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Art Critics Criticised.
BY W. W. FENN.
"Of all the cant that is canted in this canting world, although the cant of hypocrisy may be the worst, the cant of criticism is the most tormenting."— STERNE.
FOR Some unaccountable reason, a very large proportion of civilized humanity, men, women, and children, of every age and degree, claims for itself the right of pronouncing ex-cathedrá opinions upon pictures; and, in order to give these opinions due force, it seems to think that they should, as a rule, be unfavourable.
Stroll round any of our exhibitions, and listen to the remarks which are made. Utter condemnation, uncompromising abuse, jocose and ribald suggestions, feeble inquiries, and imbecile tittle-tattle are to be heard on all sides; so that, if we were to judge of an exhibition of pictures from what we hear in the rooms, we must inevitably conclude that the greater part of the artists are a set of incompetent bunglers, who have utterly mistaken their vocation, and are the last people who are likely to understand the matters to which they have devoted the greatest part of their lives. This, perhaps, would be but of little consequence, were it not that many of our so-called art-critics are to be found amongst the crowd of gapers, who, if not actually taking part in this frivolous gossip, at least appear to make use of it in a large degree for those published reviews of pictures which unfortunately sway the popular judgment, to a certain extent, for the time being.
Here and there, throughout the public press, of course, competent individuals are employed to do the art critiques. Men who, though not painters and draughtsmen themselves, have yet, by study and natural bias, acquired an amount of appreciation and critical knowledge which have rendered them fully able, at least sensibly, to discuss the merits or demerits of pictures.
So long as human nature remains the imperfect machine that it is, we cannot expect that even these should at all times be free from a certain inclination towards this or that school of painting. We cannot expect that their judgment will be quite as catholic as strict justice would demand. To be a perfect critic is as impossible as to be a perfect anything else; but at least we should look in our public journals
for the same amount of education in these matters which is displayed on most other topics.
A very able writer on art, thirty years ago, thus accurately describes what is necessary for the making of a great painter:-" The world in general is far from being aware of the excessive labour, as well as exalted imagination, required to form a great painter. Ten years' incessant drawing from nature and diligent application are requisite to gain a tolerable command of the pencil; ten years more to learn the magic of colouring, and unweave the varied hues of nature's robe. The labour requisite to master these objects with consummate skill is not less than is required to form a leader in civil life or warlike achievement-to form a Peel, an Eldon, a Wellington."
With such a serious question, therefore, as art thus becomes, how is it possible that a fair criticism can be dealt out on the result of so much labour without something like a parallel amount of study on the part of the reviewer? Yet it can scarcely be asserted that, beyond some few honourable exceptions, any of our art-critics have gone through one-tenth part of the probation hereby shown to be indispensable for the formation of sound opinions. Some may ask, why is no such special application required to enable a clever man to form a just estimate of oratory, history, or poetry? We reply, because the ordinary routine of a liberal education supplies the necessary training; but art must ever remain a thing by itself, for where are we to look for the materials, by which we can instruct a lad as easily in sculpture and painting, as we can in history or poetry? How can we place in our schoolboys' hands the works of the old masters, and so form the mind, by the study of the best examples, to a due appreciation of the works of our own time? Nevertheless, a familiarity with some such examples during our training, added to study and experience, must be the foundation for anything like a perfect development of true taste.
But our journalistic criticisms on painting, emanating, in most cases, from unprepared minds, display an amount of ignorance, imbecile drivel, or flippant and ridiculous twaddle, which it is an insult to ask a public to peruse at all, much less to act upon or be guided by. An inconceivable amount of harm is consequently done, and deplorably fallacious views are sown broadcast among the many whose taste is hereby utterly perverted. If, ever, there be a ray of thought shown, it is employed with the aim of writing down to the public level, to toady the unthinking, who, of course, form the bulk of what we may call the newspaper-instructed public, rather than to endeavour to elevate its
ideas, and lift its tastes out of the slough of vulgarity in which it is revelling in all matters appertaining to art.
Now, this is not the case with regard to music, which, although a separate branch of study, is treated with becoming respect in most of our newspapers. No editor expects to get a fair notice of a concert from any but a musician-one, at least, who has a theoretical knowledge of what is good, commonplace, or bad. A gentleman who has spent his life reporting debates, or attending the Middlesex Sessions, does not suddenly find himself seated in a stall at Covent Garden for the purpose of giving a detailed account of the latest inspirations of Verdi or Gounod! When, however, the subject to be dealt with is painting, some such incongruities appear to be the sole explanation that can be offered for the disgraceful way in which it is frequently handled.
Why should this be? Why is the noble art of painting adjudged of so little importance that the reviewing of it often seems to be entrusted to gentlemen whose days are spent in totally alien occupations, or in doing odds and ends of literary work, who are thoroughly townbred, without a particle of real sympathy with the beauties of nature, with no appreciation of the grandeur and requirements of art; and whose knowledge of the subtle gradations of a sunset has been derived from observations made whilst dining at Greenwich; whose conceptions of character and expression have been accumulated from a familiarity with Rotten Row, and the hubbub of a race meeting; whose acquaintance with landscape beauty is obtained from their Sunday's visit to Richmond Hill; whose notions of clouds, sea, and cliffs, have been acquired during the month's holiday at Margate; who are about as competent to understand the drawing of a wave, the anatomy of a tree, or the delicate beauties of grass and herbage, as an Ojibbeway Indian is to comprehend mathematics; who only regard fine colour as a combination of unbroken tints; and whose ideas of the correct form of the human figure seem to be derived from the latest book of fashions.
Fully aware that they are nothing if not critical, they are also under the impression that to criticise means to find out all the faults, and ignore all the merits of the subjects under their treatment. The works of intellects so infinitely superior to their own that it is insult to speak of them in the same breath, are pitilessly condemned in three or four lines; the labour of years is passed over with a few contemptuous and condemnatory words, and genius so subtle, and skill so consummate, as to be beyond their comprehension, are held up with a ribald joke to the scorn and ridicule of the crowd. They cannot conceive
how sacred is the matter they are dealing with, and how an ignorant expression of opinion may crush the hopes and blight the prospects of hard-working and earnest-minded strugglers on the ladder of fame. Ruthless tyrants! who scruple at nothing. They have, let us hope, no idea of the depth of the wounds they inflict upon natures which, from their very occupation, must be sensitive and highly wrought.
Even, if sometimes praise be justly heaped up upon those who could very well afford to do without it, is there any necessity for these mighty oracles, the critics, to take pains to show that there are other artists who have been guilty of actual crime in endeavouring to perpetuate some lovely landscape, or a pretty face? Surely a want of success in inducing the public to admire what they have deeply reverenced, and striven their utmost to imitate, is punishment enough, without being pilloried and gibbeted as heinous offenders by these be-wigged and pompous judges-" these bookful blockheads, ignorantly read."
Is there any necessity for their revelling in the ceremony of passing sentence? Need they be so very fond of putting on the black cap, as though they thought it fitted them better than the cap and bells— their own peculiar and appropriate head-dress, and, as if they believed it gave a look of intelligence to their purblind eyes? Why should they never appear easy unless frowning on the prisoner at the bar, as with unctuous utterance they tell him that his picture shall be taken to the place whence it came, and thence to the place of execution, and there in his presence be hung in his own room, with its face to the wall. When, on the other hand, the facetious line of criticism is taken up by the reviewer, it scarcely becomes less offensive; but it is a little more harmless, inasmuch, as in most cases the jokes being very bad, the public, by inference, concludes that the opinions intended to be conveyed in them are not very sound. Of course it is the province of "Punch" to be humorous on all subjects; and when, some years ago, in noticing a charming picture by the late Mr. Stanfield, entitled, "Dutch dogger carrying away her sprit," he said, with consummate wit, and clever satire on nautical expressions, that the only fault to be found with it was, that instead of carrying away her sprit, she was leaving it behind her, we could not fail to be tickled with his fun.
Or again, when, at about the same time, Mr. Millais, then a lad, exhibited a picture, entitled "Pizarro seizing the Inca of Peru,” our jocose friend called it "Seizing the inkstand of Peru," and made allusion to the naturally black looks of the unfortunate Peruvian, why, we could but laugh and go with him all the way.
But when we find bad imitations of such witticisms, creeping into what ought to be fair and earnest judgments, one cannot feel amused, but simply disgusted.
What shall be said of newspaper articles filled with remarks after this fashion? A work under notice is called "Gathering sheep upon the banks of Lochleven," and all the sapient critic says is this: "Who washed the sheep, and the dog, and the boy, and his coat, and the cliffs-in fact, everything except the face of the moon, which would be all the better for washing." Speaking of a sunset effect, he says, "More last gleams, hope they will not last too long," and, on a subject entitled, "After much rain "—" after very much rain, we should think; indeed, the muchness of rain it would take to produce such very Berlin-woolly water is incalculable; it is a matter of conjecture, also, whether the water is really coming down, or going up; any way, its edges are nicely pared."
What an exquisite humourist is this fellow! But when he endeavours to be serious, unfortunately he fails to be intelligible. What does this mean ?—“ dull, but real, because shaded," as the only remark applied to "Harvesting near Shere, Surrey." We had imagined that harvesting was conducted at a bright season of the year, and were not aware that a representation of it would find its sole claim to reality in being shaded! The dulness, however, very likely is our own, for when we find, in another picture, that the "chief effect of the rain seems to have been to remove the dirt, which was quite unnecessary, the artist would never have noticed it," we confess ourselves utterly puzzled. But the climax of incapacity and ignorance was reached the other day by the "Daily Telegraph," when it accused Mr. Carl Haag of an inordinate use of body colour. Now, it is well known to all artists, and indeed to every educated eye, that there is no water-colourist who so carefully avoids having recourse to such a material as this eminent painter. It is very doubtful if he has a bottle of Chinese white in his possession even; his work is purity itself: yet we are told that "he plunges freely into the troubled sea of body colour;" that "he sacrifices transparency for the sake of instantaneous and coarsely meretricious effect;" that there is " ever present the same Teutonic contempt for pure water colour, and the desire to obtain immediate ocular reward by the free use of body colour;" and that "his finished pictures are even more heavily laden with impaste than his roughest draughts"! Comment here would be thrown away. We can only pity the writer, the editor, and the public, for it