13 MAY 1848, Page 19


ROYAL A CADEMY EXHIBITION : THE HISTORICAL l'ICT CBES. THE "progress of British art "must not be sought in the historical brandy of painting; for with the cultivation of taste, and with the real advance displayed in the general character of the collections annually formally the Royal Academy, the historical section appears to shrink in the number of the pictures, sod to be undergoing a metamorphosis intu alkawa-ef.- 4 paintings which may be called story pictures, rather than historicalpio- tures,—that is, pictures which tell ,a apecific story, but ,do not illustrate the history of mankind_ or of nations. The historical picture properly so called puts _before you in visiblu action some great event, that has _marked the progress of mankind, or has displayed in signal working the great essential elements of human nature; or it represents in a similar way a scene characteristic -of some great epoch. A minor kind, but still hiatori- cal, records some event purely casual, or an incident In the career of sumo historical personage. The suljeet also may be drawn-front classic fiction. But in any case, the .event is the main action of the picture, and all the composition must centre in that: the great passions evoked into expreesion by the event must display-the relations which the personages- cif the-picture bear to its action; -mere trivialities being omitted. What we cell the elemental passions are those without which lumen nature could not be what it is,. and, which mortal events are certain to call forth; trivialities are those traits belonging to individuality, or to merely conventional manners, which are casual—with or without which human nature is the same. This distinction does not forbid the introduction, of little traits of casual action which help to impart to the scene a character of what is fortuitous and 'natural"; but they must be of a kind accordant with the main subject and helping to illustrate the main event; they must arise from the working or circumstances of human ,nature, and not of mere artificial habits; otherwise they distract attention from the more melted subject to pettier accidents. We have spoken only of the composition; the execution of the picture must correspond: those parts in which the essentials of the subject are displayed must be completely made out and executed with sufficient mastery; the accessories and unessential parts may be slighted in pro- portion to their remoteness from the main idea, so long as they do not for their very imperfection and roughness obtrude themselves on the notice. Applying these rules, which will be found to hold good of all historical, painting, we might say that there are but two historical pictures in the exhibition this year,—Mr. Herbert% " St, John the Baptist reproving He- rod," and Mr. W. H. Fames "St. John and the Madonna." Mr. Herbeces picture is simply designed. St. Jelin eomes before Herod clothed in skins- -an inspired man, endowed with no visible authority but his inspired.aa- pecto--a mere "vessel of the Lord" conveying a mission. But so much a&. hale, he is perfioctly made out in the picture: the figure is finished with oonacieutious painstaking and workmanlike skill. You may say theta in wanting in grandeur of form, in weight, in the freedom of demeanour which. would convey the expression of a large idea. The action is less disens gaged than that of the principal figure in Mr. Herbert's picture last year. But still the expression is just; the man is such a one as he that cried in the wilderness; the expressiou is that of a divine reprobation. Herod, sitting in kingly guise, betrays in his downcast but not humbled counte- nance a conscience vacillating between right and wrong. The mistress whom he should repuliove is bursting with the proud anger of a violent nature and looks at the denouncer with kindling hate. The-dancing-girl beside her, a mere creature of the senses, views the scene with a blank countenance, incapable of apprehending it; but aim too looks towards the strange intruder. Every part of the picture is carefully finished, yet nom) ohtrudee itself on themotice. The eye first. rests on the,denizen of eha wilderneas, in whom the action ,ortigiaatisa said centres; front him it in-

carried to Herod, whose inclining fi„ourepamsemit to the women by hie

and their look again carries it back to the St. John. All the varieties of pose and expression contribute to the unity. An intense and solemn im- pression is produced: the painter has done his work, and possessed the mind of the spectator. Other great masters of the art have done so more powerfully; but Mr. Herbert has done it, and by similar means. In Mr. Furse's picture the Beloved Disciple is leading the sainted mother to the sepulchre. He is a beautiful yonng man, she an aged matron; he looks to her with a compassionate regard, she bends her head in pious sub- mission: but their steps scarcely pause to indulge the weariness of sorrow; they accomplish without repining their awful fate. In the distance is Cal- vary, with its three crosses. A black night overhangs all. The costume, the fashion of the picture the mien of the two figures, are copied from the Italian schools; but copied by a man who feels the sentiment which shaped those works. We seem to remember Mr. Fume's name, but our memory does not recall a single picture from his easel: here we recognize the only other historical work of the exhibition.

Mr. Linnell's large landscape with figures, "The Eve of the Deluge," is an attempt at an " effect "; but the effect is not produced, because the exe- cution of its component parts is obtrusively rough and imperfect: you are allowed to see "behind the scenes."

Mr. Etty has taken two sacred-historical subjects,-" Aaron, the High Priest of Israel"; and "St. John in the wilderness." A man with a grave bearded head is in the one picture seen in half-length, clothed in robes and jewellery; in the other picture he is seen in full-length, scantily clothed in skins. The expression may be passed-it is but little more than a blank -a trifle of intense solemnity is mustered pro formii.-Mr. Etty is a "co- burial,' and we must judge of his works by their colour. Accordingly, he obeys and corroborates the English mistake, that "colouring' is the dis- play of bright pigments, or at best the contrivance of some points of bright- ness. In these pictures the flesh is dark black and red, dull, lustreless. In the wilderness some blue is "dashed in" for the sky-very intense and raw blue. In the Aaron, some big jewellery is imitated by splotches of colour pitched at the canvas with no small cleverness as a sleight-of-hand, and falling into place so as passably to imitate jewels of no very fine water. The sky is blue paint-the jewels glare. But this is not true colouring; which does not deal in the display of bright pigments, or in the isolated and coarse imitation of luminous points, but represents objects as they are coloured in nature; the light of nature shining over all, so that you see that light as positively illumining a black object as a brilliant one.

Mr. Cope's comes nearest to a pure historical picture of the secular stamp; and to a certain literal extent it fulfils all the conditions. The attention is turned towards the principal figure-the dying Wolsey-a fat and moribund ecclesiastic. The attendant soldiers are lusty fellows who well become their arms; the mule is well limned; the clothing is cleverly painted: but as you approach the central parts of the composition, the force of the painter fails: in the faces of the monks who are receiving Wolsey, you see courteous concern, but none of that awe-stricken solemnity that would mirror the apparition of falling greatness or the coming of death: and the than himself is no ruin of worldly power-no type of human great, ness yielding to-the mortal fate of man. It is a very ordinary case of it well-fed old 'gentleman being fain tiiiclay down his knife and fork." Mr. Maclise's " Chivalry " makes pretension to illustrate an epoch: the arniour is more obvious thad any expression; the spurious imitation of fresco style more obtrusive than either. Mr. Lucy's "Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers" is natural, but " homely "; the expression being made out by the smaller traits of nature.

Many pictures in the exhibition take their subjects from history, but deal rather with the action as a dramatic tableau, or with individual inci- dents than with the great event or the larger passions of humanity. In Mr. Ward's clever picture of the Fire of London there is a copious collec- tion of incidents,-here a despairing wretch, there a faithful servant guard- ing his master's goods; there a couple recovering their lost child-a de- lighted Negro harbingering the lost one; a placid observer; an absorbed historian unmoved by the turmoil; a group of gipsies who have lost nothing, but gained much plunder; a fanatic preacher, &c.: it is a picture some- who of Hogarth's order, only serious. But the design is broken down into qhodes: it is not painting of history, but anecdote. Mr. Leslie's "Lady Jane Grey" and Mr. Armitage's "Henry VIIL and Katharine Parr' are pictures of character-and excellent: the sweltering ruffian in the latter is admirable.

Mr. Knight's and Mr. Alaux's portrait-pictures-" The Peninsular Heroes" and "Louis Philippe receiving the Address of the Lord Mayor and Heroes,' of the City of London "-are historical in the sense that they are records of historical facts or personages. Mr. Knight had serious difficulties to contend with, no doubt, in the demand that he should make everybody prominent: but an artist of his standing ought not to have been guilty of such treason to art, and to truth, as to put forward a picture so bare of chiaroscuro. Some little variety of tone would have improved the portraits, even as they are; but if the military gentlemen had had as much fanatical detestation of shade as Queen Elizabeth, in their own persons, at all events a few private soldiers might have been introduced to be "toned down."