[The decorated uppercase “I” comes from the original article in the 1889 volume of the Magazine of Art (pp. 6-8), available in Google Books, and free to read. — George P. Landow]

Illuminated initial I

n his Fourth Discourse, Sir Joshua Reynolds says: — “The historical painter never enters into the detail of colours, so neither does he debase his conceptions with minute attention to the discriminations of drapery. It is the inferior style that marks the variety of stuffs. With him [the historical painter] the clothing is neither woollen; nor linen, nor silk, satin, or velvet; it is drapery, and nothing more.” With all respect to the memory of Sir Joshua, this view seems to me somewhat narrow. What is history, and what is an historical painter? A picture of Charles I. taking leave of his children, or of Cromwell dissolving the Long Parliament, would be historical in the truest sense of the word. What would become of those subjects under the Reynolds treatment? And I imagine the painter could not he found — at any rate in these days — who would ignore costume, and dress his figures in the "drapery" recommended by Reynolds. Imagine Cromwell's sturdy figure enveloped in a Roman toga, and the recalcitrant Members of Parliament similarly disguised!

When West announced his intention of breaking through these classical trammels on the occasion of his being commissioned by the king to paint the death of General Wolfe on the plains of Abraham, and clothing his figures in the dresses they must have worn, the quidnuncs, with Sir Joshua at their head, foreboded failure. Happily, West shut his ears to opposing arguments, and produced one of the few pictures by which, aided greatly by Woollet's engraving, his name will live. It is said that West's success converted Reynolds. If that is true, the conversion is not in evidence in the Fourth Discourse. I suppose it will not be denied that an incident which occurred at the Palace of Versailles, namely, that of the King of Prussia proclaiming himself Emperor of Germany in the midst of his applauding generals, was an historical subject of interest and importance, and I think it will be conceded that truth of costume in all its variety was a factor necessary to be correctly observed.

The historical pictures of Paul Delaroche are, I am told under a cloud. The God-gifted geniuses of modern France will have none of them; they are the “old game,” and enjoy the contempt of the realists and impressionists of the hour. I venture to think, however, that “Strafford Kneeling to receive Laud's Benediction as he goes to the Scaffold,” “Charles in the Guard-room at Whitehall,” and Lady Jane Grey, blindfold[ed], feeling about for the block on which her beautiful head is to be presently laid, will be considered great works of art when their detractors are forgotten. What becomes of Sir Joshua's theory as applied to those works? The idea is too ludicrous to contemplate. Illustrations might be multiplied to any amount of the absurdity of applying the Reynolds dictum to historical art. Great men in great countries are making history every day; and, though modern dress is terribly unpicturesque, he would be a bold and foolish man who would adopt any other in dealing with the historical scenes of bis own day. One of the finest of Delaroche's pictures represents the Princes in the Tower, waiting, terror-stricken, at the approach of their murderers. The dresses of the boys are strictly in accordance with the costume of the period; the bed on which they sit is evidently copied from a bed of the time. The strict observance of the accessories adds reality to the scene instead of detracting from it. The spectator is so impressed with the truthfulness of the portrayal, that he feels it must have happened as the painter has delineated it. This seems to me the triumph of historical art. Hear what Don Quixote says: — “It is the province of the historical painter,” said this wisest of madmen, “to produce his representation of some remarkable event in history not as it really happened, but as it ought to have happened."

In the few words from the Discourse which heads this paper Reynolds hits the real danger attending the attempts to reproduce historical scenes, in which the actors should be dressed in costumes appropriate to their action. The exigencies of the occasion may require “a variety of stuffs: linen, silk, satin, and velvet,” or armour. Now, all those things are far easier to paint than the “human form divine,” with its appropriate expression, character, and action; and the inferior painter if history is pretty sure to “debase his conception, and to distract attention from what should be the main point of his story, by an unfortunate realism in his accessories.” But the answer to that is: No inferior painter should “rush in where angels fear to tread.” I have done it myself, with disastrous results, and therefore I speak with authority. We do not think of the materials of the dresses which clothe Delaroche's figures, nor of the wonderful truth of the mise en scène in all his greatest works; though after-examination shows imitation of every detail carried to the precise point beyond which it would be dangerous, if not fatal, to go. To illustrate the absurdity of the Reynolds’ theory, I draw my readers' attention to two examples in sculpture. One is the figure of George IV. on horseback in Trafalgar Square, and the other is Dr. Johnson, stark naked, save for a piece of classical drapery, either in St. Paul's or Westminster Abbey — I forget which.

There may be an excuse for the effigy of George IV. That potentate, in his habit as he lived, would have been simply unendurable; but he would have been George IV., instead of the Roman gentleman who now plays the part on the finest site in Europe. But why Dr. Johnson should have been deprived of his picturesque suit of broadcloth and his usual wig, and made to show himself in a condition in which nobody used to see him, exceeds the comprehension of the ordinary mind.

In these days, when the artistic compass veers about — now to impressionism, which has its crazy advocates; now to realism, which is scarcely less foolish and offensive — it behoves the student to endeavour to find a sure and certain guidance by which he may be saved from the perils that beset him. I believe there are young gentlemen to be found who deny the merit of the Old Masters altogether.

My old teacher's motto, to which my youthful attention was constantly drawn — “Those works which have received the approbation of ages are intended for your emulation, not your criticism” — would only excite a smile in these geniuses. To such people I have nothing to say; they are past praying for. But to the number of clever young men and women, whose work in our annual exhibitions shows constant promise and frequent performance, I would most respectfully, and as a fellow student, offer words of warning and advice.

Impressionism is a craze of such ephemeral character as to be unworthy of serious attention. The dangers of realism I have pointed out. If the student desires further illustration, he has but to look at a picture painted in the Pre-Raphaelite manner, and he will find details which are unimportant elaborated till they vie, in reality, with the natural objects satins, velvets, ani armour almost illusive while the human being they clothe is destitute of the feeblest claim to reality; and so long as a living thing is more difficult to represent than an inanimate one, and so long as flesh is more difficult to render than the leaves of a dock or the bark of a tree, these realistic attempts will only prove examples of misdirected industry. There is, however, a kind of realism that is infinitely more offensive than that of the Pre-Raphaelite, and that is to be found in some examples of foreign art, where the accidents of nature — such as dirt, distortion, and exceptionable ugliness of type — are insisted upon.

Against this perversion of the real aim and end of art I think there is little necessity to warn the English student; his natural taste will save him from this revolting practice.

There is another eccentricity in the air which seems to me to call for observation and warning. I hear that subject in a picture is not only of no consequence, but it is better avoided. Pictures, according to this novel theory, should be “songs without words;” they should be beautiful in colour, light, and shadow, tone, and all the rest, but these qualities should not be made vehicles of story: that is to be left to literature. What, then, becomes of the cartoons of Raphael and the “Marriage a la Mode” of Hogarth? What becomes of Michelangelo's “Last Judgment” and the “Aeteon and Diana" of Titian? And, to go much lower, if attempts to make painting a vehicle for story are reprehensible, what culprits are the old Dutchmen, with their Kermesses and their innumerable illustrations of Low Country life and manners! — Jan Steen. with his “Physician Visiting a Sick Frau;" and Teniers, with his “Prodigal Son”! It is true that there are Italian pictures to be found which affect the mind like a solemn strain of music, from the loveliness of the tone and the exquisite harmony of the colours; but, beyond those charms — and no one can value and enjoy them more than the writer — they mean nothing. There are many figures in “glorious hues bedight,” and there is a background which is in itself a poem; but the figures are doing nothing, they say nothing; like Canning's “knife-Grinder,” they have no story to tell. I submit that painting is a language capable of expressing every emotion of the heart and mind of the human being, and that its vocation is to endeavour to elevate by poetic treatment of noble themes; or, if that rare power is denied the artist, then to convey moral lessons or infinite varieties of harmless pleasure. Beautiful as the language is, and worthy of admiration for itself, it is but a means to an end and the attempt to make it the end is, to my mind, a fatal mistake. The last sixty years have produced advantages to the art-student of this country that are incalculable. To say nothing of of design and numbers of academies, we have a National Gallery, unsurpassed in Europe, where the education of the painter should be completed. He will find there nature represented by all kinds of methods, except impressionism (I beg pardon for using the word again!) and realism. These are the fungi on the tree of art. Let the young painter study such noble stems as Titian, Velasquez, and Rembrandt, and let him endeavour to rival those great men, and others whose successes abound.

Nature is infinitely various, and so are the means by which she can be imitated by the painters; and, while being careful against the copying of any style, he should evolve one of his own by which, having careful regard to the limits prescribed by his art, he may hope to arrive at a true imitation of nature.

In conclusion, I should like to draw attention to the nearest approach to realism in really fine art that occurs to me. I think it is to be found in the pictures of Metzu, Terburg, and Gerard Dow, and, in each case, injurious to the living personalities.

I suppose white satin was never so perfectly represented as by Terburg; certainly that painter's subjects — if they can be called subjects at all — are of the most trifling character: a music-master and his pupil, or a lady asleep on a chair, while her maid warms her bed. The red jacket of the sleeper and her white petticoat are done to perfection; but there your admiration ceases, for the face is lacking in beauty and charm, and, as a representation of the subtleties of flesh, it is not to be named with the truthful rendering of the silk petticoat. These admirable as they are in their way, should serve as warnings. Let us picture to ourselves the dresses in the “Marriage a la. Mode” or in the finest works of Watteau. In those pictures the dresses play their properly subordinate parts; and though, on examination, you may discover the material on which they are composed, they never attract undue attention, and you notice them no more than you would those of living personages if you could see them performing the parts in real life which are so adimirably realised in unfading colours.

Though realism, in the full meaning of the term, is to be conndemned, the extreme opposite, shown in a careless rendering of details approaching to slight suggestiveness, is equally certain to attract attention away from the main purpose of the painter. An apt illustration of this occurs to me. My old friend Sir William Boxall showed me a portrait of a man in which the head was distinguished by the mastery of character-expression, and above all, colour, that the works of that distinguished artist always presented; but the black coat and hands were very slight and sketchy; the head was wonderfully like a head, but the coat was as wonderfully unlike a coat. I complained.

“Why, my dear fellow,” said Boxall, “I want the head to be principal. A coat is easier to paint than a head, and I have left it as you see, so as not to attract attention from the head.”

“But,” rejoined I, “you have painted the coat so badly that it does precisely what you intended it should not do: it attracts attention from the head."

This little anecdote shows the difficulty of prescribing the precise line of demarkation between slovenly suggestiveness and a too complete imitation of subordinate details, both being destructive of that which ought to be the main purpose of the painter.

I have always thought that Hogarth hit the exact mark in his rendering of details, under which heading I include dresses, furniture, background — in fact, everything that constitutes the setting of such gems as the “Marriage a la Mode."

Imagine one of Terhurg's white satin petticoats on one of Hogarth's figures! The whole scene would he vulgarised.

How, then, is the student to guide himself through this difficulty? If he is a portrait-painter, he will find in the best works of Vandyke, Rembrandt, Titian, and Velasquez the precise point to which the completion of details should be carried. There are examples of Vandyke and Rubens, notably in the Blenheim portraits by the latter (now, alas! lost to this country), in which pearls and lace, bows and dresses, are properly finished — that is to say, they are exquisite representations of the different objects painted, with exactly the right amount of realism, and subordinated with admirable skill to the chief objects, namely, the heads of the persons represented.

If the student be a painter of history, I refer him to what I have already said. If of genre, then I would refer him to the works of the great Dutchmen, especially those of Jan Steen, whose art is scarcely inferior to that of Titian. In those he will find neither slovenliness nor realism, but the juste milieu between the two.

I feel less competent to speak of landscape art. Turner is the god of my idolatry, and in his work I can find no “realism,” but only the rendering of nature by the hand of a true poet.

If anything I have urged in this paper should act as a warning against the dangerous crotchets of the art-mongers of the day, my purpose in writing it will be fully answered.

Last modified 8 November 2022