« IndietroContinua »
very moderate, not a Radical Reform in this respect. We do not find, even in the latest Exhibitions at Somerset House, 'innumerable examples of truth of imitation, combined with the high qualities of beauty, grandeur, and taste.' The mass of the pictures exhibited there are not calculated to give the English people a true notion, not merely of high art (as it is emphatically called), but of the genuine objects of art at all. We do not believe--to take a plain test of the progress we have madethat nine-tenths of the persons who go there annually, and who go through the Catalogue regularly, would know a Guido from a daub—the finest picture from one not badly executed perhaps, but done in the worst taste, and on the falsest principles. The vast majority of the pictures received there, and hung up in the most conspicuous places, are pictures painted to please the natural vanity or fantastic ignorance of the artist's sitters, their friends and relations, and to lead to more commissions for half and whole lengths--or else pictures painted purposely to be seen in the Exhibition, to strike across the Great Room, to catch attention, and force admiration, in the distraction and dissipation of a thousand foolish faces and new-gilt frames, by gaudy colouring and meretricious grace. We appeal to any man of judgment, whether this is not a brief, but true summary, of the annual show' at the Royal Academy? And is this the way to advance the interests of art, or to fashion the public taste ? There is not one head in ten painted as a study from nature, or with a view to bring out the real qualities of the mind or countenance. If there is any such improvident example of unfashionable sincerity, it is put out of countenance by the prevailing tone of rouged and smiling folly, and affectation all around it.
The only pictures painted in any quantity as studies from nature, free from the glosses of sordid art and the tincture of vanity, are portraits of places; and it cannot be denied that there are many of these that have a true and powerful look of nature: but then, as if this was a matter of great indifference, and nobody's business to see to, they are seldom any thing more than bare sketches, hastily got up for the chance of a purchaser, and left unfinished to save time and trouble. They are not, in general, lofty conceptions or selections of beautiful scenery, but mere common out-of-door views, relying for their value on their literal fidelity; and where, consequently, the exact truth and perfect identity of the imitation is the more indispensable.-Our own countryman, Wilkie, in scenes of domestic and familiar life, is equally deserving of praise for the arrangement of his subjects, and care in the execution: but we have to lament that
he too is in some degree chargeable with that fickleness and desultoriness in the pursuit of excellence, which we have noticed above as incident to our native artists, and which, we think, has kept him stationary, instead of being progressive, for some pears past. He appeared at one time as if he was near touching the point of perfection in his peculiar department; and he may
, do it yet! But how small a part do his works form of the Exhibition, and how unlike all the rest !
It was the panic-fear that all this daubing and rurnishing would be seen through, and the scales fall off from the eves of the public, in consequence of the exhibition of some of the fi iest specimens of the old Masters at the British Institution, that called into clandestine notoriety that disgraceful production, the Catalogue Raisonnée. The concealed authors of that work conceived, that a discerning public would learn more of the art from the simplicity, dignity, force and truth, of these adınired and lasting models, in a short season or two, than they had done from the Exhibitions of the Royal Academy for the last fifty years: that they would see that it did not consist entirely in tints and varnishes and megilps and washes for the skin, but that all the effects of colour, and charms of expression, might be united with purity of tone, with articulate forms, and exquisite finishing. They saw this conviction rapidly taking place in the public mind, and they shrunk back from it with jealous leer malign.' They persuaded themselves, and had the courage to try to persuade others, that to exhibit approved specimens of art in general, selected from the works of the most famous and accomplished masters; was to destroy the germ of native art; was cruelly to strangle the growing taste and enthusiasm of the public for art in its very birth; was to blight the well-earned reputation, and strike at the honest livelihood of the liberal professors of the school of painting in England. They therefore set to work to decry these productions as worthless and odious in the sight of the true adept: they smeared over, with every epithet of low abuse, works and names sacred to fame, and to generations to come: they spared no pains to heap ridicule and obloquy on those who had brought these works forward : they did every thing to disgust and blind the public to their excellence, by showing in themselves a hatred and a loathing of all high excellence, and of all established reputation in art, in which their paltry vanity and mercenary spite were not concerned. They proved, beyond all contradiction, that to keep back the taste of the town, and the knowledge of the student, to the point to which the Academy had found it practicable to conduct it by its example, was the object of a powerful and active party of professional intriguers in this country. If the Academy had anyhand, directly or indirectly, in this unprincipled cutrage upon taste and decency, they ought to be disfranchised (like Grampound) to-morrow, as utterly unworthy of the trust reposed in them.
The alarm indeed (in one sense) was not unfounded: for many persons who had long been dazzled, not illumined, by the glare of the most modern and fashionable productions, began to open their eyes to the beauties and loveliness of painting, and
to see reflected there as in a mirror those hues, those expressions, those transient and heavenly glances of nature, which had often charmed their own minds, but of which they could find the traces nowhere else, and became true worshippers at the shrine of genuine art. Whether this taste will spread beyond the immedjate gratification of the moment, or stimulate the rising gene- . ration to new efforts, and to the adoption of a new and purer style, is another question ; with regard to which, for reasons & bove explained, we are not very sanguine.
We have a great respect for high art, and an anxiety for its adyancement and cultivation; but we have a greater still for the advancement and encouragement of true art. That is the first, and the last step. The knowledge of what is contained in nature is the only foundation of legitimate art; and the perception of beauty and power, in whatever objects or in whatever degree they subsist, is the test of real genius. The principle is the same in painting an arch-angel's or a butterfly's wing; and the very finest picture in the finest collection may be one of a very common subject. We speak and think of Rembrandt as Rembrandt, of Raphael as Raphael, not of the one as a portrait, of the other as a history painter. Portrait may become history, or history portrait, as the
one or the other gives the soul or of . • That is true history,' said an eminent critic, on seeing Titian's picture of Pope Julius II. and his two nephews. He who should set down Claude as a mere landscape painter, must know nothing of what Claude was in himself; and those who class Hogarth as a painter of low life, only show their ignorance of human nature. High art does not consist in high or epic subjects, but in the manner of treating those subjects; and that manner among us, as far as we have proceedlec, has we think been false and exceptionable. We appeal from the common cant on this subject to the Elgin marbles. They are high art, confessedly: But they are also true art, in our sense of the word. They do not deviate from truth and nature in order to arrive at a fancied superiority to truth and nature. They do not represent a vapid abstraction, but the entire, undoubted, concrete object they profess to imitate,
They are like casts of the finest living forms in the world, taken in momentary action. They are nothing more: and therefore certain great critics who had been educated in the ideal school of art, think nothing of them. They do not conform to a vague, unmeaning standard, made out of the fastidious likings or dislikings of the artist; they are carved out of the living, imperishable forms of nature, as the marble of which they are composed was hewn from its native rock. They contain the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. We cannot say so much of the general style of history-painting in this country, which has proceeded, as a first principle, on the determined and deliberate dereliction of living nature, both as means and end. Grandeur was made to depend on leaving out the details. Ideal grace and beauty were made to consist in neutral forms, and character and expression. The first could produce nothing but slovenliness; the second nothing but insipidity. The Elgin marbles have proved, by ocular demonstration, that the utmost freedom and grandeur of style is compatible with the minutest details,—the variety of the subordinate parts not destroying the masses in the productions of art more than in those of nature. Grandeur without softness and precision, is only another name for grossness. These invaluable fragments of antiquity have also proved, beyond dispute, that ideal beauty and historic truth do not consist in middle or average forms, &c. but in harmonious outlines, in unity of action, and in the utmost refinement of character and expression. We there see art following close in the footsteps of nature, and exalted, raised, refined with it to the utmost extent that either was capable of. With us, all this has been reversed; and we have discarded nature at first, only to flounder about, and be lost in a Limbo of Vanity. With them invention rose from the ground of imitation : with us, the boldness of the invention was acknowledged in proportion as no traces of imitation were discoverable. Our greatest and most successful candidates in the epic walk of art, have been those who founded their pretensions to be history-painters on their not being portrait-painters. They could not paint that which they had seen, and therefore they must be qualified to paint that which they had not seen. There was not any one part of any one of their pictures good for any thing; and therefore the whole was grand, and an example of lofty art! There was not, in all probability, a single head in an acre of canvas, that, taken by itself, was more than a worthless daub, scarcely fit to be hung up as a sign at an alehouse door: But a hundred of these bad portraits or wretched çaricatures, made, by numerical addition, an admirable histori,
cal picture! The faces, hands, eyes, feet, had neither beauty nor expression, nor drawing, nor colouring; and yet the composition and arrangement of these abortive and crude materials, which might as well or better have been left blanks, displayed the mind of the great master. Not one tone, one line, one look for the eye to dwell upon with pure and intense delight, in all this endless scope of subject and field of canvas.
We cannot say that we in general like very large pictures; for this reason, that, like overgrown men, they are apt to be bullies and cowards. They profess a great deal, and perform little. They are often a contrivance not to display magnificent conceptions to the greatest advantage, but to throw the spectator to a distance, where it is impossible to distinguish either gross faults or real beauties.
The late Mr West's pictures were admirable for the composition and grouping. In these respects they could not be better; as we see in the print of the death of General Wolfe: but for the rest, he might as well have set up a parcel of figures in wood, and painted them over with a sign-post brush, and then copied what he saw, and it would have been just as good. His skill in drawing was confined to a knowledge of mechanical proportions and measurements, and was not guided in the line of beauty, or employed to give force to expression. He, however, laboured long and diligently to advance the interests of art in this his adopted country; and if he did not do more, it was the fault of the coldness and formality of his genius, not of the man.-Barry was another instance of those who scorn nature, and are scorned by her. He could not make a likeness of any one object in the universe : when he attempted it, he was like a drunken man on horseback; his eye reeled, his hand refused its office,—and accordingly he set up for an example of the great style in art, which, like charity, covers all other defects. It would be unfair at the same time to deny, that some of the figures and groupes in his picture of the Olympic Games in the Adelphi, are beautiful designs after the antique, as far as outline is concerned. In colour and expression they are like wild Indians. The other pictures of his there, are not worthy of notice; except as warnings to the misguided student who would scale the high and abstracted steep of art, without following the path of nature. Yet Barry was a man of genius, and an enthusiastic lover of his art. But he unfortunately mistook his ardent aspiration after excellence for the power to achieve it; assumed the capacity to execute the greatest works instead of acquiring it; supposed that the bodiless creations of his brain' were to start out from the walls of the Adelphi like a dream or a fairy tale ;-and the result has been, that all the splendid illu