The Galaxy/Volume 24/Number 2/The Picture Season in London
THE PICTURE SEASON IN LONDON.
With the advance of the spring and the development of the season, in London, the streets (in the West End) begin to present to the eye of an observant stranger a great many new characteristics. The dusky metropolis takes on, here and there, in spots, a perceptible brightness, and as the days elapse these spots increase and multiply. At last they produce a general impression of brilliancy. Thanks to this combined effect, the murky Babylon by the Thames becomes cheerful and splendid. At the climax of the season, of a fine, fresh day in June, the West End exhibits a radiance which, to my sense, casts into the shade even the charming brightness of Paris. The brightness of Paris is, as I say, charming; it is a very pretty spectacle; it flashes and twinkles, and laughs, and murmurs. Stand on the edge of the Place de la Concorde, at the bottom of the Champs Elysées, on any fine-weathered Sunday in the late spring—on a day when there are races beyond the Bois de Boulogne—and you will feel the full force of all the traditions about Paris being the gayest, easiest, eagerest, most pleasure-taking of capitals. The light has a silvery shimmer, the ladies' dresses in the carriages a charming harmony, the soldiers' red trousers a martial animation, the white caps of the bonnes a gleaming freshness. The carriages sweep in a dense line up the long vista of the Champs Elysées, amid the cool, fresh verdure, and the lines of well-dressed people sitting on neat little yellow chairs; the great mass of the Arc de Triomphe rises with majestic grace, transmuted by distance into a sort of violet shadow; the fountains sparkle and drizzle in the vast sunny place; the Seine sweeps by in an amber flood, through a channel that gleams like marble beneath the league-long frontage of the splendid Louvre, and beyond that, crowning the picturesque purple mass before which the river divides, the towers of Notre Dame stand up and balance in the opposite distance with the softened majesty of the Arch.
All this is irresistibly pretty. You feel that it was made to please. It has a kind of operatic harmony, and the impresario has thoroughly understood his business. But in that fine intermission of the London gloom of which I speak there is something more impressive, more interesting. It was not made to please, and it doesn't think of the spectators. It pleases by accident, by contrast, and by the immensity of its scale. It is an enormous, opulent society expanding to the enjoyment of the privileges and responsibilities of wealth and power, with nothing of that amiable coquetry of attitude toward the public at large which seems somehow to animate the performers in the Parisian spectacle. Except that part of it which takes place in the Park, the London spectacle goes forward in the midst of ugly accessories—smoke-blackened houses, an undeveloped architecture, a dingy and hungry-looking population—but for ten weeks it overbears these things by its mass and brightness, and makes you believe that you are in the city of pleasure, and not in the city of pain. Then the flunkied chariots, with flower stacks in front, stand locked together in the genteel neighborhoods; then the admirable types of English beauty look forth with quiet eyes from the shadow of lace-fringed parasols; then the rosy women sit flushed and panting on glossy thorough-breds along the misty, red-earthed vistas of the Park; then the juvenile members of a hereditary aristocracy diffuse themselves over the slopes of Piccadilly, and excite the admiration of the passing stranger by figures which tell of rowing matches, and garments which hint at Poole.
Then, in the mansions of Mayfair and Belgravia, the window-sills are bright with wondrous tulip beds, and the thresholds and porticoes flamboyant with still more wondrous footmen; then the streets are bedizened with motley placards and the names of all the great singers, and players, and actors, and painters, confront you at every turn, with thrilling familiarity; then the amateur coaches, driven by the gentleman of leisure and heralded by the mellow horn of the scarlet-coated guard, come rattling up to the classic door of Hatchett's; then the plumes and diamonds of bare-shouldered duchesses nod at you from the gilded coaches which, in drawing-room days, are waiting to deposit their noble burden in the presence of its gracious sovereign; then, too, the Life Guards and the Blues, the "finest men" in the world, come flashing and clashing on their sable chargers from attendance on the same august personage. Then, at the hour of the vast pink sunset which filters upward so picturesquely through the hovering London exhalations, every rattling hansom contains a hurrying diner-out in a beautifully tied choker, and then, later, when the pale starlight twinkles down feebly into the dim, innumerable streets, the lines of lamp-lit broughams at the doors of houses given up to a "crush," stretch away into neighboring parishes. These are a few of the features of that external manifestation of the London "season" which I just now spoke of as impressive. No single one of them, doubtless, will seem to deserve so exalted an epithet, but such certainly is, upon a simple Western mind, the effect of their aggregation. Such a vast amount of human life, so complex a society, so powerful a body of custom and tradition stand behind them, that the spectacle becomes the most solidly brilliant, the most richly suggestive, of all great social shows.
It was not, however, of its general suggestiveness that I meant to speak in making this allusion to it. It was one of its more trivial incidents—a mere detail in that daily multiplication of visible detail which, from Easter onward, goes forward in the London streets. The pitiful old men who perambulate in portable stocks increase a hundredfold. I mean by this those ragged starvelings who are induced, by pecuniary considerations, to merge that small remnant of individuality which survives the levelling action of soot without and whiskey within in the conspicuous neutrality of advertising mediumship. We only know them as we know the tortoise, by their shell. This shell is a kind of two-sided pyramid, from which their chins emerge, and from which, from the knee downward, their legs depend. Or it might be likened to a sort of over-starched shirt, with the skirts left flying, upon the rigid bosom and back whereof the attractions of concerts and galleries are inscribed in letters of crimson and azure. The wearers stand on the street corners or stroll along the curbstone for days, weeks, and months together; though occasionally, I suppose (to carry out our metaphor), they may be observed to have affected a change of linen. In the London streets their number is always great, but after Easter it becomes greater than ever. This season ushers in a quickened activity in those two forms of entertainment on whose behalf they chiefly appeal—the concerts and the picture shows.
Judged by the testimony of the wooden-shirted fraternity, the English are both the most musical and the most pictorial of races. There are half a dozen concerts every day; there is a special "exhibition" in every print shop. Every song, every singer, every picture, is the subject of a special placard, and you thus walk about in a wilderness of æsthetic mementoes. If you are a perfect stranger, you will at first be led to suppose that you are in a city whose native inspiration is a kind of résumé of the arts of modern Germany, mediæval Florence, and ancient Athens. If you are an older inhabitant, you will not be led into this illusion, but I think I may say that your reflections will be, on this ground, only a few degrees less interesting. You are not among the greatest artistic producers of the world, but you are among the greatest consumers. The supply is for the most part foreign, but the demand is extremely domestic. The evidences of the demand are, in England, to a certain extent always before one's eyes; but in London, among the various vernal phenomena, they are not the least striking. They are a part of that redundancy of luxury of which the "season" is an expression. The English are as largely addicted to intellectual luxury as to material; and these things may, I suppose, come under the former head, or in other words under that of "culture."
I am conscious at this point of the temptation to wander off into a long parenthesis and note down a few of my impressions of this same intellectual luxury—enumerate a few of those more particularly social tributes to culture which strike an observant foreigner. But remembering that it is only with the sidelight projected from picture shows that I am concerned, I content myself with the briefest allusion. An American could not be long in England before he discovers that its inhabitants are a much more "accomplished" people than ourselves—that in those graceful arts which mitigate the severity of almost obligatory leisure they are infinitely more proficient. I should say that, in the educated classes, eight English persons out of ten have some small specialty of the artistic, scientific, or literary sort. Of course I include both sexes, but I do not include the purely muscular and athletic, or, more correctly, the purely sporting members of society; these should not properly be numbered in the educated classes. The others either sketch, or "play," or sing, or botanize, or geologize, or write novels; they are amateur antiquaries, entomologists, astronomers, geographers, photographers, engravers, or wood-carvers. If they are nothing else, they are addicted to private theatricals. But these, perhaps, should be accounted a form of athletics. The ladies in particular cultivate their little private plot of æsthetic or scientific learning; thereunto impelled in a large measure, I imagine, by that peculiarly English institution of country life which is so beautiful, so stately, so respectable, and so dull. "Que faire en un gîte à moins que l'on n'a songé?"
What can you do in a country house unless you sketch, or make music, or scribble? The answer to this question sometimes takes the shape of an offhand affirmation that country houses are always filled with visitors; but the stranger is free to suspect that this is true only as regards the minority of rural residences and the scantier portion of the year. Even if his glimpses of these enchanting spots have been infinitely briefer than his desire, he will probably have gathered our impression that, for many months together, the hours are as spacious as the great smooth-rolled lawns, and the days as long as the neatly gravelled avenues.
English culture, then, in so far as it is a luxury, is a child of leisure; whereas leisure, in America, has not yet reached that interesting period at which the parental function begins to operate. We have, it is true, a great many young ladies who "play," but we have, as compared with the English, a very small number who sketch, either in oil or water colors, who write three-volume novels, or produce historical monographs. For my own part, I regret it; for I subscribe to the axiom that culture lends a charm to life. But I have a friend, a compatriot, with whom I often discuss these matters, who takes a very different view, and who pretends that (speaking particularly for instance of the sketching) it is better not to sketch at all than to sketch badly. He here makes, as you see, two questionable assumptions: one is that we Americans do not sketch at all, the other is that the English sketch badly. In fact I should say that we do sketch a little, and that the English often sketch very well. They certainly sketch a great deal; you will hardly find an English family, I think, of which one member at least is not a client of Messrs. Windsor and Newton, the people who manufacture those delightful little miniature gingerbread-pans of cobalt and crimson lake.
My friend has a theory that English sketching is not only no proof of æsthetic talent in the people, but that it is positive proof of the absence of this gift. "It is a proof of their leisure, of their culture, of their luxury, of their wisdom, of their prudence, of their propriety, of their morality, of anything on that line that you will," he always says. "But it is not a proof of their having the painter's disposition. If they had the painter's disposition, they couldn't stand that amount of amateurishness. Observe that they always frame their sketches and hang them on the walls. It is therefore not simply the process that they value, as teaching them (as it is the pertinent fashion now to say) how to look, how to use their eyes—it is the result as well. In nine cases out of ten the result is grotesquely amateurish—the drawings are, seriously speaking, pitiful. But the English can stand that; we couldn't. We feel we couldn't; therefore we don't risk it. The English have the grossness which is proof against offence; we have the delicacy which shrinks from it. In other words, the English have not, as a people, the artistic sense, and we have it in a certain degree."
To this I always make a point of replying that if, as a society, we don't sketch, it is not because we won't, but because we can't; and if we don't hang indifferent water colors on our parlor walls, it is because we have not got them to hang. If we had them, I say, we should be only too happy. It is mere want of culture, I say, and not our native delicacy. Delicacy is shown, not in barren abstinence, but in beautiful performance. This I say, and a great deal more; but I confess I don't convince my friend, which, however, hardly matters, for he is sometimes very bitter against the English, and always judges them from the foreign point of view. Among the other things I say is that, besides, all English sketching is not bad, by a good deal; that I have seen a great deal that is very charming, and that I believe in the existence of a great deal more. I believe that there are charming things done, so quietly and privately, in those beautiful rural homes of which I was speaking just now—at those wide Elizabethan windows that look out on far horizons of their own. To this my friend answers that when I get to talking theoretically about what "must" be produced in English country houses I become very fantastic; and indeed I think it possible that I go too far. Still, I by no means give up my theory that there are watercolor sketches suspended in many of them more beautiful than any that I have seen.
The reader, however, must have perceived that what I started to say was that the taste for art in England is at bottom a fashion, a need of luxury, a tribute even, as my friend says, to propriety; not an outgush of productive power. So the reflective stranger concludes, after having gone the rounds of everything in the way of an exhibition that the season offers him; and so, if he had time to make the reader perform the same interesting tour, he would expect the latter to conclude with him. But if art is a fashion in England, at least it is a great fashion. How these people have always needed, in a certain sort of way, to be entertained; what handsome things they have collected about them; in the absence of production, on what a scale the consumption has always gone on! A great multiplicity of exhibitions is, I take it, a growth of our own day—a result of that democratization of all tastes and fashions which marks our glorious period. But the English have always bought pictures in quantities, and they certainly have often had the artistic intelligence to buy good ones. In England it has not been the sovereigns who have purchased, or the generals who have "lifted," and London accordingly boasts of no national collection equal to the gallery at Dresden or the Louvre. But English gentlemen have bought—with English bank notes—profusely, unremittingly, splendidly. They have stored their treasures in their more or less dusky drawing-rooms, so that the people at large have not, on the whole, been much the wiser; but the treasures are at any rate in the country, and are constantly becoming more accessible. Of their number and value the exhibitions held for several years past, during the winter, in the rooms of the Royal Academy, and formed by the loan of choice specimens of the old masters, have been a liberal intimation. These exhibitions give a great impression of the standing art-wealth of Great Britain, and of the fact that, whether or no the English people have painted, the rest of the world has painted for them. They have needed pictures; it is ungracious to look too narrowly at the grounds of the need. Formerly it was supplied almost exclusively by the lordly operation of purchase; now it is gratified by the simpler process of paying a shilling to an extremely civil person in a front shop and passing into certain maroon-draped penetralia, where the London daylight is most artfully economized, and where a still more civil person supplies you with a neat literary explanation of the pictures, majestically printed on cardboard, and almost as clever as an article in a magazine.
They do all this wonderfully well in London, I always appreciate it; but then, perhaps, I am too appreciative. I have just come out of a place in Bond street, which struck me as a particularly characteristic example of its class. The exhibitions in Bond street, indeed, are legion, and are surpassed (if surpassed) in number only by those in Pall Mall. In this case I saw by the outside announcements that a great religious work by Sir Noel Paton, R. S. A., LL. D., was on view within, and I furthermore perused a statement, glued to the middle of the plate-glass window, that the picture had, on Thursday, May 10, been conveyed to Marlborough for inspection by H. R. H. the Prince of Wales. Here was a combination of attractions not to be resisted. A religious picture, painted by a baronet, a Royal Scottish Academician (I believe that is the meaning of the first batch of initials), and a Doctor of Laws, and further consecrated by exposure to the awful gaze of royalty—a glimpse of such a work was certainly cheap at a shilling. "C'est pour rien," said that friend whom I just now quoted, who happened to be with me, and who interlards his conversation most unconsciously with disjointed scraps of French. We paid our respects—that is, our shilling—to the blond young lady posted ad hoc in the front shop, and then we were inducted by two blond gentlemen— very "fine men," as they say in England—to the compartment in the rear. This was a charming little place, draped in maroon-colored stuff, which was elaborately fluted and festooned, and lighted by concealed gas burners, which projected a mellow glow upon a single picture disposed at the end of the apartment.
The title of the picture was "Christ the Great Shepherd"—a title whose latent significance, together with the beauties of the work, was set forth on a large card, which was placed in our hands by the attendants. We were instructed by this document that, the Christ being clad, like most Christs, in garments of red and blue, the former color represented love and the latter wisdom, and that both of these qualities are necessary to the character of a perfect man. Sir Noel Paton's Christ is walking through a rocky country, with a radiance round his head, and a little lamb in his arms, toward whom he gently bends his face. The little lamb is very good; it occurs to me that, the painter being a Scottish Academician, the picture was perhaps painted in the Highlands, where there are great opportunities for making ovine studies. As regards the subject, my companion took occasion to remark that he accepted all representations of Jesus on easy terms; his admiration of the type depicted was so great, his sentiment about it so vivacious, that his critical sense was suspended. If the painter was at all clever, the battle meanwhile was won. I called his attention shortly after this to the interest of looking at a picture by a Doctor of Laws; I think I even remarked upon the beauty of the frame. At all events, I talked about everything being so comfortably arranged. By this time his good humor of a few minutes before appeared to have evaporated. "Yes," he said, in his incorrigible French; "il n'y a que la peinture qui manque."
This has been a very good year, from the sight-seer's point of view, inasmuch as it has witnessed the inception (I believe that is the proper word in such cases) of an artistic enterprise of an unusually brilliant sort. I suppose it is correct to speak of the Grosvenor gallery as primarily an artistic enterprise; for it has had its origin, on the part of its distinguished proprietor (Sir Coutts Lindsay), rather in the love of pictures than in the love of money. Sir Coutts Lindsay is himself a very clever painter, and I see no warrant for the ill-natured intimation which I heard put forth somewhere, that he built the Grosvenor gallery in order to have a place to exhibit his own productions. These works would make a very honorable figure at the Royal Academy. In so far as his beautiful rooms in Bond street are a commercial speculation, this side of their character has been gilded over, and dissimulated in the most graceful manner. They are the product of a theory that there is a demand for a place of exhibition exempted both from the exclusiveness and the promiscuity of Burlington House, in which painters may communicate with the public more directly than under the academic dispensation, and in which the more "peculiar" ones in especial may have a chance to get popular. Sir Coutts Lindsay is his own counsel, his own jury, and his ambition, I believe, is to make of the Grosvenor gallery a sort of "Fortnightly Review," or more correctly, "Nineteenth Century," among exhibitions. He plays the same part as the thoroughly "catholic" editor of the latter periodical, who invites the lion and the lamb to lie down together, allows an equal space in his pages to Cardinal Manning and Mr. Huxley. There are people who expect the Grosvenor gallery to be simply, for a year or two, a success of curiosity, and then to go the way of all those other brilliant failures in the attempts to entertain this mighty metropolis, whose more or less mouldering relics are scattered over its thankless bosom—the Crystal Palace, the Alexandra Palace, the Westminster Aquarium, the Albert Hall. Then there are people who hold that it corresponds to an essential yearning of the public heart; that it will become a permanent institution, pursue a glorious career, and reimburse the owner for the £100,000 it has cost him. I am unable to hold the scales on so momentous a question, and can only say that for the present the place is very pretty and elegant, and the pictures, in general, are very clever. A good many of them are from foreign hands, and it is interesting to see the work of continental artists in juxtaposition to that of Englishmen. A whole long wall in the first room is covered with the contributions of MM. Heilbuth and James Tissot, who are probably (with a single exception) the most brilliant members of the large colony of foreign painters established in London, and basking in the golden light, not of the metropolitan sky, but of British patronage. Tissot is a Belgian and Heilbuth is a sort of Gallicized German, whose specialty is Graeco-Roman "restorations." Both are extremely clever, but M. Tissot is perhaps more brilliantly so. He is a painter of modern manners, and he generally chooses a subject which it takes a kind of tour de force to render. One of his pictures represents a corner of the deck of one of the Queen's ships at Portsmouth, with two ladies and a young officer leaning over the side and looking down at a boat containing a party of their friends, which is putting off. They are women of high fashion, and dressed in garments which have come straight from Brussels; the one in front, in particular, who twists her perfect figure with the most charming gracefulness as she rests her elbows on the bulwark, and, with her head a little thrown back, smiles down lazily and luxuriously at her friends. She wears a dress of frilled and fluted white muslin, set off with a great number of lemon-colored bows, and its air of fitting her well, and, as the ladies say, "hanging" well, is on the painter's part a triumph of perception and taste. M. Tissot's taste is highly remarkable; what I care less for is his sentiment, which seems sterile and disagreeable. Like so many other pictures representing the manners of the day, his productions suggest a curious and, I confess it seems to me, an insoluble problem. What is it that makes such realism as M. Tissot's appear vulgar and banal when an equal degree of realism, practised three hundred years ago, has an inexhaustible charm and entertainment? M. Tissot's pretty woman, with her stylish back and yellow ribbons, will, I am convinced, become less and less charming and interesting as the years, or even the months, go on. Certain I am, at any rate, that I should not be able to live in the same room with her for a week without finding her intolerably wearisome and unrefreshing. This is not of necessity because she is dressed in the costume of a particular moment; the delicious Dutch painters, Terburg and Metsu, Mieris and Gerard Dow, dressed their ladies in the current fashions of their time, and we find their satin and silver, their velvet and swansdown, their quilted hoods, and their square-toed shoes, delightful still. The only thing I can say about it is that the realism of the Dutch painters seems soft, and that of such men as M. Tissot seems hard. His humor is trivial, his sentiment stale. Is there then to be no more delightful realism? I sometimes fear it.
M. Heilbuth is very real, and he is a good deal softer than his companion, but his Roman skies are strangely gray and cold, and his pictures have to an inordinate degree that deplorable look of being based upon photographs, which is the bane of so much of the clever painting of our day. The painters have used photographs so much in their work that the result is tainted by that hideous inexpressiveness of the mechanical document. You see that the picture has been painted by a short cut. But I have not the heart to bear too hardly on M. Heilbuth; he recalls so many of those delightful things that compose our Roman memories—the benignant monsignori with their purple petticoats and stockings, and their servants in ancient liveries made to fit the household in general; the little crop-headed seminarists, marshalled into a crooked file like a long, innocuous serpent, and petticoated, too, beyond their years; the stately nurses of well-born babies, with their embroidered head cloths, their crimson bodices, the silver daggers in their coarse back hair, and the gold beads on their ample brown bosoms.
Putting aside the remarkable productions of Mr. Burne Jones, of which I will presently speak, the most interesting work at the Grosvenor is that of Mr. G. F. Watts, the first portrait painter in England. Mr. Watts is serious and manly, gravely and profoundly harmonious in color, and full of style in drawing. Though he has made his reputation by his portraits, which constitute his usual work, I believe he has a great longing to deal with "subjects." He has indulged it in one of the pictures at the Grosvenor, and the result certainly justifies him. "Love and Death" is an allegory, an uncomfortable thing in painting; but Mr. Watts's allegory is eminently pictorial. On a large canvas a white draped figure, with its back to the spectator, and with a sinister sweep of garment and gesture, prepares to pass across a threshold where, beside a rosebush that has shed its flowers, a boy figure of love staggers forth, and, with head and body reverted in entreaty tries in vain to bar its entrance. The picture has a certain graceful impressiveness, and the painter has rendered with peculiar success the air of majestic fatality in the pale image which shows no features.
Next this work hangs the portrait of an admirable model, Mrs. Percy Wyndham. It is what they call a 'sumptuous' picture," said my companion. "That is, the lady looks as if she had thirty thousand a year." It is true that she does; and yet the picture has a style which is distinctly removed from the "stylishness" of M. Tissot's yellow-ribboned heroine. The very handsome person whom the painter has depicted is dressed in a fashion which will never be wearisome; a simple yet splendid robe, in the taste of no particular period—of all periods. There is something admirably large and generous in the whole design of the work, of which the coloring is proportionately rich and sober. For the art of combining the imagination and ideal element in portraiture with an extreme solidity, and separating great elegance from small elegance, Mr. Watts is highly remarkable.
I will not speak of Mr. Whistler's "Nocturnes in Black and Gold" and in "Blue and Silver," of his "Arrangements," "Harmonies," and "Impressions," because I frankly confess they do not amuse me. The mildest judgment I have heard pronounced upon them is that they are like "ghosts of Velasquezes"; with the harshest I will not darken my pages. It may be a narrow point of view, but to be interesting it seems to me that a picture should have some relation to life as well as to painting. Mr. Whistler's experiments have no relation whatever to life; they have only a relation to painting. Nor will I speak of Mr. Millais's three heads of youthful specimens of aristocratic loveliness, because I am certain that his beautiful models (daughters of the Duke of Westminster) must have measured out to him whatever ire may flow from celestial minds. That Mr. Millais's brush has at its worst a certain indefeasible manliness there is no need of affirming; this the artist has been proving to us any time these ten years. Neither will I stop longer before Mr. Holman Hunt's "After-Glow in Egypt " than to pay my respects to its beauty of workmanship, and to wonder whence it is, amid all this exquisitely patient labor, that comes the spectator's sense of a singular want of inspiration. Do what he will, Mr. Holman Hunt seems prosaic. At the end of the room in which this picture hangs the crowd is perceptibly thicker than elsewhere, and, glancing over people's heads, you are not slow to perceive an excellent reason for their putting them, as the phrase is, together. Here hang, more than covering a complete wall, the productions of Mr. Edward Burne Jones, who is quite the lion of the exhibition. Mr. Burne Jones's lionship is owing partly to his "queerness" and partly to a certain air of mystery which had long surrounded him. He had not exhibited in public for many years, and people had an impression that in private prosperity his genius was growing "queerer" than ever. This impression will probably have found itself justified. To say everything that Mr. Burne Jones's pictures suggest is to undertake much more than I have either space or ability for; I must content myself with calling them by far the most interesting things in the Grosvenor gallery. They are seven in number, each of them is large and elaborate, and they represent altogether an immense amount of labor, science, and skill. In my own opinion they place their author quite at the head of the English painters of our day, and very high among all the painters of this degenerate time. I hasten to add that this is the opinion of a spectator not at all in sympathy with the school of art, if school there is, to which Mr. Burne Jones belongs, not at all inclined to look at things after that morbidly ingenious fashion which seems to me the sign of this school, and able therefore to enjoy its productions only with a dozen abatements. But after these abatements are made there remains in Mr, Burne Jones a vast deal to enjoy. It is the art of culture, of reflection, of intellectual luxury, of æsthetic refinement, of people who look at the world and at life not directly, as it were, and in all its accidental reality, but in the reflection and ornamental portrait of it furnished by art itself in other manifestations; furnished by literature, by poetry, by history, by erudition. One of Mr. Burne Jones's contributions to the Grosvenor is a very charming picture entitled "Venus's Mirror," in which a dozen young girls, in an early Italian landscape, are bending over a lucid pool, set in a flowery lawn, to see what I supposed to be the miraculously embellished image of their faces. Into some such mirror as this the painters and poets of Mr. Burne Jones's turn of mind seem to me to be looking; they are crowding round a crystal pool with a flowery margin in a literary landscape, quite like the angular nymphs of the picture I speak of. I can easily imagine what these artists find there being intolerable to some people, and in so far as it offers itself as subject matter for painting, can conceive of their having no patience with it. "It is not painting," I hear them say, "and it has nothing to do with painting. It is literature, erudition, edification; it is a superior education, a reminiscence of Oxford, a luxury of culture. Painting is a direct rendering of something seen in the world we live in and look at, we love and admire, and in that sense there is certainly no painting here."
A part of this is very true. What such a critic brutally calls the reminiscences of Oxford occupies a very large place in Mr. Burne Jones's painting, and helps it to give us that feeling that the painter is thinking, not looking, which the critic in question finds so irritating. But it is equally certain that such a remarkable work as the "Days of Creation," such a brilliant piece of simple rendering as the "Beguiling of Merlin," could not have been produced without a vast deal of "looking" on the painter's part. It is just the difference between Mr. Burne Jones and a weakly master, that while the brilliantly suggestive side of his work holds a perpetual revel of its own, the strictly plastic side never really lapses. It never rises beyond a certain point; his figures, for instance, to my eye, always seem flat and destitute of sides and backs. If it rose beyond this point, the painter would, with his great suggestiveness, be one of the very greatest of artists. His amateurishness of drawing, his lack of being pledged to a single personal type, diminish considerably the weight of his impressiveness; but they have a chance for much that is exquisitely beautiful in execution, and, in particular, for the display of an admirable art of color.
Mr. Burne Jones's most important contribution, the "Days of Creation," is a series of six small pictures in a single frame. The fulness of their mystical meaning I do not profess to have fathomed, but I have greatly enjoyed their beauty. They consist of different combinations of seven female figures, each of whom (save one) bears in her two hands a wonderful image of the globe we inhabit, and represents one of the stages of the process of creation: the light and darkness, the sun and moon, the heavens, the earth, the birds of the air, the human race. Each is accompanied by the mystic nymphs who have figured before, and who are crowded behind her into the narrow canvas, after a fashion which displays the artist's extreme ingenuity and grace of composition. The great burnished ball, its sides embossed with planets and birds, is in each case a beautiful piece of painting, and the folded wings of the angels, overlapping and nestling against each other as they press together, are rendered with even greater skill. Out of this feathery wall rise the angels' faces—faces upon which the artist's critics will find it easy to concentrate their dissatisfaction. We have seen them more or less before in that square-jawed, large-mouthed female visage which the English pre-Raphaelite school five-and-twenty years ago imported from early Florence to serve its peculiar purposes. It has undergone various modifications since then, and in Mr. Burne Jones's productions we see its supreme presentment. Here, it must be admitted, it looks very weary of its adventures—looks as if it needed rest and refreshment. But it still serves admirably well what I have called the peculiar purpose of its sponsors; it still expresses that vague, morbid pathos, that appealing desire for an indefinite object, which seems among these artists an essential part of the conception of human loveliness.
In the "Days of Creation " this morbid pathos, this tearful longing, are expressed with wonderful grace. You may, of course, quarrel with Mr. Burne Jones for desiring to express it, and especially for expressing it so much. He expresses in fact little else, and all his young women conform to this languishing type with a strictness which savors of monotony. I call them young women, but even this is talking a grosser prose than is proper in speaking of creatures so mysteriously poetic. Perhaps they are young men; they look indeed like beautiful, rather sickly boys. Or rather, they are sublimely sexless, and ready to assume whatever charm of manhood or maidenhood the imagination desires. The manhood, indeed, the protesting critic denies; that these pictures are the reverse of manly is his principal complaint. The people, he declares, look debauched and debilitated; they suggest a flaccid softness and weakness. Soft they are, to my sense, and weak and weary; but they have at the same time an enchanting purity, and the perfection with which the painter has mastered the type that seems to say so much to his imagination is something rare in a day of vulgar and superficial study. In the palace of art there are many chambers, and that of which Mr. Burne Jones holds the key is a wondrous museum. His imagination, his fertility of invention, his exquisiteness of work, his remarkable gifts as a colorist, cruelly discredited as they are by the savage red wall at the Grosvenor—all these things constitute a brilliant distinction.
The Royal Academy is, I believe, this year pronounced a rather poor academy; but such, I also believe, is the regular verdict. Every annual exhibition, as its day comes round, is thought to be rather worse than usual. I am not in a position to compare the Academy with itself, having seen hitherto but a single specimen of it. The most I can do is to compare it with the Paris Salon. This, indeed, I found myself doing spontaneously, as I walked through the brilliant chambers of Burlington House. I call them brilliant advisedly, for the first impression that one receives is that of extraordinary brightness of color. The walls of the Salon, by contrast, seem neutral and dusky. What shall I say that the next impression is? It is too composite and peculiar to be easily expressed, but I may say that, as I roamed about and eyed the pictures on the "line," it defined itself, on my own part, by a good deal of inoffensive smiling. My smiles were by no means contemptuous; they denoted entertainment and appreciation; yet the sense of something anomalous and inconsequent had a good deal to do with them.
I had had my private prevision of what the Academy would be. I had indeed not spent four or five consecutive months in England without venturing to elaborate a small theory of what, given the circumstances, it must be; and now I laughed to myself to find that I was so ridiculously right! The only way in which it differed from my anticipatory image was in being so much more so. That the people he lives among are not artistic, is, for the contemplative stranger, one of the foremost lessons of English life; and the exhibition of the Academy sets the official seal upon this admonition. What a strange picture-world it seems; what an extraordinary medley of inharmonious forces! The pictures, with very few exceptions, are "subjects"; they belong to what the French call the anecdotical class. You immediately perceive, moreover, that they are subjects addressed to a taste of a particularly unimaginative and unæsthetic order—to the taste of the British merchant and paterfamilias and his excellently regulated family. What this taste appears to demand of a picture is that it shall have a taking title, like a three-volume novel or an article in a magazine; that it shall embody in its lower flights some comfortable incident of the daily life of our period, suggestive more especially of its gentilities and proprieties and familiar moralities, and in its loftier scope some picturesque episode of history or fiction which may be substantiated by a long explanatory extract in the catalogue.
The Royal Academy of the present moment unquestionably represents a great deal of cleverness and ability; but in the way in which everything is painted down to the level of a vulgar trivial Philistinism there is something signally depressing. And this painting down, as I call it, seems to go on without a struggle, without a protest on the part of the domesticated Muse, with a strange, smug complacency on the part of the artists. They try of course to gather a little prettiness as they go, and some of them succeed in a measure which may be appreciated; but for the most part I confess they seem to revel in their bondage and to accept as the standard of perfection one's fitness for being reproduced in the "Graphic." Here and there is a partial exception; one complete and brilliant exception, indeed, the Academy of the present year contains. Mr. Frederick Leighton has always "gone in," as the phrase is, for beauty and style, and this year he has defined his ideal even more sharply than usual by sinking it in sculpture. His "Young man Struggling with a Python" is quite the eminent work of the exhibition. It is not only a wonderfully clever piece of sculpture for a painter, but it is a noble and beautiful work. It has that quality of appealing to our interest on behalf of form and aspect, of the plastic idea pure and simple, which is characteristic of the only art worthy of the name—the only art that does not promptly weary us by the pettiness of its sentimental precautions and the shallowness of its intellectual vision. Whenever I have been to the Academy I have found a certain relief in looking for a while at this representation of the naked human body, the whole story of which begins and ends with the beautiful play of its muscles and limbs. It is worth noting, by the way, that this is to the best of my recollection the only study of the beautiful nude on the walls of the Academy. In the Salon last year, I remember, every fifth picture was a study of the nude; but I must add that that nude was not always beautiful.
It must be allowed that quite the most full-blown specimens of that anti-pictorial Philistinism of which I just now spoke are from the hands of the older Academicians. (I am speaking only of pictures on the "line"; above it and below it one may find things a little better and a good deal worse.) Some of these gentlemen are truly amazing representatives of the British art of thirty and forty years ago, and there is something cruel in their privilege of Academicians, admitting them into the garish light of conspicuity. There is a portrait by Sir Francis Grant, President of the Academy, of a young lady on horseback, on a manorial greensward, which surely ought to be muffled in some kind of honorable curtain. The productions of Mr. Horseley, Mr. Cope, Mr. Ward, Mr. Rodgrave, Mr. O'Neil, are an almost touching exhibition of helplessness, vulgarity, violent imbecility of color. Of the younger painters it may very often be said that they have the merits of their defects. M. Taine, in his "Notes on England," pointed out these merits with his usual vigor. "It is impossible to be more expressive, to expend more effort to address the mind through the senses, to illustrate an idea or a truth, to collect into a surface of twelve square inches a closer group of psychological observations. What patient and penetrating critics! What connoisseurs of men!" This is very true; if there is something irritating in the importunately narrative quality of the usual English picture, the presumption is generally that the story is very well told. It is told with a kind of decent good faith and naïveté which are wanting in other schools, when other schools attempt this line. I am far from thinking that this compensatory fact is the highest attribute of English art. It has no relation to the work of Gainsborough and Reynolds, Constable, Flaxman, and Turner. But in some of the things in the present Academy it is very happily illustrated.
I found it illustrated, indeed, in the spectators quite as much as in the pictures. Standing near the latter with other observers, I was struck with the fact that when these were in groups or couples, they either, by way of comment, said nothing at all or said something simply about the subject of the picture—projected themselves into the story. I remember a remark made as I stood looking at a very prettily painted scene by Mr. Marcus Stone, representing a young lady in a pink satin dress, solemnly burning up a letter, while an old woman sits weeping in the background. Two ladies stood near me, entranced; for a long time they were silent. At last—"Her mother was a widow!" one of them gently breathed. Then they looked a little while longer and departed. The most appreciable thing to them was the old woman's wearing a widow's cap; and the speaker's putting her verb in the past tense struck me as a proof of their accepting the picture above all things as history. To this sort of appreciation the most successful picture of the year, Mr. Long's "Egyptian Feast," appeals in a forcible and brilliant manner. A company of the subjects of the Pharaohs are collected at a banquet, in the midst of which enter certain slaves, who perform the orthodox ceremony of dragging round the hall, over the polished tessellated floor, as memento mori, the lugubrious simulacrum of a mummy. It is literally the skeleton of the feast, and the purpose of the picture is the portrayal of the various attitudes and facial expressions produced in the assistants by this reminder of mortality. These are represented in each case according to the type of the figure, always with much ingenuity and felicity. From the painter's own point of view the picture is extremely successful; but the painting is of a light order.
Of what order is the painting, by Mr. Millais, of an immense ulster overcoat, flanked by a realistic leather valise and roll of umbrellas, and confronted by a provisional young lady with clasped hands and a long chin, the whole being christened "Yes"? A lithograph on a music sheet, mercilessly magnified—such is the most accurate description of this astounding performance. Mr. Millais has a very much better piece of work on exhibition at one of the private galleries, an "Effie Deans," in which M. Taine's "expressiveness" is forcibly exemplified. But I prefer his large landscape at the Academy, "The Sound of Many Waters," possibly because, after all this emulation of the tableau vivant, it has the merit of having no expressiveness at all. The best picture in the Academy is one of a series of four by M. Alma-Tadéma, that Anglicised Hollander and extremely skilful painter whose contributions "to Burlington House" have for some years past attracted so much attention. These things are called the "Seasons"; they are all admirably clever, but the scene representing "Summer" is in its way a marvel. M, Alma-Tadéma's people are always ancient Romans, and in this case he has depicted a Roman bath in a private house. The bath is of yellow brass, sunk into a floor of yellow brass, and in the water, up to her shoulders, sits an ugly woman with a large nose, crowned with roses, scattering rose-leaves over the water, and fanning herself with a large, limp, yellow ostrich plume. On a narrow bench, against a mosaic wall, sits another ugly woman, asleep, in a yellow robe. The whole thing is ugly, and there is a disagreeable want of purity of drawing, sweetness of outline. But the rendering of the yellow stuffs and the yellow brass is masterly, and in the artist's manipulation there is a sort of ability which seems the last word of consummate modern painting.