The Art Of Wilkie
EDWARD PINNINGTON SIR DAVID WILKIE,
TO a true appreciation of Wilkie as an artist, the first essential is that art and its objects should be looked at as nearly as may be from his point of view, and be seen through his eyes if that were possible. He can afterwards be tried by any abstract standard the critic chooses. Only by his motive can his accomplishment be measured; the question of worthiness or worthlessness, nobility or ignobility, opulence or poverty, rightness or wrongness, follows the unveiling of the idea and the analysis of its expression.
It must, furthermore, be remembered that art is an evolution, and that criticism follows and cannot lead art. Turner was not Claude, Corot was not Hobbema, Whistler is not Titian, and Orchardson is not Wilkie. The older order is always changing, and the channels are many through which the message of art reaches humanity.
It is, moreover, possible to form a relative as well as an absolute estimate of art, and to adjudge him a representative painter who best illustrates the particular phase of art distinctive of his own time. For it may, in the first place, be said broadly that there is no form of past art that may not be found in present practice. It were, accordingly, folly to break down the intermediate steps between the imitative dexterity of realism, the conventional and arbitrary phrasing of idealism, and the intellectuality of personal impressionism. . . .
Wilkie was a realist and something more. What he says in his `Remarks' is reflected in his practice: "If true art were but an exact representation of nature, it would be practised with absolute certainty and assurance of success; but the duty of art is of a higher kind. . . . Art is only art when it adds mind to form."
Turner's great picture in the National Gallery entitled ' Peace: Burial at Sea,' impressively commemorates the event.
This must be remembered when it is said that his first aim was truth to reality. When he painted the blue jacket and the striped petticoat, the Jew's harp and the plucked fowl, the fiddle and the pulpit, from the things themselves, he did not do so for their own sakes. He introduced them neither as points of form nor as notes of color. He regarded them solely as essentials to the completeness of his conception. He went to Palestine in search of facts, but the facts were wanted to illustrate the Scriptures and to confirm their accuracy.
Radiating from this center, his other opinions are easily traced. He held matter above manner, expression and sentiment above dexterity of brush-work. Color he placed in the forefront of pictorial quality, but the intellectual side of art was ever to him more than the technical. So much may be gathered from the record of his foreign tours, . . .
In his own time Wilkie was both derided and held in high esteem. We have read of his style being dubbed the pan-and-spoon and pauper style, and even Edward Fitzgerald said, "There was always something vulgar about Wilkie." Mackay's protest needs no emphasis, that if he drew his subjects from common life, in his style there is nothing vulgar. Writing in 1887, Professor Hodgson, R. A., says, "There is no trace left of Dutch influence, of Metsu, Ostade, or Ter Borch; the type of art set by Wilkie, Webster, and Mulready has gone the way of the great auk and the dodo." It has gone, we are told, "to give way to a more restless feeling, to greater earnestness in pursuit of truth." The old question recurs, What is truth ? Surely Wilkie sought it, or what he mistook for it, with earnestness. It is on record that Sir George Beaumont used to tell of watching Wilkie while painting, when so intense was his labor that he scarcely seemed to breathe. He was intent upon the pursuit of truth. . . .
C. R. Leslie, R. A., comments upon the beauty of one picture, the grandeur of another, upon the excellence of Wilkie's composition, the truth of his effects, the taste of his execution, and compresses his final judgment into a single word—"the country, by the death of Wilkie, lost a great artist."
Further opinion, chiefly lay, has a biographical interest, but holds little of either light or leading. Ruskin says, "Wilkie becomes popular, like Scott, be-cause he touches passions which all feel, and expresses truths that all can recognize." Scott values Wilkie, "the far more than Teniers of Scotland," be-cause he had something to say to the mind of a man like himself. This ac-cords with Mollett—"Wilkie is the plain man's friend;" and with Allan Cunningham—"He spoke to all degrees of knowledge and to all varieties of taste." Bulwer esteems him "the Goldsmith of painters, in the amiable and pathetic humor, in the combination of smiles and tears, of the familiar and the beautiful." To Mrs. Charles Heaton he is, after Hogarth, "the greatest, painter of familiar life of the English school "—his pictures need no explanation. Wedmore, on the other hand, finds little more in Wilkie than a desire to amuse; there is no message, no dignity, in his early art; and he winds up a marvel of criticism by saying that, through Turner's great picture, Wilkie's death is more remembered than his life.
William Bewick, artist, was surprised that in painting Scott, Wilkie should have followed the Goldsmith of Reynolds: "I expected that such a man as Wilkie would have struck out something of his own—an original impression of the individual character." Dr. Waagen pronounces Wilkie "the greatest subject-painter, not only in England, but of our time," and his pictures "the most spirited, animated, and faithful representations of the peculiarities and modes of life of the English." Tirebuck concludes his sketch of the painter with these memorable words: "Some painters have taught us to admire nature; some have increased our affection for animals; Wilkie has deepened our love of mankind." . . . Sir Walter Armstrong decides that, if Wilkie had held by his Dutch masters, "he would have stood on a far higher pedestal than he does now." With their works as a standard, and the Scots peasantry for subjects, "he would have been a pictorial Burns."
From `The Village Politicians' onward to 181 i, Wilkie was under the influence of Teniers. As the type of the Teniers period Burnet takes `The Blind Fiddler.' Ostade followed, and held Wilkie in thrall down to about 1822. This period includes `Blindman's Buff,' `Duncan Gray,' `Distraining for Rent,' and `The Chelsea Pensioners.' Rembrandt came in with `The Parish Beadle,' and, according to Dr. Waagen, `Columbus' was painted under the joint influence of Murillo and Velasquez. From all this it would appear that Wilkie never expressed himself. He painted chiefly in Dutch and Spanish. There never, alas! was a Wilkie period. Upon this point the sanest dictum appears to be that of Brydall: "Wilkie repeatedly changed his style. .. . without imitating any one. He experimented on his own powers with the intention of developing new methods, and was cautious in allowing himself to believe that he had at any time attained the greatest excellence of which he was capable."
Taking them. all in all, Wilkie's soundest critics will in all likelihood be found in the Redgraves and Théophile Silvestre. The former remind us that, after Spain, he not only ignored all executive finish, but considered it as tending to bad art. They allow that, in his later works, there is great beauty in the rich tone and the mellifluent melting of the color into it. But "in choosing historical rather than merely dramatic subjects, Wilkie shut himself out from his strongest quality—character." They also think the change led him out of his depths and beyond his powers. In his portraits they find the heads wanting in drawing and in high character. His weakness consists in the inability to seize the mental characteristics of a sitter, and to give the best expression. His middle methods, too, had a bad influence, tending to bring discredit upon English pictures, as entirely wanting in permanency. They, and the pigments he used, were accordingly soon discarded. "His early art certainly made a great impression on the English school; showing how Dutch art might be nationalized, and story and sentiment added to scenes of common life treated with truth and individuality." Silvestre places Wilkie beside Hogarth, but he makes the contrast between them instructive and suggestive. . . .
Wilkie recorded and transcribed, naturalized and described, but he also translated nature and human life. He did not forget, firstly, to infuse living thought and emotion into the dead matter of nature, and, secondly, that the matter thus enlivened must be clad in the manner approved of art.
He presents no deep problem, provided we take him as he offers himself to be taken. Although criticism now demands subjectivity in the highest art, the art that, like Wilkie's, is largely objective, but so far subjective as to reveal the individuality of the artist, will never pass away. Art may be said alternatively to be moving from not only the form, but the more obvious and direct impression of nature, to the statement of the personal impression of the painter.
In the latter case everything depends upon the imaginative power and esthetic constitution of the artist. Subject cannot carry him above his own perception of the beautiful. It is possible to make a picture out of a combination of color that shall be intellectually and emotionally vacuous, and yet full of stereoscopic charm. It is also possible to lend color, even at a sacrifice of part of its beauty, to the phrasing of an appeal to either the emotions or the intellect, or both.. The art that makes the triple appeal must needs be greater than that which is concentrated upon a single aim. The picture that pleases and satisfies the eye, and at the same time touches the heart and quickens the understanding, must needs be greater than one that fascinates the eye but goes no further.
And such was the aim and measurable accomplishment of Wilkie. He did not paint pictures which are mere canvas and paint set in a gilt frame. He carried technique to as high a point of excellence as he could attain, and in the language of form and color addressed himself to the heart and mind of man. So long as human nature is constituted as it is, so long as the heart has passions and humanity remains the one great subject of all-absorbing interest to man, so long will there be a place in art for such works as those of Sir David Wilkie.
( Originally Published 1906 )
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