"Fine Arts: The Royal Academy: Subjects of Invention." Spectator 25.1426 (14 May 1852), 471-472.

excerpt

Among the subjects of invention two stand preëminently forth as something more than inventions in the bare current acceptation of the term–as distinct creations: we mean Mr. Millais’s work, "A Huguenot on St Bartholomew’s Day refusing to shelter himself from danger by wearing the Roman Catholic badge," and Mr. Hunt’s "Hireling Shepherd." It would be superfluous to say that these two works are produced on the "Pre-Raphaelite" principle of faithful unswerving truth–a truth which recognizes no degrees of less and more–were it not that we conceive this fact to be the key to their altogether peculiar impressiveness. There is nothing in the Academy exhibition (except Mr. Millais’s other picture, of which we shall have to speak hereafter) that we so acknowledge, lose ourselves in, and believe.

The incident of Mr. Millais’s work–which is so simple and intelligible as to need no explanation beyond what its title supplies–is founded on the Duc de Guise’s order that "each good Catholic should bind a strip of white linen round his arm" as a badge to be known by. It is not, however, strictly a strip of white linen which the lady attempts to tie round her lover’s arm, but a silk kerchief of her own; for time presses, the hour of danger is come, and the first substitute at hand must serve. Her whole soul, which can see nothing but him in the world, looks through her eyes into his with an appealing trust and love;–surely she must prevail! He, inexorable as duty, calmly, with the very arm that clasps her to his breast, draws the kerchief asunder: and the poor rose in her bosom falls and breaks with the closeness of that last embrace. Even through the profound tenderness with which he meets her gaze, his countenance continues fixed in a certain religious austerity and elevation. The pang of parting, the agony of her agony, are on one side–his faith and the Master he must serve upon the other: his choice is one and unfaltering. The human love, the solemn firmness and conviction, are expressed with equal intensity. The picture reaches poetry in its pathos. Yet we leave much unspoken even in saying this. We dwell primarily–and cannot in one sense dwell too exclusively–upon the feeling in which the subject has been conceived and rendered; but the wall, the nasturtium at its base–of a fidelity never even aimed at in such subjects–the hands, the whole gorgeous yet unglaring colour, are, in point of mere excellence, just as wonderful, or rather it is the same faculty, the same love of truth, the same aspiration disdaining to stop short of the best, which has produced both. The one has likeness and feeling, and is accessory; the other has life and mind superadded to them, and is supreme: both are so good because they are so true, and thorough, and unhesitating. The choice of type in each head is admirable–the man’s especially, simply because it was the more difficult; and the only objection which prolonged and searching contemplation has suggested to us is that the male figure’s leg appears–we are not certain that it is–too uniform in rounding. One such picture–and there are three such here–tells us more of what Pre-Raphaelitism is than all the arguments of four years.

Mr. Hunt’s work is not the less a subject of invention for having a quotation from King Lear appended to it: this motto is virtually the title,–of which the nominal title, "The Hireling Shepherd," is the moral condensed. The first quality which strikes in the picture is its peculiar manliness and spirit of healthful enjoyment. There is no laziness in it–no listless unappreciative copyism or putting up with whatever comes first. The action of each of these sheep–all distinct and characteristic–has been watched and perfectly understood. In the country scene in which the incident takes place–from the marsh-mallows, elecampane plant, and thickly tangled grass of the foreground, to the August corn-field and pollard willows, and above all the elms and bean-stacks of the distance, there is a feeling of the country–its sunny shadow-varied openness–such as we do not remember to have seen ever before so completely expressed; a reality which makes the distance beyond the horizon as conceivable and actual as in nature. It is evident from Mr. Hunt’s title, that the seemingly unimportant incident of the old song has been treated not merely as a casual episode of shepherd life, but with a view to its moral suggestiveness; and the same feeling is to be traced throughout. The shepherd who neglects his flock is a "hireling shepherd": he has caught a moth, which he is engaged in showing to his lass, deeming it a fine opportunity for sidling up to her and being idle; but it is a death’s-head moth, and the ill omen–which he himself makes ominous, though he thinks not of it–is hinted at in the girl’s startled shrink, ever so slight and involuntary though it be. She has a favourite lamb on her knees, but can give it nothing wholesomer to eat than unripe apples: and meanwhile the sheep are in the full career of disorder. That some of them "be in the corn" we know, by one whose head protrudes above as he makes blind way onwards: the bellwether stops bleating for a moment at the entrance, but he has already crossed the marsh; others hustle after, and in the distance one or two have also caught the imitative impulse, and are about to follow. The healthy-blooded rusticity of the figures–robust, but (save in the girl’s raw-beef feet) not coarse–hits the happy medium; and the broad open-air sunlight effect has been kept undeviatingly in view. This is the explanation of the almost crimson redness of the faces; an explanation which, after much indecision, we are disposed to hold sufficient. In the object-painting we find cause for unmixed praise, except as regards the nearer water, which is of too chalky and positive a whiteness, and has a wiry appearance through retouching; and the apples on the girl’s lap are of a metallic green scarcely observable even in the unripe fruit.

We pause for a moment, to indicate what we conceive to be the main difference of mind between Mr. Hunt and Mr. Millais, which makes their work so essentially diverse–colleagues as they are in principle, and compeers as we deem them in genius. The faculty of the one is in its nature reflective–of the other intuitive. Mr. Hunt thinks out his subject, invents and individualizes it: Mr. Millais sees, or, as we may say, creates his. Thus, the conception of the latter, the object he proposes to himself, is always strong and distinct; the agency for explaining it, as in the case of his Holy Family of two years ago, sometimes inadequate: and you feel the thing at once, or not at all. Mr. Hunt has always justified his intention to himself; and you see it fully detail after detail, and enter into it more and more. Thus, too, his rendering of nature is more substantive, its components more sharply defined and separable; Mr. Millais’ more strikingly effective, and gaining in gorgeousness the more it is considered as a whole. Fulness, with the abstract quality of thought, characterizes the first; piercing intensity the second. We might pursue the comparison much further, both illustratively and in its less immediate consequences; but enough has been said by way of suggestion. Both these painters are growing men, the maintainers of the most distinct idea that has been applied to art for a long series of years; and we look for frequent occasion whether for reinforcing or modifying our present views, as facts may command.

The other works in this class painted on the Pre-Raphaelite principle–as the adopters of the name understand it–are Mr. Brown’s subject of last century bearing the infantine title "The pretty Baa-Lambs," and Mr. Collins’s, No. 347. Mr. Brown’s little picture recalls, sympathetically the child-feeling of the long summer hours before the gloaming, when the sky makes the eyes ache in the attempt to fathom its ever-deepening depth of blue, and the moon, which has hung there perhaps all day a scattered half disc of white vapour, (which it would be hard to find, however, so unvaried as Mr. Brown makes it,) begins to gather luminous sharpness. The mother has taken out her baby on the lawn, the wild flowers crunched in his hands, to have a prattle with the "pretty baa-lambs," two of which let themselves be approached, while others disport hard by, and the ewe lies softly panting in the heat; and the servant-girl is filling her basket with grasses. It is a pretty touch of home sentiment, charmingly painted; although the first glance gives an impression of great quaintness. The mother’s arm and hand, however, are stiff, and seem to have been painted out and uncomfortably in again; the face is unpleasing in expression for the subject; and the whole figure, indeed, has an upright and screw-jointed air.

Mr. Collins’s female head–to which a quotation from Keble is attached, and which represents, we presume, a novice induing [sic] the convent vesture–is exquisitely painted. The hands especially are beautiful: but the face is too much that of a country-girl–sensible, indeed, and good, but not eligible as the ideal of a bride of heaven.


This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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