12 DECEMBER 1885, Page 12



Ma. HUBERT HERKOMER is a good specimen of a perfectly modern type of artist; and he is in many respects, both in his merits and his shortcomings, an interesting figure in the English art world. At atime like the present, when the tendency of painters in general is more and more towards the limitation of their subject-matter, to this or that little sub-division of art; when the man who paints a calm sea no longer paints a rough one, and the artist of the garden is distinct from the artist of the meadow; when the classical draughtsman limits himself either to the age of Augustus, or the age of Pericles; and the painter of modern life does not, as a rule, embrace a period of more than about twenty years, in the costumes and subjects of his pictures,—in such a time, the very variety of Mr. Herkomer's artistic experiments will render him notable. For, from this man, there are few methods of art, and few subjects with which art can be occupied, which are altogether sacred. From Chelsea pensioners to Bavarian peasants, from Welsh mountains to Tyrolese forests, from classical advertisements to rustic children, from tramps to war correspondents, from withered grandmothers in russet to big blooming maidens in white satin, does our professor range with celerity, confidence, and (not to speak it unkindly) clamour. Nor is this by any means all, or much more than a tithe, of Mr. Herkomer's miscellaneousness ; for if he paints all these subjects in oil, he also draws most of them in water. colour; and most of them, again, on the wood; and when he does not etch them on the copper-plate, he does them in mezzotint ; and if he does not mezzotint them, he does them in miniature on ivory ; and if he does not do them in miniature, he does them in wood-carving ; and what he cannot do in wood- carving, he beats out at his forge in iron ; and if any subject is so stubborn, so complicated, or so wonderful, that neither canvas, paper, copper, wood, nor iron will express it, he takes up his zither, and works it out to his own and his hearers' complete satisfaction. How is one to judge the work of such a man as this ? The justice of Aristides was nothing to the art of our present subject. If the Athenians banished the statesman, should not we English be justified in banishing this Anglo- Bavarian, whose great loose stride seems to cover our whole art country, without perceptible effort ?

The real question about Mr. Herkomer's painting seems to narrow itself down to this,—Are we, in writing of this or that manifestation of it, to give the artist credit for all the other fields in which he is labouring ; to be content with a lesser or a more crude form of achievement, in any one special branch, because there are so many other branches in which the painter works, either better or equally well ? For our own part, we feel inclined to answer the question in the negative. It appears to us that if a painter insists upon doing the work of ten men, he manifests a quality of mind which we can only call arrogance, and which challenges for his work severe criticism. If we find marks of haste, crudeness, and incompleteness throughout an artist's painting, it is no justification to say that he paints so many different subjects—that he is, in fact, so pressed for time —that he could not finish his work. The very first quality of all good art is perfection, by which we mean, not that absolute per- fection which so few, if any, artists ever attain,—but perfection from the point of view of the worker,—the sign that he has not left his work while he considered it incomplete. In this sense, a sketch, or a study, may be rightly called as perfect as a picture ; but no picture, no matter how complex or elaborate, can be called perfect, while there is any part which the artist has neglected, or rendered with carelessness. This is the crying sin of nine-tenths of the art of the present day,—proceeding, doubt, from the harry of life, the keenness of competition, and the supposed necessity for rapid production. Go into any gallery of old pictures you like (it need not necessarily be a good one), and take any example at random, and note how the one universal fact which will distinguish it from modern work, will be its quietness of impression, its absence of all personal splash, hurry, and excite- ment. This is a quality of art, which Mr. Herkomer lacks. There is a brazen self-assertion about his paintings—a delight, not so much in doing the thing well, as in showing how well he can do it—from which it is almost impossible to escape. He writes it in big letters on all his portraits ; it seems knitted into the stockings of his women, and stuck like a feather in the caps of his chamois-hunters. It even, so to speak—like our old friend, the skeleton in the cupboard—rattles its bones, and clanks its chain, in the silence of his quietest landscapes.

The present exhibition he entitles, " Sketches and Pictures of Life and Work in Bavaria's Alps ;" and it is, without exception, the most pleasant collection of Mr. Herkomer's works which has yet been shown. Indeed, with the exception of the informal exhibitions which the artist for some years used to hold before the opening of the Academy, it is the only time we have seen a considerable number of his pictures together. He is here quite at his best ; the works are all small in scale, most of them very small, and many being in water-colour, in which medium the artist's work gains con- siderably in delicacy, with but little diminution of its strength. And in these Bavarian pictures, also, Mr. Herkomer shows an amor patrice which goes far to give his work that touch of gentleness and sympathy, in which it is usually wanting. The large round faces, blue eyes, and blonde hair, of these Bavarian peasant-women have, we think, never been rendered, with quite the attractiveness with which they are rendered here. There is in the painting of the women and children in these sketches, a kindliness and a genuine fondness for his subject, which are pleasant to look upon. The little children, standing before wayside shrines, or at their mothers' knees ; the girls, who lean over the rough wooden balconies, or stand shading the sun from their eyes in the open meadows ; the old women, praying, knitting, or sitting quietly with folded hands in their big arm-chairs, are all the work of a painter, who has lived the life of the people as one of themselves. They are -done from the inside, rather than from the outside. The men swagger ;—not unpleasantly, it is true, but still uncomfortably. And it is in the delineation of these, that the artist's weakness for exaggeration of gesture, and his occasional tendency to -coarseness in his work, come out most forcibly. The hands and feet of the figures are frequently badly drawn, and almost invariably incompletely finished. The eyes roll, the gestures aro awkward or melodramatic, and the sentiment is often forced. Look, as an example of this, at the picture called 4‘ Contrasts," one of the largest in the exhibition,—which shows, as the catalogue tells us, schoolchildren greeting an English lady and her daughter—in which this exaggeration of gesture is so marked, that we imagined the scene to be one in which charity was being distributed to starving children. This picture is a curious one, for many reasons, for it shows, more clearly than any other, the artistic indebtedness of Mr. Herkomer to the style of the late George Pinwell, just as the pictures which surround it, notably No. 8, show the influence of Fred Walker. In the figure of the young English lady, in a fashionable costume, there is exactly the kind of exaggeration which Pinwell would have used in such a subject, and the colour of the work also reminds us of that artist. In this last respect of colour, these sketches show Mr. Herkomer quite at his best ; and though it is undoubtedly true that the faces and figures which he paints, are unnaturally forced in tone, and do not possess that aspect of being painted in the open air, and modified by the effect of atmosphere—which we find, for instance, in all good French work—yet the whole -colour-effect of the picture is, as a rule, exceedingly pretty, almost too pretty, indeed, for truth. And, since we are ex- amining the character of Mr. Herkomer's painting, we may, perhaps, say in this connection that this over-prettiness appears to be a deliberate intention on the painter's part. Both the landscape and the figures are a little, a very little, overdressed. The people do not seem to have had any feelings which they ought not to have had; they are almost too uniformly sweet, patient, plump, rosy, and well-behaved. Surely, even in the Bavarian Alps, life is not all sunshine and zither-playing, children prattling, and lovers pleading.

There is one exception, at all events, amongst these pictures ; and that is the one of the poacher, seeing the Government hunter who shot his son pass in front of the village inn, where he is sitting with a lot of comrades. Parts of this work—as, for instance, the figure of the father, who is standing up, with both arms rigid by his side, glaring at the unconscious hunter—are fine ; but it is injured by being overcrowded with figures, which have little relation to one another, or to the central incidents of the composition ; and also, by the object of the father's anger being made one of the least noticeable parts of the picture. The consequence of this latter mistake is, that the story is not told plainly. If we were to choose, for our own pleasure, any of these sketches or pictures, we should take one of the simpler single-figure studies, such as the one of the old man taking col his hat at the village shrine in the evening (No. 3d), or that of the old woman praying, which Mr. Herkomer entitles "A Moment's Rest." Both of these are fine, simple, strong bits of character-painting, with a clearness of texture, and an absence of that somewhat puddingy method of work which is notice- able in many of Mr. Herkomer's water-colour paintings. And if not one of these, then the " Knitting Lesson," with its cleverly grouped, pretty children's faces, or the large one of the village street. On the whole, we must say that these are the best things the painter has done, except, perhaps, one or two portraits ; but that, good as they are, they might have been infinitely better, had their artist not had his hands too full of other things, to make them as complete as they are skilful and interesting.