Art: The British Gallery in New York

To speak of English Art was, ten years ago, to speak of something formless, chaotic, indeed, so far as any order or organization of principles was concerned,—a mass of individual results, felt out, often, under the most glorious artistic inspiration, but much oftener the expression of merely ignorant whim, or still more empty academic knowledge,—a waste of uncultivated, unpruned brushwood, with here and there a solitary tree towering into unapproachable and inexplicable symmetry and beauty. Hogarth, Gainsborough, and Turner are great names in Art-history; but to deduce their development from the English culture of Art, one must use the same processes as in proving Cromwell to have been called up by the loyalty of Englishmen. They towered the higher from contempt for the abasement around them. If there was greatness in measure in English Art, it was greatness subjected to tradition and conventionalism. The three artists we have just named were the only great freemen in the realm of Art England had known down to the close of the first half of the nineteenth century; and of these, Turner alone has left his impress on the Art succeeding his.

With the commencement of the present half-century there began a systematic movement in revolt from the degradation of Art in England, which, unfortunately, so far as significance was concerned, assumed the name of Pre-Raphaelitism. It extended itself rapidly, absorbing most of the young painters of any force or earnestness, and attracting some who already held high places in public esteem. Being something now, it was sure of its full measure of derision while it was considered unimportant, and of bitter and violent antagonism when it became evident that it was strong enough to make its way. This hostility, beaten down for the moment by the rhetoric of Ruskin and the inherent earnestness of the new Art, is, however, as sure to prevail again as the English character is at once conservative of old forms, reverential of authorities, and subject to enthusiasms for new things, whose very extravagance tends to reaction. If Pre-Raphaelitism now holds its own in England, it is simply because it is neither thoroughly understood nor completely defined. It is an absolutely revolutionary movement, and must, therefore, be rejected by the English mind when seen as such,—and this all the more certainly and speedily because Ruskin with his imaginative enthusiasm has raised it to a higher position than it really deserves at present. That cause is unfortunate which retains as its advocate one whose rhetoric persuades all, while his logic convinces none; and the too readily believing converts of his enthusiasm and splendid diction, their sympathetic fire abated, revert with an implacable bitterness to their former traditions. With all our respect for Ruskin, we think that he has asserted many things, but proved next to nothing. He has utterly misunderstood and misstated Pre-Raphaelitism, which will thus be one day the weaker for his support.

But, pending this inevitable decline in favor at home, Pre-Raphaelitism colonizes. During the past year, some lovers of Art in England organized an association, having as its purpose the introduction of English Art to the American public,—partly, it was to be expected, with the view of opening this El Dorado to the English painter, but still more with the desire to extend the knowledge of what was to them a new and important revelation of Art. In its inception the plan was almost exclusively Pre-Raphaelite, but extended itself, on after-consideration, so far as to admit the worthiest artists of the conventional stamp. We have the first fruits of the undertaking in an exhibition which has achieved a success in New York, and which will probably visit the principal cities of the Union before its return home in the spring to make way for a second which will open in the autumn.

It is not as a collection of pictures merely that we purpose to notice this exhibition. Out of nearly four hundred pictures, the great proportion are mere conventionalisms,—many of them choice, but most of them in no wise to be compared with the pictures of the same class by French and German painters, since neither just drawing nor impressive color redeems their inanity of conception. There are some curious water-color drawings by Lance, remarkable mainly as forcibly painted, some exquisite colorpieces by William Hunt, and a number of fine examples of the matter-of-fact common-place which forms the great mass of pictures in the London exhibitions. Two drawings deserve especial, though brief, notice; one a coast bit by Copley Fielding,—a sultry, hazy afternoon on the seashore, where sea and sky, distance and foreground, are fused into one golden, slumberous silence, in which neither wave laps nor breeze fans, and only the blinding sun moves, sinking slowly down to where heaven and ocean mingle again in a happy dream of their old unity before the waters under the firmament were divided from the waters above the firmament, and the stranded ships lie with sails drooping and listless on a beach from which the last tide seems to have ebbed, leaving the ooze glistening and gleaming in the sunlight,—a picture of rare sentiment and artistic refinement;—the other is a waterfall by Nesfield,—a dreamy, careless, wayward plunge of waters over ledge after ledge of massive rock, the merry cascade enveloping itself in a robe of spray and mist, on the skirt of which flashes the faintest vision of a rainbow, which wavers and flits, almost, as you look at it, while the jets of foam plash up from the pool at the foot of the fall, a tranquil pause of the waters in a depth of uncertain blue, in which a suggestion of emerald flashes, and from which they dance on in less frantic mood over the brown and water-worn boulders to follow their further whims; everything that is most charming and spirituelle in the water-fall is given, and with a delicacy of color and subtilty of execution fitting the subject. These are not the only good drawings, but there is in them a simplicity and singleness of purpose, a total subordination of all minor matters to the great impression, which makes them points of poetic value in the collection. There are some drawings by Finch, searcely less noticeable for their rendering of solemn twilight, tender and touching as the memory of a loved one long dead. The water-color representation is, indeed, complete and interesting; but we have only present use with five of these drawings, by Turner, and from different stages of his progress.

Ruskin, in his pamphlet on Pre-Raphaelitism, has drawn such a comparison between Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites as to make them only different manifestations of the same spirit in Art. Nothing, it seems to us, could be more mistaken than this; for, in all that concerns either the end of Art or its paths of approach, its purposes or its methods, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites are diametrically opposed. Turner was intensely subjective,—the PreRaphaelites are as intensely objective. There is no evidence whatever in Turner’s works that he ever made the slightest attempt to reproduce Nature in such guise as the Pre-Raphaelites paint her in; on the contrary, the early drawings of Turner are as inattentive to absolute truth of detail as they could well be. His course of study was one of memory, He commenced by expressing in his drawing such palpable facts and truths as were most strongly retained, and in which he conveyed the great impression of the scene, with the most complete indifference to all facts not essential to the telling of his story. From this, as his memory grew stronger and his perception more minute and comprehensive, he widened his circle of ideas and facts, always working from feeling rather than from what Nature set before him. His mind thus sifting his perceptions, retaining always only those which constituted the essential features of the impression, and with a distinctness proportioned to their relative importance, there necessarily resulted a subjective unity like that of an absolute creation. The Pre-Raphaelites, on the other hand, endeavor to paint everything that they see just as they see it; and doing this without permitting the slightest liberty of choice to their feeling, where they have feeling, their Art is, of course, in all its early stages, destitute of that singleness of purpose which marked Turner’s works from the beginning. Turner felt an emotion before Nature, and used the objects from which he had received the emotion as symbols to convey it again;—the PreRaphaelites look at Nature as full of beautiful facts, and, like children amid the flowers, they gather their hands full, “indifferent of worst or best,” and when their hands are full, crowd their laps and bosoms, and even drop some already picked, to make room for others which beckon from their stems,—insatiable with beauty. This is delightful,—but childlike, nevertheless. Turner was, above all, an artist; with him Art stood first, facts secondary; —with the Pre-Raphaelites it is the reverse; it is far less important to them that their facts should be broadly stated and in keeping in their pictures, than that they should be there and comprehensible. To him a fact that was out of keeping was a nuisance, and he treated it as such; while any falsehood that was in keeping was as unhesitatingly admitted, if he needed it to strengthen the impression of his picture. Turner would put a rainbow by the side of the sun, if he wanted one there;—a PreRaphaelite would paint with a stop-watch, to get the rainbow in the right place. In brief, Turner’s was the purely subjective method of study, a method fatal to any artist of the opposite quality of mind; —that of the Pre-Raphaelites is the purely objective, absolutely enslaving to a subjective artist, and no critic capable of following out the first principles of Art to logical deductions could confound the two. The one leads to a sentimental, the other to a philosophic Art; and the only advice to be given to an artist as to his choice of method is, that, until he knows that he can trust himself in the liberty of the subjective, he had better remain in the discipline of the objective. The fascination of the former, once felt, forbids all return to the latter. If he be happy in the Pre-Raphaelite fidelity, let him thank the Muse and tempt her no farther.

There can be no more valuable lesson in Art given than that series of Turner drawings in the British collection, both as concerns its progression in the individual and those subtile analogies between painting (color) and music,—analogies often hinted at, but never, that we are aware, fully followed out. Color bears the same relation to form that sound does to language. If a painter sit down before Nature and accurately match all her tints, we have an absolute but prosaic rendering of her; and the analogy to this in music would be found in a passage of ordinary conversational language written down, with its inflections and pauses recorded in musical signs. Both are transcripts of Nature, but neither is in any way poetic, or, strictly speaking, artistic; we cannot, by any addition or refinement, make them so. Now mark that in the two early drawings of Turner we have white and black with only the slightest possible suggestion of blue in the distance;—the corresponding form in language is verse, with its measure of time for measure of space, and just so much inflection of voice as these drawings have of tint,—enough not to be absolutely monotonous. We have in both cases left the idea of mere imitation of Nature, and have entered on Art. Verse grows naturally into music by simple increase of the range of inflection, as Turner’s color will grow more melodic and finally harmonic. And in thus beginning Turner has placed his works above the level of prosaic painting of Nature, just as verse is placed above prose by the unanimous consent of mankind. From these simple presages of Art we may diverge and follow his development as a poet by his engravings, without ever making reference to him as a colorist. But beside being a poet, he was a great colorcomposer. If, leaving poetry as recited, we take the ballad, or poetry made fully melodic, we have the single voice, passing through measured inflections and with measured pauses. Correspondingly, the next in the series of Turner drawings, the “Aysgarth Force,” shows no attempt to give the real color of Nature, but a single color governing the whole drawing, a golden brown passing in shadow into its exact negative. There is an absolute tint, full, and inflected through every shade of its tones to the bottom of the scale. The strict analogy is broken in this case by a dash of delicate gray-blue in the sky and gray-red in the figures, the slightest possible accompaniment to his golden-brown melody; but these were not needed, and we find earlier drawings which adhere to the strict monochrome. In the drawing next in date, the ”Hastings from the Sea,” we have the further step from monochrome to polychrome; we have the distinct trio, the golden yellow in the sky, the blue in the sea, and the red in the figures in the boats,—as in a vocal trio we have the only three possible musical sounds of the human voice, the soprano, the basso, and the falsetto of the child’s voice. All these colors are distinctly asserted and perfectly harmonized in a most exquisite play of tints, but it is still no more like Nature than the trio in “I Puritani” is like conversation. Turner never dreamed of painting like Nature, and no sane man ever saw or can see, in this world, Nature in the colors in which he has painted her, any more than he will find men conducting business in operatic notes.

One step farther, and we leave the analogy. In the “Swiss Valley,” one of his last works, we are from the first conscious that his harmonies have run away with his theme. In Ole Bull's “Niagara” we have almost as much of matter-of-fact Nature as in Turner’s “Swiss Valley.” The eye untrained by study of Turner’s works finds nothing but a blaze of color with no intelligible object, just as we have, in opera, music of which the words arc inaudible;—both are there for practised ear and eye, but in neither case as of primary importance. Turner has even gone farther, and given us pictures of pure color, as in the illustration of Goethe’s theory of colors,—a fantasie of the palette. And why shall Turner not orchestrate color as well as Verdi sound? why not give us his synchromies as well as Beethoven his symphonies? You prefer common sense,— Harding and Fripp, Stanfield and Creswick? Well, suppose you like better to hear some familiar voice talking of past times than to hear “Robert le Diable” ever so well sung, or Hawthorne’s prose better than Browning’s verse,—it proves nothing, save that you do not care for music and poetry so well as some others do.

But after all, Turner was one of the old school of artists. Claude was the first landscape painter of the line, Turner the last; subjective poets both,—the one a child, the other a mighty man. But the poets no longer govern the world as in times past; they give place to the philosophers. The race is no longer content with its inspirations and emotions, but must see and understand. The old school of Art was one of sentiment, the new is one of fact; and out of that English mind from whose seeming common-place level of untrained, unschooled intellect have burst so many of the loftiest souls the world has known,— from that mind more inspired in its want of academic greatness, more self-educated in its wild liberty, than the best-trained nations of Europe, this new school has fittingly had its origin.

We speak of it as a School, though yet in its rudiments, because it has a distinctive character, a real purpose,—and because it is the embodiment of the new-age spirit of truth-seeking, of the spirit of science, rather than that of song. Among the pictures contributed to the English exhibition by the Pre-Raphaelites, there are very few which do not convey the distinct impression of a determined effort to realize certain truths. There are few which succeed entirely; but this is so far from astonishing, that we have only to think that the oldest of these artists has hardly passed his first decade of recognized artistic existence, and that their aims are new in Art, to wonder that so much of fresh and subtile truth is given. There are two respects in which nearly all the works of the school agree, and which have come to be regarded by superficial students of Art as its characteristics, namely, that they are verydeficient in drawing and devoid of grace. Both deficiencies are such as might have been expected from the circumstances. Young men filled with earnestness and enthusiasm, and with an artistic purpose full in view, will spend little time in acquiring academic excellences, or trouble themselves much with methods or styles of drawing. They dash at once to their purpose, and let technical excellence follow, as it ought, in the train of the idea of their work. Of course they do not compare, as draughtsmen and technists, with men who have spent years in getting a knowledge of the proportions of the human figure, and the best methods of applying color; but, on the other hand, they are safe from that most alluring and fatal course of study which makes the subject only a lay figure to display artistic capacity on. Of all the pictures of the school, in the collection of which we speak, there is but one of academic excellence in drawing, —the “King Lear” of Ford Madox Brown. All the others have errors, and some of them to a ludicrous degree; but wherever refined drawing is needed to convey the idea of the picture, no school can furnish drawing more subtile and expressive. The head of the “Light of the World” is worthy in this respect to be placed beside Raphael and Da Vinci; and the “Ophelia” of Hughes, though inexcusably incorrect in the figure, has a refinement of drawing in the face, and especially in the lines of the open, chanting mouth, which no draughtsman of the French school can equal. It is where the idea guides the hand that the Pre-Raphaelites are triumphant; everywhere else they fail. But this is a fault which will correct itself as they learn the significance and value of things they do not now understand. They paint well that which they love, and devotion grows and widens its sphere the longer it endures, taking in, little by little, all things which bear relation to the thought or thing it clings to; and the man who draws because he has something to tell, and draws that well, is certain of finally drawing all things well. This very deficiency of Pre-Raphaelitism, then, points to its true excellence, and indicates that singleness of purpose which is an element in all true Art. The want of grace, which is made almost a synonyme with Pre-Raphaelitism, has its origin in the same resolute clinging to truth as the artist comprehends it, and uncompromising determination to express it as perfectly as he has the power,—a feeling which never permits him to think whether his work be graceful, but whether it be just; so that his tremulous and almost fearful conscientiousness—tremulous with desire to see all, and fearful lest some line should wander by a hair’s breadth from its fullest expressiveness—makes him lose sight entirely of grace and repose. No form that has the appearance of being painfully drawn can ever be a graceful one; and so the Pre-Raphaelite, until he has something of a master’s facility and decision, can never be graceful. The artist who prefers grace to truth will never be remarkable either for grace or truth, while the one who clings to truth at all sacrifices will finally reach the expression of the highest degree of beauty which his soul is capable of conceiving; for the lines of highest beauty and supremest truth are coincident. The Ideal meets the Actual finally in the Real.

If there be one point of feeling in which the Pre-Raphaelites can be said to be more than in all others antagonistic to the schools of painting which preceded them, it would be that indicated by this distinction,—that the new school is one which in all cases places truth before beauty, while the old esteems beauty above truth. The tendency of the one is towards a severe and truth-seeking Art, one in all its characteristics essentially religious in the highest sense of the term, holding truth dearer than all success in popular estimation, or than all attractions of external beauty, reverent, self-forgetting, and humble before Nature; that of the other is towards an Art Epicurean and atheistic, holding the truth as something to be used or neglected at its pleasure, and of no more value than falsehood which is equally beautiful,—making Nature, indeed, something for weak men to lean on and for superstitious men to be enslaved by. This distinction is radical; it cuts the world of Art, as the equator does the earth, with an unswerving line, on one side or the other of which every work of Art falls, and which permits no neutral ground, no chance of compromise;—he who is not for the truth is against it. We will not be so illiberal as to say that Art lies only on one side of this line; to do so were to shut out works which have given us exceeding delight;—so neither could we exclude Epicurus and his philosophy from the company of doers of good;—but the distinction is as inexorable as the line Christ drew between his and those not his; it lies not in the product, which may be mixed good and evil, but in the motive, which is indivisible.

Pre-Raphaelitism must take its position in the world as the beginning of a new Art,—new in motive, new in methods, and new in the forms it puts on. To like it or to dislike it is a matter of mental constitution. The only mistake men can make about it is to consider it as a mature expression of the spirit which animates it. Not one, probably not two or three generations, perhaps not so many centuries, will see it in its full growth. It is a childhood of Art, but a childhood of so huge a portent that its maturity may well call out an expectation of awe. In all its characteristics it is childlike,—in its intensity, its humility, its untutored expressiveness, its marvellous instincts of truth, and in its very profuseness of giving,—filling its caskets with an unchoosiug lavishness of pearl and pebble, rose and may-weed, all treasures alike to its newly opened eyes, all so beautiful that there can scarcely be choice among them.

To suppose that a revolution so complete as this could take place without a bitter opposition would be an hypothesis without any justification in the world’s experience; for, be it in whatever sphere or form, when a revolution comes, it offends all that is conservative and reverential of tradition in the minds of men, and arouses an apparently inexplicable hostility, the bitterness of which is not at all proportionate to the interest felt by the individual in the subject of the reform, but to his constitutional antipathy to all reform, to all agitation. The conservative at heart hates the reformer because he agitates, not because he disturbs him personally. This is clearly seen in the hostility with which the new Art has been met in England, where conservatism has built its strongest batteries in the way of invading reform. For the moment, the English mind, bending in a surprised deference to the stormy assault of the enthusiasts of the new school, partly carried away by its characteristic admiration of the heroism of their attack and the fiery eloquence of their champion, Ruskin, and perhaps not quite assured of its final effect, forgets to unmask its terrible artillery. But to upset the almost immovable English conservatism, to teach the nation new ways of thought and feeling, in a generation! Cromwell could not do it; and this wave of reform that now surges up against those prejudices, more immovable than the white cliffs of Albion, will break and mingle with the heaving sea again, as did that of the republicanism of the Commonwealth, whose Protector never sat in his seat of government more firmly than Buskin now holds the protectorate of Art in England. When political reform moved off to American wildernesses for the life it could not preserve in England, it but marked the course reform in Art must follow. The apparent ascendency which it has obtained over the old system will as certainly turn out to he temporary as there is logic in history; because an Art, like a political system, to govern a nation, must be in accordance with its character as a nation,—must, in fact, be the outgrowth of it. The only unfailing line of kings and protectors is the people; with them is no interregnum; and when the English people become fitted by intellectual and moral progress to be protectors of a new and living Art, it will return to them just as surely as republicanism will one day return from its exile,—

“And all their lands restored to them again,
That were with it exiled.”

The philosophic Art will find a soil free from Art-prejudices and open to all seeds of truth; it will find quiet and liberty to grow, not without enemies or struggles, but with no enemies that threaten its safety, nor struggles greater than will strengthen it. The appreciation and frank acceptance it has met on its first appearance here, the number of earnest and intelligent adherents it has already found, are more than its warmest friends hoped for so soon. But in England, while its appreciating admirers will remain adherents to its principles, it will pass out of existence as an independent form of Art, and the elements of good in it will mingle with the Art of the nation, as a leaven of nonconformity and radicalism, breeding agitations enough to keep stagnation away and to secure a steady and irresistible progress. Its truest devotees will remain in principle what they are, losing gradually the external characteristics of the school as it is now known,—while the great mass of its disciples, unthinking, impulsive, will sink back into the ranks of the old school, carrying with them the strength they have acquired by the severe training of the system, so that the whole of English Art will be the better for Pre-Baphaelitism. But with Ruskin’s influence ceases the Commonwealth of Art; for Ruskin governs, not represents, English feeling, —governs with a tyranny as absolute, an authority as unquestioned, as did Oliver Cromwell.

Of the men now enlisted in the reform, few are of very great value individually. Millais will probably be the first important. recusant. He is a man of quick growth, and his day of power is already past; the reaction will find in him an ally of name, but he has no real greatness. William Holman Hunt and Dante Rosetti are great imaginative artists, and will leave their impress on the age. Ford Madox Brown, as a rational, earnest painter, holds a noble and manly position. But then we have done with great names. Much seed has sprung up on stony ground; but, having little soil, when the sun shines, it will die. The slow growth is the sure one.