John Ruskin.

Notes on some of the principal pictures exhibited in the rooms of The Royal Academy, and The Society of Painters in Water Colours, no. 2, 1856 .. online

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Online LibraryJohn RuskinNotes on some of the principal pictures exhibited in the rooms of The Royal Academy, and The Society of Painters in Water Colours, no. 2, 1856 .. → online text (page 1 of 5)
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No. II.— 1856.







0. IL-1856.







By the same Author,

ACADEMY, 1855.— No. I.

Third Edition, with Supj^lcment. Svo. Price Qd.


In presenting the second number of these "Notes" to
the public, distinguished as they are from most of the
criticism brought under their notice, by the writer's
attaching his name to them, I may perhaps be per-
mitted one or two words respecting the probable dif-
ference, in aim, between anonymous and acknowledged
criticism ; and this the rather, that I found, last
year, the offence which the work, in its very nature,
could not but give, seemed to be deepened instead of
diminished by the fact of its being openly owned to ;
and I was bitterly accused of malice or unkindness,
as if malice were usually the most outspoken passion
in the world, and unkindness always the greater
when it was ready to answer for itself.

It is evident that there can be but three reasons
for a writer's concealment of his personality. Either,
firstly, having confidence in what he has written,
he must have none in his name (as I wrote the first



volume of " Modern Painters," sure of the truth of
what I wrote, but fearing that I might not obtain fair
hearing if the reader knew my youth). Or, secondly,
he may know that his name would carry some weight
with it, but may be ashamed of what he has written.
Or, thirdly, there may be dangers of private loss or
inconvenience, which he cannot speak openly without
incurring, and which to avoid, he must get his
opinion uttered as best he may, namelessly. Gene-
rally, I believe, the last reason to be the only legiti-
mate one ; and that, though in rare instances it may be
wisdom to try to obtain a hearing under a masque,
which would be refused if the face were shown, in all
ordinary cases it should be not only with the voice,
but with the eyes, that men should address their
fellows. I never felt at ease in my "graduate"
incognito, and although I consented, some nine years
ago, to review Lord Lindsay's " Christian Art," and
Sir Charles Eastlake's Essay on Oil Painting, in the
" Quarterly," I have ever since steadily refused to write
even for that once respectable periodical.*

* It has lately, I observe, in consequence, sought to amuse its readers
by some account of my private affairs ; of which — if the writer of the
article in question is not ashamed of his name — I shall be happy to fur-
nish him with more accurate details, as well as to rcconuncnd him to a
school where he may learn what will not in future be disadvantageous to
his writings — a little more astronomy and optics.

But, as touching these "Notes," of which I hope to
continue the series yearly, I trust that the reader will
feel that I have given him the best guarantee in my
power of their sincere purpose, in signing them. If
he thinks I always see the brightest colours in the
works of my friends, or that it can only be in rooted
malice that I point out an error in perspective, I have
put it in his power to inquire into these matters, and
to ascertain for himself whether indeed it is always a
friend's work that I praise, or whether the transgres-
sor of perspective law is conscious of any personal
enmity between himself and me. And truly, it is
a sorrowful thing to me, and one bearing witness,
very bitterly, to the dishonesty of criticism in general,
that people should be so ready to call every kind of
faultfinding " hostility," the moment they can bring it
home to a known person. One would think, to hear
them, that there was no right or wrong in art; that
every opinion which men formed of it was dictated by
prejudice, and expressed in passion ; that all praise
was treacherous — all rebuke malignant — and silence
itself merely a pause of hesitation between Flattery
and Slander.

That it must sometimes be so, I am forced to
believe, since the imputation of such dishonesty is
constant ; and it is strange, as well as frightful, to


reflect how many forms of guilt are involved in one
dishonest criticism. A common thief steals only
property — a dishonest critic steals property, together
with Fame, and the power of being useful. A
common thief steals, for the most part, in imperfect
knowledge of right. But a dishonest critic steals
wittingly, and with all advantages of education. A
common thief steals " to satisfy his soul when he is
hungry;" but a dishonest critic, to satisfy his soul
when he is envious. A common liar risks the dis-
covery, and bears the penalty, of his own falsehood ;
but a lying critic shrinks behind his associates, and
diffuses the discredit of his falsehood, while he
multiplies its influence. A common liar, being
discovered, leaves other men's honour unscathed.
A lying critic, discovered, has infected with his
own disgrace the men behind whom he stooped,
and cast suspicion over the general honour of his

This, and much more than this, is the real charac-
ter of all anonymous writers against conscience ; and
the evil of it would be too great to be, with a
remnant of charity, imputed to any human being,
were it not that men continually commit their most
blameable acts in the mere dullness of habit, and are
like dogs taught to pilfer, in whom we pardon, to the


imperfect nature, what would be unpardonable in a
rational one.

It is little to say that I am free from guilt such as
this. I have striven, from the first day when I began
to write, to reach an impartiality far beyond that of
mere uprightness. It is possible to be thoroughly
upright, and yet unconsciously partial — continually
deceived by personal associations or instincts. I have
striven for that higher impartiality, which can only
be obtained by labour in conquering predilections, by
toil in the successive study of opponent schools, and
earnest endeavour to sympathize with the separate
spirit of each master I approached. And I can say
fearlessly, that although it is not possible, in the time
I am able to give to this work, to enter as I should
desire into the consideration of every picture
examined, yet I approach each of them with a dis-
tinct effort to gain the point of aspect by which its
painter intended it to be commanded, and with a
personal experience of the difficulties of various art,
which renders me as charitable to true effort as
disdainful of attempts to be great without labour. I
say this, once for all, and the reader will perhaps
pardon me this length of preface, since it is to assure
him that I do not write these notes carelessly, nor
look upon them as things of little importance. I look


upon them, on the contrary, as one of the chief works
which I have henceforward to do ; and though, from
its very nature, it must always be done hastily, it
never will be done thoughtlessly, nor without the
earnest hope that the pain I may have to give by
unwilling blame, may be more than counterbalanced
by the help which I know even the best painters may
derive from the expression of an eager sympathy, and
a faithful praise.



If the reader, before fixing his attention on any par-
ticular work, will glance generally round any of the
rooms, he will be struck by a singular change in the
character of the entire exhibition. He will find that
he can no longer distinguish the Pre-Raphaelite works
as a separate class ; but that between them and the
comparatively few pictures remaining quite of the old
school, there is a perfectly unbroken gradation,
formed by the works of painters in various stages
of progress, struggling forward out of their con-
ventionalism to the Pre-Raphaelite standard. The
meaning of this is simply that the battle is completely
and confessedly won by the latter party ; that ani-
mosity has changed into emulation, astonishment into
sympathy, and that a true and consistent school of
art is at last established in the Royal Academy of

Such an exhibition I have never yet seen, and the
excellence of it is all the more to be rejoiced in,


because it is every whit progressive. It does not
consist merely in the splendour of the work of one
noble artist, urged to unusual exertion (though this
it can boast), nor in an accidental assemblage of the
happiest efforts of several (though by this also it is
adorned) ; but in the achievement which has rewarded
the steady effort of all, now at last turned in the right
direction, and ensuring for each, in process of time,
such utmost success as his genius is capable of.
There is hardly an exhibitor this year who has not
surpassed himself, and who will not surpass himself
again in every subsequent effort ; and I know that
they must feel this, and must be as happy in their
sense of sudden power, and in the perception of the
new world opened to their sincerity, as we spectators
have cause to be in the gifts of art they offer us.

As for my own special work, I look upon it as now
almost supererogatory — I have little to do but to
multiply monotonous terms of praise; for, now that
nearly every picture in the room has a meaning, and
the observer is thus led to expect one, and to exert
his attention, I believe that people will easily distin-
guish such meanings for themselves, without the
impertinence of explanation ; and as for minor fault-
finding, I hold it generally useless in the cases of
artists who mean well, and are painting from Nature.
They will gradually find out their faults for them-
selves, and the spectator ought seldom to have his
attention withdrawn from the real merits by any
carping at passages of failure. Last year several
pictures, in which to point to anything was to point


to an error, were put into the best places, when it
was right at once to mark their demerit, in order to
check this system of complimentary precedence. But
this year, the worst pictures are, for the most part, in
retired places, and there I shall have pleasure in
leaving them. If I find fault with any others, it is
either to help the observer in forming his judgment
of art in general, or to suggest a possibly better mode
of practice to the painter.

10. Christmas Day in St. Peter's, at Rome, 1854.
(D. Roberts, R.A.)

The change above spoken of is very manifest
in this, the first picture of importance enough to
attract the eye. It is both careful and brilliant ; and
though I do not myself like the subject (caring
neither for the architecture, nor the pomp, of St.
Peter's), I can answer for the faithful delineation of
what must be to most people a striking scene. The
effect of light and shade in this picture was very diffi-
cult, and is studiously wrought — note, for instance, the
pretty and true change in the colour of the red cross
in the dome, where it is half in shade and half in sun.

8. The Roadside Spring, Yorkshire. (E. C.

From the pomp of marble and strength of multi-
tude, let us turn back to this quiet nook beside the
wild Yorkshire road, and consider a little whether
the truer grandeur is in those lifted aisles or in this
fragment of grey wall, overwaved by its few ears of


corn, and ringing to the low voice of its loncly
brooklet. The picture is not a first-rate one — it is
not even a very special example of the advancing
school ; but the mind of the painter has been in
happy tone when he chose his subject, and if you
examine it, kneeling (there is no other way), as per-
haps you would those flowers and grass by the roadside
itself, I think you will have pleasure in watching the
delicate tracery of the bush leaves, and the stoop of
the poppy over the wall, and the soft moss and grass
in its crannies, and the clear water, just making the
road a little browner where it spreads over it. I
cannot answer for the feelings of others, but I think
there is more benediction to be had here than out of
the magnificence of St. Peter's.

17 "Love's Labour Lost." (F. R. Pickersgill, A.)

This picture presents the same elements of advance
in a yet more curious and striking way. Mr. Pickers-
gill is already a Pre-Raphaelite in purpose, and only
fails, as when artists first begin to work thoroughly
from nature they always fail, by painting the easiest
things too definitely better than the rest. I do not
mean that they ought to paint the easy things worse ;
but only that a discordance is always felt in this stage
of their study between the good accessory parts and
failing principal ones. It is to be mended by con-
quering the difficult, not by surrendering the easy.
If we examine the jewellery of the lady dressed in
blue, in the centre, or the golden brocade of the one on
the left, we shall find them very nearly right : the


grass is also coming fast right ; but Mr. Pickcrsgill
cannot yet paint a face. A little more hard work,
taking his models just as they come, without any fear
or flattery, and he will win his spurs.

35. Home. (J. N. Paton.)-

A most pathetic and precious picture, easily under-
stood, and entii-ely right as far as feeling is concerned.
Mr. Paton must have had more pleasure in painting
this picture than in those fairy assemblies of his ; and
though the cottao^e details here are not so attractive
as those nightshade and woodbine convolutions of
leaf scenery, they are in reality better painted, and
serve to better use. Mr. Paton has, however, a good
deal yet to learn in colour. He should for this spring
paint nothing but opening flowers, and, in the autumn,
nothing but apricots and peaches.

39. The Stream from Llyn Idwal, Carnarvonshire.
(A. W. Hunt.)

The best landscape I have seen in the exhibition
for many a day — uniting most subtle finish and watch-
fulness of nature, with real and rare power of
composition. The mass of mountain in the centre is
grandly arranged, so as best to set off* the action of its
contour, and contrasted with the diagonal cleavages of
rock on the left : note how they run from the fore-
ground up to the crest of the hill. The rents of
cloud, and fading or forming of the hill shadows
through them, are magnificently expressed. It only
wants a little more subtlety in the finish of the gra-


datioiis : portions of those clouds ought to be stippled
so delicately that the eye could not trace the outmost
touches — this would also give them more depth and
unity. Seen a little way off, the work is spotty, at
present, and wants bringing together ; the worst part
being the dappled blue sky on the left, in which the
blue is not pure, nor the clouds soft, nor well set.
The sheep in the foreground look too small — ^not but
that real sheep in a Welch foreground often do ;
but it is the painter's business to avoid this, and make
everything look of its real size.

58. Cinderella, after her Sisters have left for the
Ball. (MissE. Turck.)

Very pretty, and well studied ; but Cinderella
does not look like the lady of a fairy tale. I am
rather puzzled myself to know how her relationship
to her remarkable godmother could best be indicated,
so as to leave her still a quite real little lady in a real
kitchen. But I am glad to see this sternly realistic
treatment, at all events.

59. The White Owl. (W. J. Webbe.)

A careful study — the brown wing excellent. The
softness of an owl's feathers is perhaps inimitable ;
but I think the breast might have come nearer the

68. Little Red Biding Hood. (R. Bedgrave, B.A.)

Mr. Redgrave has, as far as I know, never painted

so good a landscape. The ferns in the centre are


beautiful ; and there is evidence of painstaking and
of good feeling everywhere.

75. The Last Parting of Marie Antoinette and her
Son. (E. M. Ward, E.A.)

I fear this picture must be excepted from the
progressive list, and m.arked as one of the representa-
tions of the old school ; but it is not a bad one.

94. The Abandoned. (C. Stanfield, R.A.)
Perhaps this also is rather a fortunate example
of the artist's work than a new phase of it. But I
never saw a Stanfield I liked so well: the sea is
superb — quite Turnerian in the mystery of the
farther waves — and the sentiment of the picture very
grand ; and that not by means of twilight, or sunset,
or moonlight, or any strangeness of arrangement or
elaboration of idea, but by simple fact of deserted
ship and desert sea.

101. The Greetings in the Desert, Egypt —
" Selamet" Teiyibeen. (J. F. Lewis.)

The superposition of this picture to " West
Australian " is the first glaring piece of bad hanging
I note in the Academy this year. Mr. Cooper's
picture, whatever its merits may be, is executed so
as to have been seen quite as well in the upper place ;
while Mr. Lewis's cannot be seen in the least but on the
line. It would take no trouble, any afternoon when
the Academy closes, to change the places ; and I am
sure that Mr. Cooper would, in enforcing such an



arrangement, be felt to have paid a just tribute to
the talents of a great brother artist, and to have
done himself little injury, and much honour.

Of the style of Mr. Lewis's picture I need only say
that it is like that of his work in general, and refer
the reader to the note on the example of it in the
rooms of the Water Colour Society. There is,
however, a very curious and skilful circumstance in
the composition here ; the neck of the camel was too
serpentine, and stopped too abruptly after suggesting
this undulation of line. The white cloud beyond at
once varies, and continues, this serpentine tendency,
leading it away towards the upper edge of the picture,
while the straight flakes of cloud, descending obliquely
to the right, oppose the two upright peaks of the

I may as well refer at once to Mr. Lewis's other
work, 336 (the Academy is rich in possessing two).
How two such pictures have been executed, together
with the drawing for the Water Colour Society, all
within the year, is to me wholly inconceivable ; there
seems a year's work in 336 alone. Yet it is not a
favourable example of the master ; the toil being too
palpable and equal on the stones in the reflected
light ; where also there is neither colour nor form of
interest enough to justify it. The draperies and
trelliswork are faultlessly marvellous.

131. " Many Happy Eeturns of the Day." ( W. P.
Frith, R.A.)

A taking picture, much, it seems to me, above Mr.


Frith's former standard. Note the advancing Prc-
Raphaelitism in the wreath of leaves round the child's
head. One is only sorry to see any fair little child
having too many and too kind friends, and in so
great danger of being toasted, toyed, and wreathed
into selfishness and misery.

138. Mr. David Cox. (Sir J. W. Gordon, R.A.)

A very noble portrait, and, in the unassuming but
powerful features, thoroughly characteristic. I am
heartily glad to see this work of honour to a good
painter so well accomplished.

145. Geraniums. (Miss Mutrie.)

146. Eoses. (Miss A. F. Mutrie.)

I cannot say more of the work of the two Misses
Mutrie than I have said already. It is nearly as
good as simple flower -painting can be ; the only
bettering it is capable of would be by more able
composition, or by the selection, for its subject, of
flowers growing naturally. Why not a roadside bank
of violets ? 335 and 342 are the best examples, by
these artists, in this exhibition.

147. Saved! (Sir E. Landseer, R.A.)

I wish this picture had not been put so high,
for the bolder Landseer is in handling, the more
interesting his work becomes, under close observ-
ance : nor does his peculiar system of clay-colouring
gain at all in effect by distance. I never saw a
child fall into water, nor a dog bring one out ;


but under such circumstances are not its clothes
usually wet? and do not wet clothes cling to the
limbs ?

155. Her Majesty the Empress Eugenie. (E.

This would have been a really admirable portrait
but for its foggy and slovenly distance. Complete
that, and the work would look almost like life.

160. The Letter. (E. Delfosse.)

A fair example of a peculiar, and very clever, though
perhaps I should hardly call it meritorious, style, lately
much adopted by French artists. It is a mannerism of
softness, and subduing of all very bright colours — more
or less successful in result, of course, according to
the painter's general powers ; but yet seeming to be
taught in schools of art so extensive and so popular as
to assimilate a large number of painters not only in
style, but in aim, and prevent their emerging from a
charmed circle of subjects — consisting usually of
pretty women, sprightly in expression, but rather
blunt in chiselling of features, wearing prettily brocaded
dresses, and doing nothing, prettily. These works seem
to be gradually constituting a species of manufacture,
which supplies the French drawing-rooms with pic-
tures, as Sevres does with china. Nevertheless, one
very original painter belongs to this school, of whom
more presently.*

* See Notes on French Exhibition at the close of the pamphlet.


162. Tho Graces. (W. E. Frost, A.)

I believe Mr. Frost might be a painter if he chose ;
but he will not become one by multiplying studies of
this kind ; looking like Etty's with all the colour
scraped off. Everybody knows well enough, by this
time, that Graces always stand on one leg, and bend
the other, and never have anything to fasten their
dresses with at the waists. Cannot Mr. Frost tell
us something new ?

175. The Emperor Charles V. at Yuste. (A.
Elmore, A.)

One of the works still belonging wholly to the old
school : there is a good deal of fair painting in it,
but an extraordinary missing of the main mark
throughout. See the second paragraph of the long
quotation in the catalogue : —

" Again the afternoon sun was shining over the great walnut-tree, full
into the gallery. From this pleasant spot, filled with the fragrance of
the garden and the murmur of the fountain, and bright with glimpses of
the golden Vera, they carried him to the gloomy chamber of his sleepless
nights, and laid him on the bed from which he was to rise no more."

Naturally we expect the painter to take some pains
(as he has given this quotation) in the expression of
verdure, fragrance, and sunshine. But the walnut-
tree is grey, not green ; the air, judging by the look
of it, cannot be perfumed by anything but paint ; and
there is no sunshine anywhere, while the whitish
light, which is given for it, shines not over the tree
into the gallery, but from the back of the spectator.
The exhibited pictures, by Titian (!) are greyer than


all the rest. Charles must have bought them from
an exceedingly dishonest dealer.

200. Peace concluded, 1856. (J. E. Millais, A.)
I thought, some time ago, that this painter was
likely to be headed by others of the school ; but Titian
himself could hardly head him now. This picture
is as brilliant in invention as consummate in executive
power ; both this and Autumn Leaves, 448, will rank
in future among the world's best masterpieces ; and I
see no limit to what the painter may hope in future
to achieve. I am not sure whether he may not be
destined to surpass all that has yet been done in
figure-painting, as Turner did all past landscape.*

221. The Breakwater at Plymouth. (F. R. Lee,

It is long since Mr. Lee painted such a picture as
this ; nor, as far as I recollect, has any one else yet so
faithfully rendered the sweep of large waves over level
walh The sense of space is very great throughout,
and there is really fine feeling and treatment in the
dying away of the successive spray-clouds at the end
of the long path of stone. There are several studies
of sea by Mr. Lee this year which seem to me to
mark quite a new energy in his mind : all of them are
earnest, and entirely separated from the usual types
of conventional gale and wave. This is the best, but

* Note the hint for bringing more of nature into our common work, in
the admirable modelling of the polar bear and lion, though merely
children's toys.


3J8 is another good example. Its rock foreground is

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Online LibraryJohn RuskinNotes on some of the principal pictures exhibited in the rooms of The Royal Academy, and The Society of Painters in Water Colours, no. 2, 1856 .. → online text (page 1 of 5)