RECENTLY, Messrs. Doll and Richards have had on exhibition two remarkable water-color paintings by Mrs. W. J. Stillman, who, as Miss Spartali, had already, before marriage, won much merited esteem from coworkers and connoisseurs in her art in London. The smaller of these pieces is called Forgetfulness, and represents a young woman seated by a low window overlooking a lagoon of Venice. A little in front of this casement stands a large spinning-wheel, with which the damsel has apparently been occupied. Now, however, she has leaned back in her chair, her head resting against the jamb of the window-frame, and only holds the loose flaxen thread in her idle right hand. With the other she grasps a book, which in turn she allows to sink listlessly towards her lap. She is dressed in black, — a fullskirted robe flowing down from the close bodice which clasps her from the waist up to just below the neck. Her arms are enveloped in voluminous white lawn, from which, at the shoulders, fall back the socalled “ angel-sleeves,” of the same material with the skirt, black, lined with a red, approaching cherry. The lawnsleeves are hard in texture, and perhaps the least successful portion of the whole. The girl’s hair, which is of a glowing amber-golden hue, surrounds with its waving mass a face of bright and perfect color, — all this beautiful blond vision of the head blooming softly forth from the background of a rich tapestry curtain drawn away from the window on the right. The round green panes are visible, just without, where the casement swings ajar; and through the aperture you look off over pale green waters, where a gondolier is seen rowing his slender, gloomy little craft. In the distance, a long, low pile of reddish buildings hints Venice proper, lying asleep on the sea; with a soft, warm sky above, evenly blent of blue and white. It would be hard to surpass the warmth of life with which the girl’s head is so tenderly imbued. In its presence we seem to become conscious of those invisible radiations which are experienced from the proximity of actual beings. It is not too much to say that there is exhaled from this reposeful figure something akin to that rich and soothing sense of a refined femininity which it is so difficult to describe, yet which many of us must have felt distilled into us from pictures by certain few of the Italian masters. Both Forgetfulness and the Galilean Monk, the larger picture, exhibit that prevalence of rich, harmonious contrasts, darkness rounding and ripening itself into light, and that peculiar spirituality which, by an apparent paradox, inheres in a fervidly sensuous coloring, when developed with grace and moderation, and which recalls the sentiment of the Venetian school. The figure of the Galilean Monk, as it happens, is placed by an open window, in very much the same way as is that of the young woman. This time, however, the window opens upon a garden of olive-trees and vines, as it seems, behind which rises the dazzling, plastered dome of what to inexperienced eyes might be a mosque, or other religious edifice. In the background is a hill, worked in with a welded mass of subdued but generous tints, and in the left corner a glimpse of deep, deep blue, — no doubt the Sea of Galilee. This monk — for so we must call him — might well be taken for a representation of Christ, bating some realistic features which would, perhaps, obtrude unpleasantly upon the orthodox mind, and were it not for the presence of a mediaeval missal on his lap. Otherwise, we have here the “ face without blemish and enhanced by a tempered bloom,” in accordance with the supposed contemporary description of Christ, fished up in the eleventh century by Anselm of Canterbury ; also, the black eyebrows almost joined together, and “ long fingers, like his mother’s,” which Bishop John of Damascus ascribes to the Saviour. His countenance is gentle, serene, and firm; the brown, almond-shaped eyes very beautiful; and a little depression in the forehead between the eyebrows imparts an expression of suffering though calm sensibility, most consonant with one’s impression of the Christ’s face, which must have shown, by just some such little sign as this, the constant endurance of little daily shocks from the gross or petty misapprehensions of fellow-beings. The two sparrows, jerking up sedate little gray tails, as they nibble the crumbs this kind priest, whoever he be, has placed on the window-sill for them, call to mind words of the New Testament which might have been inspired by this very scene. In the execution here, as in the other piece, there appear to be weaknesses ; for instance, the somewhat scratchy appearance of the trees in the garden; and perhaps, too, it would have been better to veil the wasted thinness of the ascetic hand which lies upon the open book. But the faults form altogether the minor part of the work ; they will receive notice enough from those who are not inclined to dwell on the beauties ; and there are many. Mrs. Stillman’s pictures illustrate the method of the more recent and powerful of the English watercolorists ; but they moreover teem with delicate and appreciative truthfulness, and breathe throughout a pure and lofty sincerity which, if it were more often seen in the work of our own painters, would be the harbinger of health and prosperity in American art.
— In the opening exhibition at the new gallery of the Boston Art Club, interesting opportunities were afforded for instituting some comparison between certain products of foreign schools and recent efforts of our own painters. Local art here held its ground very well, despite the presence of a Bougeauran,— a Mother and Child, with, apparently, a boy St. John, — a noble group, sitting against a clump of Brittany rosemary, but rather distinguishable for large and lucid beauties of form, and even color, than anything especially joyous and pleasing. Mr. Bellows contributed a landscape in oil and two in water-color, all of which indicate the same advancement in his art which has been apparent since his study in England ; but there is a want, especially in his foliage, which doubtless strict study (and only that) might supply. An autumnal forest scene by McEntee, with a Silent pool in the centre, limpid, yet unlighted, and stained a deep umber by the leaves at the bottom, was satisfactory and soothing, both for its pensive sentiment and its excellence of representation. Among the most excellent in style was a small landscape by F. D. Williams, — a country-road, with sheep, and a background of blue hills, in which the grays and blues of American scenery were happily reproduced, in a suitable, clear, bright atmosphere. On the other hand, Mr. John R. Key displayed a large landscape, The Brook, which, along with some merits, was also distinguished by coarseness and materiality; and a view of California Big Trees, which had too strong a relish of the venerable insincerity of the Bierstadt method. A large canvas, too, from the brush of the latter, brought into view the customary liberal allowance of Rocky Mountains, with Indians and their tents in the foreground. The upper portion of the picture is very turbulent, the mountaintops seeming to be quite at loggerheads with the clouds, which fall heavily upon them. We should be glad to welcome from Bierstadt something more proportionate in goodness to the fame he enjoys. A little Christabel by Vedder — a dark and dreamy little piece—hung in the smaller room. F. H. Smith, in whom may have been observed a considerable versatility, and the power to paint simply and poetically, was represented by a picture of a waiter-girl, scarcely harmonious in composition and color, and with something bold and displeasing about it; recalling also too strongly Liotard’s famous Chocolatière. Besides these, however, there were numerous good pieces worthy of description, bearing the names of Hunt, Norton, Appleton, Brown, Ordway. A flower-piece by W. A. Gay — chrysanthemums of different colors heaped in a pretty dish, against a golden, peacock-ornamented screen—showed how well the decorative tone of Japanese art may be employed with flowers and fruit. A good array of water-colors had been massed upon one of the walls, among which was a study of a yellow apple and fresh hazel-nut, by W. Hunt, presented to Walter Smith, Esq., by the Leeds Art School, and illustrative of a very worthy style of water-color painting. Something akin to the method of Mrs. Stillman, with, however, a difference in the choice of subject, was to be found in a water-color by Francis Lathrop of London, also recently exhibited in the Royal Academy. A young woman, opening a door out of a quaint, dim-lighted hall and stairway, holds a platter of milk to tempt a timid kitten with arching back and wistful face. This is conceived in a delicate chord of green and gray, with harmonious contrasts in the colors of the dress. Altogether, the exhibition, comprising as it did between one and two hundred pictures, no one of which, perhaps, was absolutely bad, was a gratifying success. From the activity of the Art Club, which more and more brings painters and lovers of art together in its reunions, and which possesses in its new galleries increased facility for exhibitions, much is to be hoped and expected. It supplies a primary want quite as important in its way as that of art-schools and museums. But it remains with the patrons of art to complete the efficiency of these exhibitions by purchasing from them, so that painters may think it worth while always to contribute their best work. In New York, the brisk sale of pictures, almost constantly going on, passes chiefly into the hands of dealers, for the simple reason that the exhibitions of the National Academy of Design, though at first vigorous and promising, were not stimulated and sustained by purchase. The contrary is the case in London, where it has become the fashion to purchase from the artist through the Royal Academy exhibitions. The Art Club promises to reserve one of its rooms as a repository for pictures on sale, whence, if purchased, they may be removed, and others substituted for them. This would certainly be a wise step, and much good might be anticipated as its result.
— The most marked trait of English art, as opposed to that of any other nation, is the tendency to run into specialisms,— its extreme individualism in all provinces, from design even to criticism, answering in this to that dominant tendency of the national mind towards self-assertion at the expense of any association of talents or generalization in perception. Certain traits of the most purely negative character are common to all English artists,—want of docility, not only unteachableness, but unschoolableness ; they have no wish to be merely individuals in a school, and, with the best wish thereto, success is unattainable. With an occasional individual genius of the highest type, there is no national artistic character. Hogarth, Turner, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Blake, Rossetti, Burne Jones, Watts, and maybe a few more, rise to great heights of true artistic excellence, and to fullest perception of the emotional and plastic elements of art; but they rise out of a dead plain of the most appalling mediocrity, and each in his time as an individual protest against the frivolity and superficiality of the art of the day. The art of Greece, of Venice, of Florence, of modern Paris, even of Germany, has certain positive scholastic qualities, plastic, technical, academical, which bind their artists together in a larger individuality, and it may often be a point hardly to be decided if a certain picture belong to a certain great master, or merely to an unnamed disciple of his school ; but in English art we only recognize the school by the want of any coherence ; if the work be poor, by the want of all scholastic or plastic quality ; if great, by its intense individuality and utter unlikeness to anything else.
But in design, pure and simple, the power of expressing ideas in black and white, in conveyance of the objective idea without reference to the subjective coloring or emphasis, Englishmen have always held a high place, and the designs of Hogarth and Blake, Cruikshank and Leech, with the school of Punch, have shown a power and clearness of perception, and a directness and finesse of execution, which make them the only class work in England worth distinction. Turner’s power in design was of the very highest; but in all his finished work so lost in his plastic qualities that it cannot be treated as we can treat that of the men we have mentioned.
In selecting, for the point of a comparison between the great Englishmen and the great Italians, the delineation of childhood, Mr. Colvin, specialist in criticism, erudite in all that pertains to either school, and conversant to the limits of culture in all that has been said or written on these themes, has chosen his ground, not only with a happy perception of what was best and truest in his own countrymen, but what was of widest and most tender interest to all who will read his book,1 and has made a monograph which will strengthen his reputation as critic as well as connoisseur. For in all things which Englishmen have done well, the best has always been done in purity and childlike simplicity ; and Blake himself, the mightiest of their masters, and the purest and most childlike of them as well, merits to be put forward, as, indeed, Mr. Colvin puts him, as the representative of English design. What he says of this in his introductory chapter is well said and well worth saying, not only as true, but as opening, in a wider sense than first appears, the nature of English art. “ There is a sentiment, a susceptibility of the spirit, a mode of regarding young children both with the eye and heart, of which I Seem to see that the dawn, as expressed in art, accompanies the dawn of the English school; and which I want the reader to taste in its perfection, to catch at its freshest moment. For that we must go back a hundred years, when we shall find it making itself felt in most forms of art to which the time gives birth.”
So our author follows his subject through the supernal regard of the Italian to the human devotion of the Englishman, loving children as such, and basing his studies on the three designers par excellence of his country, — Blake, Stothard, and Flaxman. We need hardly take exception that he has given either of the latter a greater degree of merit than he was entitled to : the measure of degrees in art is perilous and overbold. Flaxman is an English foible ; and what he did least worth doing — because it was borrowed and simulated too, namely, his Hellenism — Englishmen take as the greater virtue, or something brought from afar, which they do not in his case perceive to be merely far-fetched. What is of more importance, that comparative justice should be done, we can hardly mistake Mr. Colvin as doing with emphasis, if not with the impartiality of one uninfluenced by the tendencies of English opinion. “ No one, of the English or any other school, has ever expressed the enchanted soul and lightsome spiritual essence of childhood in its human joy and purity, with anything comparable to the twofold charm of verse and design that is to be found in one, at least, of the works of William Blake, — the result of a diviner gift than any either of the speculative or the analytic genius.”
Blake was, in fact, as compared with Flaxman, a marvel of imaginative genius, with a plastic talent which, like Shakespeare’s and Michael Angelo’s, made its own canons, and established its own standard of culture. What he was he would have been, had all ancient art perished in its day. Flaxman was but a pale, if close reflex of the manner and gesture of Greek art; what he might have been if left to himself we can only conjecture, for so little of himself is left to judge by, that, when we take the Greek from him, he cannot stand alone. Culture he had, but of others’ forms of speech; perception, but only through forms which others had set for him ; and what he has done we can well lose and not be poorer. To lose Blake were to lose a knowledge of one human faculty, —to lose one of the happiest pages of the world’s art. Flaxman we are content should be English, Greek, French, anything. Blake we love to feel was human, and of a humanity of which all spiritual-minded men partake. And were it but for what Mr. Colvin has done for Blake, and for his tasteful reproduction of a few of his designs, we should be grateful for his book. These reproductions, in one of the comparatively recent forms of photography, are fac-similes of monochrome designs from Blake’s illustrated books, and, to those who have not access to his works, will show the indescribable naïveté, and almost unrivalled energy and clearness of purpose, which characterize them. Of Flaxman and Stothard we have enough, and to spare, in all the commonplace books of illustration ; nor is there anything in their manner or conception which makes them difficult to comprehend or to reproduce in commoner ways ; but nothing less than photography could render even this partial justice to Blake.
- Children in Italian and English Design. By SIDNEY COLVIN, M. A., Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. Seeley, Jackson, and Halliday. London. 1872.↩