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Misinforming a Nation/Chapter 05

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V


BRITISH PAINTING


If one hopes to find in the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica an unprejudiced critical and biographical survey of the world's painters, he will be sorely disappointed. Not only is the Encyclopædia not comprehensive and up-to-date, but the manner in which British art and artists are constantly forced to the front rank is so grossly biased that a false impression of æsthetic history and art values is almost an inevitable result, unless one is already equipped with a wide understanding of the subject. If one were to form an opinion of art on the Britannica's articles, the opinion would be that English painting leads the modern world in both amount and quality. The Encyclopædia raises English academicians to the ranks of exalted greatness, and at the same time tends to tear down the pedestals whereon rest the truly towering geniuses of alien nationality.

So consistently does British bourgeois prejudice and complacency characterize the material on painting contained in this Encyclopædia, that any attempt to get from it an æsthetic point of view which would be judicious and universal, would fail utterly. Certain French, German, and American artists of admitted importance are considered unworthy of space, or, if indeed deserving of mention, are unworthy of the amount of space, or the praise, which is conferred on a large number of lesser English painters. Both by implication and direct statement the editors have belittled the æsthetic endeavor of foreign nations, and have exaggerated, to an almost unbelievable degree, the art of their own country. The manner in which the subject of painting is dealt with reveals the full-blown flower of British insularity, and apotheosizes the narrow, aggressive culture of British middle-class respectability. In the world's art from 1700 on, comparatively little merit is recognized beyond the English Channel.

The number of English painters whose biographies appear in the Britannica would, I believe, astonish even certain English art critics; and the large amount of space devoted to them — even to inconsequent and obscure academicians — when compared with the brief notices given to greater painters of other nations, leaves the un-British searcher with a feeling of bewilderment. But not only with the large number of English painters mentioned or even with the obviously disproportionate amount of space devoted to them does the Encyclopædia's chauvinistic campaign for England's æsthetic supremacy cease. The criticisms which accompany these biographies are as a rule generously favorable; and, in many cases, the praise reaches a degree of extravagance which borders on the absurd.

Did this optimism of outlook, this hot desire to ferret out greatness where only mediocrity exists, this ambition to drag the obscure and inept into the glare of prominence, extend to all painters, regardless of nationality, one might forgive the superlative eulogies heaped upon British art, and attribute them to that mellow spirit of sentimental tolerance which sees good in everything. But, alas! such impartiality does not exist. It would seem that the moment the biographers of the Britannica put foot on foreign ground, their spirit of generosity deserts them. And if space is any indication of importance, it must be noted that English painters are, in the editors' estimation, of considerably more importance than painters from abroad.

Of William Etty, to whom three-fourths of a page is devoted, we are told that “in feeling and skill as a colorist he has few equals.” The implication here that Etty, as a colorist, has never been surpassed scarcely needs refutation. It is unfortunate, however, that Mr. Etty is not with us at present to read this exorbitant testimony to his greatness, for it would astonish him, no doubt, as much as it would those other few unnamed painters who are regarded as his equals in color sensibilité. J. S. Cotman, we discover, was “a remarkable painter both in oil and water-color.” This criticism is characteristic, for, even when there are no specific qualities to praise in an English painter's work, we find this type of vague recommendation.

No points, though, it would seem, are overlooked. Regard the manner in which J. D. Harding's questionable gifts are recorded. “Harding,” you will find, “was noted for facility, sureness of hand, nicety of touch, and the various qualities which go to make up an elegant, highly-trained and accomplished sketcher from nature, and composer of picturesque landscape material; he was particularly skillful in the treatment of foliage.” Turning from Mr. Harding, the “elegant” and “accomplished” depicter of foliage, to Birket Foster, we find that his work “is memorable for its delicacy and minute finish, and for its daintiness and pleasantness of sentiment.” Dainty and pleasant sentiment is not without weight with the art critics of this encyclopædia. In one form or another it is mentioned very often in connection with British painters.

Landseer offers an excellent example of the middle-class attitude which the Britannica takes toward art. To judge from the page-and-a-half biography of this indifferent portraitist of animals one would imagine that Landseer was a great painter, for we are told that his Fighting Dogs Getting Wind is “perfectly drawn, solidly and minutely finished, and carefully composed.” Of what possible educational value is an art article which would thus criticise a Landseer picture?

An English painter who, were we to accept the Encyclopædia's valuation, combines the qualities of several great painters is Charles Holroyd. “In all his work,” we learn, “Holroyd displays an impressive sincerity, with a fine sense of composition, and of style, allied to independent and modern thinking.” Truly a giant! It would be difficult to recall any other painter in history “all” of whose work displayed a “fine sense of composition.” Not even could this be said of Michelangelo. But when it comes to composition, Arthur Melville apparently soars above his fellows. Besides, “several striking portraits in oil,” he did a picture called The Return From the Crucifixion, which, so we are told, is a “powerful, colossal composition.” To have achieved only a “powerful” composition should have been a sufficiently remarkable feat for a painter of Mr. Melville's standing; for only of a very few masters in the world's history can it be said that their compositions were both powerful and colossal. El Greco, Giotto, Giorgione, Veronese, Titian, Michelangelo and Rubens rarely soared to such heights.

But Melville, it appears, had a contemporary who, if anything, was greater than he — to-wit: W. Q. Orchardson, to whose glories nearly a page is devoted. “By the time he was twenty,” says his biographer, “Orchardson had mastered the essentials of his art.” In short, at twenty he had accomplished what few painters accomplished in a lifetime. A truly staggering feat! We are not therefore surprised to learn that “as a portrait painter Orchardson must be placed in the first class.” Does this not imply that he ranked with Titian, Velazquez, Rubens and Rembrandt? What sort of an idea of the relative values in art will the uninformed person get from such loose and ill-considered rhetoric, especially when the critic goes on to say that Master Baby is “a masterpiece of design, color and broad execution”? There is much more eulogy of a similar careless variety, but enough has been quoted here to show that the world must entirely revise its opinions of art if the Encyclopædia Britannica's statements are to be accepted.

Even the pictures of Paul Wilson Steer are criticised favorably: “His figure subjects and landscapes show great originality and technical skill.” And John Pettie was “in his best days a colorist of a high order and a brilliant executant.” George Reid, the Scottish artist, is accorded over half a column with detailed criticism and praise. Frederick Walker is given no less than an entire column which ends with a paragraph of fulsome eulogy. Even E. A. Waterlow painted landscapes which were “admirable” and “handled with grace and distinction” — more gaudy generalizations. When the Encyclopædia's critics can find no specific point to praise in the work of their countrymen, grace, distinction, elegance and sentiment are turned into æsthetic virtues.

Turning to Hogarth, we find no less than three and one-half pages devoted to him, more space than is given to Rubens's biography, and three times the space accorded Veronese! It was once thought that Hogarth was only an “ingenious humorist,” but “time has reversed that unjust sentence.” We then read that Hogarth's composition leaves “little or nothing to be desired.” If such were the case, he would unquestionably rank with Rubens, Michelangelo and Titian; for, if indeed his composition leaves little or nothing to be desired, he is as great as, or even greater than, the masters of all time. But even with this eulogy the Encyclopædia's critic does not rest content. As a humorist and a satirist upon canvas, “he has never been equalled.” If we regard Hogarth as an “author” rather than artist, “his place is with the great masters of literature — with the Thackerays and Fieldings, the Cervantes and Molieres.” (Note that of these four “great masters” two are English.)

Mastery in one form or another, if the Britannica is to be believed, was common among English painters. The pictures of Richard Wilson are “skilled and learned compositions . . . the work of a painter who was thoroughly master of his materials.” In this latter respect Mr. Wilson perhaps stands alone among the painters of the world; and yet, through some conspiracy of silence no doubt, the leading critics of other nations rarely mention him when speaking of those artists who thoroughly mastered their materials. In regard to Raeburn, the Encyclopædia is less fulsome, despite the fact that over a page is allotted him. We are distinctly given to understand that he had his faults. Velazquez, however, constantly reminded Wilkie of Raeburn; yet, after all, Raeburn was not quite so great as Velazquez. This is frankly admitted.

It was left to Reynolds to equal if not to surpass Velazquez as well as Rubens and Rembrandt. In a two-page glorification of this English painter we come upon the following panegyric: “There can be no question of placing him by the side of the greatest Venetians or of the triumvirate of the seventeenth century, Rubens, Rembrandt, Velazquez.” If by placing him beside these giants is meant that he in any wise approached their stature, there can be, and has been, outside of England, a very great question of putting him in such company. In fact, his right to such a place has been very definitely denied him. But the unprejudiced opinion of the world matters not to the patriots who edited the Encyclopædia Britannica. That “supreme” English reference work goes on to say that in portraits, such as Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse, Reynolds “holds the field. . . . No portrait painter has been more happy in his poses for single figures.” Then, as if such enthusiasm were not enough, we are told that “nature had singled out Sir Joshua to endow him with certain gifts in which he has hardly an equal.”

Nature, it seems, in her singling out process, was particularly partial to Englishmen, for among those other painters who just barely equalled Reynolds's transcendent genius was Gainsborough. Says the Britannica: “Gainsborough and Reynolds rank side by side. . . . It is difficult to say which stands the higher of the two.” Consequently hereafter we must place Gainsborough, too, along with Michelangelo, Rubens, Rembrandt and Velazquez! Such a complete revision of æsthetic judgment will, no doubt, be difficult at first, but, by living with the Encyclopædia Britannica and absorbing its British culture, we may in time be able to bracket Michelangelo, Reynolds, Rubens, Gainsborough, Rembrandt, Hogarth and Velazquez without the slightest hesitation.

It is difficult to conceive how, in an encyclopædia with lofty educational pretences, extravagance of statement could attain so high a point as that reached in the biographies of Reynolds and Gainsborough. So obviously indefensible are these valuations that I would hesitate to accuse the Britannica's editors of deliberate falsification — that is, of purposely distorting sesthetic values for the benefit of English artists. Their total lack of discretion indicates an honest, if blind, belief in British æsthetic supremacy. But this fact does not lessen the danger of such judgments to the American public. As a nation we are ignorant of painting and therefore are apt to accept statements of this kind which have the impact of seeming authority behind them.

The same insular and extravagant point of view is discoverable in the article on Turner. To this painter nearly five pages are devoted — a space out of all proportion to the biographies of the other painters of the world. Titian has only three and one-half pages; Rubens has only a little over three pages; and El Greco has less than two-thirds of a page! Of course, it is not altogether fair to base a judgment on space alone; but such startling discrepancies are the rule and not the exception.

In the case of Turner the discrepancy is not only of space, however. In diction, as well, all relative values are thrown to the winds. In the criticism of Turner we find English patriotism at its high-water mark. We read that “the range of his powers was so vast that he covered the whole field of nature and united in his own person the classical and naturalistic schools.” Even this palpable overstatement could be forgiven, since it has a basis of truth, if a little further we did not discover that Turner's Crossing the Brook in the London National Academy is “probably the most perfect landscape in the world.” In this final and irrevocable judgment is manifest the supreme insular egotism which characterizes nearly all the art articles in the Encyclopædia Britannica. This criticism, to take merely one example, means that Crossing the Brook is more perfect than Rubens's Landscape with Château de Stein! But the Encyclopædia's summary of Turner's genius surpasses in flamboyant chauvinism anything which I have yet seen in print. It is said that, despite any exception we may take to his pictures, “there will still remain a body of work which for extent, variety, truth and artistic taste is like the British fleet among the navies of the world.” Here patriotic fervor has entirely swallowed all restraint.

Over a page is devoted to Constable, in which we are informed that his “vivid tones and fresh color are grafted upon the formulae of Claude and Rubens.” This type of criticism is not rare. One frequently finds second-rate English artists compared not unfavorably with the great artists of other nations; and it would seem that the English painters add a little touch of their own, the imputation being that they not seldom improve upon their models. Thus Constable adds “vivid tones and fresh colors” to Rubens's formula. Another instance of this kind is to be found in the case of Alfred Stevens, the British sculptor, not the Belgian painter. (The latter, by the way, though more important and better-known, receives less space than the Englishman.) The vigorous strength of his groups “recalls the style of Michelangelo, but Stevens's work throughout is original and has a character of its own.” I do not deny that Stevens imitated Michelangelo, but, where English artists are concerned, these relationships are indicated in deceptive phraseology. In the case of French artists, whose biographies are sometimes written by unbiased critics, the truth is not hidden in dictional suavities. Imitation is not made a virtue.

Let us now turn to Watts. Over two pages are accorded him, one page being devoted largely to eulogy, a passage of which reads: “It was the rare combination of supreme handicraft with a great imaginative intellect which secured to Watts his undisputed place in the public estimation of his day.” Furthermore, we hear of “the grandeur and dignity of his style, the ease and purposefulness of his brushwork, the richness and harmoniousness of his coloring.” But those “to whom his exceptional artistic attainment is a sealed book have gathered courage or consolation from the grave moral purpose and deep human sympathy of his teaching.” Here we have a perfect example of the parochial moral uplift which permeates the Britannica's art criticism. The great Presbyterian complex is found constantly in the judgments of this encyclopædia.

So important a consideration to the Britannica's critico-moralists is this puritan motif that the fact is actually set down that Millais was devoted to his family! One wonders how much influence this domestic devotion had on the critic who spends a page and a half to tell us of Millais, for not only is this space far in excess of Millais' importance, but the statement is made that he was “one of the greatest painters of his time,” and that “he could paint what he saw with a force which has seldom been excelled.” Unfortunately the few who excelled him are not mentioned. Perhaps he stood second only to Turner, that super-dreadnought. Surely he was not excelled by Renoir, or Courbet, or Pissarro, or Monet, or Manet, or Cézanne; for these latter are given very little space (the greatest of them having no biography whatever in the Encyclopædia!); and there is no evidence to show that they are considered of more than minor importance.

Perhaps it was Rossetti, a fellow Pre-Raphaelite, who excelled Millais in painting what he saw. Rossetti's The Song of Solomon, as regards brilliance, finish and the splendor of its lighting, “occupies a great place in the highest grade of modern art of all the world.” Even Holman Hunt, one of the lesser Pre-Raphaelites, is given over a full page,, and is spoken of in glowing terms. “Perhaps no painter of the nineteenth century,” we read, “produced so great an impression by a few pictures” as did Hunt; and during the course of the eulogy the critic speaks of Hunt's “greatness.” Can it be that the naïf gentleman who wrote Hunt's biography has never heard of Courbet, or Manet, or of the Impressionists, or Cézanne? After so sweeping and unreasoned a statement as the one concerning the great impression made by Hunt's pictures, such an extreme conclusion is almost inevitable. Or is this critic's patriotic vanity such that he considers an impression made in England as representative of the world? Even to intimate that the impression made by Hunt's pictures was comparable to that made by L'Enterrement à Ornans or Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe, or that the Pre-Raphaelites possessed even half the importance of Courbet and Manet, is to carry undeserved laudation to preposterous lengths.

Here as elsewhere, superlatives are used in such a way in describing unimportant English painters that no adequate adjectives are left for the truly great men of other nationality. It would be difficult to find a better example of undeserving eulogy as applied to an inconsequent British painter than that furnished by Brangwyn, whose compositions, we are astonished to learn, have “a nobly impressive and universal character.” Such a statement might justly sum up the greatness of a Michelangelo statue; but here it is attached to the works of a man who at best is no more than a capable and clever illustrator.

The foregoing examples by no means include all the instances of how English painters, as a result of the liberal space allotted them and the lavish encomiums heaped upon them by the Encyclopædia Britannica's editors, are unduly expanded into great and important figures. A score of other names could be mentioned. From beginning to end, English art is emphasized and lauded until it is out of all proportion to the rest of the world.

Turn to the article on Painting and look at the sub-title, “Recent Schools.” Under “British” you will find twelve columns, with inset headings. Under “French” you will find only seven columns, without insets. Practically all the advances made in modern art have come out of France; and practically all important modern painters have been Frenchmen. England has contributed little or nothing to modern painting. And yet, recent British schools are given nearly twice the space that is devoted to recent French schools! Again regard the article, Sculpture. Even a greater and more astonishing disproportionment exists here. Modern British sculpture is given no less than thirteen and a half columns, while modern French sculpture, of vastly greater æsthetic importance, is given only seven and a half columns!