[Rossetti, Dante Gabriel]. "Fine Arts: The Royal Academy Exhibition. Fourth Notice." Spectator 24.1196 (31 May 1851), 523-524.


We have already had occasion to allude to the works of Messrs. Millais and Hunt–works the principle of which it is essential to understand at the outset; for they are among the very few in the Academy whose principle can be clearly stated and apprehended, or indeed which are animated by any, apart from the mystifying traditions or conventions of the studio.

This principle may be broadly laid down as, "the truth, and nothing but the truth": we should add, "the whole truth," were it possible to reproduce the facts of nature, instead of merely, representing them proximately. But, it is to be asked, the truth of what? for surely every object in nature is not per se a subject for a picture. The objection is well founded, but ill addressed: let the still-life painters answer it–the flower, the animal painters–any, in short, before those who deal with the highest themes of human life and emotion. But, as certainly as painting is an imitative art–and that it is so who will dispute?–so certainly is the correct and faithful preferable to the careless imitation of the accessory portions of a picture. Thus stated, our assertion seems an impertinent truism: but it will not become so until the conscientious Iabour [sic] bestowed on such accessories, as on the more important parts, shall have ceased to be matter for ridicule.

One other objection to the literal rendering of a subject is advanced, and appears at first sight entitled to some respect on intellectual grounds: yet we believe that, when at all closely examined, it will be found a specious and self-refuting fallacy. It is said that no one sees the thing actually as it is, but through the medium of his own feelings; and that therefore the strict external representation is, for the higher purposes of art, not true, but false. Accepting this assumption, we would inquire how it is possible, whether desirable or not, that the artist should produce other than an ideal, his own ideal? Or we may take the converse of the proposition, and ask how the spectator, who cannot help idealizing nature in the mere act of vision, should find the literal copy of nature more impracticable? Either way, the objection appears wholly untenable.

We have entered thus far on a consideration of the leading qualities of the "pre-Raphaelite" pictures, because we think it evident that the artists have not picked up their principles at random, and that these ought not therefore to be cried down in any hasty clique spirit. We believe that, irrespectively of the mere deserts of the pictures themselves, they exercise an influence of the very kind most needed in English art, and will continue to do so at a potent rate of increase. Had we proposed to undertake the defence of the artists, instead of simply desiring to let them stand forth for what they are, we should have found our task much shortened by what has been done "in another place." Perhaps a somewhat juster notion will prevail henceforward of the distinction between "archaic art" and "archaic honesty"; and less parrot hearsay about false perspective and snapped draperies will be abroad.

Mr. Millais’s largest picture this year is from Mr. Patmore’s poem of "The Woodman’s Daughter" (799). We can scarcely call it the most elaborate, seeing that the others are no less complete; but it is the one containing the greatest multiplicity of detail. To point out to any one who has visited the exhibition, that in the landscape here there is more laborious minuteness, more patient, humble-hearted subjection to nature, than in whatever other the gallery contains, would be quite superfluous. The scene is deep in summer with its profuse luxury of vegetation; the air throbs with penetrative light and warmth. The head of the aristocratic boy is a triumph of delicate painting; and the "sullen tone" of embarrassment which Mr. Patmore’s fine observation led him to note is expressed with the most masterly truth, not only in the flushed face, but in the angular tension of the limbs. Prejudiced must be the eye which ascribes this constrained position to any system other than the close study of nature. In the girl’s figure the distinctive character of the peasant-child has been enforced to the detriment, as we think, of beauty: but allowance is to be made for the evident fact that, in its most important portions, Mr. Millais has had to work against time. When we add to this a doubt whether some of the shadows on the figures are not too decidedly blue, we have summed up the defects of one of the most truly delightful pictures within our knowledge. "The Return of the Dove to the Ark" (651) is treated by the same artist in a singularly charming and natural composition. The arrangement is simplicity itself; while in breadth and selection of colour, and in the quality of flesh-painting, this is perhaps the most advanced, if not absolutely the best work Mr. Millais has yet produced. The foremost figure certainly is not one of those time-honoured blanket-draped persons whom it has been orthodox for some centuries to consider the types of Scriptural women: she may indeed not be peculiarly suggestive of a daughter of Noah; but she has a large human sincerity of character, a healthful freshness, primal if not primæval, which is as far above affected prettiness as it is unlike stilted convention. Mr. Millais’s third picture (561) is the desolate Mariana in the moated grange. The sentiment is of utter dearth and life-weariness ; no hope for the future, no present stay. A day is past, and nothing more; for the morrow will bring her no nearer to the goal. Throughout the long day’s watching, the moist leaves have drifted in, and lie unheeded on her table; a mouse, fearless of disturbance, has come out from "behind the mouldering wainscot"; and sunset lights up in the casement the emblem of the broken lily. In the dusk of her chamber an oratory-lamp burns dimly; and the bed waits to receive but not to comfort her, after one more day gone in the heartsick vain longing. Mr. Millais has expressed the weariness of mind by an outward action which might be thought too obvious were the sentiment simple lassitude or grief: but it is more than this–it is the fruitless close of hope deferred, the piteous abandonment of a prolonged effort against despair: thewhole [sic] past day is in the moment. And, as though to show his independence of merely physical means, the painter has to an almost hazardous extent divested his theme of its attributes of squalor. A glowing richness of hues surrounds the forlorn Mariana: the house is haunted only by a thought.

But among the works embodying the principles referred to, that on which its size and subject confer the greatest importance is Mr. W. H. Hunt’s "Valentine receiving (rescuing?) Sylvia from Proteus" (594). This picture is certainly the finest we have seen from its painter: it is as minutely finished as his "Rienzi," with more powerful colour; and as scrupulously drawn as his "Christian priest escaping from the Druids," with a more perfect proportion of parts. The scene is the Mantuan forest, deep in dead red leaves, on a sunny day of autumn. Valentine has but just arrived, and draws Sylvia towards his side, from where she has been struggling on her knees with Proteus, whose unnerved hand he puts from him with speech and countenance of sorrowful rebuke. Sylvia nestles to her strong knight, rescued and secure; while poor Julia leans, sick to swooning, against a tree, and tries with a trembling hand to draw the ring from her finger. Both these figures are truly creations, for the very reason that they are appropriate individualities, and not self-seeking idealisms. Mr. Hunt’s hangers may claim to have prevented the public from judging of Sylvia much beyond her general tenderness of sentiment: the exquisite loveliness of the Julia there was no concealing. The outlaws are approaching from the distance, leading the captive Duke. The glory of sunlight is conveyed in the picture with a truth scarcely to be matched; and its colour renders it a most undesirable neighbour. It might have been well, however, to avoid adding to the already great diffusion of hues by the richly embroidered robe of Sylvia. We are tempted to dwell further on the position assigned to Mr. Hunt on the walls of the Academy, in connexion with the importunate mediocrity displayed at so many points of the "line": but, in speaking of the work, we recall the solemn human soul which seems to vibrate through it, like a bell in the forest, drawing us, as it were, within the quiet superiority which the artist must himself feel; and we would rather aim at following him into that portion of the subject which is his domain only.

There are great delicacy and ingenuity of idea in Mr. Collins’s "Convent Thoughts" (493)–a young nun contemplating a passion-flower. The primary suggestion of the subject is caught at once; while a secondary and more special direction is given to its symbolism by the missal which she holds opened at the crucifixion-page. For honest intensity of work Mr. Collins yields to none: no task could have been undertaken with more hearty purpose than is evident in the painting of his convent-garden. In one point–the foreground of mirrorlike water, with its admirably studied lilies and its pure reflections, which the gold fish seem actually swimming into without disturbing them–he has realized the full poetry of his attempt. In other portions a certain coldness may be objected to–some deficiency of that vivid all-informing power which raises exquisite imitation into a higher sphere than it belongs to merely as such. The sky is not only plain but blank. Yet we admit that the feeling of the picture has something to do with this and the flat stretch of convent-wall. But the nun’s narrowness of limb, and her cramped action in holding the flower, as tending towards the extreme of a style, are less defensible. For all this, the picture is one to which we always return with peculiar pleasure, thanks to the beauty of the objects represented, and the perfect good faith of the artist.

This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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