IF we are to believe some of the newspapers, Boston has witnessed during the past month an artistic event of unprecedented magnitude. The Duke of Montpensier’s pictures have arrived, been placed on exhibition, visited by great numbers of people, and by this time, we suppose, judged according to their merits. Roughly considered, the coming of these works was certainly something of an event, for the importation of authentic old masters by the dozen is as yet, for the American public, an unfamiliar fashion.
It is a question, however, whether the general magnitude of the event is not a good deal curtailed by particular considerations, and whether the Duke of Montpensier’s generosity has been on the whole very profitable to the cause of the fine arts. Our readers have probably not forgotten the circumstances under which this generosity was exercised. The Duke of Montpensier, reflecting presumably on the volcanic condition, as we may call it, of Spanish soil, and wishing to put his property on a safer footing, had sent his best pictures to Gibraltar, with the expectation that they might be conveyed to London for exhibition. The authorities in London declined his offer, but as we of this country in such matters are not proud, we proffered a claim to the rejected entertainment.
The Duke of Montpensier made his own terms (very handsome ones by the way), and his paintings are now installed in the Boston Athenæum, We know not what, between Carlists and Republicans, might have befallen them at Seville, but we can answer for it that in their present refuge they are supremely safe from the breath of injury. On the day on which we visited them (it was one of the first), we were struck by the almost reverential demeanor of the spectators. The gentlemen were all uncovered, several were going about on tiptoe, and the room was pervaded by a kind of submissive hush. A person near us proclaimed with religious unction that this was indeed a treat. The pictures are hung with a more than Old-World allowance of light and space. The gem of the collection, the Murillo, has a magnificent margin of marooncolored wall, and the work next in value, the head by Velasquez, may be examined in commodious isolation. We confess that, after a glance at the pictures, our attention wandered to some of the indirect characteristics of the scene. We seemed to find in it a mild but irresistible pathos — and we were reminded once more that we are a singularly good - natured people. We take what is given us, and we submit, with inexhaustible docility, to being treated as children and simple persons. We are vast, rich, and mighty, but where certain ideas are concerned we sit as helpless in the presence of Old-World tradition, dim and ghostly though it may be, as Hercules at the feet of Omphale. This is so true that it implies almost a want of integrity in those who, intellectually, have charge of us to give us anything but the best. Our goodnature places us at their mercy, and they should in fairness sow none but chosen seed in such very grateful soil.
The Duke of Montpensier’s pictures are some thirty in number, and with three or four exceptions they belong to the Spanish school. If they possess collectively a greater merit than individually, it is that they give one an approximate measure of a distinct department of painting. It happens unfortunately that the Spanish school is of all schools the least valuable; but it is very well nevertheless to make an approach to definite historical notions. Of the only two Spanish names of the first rank the collection contains four specimens. One of these, Murillo’s Virgin of the Swaddling Clothes, is a most agreeable and satisfactory example of the master, and a picture certainly worth a journey to see. We have seen, out of Spain, several better Murillos, but we have also seen a great many worse. The picture in Boston has been awkwardly repainted in places, and the consequence is a spotty deadness of color, here and there; but much the larger portion is intact, and full of the mild, mellow harmony characteristic of the painter. Few painters strike us as being so little proper subjects of criticism, for few in proportion to their talent are so modest, so unpretending, so purely natural. Murillo has an indefinable, selftaught air which always reminds us of a painter superior to him in refinement of genius, but marked by this same personal naturalness of manner — we mean Correggio. We should be inclined to cite these artists together as the best examples of unacademical art, for if genius in each of them made its way unguided and unhelped, it was saved by a happy inward rule from fatal eccentricities. Correggio, indeed, made up in a measure for inheriting no mannerism, by founding one; but Correggio passed his life in almost complete ignorance of the æsthetic movement of his time. Murillo had better opportunities, though he never went to Italy. He came up, however, from Seville to Madrid, which was almost as good, for he found there Titians enough to form in themselves an Academy. But he returned early to Seville, and spent the rest of his life in the happy condition of an artist largely using his talent, but never forcing it.
There is in Murillo an almost excessive want of tension — an undue humbleness of inspiration. It increases one’s kindness for him, but in the manner of an inaggressive weakness in a dear friend. He reminds us a trifle of a person with some slight physical infirmity, —a lisp or a stoop, —which at any time might have been corrected by a little resolution. The leading characteristic of the Spanish school is its downright realism ; and Murillo, though he has more lightness and grace than any of the company, abides as closely as any of them by the testimony of his senses. He is as little of an intellectual painter as the brutal Ribera himself, and this not because he is harsh, but because he is so sincerely tender. One feels that his tenderness is never theory — though it may in a great measure have become habit; it is all immediate sentiment. For this reason he seems to us a better Catholic in painting than any other artist subsequent to the fourteenth century. There are painters whose works adapt themselves more strikingly to the formal and ceremonial side of religion, but there are none whose Virgins and infants and saints are more suggestive of the piety that has passed into daily life, and sits down at the board, and goes out into the streets with the believer.
Murillo believes as women do, with never a dream of doubt; and the fact that his Virgins are hard-handed peasant women makes his inspiration seem much more sacred, rather than less so. He had to make no effort of the fancy to believe that the Queen of Heaven was originally a poor girl; he had always been told so, and when he came to paint her, his idea of the celestial mildness embodied itself naturally in the sweet, tired face, the half smoothed hair, and the unbuttoned bodice of some sunburnt daughter of the Andalusian soil. These reflections are not amiss as one stands before the Virgin at the Athenæum. She sits with her baby in her lap, lying flat at his chubby length, while she binds him about with strips of linen. On the table near her is a linen bandage, and a couple of angelic choristers stand on either side. These boyish angels are charming, especially the one that plays the violin, against which he lays his cheek, as he looks down at the infant, with inimitable friendliness. The other, somewhat older, is drawing the bow across a violoncello; and, winged and haloed as they are, they are no nearer to being angels than a couple of innocent lads borrowed from a neighbor. The face of the Virgin, as well as that of the child, has apparently escaped retouching, and there is something charming in both of them. The Virgin is none the less lovely for being a trifle plain, and if she looks a little weary and serious, one may be sure that now and then she has a beautiful, simple smile. The baby’s head, with its big, blue eyes and its little helpless, backward fall, is delightfully painted ; there are few divine infants in the range of sacred art on whom divinity sits so easily. This is a better specimen of Murillo’s other gifts than of his color, but even of his color it offers an agreeable intimation. We find in him the mildest, quietest sort of pleasure that color gives. He never approaches splendor, and he rarely reaches pure brilliancy ; but he works delightful harmonies of subdued and not especially various tones. His pictures have an air of being painted in the shade, as under a Spanish sun they well might be, and one may fancy that his cheerful duskiness was a natural reaction against the garishness of surrounding nature.
It is a fact that there is a marked duskiness in all Spanish coloring, and that when one hears of a typical Spanish picture one imagines something very sombre both in tone and in subject. Velasquez was certainly a great colorist, but we mean nothing invidious when we say that he was a cold one. In the Doria Palace in Rome is a superb portrait, by this artist, of the Pope Innocent Tenth, clad all in red. His face is red, his cap is red, his gown is red, the chair in which he sits is red, and, if we are not mistaken, the wall behind him is red. The tones are superb in their way, but they don’t glow, and one retires with as distinct a memory of the few spots of cool gray white in the picture as of all this pontifical crimson. The small head of Velasquez at the Athenæum is not an Innocent Tenth, but it is an admirable sketch, and in itself, we should say, offers a liberal education to a young American portrait painter. It is the head of a very young man, said to be the painter’s own, and the head simply, for the chin almost rests on the frame, it is impossible to imagine a greater maestria of brush, or a better example of the way in which a genius of the calibre of Velasquez has all his powers in hand at any moment, and never needs to step backwards to take his jump. A sketch by an artist as complete as Velasquez is not materially less valuable than a finished picture, for the simple reason that he is constitutionally incapable of painting small, and that all his force passes into it, limited only by outward accident. About Velasquez there are innumerable things to be said, and no artist is more tempting as a text fur discussion of the familiar grounds of difference between the realists and the idealists. He ought properly, it seems to us, to be the very apple of a pugnacious idealist’s eye, for certainly on no sturdier cheral de battaille could the combat possibly he waged. The idealists may treat themselves to the luxury of surrendering him bodily to the foe, in order to snatch him back again in the midst of the latter’s exultation. To painters who advocate pure imitation, nothing more and nothing less, he beseems at a superficial glance a tower of strength for their cause, and they flatter themselves that he has absolutely no comfort for the other faction, who dream of conferring on the subject an added grace, begotten in their own minds. Velasquez certainly is mighty in imitation, but to those who do him full justice it seems that imitation is not the limit of his power, and that his men and women have a style which belongs to his conception of them quite as much as to their real appearance. Of course there is style and style. That which looks out upon us from the canvases of Velasquez is a noble gravity and solidity ; added to his magnificent handling it makes him one of the most powerful of painters. The little head we speak of is an invaluable reminder of the merit of being deep in one’s own line; for if Velasquez is a dramatic painter, he is before all things a painter and a painter only, a painter who stands or falls by the stroke of his brush.
These observations are strictly pertinent only if applied to the head at the Athenæum ; the other two small sketches (portraits of Philip IV. and the Duke of Olivarez) seem to us of very questionable authenticity. The larger portraits were painted and may be seen in all their magnificence at Madrid; but these little sketches strike us much less as Velasquez reported by himself than as Velasquez repeated by a thinner brush. If they are copies, however, they are interesting copies.
Next in interest are four immense pictures by that profoundly Spanish genius, Francisco Zurbaran. We are not sure that the interest of these works is proportionate to the space they cover, but they nevertheless afford a good deal of simple entertainment. They contain a large amount of genial, honest, and masculine painting, and if a Zurbaran is not a Paul Veronese, one must remember that in the palace of art there are many chambers. The trouble is that if one has seen the colonnades and brocades, the sweeping contours and silver tones, of the great Venetian decorator, one’s eyes have been dazzled forever, and the shadow of mediocrity seems to rest upon such dusky Adorations and Presentations as these. Another Adoration and an Annunciation complete the group. Zurbaran is not a colorist, though he is a clever master of light and shade. His tones, moreover, have faded and darkened capriciously, and the quality now chiefly enjoyable is the striking verity and homeliness of many of his types. They are full of nature and bonhomie, and have an especial truthfulness of gesture. Excellent are the shepherds and peasants in the first Adoration, excellent the movement of the half-pleased, halffrightened infant to whom the pompous old magus is kneeling. In the way in which he makes a hard opposition of lights and darks the vehicle of a sort of masculine directness, Zurbaran reminds us singularly of our own Copley. There are passages in each of these four works which, if shown us without the context, we should have unhesitatingly attributed to Copley.
We have mentioned the only pictures which deserve individual notice, and speaking frankly and without human respect, we may add that the less said about the others the better. There is a Ribera of absolutely no value save as a disagreeable curiosity— a Cato of Utica tearing out his entrails. Happy thought! as Mr. Burnand would say. Artists nowadays complain of being at loss for subjects, but it seems as if the perplexity had begun in Ribera’s time. This Neapolitan Cato is after all but half in earnest, and looks simply as if he had excoriated himself in the pursuit of a parasitic insect common at Naples. Ribera at his best is never agreeable, though he was handsomely endowed with the painter’s temperament, and it is rather an unkindly trick of fortune to confront the aspiring New England mind thus rudely with Ribera at his worst.
Of the remaining Spanish pictures, one only, a small Pietà by the early master Morales, is of measurable importance. It has a certain dry, hard power, both of intention and of treatment. There is a Juan Valdes Leal, several Herreras, elder and younger, a Ribalta, and — Heaven save the mark — a Boccanegra. There is a so-called Sebastian del Piombo, a Salvator Rosa, a couple of Bassanos, a Snyders, a Francois Granet, and two or three modern trifles. These pictures are all poor specimens of indifferent painters. Our remark implies no reproach to Sebastian del Piombo, for the canvas bearing his name on a scroll in the corner is but a ghastly simulacrum of his manner. Trusting to our memory we should say it was a copy of a replica of an impressive Sebastian in the Naples Museum. Its companions are the sort of ware that forms the rough padding of large European collections and is generally consigned to the friendly twilight of corridors and staircases. The exhibition has been supplemented by an oddly promiscuous group of pictures borrowed from native amateurs. Imagine side by side a colossal cartoon by Kaulbach, a Hannibal Caracci, a Cristoforo Allori and a Cima da Conegliano! These are all very creditable specimens of the masters. The Kaulbach is an Era of the Reformation (it has of course to be at the least an “ era”), and it contains an incredible amount of science and skill. As for the charm of companionableness, that, of course, is another matter, and for this purpose we prefer the lovely little Cima. But the Luther in the cartoon, standing up on his pedestal and holding aloft the Scriptures, is an admirable plastic figure.
We have ventured, we may say in conclusion, while speaking of the Duke of Montpensier’s pictures to close our eyes to the adage that a gift horse should absolutely not be looked at in the mouth. We are the Duke of Montpensier’s debtors, and we cordially acknowledge it. This obligation is weighty, but it is of still more importance that people in general in this part of the world should not form an untruthful estimate of the works now at the Athenæum. Immaturity and provincialism are incontestable facts, but people should never freely assent to being treated as children and provincials. We do not in the least regret the acceptance of the Duke of Montpensier’s loan ; there are too many reasons for being happy in it. It is chiefly the first step that costs, and we may now claim that, formally, at least, the spell of our disjunction from Europe in the enjoyment of collections has been broken. It has been proved that there is no reason in the essence of things why a room full of old masters should not be walked into from an American street and appear to proper advantage in spite of what in harmonious phrase we suppose we should call its location. There is something we like, moreover, in our sending out at a venture for half a million of dollars’ worth of pictorial entertainment; we may say that if the Duke of Montpensier’s liberality was princely, our response to it was, in detail, imperial. A kindly welcome therefore to the Ribaltas and Herreras, so long as we take them easily. We wish simply to protest against the assumption that we are greatly privileged in beholding them. We are simple as yet, in our appreciation of the arts, but we are not so simple as that comes to.