[I transcribing Frith’s essay from the 1888 Magazine of Art I have followed the Hathi Trust Digital Library near-perfect online version (in a few cases the text from one of the double columns ended up in the wrong place), and I have identified and linked to most of the artists to whom he refers. The portrait of Frith by Augustus Egg appeared in the original as did the tailpiece.
Like Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites, Frith rebelled against conservative, upper-class taste that revered eighteenth-century British and European masters, such as Claude. Unlike them he presents David Wilkie and genre painting as high art, and in this choice he both defines his major panoramic works and emphasizes the extent to which he directed his art at the rising middle class.
The essay, which represents Frith still fighting a battle almost four decades old that many of his readers will have forgotten, embodies the artist’s somewhat odd ambivalence towards Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. On the one hand, he begins by describing the movement as a little more than a craze, but then he suddenly changes directions, telling the reader how he defended works of the group against the ignorant criticism of fellow academicians. Frith’s attacks on the Brotherhood and its followers derive from the fact that he understands the PRB solely in terms of the very first paintings, such as Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents, Frith absolutely completely fails to understanding of the group’s use of iconography, particularly that derived from biblical symbolism, to “elevate materialism,’ as Hunt put it. A third problem caused by Frith’s oddly narrow focus lies in his ignoring the kind of Pre-Raphaelitism created Rossetti and Burne-Jones. He only alludes to the latter as someone who has abandoned the movement. The elephant in the room here, of course, derives from the fact that even though Frith preceded the PRB, the hard-edge realism of the young men — and John Ruskin’s defense of it — paved the way for Frith’s own great success by creating the taste for the kind of detailed realism and complex narratives found in Derby Day and The Railway Station. — George P. Landow]
A THOROUGH knowledge of drawing (only to be be acquired by severe early training) is an absolute necessity for all who desire to arrive at excellence in art; and though there have been solitary instances of eminent success attending those who have been denied or who have neglected such training, the few splendid exceptions serve but to prove the rule.
The most famous of those few cases that occur to me is that of Sir Joshua Reynolds, whose constantly-expressed regret must be evident to all who are acquainted with the writings of that great genius. The wonderful powers with which Nature had gifted the famous painter enabled him to invent (so to speak) a method of generalising, by which, without being able to draw details, he could suggest them. The student can illustrate this for himself by comparing a portrait by Reynolds with one by Vandyke or Titian. In those of the last-named painters the features, with every detail, are almost photographically rendered, whilst the breadth of effect is fully preserved. In Reynolds we have breadth of effect, or, in other words, a generally truthful resemblance to Nature, with subtle detail omitted. Great as Reynolds was, he would have been greater still if the advantage of a thorough academic education had been possible to him in his early days. His splendid colouring, the taste and grace with which he invested every sub ject, were gifts of Nature which no teaching could have afforded him, but which severe training would undoubtedly have enabled him to put into practice with greater facility. That the example of Reynolds had a bad effect on the early English school cannot be denied. Fuseli said, “Breadth is easily obtained if emptiness will give it,” and our forefathers in art, with few exceptions, proved the truth of the aphorism with fatal constancy. To put the matter plainly—without a particle of Reynolds's genius, his contemporaries, and most of those immediately fol lowing him, produced pictures in which Reynolds's shortcomings were faithfully copied and his merits as carefully excluded.
These remarks are intended mainly to apply to the portrait-painters, and not to all of them, for Sir Thomas Lawrence could by no means be classed among the imitators of Reynolds. Here, again, the want of early training is painfully visible in his outrageously bad drawing of many of the whole length portraits, though it must be admitted that in some instances these defects are skilfully hidden— notably in the portraits of the Pope and Cardinal Gonsalvi in the Waterloo Gallery at Windsor Castle. Those pictures, together with the portraits of Sir Walter Scott, Lord Liverpool, and some others, are worthy of any school. It may be said of Lawrence that, in spite of a poor eye for colour, and a rather vulgar love of swaggering attitudes in his male portraits and affectation in the pose of his ladies, he cannot be accused of neglecting details. One of Lawrence’s brother Academicians, with the laudable sincerity common amongst us on varnishing days, told the painter that his portraits reminded him of “the scrapings of a tin-shop;” and no doubt the sharp white lights, with their accompanying cutting shadows—producing a somewhat metallic effect—gave as much show of truth to the observation as to make it as unpalatable to the painter as his critic desired.
To the eyes of the modern exhibition-visitor the displays of the latter part of the last century and the early part of the present would have been sorry sights. The chief attractions to the public were the portraits. Turner's landscapes found admirers mainly amongst his brother artists; Callcott, Collins, and Constable were in their student days; West’s Scripture pieces were evidences of fatal facility; illustrations of Shakespeare by Fuseli, Wheatley, Singleton, and others, frequently proved the painter’s total unfitness to deal with such subjects, anything like an approach to correctness of costume being ludicrously neglected. What is called genre painting was scarcely, if ever, practised. One of the original Academicians, listening to a brother R.A., who said that Hogarth’s pictures were “the chronicle of scandal and the history-book of the vulgar,” proceeded to prove, as he said, how easy it was to produce “such things,” by painting a series of pictures which were called “Virtue and Vice,” or Some such title. The painter set himself to show by the careers of two chambermaids, that good conduct led to happiness and the reverse to misery. He succeeded in proving what has been proved already over and over again, and also in showing that, if it was easy to paint as well as Hogarth, he had not got the knack of it.
In the year 1806 the school of English genre painting was founded. In that year a young fellow called Wilkie, aged exactly twenty-one, exhibited “The Blind Fiddler.” The Shakespearian illustrators and the high-art men would have none of it. Wilkie was a “hobnailed-shoe painter,” a vile imitator of Teniers or some other Dutchman, his colouring was colourless, grey, crabby, poor stuff, and so on. One Academician, for whom I have such undying respect that I will not mention his name, is reported to have said, “I will show you how easy it is to produce such a picture as that,” and in the following year’s exhibition he displayed his proof in the form of a blacksmith’s shop with rustic figures. I knew the man who did this, and I believe the attempt to rival Wilkie was intended as a grim joke a poor one I think, and one that certainly produced disagreeable results to the perpetrator, if he cared for the observations of some critics on his performance in comparison with that of Wilkie. The general public hailed the refreshing contrast that the truth and nature of “The Blind Fiddler” afforded, to the stale, flat, and unprofitable exhibition produce of former years, and a very short time found Wilkie fixed in a high and secure position in art, from which he can never be moved, though he may be partially obscured for the moment by the fumes arising from the altar of ignorance, raised by crazy seekers after novelty. After the death of Lawrence portraits gradually gave way to other styles of art in respect of attractiveness in the annual exhibitions. Wilkie, Mulready, the elder Leslie, and Maclise, together with the land scape and sea painters—Landseer being pre-eminent with animals—drew the never-failing crowds to the yearly display. Portraiture, though extensively patronised, became weaker and weaker down to a time within easy memory, when a revival took place, and in the hands of the brilliant men of the present day portraits have deservedly resumed their position amongst the main attractions of the exhibition.
W. P. Frith, R.A. at the Age of Thirty. Painted by Augustus L. Egg., R.A. Engraved by F. Babbage.. Click on image to enlarge it.
While the men I have named, and I might add others, were putting into practice true principles of art—principles founded upon the great examples of the greatest masters—there suddenly arose amongst us a band of young men who called themselves “Pre Raphaelite Brethren,” and who proceeded to prove the justice of their momenclature by refusing the guidance of any painter who had the misfortune, in their wise young eyes, of being born after, or contemporary with, Raphael. It was not surprising then, to me at any rate, to hear Sir Joshua Reynolds spoken of as “Sir Sloshy Reynolds,” Wilkie's art called “trash,” and one of these geniuses, when advised to go to Italy, reply, “Italy—what for? to see Titian and those fellows? Not I – we have too much of them here.”
I have no doubt of the honesty and sincerity of those young men. They were satisfied that they only were on the right tack, and that their contemporaries were one and all conventional and hopelessly astray, and they proceeded to put their principles into practice, and produced pictures which in some instances might have been mistaken for the work of the earliest of the Italian painters. Ugliness and angularity took the place of beauty and grace; attempts at which the old masters were too wise to try, namely mid-day sun light, were favourite pastimes of these young masters; unimportant details were made important, to the utter destruction of breadth; and atmosphere was ignored altogether. But Pre-Raphaelitism was some thing new and strange; and when the wiseacres amongst the public could count all the leaves on a plant, could see the light in a bird’s eye as he was flying across a landscape, could count every hair in the ugly head of some saint, they were satisfied that the new school was right and the old one wrong. We were taunted with sloppiness and carelessness, with the absence of honesty in our rendering of Nature: we were pretty, we were characterless, commonplace, and imbecile in our productions, and the sooner we all turned from our wickedness to “P.R.B'ism” the better. This ridiculous movement received the support of a brilliant writer, whose judgment, always expressed in admirable language, is, I hold, often utterly mistaken and wrong; it also had the advantage of the co-operation of a distinguished proselyte [Sir Edward Burne=Jones], who, after producing the best examples of a wrong-headed school, has shaken the dust from his feet and left Pre-Raphaelitism to an almost solitary apostle [William Holman Hunt?].
When we were told that the new movement would affect the whole English practice, to its immense advantage, and that, sooner or later, we should all be compelled to adopt its precepts, we knew that the craze would pass away, and beyond causing some students —beguiled by the facility with which details can be reproduced and an offensive realism be effected— to endeavour to become artists in the true sense of the word, without any capacity for the pursuit, Pre Raphaelitism did no great harm, and may even have acted as a check to a disposition to carelessness, ap parent enough in some first efforts. The surprise, and in some instances the indignation, with which the new movement was received by the established painters was striking, and often amusing enough. One Academician, who had always shown a scrupulous care in the elaborate finishing of his pictures, said to me, “What on earth was the hanging committee about when they placed these confounded things in the very eye of the exhibition ? Are we all to ignore the perfection of art as shown by such men as Titian, Rembrandt, and Velasquez, and go back to this [“]enfantillage” (he could speak French a little, and was proud of the accomplishment), “this ‘go-cart’ business, and imitate those old fellows who would have painted better if they could? I wish to goodness I had been in the Council—I would have taught them a lesson.” “Well, sir,” said I, “but don’t you think”—pointing to a picture of a Pre-Raphaelite Holy Family [Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents — “there is great earnestness and truth throughout that picture? See how carefully each detail is finished; look at those shavings—you could take them up.” “Exactly,” replied the critic, “very easy to paint realistic shavings, and brick walls, and weeds, and such-like rubbish, and ignore beauty and grace, and truth of character. Why, if they happen by accident to manage a bit of true expression, they put some absurd detail close by it, and so distract one’s at tention; and what exasperates me is—from the way I hear these young fellows talk—they presume to say we are a set of imbeciles, and we are to learn from them that the sooner we turn from our wickedness and seek salvation in becoming P.R. Brethren the better. And have you read what their apostle says? —as if it mattered what a writer, who declares that Rembrandt was no colourist, and his works wholly vulgar, and that Cuyp should have been a brewer instead of a painter, should utter. Why, sir, this brilliant writer, as you call him, ignores or abuses nearly everything in the exhibition, and encourages these young men in their weak-headedness. Will it last? Yes, for a time, and then people will wonder how they could ever have been so foolish as to look upon these eccentricities as the be-all and end-all of art.”
I may give one more example of Academic judgment. There had been “tall talk" about a certain work by a prominent member of the Brotherhood: “So-and-so was painting a picture which must open the eyes of the wretched old R.A.'s, and wake them up with a vengeance.” The picture was sent to the exhibition, and was placed in a prominent position on the line where I found Mulready studying it attentively. I went to him and said, “Well, sir, what is the verdict” what do you think of that?” “In colour,” was the reply, “the picture combines the qualities of Titian and Giorgione, in character it is admirable, and in drawing absolutely perfect. At least that is what I have been told.” “But may I ask for your opinion ??” “You may, but I am too old to understand these things, and silence best becomes me.”
The Pre-Raphaelitie craze ran its course like a fever, and though it might, and doubtless would, be urged that the early training in it of a great painter [Millais] —who at this moment shows in his practice principles the precise antithesis of that of his youth -—was partly the cause of his excellence, I, for one, should dispute the assertion. And even if it were true, the fact that P.R.B'ism was but a means to an end, was never admitted by its professors: in their eyes perfection, or what they considered as such—the practice of its principles—was the end itself.
We have now done—long done—with the Pre-Raphaelite, and another, and far more dangerous, craze has come upon us. Born and bred in France, what is called Impressionism has tainted the art of this country. It is singular that this phase of art, if it can be called art, is in exact oppo sition to the principles of the Pre-Raphaelites. In the one we had overwrought details, in the other no details at all. So far as my feeble powers enable me to understand the Impressionist, I take him to propose to himself to reproduce an impression—probably a momentary one—that Nature has made upon him. If the specimens of the impressions that I have seen are what have been made, even for a moment, on any human being, his mind must be strangely formed. In describing Mr. Squeers [from Nicholas Nickleby], the author [Charles Dickens] says that the schoolmaster had but one eye, which was unfortunate for him, as popular prejudice runs in favour of two. The Impressionist’s impressions are constant outrages on popular prejudice. According to his renderings of the human being, men are denied the usual complement of features, or legs, or arms, according to impression. This absurdity is carried to its utmost pitch in some of the illustrated papers, in which an angular form, with dots for eyes, a few scratches for body, and a few more in the place of legs, is served up to the public as the impression a human being has made on some great genius. Then the effects of colour and light and shade that the impressionist receives and gives off in his pictures. That Nature could ever have made such an impression at all, unless the re ceiver of it was in a state of disease, I take leave to doubt ; but if any human mind is unfortunately sen sitive to such impressions, the owner has no excuse for exhibiting them to the world.
All art is impressionist in the true and wide sense of the term. Vandyke has given us his impression of Charles the First ; and we know Strafford so well from the impression he made on Vandyke that we should recognise him if we met him; but as Vandyke had plenty of time at his disposal he bestowed a great deal of it in perfecting his impressions, and the consequence is that the great painter’s impressions of his sitters are for all time examples of the aim and end of art. There is an exhibition, every year at Mr. Wallis's Gallery in Pall Mall, where admirable examples of foreign art may be studied, and a comparison of our own school with the examples of others ought to be a lesson to students and professors alike. And when there is so much to instruct and stimulate in a study of the best of these, it has always seemed to me strange in the extreme that painters can be found who seem only to strive to reproduce their faults. It is to be hoped that the “Impressionists” will not be allowed to play their pranks in the Royal Academy exhibition ; we have enough evidence there of the seeming forgetfulness of the good that may be acquired from foreign training in the occasional display of sooty flesh and dingy, unmeaning—not to say unpleasant—subjects. I have sometimes been surprised to find that a picture, of the subject of which I could—to use a vulgarism—make “neither head nor tail,” had found a purchaser. It might have a strange roughness altogether incomprehensible to me, a kind of affec tation of cleverness which the purchaser may have mistaken for genius. I fear my experience of public knowledge of art leads me to the conclusion that a picture simply true to Nature has often no chance against one in which the painter has indulged in eccentricity, which the buyer thinks very wonderful because he cannot understand it.
In the way of a final word to the gentlemen who record their momentary (?) impressions of Nature, I venture to advise them to dwell longer on their impressions; let them keep Nature before their eyes for hours, days, and weeks, and then perhaps their impressions will be more what they ought to be. This advice is not likely to be taken, and these artists (?) may do much mischief to our modern school, the effects of which may be disas trously permanent ; but the craze itself will as assuredly pass away as everything foolish and false does sooner or later. Coeval with this school, and in many respects similar to it, is one [J. McNeill Whistler] in which “nocturnes” and “symphonies” flourish, in which the examples of the great masters seem to be set aside and probably despised. I see evidences of misdirected genius in that school, and I am neither vain nor stupid enough to think that what I write will create anything beyond a contemptuous smile in those “masters;” but I hope a very long experience justifies me in offering a warning to those who may be tempted to follow their pernicious example. Let the student always bear in mind that after passing a long. apprenticeship in drawing his business is to learn to paint, by which I mean to acquire the power of thoroughly and completely representing—as the great masters did—the object before him, whether it be a human figure or any other model. Let him throw nocturnes and symphonies to the winds, and let him also assure himself that gifts of imagination and even a poetic nature cannot thoroughly display themselves in art without the possessor having the means at his fingers’ ends. And for acquiring those means there is no royal road, but only the path I have pointed out. W. P. FRITH.
Frith, W. P. “Crazes in Art: Pre-Raphaelitism and Impressionism.” Magazine of Art. 11 (1888): 187-91. Hathi Trust Digital Library online version of a copy of the magazine in the University of Michigan Library. Web. 27 November 2019.
Last modified 27 November 2019