Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition, 1868/Part 2
I HAVE been asked to note down at random my impressions of some few among this year's pictures. These I am aware will have no weight or value but that which a sincere and studious love of the art can give; so much I claim for them, and so much only. To pass judgment or tender counsel is beyond my aim or my desire.
Returning from the Academy I find two pictures impressed on my memory more deeply and distinctly than the rest. First of these—first of all, it seems to me, for depth and nobility of feeling; and meaning—is Mr. Watts' "Wife of Pygmalion." The soft severity of perfect beauty might serve alike for woman or statue, flesh or marble; but the eyes have opened already upon love, with a tender and grave wonder, her curving ripples of hair seem just warm from the touch and the breath of the goddess, moulded and quickened by lips and hands diviner than her sculptor's. So it seems a Greek painter must have painted women, when Greece had mortal pictures fit to match her imperishable statues. Her shapeliness and state, her sweet majesty and amorous chastity, recall the supreme Venus of Melos. In this "translation" of a Greek statue into an English picture, no less than in the bust of Clytie, we see how in the hands of a great artist painting and sculpture may become as sister arts indeed, yet without invasion or confusion; how, without any forced alliance of form and colour, a picture may share the gracious grandeur of a statue, a statue may catch something of the subtle bloom of beauty proper to a picture.
The other picture of which I would speak, unlike enough to this in sentiment or in tone, has in common with it the loftiest quality of beauty pure and simple. Indeed, of all the few great or the many good painters now at work among us, no one has so keen and clear a sense of this absolute beauty as Mr. Albert Moore. His painting is to artists what the verse of Théophile Gautier is to poets; the faultless and secure expression of an exclusive worship of things formally beautiful. That contents them; they leave to others the labours and the joys of thought or passion. The outlines of their work are pure, decisive, distinct; its colour is of the full sunlight. This picture of "Azaleas" is as good a type as need be of their manner of work. A woman delicately draped, but showing well the gentle mould of her fine limbs through the thin soft raiment; pale small leaves and bright white blossoms about her and above, a few rose-red petals fallen on the pale marble and faint—coloured woven mat before her feet; a strange and splendid vessel, inlaid with designs of Eastern colour; another—clasped by one long slender hand and filled from it with flowers—of soft white, touched here and there into blossom of blue: this is enough. The melody of colour, the symphony of form is complete: one more beautiful thing is achieved, one more delight is born into the world; and its meaning is beauty; and its reason for being is to be.
We all owe so much to Mr. Leighton for the selection and intention of his subjects—always noble or beautiful as these are; always worthy of a great and grave art; a thing how inexpressibly laudable and admirable in a time given over to the school of slashed breeches and the school of blowsy babyhood!-we owe him, I say, so much for this that it seems ungracious to say a word of his work except in the way of thanks and praise. I find no true touch of Greek beauty in the watery Hellenism of his Ariadne: she is a nobly moulded model of wax, such a figure as a mediæval sorceress might set to waste before a charmed fire and burn out the life of the living woman. The "Actæa" has the charm that a well-trained draughtsman can give to a naked fair figure; this charm it has, and no other; it has also a painful trimness suggestive of vapour-baths, of "strigil" and "rusma," of the toilet labours of a Juvenalian lady; not the fresh sweet strength of limbs native to the sea, but the lower loveliness of limbs that have been steamed and scraped. The picture of Acme and Septimius is excellently illustrative of Mr. Theodore Martin's verse; it is in no wise illustrative of Catullus. I doubt if Love would have sneezed approval of these lovers either to left or to right. As for detail, surely one arm at least of his and one leg at least of hers are singular samples of drawing. In his two other pictures Mr. Leighton has, I think, reached his highest mark for this year. The majestic figure and noble head of Jonathan are worthy of the warrior whose love was wonderful, passing the love of woman; the features resolute, solicitous, heroic. The boy beside him is worthy to stand so near; his action has all the grace of mere nature, as he stoops slightly from the shoulder to sustain the heavy quiver. The portrait of a lady hard by has a gracious and noble beauty, too rare even among the abler of English workmen in this line.
The genius of Mr. Millais is of course a thing indestructible; but all that can be done to deaden or distort it the Academy has done, "They have scotched the snake, not killed it"—being as it is a "Serpent-of-Eternity." There is nothing here to recall the painter of past years. There is no significance or depth, no subtlety of beauty; there is the fit and equal ability of an able craftsman. The group of three sisters is a sample of this excellent ability; no man needs to be told that. There is no lack of graceful expressive composition; there is no stint of ribbons and trimmings. There is a bitter want of beauty, of sweetness, of the harmony which should hang about the memories of men after seeing it as an odour or a cadence about their senses: and this beauty, this sweetness, this harmony, all great and all genuine pictures leave with us for an after-gust, not soon to pass or perish. The picture called "Rosalind and Celia" gives us graver and deeper offence. Of the landscape nothing evil shall be said, and nothing good; but the figures cry aloud for remark and reprobation. These women are none of Shakspeare's. Think but in passing of the fresh grace, the laughters as of April, the light delicate daring, the tender and brilliant sweetness of the true "Ganymede;" what is left of all this? She figures here as a fair-faced ballet-girl, with a soul absorbed by the calf of her leg. And this dull, sickly, stolid woman huddling heavily against her is Celia; this is the purest rarest type that Shakspeare could give of heroic and sweet devotion; this is she who alone even among his women could not live but in another's life. And Touchstone—can this sour ape-checked face be the face that Jaques "met i' the forest?" these the lips that rallied Corin and wooed Aubrey? "Bear your body more seemly," Touchstone. And with all this debasement and distortion of Shakspeare's figures, we do not even get by way of amends a well-wrought piece of work; forget if you will the names attached, this is still but an unlovely picture. It seems that Mr. Millais has forgotten how to paint a lady; his women here all smack of the side-scenes or the servants' hall. Admirable for its strong sure power of painting, the "Stella" is, nevertheless, pitiably vacuous. If the sailors at Nelson's tomb appeal somewhat overmuch to popular sentiment of no deep or delicate kind, the picture is yet a noble one and impressive. The faces are full of simple and keen feeling, of tacit and loyal reverence. There is a superfluous ugliness in the two wooden stumps; and perhaps the knack by which the light is arranged so as to strike out severally from each pane of the glass lantern is too like one of those petty feats which are as lime-twigs laid to catch the eyes and tongues of the half-trained sightseers who jostle and saunter through a gallery, pausing now and again to "wonder with a foolish face of praise." The worst of these pictures, painted by a meaner man, would justly win notice and applause; but it is no small thing that a great man should do no greater work than some of this. The clear eye and the strong hand have not forgotten their cunning; it is a master whom we find too often at work fit only for a craftsman. Surely a painter who has done things so noble will not always be content to take for his battle-cry, "Philistia, be thou glad of me."
I return now to the works of Mr. Watts. His little landscape is full of that beauty which lives a dim brief life between sunset and dusk. The faint flames and mobile colours of the sky, the dim warm woods, the flight of doves about the dovecote, have all their part in the grave charm of evening, are all given back to the eye with the grace and strength of a master's touch; the stacks that catch the glare and glow of low sunlight seem crude and violent in their intense yellow colour and hard angles of form: natural it may be, but a natural discord that jars upon the eye, "The Meeting of Jacob and Esau," though something too academic, has in part the especial, the personal grandeur of Mr. Watts's larger manner of work. In the pale smooth worn face of Jacob there is a shy sly shame which befits the supplanter: his well-nigh passive action, as of one half reassured and half abashed, bares to view the very heart and root of his nature; and the rough strenuous figure of Esau, in its frank grandeur of brave sunbrown limbs, speaks aloud on the other side of the story, by the fervid freedom of his impetuous embrace. Fur off, between the meeting figures, midmost of the remote cavalcade, the fair clear face of a woman looks out, pale under folds of white, patient and ill at ease; her one would take to be Leah. It is noticeable that one year, not over rich in excellent work, should give us two admirable pictures drawn from the Hebrew chronicles, What they call scriptural art in England does not often bear such acceptable fruit. I know not if even Mr. Watts has ever painted a nobler portrait than this of Mr. Panizzi; it recalls the majestic strength and depth of Morone's work; there is the same dominant power of hand and keenness of eye, the same breadth and subtlety of touch, the same noble reticence of colour.
Before I pass on to speak of any other painter, I will here interpolate what I have to say of Mr. Watts's bust of Clytie. Not imitative, not even assimilative of Michel Angelo's manner, it yet by some vague and ineffable quality brings to mind his work rather than any Greek sculptor's. There is the same intense and fiery sentiment, the same grandeur of device, the same mystery of tragedy. The colour and the passion of this work are the workman's own. Never was a divine legend translated into diviner likeness. Large, deep-bosomed, superb in arm and shoulder, as should be the woman growing from flesh into flower through a godlike agony, from fairness of body to fullness of flower, large-leaved and broad of blossom, splendid and sad—yearning with all the life of her lips and breasts after the receding light and the removing love—this is the Clytie indeed whom sculptors and poets have loved for her love of the Sun their God. The bitter sweetness of the dividing lips, the mighty mould of the rising breasts, the splendour of her sorrow is divine: divine the massive weight of carven curls bound up behind, the heavy straying flakes of unfilleted hair below; divine the clear cheeks and low full forehead, the strong round neck made for the arms of a god only to clasp and bend down to their yoke. We seem to see the lessening sunset that she sees, and fear too soon to watch that stately beauty slowly suffer change and die into flower, that solid sweetness of body sink into petal and leaf. Sculpture such as this has actual colour enough without need to borrow of an alien art.
The work of M. Legros is always of such a solid and serious excellence as to require no passing study. His picture of Henry VIII. and courtiers is, I must think, an instance of absolute error; it has no finer quality of its own, and the reminiscence of Holbein is not fortunate. "The Refectory" makes large amends: he has never done more perfect work than this. The cadence of colours is just and noble; witness the red-leaved book open in one monk's hand on the white cloth, the clear green jug on the table, the dim green bronze of the pitcher on the floor; beside it a splendid cat, its fur beautiful with warm black bars on an exquisite ground of dull grey, its expectant eye and mouth lifted without further or superfluous motion. The figures are noble by more force of truth; there is nothing of vulgar ugliness or theatrical holiness. As good but not so great as the celebrated "Ex-voto" of a past year, this picture is wholly worthy of a name already famous.
The large work of Baron Leys stands out amid the overflow all round it of bad and feeble attempts or pretences at work in all the strength of its great quality of robust invention. It has the interest of excellent narrative; in every face there is a story. A great picture is something other than this; but this also is a great thing done. It is a chapter of history written in colours; a study which may remind us of Meinhold's great romances, though the author of "Sidonia the Sorceress" may stand higher as a writer than Leys as a painter. All the realistic detail is here, but not the vital bloom and breath of action which Meinhold had to give. Rigour of judicial accuracy might refuse to this work the praise of a noble picture; for to that the final imprint and seal of beauty is requisite; and this beauty, if a man's hand be but there to bestow it, may be wrought out of homely or heavenly faces, out of rare things or common, out of Titian's women or Rembrandt's. It is not the lack of prettiness which lowers the level of a picture. Here for imagination we have but intellect, for charm of form we have but force of thought. Too much also is matter of mere memory; thus the clerk writing is but a bastard brother of Holbein's Erasmus. Form and colour are vigorous, if hard also and heavy; and when all is said it must in the end be still accepted as a work of high and rare power after its own kind, and that no common kind, nor unworthy of studious admiration and grave thanksgiving.
It is well to compare this with the work that passes for historical in many English eyes. Doubtless it may be said that such things as some of these are not worth mention in a study so imperfect and discursive as this must be; that they were better passed by in peace and left to find their level. But it has been well said, "Il est des morts qu'il faut qu'on tue;" and though undesirous in general to take that duty out of abler hands, I will choose but one sample at random, on which I came by chance, looking up from Sir E. Landseer's dog and deer, a work of brute ability, excellently repulsive as all brutish pain must be if duly rendered. This select sample of historic art in England is a picture of Mary Stuart about to sign her abdication. Posthumous parasites have often libelled her with praise of pencil or of pen; but retribution never yet fell heavier on her memory. She, the woman of such keen clear wits, such indomitable nerves, such pitiless charms and such tameless passions, that the very record of them can yet seduce and daunt men as she daunted and seduced them of old—the fairest, subtlest, hardest among women, with a heart of iron and fire—she shows here a fool's face, doubtful between a simper and a sob, raised in pitiable appeal to a ring of stagestruck ruffians. The picture is worth notice as a tangible piece of proof that certain men do really accept this as the historic type of a figure so famous as hers. Another hand has drawn her portrait, perhaps somewhat nearer life, to this effect; (I take leave to cite the lines as a corrective, being reminded of them at sight of this picture. They may perhaps find place here, as the Queen of Scots figures thrice in this year's show:)—
"Nor shall men ever say
But she was born right royal; full of sins,
Dyed hand and tongue with bloody stains and black,
Unmerciful, unfaithful, but of heart
So high and fiery, and of spirit so clear,
in extreme danger and pain so lifted up,
So of all violent things inviolable,
So large of courage, so superb of soul,
So sheathed with iron mind invincible
And arms unbleached of fireproof constancy—
By shame not shaken, fear or force or death,
Change, or all confluence of calamities—
And so at her worst need beloved, and so,
(Naked of help and honour when she seemed,
As other women would be, of their strength
Stript) still so of herself adorable,
She shall be a world's wonder to all time,
A deadly glory watched of marvelling men
Not without praise, not without noble tears,
And if without what she would never have
Who had it never, pity-yet from none
Quite without reverence and some kind of love
For that which was so royal."
Having delivered my soul as to this matter, I return not unrelieved from historic ground, with some hope that this aberration may prove pardonable when the provocation has been taken into account.
I have compared Albert Moore to Théophile Gautier; I am tempted to compare Mr. Leslie to Hégésippe Moreau. The low melodious notes of his painting have the soft reserve of tone and still sweetness of touch which belong to the idyllic poet of the Voulzie. Sometimes he almost attains the gentle grace of the other's best verse—though I hardly remember a picture of his as exquisite for music and meaning as the "Étrennes à la Fermière." His work of this year has much of tender beauty, especially the picture called "Home News;" his portraits have always a pleasant and genuine quality of their own; and in the picture called "The Empty Sleeve," though trenching somewhat nearly on the obvious and facile ground of family feeling and domestic exhibition, there is enough of truth and grace visible to keep it up on the proper level of art.
The "Evening Hymn" of Mr. Mason is in my mind the finest I have seen of his works, admirable beyond all where all are admirable. A row of girls, broken in rank here and there, stand and sing on a rough green rise of broken ground; behind them is a wild spare copse, beyond it a sunset of steady and sombre fire stains red with its sunken rays the long low space of sky; above this broad band of heavy colour the light is fitful and pale. The raised faces and opening mouths of the singers are as graceful as those carved by Della Robbia or Donatello in their choral groups; nothing visible of gape or strain, yet the action of song is made sensible. Their fine features are not over fine; they have all an air of the fields and the common country, which is confirmed in the figures, cast in a somewhat ruder mould, of the two young peasants who stand listening. One girl stands off a little from the rest, conning the text with eyes set fast upon her open book; the rest sing freely at large; the middle group of three girls is most noble and exquisite. Rich at once and grave in the colour, stately and sweet in the composition, this picture is a model of happy and majestic temperance.
Mr. Walker's picture of "Vagrants," has more of actual beauty than his ' Bathers" of last year; more of brilliant skill and swift sharp talent it can hardly have, The low marsh with its cold lights of grey glittering waters here and there; the stunted brushwood, the late and pale sky; the figures gathering about the kindling fire, sad and wild and worn and untameable; the one stately shape of a girl standing erect, her passionate beautiful face seen across the smoke of the scant fuel; all these are wrought with such appearance of ease and security and speed of touch, that the whole seems almost a feat of mere skill rather than a grave sample of work; but in effect it is no such slight thing.
In Mr. Armstrong's "Daffodils" there is a still sobriety of beauty, a quiet justice and a fine gravity of manner, far unlike the flash and flare of obtrusive cleverness which vexes us so often in English work of this kind. The sombre sweetness of & coming twilight is poured upon hill and field; only the yellow flowers wreathed about the child's hat or held by the boy kneeling on the stile relieve the tender tone of sunless daylight with soft and tempered colour. The action of the figures has all the grace of simple truth and childlike nature.
"The Exiled Jacobite" of Mr. Lidderdale is full of the noble sadness of the subject, excellent also as a genuine picture, a work of composed harmony. The noble worn face of the old man, stamped with the sacred seal of patience and pain, looks seaward over the discoloured stonework of the low wall, beyond the dull grey roofs of a low-lying town that slope to the foreign shore. His eyes are not upon the dusky down sweeping up behind, the rough quaint houses and deep hollow, veiled all and blue with the misty late air; they are set, sad and strong, upon things they shall never see indeed again. From the whole figure the spirit of the old song speaks:
"Now all is done that man can do,
And all is done in vain."
The pathos of the picture is masculine and plain as truth; the painter might have written under it the simple first words of the same most noble song:
"It was a' for our rightful king."
Mr. Poynter's picture of "The Catapult" has an admirable energy of thought and handiwork; the force and weight of faculty shown in it would be worthy remark if the result were less excellent. Excellent of its kind it is, but not delightful; surprise and esteem it provokes, but not the glad gratitude with which we should welcome all great work. The labouring figures and the monstrous engine are worthy of wonder and praise; but there is a want on the whole of beauty, a want in detail of interest. The painter's "Israel in Egypt" had more of both qualities, though there is this year a visible growth of power; it left upon our eyes a keen impression of gorgeous light and cruelty and splendour and suffering; it had more room for the rival effects at once of fine art and of casual sentiment.
The two pictures of Mr. Hughes show all his inevitable grace and tender way of work; they are full of gentle colour and soft significance. The smaller is to us the sweeter sample; but both are noticeable for their clear soft purity and bright delicacy of thought and touch. In the larger picture the bird singing on the sill, delicious as it would be anywhere, has here a double charm.
There is a genuine force and a quaint beauty in Mr. Houghton's picture—portrait it can hardly be called—of a gentleman in his laboratory. His other picture, of a boy lifting up a younger child to smell a rose on the tree, while a kitten bounds at his feet, is admirable for its plain direct grace of manner.
The head of a priest by Mr. Burgess has a clear air of truth and strength; its Spanish manner recalls the style of Phillip, whom the painter, it seems, has sought to emulate. Among the few portraits worth a look or a word, is that of Mrs. Birket Foster by Mr. Orchardson; though the showy simplicity be something of a knack, and the painting of woodwork and drapery rather a trick of trade acquired than a test of accomplished power, the work is so well done and the action so plain and good as to bear and to reward a second look.
The show of this year is noticeably barren in landscape. Nothing is here of Inchbold, nothing of Anthony. The time which can bring forth but two such men should have also brought forth men capable to judge them and to enjoy. Even here however the field is not all sterile: there are two studies of sea by Mr. H. Moore, worthy to redeem the whole waste of a year. One of these shows an ebbing tide before the squall comes up; the soft low tumult of washing waves, not yet beaten into storm and foam, but weltering and whitening under cloud and wind, will soon gather power and passion; as yet there is some broken and pallid sunlight flung over it by faint flashes, which serve but to show the deepening trouble and quickening turmoil of reluctant waters. The shifting and subtle colours of the surging sea and grey blowing sky are beautiful and true. The study of storm subsiding as the waves beat up inshore, though vigorous and faithful, is in parts somewhat heavy; but the jostling breakers muster and fight and fall with all the grace and force of nature.
In these stray notes I had meant to set down nothing in dispraise of this picture or that, but merely to say of such as I found good the best I had to say; passing by of necessity many well worthy of praise or blame, and many more not wholly worthy of either. Of these indeed the main part of an exhibition must usually be made up; of mediocrities and ingenuities which art must on the whole ignore and put aside without rebuke, though they may not call aloud for fire to consume them. But a word may here be said of M. Edouard Frère; a name that carries weight with it. He has been likened to Wordsworth; it must be a Wordsworth shorn of his beams. In the large field of the poet there are barren and weedy places enough; he may at times, with relaxed hand and bedimmed eye, drop from the hills to the quagmires, and croak there to children, instead of singing to men; but the qualities which at such times a great poet may have in common with a small painter are not the qualities which make him great. When we find in M. Frère the majesty and music of thought, the stately strength and high-toned harmonies, the deep sure touch and keen-edged pathos of the poet, then only we may grant the kinship. To the rags and tatters, the stubble and sweepings of Wordsworth, he meantime is more than welcome. What is there in this year's picture well conceived, well composed, well painted? what of effect, of harmony, of variety in these crude monotonous figures? A great artist in verse or in colour may assuredly make some great thing out of the commonest unwashed group of dull faces; but the workman must first be great; and this workman, without force of hand or delicacy, without depth or grace of painting, would pass off on us, in lieu of these, such mere trickeries of coarse and easy sentiment, fit only to "milk the maudlin" eyes of M. Prudhomme and his wife. Turn from his work to that of M. Legros, and compare the emasculate with the masculine side of French art.
Among the drawings here are two studies by Mr. Sandys, both worthy of the high place held by the artist. One is a portrait full of force and distinction, drawn as perhaps no other man among us can draw; the other, a woman's face, is one of his most solid and splendid designs; a woman of rich, ripe, angry beauty, she draws one warm long lock of curling hair through her full and moulded lips, biting it with bared bright teeth, which add something of a tiger's charm to the sleepy and couching passion of her fair face. But of that which is not here I have also something to say. Exclusion and suppression of certain things in the range of art are not really possible to any academy upon earth, be it pictorial or literary. It is natural for academies to try, when any rare or new good thing comes before them in either kind; witness much of academic history in England as in France; but the record of their ill-will has always been the record of their impotence. Mr. Sandys' picture of "Medea" is well enough known by this time, wherever there is any serious knowledge of art, to claim here some word of comment, not less seasonable than if it were now put forward to grace the great show of the year. Like Coriolanus, the painter might say if he would that it is his to banish the judges, his to reject the "common cry" of academies. For this, beyond all doubt, is as yet his piece. Pale as from poison, with the blood drawn back from her very lips, agonized in face and limbs with the labour and the fierce contention of old love with new, of a daughter's love with a bride's, the fatal figure of Medea pauses a little on the funereal verge of the wood of death, in act to pour a blood-like liquid into the soft opal-coloured hollow of a shell. The future is hard upon her, as a cup of bitter poison set close to her mouth; the furies of Absyrtus, the furies of her children, rise up against her from the unrisen years; her eyes are hungry and helpless, full of a fierce and raging sorrow. Hard by her, henbane and aconite and nightshade thrive and grow full of fruit and death; before her fair feet the bright-eyed toads engender after their kind. Upon the golden ground behind is wrought in allegoric decoration the likeness of the ship Argo, with other emblems of the tragic things of her life. The picture is grand alike for wealth of symbol and solemnity of beauty.
The present year has other pictures to be proud of, not submitted to the loose and slippery judgment of an academy. Of one or two such I am here permitted to make mention, The great picture which Mr. Whistler has now in hand is not yet finished enough for any critical detail to be possible; it shows already promise of a more majestic and excellent beauty of form than his earlier studies, and of the old delicacy and melody of ineffable colour. Of three slighter works lately painted, I may set down a few rapid notes; but no task is harder than this of translation from colour into speech, when the speech must be so hoarse and feeble, when the colour is so subtle and sublime. Music or verse might strike some string accordant in sound to such painting, but a mere version such as this is as a psalm of Tate's to a psalm of David's. In all of these the main strings touched are certain varying chords of blue and white, not without interludes of the bright and tender tones of floral purple or red. In two of the studies the keynote is an effect of sea; in one, a sketch for the great picture, the soft brilliant floor-work and wall-work of a garden balcony serve in its stead to set forth the flowers and figures of flower-like women. In a second, we have again a gathering of women in a balcony; from the unseen flower-land below tall almond-trees shoot up their topmost crowns of tender blossom; beyond and far out to west and-south the warm and solemn sea spreads wide and soft without wrinkle of wind. The dim grey floor-work in front, delicate as a summer cloud in colour, is antiphonal to the bluer wealth of water beyond: and between these the fair clusters of almond-blossom make divine division, Again the symphony or (if you will) the antiphony is sustained by the fervid or the fainter colours of the women's raiment as they lean out one against another, looking far oversea in that quiet depth of pleasure without words when spirit and sense are filled full of beautiful things, till it seems that at a mere breath the charmed vessels of pleasure would break or overflow, the brimming chalices of the senses would spill this wine of their delight. In the third of these studies the sea is fresher, lightly kindling under a low clear wind; at the end of a pier a boat is moored, and women in the delicate bright robes of eastern fashion and colour so dear to the painter are about to enter it; one is already midway the steps of the pier; she pauses, half unsure of her balance, with an exquisite fluttered grace of action. Her comrades above are also somewhat troubled, their robes lightly blown about by the sea-wind, but not too much for light laughter and a quivering pleasure. Between the dark wet stair-steps and piles of the pier the sweet bright sea shows foamless here and blue. This study has more of the delight of life than the others; which among three such may be most beautiful I neither care to guess nor can. They all have the immediate beauty, they all give the direct delight of natural things; they seem to have grown as a flower grows, not in any forcing-house of ingenious and laborious cunning. This indeed is in my eyes a special quality of Mr. Whistler's genius; a freshness and fulness of the loveliest life of things, with a high clear power upon them which seems to educe a picture as the sun does a blossom or a fruit.
It is well known that the painter of whom I now propose to speak has never suffered exclusion or acceptance at the hand of any academy. To such acceptance or such rejection all other men of any note have been and may be liable. It is not less well known that his work must always hold its place as second in significance and value to no work done by any English painter of his time. Among the many great works of Mr. D. G. Rossetti, I know of none greater than his two latest. These are types of sensual beauty and spiritual, the siren and the sibyl. The one is a woman of the type of Adam's first wife; she is a living Lilith, with ample splendour of redundant hair;
All women in the magic of her locks;
And when she winds them round a young man's neck
She will not ever set him free again.
Clothed in soft white garments, she draws out through a comb the heavy mass of hair like thick spun gold to fullest length; her head leans back half sleepily, superb and satiate with its own beauty; the eyes are languid, without love in them or hate; the sweet luxurious mouth has the patience of pleasure fulfilled and complete, the warm repose of passion sure of its delight. Outside, as seen in the glimmering mirror, there is full summer; the deep and glowing leaves have drunk in the whole strength of the sun. The sleepy splendour of the picture is a fit raiment for the idea incarnate of faultless fleshly beauty and peril of pleasure unavoidable. For this serene and sublime sorceress there is no life but of the body; with spirit (if spirit there be) she can dispense. Were it worth her while for any word to divide those terrible tender lips, she too might say with the hero of the most perfect and exquisite book of modern times— Mademoiselle de Maupin—"Je trouve la terre aussi belle que le ciel, et je pense que la correction de la forme est la vertu." Of evil desire or evil impulse she has nothing; and nothing of good. She is indifferent, equable, magnetic; she charms and draws down the souls of men by pure force of absorption, in no wise wilful or malignant; outside herself she cannot live, she cannot even see: and because of this she attracts and subdues all men at once in body and in spirit. Beyond the mirror she cares not to look, and could not.
"Ma mia suora Rahel mai non si smaga
Dal suo miraglio, e siede tutto 'l giorno."
So, rapt in no spiritual contemplation, she will sit to all time, passive and perfect: the outer light of a sweet spring day flooding and filling the massive gold of her hair. By the reflection in a deep mirror of fervent foliage from without, the chief chord of stronger colour is touched in this picture; next in brilliance and force of relief is the heap of curling and tumbling hair on which the sunshine strikes; the face and head of the siren are withdrawn from the full stroke of the light.
After this faint essay at an exposition, the weighty and melodious words in which the painter has recast his thought (words inscribed on the frame of the picture) will be taken as full atonement for my shortcomings; I fear only that the presumption and insufficience of the commentator will now be but the more visible.
(The witch he loved before the gift of Eve)
That, ere the snake's, her sweet tongue could deceive,
And her enchanted hair was the first gold.
And still she sits, young while the earth is old,
And, subtly of herself contemplative,
Draws men to watch the bright net she can weave,
Till heart and body and life are in its hold.
Rose, foxglove, poppy are her flowers: for where
Is he not found, O Lilith, whom shed scent
And soft-shed fingers and soft sleep shall snare?
Lo! as that youth's eyes burned at thine, so went
Thy spell through him, and left his straight neck bent,
And round his heart one strangling golden hair.
The other picture gives the type opposite to this; a head of serene and spiritual beauty, severe and tender, with full and heavy hair falling straight in grave sweet lines, not like Lilith's exuberant of curl and coil; with carven column of throat, solid and round and flawless as living ivory; with still and sacred eyes and pure calm lips; and imperial votaress truly, in maiden meditation: yet as true and tangible a woman of mortal mould, as ripe and firm of flesh as her softer and splendid sister. The mystical emblems behind her show her power upon love and death to make them loyal servants to the law of her lofty and solemn spirit. Here also the artist alone should first be heard; and I, having leave to act as his outrider, give him the due precedence.
Terror and mystery, guard her shrine, I saw
Beauty enthroned; and though her gaze struck awe,
I drew it in as simply as my breath.
Hers are the eyes which, over and beneath,
The sky and sea bend on thee,—which can draw,
By sea or sky or woman, to one law,
The allotted bondman of her palm and wreath.
This is that Lady Beauty, in whose praise
Thy voice and hand shake still,—long known to thee
By flying hair and fluttering hem,—the beat
Following her daily of thy heart and feet,
How passionately and irretrievably,
In what fond flight, how many ways and days!
After these all weaker words must fall flat enough; but something of further description may yet be allowed. Behind this figure of the ideal and inaccessible beauty, an inlaid wall of alternate alabaster and black marble bears inwrought on its upper part the rival twin emblems of love and death; over the bare carven skull poppies impend, and roses over the sweet head with bound blind eyes: in her hand is the palm-branch, a sceptre of peace and of power. The cadence of colour is splendid and simple, a double trinity of green and red, the dim red robe, the deep red poppies, the soft red roses; and again the green veil wound about with wild flowers, the green down of poppy-leaves, the sharper green of rose-leaves.
An unfinished picture of Beatrice (the Beata Beatrix of the Vita Nuova), a little before death, is perhaps the noblest of Mr. Rossetti's many studies after Dante. This work is wholly symbolic and ideal; a strange bird flown earthward from heaven brings her in its beak a full-blown poppy, the funereal flower of sleep. Her beautiful head lies back, sad and sweet, with fast-shut eyes in a death-like trance that is not death; over it the shadow of death seems to impend, making sombre the splendour of her ample hair and tender faultless features. Beyond her the city and the bridged river are seen as from far, dim and veiled with misty lights as though already "sitting alone, made as a widow." Love, one side, comes bearing in his hand a heart in flames, having his eyes bent upon Dante's; on the other side is Dante, looking sadly across the way towards Love. In this picture the light is subdued and soft, touching tenderly from behind the edges of Beatrice's hair and raiment; in the others there is a full fervour of daylight. The great picture of Venus Verticordia has now been in great measure recast; the head is of a diviner type of beauty; golden butterflies hover about the halo of her hair, alight upon the sweet supremacy of a beauty imperial and immortal; her glorious bosom seems to exult and expand as the roses on each side of it. The painting of leaf and fruit and flower in this picture is beyond my praise or any man's; but of one thing I will here take note; the flash of green brilliance from the upper leaves of the trellis against the sombre green of the trees behind. Once more it must appear that the painter alone can translate into words as perfect in music and colour the sense and spirit of his work.
Yet almost in her heart would hold it back;
She muses, with her eyes upon the track
Of that which in thy spirit they can see.
Haply, "Behold, he is at peace," saith she:
"Alas! the apple for his lips—the dart
That follows its brief sweetness to his heart—
The wandering of his feet perpetually!"
A little space her glance is still and coy;
But if she give the fruit that works her spell,
Those eyes shall flame as for her Phrygian boy;
Then shall her bird's strained throat the woe foretell,
And her far seas moan as a single shell,
And through her dark grove strike the light of Troy.
Another work, as yet incomplete, is a study of La Pia; she is seen looking forth from the ramparts of her lord's castle, over the fatal lands without; her pallid splendid face hangs a little forward, wan and white against the mass of dark deep hair; under her hands is a work of embroidery, hanging still on the frame finished; just touched by the weak weary hands, it trails forward across the lap of her pale green raiment, into the foreground of the picture. In her eyes is a strange look of wonder and sorrow and fatigue, without fear and without pain, as though she were even now looking beyond earth into the soft and sad air of purgatory: she presses the deadly marriage-ring into the flesh of her finger, so deep that the soft skin is bloodless and blanched from the intense imprint of it. Two other studies, as yet only sketched, give promise of no less beauty; the subject of one was long since handled by the artist in a slighter manner. It also is taken from the Vita Nuova; Dante in a dream beholding Beatrice dead, tended by handmaidens, and Love, with bow and dart in hand, in act to kiss her beautiful dead mouth. The other is a design of Perseus showing to Andromeda the severed head of Medusa, reflected in water; an old and well-worn subject, but renewed and reinformed with life by the vital genius of the artist. In the Pompeian picture we see the lovers at halt beside a stream, on their homeward way; here we see them in their house, bending over the central cistern or impluvium of the main court. The design is wonderful for grace and force; the picture will assuredly be one of the painter's greatest.
Wide and far apart as lie their provinces of work, their tones of thought and emotion, the two illustrious artists of whom I have just said a short and inadequate word have in common one supreme quality of spirit and work, coloured and moulded in each by his individual and inborn force of nature; the love of beauty for the very beauty's sake, the faith and trust in it as in a god indeed. This gift of love and faith, now rare enough, has been and should be ever the common apanage of artists. Rien n'est vrai que le beau; this should be the beginning and the ending of their belief, held in no small or narrow sense, but in the largest and most liberal scope of meaning. Beauty may be strange, quaint, terrible, may play with pain as with pleasure, handle a horror till she leave it a delight; she forsakes not such among her servants as Webster or as Goya. No good art is unbeautiful; but much able and effective work may be, and is. Mere skill, mere thought and trouble, mere feeling or dexterity, will never on earth make a man painter or poet or artist in any kind. Hundreds of English pictures just now have but these to boast of; and with these even studious and able men are often now content; forgetful that art is no more a matter of mere brain-work than of mere handicraft. The worship of beauty, though beauty be itself transformed and incarnate in shapes diverse without end, must be simple and absolute: hence only must the believer expect profit or reward. Over every building made sacred to art of any sort, upon the hearts of all who strive after it to serve it, there should be written these words of the greatest master now living among us:—
La beauté est parfaite,
La beauté peut toute chose,
La beauté est la seule chose au monde qui n'existe pas à demi.
SAVILL, EDWARDS AND CO., PRINTERS, CHANDOS STREET,