The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 1/Number 1/The Manchester Exhibition
THE MANCHESTER EXHIBITION.
In a number of the "Illustrated News," not long since, there was what professed to be a view of Manchester. It represented a thousand tall factory-chimneys rising out of a gray mist, and surmounted by a heavy, drifting cloud of smoke. And in truth a view not very different from this was presented to any one who, standing at the entrance of the Palace of the Exhibition of Art Treasures, turned and looked back before going within. Two miles off lies the body of the great workshop-city, already stretching its begrimed arms in the direction of the Exhibition. The vast flat expanse of brick walls, diversified by countless chimney and occasional steeples, now and then interrupted by the insertion of a low shed or an enormous warehouse, offers no single object upon which the eye or the imagination can rest with pleasure. Such a view was never to be seen in the world before this century; a city built merely by trade, built for the home of labor, of machines, and of engines, and for the dwelling-place (one cannot call it the home) of crowds of human beings, whose value is, for the most part, estimated according to the development of their machine-like qualities. Beauty is not consulted here. In those places in or near the city, where Nature, reluctant to be driven utterly away, still tries to keep a foothold, she is parched and scorched by the feverish breath of forges and furnaces. Standing here, one may see the cloud of smoke, which waves in the wind like a pall over the city, slowly moving and settling down upon the land. One may almost hear the roar of the continual fires, the throb of the engines, the heavy beat of the trip-hammers, and the rattle of the spindles, by which the work of the world is done; and their noises, blended by the distance into one monotonous sound, seem like the voice of the restless, hard-working, unsettled spirit of gain. Manchester is built and is worked for profit, not for pleasure; beauty is driven away from her as a thing at variance with practical life; and even the sky above her and the fields around her yield only at rare moments and for short seasons those precious and gracious shows of beauty which are the free and blessed gift of love to all the world. Smoke, steam, coal-dust, blackened walls, and bare fields lie outside the Exhibition; and now let us go within.
The world could show no sharper and more affecting contrast. Outside, all suggests the competitions and struggles of trade, the crowded street, the bustle of the exchange, the cold and dry elements of purely unimaginative life. Inside, all suggests the quietness and composure of solitary and delightful labor, the silence of the studio, the resort to nature, and the frequenting of the springs of poetry. From the present, one is suddenly transferred to the past; from the near, to the remote. In place of the blank, black factory wall, there is the low wall of some Italian Campo Santo, its painted sides more precious than marbles or gold could have made them; in place of the dull and heavy stone of the Exchange, the glowing mosaics of some southern cathedral; in place of the factory bell and the rush into the steaming and dirty workroom, the bell of a convent on Fiesole, and the slow walk through its cool cloisters; in place of the dead files of uniform ugly houses, Venetian palaces, with the water at their base, reflecting the colors which Giorgione and Titian, housepainters at Venice, left upon their stones; in place of the racket of the street, the quiet greenness of an English lane, or the inaccessible ice and glory of a far-off mountain summit; in place of the burnt waste of fields covered with ashes and coal-dust, the burning stretch of the desert with the Sphinx looking out over it century after century; in place of the shower coming down through the dirty air to wash the dirty roofs, a storm breaking over the sea-shore rocks, or beating down on the broken wreck; instead of the drabbled calico of the factory girl and her face old before its time, the satins of Vandyck's beauties, and the fair looks of Sir Peter Lely's heroines; instead of Manchester mayors and masters of factories, Tintoret's noble Venetian counsellors and doges, and Titian's Shakspearian men. It was a bold thought thus to bring pictures and statues into one great collection at Old Trafford, and to set off the art of the world against the manufactures of Manchester.
The Exhibition building was admirably designed for its purpose. Its plan is simple, and not unpleasing, although the proportions, which its object required, were such as to prevent any attempt at grand architectural effect. The general arrangement of the interior is easily understood, even without the aid of a ground-plan. The chief entrance leads into a nave, which has on each side an aisle of less height, separated from it by a wall. The wall is broken by two openings, through which is the passage from nave to aisle, or aisle to nave. The nave and aisles end in a transept, and behind the transept are two small saloons, and a large hall or aisle crossing the building transversely and forming its western end. A gallery runs round the transept, and another crosses the nave at its eastern end. This is the general arrangement. The walls of the nave or central hall are occupied by the gallery of British portraits, and between the iron columns that support the roof are set pieces of sculpture, and the cases containing the precious collection of Ornamental Art, (works of the minor arts, as they might be called,) which has been brought together from private and public sources, and is quite unrivalled in its completeness. The southern aisle contains the main collection of pictures by ancient, foreign masters; while the opposite aisle is filled with the works of the British school. The transept, being chiefly given up to arrangements for an orchestra, contains below little but a collection of busts, but its galleries are occupied with the collection of miniatures, a most admirable and extensive historical series of engravings, a large number of photographs, and a very precious collection of original drawings by the old masters. The saloon at the north end of the transept is filled with East Indian and Chinese tapestries, furniture, and works of ornamental design; while the opposite saloon continues the collection of paintings of ancient masters, being chiefly occupied with works from the gallery of the Marquis of Hertford, which he sent to the Exhibition on condition that they should be kept together. The hall that crosses the building at the western end is filled with a collection of water-color drawings.—Such, in brief, is an outline of the distribution of the treasures contained in this great palace of Art.
The first impression, on entering the nave, is that of the vast space filled with light and rich with color. The attention is not attracted to particular details. Separate objects are dwarfed in the long vista. The eye rests on nothing that is not precious, and is at first contented to wander rapidly from one object to another, without attempting to delay on any thing. Passing down the middle between the ordered files of statues, (all modern works, and few of them worthy of remark,) we enter from the transept the south nave, where the works of the foreign schools of painting are arranged for the most part in chronological order. This nave, like the opposite, is divided into three saloons and two vestibules. We are now in the first saloon. On the one side are the works of the earlier Italian masters, and on the other those of the masters of the earlier German and Flemish schools. And it is here that one observes the chief deficiency of the collection. The pictures which are here have been brought from the private galleries in which England is so rich. Many a famous country-house, full of historic and poetic associations, gains additional interest from its gallery of pictures or of marbles. Blenheim, Wilton House, Warwick Castle, have their old walls hung with pictures by Titian, Vandyck, and Holbein. Who does not remember, as one of his most delightful recollections of England,—delightful as all his recollections of that dear old Mother-land are, if he has really seen her,—who does not thus remember the drive from the little country town to the old family place, up the long avenue under its ancestral trees, the ferny brook crossed by the stone bridge with its carved balustrade, the deer feeding on the green slope of the open park or lying under some secular oak, the heavy white clouds casting their slow shadows on the broad lawn, the dark spreading cedars of Lebanon standing on the edge of the bright flower-garden,—the old house itself, with its quaint gables and oriels, the broad flight of steps leading to the wide door,—the cheerful reception from the prim, but good-natured housekeeper,—her pride in the great hall, and in the pleasant, home-like rooms, in Vandyck's portrait of the beautiful countess, and in Holbein's of the fifth earl,—the satisfaction with which she would point to the pictures and the marbles brought two centuries ago from Italy, now stopping before this to tell you that "it is considered a very improportionable Virgin by Parmigianino," and calling you to observe this old statue "of a couching Silenius wrapped in the skin of a Pantheon,"—and then, when the Rubens, and the Claude, and all the other pictures have been seen, her letting you pass, as a great favor, through the library with its well-filled oaken shelves, the gilding worn off the backs of many of its books by the love of successive generations;—who does not remember such scenes as these, and recall the glorious pictures from Florence, or from Venice, or from Antwerp, that enrich many an English country home?
It was, indeed, from such homes that the Manchester collection was, in great measure, brought together; and this being the case, it is not to be wondered at that it was difficult to form an historic sequence of pictures by which the course and progress of Art should be properly illustrated, or that many of the old pictures that hang on the walls of the Exhibition bear the names of greater masters than they deserve to be honored with. Nor is it strange that the earlier schools of Art should be but very scantily represented. The earlier painters did not do much work that would answer for the decoration of homes; their work was of a public, and, for the most part, a consecrated nature. The pictures of later centuries are more easily appreciated by those who have not made a thoughtful study of Art, and they have consequently been more loudly praised and more generally sought for. The later works have attractive qualities in which the earlier are often deficient, and it is not until very recently that the real beauty and value of these first pictures of the revival have been felt with any due appreciation. The masters of the fourteenth, and of the greater part of the fifteenth century, did not, as we have said, paint pictures simply as objects of beauty or for mere purposes of adornment, nor were those methods of painting then in use which have brought pictures into private homes and within private means. And so it happens that the schools of this period are not represented at Manchester in any fair proportion to the schools of the sixteenth century.
The two most important centuries of Art are not to be studied here. Of the six pictures, for instance, that profess to be by Giotto, the great head and master of Italian Art, there are but two from which even a faint impression of his style can be gained. There is nothing here which would enable one who had not seen his works in Italy to conceive a true idea of their character and merits. Giotto stands at the threshold of the fourteenth century, breaking open the door, so long barred up, that was to let men into the glories of the unseen world. The friend of Dante, he, as painter, stands side by side with the poet. In the midst of the tumults, the confusion, and violence of those bloody times, his soul rose above the discord of the world, his hand snapped the fetters of authority and tradition, and revealed by line and color the exalted visions of his imagination. Painting, with him, took its inspiration from religious faith, and spent itself in religious service. Whether at Padua, in the little withdrawn Arena chapel, or on the bare mountains at Assisi, in the great church of St. Francis, or at Naples, in the king's chapel, his frescos, though dimmed by the dust of five hundred years, blackened by the smoke of incense, abused by restorers, still show a power of imagination, a spirituality and tenderness of feeling, a simplicity and directness of treatment, which give them place among the most sacred and precious works that Art has yet produced. That quiet, solitary chapel of the Arena at Padua is one of the places most worthy of reverence in Italy; for in the pictures from the lives of the Virgin and the Saviour, that are painted upon its walls, there is the expression of such religious fervor, such faith and love, as Art has rarely or never reached in later times.
Nor is there at Manchester any picture by Duccio da Siena, the great, and, one may almost say, the worthy contemporary of Giotto, from which his power and feeling are to be well estimated. Like Giotto he struggled to free himself from the swathing-clothes in which the traditions of Byzantine Art had bound up the limbs and the imaginations of artists, and he succeeded in at last breaking loose. But the long restraint had impaired the power of all who were subjected to it; and as in the works of Giotto, so in the rarer works of Duccio, one often finds an effort after truth of expression, which is almost pathetic in its character, from its revealing the inefficiency of the hand to carry out the thought, and the resolute will striving half in vain to overcome the impediments of bad teaching and imperfect knowledge of the materials and limits of painting. It is this groping effort after truth which results often in the naïve rendering of details, and the quaintness of composition, which are so common in the works of these early masters; but the deep feeling of the artists penetrates through all, and thus even their awkward and imperfect drawing frequently produces a stronger effect, and seems a better rendering of nature, than the cold, unfeeling, academic accuracy of Bologna, or all the finished science of the eclectic schools.
In passing down through the century one finds lamentable omissions at Manchester. Fifty pictures, of which half at least have been restored, (that is to say, in part or wholly spoiled,) and half originally the work of inferior masters, do not represent the art of a century which was full of the glow of reawakening life, and which, as the spring covers the earth with flowers, covered Italy with cathedrals, campaniles, churches, baptisteries, and camposantos, and decorated their walls with sculpture and painting. Art was gaining gradually a knowledge of her own powers. Orgagna, the Michel Angelo of his time, (one of his pictures is at Manchester,) was opening a wider field for her progress; and ten years after his death Fra Angelico was born. He was a boy of fifteen years old when in 1402 Masaccio was born at Florence, and the brightness of the fifteenth century had begun.
There is one, among the four pictures ascribed to Fra Angelico in this collection, from which something of the heavenly purity, the sweetness, and the tenderness of this great and gentle master may be learned. It is a picture of the Last Judgment. Unfortunately, it has been much injured by time and by neglect; its brilliant colors have sunk and become dim,—those pure, clear colors which give to Fra Angelico's panel pictures the brilliancy of a missal illumination, and which reflect the purity and the clearness of his tranquil life and his reverential soul. It is no fanciful theory which connects the uses of color with moral qualities, and which from the coloring of a picture will deduce something of the moral character of its painter. Thus it is not only from the exquisite delicacy of form, the spirituality of expression, and the sweet, reverent fancy in attitude, of the angels from which Fra Angelico derived his name, but also from the brightness of their golden wings, from the deep glow of their crimson, or scarlet, or azure robes, and from the clear shining of the stars on their foreheads, that one learns that he deserved that name as characteristic of his temper and his life. Something of the influence of the cloister shows itself in most of his larger works; but if his vision was narrowed within convent walls, it did but pierce the more clearly into the regions of tranquillity and loveliness that lay above them.
With the end of the fifteenth century religion almost disappears from Art. John Bellini, dying ninety years old in 1516, was the last and one of the greatest of the long line of artists who had loved Art as the means granted them of serving God upon earth. The manly vigor of his conceptions, the tender and holy purity of his imagination, the delicate strength of his fancy, are not to be discovered in the few pictures that bear his name at Manchester. His pictures are to be fairly seen only at Venice, where, in out-of-the-way churches, over tawdry altars, his colors gleam undimmed by time, and the faces of his Virgins look down with a still celestial sweetness. But there is one picture here, by a Venetian contemporary of John Bellini, before which we shall do well to pause. It is a St. Catharine, by Cima da Conegliano. It is the picture of a noble woman, full of fortitude, serenity, and faith. The richness of the color of her dress, her calm dignity, the composure of her attitude, recall to mind and make her the worthy companion of the beautiful St. Barbara of the church of Santa Maria Formosa. It is well to look at her, for we are coming to those days when such saints as these were no longer painted; but in their places whole tribes of figures with faces twisted into every trick of sentimental devotion, imbecile piety, and pretended fervor.
But before this time, somewhere about the middle of the fifteenth century, the fashion of painting pictures upon panel for private purposes, though as yet religious subjects were principally chosen for treatment, had already begun; and we find the masters of the early part of the sixteenth century represented with tolerable fulness at Manchester. English collectors have long had a passion for Raphael, and England is almost as rich in his works in oils as Italy herself. Italy, however, keeps his frescos; and may she long keep them! There are more than thirty works ascribed to Raphael hanging on the walls of the Exhibition. Many of them are of doubtful genuineness; many of them have been restored.
It is impossible to trace in these pictures the progress of Raphael's manner, and to mark the development of his style; but even in these one may see something of the change from the simplicity and feeling of his early works, produced under the influence of religious sentiment, and the still clinging stiffness of traditional restraints, to the freedom and coldness of his later works, painted under the influence of success at a dissolute court, of flattery, of jealousy, and of indifference to the motives of religion.
The Venetian masters of the sixteenth century fill a large portion of the sides of one of the great saloons of this aisle, covering it with a glow of deepest color. The opposite side is hung with many pictures by Rubens; and the contrast between the works of the mighty colorists of Venice and the famous colorist of Antwerp is not without curious interest and instruction. The Venice wall has the color of Venetian sunsets, the gold and crimson of its clouds, the solemn blue of the Cadore hills, the deep green of the lagoons, the brown and purple of the seaweeds, and the shadows of the city of decaying palaces. Here are such harmonies as Nature strikes in her great symphony of color. But on the other wall are the colors of the courts in which Rubens passed so many of his days,—the dyes of tapestry, the sheen of jewels and velvet, the glaring crimson and yellow of royal displays; while the harmonies that he strikes out with his rapid and powerful hand are like those of the music of some great military band.
There are noble pictures here by Giorgione, and Titian, and Tintoret, and Paul Veronese, and Bonifazio. Look at this Musical Party by Giorgione, this landscape by Titian, this portrait of the vile Duke of Alva by the same great master, the greatest master of all in portraiture. It is the Duke himself, not merely in his outward presence, but such as the insight of one as profoundly versed in human as in external nature beheld him. The portrait is a biography of the man, and one may read in the narrow, hard, and wily face the history of his cruel life. The same qualities of inward vision are displayed by Tintoret in his more hasty portraits, and one learns as much of Venetian men and of their lives from the pencil of Titian and of Tintoret as from the pens of contemporary chroniclers. The picture by Bonifazio of a Virgin and Child surrounded by saints is a splendid example of this almost unsurpassed colorist; while several of the pictures by Paul Veronese are among the most precious things in all the Exhibition, as clear and uninjured specimens of admirable Venetian work.
The Bolognese school is represented at Manchester out of all proportion to its worth, in comparison with the earlier and greater schools of Italy. It is essentially the school of decline, and, after the time of Francia, very few pictures proceeded from it dignified by noble thought, or exhibiting either purity or power of imagination. Its very method condemned it to inferiority. But debased as it is, it has been during the last two centuries the object of perhaps more real and affected admiration than any other of the schools of Italian art. Fortunately, we have entered upon a better period of criticism, and a change is fast coming over the public taste. But it is a curious fact, that the most popular picture in the whole gallery of ancient masters, the picture before which larger crowds assemble and linger than before any other, is one from this school,—the three Maries weeping over the body of the Saviour, by Annibale Caracci. A portion of the interest which it excites undoubtedly arises from the report that Louis Napoleon has offered the sum of £20,000 for it to its possessor, the Earl of Carlisle; but its intrinsic qualities are such as to explain much of its attraction for uneducated eyes. The attitudes of the figures are violent and theatrical, the colors are strong, the surface is smooth, the subject is easily recognized and of general interest. But whatever value be set upon these points, it is an example of many of the worst defects of the school. The expressions of the figures are exaggerated and unnatural, the color, though strong, is cold and inharmonious, the drawing feeble and incorrect, the sentiment inconceivably material. It is a true exponent of the low ebb of artistic power and of religious feeling at the period at which it was painted.
But we are delaying too long in these halls of the old painters. We have scarcely looked at a tithe of the eleven hundred pictures that hang around, and we must pass by with only a glance the long lines of German, Flemish, and Dutch works, and the rows of pictures by the great Spanish masters. We can but see how much there is for pleasure and for study, and wish in vain to pause before Rembrandt, and Cuyp, and Ruysdael, and Vandyck, before Murillo and Velasquez.
We come out into the nave, and, forgetting for a time pictures as works of art, let us look at them as representations of men, as we pass along before the portraits of British worthies, with which the two sides of this great hall are hung. It is a gallery of which every one of British blood may be proud; for no other country could show such a long line of the portraits of her famous men, and feel at the same time that so many of her greatest were not to be found in the collection. The gallery begins with a portrait of King Henry IV.; it ends with that of Mr. Prescott. After nearly four hundred English worthies, at last one American,—and only one; for in the whole collection there is but one other portrait of an American,—West, the painter,—and he was English by adoption, though not by birth. We could spare his fame without great loss, but it would not do for us to give up that of our popular historian. In the next great assemblage of the portraits of the worthies of the English race and speech, perhaps those born on this side of the Atlantic may appear in larger numbers and in even rank of honor.
The first portrait on the catalogue is that of King Henry IV.; but he has displaced here, as in life, his predecessor on the throne. Henry VI. and Richard III. follow in near succession; but it is not till Henry VIII.'s time that we really enter upon the field of English portraiture. We begin with the king himself. Here is Holbein's famous picture of him; a picture that represents a man so gross, so sensual, so disgusting in appearance, that one recognizes its truth, and wonders that the court-painter did not lose his head for such a libellous sincerity.
Wolsey is near his master; his face is that of a man "exceeding wise, fair-spoken, and persuading"; he has a large, full brow, narrow and shrewd eyes, a delicate nose, and somewhat heavy and sensual cheeks. A little later the portraits become more numerous. Of Queen Elizabeth there are seven here, and in them may be traced the great changes of her face,—from that of the plain, awkward, not altogether unpleasing, red-haired girl, to that of the hard, bitter, disappointed old woman. Some of her courtiers surround her;—Leicester, with a treacherous uncertainty of expression; and Burleigh, riding on a mule, and holding flowers in his hand,—an odd representation of the great Lord Treasurer. And here, too, is Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, finding a deserved place among the chief men of his time,—for he was Shakspeare's friend, and to him the "Rape of Lucrece" was dedicated, with the words, "What I have done is yours; what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have devoted yours." Here is Holbein's portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh, with the face of a true knight. Sidney is not here, but "Sidney's sister, Pembroke's mother," has an honored place,—and though her portrait is not of so "fair" a woman as one might desire to have seen her, it has the look of a woman "wise and good." And here are Shakspeare and Ben Jonson themselves;—the Chandos portrait of Shakspeare, with which all the world is familiar, more interesting from its own fame than from its being either an authentic or a satisfactory likeness of the poet; and Ben Jonson close by, with his strong features and manly face. And Fletcher, and Shirley, and Dick Burbadge, who first acted Hamlet, and whose picture explains why the queen should say, "He's fat and scant of breath,"—and others of the same great band of contemporaries. Their heads belong for the most part to one broad type; their common characteristics are strongly marked. There were never finer heads than these;—the broad, uplifted, solidly based skulls; the strong and vigorous marking of the features, giving evidence, both in shape and in expression, of the union of pure intellect and pure imagination. Compare with them the heads of the wits and statesmen of Charles II.'s time. See the difference;—the high, wide arch of the skull is lowered or narrowed; the broad brow cramped; the features finer cut, but losing in force what they gain in fineness. Look, for instance, at this Vandyck of Sir John Suckling,—only the next generation after the great men; but his portrait is that of an idler, his head that of a man without great thoughts or great interests. The age of imagination had passed; the age of fancy was setting in. Here and there in the later days one finds a man who might belong to the earlier time;—for instance, this likeness of Sir Henry Wotton, also by Vandyck, gives us a broad and noble head; but one sees the time to which he belonged in his somewhat affected meditative attitude, and in the word Philosophemur, which is inscribed upon the canvas. The finest type of head which England has had since the time of Elizabeth was that developed among the Roundheads. Round heads they were, and noble heads too. They are well represented here. Look at this portrait of Cromwell;—it has the same character and expression with that still nobler likeness of him which he sent to the Duke of Tuscany, and which hangs now in one of the back halls of the Pitti Gallery, a stern, silent monitor to the dull Florentines. Frederick Tennyson said of it, that it was the best battle-piece he ever saw;—"In its red ruggedness it looks as if it had been sketched in by the gleam of Dunbar's cannon flashes." Hampden, Eliot, and Pym, with wide individual differences, all belong to the same class;—the lines of their faces, which in Hampden and in Eliot have settled into a cast of resolute melancholy, and in Pym betray the sternness of his nature, tell in all of the hard discipline of their lives, and the upright patriotism of their hearts. Compare the faces of these patriots with those of the leaders of the French Revolutions. The Cavaliers, with a type of head less fine, were for the most part handsomer men than the Roundheads. Here is Lovelace, the poet, for instance; Aubrey says of him, "He was an extraordinary handsome man," and this likeness bears out the assertion. His face has a look of enthusiasm and of gallantry, appropriate to the man who could write, "Stone walls do not a prison make." With the portraits of Brooke, and Fairfax, and Falkland, and Astley, and others of the time, the comparison between Roundhead and Cavalier might be carried still farther,—but we must pass on.
The portrait of Hobbes of Malmesbury, as an old man, hangs near that of Sir Thomas Browne. It is a curious contrast between the imaginative and the unimaginative philosopher,—between the student of innumerable books, and the cynic who declared that "he should know as little as other men, if he had read as many books."
There is a whole bevy here of the famous beauties of Charles II.'s court,—full of the affected airs and languishing graces which Sir Peter Lely knew well how to paint, and rarely showing any thing in their portraits of the sprightliness which some of them at least possessed in life. The only one of Sir Peter's full-length beauties, who calls up any associations but such as belong to Grammont's Memoirs, is Margaret Lucas, the Duchess of Newcastle. Who does not know her through Charles Lamb, and love her for Charles Lamb's sake? She looks out of place here, between Charles II. and the Duchess of Cleveland; and it was not in a fancy dress of most fantastic style that she wrote her memoir of her husband,—in which she tells of what My Lord would eat at dinner, as well as collects the wise things which dropped from My Lord's lips.
The worthy Secretary Pepys appears here, in "an excellent conceited picture," of which he himself has told the story in his Diary:—
"1666, March 17. To Hales's, and paid him £14 for the picture, and £1 5s. for the frame. This day I began to sit, and he will make me, I think, a very fine picture. He promises it shall be as good as my wife's; and I sit to have it full of shadows, and do almost break my neck looking over my shoulder, to make the posture for him to work by."
"March 30. To Hales's, and there sat till almost quite dark upon working my gowne, which I hired to be drawn in; an Indian gowne."
"April 11. To Hales's, where there was nothing found to be done more to my picture, but the musique, which now pleases me mightily, it being painted true."
And here is Kneller's familiar portrait of John Evelyn, the other diarist of the times. And Lely's portrait of Rochester, the roué, represented in the characteristic act of crowning his monkey with laurel,—laurel to which he sometimes aspired himself. And Kneller's portrait of Lord William Russell, with a face that answers better to the character of the man, as it appeared before he was brought face to face with death, and forced to exert and to display the manlier qualities of his nature.
The men of letters of the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century appear here in great force. With the faces of most of them the world is familiar. Here are six of the Kit-Kat Club portraits that were painted for Jacob Tonson. First in order Tonson himself, the very personification of the nourishing publisher and patron of authors, with the pleasant air of the happy discoverer of genius, and the maker of its fortune as well as of his own. He holds a folio copy of "Paradise Lost"; it is Tonson patting Milton on the back. Dryden, Vanbrugh, Congreve, Steele, Addison, and Lord Chancellor Somers are the other five of these celebrated portraits. What a congress of wits! But we have besides, Atterbury, and Pope, and Lady Mary Wortley Montague, and Prior, and Tickell, and Swift. Pope's face, as given in Kneller's portrait, (which recalls the poet's stolen complimentary verse to the painter,) has a sad and weary look, and is marked by that pallor, and that peculiar hollowness of eye and cheek, which often accompany bodily deformity. Swift's face betrays but little of the bitterness of his soul; but it was painted in his best days, before the cloud of darkness had begun to settle down upon him. It is the portrait of him as he was in London, among his set,—not as he was in the half-banishment of his Irish life.
The end of the century brings us to other familiar portraits, and at length to portraits painted by great native artists. Gainsborough and Reynolds appear in full rivalry. Here are Gainsborough's Johnson, the well-known profile portrait, and Sir Joshua's Boswell; Gainsborough's Garrick, a most delightful portrait of Garrick's pleasantest expression, and Sir Joshua's Gibbon, which looks as ugly and as conceited as the little man himself. One of Reynolds's most pleasing portraits is his likeness of himself in spectacles. It has suffered from the fading of colors and the cracking of the paint, as so many of Sir Joshua's best pictures have done; but it still presents him amiable, cultivated, and unpretending, the accomplished artist and the kindly friend, and affords the best possible illustration of the character which Goldsmith drew of him in his "Retaliation."
We pass rapidly before the portraits of the present century. Every one knows by heart the faces of Scott and Byron, Southey and Coleridge. But there is one little portrait, hung at the end of the gallery, in front of which we pause. It has no remarkable merit as a work of art, but it is the portrait of Keats, painted in Rome by his friend Severn. The young poet is resting his head on his hand, as if it were heavy and tired. His face has a look of illness; his eyes are large, and the spaces around them are hollow. His wide and well-formed brow, and all the features, betray a temperament delicate, passionate, and sensitive to excess. This portrait was painted, according to tradition, in the little summer-house studio, at the corner of the Via Strozzi. The windows look out over the garden with its cypress walks, its old pine trees, its rows of cabbages and artichokes, its weather-stained statues and bits of ancient marbles. Beyond are the walls of Rome, and beyond these the Campagna stretches away in level lines of beauty to the blue billow of the Alban hills. On this view the eyes of the dying poet rested, while his heart gave no prophecy to him of coming fame. Would it have cheered him, during those last disheartened days, to have foreseen that so soon England would rank him among her honored children, and place his portrait in the gallery of the most worthy of her dead; while a line of his writing, "A thing of beauty is a joy forever," should be emblazoned in glowing letters at the end of the great hall of her first great Palace of Art?
We come now to the northern aisle, the aisle which contains the works of the British school of painters. It is the most complete of the sections of this great collection of pictures, and the lessons which are to be learned from it of the present condition and prospects of Art are of the highest interest. Here are six hundred pictures, the English record of about a hundred years of painting. Never before has there been such a collection of the works of English painters, and never before has there been an opportunity of studying so fully and satisfactorily the course and progress of the English school.
The beginning of this school hardly dates before the first quarter of the last century. Public taste was then at its lowest level. The fall of Art in Italy, in the preceding century, had carried down with it both the appreciation and the feeling for what was truly good. A factitious taste had taken the place of honest and simple likings. The worst things were often preferred, the worst pictures bought. Artists, as a class, had given up the study of Nature as the foundation of Art; and in the place of Nature, they had put other men's pictures. They had substituted a system of conventional rules and traditional methods, for the infinite variety and the unceasing study of truth. They preferred falsehood, they liked imitation, and their patrons soon came to consider the feeble results of falsehood and imitation as better than honest work and strong originality. Of course, here and there was a man whose native love of truth or spirit of opposition would give him strength to break loose from the fetters of artistic convention and prevailing taste, and to exhibit the truth in his pictures. Such a man was the first great artist of the English school, Hogarth; the greatest humorist of a century rich in humorists, with a knowledge of human nature that reminds one sometimes of Fielding's in its clearness and variety, sometimes of Goldsmith's in its tender pleasantry. But Hogarth had to struggle all his life against the taste of his time, which was unable to appreciate his merit. He was too natural for an artificial age. Among the pictures exhibited here is one from his famous series of the Harlot's Progress. It is too well known by the engravings to need description; but when the eight masterly pictures which compose this series were sold at auction during Hogarth's life, they brought the sum of fourteen guineas each! The March of the Guards to Finchley, so admirable in composition, so full of incident and character, so rich in humor, could not be sold by the artist, and he disposed of it in a lottery, in which many tickets were left on his hands. And while this was the fate of works which still stand unsurpassed in their peculiar field, the amateurs were paying enormous prices for worthless pictures of second-rate Italian masters, and talking about their "Correggios and Raphaels and stuff."
From Hogarth to Sir Joshua Reynolds is a wide step. Sir Joshua is well represented here by some thirty pictures; and Gainsborough is at his side with perhaps half as many. If Sir Joshua had not been a man of genius, he would have been ruined by his academic principles. He laid down rules which he constantly violated. He praised the Bolognese masters, and advised all students of Art in Italy to study at Bologna; but he did not confine himself to the study of other men's works, but sometimes gave himself, with honest sincerity and affection, to the study of Nature; and thus it is that it becomes hard to draw the line of praise between some of his pictures and some of those by Gainsborough, and to say which are the best. Gainsborough was no academician; he did not believe in conventionalities. When Sir Joshua laid down as a rule that blue was bad as a prevailing color in pictures, Gainsborough painted his famous Blue Boy, and made one of the most charming portraits and pleasantest pictures that had ever been painted in England. Look at Sir Joshua's delightful, winning Nelly O'Brien,—what a happy picture of a girl!—and then look at Gainsborough's Mrs. Graham, with her exquisite, perhaps even too exquisite, beauty; and see, not which of the artists was the best, for that it is hard to see, but how great both were as students and renderers of human nature. One of the best of Reynolds's portraits is that of Foote, the actor. He is leaning over a chair, and his laughing face is looking out from the canvas, as if he were watching the effect of one of his own most brilliant and easy jokes. But Sir Joshua does not compare with Gainsborough in landscape; there the lover of Nature had the advantage over the lover of Poussin and Claude. The famous picture of Puck, which Lord Fitzwilliam lately bought at Mr. Rogers's sale for the extravagant sum of nine hundred and eighty guineas, is here for all eyes to see how far the imagination of the President of the Royal Academy differed from that of Shakspeare.
But the principles which Sir Joshua laid down, though they did not ruin his own works, did much to ruin those of the next generation of painters. There was still the struggle between the painters by rule and according to convention, and the painters of truth as found in Nature. But the painters of Nature were in a minority so small as to be powerless against the prevailing current. English Art seemed to be running down; cold formalisms, classicalities, extravagances, affectations, imitations, "high art," occupied the field almost to the exclusion of better things. West, Fuseli, Northcote, Barry, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Haydon, Maclise, and Sir Charles Eastlake form a famous line of painters who have been admired, but whose works have little value except as warnings, and as showing into what errors a false method and want of recognition of the foundation and the end of Art may lead men not destitute of ability.
But while these men had their day, the school of the lovers of Nature as seen in the external world was making irregular progress. The overwhelming pressure of conventional traditions is shown most forcibly, however, by the fact that the great leader of this school of the students of landscape nature, the man to whom was given the power to see and to represent Nature in all the changing glories and beauties of her ceaselessly varying moods, the man who knew the value of truth and set his desires upon it accordingly,—that this man should have been for years of his life kept down to the imitation of and competition with the works of painters of previous centuries who were supposed to have painted landscapes. But it was Pegasus running a race with cart-horses. He had reached the goal which they had never aspired after. There are nineteen pictures of Turner's here at Manchester; some of them among his noblest works. Here is his Cologne at Sunset; look at it, for the picture will fade before your eyes, and you will stand looking at the golden glow of evening over the church towers, and the gleaming river of the ancient city.
With the growth of Turner's power, and the commencement of a better period of public taste and feeling, as marked not only in Art, but in letters, the study of Nature became more manifest in the English school. In different directions, and with different degrees of success, many artists, but generally with more or less faltering, broke away from the old system. Wilkie, Etty, Constable, Collins, and others, often painted simple and sincere pictures, pictures that showed careful study and real love of Nature. All these artists may be seen to advantage here. But in looking at the mass of the collection, one sees that the true principles of Art have not even as yet been generally recognized by the majority of English artists. The last hall of the gallery, which is devoted to the works of living artists, gives especial proof of this fact. But at the same time, it gives proof of the rise of a spirit among a small body of the younger painters, whose influence promises to be of strong and beneficial effect. The artists among whom this spirit exists are the Pre-Raphaelites.
Great misconception exists with regard to the works and to the principles of Art of this school. The name by which it is known has in part occasioned this misconception. It was not happily chosen; for these Pre-Raphaelites, instead of being three centuries behind their times, are fully up with the day in which they live. Pre-Raphaelitism was not intended to mean, as it might seem to imply, the going back to worn-out and obsolete methods of painting, the resort to past modes of representation; it does not mean the adoption of the artistic forms, traditions, or rules of the old painters; it does not mean the seeking of inspiration from the works of any other men; but, in theory at least, it means the pursuit of Art in that spirit which the painters before Raphael possessed, the spirit which united Art with Religion; it means the pursuit of Art with the humility of learners, with the faith of apostles. It does not mean the reproduction of the quaintnesses, and awkwardnesses, and limitations of the early artists, more than it means the adoption of the errors of their creed as exhibited in their paintings; but it means that as those artists broke loose from the bondage of Byzantine captivity, and found in Nature the source of all true inspiration, the exhaustless fountain from which their imaginations might draw perpetual refreshment,—so these artists who took this name would free themselves from whatever they could discern to be false in the teaching and practice of Art in our times, and give themselves to the study of that beauty and that truth which are to be found in God's world to-day, whether in external nature or in human hearts, actions, and lives. Truth was to be their device; Nature was to be their mistress. And in the ardor of youth, they set forth for the conquest of new and untravelled lands.
It is greatly to be regretted that there should be but an inconsiderable number of pictures in this last hall of the English gallery by Pre-Raphaelite artists. A little private exhibition of seventy-two pictures and drawings, by some twenty artists of this school, which was held in a small house in London, during the month of June, gave a far better view of what had been already accomplished by them, of the practical working out of their principles of Art, and of their present tendencies. Three men stand as the prominent leaders of the movement,—Rosetti, Hunt, and Millais. There is not a single picture by Rosetti at Manchester; but two (if we remember rightly) by Millais; and although there are several by Hunt, there are none of his latest works, nor the most powerful and beautiful of his comparatively early ones, the well-known Light of the World. Rosetti has never, we believe, exhibited in public. But whether he paint Dante led in a vision by Love to see Beatrice lying dead,—or the Angel leading King and Shepherd to adore the new-born Saviour, while the angelic choir in white robes stand around the manger in the night, singing their song of Peace and Good-will,—or Queen Guinever and Sir Lancelot meeting in the autumn day at King Arthur's tomb,—or Mary of Magdala flying from the house of revels, and clasping the alabaster box of ointment to her bosom,—or Ophelia redelivering to Hamlet his gifts of remembrance, while he strips the leaves from a rosetree as he breaks her heart,—or the young farmer, who, having driven his cart to London, and crossed one of the bridges over the black river, finds in the cold, wet morning his old love, long lost, now fallen at the side of the street, fainting against the dead brick wall of a graveyard; whether he paint these or other scenes, in all are to be found such sense of the higher truths of Nature and such faithful rendering of them, such force of expression, and such beauty of conception, as place them as works of imagination among the first that this age has produced. With equal fidelity to Nature, with a more definite moral purpose, perhaps with a more consistent steadiness of work, but with less delicate sense of beauty, and with imagination of a very different order, Hunt stands with Rosetti in the front ranks of Pre-Raphaelitism. The earnestness and directness of moral expression in most of his pictures is such as has for a long time been rare in Art. Art is with him a means of enforcing the recognition of truths often avoided or carefully concealed. Their powerful dramatic character compels the attention of the careless to his pictures. He paints Claudio and Isabella in the prison scene, and it is not merely a vivid rendering of the scene in its external features, but also a true rendering of the character of Claudio and Isabella, of the weakness of the coward, of the strength that dwells with the pure. His Awakened Conscience is a scene from the interior of London life; a denunciation of the vice of which the world is so careless; a sad, stern picture of the bitterness of sin. Millais is less in earnest, and his pictures, with many great technical merits, with portions of very exquisite painting, have rarely possessed any great worth as works of imagination. One of the tenderest of them all is the Huguenots, the girl and her lover parting, which is now becoming generally known through the engraving that has recently been published. The Autumn Leaves, which is exhibited at Manchester, is one of his least satisfactory pictures.
But all these men are young, and what they have already accomplished is but as the promise of greater things to come. It is impossible, however, to look forward for these greater things, without a feeling of doubt and uncertainty as to their being produced. The times in which we are living are not fitted to develope and confirm the qualities on which the best results of Art depend. Ours is neither an age of composure nor of faith. It urges speedy results; it desires effective, rather than simple, truthful work. But the Pre-Raphaelites are exposed to especial dangers; just now to the dangers that come from success. And these are of two kinds; first, the undermining of that humility which is the secret of mastery; and secondly, the tendency to the development of peculiarities and mannerisms, to the exaggeration of special features that have attracted attention in their work, and which have a factitious value set upon them by the public, as they are taken to be the signs and passwords of initiation into the new school. But, lying deeper than these, there is a danger to Pre-Raphaelitism from the tendency to insist on too literal an application of its own principles. The best principles will not include all cases. The workings and ways of Nature are infinite, and the principles of Art are finite deductions from these infinite examples. As yet these deductions have been but imperfectly made. The most exact and truthful representation of Nature may be the rule of the artist, but it is not an easy thing to attain to an understanding of the truth of Nature. The actual is not always the real. Literal truth is not always exact truth; and the seeming truth, which is what Art must often represent, is very different from the absolute truth. And here there has been much stumbling in Pre-Raphaelitism, and there is likelihood of fall; likelihood of the actual being mistaken for the real, the show for the essence. It is, indeed, apparently, a tendency toward this error which has deprived most of the best pictures of the Pre-Raphaelites of the quality of breadth, a quality which Nature usually preserves in herself, which in painting takes the place of harmony in music, and which only the greatest painters have acquired.
But if Pre-Raphaelitism be true, not to the letter, but to the spirit of its principles,—if its artists remain unspoiled by flattery and success,—if they avoid mannerisms, conceits, and the affectations of originality,—if they can keep religious faith undimmed by the "world's slow stain"; then we may expect from the school such works of painting as have not been seen in past times,—works which shall be the forerunners of a new period of Art, and shall show what undreamed conquests yet lie open before it,—works which shall take us into regions of yet undiscovered beauty, and reveal to us more and more of the exhaustless love of God.
- ↑ Mr. Peter Cunningham has quoted these passages in his excellent catalogue of the gallery.
This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.