To the Editor of The Times,
Sir,—Your obliging insertion of my former letter encourages me to trouble you with one or two further notions respecting the pre-Raphaelite pictures. I had intended, in continuation of my first letter, to institute as close an inquiry as I could into the character of the morbid tendencies which prevent these works from favourably arresting the attention of the public; but I believe there are so few pictures in the Academy whose reputation would not be grievously diminished by a deliberate inventory of their errors, that I am disinclined to undertake so ungracious a task with respect to this or that particular work. Three points, however, may be noted, partly for the consideration of the painters themselves, partly that forgiveness of them may be asked from the public in consideration of high merit in other respects.
The most painful of these defects is unhappily also the most prominent—the commonness of feature in many of the principal figures. In Mr. Hunt’s “Valentine defending Sylvia,” this is, indeed, almost the only fault. Further examination of this picture has even raised the estimate I had previously formed of its marvellous truth in detail and splendour in colour; nor is its general conception less deserving of praise; the action of Valentine, his arm thrown round Sylvia and his hand clasping hers at the same instant as she falls at his feet, is most faithful and beautiful, nor less so the contending of doubt and distress with awakening hope in the half-shadowed, half-sunlit countenance of Julia. Nay, even the momentary struggle of Proteus with Sylvia, just past, is indicated by the trodden grass and broken fungi of the foreground. But all this thoughtful conception, and absolutely inimitable execution, fails in making immediate appeal to the feelings, owing to the unfortunate type chosen for the face of Sylvia. Certainly this cannot be she whose lover was—
- “As rich in having such a jewel,
- “As twenty seas, if all their sands were pearl.”
Nor is it, perhaps, less to be regretted that while in Shakespeare’s play there are nominally “Two Gentlemen,” in Mr. Hunt’s picture there should be one—at least, the kneeling figure on the right has by no means the look of a gentleman. But this may be on purpose, for any one who remembers the conduct of Proteus throughout the previous scenes will, I think, be disposed to consider that the error lies more in Shakespeare’s nomenclature than in Mr. Hunt’s ideal.
No defence can, however, be offered for the choice of features in the left-hand figure of Mr. Millais’ “Dove returning to the Ark.” I cannot understand how a painter so sensible of the utmost refinements of beauty in other objects should deliberately choose for his model a type far inferior to that of average humanity, and unredeemed by any expression except that of dull self-complacency. Yet let the spectator who desires to be just turn away from this head, and contemplate rather the tender and beautiful expression of the stooping figure, and the intense harmony of colour in the exquisitely finished draperies; let him note also the ruffling of the plumage of the wearied dove, one of its feathers falling on the arm of the figure which holds it, and another to the ground, where, by the by, the hay is painted not only elaborately, but with the most perfect ease of touch and mastery of effect, especially to be observed because this freedom of execution is a modern excellence, which it has been inaccurately stated that these painters despise, but which, in reality, is one of the remarkable distinctions between their painting and that of Van Eyck or Memling, which caused me to say in my first letter that “those know little of ancient painting who supposed the work of these men to resemble it.”
Next to this false choice of feature, and in connexion with it, is to be noted the defect in the colouring of the flesh. The hands, at least in the pictures of Millais, are almost always ill painted, and the flesh tint in general is wrought out of crude purples and dusky yellows. It appears just possible that much of this evil may arise from the attempt to obtain too much transparency—an attempt which has injured also not a few of the best works of Mulready. I believe it will be generally found that close study of minor details is unfavourable to flesh painting; it was noticed of the drawing by John Lewis, in the old water-colour exhibition of 1850 (a work which, as regards its treatment of detail, may be ranged in the same class with the pre-Raphaelite pictures), that the faces were the worst painted portions of the whole.
The apparent want of shade is, however, perhaps the fault which most hurts the general eye. The fact is, nevertheless, that the fault is far more in the other pictures of the Academy than in the pre-Raphaelite ones. It is the former that are false, not the latter, except so far as every picture must be false which endeavours to represent living sunlight with dead pigments. I think Mr. Hunt has a slight tendency to exaggerate reflected lights; and if Mr. Millais has ever been near a piece of good painted glass he ought to have known that its tone is more dusky and sober than that of his Mariana’s window. But for the most part these pictures are rashly condemned, because the only light which we are accustomed to see represented is that which falls on the artist’s model in his dim painting-room, not that of sunshine in the fields.
I do not think I can go much further in fault finding. I had, indeed, something to urge respecting what I supposed to be the Romanizing tendencies of the painters; but I have received a letter assuring me that I was wrong in attributing to them anything of the kind, whereupon, all I can say is, that instead of the “pilgrimage” of Mr. Collins’s maiden over a plank and round a fish pond, that old pilgrimage of Christiana and her children towards the place where they should “look the Fountain of Mercy in the face” would have been more to the purpose in these times. And so I wish them all heartily good speed, believing in sincerity that if they temper the courage and energy which they have shown in the adoption of their system with patience and discretion in pursuing it, and if they do not suffer themselves to be driven by harsh or careless criticism into rejection of the ordinary means of obtaining influence over the minds of others, they may, as they gain experience, lay in our England the foundations of a school of art nobler than the world has seen for 300 years.
I have the honour to be, Sir,
Your obedient servant,
The author of ‘Modern Painters‘
Denmark Hill, May 26th, 1851.