Εικόνες σελίδας
Ηλεκτρ. έκδοση

and Discourses ; and he was by profession only a portraitpainter. In historical and fancy compositions he was little more than an amateur. He painted them experimentally, and more from the love of it than for gain. His profound knowledge of high art lay in theory and observation; his practice in

1; it was not enough to narrow his mind down to any particular system or manner. He saw and appreciated what was good in all manners, and excused nothing because it flattered his vanity or his indolence. Though he could not have written as he did if the pencil had not been more familiar to his hand than the pen, neither could he have done so if he had spent in the solitude of his studio, and in the severe practice that Art demands of her followers, the time which he passed in galleries and in the society of the most intellectual men of his day.

It cannot be denied, therefore, that the author before us, if he announces any thing new, however startling, is entitled to a respectful hearing; and if, upon examination, he appears to have lent his advantages to the support of errors, or to have endeavoured upon no sufficient ground to shake wellestablished opinions, he ought the more carefully to be corrected.

The book is written with great ability of manner, though in a style somewhat loose and declamatory, and infected with the modern cant which uses new phrases to cover up obscure meaning. It contains many very acute and frequently novel observations upon nature, and much sound discussion of the general principles of art. But the sole purpose of the book, to which all this is sometimes subordinate and sometimes quite irrelevant, seems to be to maintain the strange proposition, that the old landscape-painters of the seventeenth century were very mean and ordinary artists, and that Mr. Turner and certain other modern English painters are immeasurably their superiors, and have indeed carried the art almost to perfection. So fiercely is it devoted to this object, and so extravagantly does it condemn on the one hand and exalt on the other, that it is difficult to believe it to be done in good faith. It would seem, that, if we acquit the author of being, from whatever motives, a mere personal partisan, we must regard him, notwithstanding his evident knowledge of the subject, as wholly deficient in a true feeling for art. It is difficult to come to either of these conclusions. It will be safer and more candid to leave him on the middle ground of prejudice ;


and we think we perceive to what this is to be attributed, as we shall presently have occasion to state.

That the attempt is a total failure will be the immediate judgment of all those who have seen and understood the works thus condemned ; and even those who have not, however they may at first be carried away by the confident tone and plausible exaggerations of the author, would find, on a review of the book, that its conclusions rest on no basis but unsupported statements, contradicted by the uniform judgment of all who have seen those works before him. They would find many things palpably inconsistent, many of which it requires no knowledge of art to perceive the absurdity, some things absolutely false in fact, and nothing which can justly lay claim to be considered as any new discovery upon which opinions so old should be overthrown.

But most persons to whom the subject is not already familiar will rest satisfied with the first impression made by such a book. It has already acquired great popularity, having passed through three editions in England, and been reprinted here. We happen to know, too, that it has excited more attention than it deserves among persons interested in the arts. In Europe, where the works of the old masters continually speak for themselves, such a book can do no lasting harm; but here, where those works are unknown except to those who see them abroad, unfrequently or at long intervals, there is danger that the effect may be more permanent. It leads the public mind in the way in which it is already too apt to go, especially among ourselves. We are not too willing admirers of antiquity in any thing, for long past time seems to us to belong to the nations of the Old World, and the present to be more fitly represented by our own ; the ignotum pro magnifico is not the error to which we are most prone. In this very matter of the supremacy of the old masters, there has always been a rebellious doubt among those who have never seen their works, and a suspicion that those who have seen them praise them for that reason. It is a very natural doubt ; for, in the first place, nobody has ever yet given any good reason why there should have been so much better artists in those days than in our own ; though we think a careful examination of the difference in the condition of society and the extent of literary education at the first of these two periods and at any subsequent time would furnish an easy and very


interesting answer. In the next place, it is almost impossible to convince one wholly unlearned in the art, that it requires much more than a mere resemblance to nature, of which he will consider himself to be as competent a judge as the most learned. It is this last notion particularly that this book is adapted to flatter. The “truth of nature" is the constantly recurring phrase by which the author estimates the value ofart.

If he had confined his conclusions within as narrow limits as he has his reasons for them, the question would be coinparatively of little importance, because this mere fidelity to the detail which marks individual nature is of far less value than the other requirements of art, and is much less apt to mark the superiority of one school or period over another. But when, because Claude, Gaspar, and Salvator make the trunks of their trees taper when they should not, or more than they should, and because Mr. Turner imitates with marvellous exactness the reflection of a signpost in the water under some extraordinary circumstances, such distinctions are made the basis of the most sweeping denial of all merit on the one side, and of the most extravagant laudation on the other, the true purpose of art is overlooked; which is not simply to put into gilt frames that which can be seen at any time, or even but occasionally, by looking out of doors; but to select the finest realities of nature and combine them into one consistent ideal scene, in which all things and all parts of things shall be omitted that contribute nothing to the general effect of physical beauty and moral sentiment,

such a scene as possibly might, but certainly never did, exist, but of which nature furnishes the inexhaustible materials.

We are aware that the author in his preface denies that he draws such general conclusions against the old masters from this want of the truth of nature ; and this denial is not less discreditable to him from its disingenuousness, than is the error for which it attempts an apology.

“ Of the old masters I have spoken with far greater freedom ; but let it be remembered that only a portion of the work is now presented to the public, and it must not be supposed, because in that particular portion and with reference to particular excellences I have spoken in constant depreciation, that I have no feeling of other excellences of which cognizance can only be taken in future parts of this work. Let me not be understood to mean more than I have said, nor be made responsible for conclusions,

when I have only stated facts. I have said that the old masters did not give the truth of nature ; if the reader chooses thence to infer that they were not masters at all, it is his conclusion, not mine." - Preface, p. ix.

Now let us see what he has said of these old masters, and how far he has left a way open for taking cognizance of any of their excellences in a future part of this work; and whether there is any danger of his being understood to mean more of them than he has said, and whose conclusion it is that they were not masters at all. It is first, however, to be observed, that by the term, old masters, he has explained that he means, not the great historical painters of the first half of the sixteenth century, but that later generation which, beginning with the Carracci, includes all the great French, Italian, Dutch, and Flemish landscape-painters. Now it may be remarked in passing, that although the former class, with one exception, painted no landscapes, and therefore are not included in the author's general condemnation, yet the same faults might be found with their historical works as are here so much insisted on against those of the landscape-painters ; for they frequently, whether from error or design, violated this truth of nature in parts of their pictures ; and if the same judgment were passed on them on the same grounds, Raphael and his contemporaries would fall in the same heap with Claude and Salvator.

We should be inclined to think unfavorably of a person's capacity for judging correctly of works of art, who appeared insensible to the personal qualities of the artist. There is so much of the man in the works of the painter, that we always seem to have known his heart as well as his hand. A critic who could take pleasure in repeating the calumnies that have been made to darken the early death of Raphael can have no feeling for the sublime tenderness of his Madonnas; and we should, on the other hand, think the better of his taste who was inclined to search narrowly into the defects of works which so evidently display a ferocious temper as those of Caravaggio and Ribera. We confess that we felt a kind of prejudice against this author, when we read his sweeping and bitter denunciation of the gentle Domenichino, who has preserved to the present time that soubriquet of endearment which he received from his master when he exhibited his first work ; who, born in the decline of art, rose to an eminence that provoked the fatal hostility of rivals, and drew from the profound Nicolo


Poussin the praise of having produced the second picture in the world ; whose sublime Communion of St. Jerome stands now uneclipsed by the side of the Transfiguration in the Vatican; and who, with all who have entered deeply into the history of art, stands next to Raphael in their affection for his gentle and yet lofty genius. In an evil hour for his fame, if this author can dispense it, he attempted landscape ; and though Turner and all the water-color men in England might esteem themselves most fortunate when they could equal the dewy freshness of the grove in which Diana holds up to her nymphs the prize for archery, and may well despair of ever approaching the twilight grandeur of his more solemn scenes, yet nothing less than the sacrifice of his entire fame can satisfy this ardent partisan.

“I once supposed that there was some life in the landscape of Domenichino, but in this I must have been wrong. The man who painted the Madonna del Rosario and the Martyrdom of St. Agnes, in the gallery of Bologna, is palpably incapable of doing any thing good, great, or right in any field, way, or kind what


· P. 87.

Now what room is there left here for taking cognizance of other excellences in a future part of this work? Who states here the fact, and who draws the conclusion, whether Domenichino is any master at all?

There is no fact stated as to his landscape, but that the author once thought, as every body else still does, that there was life in it, until he saw certain of his inferior historical works, and from them he reverses his own judgment of his landscape, and denies the possibility of his doing any thing good, great, or right in any field, way, or kind whatever.

“ In Salvator there is no love of any kind for any thing; his choice of landscape features is dictated by no delight in the sublime, but by mere animal restlessness or ferocity, guided by an imaginative power of which he could not altogether deprive himself. He has done nothing which others have not done better, or which it would not have been better not to have done."

p. 88.

Now is this merely denying that Salvator gives the truth of nature ? And what room is left in the forthcoming continuation of this work to show that he is, notwithstanding all this, a master ?

« ΠροηγούμενηΣυνέχεια »