewn upon the desolate shore and faintly lit by the sun’s last rays, is finely felt and successfully rendered. The light on the animal is warm, but the salt flat on which its shadow is thrown, and which is lit by the same rays, is cold. How is this? Take it for all in all, it is a wonderful picture, and must amply repay the artist for his toils, even without taking into consideration numerous smaller studies, three of which are in the miniature room. We can form little idea of the steadfast purpose and iron will which were necessary to him and his companion, Mr. Thomas Seddon, in carrying out their determination of bringing home faithful transcripts of the Holy Land as it is in our day. With the one great exception of Mr. John Lewis, they are the first who have made this attempt. Mr. Seddon has three very earnest and successful studies in the Academy, though they are not the best he has done. As Lewis’s finest picture is at the Old Water Colour Exhibition this year, it will be better to speak of the two in the Academy in our notice of that collection.

In a corner of the East Room, placed too high to be well seen, is a quiet grey picture, which attracts the notice of few whose attention is not specially directed to it; but, the eye and thoughts once fixed on it, we leave it reluctantly. The subject is taken from an old ballad, called "Burd Helen." That cool treacherous knight on horseback is trying to desert–has deserted already in his heart–the woman who stands breathless by him holding on to the saddle. She has run by the horse’s side the "live-laing simmer’s day"–through prickly broom, along dry roads and stony paths–and now, with failing breath and heart, and hand pressed to her side, she sees the horse, unrestrained by his master, step into the swollen stream. To follow further will be her death; and he, playing with his bridle, watches her, wondering how she will defeat him now. This is a touching episode in the endless history of the struggle between the true and false heart in man and woman; but Mr. Windus has not only chosen an exquisite subject, but has given us a picture equal to the theme. He has thought and felt it out most subtly, not only in the principal figures, but in sky and landscape. The sky is filmed over with thin clouds, but stormier clouds are surging up from the horizon. The kite hovering over its prey–the dreary heath–the stony precipitous path–the water rippled by the horse’s foot–are all suggestive and full of poetry, and are painted with refined truthfulness and tender lovely colour. The horse, however, is very faulty in drawing, and weakly painted; and one would have liked a trace of greater loveliness in the girl’s face. . . .

"April Love," by Arthur Hughes, is a lovely conception, full of poetry. The head of the young girl is exquisitely pure, and yet subtle in expression; and the clasp of the man’s hands with hers, and the head bowed down upon them, are full of passion and tenderness. It is a great pity the picture is not more equally carried out. There is too much fondness for crude colour, purple especially. The old twisted trunk is finely painted, but the ivy leaves upon it, though most delicately drawn, look metallic and untrue. The scarf thrown over the girl’s shoulders is a lovely piece of painting, but the violet dress is raw in colour and ugly in form; while her right arm and hand are too small, and very weakly drawn. The fine conception of the picture makes us almost forgive and forget these defects, but we want Mr. Hughes himself neither to forget his faults nor forgive himself until he has conquered them. His other picture, "The Eve of St. Agnes," is just as unequal. It is divided into three compartments, of which the centre one by far surpasses the other two. Everyone who knows Keats’ poem will feel how imaginatively and faithfully the painter has translated it into his own language. "The blue affrayed eyes" of Madeline, who believes herself still dreaming, and lifts herself upon her arm to see more clearly the very vision she had prayed for–the quiet steady look of her lover, who fears to break the spell by a hasty movement or eager glance–are exquisitely imagined. The line of her figure, and the way in which the white drapery falls over it, are very beautiful; and the moonlight which pours in through the stained glass window, tinging the drapery, though perhaps too faintly, is well rendered. But the uniform greenness of the right compartment is incomprehensible, and one can scarcely believe the figures in the left to be intended for the same as those in the centre. . . .

It must be supposed that the correctness of even the most distinguished men among the pre-Raphaelites is above impeachment. A singular proof of this is supplied by Millais’s picture, "The Blind Girl." Almost everybody knows that in nature the order of the colours in the secondary rainbow is the reverse of their order in the primary. Millais has painted them, however, in precisely the same order in both rainbows. It is curious he should have made such a blunder, but still more curious that Mr. Ruskin should not have noticed it in his new pamphlet. One can imagine the vehemence with which so gross a scientific heresy would have been denounced in a painter of the elder generation. We observe that Mr. Ruskin in his preface offers to recommend the Quarterly Reviewer to a school where he may learn "astronomy and optics."


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Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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