7 MARCH 1885, Page 15


THE ROYAL ACADEMY.—OLD MASTERS.—II. IN our first notice of this exhibition, we mentioned only a few of the principal pictures. In this, we shall try to give some idea of the Gallery as a whole. The collection is divided into four parts, one room being assigned to each, as follows :—A room devoted to the English School, a room devoted to the Flemish and Dutch Schools,—the examples being chiefly of .cabinet size,—a large room of mixed character in which all the biggest pictures find place, and a fourth room containing specimens of the earlier, or pre-Raphaelite Italian, and Flemish painters. It is in this last that the great Mabuse, of which we wrote some weeks ago, finds its place. Let us take these four rooms in order, and say a few words about each. Without professing to be very learned in Art matters, it is easy enough to see that our English room is mainly an outcome of the other three,—a little grandchild, as it were, its ancestors being mainly of the Flemish and Dutch Schools, with, perhaps, a far-away kinsman in Italy.

And there is another point worth noticing in the effect which this first room of pictures by our deceased English painters produces, despite its echoes from traditional foreign schools, and that is its essentially national character. These paintings of Hogarth and Wilkie, Mcrland and Reynolds, Gainsborough and Turner, whatever be their artistic ancestry, are in their result, distinctively and entirely English. A peculiar plainness, which is almost brutality ; an atmosphere of grey sky and freshsmelling earth ; a simple matter-of-factedness and devotion to the business in hand, overspreads them all. They are the work of a people not easily removed to new ways, or turned aside from old ones, not understanding very clearly or feeling very keenly the subtleties and power of Art, but grasping many of its deepest truths by their single-mindedness, persistence, and honesty. We cannot stay here to follow out this subject ; but it would be well if the next time our readers go to any large collection of modern English pictures—say, the Royal Academy or the Grosvenor Gallery—they would try to discover whether this atmosphere of English life and thought, is still to be found iu our painting. It seems to us to be as dead as the Pharaohs; it were easier for a modern Englishman, under the influence of fashionable patronage and society journalism, to paint like Van Beers than like Morland, like Carolus Duran than like Wilkie. We are not speaking now of painting in the technical sense of the word, but rather of the motive and mental atmosphere of the work produced. 1 hat has passed away front our English Art ; our Art is no longer English ; it is no longer anything in particular. It was stupid, pig-headed, narrow, and ignorant— full of almost every bad quality one likes to name ; but it was at the same time national, unaffected, and sincere— honest in its following of tradition which it did not seek to disguise ; honest in plainly picturing that national life amidst which our painters lived. Look at this picture of " Saltash, Devon," by Turner. With the River Tamar in the foreground—with clusters of figures, and bouts, and buildings, an ale-house amongst the latter, and an inscription on one of the houses which we may have read before, "England expects every man to do his duty." Why, the whole picture might stand not inaptly as a symbolical representation of our country in which what poetry we have comes from the loving representation of commonplace things,—where the men drink beer, it is true, and fight on the quays, and yet, when it is necessary, turn out to die like Nelson or Gordon when their country wants them. However, meaning apart, this is a very lovely picture ; in it every detail is bathed and glorified in a mist of sunshine, and into its rich luminous tints the eye seems to look gradually, till

one incident of the picture after another slowly reveals itself. A tavern and some watermen, and a little pool of muddy water,

that is the subject, and the result is as purely lovely as if the scene chosen had been amongst the orange-groves of Sicily, or beneath the shadow of the Parthenon.

But, wherever we look in this room, the same kind of work, though not, of course, the same quality of genius, is plainly visible—work, that is, which derives its beauty as much from the painter's mental and moral truth acid insight, as from the genius of his hands. We find in the City pictures of " Night " and " Morning," by Hogarth, whose incidents show us various forms of the baser side of London life. But let any one compare the treatment of women by Hogarth with the treatment of women in the pictures by Van Beers, which our enlightened generation flocks to see so readily, and say whether the latter is preferable, and whether the art of the old English painter is not as much nobler and purer in its conception as it is finer in its artistic quality. We will say nothing here of Reynolds and Gainsborougb, though there are some fine examples of each ; but look for another example of simple, unaffected painting, at the "View of the Tower from the Thames," by Samuel Scott, a painter who lived at the beginning of the last century. We have no landscape-painter living at the present time who can prodace work

of this quality, despite its extreme simplicity, its almost childishness of conception. One sees, on looking at work of this kind and that of Patrick Nasmytb, and other little-known, or rather little-remembered, painters, the difference between artists even of inferior power who endeavoured to treat landscape as a whole, who made each of their pictures a matter of study as regards composition and chiaroscuro, and those who, as at the present day, present a haphazard bit of Nature, torn, as it were, violently away from its surroundings, and give it us for a landscape. One of the many minor results, of Mr. Ruskin's teaching, even upon those who openly repudiate it, has been this substitution of a narrow naturalism for a conventionalism which, though frequently exaggerated and misused, had nevertheless great elements of worth and beauty. The English School of landscape has practically been destroyed by the too vivid recognition of its early errors, and the consequent rebound to a still more fatal mistake. For a great landscape-picture is something inevitably different from an unaltered record of Nature; and the painters of to-day, seeing with their greater opportunities and increased knowledge much of the shortcomings of their predecessors in truth of detail, and their over-regard for traditional treatment, have practically left-off their work where the others began,—have collected their materials, but left them unshaped and chaotic. It is strange that Ruskin, who penetrated so many of Turner's secrets, never really grasped the fact of his essential conventionalism, and never seems to have perceived that conventionalism of a certain kind has been at the root of all great landscape art. But it is partially explicable by the influence of the special character of the great writer's religious opinions, and his insistence of its having real logical connection with his art-doctrines. However, we must not say any more on this part of our subject, but turn to the second room.

The examples here are, perhaps, not quite so good in quality as usual in this exhibition, though the Queen, as usual, sends two or three fine specimens,—a Cuyp, a Metzu, and a Paul Potter. Of these, we like the Metzu best. It is of the usual blue-jacketed lady, with gentleman tuning a guitar by her side. Execution could hardly go further than it is carried here, nor could it more plainly pronounce itself to have no other object than to go as far as it could. The picture is like a five-thousandmi!es walking-match,—magnificent as an example of misplaced, or at least wasted, power. There are seven Jan Steens here, of which one or two have but little of his attractive qualities, but are dull and wooden to an extent which would, in other cases, have rendered us suspicious of their authenticity ; none are of the finest quality. The most special feature of the room is found in the landscapes of Aart Van der Neer, one of the lesserknown Dutch painters. These landscapes are very peculiar in their technical qualities, full of delicate colour and minute detail, and, in some respects, curiously modern and unconventional in their treatment. Perhaps in the whole exhibition there is nothing more beautifully painted than the little bit of blue distance in the example which belongs to the Earl of Normanton. It is a river-scene, with the river flowing away from the spectator, bounded in the distance by blue hills. The middle and further distance have in this work a quality of almost crystalline brightness and purity which is very hard to explain ; and the painter seems to have gained this effect (in a manner somewhat akin to that of Turner) by using pure colour with the greatest dexterity. The colour seems to have been almost dropped in, bit by bit, with a luminous haze of sunshine. Two very fine Ruysdaels, both of water under a dark sky, a good Frank Hals, a somewhat indifferent collection of ettyps, and a magnificent Gerard Doy, entitled "The WaterDoctor," are the other chief features of this room.