Thoughts on our Art of Today

John Everett Millais, 1888

I am emphatically of opinion that the best Art of modern times is as good as any of its kind that has gone before, and furthermore, that the best Art of England can hold its own against the world. It is manifestly impossible to make just comparisons between the widely divergent styles of the Ancient and Modern Masters, or to attempt to strike a balance between, say, Rubens and Hogarth; but to say that the old alone is good betrays great lack of judgment, and is an ingratitude to the living. Ability and talent are more abundant than ever; but in forming an opinion of them the critic falls into two great errors—the first, in forgetting that the form and demands of Art have changed and expanded with the advance of time; and the second, in failing—unconsciously, of course—to judge of the great works of the past, with which he compares those of the present, in a fair and proper manner. He makes no allowances for the charm of mutilation or the fascination of decay.

The only way to judge of the treasures which the Old Masters of whatever age have left us—whether in architecture, sculpture, or painting—with any hope of sound deduction, is to look at the work and ask oneself—“What was that like when it was new?” The Elgin Marbles are allowed by common consent to be the perfection of art. But how much of our feeling of reverence is inspired by Time? Imagine the Parthenon as it must have looked with the frieze of the mighty Phidias fresh from the chisel. Could one behold it in all its pristine beauty and splendour we should see a white marble building, blinding in the dazzling brightness of a southern sun, the figures of the exquisite frieze in all probability painted—there is more than a suspicion of that— and the whole standing against the intense blue sky; and many of us, I venture to think, would cry at once, “How excessively crude!”

No: Time and Varnish are two of the greatest of Old Masters, and their merits and virtues are too often attributed by critics—I do not of course allude to the professional art-critics—to the painters of the pictures they have toned and mellowed. The great artists all painted in bright colours, such as it is the fashion nowadays for men to decry as crude and vulgar, never suspecting that what they applaud in those works is merely the result of what they condemn in their contemporaries. Take a case in point—the “Bacchus and Ariadne” in the National Gallery, with its splendid red robe and its rich brown grass. You may rest assured that the painter of that bright red robe never painted the grass brown. He saw the colour as it was, and painted it as it was—distinctly green; only it has faded with time to its present beautiful mellow colour. Yet many men, nowadays, will not have a picture with green in it; there are even buyers, who, when giving a commission to an artist, will stipulate that the canvas shall contain none ofit. But God Almighty has given us green, and you may depend upon it it’s a fine colour.

There is, and has been for a century or so, this growing cry for “subdued colour;” and what is the result? The case of Sir Joshua Reynolds is a sufficiently notorious example. It was his custom—well knowing what he did—to paint in clear and true colours. We have it from Walpole, after a visit to Reynolds’s studio, that he found the Waldegrave picture, which now commands so much admiration for its mellowness of tone, “dreadfully white and pinky.” But Sir George Beaumont, the connoisseurs, and patrons, were for ever urging him to give them in his pictures what time alone can effect: “tone—like the Old Masters.” And at length, to satisfy their reiterated demands, he made use of the pigment that would most readily give the rich, soft brown they wanted—asphaltum. And now every picture that contains that villainous colour is in every stage of decomposition and ruin—and the chief responsibility for that lies heavily on his critics.

I began by expressing my faith in our English school of painting and its performance. A hundred years hence, when Time has done its work, that school will receive the approval of posterity. It must be remembered, however, that Art has moved with the age, not only in the matter of its subject and the spirit which pervades it, but also in knowledge and technical skill. The still-life painting of the Ancients is even now held up to us as a wonder. We are told of the grapes of Zeuxis, which the birds came to peck at, and of Parrhasius’s curtain that deceived Zeuxis, and so on. But what of that? That is mere imitation, and I could place my handon half a dozen men who could do as much. Not that I underrate imitative painting for a moment—it is a necessary part of an artist’s business, and a high achievement in itself, this representing, on the flat, of the colour, texture, and chiaroscuro of a solid object in such a way as to deceive the eye. But it is hardly necessary to say that nowadays art demands much more than that.

I imagine that Greek painting was little more than tinted outline, no doubt, as far as it went, not less remarkable in its excellence than the sculpture of the day, but necessarily primitive, from their ignorance of the pigments since discovered. Only through the introduction of oil-painting has it been possible to arrive at the subtlety and mystery that are connected with fine workmanship—such execution as we enjoy in Rembrandt or in Titian, in Sir Joshua or Turner. I will add that if you place a first-class Rembrandt, a first-class Reynolds, and, say, a firstclass latter-day example, side by side, and judge them on the basis I have named—that is to say, making due allowances for the effects of time, and, of course, for the different styles and temperaments of the painters—you will find little cause to bewail the “decadence of art.” On the contrary, there will be plenty of reason to be proud of your art of to-day, and to be confident for your art of the future.

But while we look around and congratulate ourselves on the number of young men whose brilliant talents hold out such bright promise of worthily upholding the English school, we must not forget that only by insistance upon their individuality ofconception and expression can they hope to advance to the first rank. There is among us a band of young men, who, though English, persist in painting with a broken French accent, all of them much alike, and seemingly content to lose their identity in their imitation of French masters, whom they are constitutionally, absolutely, and in the nature of things, unable to copy with justice either to themselves or to their models. Imitation, however, is pardonable in young men—and only in young men —and sooner or later their ability will inevitably lead them to assert their individuality, if they have any. Any artist can be a follower without sacrificing one jot of his independence. Sir Edwin Landseer, for example, stands perfectly alone in his own sphere; yet as an animal painter he was a follower of Snyder, but in no sense an imitator. Sir Frederick Leighton, again, though his grace, dignity, the beauty of flowing line are plainly inspired by the ideal Greek sculpture, works, if I may so express it, his own bicycle; everything he does is his and his alone. On the other hand, we see in the English sculpture of an era now, happily, just gone by, the result of what mere imitation had brought us to. Founded on the same type of Greek statue, Venuses, Dianas, the Three Graces, and all the Virtues followed each other till they flooded the land, each as characterless as the last, and with no more individuality or vigour than if they had been turned out by machinery from a single mould. But the influence of Carpeaux, who was one of the leaders of the great French school of Sculpture and placed it above the rest of the modern world— strongly supported in the present day by M. Dalou—has at length reached us; and this department of art now augurs every whit as well for the future as that of painting.

So fine is some of the work our modern sculptors have given us, that I firmly believe that were it dug up from under oystershells in Rome or out of Athenian sands with the cachet of partial dismemberment about it, all Europe would fall straightway into ecstasy and give forth their plaintive wail—"We can do nothing like that now.” Verily the great handicapper and chief offending of modern art is its unavoidable modernity.

But individuality is not all that should be looked to: a varied manner must be cultivated as well. I believe that however admirably he may paint in a certain method, or however perfectly he may render a certain class of subject, the artist should not be content to adhere to a speciality of manner or method. A fine style is good, but it is not everything—it is not absolutely necessary. Sir Joshua was much superior to Gainsborough in that regard; but who will give the palm between first-rate examples of these two masters? One loaded his canvas, the other painted as with water-colour. The incomparable charm the latter imparted to his ladies makes one forget and forgive the want of body in his work, and we feel they are sufficiently delightful as they are. Of course, delicacy and energy, breath or refinement of touch, may be varied with the mood and the character of the picture.

The commonest error into which a critic can fall is the remark we so often hear that such and such an artist’s work is “careless” and “would be better had more labour been spent upon it.” As often as not this is wholly untrue. As soon as the spectator can see that “more labour has been spent upon it” he may be sure that the picture is to that extent incomplete and unfinished, while the look of freshness that is inseparable from a really successful picture would of necessity be absent. If the high finish of a picture is so apparent as immediately to force itself upon the spectator, he may know that it is not as it should be; and from the moment that the artist feels his work is becoming a labour, he may depend upon it, it will be without freshness, and to that extent without the merit of a true work of art. Work should always look as though it had been done with ease, however elaborate; what we see should appear to have been done without effort, whatever may be the agonies beneath the surface. M. Meissonier surpasses all his predecessors, as well as all his contemporaries, in the quality of high finish, but what you see is evidently done easily and without labour.

I remember Thackeray saying to me, concerning a certain chapter in one of his books, that the critics agreed in accusing him ofcarelessness, “Careless? If I've written that chapter once I've written it a dozen times, and each time worse than the last!"—a proof that labour did not assist in his case. When an artist fails it is not so much from carelessness; to do his best is not only profitable to him, but a joy. But it is not given to every man— not, indeed, to any—to succeed whenever, and however, he tries. The best painter that ever lived never entirely succeeded more than four or five times; that is to say, no artist ever painted more than four or five masterpieces, however high his general average may have been; for such success depends on the coincidence, not only of genius and inspiration, but of health and mood and a hundred other mysterious contingencies. For my own part I have often been laboured, but whatever I am I am never careless. I may honestly say that I never consciously placed an idle touch upon canvas; and that I have always been earnest and hard-working; yet the worst pictures I ever painted in my life are those into which I threw most trouble and labour, and I confess I should not grieve were half my works to go to the bottom of the Atlantic—if I might choose the half to go. Sometimes as I paint I may find my work becoming laborious; but as soon as I detect any evidence ofthat labour I paint the whole thing out without more ado.

It will be remembered that Rembrandt, in his first period, was very careful and minute in detail, and there is evidence ofstippling in his flesh painting; but when he grew older and in the fulness of his power, all appearance of such manipulation and minuteness vanished in the breath and facility of his brush, though the advantage of his early manner remained. The latter manner is, of course,; much the finer and really the more finished of the two.

I have closely examined his pictures at the National Gallery, and have actually seen, beneath that grand veil of breath, the early work that his art conceals from untrained eyes—the whole science of painting. And herein lies his superiority to Velasquez, who, with all his mighty power and magnificent execution, never rose to the perfection which, above all with painters, consists in Arscelare artem.
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John Everett Millais, The ArtistsPortrait of John Everett Millais

John Everett Millais

Prodigy, Pre-Raphaelite, sellout?

1829 – 1896

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