THE ROYAL ACADEMY.—OLD MASTERS.—T. THE present exhibition of Old Masters at Burlington House is the smallest that has yet been made at this winter season ; it is also, perhaps for that very reason, one of the most pleasant, if not the most valuable. After all, two hundred and fifty oil pictures are as much as any one wants to see in one of these short, dark days, especially when each of them is, in some way, a picked work. For the fact remains, all modern progress notwithstanding, that one learns more and gets greater pleasure out of even an indifferent painting of earlier times, than from the minute realism of to-day, or the most reckless example of the fashionable blottesque school, wherewith modern painters sniear their way to "emolument and oblivion."
At least the old work was faithfully done, that is half its secret; and though the subjects were so few, the manner in which they were treated betokened a broader as well as a simpler view of life. Even the sorriest "Virgin and Child" of these times, shows something of the full endeavour of its awkward artist, and struggles, not altogether in vain, to reveal to us something of truth and beauty in its inarticulate language. Above all is there in these early Italian pictures an absence of that selfconsciousness, that desire for applause and self-exhibition, which is the most prevalent mark of the painting of the present century. Was it the religious faith or the social life, we wonder, that has spread such a covering of peace and silence over the work of these dead-and-gone painters, till even their battle-pieces and martyrdoms have a stillness and quietude like that of a mountain-tarn at sunset? But some one will say,—some one always does,—that this is all very well, but gives no idea of the exhibition. How difficult it is to give an idea of an exhibition to those who have not seen it ! One might as well try and give an idea of Hamlet, by quoting the Press criticisms on Wilson Barrett.
How many Gainsboroughs ? Well, about ten.—How many Sir joshuas ? Twenty.—How many Jan Steens ? Seven ; according to the catalogue.—What is the biggest picture? "Charles I. on Horseback," by Vandyck.—What is the most popular one ? "Anne of Austria," by Rubens.—What do people talk about most ? "The Adoration of the Magi," by Mabuse. This is the sort of thing, we suppose, that gives an idea of the gallery, and much good the idea is when it is gained. Or, perhaps, it should be something more in this style :— " The portrait of Anne of Austria, by Rubens, which has been lent by the Duke of Marlborough, and of which the Trustees of the National Gallery are contemplating, if they have not already consummated, the purchase, is one of those marvellous pictures which the great Flemish painter executed now and then, with the intention, as we may fancy, of proving the delicacy as well as the power of his hand. The super
abundant vigorousness of the handling, together with the pearly carnations of the flesh-tints, and the deep opalescence of the shadows of the sombre drapery, are especially notable; while the whole conception betokens at once the most absolute mastery of detail, combined with the greatest morbidezza of chiaroscuro and luminosity of effect. We have not here, it is true, the microscopic manipulation of a Purer or the tender devotion of an Angelico; but rather the sumptuous celebration in pigment of a beauty which was mundane rather than spiritual, queenly rather than ideal,"—and so on.
Do we gain much idea of the Gallery, after all, f rom such a criti cism? Here is a portrait of a woman in a low black dress and a large ruff; it is splendidly painted, and the woman was Anne of Austria, and so we are glad to see what she was like. Apparently, she was plump, white, and small-mouthed, with brown hair and bluish eyes; and she sits, looking straight out of the picture, with a big curtain behind her. As a piece of flesh-painting, the picture is magnificent ; as a portrait of a beautiful woman, it fails from its painter's inability to understand what was beautiful in the female face and form. That is the plain English of the matter. Technically splendid, intellectually and emotionally deficient; the Flemish housekeeper, so to speak, in tho skin of the French Queen.
Let us return to the Gallery,—to the first room. There seems to us to be more genuine pleasure to be had from the little, rather conventional, Morland, called "Idleness," than from all the magnificence of this portrait of Anne of Austria. It represents a woman in a white dress and cap seated at a table. It might be interesting to some folks to look carefully at it, and then go at once to the Rubens for the contrast. It has grace, suggestiveness, and simplicity, as against a very
splendid stolidity. It is homely, but not kitchen-ly; and its conventionalism is, if we may use such an expression, only on the surface. The painter's handicraft is infinitely finer in the Flemish than the English picture ; the painter's insight is, on the contrary, greater in our countryman's work.
One might also compare with some advantage the two important animal pictures in this room,—a sleeping or dead lion by Landseer, and a snarling lioness by James Ward. The Landseer is a wonderful piece of slight painting; it impresses one with its ease, and its artist's mastery over hitimethod. It looks like a very clever study by a carefully trained student, with a background, &c., put in just to fill up the canvas. It is inconceivable to us that any artist, or any one who professes to know anything whatever about art, should consider this work from any other point of view; it is no more a picture in the sense of a completed work of art, than if the lion had lain in the middle of a blank canvas. Look at the Ward, and note the difference ; the mountain landscape and sky behind the lioness arc here as integral a part of the work as the beast herself. This lioness is incon ceivable without them ; by no effort of the mind can we separate tweedle-dum and tweedle-deo. This is the difference between a true pictorial conception and a study more or less "faked-up," to use a very expressive artist term ; and it is a good thing to note carefully, because nine pictures out of ten in modern galleries are simply studies,—" faked up." Those little girls of Millais', with brooms, and herrings, and glass bottles, or mistletoe-branches, are not pictures ; nor are those babies of Mr. Morris, which meet our eyes at every railway-station. But to return to our Ward. There is another quality about its work which it is especially good to mark in an exhibition like the present ; and this time it is a purely technical quality. What artists mean by "painting," is present here to a very great extent. The mere way in which the paint is laid upon the canvas, has much of the directness and simplicity, though it is deficient in the delicacy, of old-master work. Turn to the Landseer, and we see what may be fairly described as a first-rate example of the worst kind of Academic teaching that the world has ever seen,—the teaching of the English Academy forty years ago. The paint is put on, and then worked about till it gets into a sort of mud-pudding;.
hardly a single touch remains clear and sharp, unmodified by subsequent strokes of the brush. The result of this is one which can be traced through nearly all our Academic work of that period,—a loss of freshness, a lack of simplicity, a weakening of vigour, a dullness of impression. But to conclude this contrast of the pictures. Landseer's has much more sympathy than Ward's ; his lion is more of an intellectual and emotional being. The other's lioness is, however, much more of a beast ; its action, though little suggestive of any pleasant or intellectual
sentiment, is eminently real. We may take our choice between -these characteristics. Landseer's, again, is better drawn than
Ward's, shows more intimate acquiantance with the form of that special kind of animal. On the other hand, there is a vigour and action about Ward's work, which is stronger and more lifelike than anything we remember in Landseer's treatment of wild beasts. The ferocity and the rage of the lioness are quite perfectly expressed, and are intensified by every detail of the .picture,—from the dreary landscape, with a sky of stormy clouds,
-to the mangled heron, which lies beneath the paw of the lioness. And in conclusion, the Landseer is tame beside the other ; the beast is tame, lying in his cage; the landscape is tame, like a back-cloth at the Haymarket Theatre; the painting is tame, smooth, skilful, and uneventful, and has none of the rough strength and eloquence of Ward's work. In colour, of course, -there is no comparison ; for James Ward was one of the finest -colourists of whom our English School can boast, and Landseer was at his best but a very indifferent one.
But all this, we fear, is but giving little idea of the Gallery. What is to be said of the large Mabuse, "The Adoration of the Magi," which hangs in the room devoted to the earlier Flemish and Italian painters ? It is a panel picture, about four feet by five, with many figures, and an almost infinite variety of detail in • dress, ornament, and architecture. Its chief praise, in our opinion, is one which, at first sight, will probably appear paradoxical, —we get our pleasure less from what the painter has achieved, than from what he has done. There is a point in art at which prodigality becomes a virtue ; and this picture has reached it. .Other painters of this elaborate and somewhat fantastic school, -have been as minute, and, taking them bit by bit, as skilful ; none, that we can remember, have lavished such an infinity -of work on so large a scale as has been done in the present instance. It would be mistaken to call this picture beautiful from any point of view ; beauty is not to be found in such uniformity as this. It is beautiful no more than is the olla podrida of a Jew's curiosity-shop ; and its elements of
-attraction lie side by side with almost as little connection. Nor is it of special merit as a conception of the scene ; the artist has composed his work more from the point of view of accessory, -than that of emotional truth or religious sentiment. Indeed, if -the truth is told unsparingly, this greatest of religious pictures, is profoundly pagan, all its devotional feeling has filtered away in the process of glorification; it is like a Drury-Lane pantomime, all spectacle and no fun. But wonderful it certainly is, and, as we have said, its execution is carried to a point of minuteness and profusion which constitutes a special glory. We look at the face of the Virgin, and are disappointed; at those of the Magi, and find little of the wonder, adoration, or wisdom which we seek; we look for this or that other detail, and find them wanting. But—and this is the vital point in the consideration of the picture —wherever we look, if we find a deficiency, we find also a quality. We are not given what we seek, but weare given everything else ; we find a kingdom of beautiful things, in our humble search for the missing ones. Every hair in the Magi's head has been a labour of love; every fold in the Virgin's gown is wrought out in the most patient elaboration; the crowns, the jewels, the patterned robes, the golden chalices, the flying angels, the architecture, the landscape, the very tiled floor between the displaced slabs of which flowers are growing, are all wonders of patient work, and crowded with the fullest detail. And the result is pleasure, not of the highest kind—hardly, we think, of an artistic kind at all—but pleasure which springs from wonder continually renewed, from delight that any -man could produce such a triumph of combined endurance and skill. Those who care to force home the contrast between this and work in which the religions sentiment is really evident, should look at the severely simple Fm a Bartolommeo which hangs near it. It is a small full-length of the Virgin and Child ; very quiet in colour, probably a good deal faded,— indeed, the gold background has entirely changed to a dull brownish hue. It has, however, all that the other picture lacks, —fervour, simplicity, and beauty. It is the work of a hand "that waited for the heart's prompting." The great quality which distinguishes it is the union of an almost Raffaelsque purity, with a vigour in which the greater master was sometimes deficient. There is none of the over-sweetness which, to many of us, destroys, or at least impairs, much of Raffael's work. Perhaps the strain of ecclesiasticism in Bartolommeo may account for this.
In our next notice of this exhibition we hope to be able to give some idea of the Gallery as a whole.