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Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Volume 54, No. 334, August 1843 online

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to be compared with it, will add that he has stolen it from Nicolo
Poussin. This we boldly deny. The works of Nicolo Poussin of similar
subjects are well known, and wonderful works they are; we need mention
but two - the one in the National Gallery, the "Plague of Ashdod," and
that in the collection of P.S. Miles, Esq., and exhibited last year at
the British Institution, and which is engraved in Forster's work. We do
not believe that one group or single figure in Mr Poole's picture can be
shown in these or any others of Poussin. And in the conception there is
a striking difference. Mr Poole's subject, though we have called it the
"Plague of London," is not, strictly speaking, the awfulness and the
disgust of that dire malady, but the insanity of the fanatic Solomon
Eagle, taking a divine, an almost Pythean impress from its connexion
with that woful and appalling mystery. This being his subject, he has
judiciously omitted much of that dreadfully disgusting detail, which
_his_ subject compelled Poussin to force upon the spectator. There is,
therefore, in Mr Poole's picture more to excite our wonder and pity than
disgust; nay, there is even room for the exhibition of tender,
sensitive, apprehensive, scarcely suffering beauty, and set off by
contrasts not too strong; so that nothing impedes the mind in, or draws
it off from, the contemplation of the madman - here more than madman, the
maniac made inspired by the belief of the spectator in denunciations
which appear verifying themselves visibly before him. It is this feeling
which makes the crazed one grand, heroic, and which constitutes this
picture an historical work of a high class. It is far more than a
collection of incidents in a plague; it is the making the plague itself
but an accessory. The theme is of the madness that spreads its
bewilderment on all around, as its own of right, as cause and effect - a
bewilderment that works beyond the frame, and will not let the beholder
question its fanatic power. We will endeavour to describe the picture,
but first, take the subject from the catalogue: - "Solomon Eagle
exhorting the People to Repentance, during the Plague of the Year 1665.
P. F. Poole. - 'I suppose the world has heard of the famous Solomon
Eagle, an enthusiast; he, though not infected at all, but in his head,
went about denouncing of judgment upon the city in a frightful manner,
sometimes quite naked and with a pan of burning charcoal on his
head.' - See DE FOE'S _Narrative of the Plague in London_." The scene is
supposed to be in that part of London termed "Alsatia," so well
described by Sir Walter Scott - the refuge of the destitute and criminal.
Here are groups of the infected, the dying, the callous, the
despairing - a miserable languor pervades them all. The young - the
aged - the innocent - the profligate. One sedate and lovely female is
seeking consolation from the sacred book, beside whom sits her father - a
grand figure, in whose countenance is a fixed intensity of worldly care,
that alone seems to keep life within his listless body, next him is a
young mother, with her dying child, and close behind him a maiden,
hiding her face, whose eye alone is seen, distended and in vacant gaze.
We feel that this is a family group, perhaps the broken remnant of a
family, awaiting utter desolation. Behind the group are two very
striking figures - a man bewildered, and more than infected, escaping
from the house, within the doorway of which we see, written in red
characters, "Lord have mercy upon us," and the cross; the nurse is
endeavouring to detain him. Nothing can be finer than the action and
expression in both figures - the horror of the nurse, and fever energy of
the escaped, in whose countenance, never to be forgotten, is the
personification of plague-madness. It is recorded that such a one did so
escape, swam across the Thames, and recovered. Beyond these are
revellers, a dissolute band, card-playing. In the midst of the game one
is smitten with the plague, and is falling back - one starts with horror
at the sudden seizure - a stupid, drunken indifference marks the
others - they had been waiting for a feast, which one is bringing in, who
stands just above the falling figure, who will never partake of it.
Quite in the background, and behind a low wall, are conveyers of the
dead, carrying along a body. This describes the left of the picture. To
the right, and near the middle, is a dying boy, leaning upon a man, who
is suddenly roused, and rising to hear the denunciations of Solomon
Eagle. At his back are two lovely female figures, sisters we should
suppose, the younger one dying, supported by the sister's knee, who sits
with crossed hands, as if in almost hopeless prayer. Beyond is a
wretched man, with his head resting upon his hand, in a fixed state of
stupid indifference; above whom are several figures, mostly of the lower
grade, in the various stages of infection or recovery. They are sitting
before the window of a house, through the panes of which we see
indistinctly one raving, while from the same house a dead body is being
let down from above, and in the background are the dead-cart and the
carriers. At the feet of the figures by the house lie others, in all the
langour of disease and feverish watchfulness. Among these persons are
various shades of character, apparently all from nature, each one,
artistically speaking, representing a class, and yet with such a stamp
of individual nature, that we are satisfied they must have been taken
from life. In this respect they resemble Raffaelle's beggars at the
"Beautiful Gate," in their admirable generality an individuality. Two
are very striking - an odd, stiff-looking old man, with a beard, whose
marked profile is of the old cheat; he is observing the escape of the
man on the opposite side of the picture, and the woman at his side,
whose face is turned upwards, one-half an idiot, and all-wicked. We
cannot help thinking that we have seen these two characters. It is,
perhaps, the skill of the painter that has so represented the class that
we have the conviction of the individuals. So far the scene is prepared
for the principal _dramatis personæ_; and so far we have only the
calamity of the Plague, not in its scenes of turbulence, but kept down
under an awful and quiet expectation of doom; so that, were the two
principal figures obliterated, we should say the scene is yet but a
preparation, awaiting the master figures to mark its true impression and
feeling, constituting the subject of the picture. These principal
figures are Solomon Eagle and his attendant; they are placed judiciously
in the centre of the picture, in no part intercepted. Solomon Eagle
hurries into the picture with a book in one hand, the other raised, as
pointing to the heavens, from whence come the denunciations he
pronounces: on his head is a pan of burning charcoal. He is naked,
excepting his waist. His very attitude is insane - we need not look at
his face to see that; the fore-finger, starting off from the others, is
of mad action, and similar is the energy of the projected foot. The
attitude is of one with a fixed purpose, one under an imaginary divine
commission; it is of entire faith and firmness; and never was such
insanity more finely conceived in a countenance. The man is all crazed,
and grand, awfully grand, in his craziness. He throws around him an
infection of craziness, as does the atmosphere of plague. There is a
peculiar look in the eye, which shows the most consummate skill of the
painter. The finger starts up as with an electric power, as if it could
draw down the vengeance which it communicates. We mentioned the
attendant figure - not that he is conscious of her presence. She is
mysterious, veiled, a masked mystery - a walking tale of plague, woe, and
desolation - a wandering, lonely, decayed gentlewoman: we read her
history in her look, and in her walk. Her relations have all been
smitten, swept away by the pestilence; her mind is made callous by utter
misery; she wanders about careless, without any motive; a childish
curiosity may be her pleasure, any incident to divert thoughts that make
her sensible of her own bereavement. She stops to listen to the
denunciations of the crazed prophet, and herself partakes, though
callously, of his insanity - half believes, but scarcely feels. The sky
is lurid, pestilential; it touches with plague what it illuminates. Such
is the picture in its design. The colouring is quite in accordance with
the purpose, and completes the sentiment; there is much of a green tone,
yet under great variety. There is very great knowledge shown in it of
artistical design, and the art of disposing lines; the groups, kept
sufficiently distinct, yet have connecting links with each other; and
there are general lines that bring all within the compass of one
subject. Now, what, after all, is the impression on the mind of the
spectator? for it is not enough to paint plague or madness: unless our
human sympathy be touched, we turn away in disgust. Yet upon this
picture we look with pleasure. Many whom we have heard say they could
not bear to look at it, we found again and again standing before it:
some we questioned; and at last they acknowledged pleasure. So are we
moved at tragedy: human sympathies are moved - the great natural source
of all our pleasures: pity and tenderness, and a sense of the awfulness
of a great mystery, are upon us; and though pleased be too light a word,
yet we are pleased; and where we are so pleased, we are made better. We
feel the good flowing in upon us; and were not the busy scene of the
multitudes in an exhibition, and the general glare, distracting, and
discordant to the feeling such a picture is calculated to convey, we
could enter calmly and deeply into its enjoyment. We have given, at much
length, a description of the picture, because we think it a work of more
importance than any that has, we would say ever, been exhibited upon the
Academy walls - one of more decided commanding genius. There are faults
in it doubtless, some of drawing, but not of much importance. We look to
the mind in it - to its real greatness of manner, and we believe it to be
a work of which the nation may be proud; and were we to look for a
parallel, we must go to some of the best works of the best painters of
the best ages. We were surprised to find that so small a sum as L 400
was set upon the picture - and more so that it was not sold. We regret
that there is no power in the directors of our National Gallery to buy
occasionally a modern production. Is there, in that gallery, one work of
a British painter in any way equal to it?

There are only two pictures by Mr Maclise - they sustain his reputation.

"The Actress's reception of the Author." - "He advanced into the room
trembling and confused, and let his gloves and cloak fall, which having
taken up, he approached my mistress, and presented to her a paper with
more respect than that of a counsellor when he delivers a petition to a
judge, saying, "Be so good, madam, as to accept of this part, which I
take the liberty to offer." She received it in a cold and disdainful
manner, with out even deigning to answer his compliments.'-_Gil Blas_,
c. xi."

The picture here is the luxuriantly beautiful and insolent prima-donna;
we could wish that much of the picture, many of the "figures to let,"
were away. There is a continuous flowing of graceful lines, in this one
figure, with much breadth, that give it a largeness of style, extremely
powerful. She luxuriates in pride, insolence, and beauty. The expression
is perfect; nor is it confined to her face - it is in every limb and
feature. The poor despised author bows low and submissive - and is even
looked at contemptuously by a pet dressed monkey, pampered, and eating
fruit: a good satire; the fruit to the unworthy - the brute before the
genius. There is the usual display, the usual elaborate finish; but it
is perhaps a little harder, with more sudden transitions from brown to
white than commonly to be found in Mr Maclise's works.

"Waterfall at St. Nighton's, Kieve, near Tintagel, Cornwall." A lovely
girl crossing the rocky bed of a stream - attended by a dog, who is
leaping from stone to stone. The action of the dog, his care in the act
of springing, is admirable, and shows that Mr Maclise can paint all
objects well. This is of the high pastoral: the lonely seclusion of the
passage between rocks, the scene of the "Waterfall," is a most judicious
background to the figure, which is large. It is most sweetly painted.

We are glad to see Mr Ward, R. A., again in the Exhibition. His
"Virgil's Bulls," is a subject poetically conceived. The whole landscape
is in sympathy, waking, watchful sympathy, with the bulls in their
conflict. Not a tree, nor a hill, nor a cloud in the sky but looks on as
a spectator. All is in keeping. There is no violence in the colour,
nothing to distract the attention from the noble animals - all is quiet,
passive and observant. A less poetical mind would have given a bright
blue, clear sky, and sparkling sunny grass; one more daring than
judicious, might have placed the creatures in a turbulent scene of storm
and uprooted ground; Mr Ward has given all the action to the
combatants - you shall see nothing but them, and all nature shall be
looking on as in a theatre of her own making. The subject is no less
grand on the canvas than in the lines of the poet.

We had fully intended to have omitted any mention of Mr Turner's strange
productions; but we hear that a work has appeared, exalting him above
all landscape painters that ever existed, by a graduate of the
University of Oxford. Believing, then, that his style is altogether
fallacious, and the extravagant praise mischievous, because none can
deny him some fascinations of genius, which mislead, we think it right
to comment upon his this year's works. Their subjects are taken from
abstracts from a MS. poem, of which Mr Turner is, we presume, himself
the author; for though somewhat more distinct and intelligible than his
paint, they are obscure enough, and by their feet are as much out of the
perspective of verse, as his objects are of that of lines. "The opening
of the Wallhalla," is by far the best, indeed it has its beauties;
distances are happily given: most absurd are the figures, and the
inconceivable foreground. The catalogue announcement of No. 129 startled
us. We expected to see "Bright Phoebus" himself poetically personating
a doge, or a midshipman; for it points to the "Sun of Venice going to
Sea." His "Shade and Darkness; or, the Evening of the Deluge," is the
strangest of things - the first question we ask is, which is the shade
and which the darkness? After the strictest scrutiny, we learn from this
bit of pictorial history, that on the eve of the mighty Deluge, a
Newfoundland dog was chained to a post, lest he should swim to the ark;
that a pig had been drinking a bottle of wine - an anachronism, for
certainly "as drunk as David's sow," was an after-invention: that men,
women, and children, (such we suppose they are meant to be) slept a
purple sleep, with most gigantic arms round little bodies; that there
was fire that did not burn, and water that would nearly obliterate, but
not drown. But more wonderful still is the information we pick up, or
pick out bit by bit, as strange things glimmer into shape. "Light and
Colour, (Goethe's Theory) - The Morning after the Deluge - Moses writing
the book of Genesis." Such is the unexpected announcement of the
catalogue. But further to account for so remarkable a jumble as we are
to behold, Mr Turner adds the following verses: -

"The ark stood firm on Ararat: th' returning sun
Exhaled earth's humid bubbles, and, emulous of light,
Reflected her lost forms, each in prismatic guise,
Hope's harbinger, ephemeral as the summer fly,
Which rises, flits, expands, and dies."

_Fallacies of Hope, MS._

This is unquestionably one of the "Fallacies of Hope" - for it is quite
hopeless to make out, the sun smoking his cigar of colour, and exhaling
earth's humid bubbles; yet we do see a great number of "bubble" heads,
scratchy things, in red wigs, rolling and floating out of nothing into
nothing. There must indeed have been very wondrous giants in those days;
for here is an enormous leg, far beyond the "ex pede Herculem," rising
up some leagues off far bigger than whole figures close at hand. But we
learn the wonderful fact, that the morning after the Deluge, Moses,
sitting upon nothing, possibly the sky, wrote the book of Genesis with a
Perryian pen, and on Bath-post, and that he was so seen by Mr Turner in
his own peculiar perspective-defying telescope - for so "_sedet,
eternumque sedebit_," in the year 1843. We know that in this account of
it we a little jumble past, present, and future; but so we the better
describe the picture; for when the Deluge went, Chaos came. That we may
the more easily recognize the historian, a serpent is dropping from him,
hieroglyphically. Can Mr Turner be serious? or is he trying how far he
may perpetrate absurdities, and get the world to believe them beauties,
or that his practice is according to any "theory of colour!" His
conceptions are such as would be dreams of gallipots of colours, were
they endued with life, and the power of dreaming prodigies.

There is unquestionably an impetus given to historical talent - and there
is good proof that such talent is not wanting in this year's Exhibition;
Mr Patten has chosen a very grand subject from the Inferno of Dante.
"Dante, accompanied by Virgil in his descent to the Inferno, recognizes
his three countrymen, Rusticucci, Aldobrandi, and Guidoguerra" - _Divina
Commedia, Inferno._ The subject is finely conceived by Mr Patten. Virgil
and Dante stand upon the edge of the fiery surge; they are noble and
solemn figures. There is an abyss of flames below, that sends upward its
whirling and tormenting storm, driven round and round, by which are seen
the three countrymen. They are well grouped, and show the whirling
motion of the fiery tempest; we should have preferred them more
foreshortened, and such we think was the vision in Dante's mind's
eye - for he says -

"Thus each one, as he wheel'd, his countenance
At me directed, _so that opposite
The neck moved ever to the twinkling feet_."

There is great art in placing the large limb of one of the figures
immediately over the fiercest centre of fire - it gives interminable
space to the fiery sea - an this part of the picture is very daringly and
awfully coloured. We rather object to the equal largeness and importance
of all the figures; and perhaps the bodies are too smooth, showing too
little of the punishment of flame - they are too quiescent. Dante says,
"Ah me, what wounds I marked upon their limbs!" And Rusticucci, who
addresses Dante, thus describes their bodies:

"'If woe of this unsound and dreary waste,'
Thus one began, 'added to our sad cheer
_Thus peel'd_ with flame.'"

The persons of such sufferers should be Michael Angelesque - punishment
and suffering should be equally _large_. We venture to suggest this
criticism to Mr Patten, because the subject is grand, and there is so
much good in his manner of treating it, that he will do well to paint
another picture of it.

Mr Etty has no less than seven pictures. His "In the Greenwood Shade" is
by far the best. Cupid and sleeping nymphs - the rich and lucid colours,
softly losing themselves in shade, and here and there playfully
recovered, very much remind us of Correggio. We should more applaud Mr
Etty for his general colouring, than for his flesh tints; nor have his
figures in general the soft and luxuriant roundness which grace and
beauty should have - the faces, too, have often too much purple shadow.
We have before remarked that, painting too closely from the model, he
exhibits Graces that have worn stays. And surely he often mistakenly
enlarges the loveliest portion of the female form - the bosom - whose
beauty is in its undefined commencement, its gentle and innocent and
modest growth. How happily is this hit off by Dryden in his description
of Iphigenia sleeping, to the gaze of the clown Cymon: -

"As yet their places were but signified." While so many pictures of
acknowledged merit are rejected for lack of room, it is scarcely fair,
perhaps, for one artist to exhibit so many. Mr. Eastlake has, however,
been too liberal to others in his forbearing modesty; we could wish he
had not confined himself to one. He might offer the lioness's answer,
were not his picture one most tenderly expressive of all gentleness. It
is an old subject, but treated in no respect after the old manner. The
boy is faint and weary, on the ground. Hagar, with a countenance of
sweet anxiety, is giving the water, with a care, and with a view to the
safety of the draught. There is a dead, dry, burnt palm-tree lying on
the ground, poetically descriptive. The expression of both figures is
perfect, and they are most sweetly, tenderly painted. If we might make
any objection, it would be that the subject is not quite poetically
treated as to colour. It may be, and we have no doubt it is, most true
to nature in one sense. We can believe that such a country would have
such a sky, and such appearance in foreground and distance; but that
very truth creates to our mind's eye an anachronism - it brings down the
tale of antiquity to very modernism - it robs it of its antique hue - it
shows it too commonly, too familiarly. As _we read it_, we do not so see
it; we are not so matter-of-fact. There is an ideal colouring that
belongs to sentiment - our minds always adopt it. We have not as yet
correctly worked out that theory, and therefore it is not enough in our
practice. More particularly in this subject do we require something
ideal in the manner, for few are equally true in the characters as in
the external scene. Here, certainly, neither Hagar nor Ishmael are of
their nation and country. It is too lovely a picture to wish touched.
The remarks we venture upon may be applied to most modern pictures of
ancient subjects, and may be worth consideration. There are two other
pictures, very beautiful pictures, too, in the Exhibition, which have,
we think, this defect - "Jephtha's Daughter, the last Day of Mourning. H.
O. Neil;" and "Naomi and her Daughter-in-law. E. N. Eddis." The first,
Jephtha's Daughter and her attendant maidens is a group of very lovely
figures, extremely graceful, all breathing an air of purity; it is
loveliness in many forms; for its conception as to chiaroscuro and
colour, is most skilfully managed; but it has this present day's
reality, and we only force ourselves to believe it Jephtha's Daughter.
Exquisitely beautiful, too, is the affectionate, the very loving, Ruth.
Orpah, too, is sweet, but the difference is well expressed - "Orpah
kissed her mother-in-law, _but_ Ruth clave unto her." There is an
unaffected simplicity about these figures that is quite charming, a
simplicity of _manner_ well according with the simplicity of character;
but has not the picture in colouring too much of this day's familiar
air? In historical design both these pictures are a decided advance in
art. We are giving promise.

We could wish that Mr. Martin would not ruin his greatness by his
littlenesses. There is often a large conception, that we overlook to
examine interminable minutiæ of parts, and mostly parts repeated; his
figures are always injurious. His "Canute the Great rebuking his
Courtiers" would have been a fine picture had he contented himself with
the real subject - the sea. It is, indeed, crude in colour, and the
coldness to the right ill agrees with the red heat on the left; but
still, in chiaroscuro, it would have been a fine picture, if completed
according to his first intention, but Canute and his courtiers spoil it.
In the first place, they make, by their position and ease, the awful
overwhelming sea safe. It is, as Longinus remarks, the plank that takes
away the danger and the poetry; and such an assemblage of courtiers put
the times of Canute quite out of our heads - a collection from a book of
fashions - Ladies' Magazines - in their velvet gauze and tiffany, in
colours that put the sun to shame, and make him blush less red; and the
little, minute work about the pebbly shore creates a weariness, for they
tempt us to count the sands. All this arises from a mistaken view of the
sublime, that we have before noticed in Mr. Martin. It is very strange
that an artist of his undoubted genius should err in a matter so
essential to the greatness at which he aims.

Would that we could say a word in of Mr Haydon's one historical


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Online LibraryVariousBlackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Volume 54, No. 334, August 1843 → online text (page 9 of 23)