TO THINK, OR BE THOUGHT FOR?
SOME weeks since, there appeared in the Times newspaper two letters referring to the recent purchase for the National Gallery of a picture by the old Venetian painter Bellini. The letters were signed by gentlemen well known as connoisseurs and critics in the world of Art; the name of the one being Mr. William Coningham, and the name of the other Doctor Waagen. Mr. Coningham wrote to inform the public, as the result of his critical knowledge of painting, that the Bellini had been "daubed over,"—that it was, "for educational purposes, utterly worthless,"—and that the nation had been cruelly imposed on in buying it. Doctor Waagen wrote (not with overstrained politeness) to inform the public, as the result of his critical knowledge of painting, that the picture was "decidedly genuine,"—that it "surpassed every example of the subject that be had hitherto seen by the master,"—and that the nation was unspeakably fortunate in having secured such a treasure. Mr. Coningham rejoined by recommending all persons interested in the discussion to go and judge for themselves which was in the right, Dr. Waagen or himself. And there, so far as the writer of these lines knows, the matter ended.
It may, perhaps, tend to reassure all readers not deeply interested in discussing the last debateable purchase for the National Gallery, if I state, at the outset, that I have no intention of entering into the controversy described above. I have only alluded to it because I think it affords a practical example of what a singularly conventional thing the question of the value or worthlessness of a picture by an old master has become in our day. Here are two critics on art, notorious, on many past occasions, for discoursing learnedly and authoritatively on painting, both writing of the same picture, and both arriving at diametrically opposite conclusions respecting it. Surely, if nothing else will awaken the public mind from its indolent and hopeless dependence on arbitrary rules and critical opinions in matters of Art, the plain inference to which this remarkable controversy leads ought to supply the necessary stimulant. Surely the bewildered visitor to the National Gallery, standing opposite the Bellini, with Doctor Waagen on his right hand begging him to admire it, and Mr. Coningham on his left entreating him to despise it, must end, in mere self-defence, in shaking both the critical gentlemen off, and judging for himself, not of the Bellini only, but of every other picture in the collection as well. If anything I can say here will help, in the smallest degree, towards encouraging intelligent people of any rank to turn a deaf ear to everything that critics, connoisseurs, lecturers, and compilers of guide-books can say to them; to trust entirely to their own common sense when they are looking at pictures; and to express their opinions boldly, without the slightest reference to any precedents whatever, I shall have exactly achieved the object with which I now apply myself to the writing of this paper.
Setting aside, then, all further reference to particular squabbles about particular pictures, let me now ask, in regard to pictures in general, what it is that prevents the public from judging for themselves, and why the influence of Art in England is still limited to select circles,—still unfelt, as the phrase is, by all but the cultivated classes? Why do people want to look at their guide-books before they can make up their minds about an old picture? Why do they ask connoisseurs and professional friends for a marked catalogue before they venture inside the walls of the exhibition-rooms in Trafalgar Square? Why, when they are, for the most part, always ready to tell each other unreservedly what books they like, or what musical compositions are favourites with them, do they hesitate the moment pictures turn up as a topic of conversation, and intrench themselves doubtfully behind such cautious phrases as, "I don't pretend to understand the subject,"—"I believe such and such a picture is much admired,"—"I am no judge," and so on?
No judge! Does a really good picture want you to be a judge? Does it want you to have anything but eyes in your head, and the undisturbed possession of your senses? Is there any other branch of intellectual art which has such a direct appeal, by the very nature of it, to every sane human being as the art of painting? There it is, able to represent through a medium which offers itself to you palpably and immediately, in the shape of so many visible feet of canvas, actual human facts, and distinct aspects of Nature, which poetry can only describe, and which music can but obscurely hint at. The art which can do this, and which has done it over and over again both in past and present times, is surely of all arts that one which least requires a course of critical training before it can be approached on familiar terms. Whenever I see an intelligent man, which I often do, standing before a really eloquent and true picture, and asking his marked catalogue, or his newspaper, or his guide-book, whether he may safely admire it or not, I think of a man standing winking both eyes in the full glare of a cloudless August noon, and inquiring deferentially of an astronomical friend whether he is really justified in saying that the sun shines!
But we have not yet fairly got at the main obstacle which hinders the public from judging of pictures for themselves, and which, by a natural consequence, limits the influence of art on the nation generally. For my own part, I have long thought, and shall always continue to believe, that this same obstacle is nothing more nor less than the Cant of Criticism, which has got obstructively between Art and the people.—which has kept them asunder, and will keep them asunder, until it is fairly pulled out of the way, and set aside at once and forever in its proper background place.
This is a bold thing to say; but I think I can advance some proofs that my assertion is not altogether so wild as it may appear at first sight. By the Cant of Criticism I desire to express, in one word, the conventional laws and formulas, the authoritative rules and regulations which individual men set up to guide the tastes and influence the opinions of their fellow-creatures. When Criticism does not speak in too arbitrary a language, and when the laws it makes are ratified by the consent and approbation of the intelligent public in general, I have as much respect for it as any one. But when Criticism sits altogether apart, speaks opinions that find no answering echo in the general heart, and measures the greatness of intellectual work by anything rather than by its power of appealing to all capacities for admiration and enjoyment, from the very highest to the very humblest,—then, as it seems to me, Criticism becomes Cant and forfeits all claim to consideration and respect. It then becomes the kind of criticism which I call Obstructive, and which has , I think, set itself up fatally between the Art of Painting and the honest and general appreciation of that Art by the People.
Let me try to make this still clearer by an example. A great deal of obstructive criticism undoubtedly continues to hang as closely as it can about Poetry and Music. But there are, nevertheless, stateable instances, in relation to these two Arts, of the voice of the critic and the voice of the people being on the same side. The tragedy of "Hamlet, "for example, is critically considered to be the masterpiece of dramatic poetry; and the tragedy of "Hamlet" is also, according to the testimony of every sort of manager, the play, of all others, which can be invariably depended on to fill a theatre with the greatest certainty, act it when and how you will. Again, in music, the "Don Giovanni" of Mozart, which is the admiration even of the direst pedant producible from the ranks of musical connoisseurs, is also the irresistible popular attraction which is always sure to fill the pit and gallery at the opera. Here, at any rate, are two instances in which two great achievements of the past in poetry and music are alike viewed with admiration by the man who appreciates by instinct and the man who appreciates by reason and rule.
If we apply the same test to the achievements of the past in Painting, where shall we find a similar instance of genuine concurrence between the few who are appointed to teach, and the many who are expected to learn? I put myself in the position of a man of fair capacity and average education, who labours under the fatal delusion that he will be helped to a sincere appreciation of the works of the Old Masters by asking critics and connoisseurs to form his opinions for him. I am sent to Italy as a matter of course. A general chorus of learned authorities tells me that Michael Angelo and Raphael are the two greatest painters that ever lived; and that the two recognized masterpieces of the highest High Art are the "Last Judgment," in the Sistine Chapel, and the "Transfiguration," in the Vatican. It is not only Lanzi and Vasari, and hosts of later sages running smoothly after those two along the same critical grooves, who give me this information. Even the greatest of English portrait-painters, the true and tender-hearted gentleman, Sir Joshua Reynolds, sings steadily with the critical chorus, note for note. When experience has made me wiser, I am able to detect clearly enough, in the main principles which Reynolds has adopted in his Lectures on Art, the reason of his notorious want of success whenever he tried to rise above portraits to the regions of historical painting. But at the period of my innocence, I am simply puzzled and amazed, when I come to such a passage as the following in Sir Joshua's famous Fifth Lecture, where he sums up the comparative merits of Michael Angelo and Raphael:
If we put these great artists in a line of comparison with each other, (lectures Sir Joshua), Raphael had more taste and fancy, Michael Angelo more genius and imagination. The one excelled in beauty, the other in energy. Michael Angelo had more of the poetical inspiration; his ideas are vast and sublime; his people are a superior order of beings; there is nothing about them, nothing in the air of their actions or their attitudes, or the style and cast of their limbs or features, that reminds us of their belonging to our own species.
Here I get plainly enough at what Sir Joshua considers to be the crowning excellence of high art. It is one great proof of the poetry and sublimity of Michael Angelo's pictures that the people represented in them never remind us of our own species; which seems equivalent to saying that the representation of a man made in the image of Michael Angelo is a grander sight than the representation of a man made in the image of God. I am a little staggered by these principles of criticism; but as all the learned authorities that I can get at seem to have adopted them, I do my best to follow the example of my teachers, and set off reverently for Rome to see the two works of art which my critical masters tell me are the sublimest pictures that the world has yet beheld.
I go first to the Sistine Chapel; and, on a great blue-coloured wall at one end of it, I see painted a confusion of naked, knotty-bodied figures, sprawling up or tumbling down below a single figure, posted aloft in the middle, and apparently threatening the rest with his hand. If I ask Lanzi, or Vasari, or Sir Joshua Reynolds, or the gentleman who has compiled Murray's Hand-Book for Central Italy, or any other competent authorities, what this grotesquely startling piece of painter's work can possibly be, I am answered that it is actually intended to represent the unimaginably awful spectacle of the Last Judgment! And I am further informed that, estimated by the critical tests applied to it by these competent authorities, the picture is pronounced to be a masterpiece of grandeur and sublimity. I can see neither the one nor the other in it—but then the criterion of grandeur and sublimity in Art, adopted by the competent authorities, is altogether beyond my comprehension. As a last resource, I resolve to look a little closer at this celebrated work, and to try if I can get at any fair estimate of it by employing such plain, straightforward, uncritical tests as will do for me and for everybody.
Here is a fresco which aspires to represent the most impressive of all Christian subjects; it is painted on the wall of a Christian church, by a man belonging to a Christian community—what evidences of religious feeling has it to show me? I look at the lower part of the composition first, and see—a combination of the orthodox nursery notion of the devil, with the heathen idea of the conveyance to the infernal regions, in the shape of a horned and tailed ferryman giving condemned souls a cast across a river!
Let me try and discover next what evidences of extraordinary intellectual ability the picture presents. I look up toward the top now, by way of a change, and I find Michael Angelo's conception of the entrance of a martyr into the kingdom of Heaven, displayed before me in the shape of a flayed man, presenting his own skin, as a sort of credential, to the hideous figure with the threatening hand—which I will not, even in writing, identify with the name of Our Saviour. Elsewhere, I see nothing but unnatural distortion and hopeless confusion; fighting figures, tearing figures, tumbling figures, kicking figures; and, to crown all, a caricatured portrait, with a pair of ass's ears, of a certain Messer Biagio of Sienna, who had the sense and courage, when the "Last Judgment" was first shown on completion, to protest against every figure in it being painted stark naked!
I see such things as these, and many more equally preposterous, which it is not worth while to mention. All other people with eyes in their heads see them too. They are actual matters of fact, not debatable matters of taste. But I am not—on that account—justified, nor is any other uncritical person justified, in saying a word against the picture. It may palpably outrage all the religious proprieties of the subject; but, then, it is full of "fine foreshortening," and therefore we uncritical people must hold our tongues. It may violate just as plainly all the intellectual proprieties, counting from the flayed man with his skin in his hand, at the top, to Messer Biagio, of Sienna, with his ass's ears, at the bottom; but, then, it exhibits "masterly anatomical detail," and therefore we uncritical spectators must hold our tongues. It may strike us forcibly that, if people are to be painted at all, as in this picture, rising out of their graves in their own bodies as they lived, it is surely important (to say nothing of giving them the benefit of the shrouds in which they were buried) to represent them as having the usual general proportions of human beings. But Sir Joshua Reynolds interposes critically, and tells us the figures on the wall and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are sublime, because they don't remind us of our own species. Why should they not remind us of our own species? Because they are prophets, sibyls, and such like, cries the chorus of critics indignantly. And what then? If I had been on intimate terms with Jeremiah, or if I had been the ancient king to whom the sibyl brought the mysterious books, would not my friend in the one case, and the messenger in the other, have appeared before me bearing the ordinary proportions and exhibiting the usual appearance of my own species? Does not Sacred History inform me that the prophet was a Man, and does not Profane History describe the sibyl as an Old Woman? Is old age never venerable and striking in real life?—But I am uttering heresies. I am mutinously summoning reason and common sense to help me in estimating an Old Master. This will never do: I had better follow the example of all the travellers I see about me, by turning away in despair, and leaving the "Last Judgment" to the critics and connoisseurs.
Having thus discovered that one masterpiece of high art does not address itself to me, and to the large majority whom I represent, let me go next to the Vatican, and see how the second masterpiece (the Transfiguration, by Raphael,) can vindicate its magnificent reputation among critics and connoisseurs. This picture I approach under the advantage of knowing, beforehand, that I must make certain allowances for minor defects in it, which are recognized even by the learned authorities themselves. I am indeed prepared to be disappointed, at the outset, because I have been prepared to make allowances:
First, for defects of colour, which spoil the general effect of the picture on the spectator; all the lights being lividly tinged with green, and all the shadows being grimly hardened with black.. This mischief is said to have been worked by the tricks of French cleaners and restorers, who have so fatally tampered with the whole surface that Raphael's original colouring must be given up as lost. Rather a considerable loss, this, to begin with; but not Raphael's fault. Therefore, let it by no means depreciate the picture in my estimation.
Secondly, I have to make allowances for the introduction of two Roman Catholic saints (St. Julian and St. Lawrence), represented by the painter as being actually present at the Transfiguration, in order to please Cardinal de’ Medici, for whom the picture was painted. This is Raphael's fault. This sets him forth in the rather anomalous character of a great painter with no respect for his art. I have some doubts about him, after that,—doubts which my critical friends might possibly share if Raphael were only a modern painter.
Thirdly, I have to make allowances for the scene of the Transfiguration on the high mountain, and the scene of the inability of the disciples to cure the boy possessed with a devil, being represented, without the slightest division, one at the top and the other at the bottom of the same canvas,—both events thus appearing to be connected by happening in the same place, within view of each other, when we know very well that they were only connected by happening at the same time. Also, when I see some of the disciples painted in the act of pointing up to the Transfiguration, the mountain itself being the background against which they stand, I am to remember (though the whole of the rest of the picture is most absolutely and unflinchingly literal in treatment) that here Raphael has suddenly broken out into allegory, and desires to indicate by the pointing hands of the disciples that it is the duty of the afflicted to look to Heaven for relief in their calamities. Having made all these rather important allowances, I may now look impartially at the upper half of this famous composition.
I find myself looking away again very soon. It may be that three figures clothed in gracefully fluttering drapery, and dancing at symmetrically exact distances from each other in the air, represent such an unearthly spectacle as that of the Transfiguration to the satisfaction of great judges of art. I can also imagine that some few select persons may be able to look at the top of the high mountain, as represented in the picture, without feeling their gravity in the smallest degree endangered by seeing that the ugly knob of ground on which the disciples are lying prostrate is barely big enough to hold them, and most certainly would not hold them if they all moved briskly on it together. These things are matters of taste on which I have the misfortune to differ with the connoisseurs. Not feeling bold enough to venture on defending myself against the masters who are teaching me to appreciate high art, I can only look away from the upper part of the picture as quickly as possible, and try if I can derive any useful or pleasant impressions from the lower half of the composition, in which no supernatural event is depicted, and which it is therefore perfectly justifiable to judge by referring it to the standard of dramatic truth, or, in one word, of Nature. As for this portion of the picture, I can hardly believe my eyes when I first look at it. Excepting the convulsed face of the boy, and a certain hard eagerness in the look of the man who is holding him, all the other faces display a stony inexpressiveness, which, when I think of the great name of Raphael in connection with what I see, fairly amazes me. I look down incredulously at my guide-book. Yes! there is indeed the critical authority of Lanzi quoted for my benefit. Lanzi tells me in plain terms that I behold represented in the picture before me "the most pathetic story Raphael ever conceived," and refers, in proof of it, to the "compassion evinced by the apostles." I look attentively at them all, and behold an assembly of hard-featured, bearded men, standing, sitting, and gesticulating, in conventional academic attitudes; their faces not expressing naturally, not even affecting to express artificially, compassion for the suffering boy, humility at their own incapability to relieve him, or any other human emotion likely to be suggested by the situation in which they are placed. I find it still more dismaying to look next at the figure of a brawny woman, with her back to the spectator, entreating the help of the apostles theatrically on one knee, with her insensible classical profile turned in one direction, and both her muscular arms stretched out in the other; it is still more dismaying to look at such a figure as this, and then to be gravely told by Lanzi that it exhibits "the affliction of a beautiful and interesting female." I observe, on entering the room in which the "Transfiguration" is placed, as I have previously observed on entering the Sistine Chapel, groups of intelligent people before the picture consulting their guide-books—looking attentively at the work of High Art which they are ordered to admire—trying hard to admire it—then, with dismay in their faces, looking round at each other, shutting up their books, and retreating from High Art in despair. I observe these groups for a little while, and I end in following their example. We members of the general public may admire "Hamlet" and "Don Giovanni", honestly, along with the critics, but the two sublimest pictures (according to the learned authorities) which the world has yet beheld, appeal to none of us; and we leave them, altogether discouraged on the subject of Art for the future. From that time forth we look at pictures with a fatal self-distrust. Some of us recklessly take our opinions from others; some of us cautiously keep our opinions to ourselves; and some of us indolently abstain from having anything to do with an opinion at all.
Is this exaggerated? Have I misrepresented facts in the example I have quoted of obstructive criticism on art, and of its discouraging effects on the public mind? Let the doubting reader, by all means, judge for himself. Let him refer to any recognized authority he pleases, and he will find that the two pictures of which I have been writing are critically and officially considered, to this day, as the two master-works of the highest school of painting. Having ascertained that, let him next, if possible, procure a sight of some print or small copy from any part of either picture (there is a copy of the whole of the Transfiguration in the Gallery at the Crystal Palace), and practically test the truth of what I have said. Or, in the event of his not choosing to take that trouble, let him ask any unprofessional and uncritical friend who has seen the pictures themselves—and the more intelligent and unprejudiced that friend, the better for my purpose—what the effect on him was of the Last Judgment, or the Transfiguration. If I can only be assured of the sincerity of the witness, I shall not be afraid of the result of the examination.
Other readers who have visited the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican can testify for themselves (but, few of them will—I know them!) whether I have misrepresented their impressions or not. To that part of my audience I have nothing to say, except that I beg them not to believe that I am a heretic in relation to all works by all old masters, because I have spoken out about the Last Judgment and the Transfiguration. I am not blind, I hope, to the merits of any picture, provided it will bear honest investigation on uncritical principles. I have seen such exceptional works by ones and twos, amid many hundreds of utterly worthless canvases with undeservedly famous names attached to them, in Italy and elsewhere. My valet de place has not pointed them out to me; my guide-book, which criticises according to authority, has not recommended me to look at them, except in very rare cases indeed. I discovered them for myself, and others may discover them as readily as I did, if they will only take their minds out of leading-strings when they enter a gallery, and challenge a picture boldly to do its duty by explaining its own merits to them without the assistance of an interpreter. If I give that simple receipt for the finding out and enjoying of good pictures, I need give no more. It is no part of my object to attempt to impose my own tastes and preferences on others. I want—if I may be allowed, to repeat my motives once more in the plainest terms—to do all I can to shake the influence of authority in matters of Art, because I see that authority standing drearily and persistently aloof from all popular sympathy; because I see it keeping pictures and the people apart; because I find it setting up as masterpieces two of the worst of many palpably bad and barbarous works of past times; and, lastly, because I find it purchasing pictures for the National Gallery of England, for which, in nine cases out of ten, the nation has no concern or care, which have no merits but technical merits, and which have not the last and lowest recommendation of winning general approval, even among the critics and connoisseurs themselves. The controversy described at the beginning of this article is, as all readers of the public journals know, not the only controversy that has arisen of late years, when Old Masters have been added to the gallery, or, in other words, when the national picture-money has been spent for the confusion of the nation.
And what remedy against this? I say at the end, as I said at the beginning, the remedy is to judge for ourselves, and to express our opinions, privately and publicly, on every possible occasion, without hesitation, without compromise, without reference to any precedents whatever. Public opinion has had its victories in other matters, and may yet have its victory in matters of Art. We, the people, have a gallery that is called ours; let us do our best to have it filled for the future with pictures (no matter when or by whom painted) that we can get some honest enjoyment and benefit from. Let us, in Parliament and out of it, before dinner and after dinner, in the presence of big-wigs just as coolly as out of the presence of big-wigs, say plainly once for all, that the sort of High Art which is professedly bought for us, and which does actually address itself to nobody but painters, critics and connoisseurs, is not High Art at all, but the lowest of the Low: because it is the narrowest as to its sphere of action, and the most scantily furnished as to its means of doing good. We shall shock the connoisseurs (especially the elderly ones) dreadfully by taking this course; we shall get indignantly reprimanded by the critics, and flatly contradicted by the lecturers: but we shall also, sooner or later, get a collection of pictures bought for us that we, mere mankind, can appreciate and understand. It may be a revolutionary sentiment, but I think that the carrying out of this reform (as well as of a few others) is a part of the national business which the people of England have got to do for themselves, and in which no big-wig whomsoever will assist them. There is a great deal of social litter accumulating about us. Suppose, when we start the business of setting things to rights, that we try the new broom gently at first by sweeping away a little High Art, and having the temerity to form our own opinions.
First published Household Words 13 September 1856 XIV 193-198.
Text taken from that source. NB this text differs from that published seven years later in My Miscellanies.
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