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Art. I.-Arts and Artists in England. By G. F. Waagen, Director of the Royal Gallery at Berlin. 3 Vols. 12mo. London : Murray.
1838. The title in full of these volumes states that their contents consist of “ Letters written during a Season in London, and Visits to the Seats of the Nobility and Gentry in the Country; with Descriptions of the Public and Private Collections of Works of Art, Sketches of Society,” &c., being a translation from the German.
It cannot be necessary to use any argument to show that the opinions of the Director of the Royal Gallery at Berlin, on every thing connected with the arts of design, are entitled to much deference, or that the observations of an intelligent and highly cultivated foreigner have always a double value; for they not only detect peculiarities in our manners and modes of thinking, whether praiseworthy or otherwise, but they mirror the habits and sentiments of another, it may be highly, civilized community. Looking to these volumes, however, as they bear upon the Arts, and remembering at the same time some of the criticisms which have been advanced by artists of eminence not only regarding modern but the ancient masters, we cannot but become impressed with the notion, that there is a vast deal of individual taste, and, so to speak, mannerism of scanning a fine picture, evinced in much that is put forward as criticism by connoisseurs. It seems to us that the reverence paid to authority, or to the dictum of some Sir Joshua, and that sort of indefinite conceptions conveyed by a jargon of technical eloquence, have very often taken the place of sound canons on the Fine Arts, instead of any fixed and intelligible principles. Is it not the case also, that the observance of all ascertained principles and established rules will never produce an exquisite specimen, and on the other hand that the violation of some of these laws may pass unheeded amid the force of some prevailing excellence? If these views be correct, it is not an unlimited reliance that is to be reposed in the criticisms of any professed judge ; nor, indeed, should we be astonished to find a man of equal attainments and experience with our author-another director of some continental celebrated academy, traversing the same ground and inspecting the same galleries, writing, on his return
VOL. 11. (1838.) NO. I.
home, a work as peremptory and feasibly reasoned as the present, yet differing widely in his conclusions. Painting, as it appears to us, labours under the sort of ambiguity and discrepancies alluded to in a particular degree; from which, however, it is to be hoped a variety of publications like the one before us is likely to rescue the art; for Dr. Waagen is assuredly no ordinary authority ; nor could he have visited any other country where pictorial treasures are so abundant and multifarious, thanks to the untold gold of Englishmen.
Whatever hesitation we may entertain to the pinning of our faith to the director's sleere, far be it from us to object to any of his criticisms. For us, who do not know an expertly painted copy from an original in any case, to indulge in the technical slang of amateurs would be worse than ludicrous, although not more presumptuous than the manner of multitudes who utter astonishingly clever things in
We therefore are content to follow our author, taking all that he utters as law, not to be gainsaid ; believing at the same time that he will open the eyes of our artists and of our possessors of large collections of pictures to many defects and mistakes, so as to lead to correction,
It is pleasing and creditable to find him in the preface saying, “ I must praise, and most gratefully acknowledge, the extreme liberality with which so many possessors of collections of works of art allowed me free access to them.” But it is more hopeful still to hear him add, “ The assent which many of them gave to my very free judgment on works which they highly valued, proved to me that they have the truth more at heart than the gratification of petty vanity as collectors; a fact which indicates a degree of intellectual culture as elevated as it is rare.”
We shall begin, however, with some of our author's notices concerning the English school of painting, and the masters of whose works, he says, he, previously to visiting this country, hardly knew anything except from engravings ; which is as much as to attest a circumstance that need not be doubted, viz., that very few of our pictures reach a foreign market. Ours is an importing rather an exporting country in respect of the fine, whatever may be said of the industrial arts. 'English money is still more abundant than English paintings.
In the passage now to be quoted, the writer is speaking of the National Gallery particularly, which contains some of the most celebrated English works, from an examination of which he formed the groundwork of the criticism now to be quoted.
" The origin of original painting in England, is in the eighteenth century, that is, at a time when both the original schools of the whole of modern times, of Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany, and their branches in France and Spain, had long lost their peculiar character, and in their stead
there had succeeded all over Europe a manufacture of cold, monotonous spiritless pictures, founded on the general rules and precepts of art, which were communicated in the various celebrated academies. The demands of religion, the broad foundation on which, in other schools, historical painting had gradually grown up, from its first infancy to vigorous maturity, no longer existed. This highest branch of art was now only occasionally in request, for the decoration of palaces and other public buildings; all other demands on living artists were confined to portraits. Even the tradition of the technical part of painting, which had been conscientiously handed down in the old schools of living art as the most indispensable fundamental condition, even of the highest performances, had been gradually forgotten, as of iuferior importance, amid all those dead rules of pure taste, and ideal beauty of form. When, therefore, men of decided genius for painting, such as Hogarth, and afterwards Reynolds, appeared in England, they found neither a foundation of technical knowledge, nor a more elevated and animated intellectual direction of art. Under this twofold deficiency English painting appears to me to labour, though in a lessening degree, even to our time. That hollow and empty idealism, at variance with all nature, which was then advocated as the only safe road for historical painting, necessarily offended every genuine talent for the arts, the first condition of which is a lively feeling for nature, and, as always happens, leads to a prejudiced opposition. This was the case with Hogarth. He had an eminent talent for catching what was characteristic in nature, and applying it to dramatic representations. If a painter, with the mind of Hogarth, had appeared in Florence in the fifteenth century, he would doubtless have treated with great app from the circle of the religious notions of those times, many highly dramatic scenes of monastic life, in which his turn for humour would have found its account, in many burlesque traits of the mode of life in the convents, which many painters of that time did not suffer to escape them. But as his age afforded him no general form in which he might have displayed his talents, he invented, in order to express himself in his own way, a new species of painting, namely, the moral-humorous, which holds in the general domain of painting nearly the same rank as the drama of ordinary life in poetry; so that Hogarth is to Raphael as Molière to Sophocles. The former show us man, dependent on his animal nature and on his passions, and, according to the inanner and the degree in which these are opposed to his higher intellectual nature, excite laughter, compassion, contempt, abhorrence, disgust. The other show us the predominance of the divine nature in man, whether in combating that animal nature, and the passions, in honourable defeat, or in dignified composure after victory, and fill us with admiration, astonishment, veneration, rapture.
" This moral-humorous department is the only one in which the English have enlarged the domain of painting in general; for, with the exception of a few pictures by Jan Steen, I know nothing similar of an earlier period. In all other branches they are more or less excelled by the other schools. Portrait painting is the branch which they have cultivated with the most success, and the best portraits of Sir Joshua Reynolds take a high rank, even when compared with the performances of other schools. Next to this are the painters of what the French call pièces de genre, scenes of everyday life and still life, and especially their animal painters. Their landscapes are far lower in the scale, in such a comparison. But they are weakest of all in history painting, where inventive and creative fancy is the most called for. Having thus viewed the intellectual region of the art, let us briefly consider their progress in the scientific parts. Their drawing is, on the whole, indifferent; the forms often suffer from incorrectness, and still more by want of precision; on the other hand, most English painters have great brilliancy, fulness, and depth of colour, which makes much show and charms the eye; often, it is true, at the expense of fidelity to nature, and of delicately balanced harmony. For the mode of execution, it is a misfortune for the English school, that it at once began where other schools nearly leave off. From the most scrupulous execution of the details, which seeks to bring every object as near as possible to the reality, even for close inspection, the older schools but very gradually acquired the conviction that the same effect might be produced, at a moderate distance, with fewer strokes of the pencil, and thus attained a broader handling. But the English school began at once with a very great freedom and breadth of handling, where, in the works of Hogarth and Reynolds, indeed, every touch is seen in nature, and expresses something positive; but, in most of the later painters, degenerated into a flimsiness and negligence, so that but a very superficial and general image is given of every object, and many pictures have the glaring effect of scene-painting, while others are lost in misty indistinctness. As no good technical rules had been handed down to them by tradition, the English painters endeavoured to establish some for them. selves, but with such ill success, that many pictures have very much changed, many are so faded that they have quite the appearance of corpses, others have turned black; the colour has broad cracks in it, nay, in some cases, it has become fuid, and then, from the excessively thick impasto, has run down in single drops."
Hence it will be seen that the Berlin Gallery Director does not entertain any immoderate degree of admiration of our older English masters. He concludes that Sir Joshua was not qualified to be an historical painter.“ The characters and expressions,” for example, in his “ Holy Family," he says are “poor and unmeaning, the formis not rounded, the execution slight, the colouring warm, indeed, but false, and besides, in places faded and washed out.” The connoisseur appears to have felt a greater admiration for Hogarth's genius, and bestows the phrase “ eminent merit” upon the “Marriage à-la-Mode.” West, however, comes off shabbily enough ; for of him it is declared that “ partly at his instigation, the infant plant of the English school of painting was shut up in the hot-house of an academy; and his works in this gallery prove that he was the real model of the president of such an institution, who, by his example and teaching, clipt betimes with his academical shears, according to prescribed rules, the wild luxuriant growth of the young plants. The truth of the words, “The letter kills, the spirit gives life,' is rendered manifest to the eye by these pictures.
Gainsborough and Wilson also get it over the knuckles; but to show that the Doctor's free judgments are not without discrimination, we need only quote a few sentences which are bestowed on Wilkie.