This is an article in The International Studio [New York], Vol. 14 (1901): 31-44, in the Hathi Trust website (digitalised from a copy at Harvard University). It has been formatted for the Victorian Web with a few links to other material on this website, by Jacqueline Banerjee. The illustrations have been placed as near as possible to their original context, and page numbers are given in square brackets. Click on all the illustrations for larger images and more information about them. Sparrow may sometimes seem condescending now, but at the time he was rather bravely championing a woman artist whom he evidently admired greatly.
iss Fortescue-Brickdale is an artist, and her varied and thorough art as a painter in water-colours, now on view at the Dowdeswell Galleries, New Bond Street, proves her to be a lady of real genius. And this being so, what are the qualities of such a genuine woman-artist? What purpose in the drama of high ambitions ought to be served by her good gifts? Is it her privilege to work under a guidance that is instinctive rather than technical, or should she attempt to vie with men in the use of such a fine artifice of method as cannot with justice be described as spontaneous or instinctive? In other words, should a woman of genius make herself the imitative slave of men-artists and [31/32] their ways of work, or should she, controlled by "her sweet and wayward earthliness," keep us all in mind of the old saying that Intuition is to her sex both Impulse and Law?
Such a woman, no doubt, by setting herself to imitate the methods and the styles of men, may succeed in developing the masculine traits of her genius at the expense of the feminine; and in course of time, as experience bears witness, she may make a well-nigh complete sacrifice of the separate and peculiar advantages belonging to her woman-nature. But this loss has no compensation: it does not enable her to call into existence those special feelings and thoughts that form the inner essence and the life of a man's manhood. Shakespeare, in his character-sketch of Osric, sneers for all time at the man who tries to improve himself by assuming womanish graces. To anyone whose tastes are wholesome, a woman who endeavours to be mannish in art is no less absurd and contemptible. Like it or not, it is her office to reveal nature in a feminine guise, transformed by passing through the alembic of her womanhood.
"The Cunning Skill to Break a Heart" (on p. 33)
In speaking thus I know that I am at variance with the great majority of my contemporaries. There is at the present time very little recognition for any lady of artistic genius who does not aim at becoming un homme manque. There are but few such ladies at the present time. They certainly owe much to men, but their work is not an adaptation, but a gracious daughter of what men have achieved; charmed with true womanliness, it is complemental to the masculine arts out of which it grew. Sometimes, under the influence of a chosen subject, these sisters of art "play the man," but they act the part like Rosalind, in "As You [32/33] Like It," and not as would Audrey were this rough peasant girl in Rosalind's place and home and doublet. That these true and generous women-artists wait for a just recognition, that they stand in need of pen-knights, cannot be questioned; and for this reason, as an introduction to a few remarks on one of the most brilliant of them all, it seems necessary to point out not only why a just recognition is withheld, but also what limitations ought to be anticipated by those who with to study without bias a woman's contributions to art.
By this means two purposes will be served at once, both germane to my subject, It will stir up some necessary reflection on a few aesthetic questions which man's Narcissus pride has too long obscures; and it will be an indirect way of doing honour to Miss Fortescue-Brickdale whose noble and strong genius has a woman's heart and a woman's prescient intuition. We have here a Rosalind that speaks to us, but a Rosalind of a type rare in painting, because this genius, unmistakably, has what one may call a Spenserian fondness both for remote, old-fashioned ways of expression, and also for those veiled and familiar criticisms of life that good allegories renew with romance from generation to generation. And this means that Miss Fortescue-Brickdale, like Edmund Spenser, appears to have been to some extent impressed and inspired by the Masques, the Moralities, and the Miracle Plays that form a vagrant bond of loose union between the drama of classical antiquity and the greatest plays produced in the spacious times of Queen Elizabeth.
"The Guests" (on p. 34)
In any case, however, there are two current prejudices that tell against a full and just appreciation of Miss Fortescue-Brickdale and the real sisterhood of artists. The first one is connected with an idea that came into vogue before the Victorian era had cut its wisdom teeth [33/34]; the idea, namely, that artists lost nothing as such if they were false to their sex attributes of temperament and character. Influenced by this false idea, not a few gifted Englishmen went far away from the time-honoured insignia of the Anglo-Saxon genius, putting vastly too much store by insipid delicacies of thought, of sentiment, and of style. "Refinement," so-called, was everything to them. They seemed to think in sugar-candy. When painted for the market even their sheep and cattle were as clean as lapdogs. My lady's boudoir was always in their gentle minds. Meanwhile, in singular contrast to all this absurd philandering with "refinement," the gentlewomen of England had begun to revolt against their too sequestered home life, in order to hark back both to that love of field sports which their foremothers had enjoyed until the Puritans suppressed it, and also to a quasi-masculine education similar to that which Sir Thomas More, in the first quarter of the sixteenth century, had not only advocated but given to his daughters. The reaction brought about by these revived incentives to emulation soon made itself felt in art and in literature; and at last it became evident that the gentler sex desired to rescue the manful qualities cast away by so many men of known name. All this, viewed as a Gilbertian comedy in aesthetics, was delightful; but let us rejoice that the art-work of Englishmen is becoming much less dainty and "refined," much less effete, and therefore better able to give birth to strong, abiding traditions.
What the world needs now is a general return to womanliness by the ladies who try to be artists. At the present moment, unfortunately, there are but few hopeful signs of such a return. Most women of talent now feel called upon to waste their youth on pretentious efforts to be men — in dull imitations. Of intuition — a gift of inestimable value to women — there is very much less to-day than in years long past, in the old samplers and embroideries; it has been forced to yield empire and precedence to that modern bane, self-consciousness. Even the delicate sense of colour-harmonies — another good gift that women possess more frequently than men — commonly shows itself not in the hues and tones that lady artists see in external nature with their own eyes, but in blatant plagiarisms of what certain of their male rivals have seen there. And most men, somehow, are pleased with this foolish, inept flattery. If they can say of a woman's work in art that it is a tour de force, "almost bold enough to be a man's, you know," they put on a ludicrous air of mingled pride and condescension; but when the work is a Lady Waterford's, instinct with womanly grace, fancy, waywardness, tenderness, and intuition, they marvel, more often than not, why anyone should speak of it enthusiastically, as though its limitations were not clear for all folk to see.
"Riches" (on p.35).
And this brings one in touch with the second [34/36] prejudice that operates to the disadvantage of the true sisterhood of artists. Those who keep this prejudice alive seem to glory in the fact that women, as a rule, are far more positive, more matter-of-fact than the great majority of men. They may have presences all of poetry, but their minds are usually all of prose. Imagination in its highest form, that of stamping il più nell uno, they have never as yet possessed. Their genius "may be compared more justly to the bee, that keeps industriously close to the earth, than to the skylark in a song-flight, that is 'near at once to the point of heaven and the point of home.'" To this genius the world owes many debts of gratitude, but it has never produced its own Phidias, nor a Donna Raphael, nor a Mrs. Shakespeare, nor any sculptor, painter, poet, or musician who has taken rank with the most gifted.
There are men so constituted that they cannot mention this fact without sneering. But discourtesy is not criticism; and if, as Napoleon said, a child's future, its destiny, is always a mother's achievement, then the greatest of all great artists were the mothers of those men whom we now regard as peerless. Certain it is, at least, that women are grandmothers to all human excellence. And this ought to be more than enough to reconcile one's common sense to the familiar limits set by nature to their own imaginative attainments. The useful and necessary thing is to recognise gladly that a woman in order to do her best in art, must take instinctive delight in being faithful to her own nature. To encourage her to compete with men in a masculine manner is a thing which, thousands of times, has been proved futile, and even disastrous. Oaks cannot be grafted upon rose trees, nor can wrens be taught to sing like nightingales; and we may be sure, too, that Mde. Le Brun's picture of herself and daughter, wherein motherhood has made itself nobly real in its adorable homeliness, has a value greater than anyone should claim for all the affectations of mannishness that silly female artists now turn out in such astounding numbers. Last of all, to draw fault-finding comparisons between the art-work of true women and true men, or between any other various forms of complemental beauty, cleverness, or greatness, will ever be a sure proof of inferiority.
"An Opportunity" (on p.36).
Altogether, the highest praise that can be given to a sister of art is to say that her genius grows in strength without losing its womanliness. This can be said of very few women, but it is beyond question true in the case of Miss Fortescue-Brickdale. Her genius, happily, is as feminine as that, say, of Elisabetta Sirani (1640-1665), a wonderful girl whom Owen Meredith tried in a poem to rescue from undeserved neglect. But Miss Fortescue-Brickdale, before she found her true self, did some work which did not hint at the present character of her thought and manner. One has in mind several pen-drawings wherein she aimed at a kind of strength quite at variance with her own personality. The sentiment is forced, and the craft of line is not only unrhythmic, it is sometimes even rude and uncouth. The truth is that Miss Fortescue-Brickdale had just [36/38]
"Love and Adversity" (on p.37).
then been trained in a school of art, and, like all girl students, had suffered in two ways; for the rule-of-thumb precepts had made her self-timorous and self-conscious, while the hourly influence of clever studies by young men had also a disturbing effect, as it appealed strongly and constantly to her feminine aptitude for simulating various styles. For these reasons, during the time she spent in the Royal Academy Schools, Miss Fortescue-Brickdale was not really herself, and some friend ought to have said to her, what Ruskin said to Lady Waterford, that her best guides in art were Nature and her own intuitive delight in the best work. Nor did she begin to come by her own until circumstances forced her to abandon all the tricks and methods which she had acquired so laboriously in the schools. Those circumstances came into play when Miss Fortescue-Brickdale, about two years ago, started to work in water-colours, a medium of which she had no school knowledge. It was entirely new to her; hence she had to find out her own way of making it serve as a means of expressing ideas. This was the self-discipline that Miss Fortescue-Brickdale needed, and its effects are admirably various and very attractive. The medium itself is never paraded, as in most modern water-colours; it is always a quiet, unobtrusive servant to the artist's play of thought, fancy, and sentiment; and this result is entirely in accordance with instinctive ways of work most suitable to women of genius. But it has a few drawbacks as well as many inestimable advantages. Again and again, in the art practice of true women, technical defects must be pardoned, not reluctantly, but with as much readiness as we excuse the errors of archaeology in the plays of Shakespeare. As an example of this in the work by Miss Fortescue-Brickdale, let me remind you of the colour-print representing a picture entitled Chance, a page of sunlight that appeared in THE STUDIO for April. The oversight to be forgiven in this water-colour is the face that peers out from the background, just behind the raised hand of the principal figure. The composition would be much improved if that face were hidden by the leafed, tapestry-like background; and yet one is willing to be annoyed by it for the sake of the notable good qualities, like the exquisite handling of the flowing red robe, the subtle and beautiful colour, the gentle seriousness and sincerity of the general treatment, and the delicate spirit of high comedy, so fresh and yet so scenic in lightness, that gives so much charm to the pretty girl in the act of questioning Chance, as youngsters do it in the fields. [38/41]
"The Cup of Happiness" (on p.38).
For the rest, it is far from easy to write of any artist whose appeal is made through subjects having an allegorical significance. Allegories in art have one thing in common with jokes — they must be enjoyed at first-hand; they ought never to be explained. To describe what they mean is to degrade them into flat, dead prose, greatly to the annoyance of those who can appreciate their message without the least help from the stubborn realism of words. Apart from this, moreover, the water-colours by Miss Fortescue-Brickdale are good pictures, no less than thoughtful allegories; and hence it would be unfair to lay stress on their literary allusiveness. On these accounts, and no others, it seems to me best simply to draw attention to their most important merits when considered as works of art; and in doing so, for the sake of clearness, I shall speak of each characteristic under a separate heading.
"The Duenna" (on p.39).
1. Intuition. An instinctive habit of mind is so strong in the case of Miss Fortescue- Brickdale that she finds it well-nigh impossible to translate her pictured ideas out of art into descriptive prose. Her subjects not only present themselves to her mind in forms and colours, but, in her efforts to call them up into pictorial presence, they do not take shape in words, as conceptions are apt to do in the minds of men-painters. Miss Fortescue-Brickdale arrives at her ends without becoming conscious of the steps by which she gets there. Even the task of finding titles for her pictures not only troubles her, but leads her at times into such difficulties as might be easily avoided by anyone who understands her work. Too often, like a young writer who has yet to learn how to begin an article, Miss Fortescue-Brickdale seeks refuge between quotation marks. Titles of quoted poetry for works of art may have been excusable years ago, in the most sentimental days of the Victorian era, but the painters of to-day [41/42] should not stoop to excite interest by making their own efforts more or less dependent on the emotion called into being by quoted lines or words. It is never unavoidable, as Miss Fortescue-Brickdale reminds us in a few fortunate titles, like The Duenna, Chance, The Guests, To-morrow, and Riches. These labels are simple and expressive, and others not less so could be found for those pictures which, in the catalogue of the Dowdeswell Galleries, bear quotations. There is one, for example, in which an Italian murderer, as he passes hurriedly at midnight over a bridge, beholds, all at once, in a wooden shrine, a figure of Christ upon the Cross, lit up by the moon's light and a taper's glimmer. The title of this drama is taken from the Prayer Book version of Psalm cxxxix, verse 10: — If I say, Peradventure the darkness shall cover me. Yet the story told would be none the less impressive if it were labelled Conscience, for it shows how the conscience of one man is all at once startled by the crucified image of the Saviour, whose teaching has entered into the conscience of all the most progressive nations. Nevertheless, if Miss Fortescue-Brickdale thought more in her own words and less in quotations, her art might not be as intuitive as it is in these water-colour pictures.
"The Travesties of Life" (on p.41).
2. A scenic manner of dealing with character and with situation. This trait has been noted in Chance, and it is more or less evident in most of her pictures. There is a flavour of Goldsmith's comedy in the illustration of the coquette near the bridge; while in The Travesties of Life, illustrated on page 41, there is a touch of that burlesqued satire and humour which seem to have been common in early Elizabethan masques.
3. A surprising aptitude for working in known styles that please her. Nearly all women-artists have an aptitude akin to this, but Miss Fortescue-Brickdale is now so unself-conscious that she assimilates her borrowed means of expression, making them her own. They are not superfetations upon her own personal manner; they become for the time being an essential part of its Protean womanliness and gracious waywardness. Like a good actress, she can be her true self plus someone else. There are pictures wherein she is Miss Fortescue-Brickdale and a follower of Mr. Byam Shaw; in others, as in The Duenna, Van Eyck is recognised incognito, and it is only a wide sympathy both with these trans- formations and with several others that gives one the full scope and the varied feminine charm of the artist's genius.
Left: "Uncounted Hours" (on p.42). Right: "To-morrow" (on p.43).
4. A close and wise observation of things seen. Everything is well observed in her pictures, from the manner in which a tree's roots grip the earth to the most delicate tones of grey in a piece of rich drapery touched with sunlight.
5. An exceedingly good eye for colour. No amount of writing could give a really clear notion of this invaluable gift, but such a notion of it may be obtained by studying the two reproductions in facsimile, Chance and The Duenna.
6. A genuine delight in the human nature [42/44] that is criticised. If all in this world is vanity, Miss Fortescue-Brickdale certainly does not find it a vexation of spirit. She is amused by life's traves- ties, and can find noble pathos and poetry in such humble wayside incidents as the one so touchingly represented in Riches. Nor is this all. Her men, her women, her children, are not abstractions, mere dwellers in an isle of dreams; they live, and they are healthy as well as human. Miss Fortescue-Brickdale does not irritate us with Faith without Hope, and Hope without Faith, as Sir Edward Burne-Jones did in two famous pictures; and when she makes real for us a knight of chivalry she does not give him armour merely because his delicacy needs to be protected from the thorns of a briar rose. In other words, her art is not a beautiful, weak form of dilettanteism. To my mind it is "a most blessed companionship of high thoughts and right feelings."
W. S. S.
Last modified 29 December 2018