|Antiques Digest||Browse Auctions||Appraisal||Home|
( Originally Published 1913 )
Although England was in advance of various nations in developing good government, extending her commerce and industrial interests, while her literature was worthy of comparison with that of the most progressive nations, she was backward in creating a native art. Foreign artists were received at the English court and were encouraged to remain as painters of royalty. Henry VIII. attached the German portrait painter Holbein to his court; Van Dyck, the celebrated Flemish artist, immortalized the family of Charles I. After his time, however, several inferior painters came thither from the continent and their results were so indifferent that English painters ventured. to come forward.
Hogarth was the first English artist of consequence. He broke entirely away from the tradition that one who would be successful must adhere to the general style of Van Dyck. Born in 1697 and dying in 1764, his active period fell in the reigns of the early Georges. Eating, drinking and gambling were the chief interests of the day among the leisure classes. Hogarth painted life as he saw it, letting his canvas tell its own story. His candor and frankness caused him to be quite unpopular. When, for example, he painted " The Rake's Progress," he set forth in silent but eloquent language the inevitable end of riotous living. The young men of the land who were following just such careers were by no means gratified to have their folly delineated so clearly for all to read. Probably no other artist has ever possessed such a keen power of satire mixed with habitual good nature as Hogarth, who fearlessly pictured weaknesses of the day whether in state, church or social life.
In utter contrast to Hogarth's unpopularity stands the favor ever attending his contemporary, Joshua Reynolds, born in Devonshire in 1723. When he had attained fame, there lived a circle of such men of genius in London as have rarely come into intimate touch with one another. Johnson was drinking tea and letting fall bits of wisdom which were deemed worthy of note by his faithful Boswell; Goldsmith was writing in prose and verse; Burke was thundering out his orations and Garrick exalting the stage. All frequent visitors at Reynolds' home, it is certain that mutual inspiration must have been stimulated by such comradeship.
Reynolds' parents were both descended from English clergymen; his father was a school master. He intended that his son Joshua should become a pharmacist but the boy early showed a decided gift for drawing. He was sent to study with one Hudson who appears to have grown jealous of his pupil after the second year, whereupon Reynolds returned to Devonshire and opened his own studio. Here he painted all who came, rich and poor, humble or important. In 1749 an acquaintance invited him to take a cruise through the Mediterranean and left him in Italy where he profited much by studying the old masters. Unfortunately he contracted such a cold in the Vatican that his hearing was left permanently impaired.
Shortly after his return to England, Reynolds opened his studio in London where the remainder of his life was spent. Here he enjoyed greatest popularity. Several times he raised his prices for portraits yet his orders were so many as would have severely taxed one of other habits. He became able to complete a portrait in four hours. Some 2,000 paintings are today attributed to him.
It must be remembered that this was before the days of photography and whoever wished to retain the likeness of relative or friend must needs have a picture made by a portrait painter. This explains in part why so many thronged the studios.
Reynolds was courtly in manner and liked best perhaps to paint those " to the manor born." Yet he loved all children and some of his most appealing pictures are children's, forms and faces. A tale is told that one day a little street urchin whom Reynolds had called in to pose for him fell asleep while the artist was occupied with another. Quickly the painter seized his pencil and sketched the graceful attitude of the child. Presently the little fellow changed his position in his sleep, whereupon Reynolds sketched him once more, and the result was the " Babes in the Woods."
Reynolds' portrait of Mrs. Siddons is a masterly piece of work. Gainsborough made another painting of this famous actress who was holding the audiences of London breathless and of whom King George said she was " the only Queen-all the rest were counterfeits."
The Strawberry Girl, Innocence, Simplicity and the Angel Heads, are best known of Reynolds' child paintings. This artist never married and those who do not care particularly for him insist that his portraits of women and children are always idealized-that they reveal instantly that he never saw either for a moment at a disadvantage. If it is true that each is somewhat exalted in these portraits the real explanation may be that Reynolds had the faculty of making each one appear at his or her best-that his chivalrous attitude, even with little children, always drew out their most lovable traits and expressions.
In 1768 the Royal Academy was founded in England under the patronage of the king. By common consent Reynolds was invited to become its president. Some of our most valuable art literature is to be found in the lectures he delivered before the students of this school of art.
Not far from the Reynolds home lived another artist who achieved well merited praise and popularity. Indeed there are many who contend that Gainsborough produced the truest English art the country has ever seen. He was born in Suffolk in 1727 and died in London in 1788. Like many an artist he was not clever at school, spending more time in drawing sketches upon his exercises than in learning them. At fourteen he was sent to London to study art. Gainsborough's life shows a curious mixture of genius and jealousies. He held aloof from the celebrated men of his day. He was popular and his studio was thronged with titled people but he always resented the popularity of his rival, Reynolds. He early took offense at some slight misunderstanding concerning the hanging of one of his pictures at the annual exhibit at the Academy and refused thereafter to allow his pictures to he shown there. Unquestionably this was due to his jealousy of Reynolds, yet it was for him he sent when he lay dying, and Reynolds was one of the pall bearers at his funeral. Throughout the period he spent in Bath he was aided greatly in gaining a following by one Thicknesse; yet his disagreement with this same friend ultimately led to his removal from that city.
In his painting, Gainsborough defied almost every law that has ever been laid down for artists; but his pictures are perfect in form and color. He was always original, working out the dictations of his inner artistic temperament, at the same time a faithful imitator of nature. Unlike Reynolds, he painted many landscapes and was particularly successful in these pictures. His portraits are for the most part paintings of aristocratic ladies.-the " Gainsborough hat " being recognized everywhere.
Joseph Mallord William Turner was born the year the American Revolution began-1775. He died in 1851. His father was a barber and hair-dresser in a time when all gentlemen wore wigs which required elaborate dressing. His mother died in an insane asylum. This insanity of his mother was always a heavy cross to the boy who was ready to fight if her name were but mentioned. Although penurious in the extreme, the elder Turner was proud when the drawings of hii: son began to attract attention and put no obstacles in the way of his development. He who enters upon an extended study of Turner's paintings has a considerable task before him. In the first place he will enjoy them more if he casts aside the man and occupies himself with the artist. As a man Turner possessed few attractive qualities. He inherited his father's miserly instinct; in later life, although his work brought him large returns, he lived in poverty and dirt. He was jealous of any artist, dead or living, whom he imagined in any way might rival himself. When his paintings were under fire of criticism in the early part of the nineteenth century, Ruskin championed his cause and went so far as to say that one's appreciation and understanding of nature may be tested by the degree of admiration he feels for Turner's pictures. It has since been frequently noted that few might be willing to stand that test. Turner laid hold of one aspect of nature-light-and demonstrated its possibilities in every conceivable way. Golden sunshine, gorgeous sunsets; flaming clouds of fire, delicate and opalescent waves; waters flooded with burning brightness-all these and countless other effects of light are set forth in his canvases. Leaving the Turner room in the National Gallery in London is like leaving the bright sunshine for the gloom of secluded paths. Unquestionably nature occasionally provides such exhibitions of color as Turner painted, but, to find such exhibitions usual, one would have to journey to the land of the midnight sun, or to some favored island of a southern sea where atmospheric conditions produce striking and uncommon effects. The average beholder must ever regard Turner's pictures as psychological studies quite as much as studies of nature.
Turner painted a series of Venetian pictures, The Approach to Venice and the Sun o f Venice Going Down to Sea being the best known. Rivers o f France, a series of French land scapes, Dido Building Carthage, and Sun Rising Through a Vapor, are all well known. The Slave Ship hangs in the Boston Museum, and The Temeraire is generally conceded to be his finest production.
Sir Edwin Landseer, England's famous animal painter, was born in London, in 1802 and died in 1873. He came from a family of artists and when a child of seven drew remarkably well. At the age of sixteen his picture " Fighting Dogs," was publicly exhibited. From that time forward his paintings were in constant demand.
Landseer was particularly fortunate in delineating the deer and dog. He loved all animals and his paintings show a large range in the animal kingdom; probably he loved the dog best of all, and he was happy in holding the deep expression-sometimes almost human-in his pictures. Those who do not care particularly for Landseer insist that he overdid the matter of interpreting animal emotions-that his animals too closely resemble human beings. His admirers reply that only one who loved animals as warmly as Landseer could discern the play of emotion they oftimes exhibit-that they, who possess deep affection for dogs, horses and other dumb creatures, find the same expressions in them that he found and that the others are not situated to judge the matter fairly. Even his friends regretted that he limited his subjects to the general exclusion of landscapes, which he might have done excellently. His portrait work was good, particularly his portraits of children.
The great secret of Landseer's popularity lay in his ability to tell a direct story which was evident to the simplest heart. There were many in England and America who could boast of no familiarity with the great world masters. Those questions which have for centuries absorbed the student of art were unknown to them, the secrets of masterly success alike unguessed. Here was an artist who spoke to the people, even as Bobbie Burns had done; one wrote a poem about The Twa Dogs-the other painted them. Another household poet immortalized The Village Blacksmith; Landseer painted a smithy's shop and called it Shoeing. Suspense, The Sleeping Bloodhound, Dignity and Impudence-these were dog types familiar to all upon first glance. If a picture may be tested by the quick appeal it makes to the heart of the untutored beholder, then the great majority of Landseer's paintings would rank well indeed.
In 1848, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, then a young man studying art at one of the Royal Acedemy schools, wrote impetuously to Ford Madox Brown, asking to be received by him as a pupil. Rossetti was impatient at the routine through which he was obliged to pass and waited feverishly for the time when he might turn from the drudgery of drawing to the warmth of colors. There is no doubt but that at this time art had become commonplace in England and slavish adherence to so-called established principles obtained. Brown received young Rossetti, who shortly came in touch with William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais, also young art students. Out of tune with the art of the day, these enthusiasts turned back to the early art of Italy, where they found-or believed they found-a religious fervor and sincerity that strongly appealed to them. Thereupon they organized themselves into a society or brotherhood, taking the name Pre-Raphaelites. They were later joined by four others as full of dreams and ambitious strivings as they were themselves: Thomas Woolner, a sculptor; James Callinson, painter; Frederick George Stephens, a painter and later art critic, and William Michael Rossetti, Dante's brother. The members now numbering seven-the mystic number-they tried collectively and individually to get back into the atmosphere of the past, even trying to live in isolation to create the proper spirit. That they never wholly succeeded in attaining their ends need hardly be stated; it was not possible to eliminate the flight of centuries and return to the ideals of the past, had it been wise to have done so. However, this does not mean that the movement was a failure. On the contrary, the Pre-Raphaelite movement has had a tremendous effect upon the trend of thought since it was first started. The purpose of the brotherhood was explained by Michael Rossetti in this way: (1) To have genuine ideas to express; (2) To study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them; (3) To sympathize with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote; and (4) Most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.
Such aims could have but a wholesome effect. Directness, honesty, sincerity, definite purpose-these were their watchwords.
The members of this brotherhood desired particularly to set forth these ideals in their paintings and three of them entered pictures for the annual exhibit in 1848. Although the letters P. R. B. followed the names of each, no attention was given them at the time, while their paintings were given encouraging notice by those interested in the youthful artists. Before the following year the secret got out and when in 1849 the Pre Raphaelites again exhibited their work, critics were merciless in their attack. The whole art world was filled with indignation at the audacity of the young artists who thus set their ideas against the established order of things. Indeed until Ruskin in 1852 came forward to espouse their cause they received no fair treatment whatever. Ruskin was too well established to be ignored and when his discussion of the new movement rang clear and convincingly, there came a pause in the vindictives hurled against the new school and gradually many of their ideals were accepted wholly or in part.
In maturer years the various members of this erstwhile brotherhood fell away and each went according to his true bent in working out his native art. The brotherhood disap peared, like many another society or social union that has done its work. Yet the mission of the union was much greater than at first promised and today its influence is felt directing to fidelity to nature, sincerity in delineation and diligent aspiration toward highest ideals.