25 JULY 1846, Page 18



AFTER seeing the fine collection of portraits by deceased painters at the British Institution, we had the curiosity to look at the portraiture by living artists at the Royal Academy ; and great is the contrast. Not to make an invidious comparison—which in the present instance would be obviously unfair to contemporary painters—let us glance at a few of the most strik- ing examples in the rooms at Trafalgar Square.

English artists have not the excuse for painting bad portraits which is often put forward for bad performances in other branches of art—want of patronage; for there is encouragement enough afforded by the public in portraiture. Yet, though it is practised extensively, few of our painters excel in it; and it is generally looked upon by them as an inferior and troublesome pursuit, to be followed only for a livelihood in default of better occupation.- This low estimation of portraiture by practitioners at once accounts for their want of success. To despise an art is not the way to excel in it; espe- cially when, as in this case the fact of despising it implies a mistaken view of its resources. The lunar who regards portrait-painting merely as a means of making money, looks only to please his patrons and obtain sudt a reputation as will increase their number; both which aims may be accom- plished without attaining tree excellence, or fulfilling the requisitions of the highest kind of portraiture—the depicting of individual character with fidelity and animation.

A prevailing notion, even among the better class of limners, in the present day, is, that an agreeable likeness and a pleasing or an effective picture combine all that are required in a good portrait. But the highest and most essential quality, truth, may be wanting; and it commonly is so,— for " Nature puts them out" as much as it did Fuseli. Their object being only to please the sitter, they are content with producing a recognizable resemblance in feature, with a varnish of flattery (or what is intended as such) to gloss over personal defects. Character is only regarded in so far as it is considered to be pictorially effective; and ita salient points are either softened down to smirking insipidity, or exaggerated into mock dignity, according as it suits the painter's purpose. It was not in this spirit, or with these views, that the great masters. of portraiture wrought. Velasquez and Rembrandt stamped the character of the individual before them on the canvass with a power of truth that carries conviction with it: you no more doubt the correctness of their portraits than the identity of a real person. One sometimes fancies that Titian must have given an aspect of grandeur and Vandyke an air of grace to their portraits which the originals may not have possessed; but they never sup- pressed or garbled the truth more than this; and in the class of persons whom they painted, habits of command and elegant manners were likely to produce such characteristics. But their pictures, and those of most of the great painters, strike the beholder not as fine paintings chiefly, but as por- traits: it is the strong development of character that rivets attention, more than even the beauty of the art—though the skill of the artist of necessity contributes to this result.

Now, let any visiter of the Royal Academy look round the walls, without referring to the catalogue and regardless of the names of painters or sitters, and how few physiognomies will impress the mind: yet if the persons por- trayed were standing or sitting there, their characteristics would surely make a more powerful impression. It may be plausibly urged, that in the present day character is less strongly and nobly pronounced in face and features than in times when more simple and robust habits of life prevailed; that the costume of our time is unpropitious to picturesque effect; and that modern fastidiousness is unfavourable to the bold and faithful repre- sentation of individual peculiarities. But, making due allowance for these circumstances, it cannot be gainsaid that the amount of true and living character in contemporary portraits is infinitely less than among the older examples; and as regards the art, there can be no comparison in the ma- jority of instances.

There is one portrait in the Royal Academy, however, that stands out from all the rest; conspicuous not only by its power of painting, but by the living, thoughtful expression of individual character: it is the portrait of the late Thomas Duncan, painted by himsAlf—a picture that will bear comparison with any one by the greatest masters. Mind has been at work there: the painter has breathed his life and soul upon the canvass, and reflected in the mirror of art his own individuality. In looking at that picture, you become acquainted with the ID= and study his character and physiognomy; though, long as we have dwelt upon it, we do not remember the colour or fashion of the coat, which is usually a prominent character.. isfic in modern portraits. But that earnest, energetic countenance, with the massive forehead and wild hair, will last in the memory like the im- pression of a living man.

Watson Gordon's portrait of Mr. Grant the artist is a head full of cha- racter, though a mere sketch in comparison: but his whole-length portrait of Lord Robertson is a weighty reality-there sits the man as he is. For strength of character, Watson Gordon is now the first painter of life-size portraits in oils, as George Richmond is in water-colours, Samuel Laurence in crayon drawings, and Thorburn in miniatures on ivory. Sir William Ross's min- iatures are exquisite for brilliancy of finish and daylight purity of colour; but his likenesses are more remarkable for pleasing qualities than depth or force of character; and Carrick's, though strikingly true in feature, are defi- cient in intellectual expression. To what Alfred Chalon now reduces his sitters, may be seen in his whole-length sketch of Sir William Molesworth; who certainly challenges very different treatment from an artist. F. Grant is happiest in depicting the air of modern gentility, without losing indivi- dual traits of character; and his whole-length of Mr. J. Locke, the size of life, is a manly, unaffected picture. J. P. Knight's portrait of Sergeant Bellasis is one of the most forcible paintings in the great room, and has that look of life which only a true perception and delineation of character can give. His portrait of Mr. D'Almaine, too, is a capital specimen of prose painting-good matter-of-fact portraiture. Sir Henry De la Beche, by Pickersgill, and Mr. Robert Stephenson, by Lucas, are also unmistakeable likenesses; though we cannot accept them as representations of all that is to be read in the faces of those eminent persons. And surely there is something more in the countenance of the Bishop of Oxford than Mr. Say has depicted in his smoothly-painted effigy of this prelate; nor can we fancy Commodore Napier looking so like a parish- beadle marshalling a troop of charity children, as Mr. Joy has represented him in the act of leading an assault. Mr. George Pat- ten has painted a group of his family with great elaboration, and a cer- tain degree of force; but the persons have that fixed and conscious look which characterizes the common order of portrait-painting. J. Hollins's group of the two daughters of Dr. Chambers is charming for the true and unaffected expression of feminine character, as well as for purity and beauty of colouring, in which it is unrivalled. J. Linnell's portraits of Mrs. Pen- darves and Mr. Henry Colman-the latter stowed away in the dark closet -are remarkable, as are all his likenesses, for conscientious fidelity of re- sembhuice, and force of painting: he gives "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" of character, with animated effect.

There are other portraits that have some claims to notice either as paintings or likenesses; but these are the most striking: for the equestrian effigies of the Duke of Wellington, by Pickersgill, and of the Queen and Prince Albert, by Grant, are not commensurate in fine qualities with their great size; and the ladies are generally treated as if Pope's satirical sen- tence, "moat women have no character at all," were literally true.