14 FEBRUARY 1880, Page 11


TN the Nineteenth Centztry for February, Mr. Watts has published a paper, entitled " The Present Conditions of Art," which must be peculiarly interesting to all who have ever earnestly felt or thought about Art,—first, because of the matter and manner of it ; and secondly, because of the interest, which is one rarely gratified, of hearing opinions on Art from those whose work proves their opinions to have been tested by the best experience, that of incessant and successful labour. The number of writers on Art seems to increase every year, and on no subject are writers more dogmatic, " intense," and uncompromising in the expression of their opinions. There are few Art critics whose style does not recall, " I am Sir Oracle, and when I ope my lips, let no dog bark." The certainty in the expression of opinions is the more to be wondered at, when we see how much restraint, temperance, even diffidence, is used by those who do the best work, when they discuss the work of fellow- artists. Great men who have toiled through the labour that has made them great have, perhaps, staggered too often under the many difficulties of their art to be so light-heartedly con- fident in theorising, either on other artists' work or on their own ; and being greatly gifted, their artist eye feeds generously on Nature's beauties, so that their opinions are softened towards

diverse styles and manners which, though not their own, trans- late more strikingly sometimes one truth, sometimes another. Still, there are principles which lie deep-rooted at the core of the whole subject of Art which inspire them to eloquence, prin- ciples which have made all highly-cultured societies include the right development of Art into the scheme of all wholesome civi- lisation, but which principles, in the turmoil and hurry of modern life, run a chance too often of being forgotten. To state them briefly, they are reverence for and delight in beauty, earnestness in study, and sincerity towards those emotions which arise in artistic natures (to quote from Sir F. Leighton's admirable discourse to the Royal Academy students) " iu the presence of the phenomena of life and nature." All, we think, will agree that it is the adherence to these principles which has been the secret of the power of all greatness in Art; and should they cease to be the mainsprings from which the inventive faculty produces its work, Art must sink to the level of flippant and not very wholesome pleasures, or solemn and not at all amusing farces.

In this essay, Mr. Watts has tried to persuade the world how necessary are the refining influences of beauty to the moral, mental, and physical condition of society, and how far the modern world has strayed away from Nature's own teaching in the matter, and how far, through over-greed and selfishness in straining for material prosperity and indulgences only, we have not only frustrated the spontaneous happiness which beauty in- fuses into life, but we are frustrating the ends for which we have sacrificed so much. He has treated his subject from a suffi- ciently wide point of view to bring it into contact with the vital interests of society at large, and to clear away the mist of conflicting interests and complications, arising from the transition from old-established ideas to those new and untried,—a transition which is developing new conditions in every art and science, in the outward world we see, as in modes of thought in individuals and society collectively. This state of transition produces conditions most unfavourable to Art, and these conditions have been dwelt on with eloquence and subtlety by Mr. Watts ; yet, as he says, It must be remembered that the artist, no less than the poet, should speak the language of his time ;" and no less important is it for his readers to remem- ber that whatever shortcomings he finds in the conditions of modern society as regards the growth of Art, he cannot certainly be accused of using, as many do, such shortcomings to cover a want of interest or vitality in his work. When Mr. Watts complains that nearly all modern habits of life impover- ish the element of beauty which feeds the growth of spon- taneous art, we must listen to him, not as to one who has been hopelessly inactive under the starvation which such ugliness is to the artist, but as to one who, above all other artists, has painted in the spirit of the higher thought of his time, and who has por- trayed, as no other artist has, the only special beauty of our times in a consummate manner. For the questioning, com- plicated difficulties attendant on the upsetting of old, recognised methods of life, though they have deprived the world ,of so much in art that is beautiful, have produced their special beauty even for the artist. Life is now-a-days to very few a life of thought or a life of action separated, to most of us it is a life of both combined, and combined under a pressure of various lines of interest and action, united often with a struggle for necessities of a material kind. The countenances of men who think and act,—more especially, of course, men of original thought who have conquered the complications of modern conditions by threading successfully their own line of individual thought and conviction through all difficulties,—the counten- ances of such men acquire a subtle interest, which is the result of the peculiar thought of our own day. If we have lost in physical strength and brutal energy, we have gained in moral courage, maintained in the best minds through all questioning doubts, —doubts, it must be remembered, which sap enthusiasm and certainty, the qualities which make courage comparatively easy. Of many of our greatest men Mr. Watts has made por- traits which, in the deepest and subtlest qualities of portraiture, are second, perhaps, to none, rendering in the countenances of his sitters the modern element of subtlety and questioning with a delicacy and breadth combined, unsurpassed, we should think, by any master. Such work can only be the outcome of a life lived earnestly in the thought of the age, which is so strikingly portrayed in the faces of its great men. Such pictures as " Love and Death " and " Time and Death" are obviously the result of a specially modern vein of thought.

Love, struggling vainly at the portal with outspread, battered wings, to resist the inevitable, weighty inmarch- ing of his enemy Death ; Time and Death, wading hand- in-hand through the waves of events ; Time, striding on inexorably, with an unalterable vigour of youth ; Death, gathering her flowers as she passes on, both followed by the inevitable Nemesis flying in their wake, scales in hand, which weigh in the history of the world the results of Time and Death,—these two pictures are poems in colour and form, which are bred of the intellectual emotions of the age, as are the subtle lines and thoughtful brows in the portraits of the great men.

Most sincerely and earnestly has Mr. Watts painted the realities of his age, none the less realities because emanating from the thought and feeling, as well as the action, of the pre- sent time ; but his manner of painting has a nobility and reti- cence which are not modern in their character, and which make many exclaim, when they first see one of his pictures, " It is like an old master." When such an artist writes ably on his own subject, we hope all those interested in general culture and social questions, as well as in Art, will read, not confounding his writing with that of the many who have not proved their experience, but with the respect and attention deserved not only by the fullest experience, but by proofs given of sin- cerity and power. In his essay, Mr. Watts wisely leaves all discussion and questionable points alone, discoursing on his subject from a loftier position than is generally taken in the discussion of Art, claiming for the noblest art a place in what is best in the histories of all great nations, and instigating us, as a nation distinguished in so many other ways, to desire and demand Art which shall be consistent with the greatness of our other achievements, pointing out that in a time like the present, it is more than ever necessary to boar in mind that there is a practical use in the cultivation of the fine arts Perhaps the following quotation will give the most character- istic example of the tone of the whole article :—

" Now, it might be well to ask whether great art is really a neces- sity in the develop,nent of a nation's history ; if it be a necessary constituent in general social perfection. We cannot question the progress of civilisation, for it is easy to point to conquest over in- ferior races, impatience of injustice and extension of sympathy ; but it is a melancholy truth that progress is not all clear gain. It destroys as well as constructs. Decay follows up behind advance, and many things hourly drop out of existence which humanity cau ill spare, though at the moment it may set little store by them. Modern habits of investigation have sapped unquestioning faith, and have not supplied anything more consoling. Material prosperity has become our real god, but we are surprised to find that the worship of this visible deity does not make us happy, and more than begin to suspect that we cannot, by any earnestness of sacrifice, bind him to us. The one thing which is more than ever clearly perceived is the density of the veil that covers the mystery of our being, at all times impenetrable, and to be impenetrable, in spite of which conviction we ever passionately yearn to pierce it. This yearning finds its natural expression in poetry, in art, and in music. These are ministers of the divine part of our natures. Materialism may sneer at imperfect utterance, but through the incoherence will often thrill that note which awakens a responsive chord in the best side of humanity. Among the best gifts bestowed upon us is the sense (in the widest acceptation of the term) of beauty, and the first among the servants of beauty is Art. As before said, in an age so given to look only for material, industrial, and self-evident advantages as the present, all elements that are not immediately concerned in the production of material advantages are too com- monly set aside, as belonging to the fanciful and unpractical, only to be thought of in intervals of breathing-time, rarely permitted in the real struggle of life. Yet that possible state of social harmony, of well-being of humanity, which even common philosophy is beginning to have a glimpse of, can only be attained by the activity of all the intellectual faculties working harmoniously together. The importance of demands upon activity which provide occupations, and conse- quently means of sustenance, for different classes of hand-workers, is obvious, and they are naturally estimated at their worth; but it is less clearly seen that the promotion of social sympathies is of not less importance, that the activity which secures the satisfaction of the physical requirements alone will by no means secure the happi- ness of the individual, still less of a family, least of all of the widely extended social correspondence to which progress points as its object and end."

Mr. Watts's style curiously reminds us of the manner of his painting, each sentence weighty with suggestiveness, the thought delicate, at the same time, his breadth of treatment including wide-spread interests, the moral, no less than the aesthetic, side of his subject. It is, perhaps, the sweep of his imagi- nation inclosing so wide an area of suggestive thought, that causes in his painting what those who are not fully in sympathy with it think a certain vagueness, a want of cer- tainty and finish, notwithstanding the fine feeling for form, colour, and tone, and profound knowledge which are apparent in all Mr. Watts's works. A certain amount of unattainable- ness is, perhaps, inherent in the aim he has in view; but it is very necessary, in order to arrive at anything like a fine judg- ment with regard to his subject-pictures, that a distinction should be clearly felt between the unattainableness we often see, consequent on an absence in the artist of the true artistic gift, a want of industry, care, or concentration, and the subtlety and delicacy which to some appear a want of distinctness in Mr. Watts's poetical work, in which, of necessity, the quality of suggestiveness is more salient than that of completeness.

In his writing, as in his painting, there is too an element of the feverish concentration of the inventive craftsman, which the following words will best exemplify :—" What ought to be demanded is that the artist should throw his whole being into his work, that the religious fervour he may not give to the creed that saints and angels take visible interest in what he is about, he should bring to bear upon what he ought really to believe,—namely, that he is practising a noble and beautiful art, that is worthy of all his heart's love and devotion, to be thought of first when he rises in the morning, and last when he closes his eyes at night. If this is not so, let him never hope to stand with those who are identified with all that is worthiest in the history of nations."