Colvin’s article first appeared in 1867, the same year the foundation stone for the Royal Albert Hall was laid by Queen Victoria, John Stuart Mill’s motion to give women the vote was decisively rejected by the House of Commons, and Matthew Arnold’s poem of Victorian Pessimism, ‘Dover Beach’ was published.

Prompted by the sense ‘there is much that is discouraging in the position and prospects of painting in England’ Colvin set out to attend to those names of interest in the then current art world.[1] Concluding ‘the total want of understanding that subsists between the general public and the better sort of artists’, Colvin sought to evaluate and reflect at that time, the year 1867, on what was happening within the art world, how it was changing, and in what way and with what merit.

Colvin suggested, and this probably still stands, that there are three options open to painters. To struggle ‘in the cold shade of popular neglected and critical antagonism’ an artist could relapse ‘into obstinacy’ working purely for those patrons as can sympathise with his art (with retrospect this does feel a little like Rossetti’s chosen niche), or he could lose heart and ‘surrenders to dominant Philistinism’, e.g. attend to the popular and commercially viable, or (and this seems like a product of the second option), an artist can become complacent due to popular success and ‘an artistic gift is wasted’.[2]

Having set out these three options, and later providing names such as Millais as a blithe suggestion of ‘selling out’, Colvin then justifies his own position as critic or supplier of criticism. ‘It is earnestly to be desired that we should have our eyes opened to the radical qualities and purport of the better and neglected art of the day, that we should be led towards the light by teaching and criticism’.[3]

Colvin, like Ruskin, calls for art to be ‘a national art worth to be so called’. It is Colvin’s objective to establish or rather to help his readers recognise an art worthy of national interest. One of the problems in the public settling on a type of nationally viable and worthy art, is the ‘undecided’ state of society, the ‘anarchic state of national life’.[4] Hence, permitting the value of Colvin’s own writing and his ability to console and resurrect our faith in the ‘English Painters and Painting in 1867’.

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Annie Swynnerton, The Sense of Sight (1895, Walker Gallery)

A formula Colvin uses when defining art is the ‘Idealisation of Fact’, which he suggests is the pursuit of the cultivation of the perfection (of an object). Colvin suggests an aim for art, is to ‘satisfy our love of beauty and cultivate our sense of perfection’.[5] Furthermore, Colvin suggests that art is most near perfection when through the sense of sight. The perfection of forms and colours is, for Colvin, the pursuit of beauty and as such ‘Pictorial art addresses itself directly to the sense of sight’, a line no doubt manifest in Annie Swynnerton’s The Sense of Sight (1895, Walker Gallery).[6]

Wilkie, Self portrait aged about 20 (1804, National Gallery of Scotland).

Colvin suggests there are, or had been, two pictorial schools: the Germanic picturesque school and the Venetian beautiful school. But during the nineteenth century art was dull, it could be described as ‘Domestic and the Anecdotic’.[7] Domestic art could include what Colvin hilariously describes as ‘facetious bumpkins’, and although he gives present day examples, he makes no mention of Sir David Wilkie (although he would have been dead twenty six years in 1867). This omission is just one example of how Colvin’s article is consciously designed to consider the moment, the here and now, the year 1867. Beauty is considered absent from the Domestic and the Anecdotic, and worse still was the philoprogenitive which we can assume would have included Millais’ Bubbles (1885, Lady Lever, Port Sunlight).  Although Bubbles was produced nearly twenty years after this article was published, it demonstrates that Colvin was right in his perception that Millais ‘has fallen in too readily with this appetite of the public’, and is clearly displeased at its dripping sentimentality.

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Millais, Bubbles (1885, Lady Lever, Port Sunlight)

With regards to the ‘Anecdotic’, Colvin describes W.P. Frith’s works as belonging to the ‘contemporary’ anecdote, as opposed to the alternative ‘historical’ anecdote. Beauty, in the case of works like ‘Derby Day’ has been suspended, despite its dexterous handling and arrangement. The delight of the public seeing itself in a collective mirror, meant that beauty was being ignored.

A further category of art is the ‘Academic’: a category which, as Colvin reports William Michael Rossetti observed, makes ‘Raphael and the Greeks its basis of Nature’ but has since fallen into discredit due in no small part to ‘that animated prae-Raphaelitism [sic]’.[8]Art is about more than mere Imitation, there is also Idealisation which has to rearrange the natural order with reference to beauty and thereby invents new (new art) through ‘selection, comparison and synthesis of recorded fact’.[9] Imitation alone remains just that, however, ‘idealised imitation’ has capacity to effect and offer Expression. Any weakening of these parts lessens the overall effect and ‘n times like the present, when ‘the culture of the aesthetic faculty is vague and objectless’ almost all our art is to some tent a failure’.[10] Emotion is for Colvin, also a necessary part of art, whereas scientific art is a reaction away from this. It falls into the limitations of Imitation to the neglect of Idealisation: for Colvin, the fact ‘it may be called scientific proves that it is not essentially artistic’.[11]

Artists such as Turner, or in fact Turner alone, mastered the processes of Imitation, Idealisation, and Expression. Modern landscape is seen, in Colvin’s view, to be an essential soothing of the soul and works which provided relief from this ‘smoky wilderness’ likely include clouds.[12] After all, we have a ‘conscious craving’ ‘for the comfort that is in clouds and mountains’.[13]

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Millais, Jephthah and his Daughter (1867, National Museum Wales)

The scientific spirit found and reviled in early Pre-Raphaelitism is seen by Colvin as insisting upon the earliest stage of art production, that of Imitation. However, despite Colvin’s earlier suggestion of scientific art not being art, he considers the Pre-Raphaelites as being ‘on the straight way that leads to excellence, and [they] were nearer to beauty than their opponents’.[14] He does criticise them slightly for falling ‘into the natural mistake of over-emphasising their moral, of teaching and preaching at the expense, in the outset, of beauty’.[15] Despite some of the over-intellectualised paintings of Pre-Raphaelitism, e.g. Hunt’s Lear and Cordelia that needed to be cracked like a nut in order to be understood, nevertheless revolutionised English painting. Colvin returns to the word ‘earnestness’ in which he criticises Millais’ pursuit of ‘Jephthah and his Daughter’ (painting in 1867, Wales) consummate Imitation over his more earnest ‘Marianas’ or ‘Ophelias’.[16]

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Hunt, Afterglow (1854 – 1861, Ashmolean)

Holman Hunt also falls foul of Colvin’s formulas, for his works like The Afterglow (1854 – 1861, Ashmolean) are considered as didactic although in combination with beauty, before relapsing ‘into artistic incipience’ with works such as Hunt’s Il Dolce far Niente Hunt, (1859, retouched by the artist 1874–75, The Schaeffer Collection) (a work I find profusely beautiful but which Colvin seems to find overworked).

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Hunt, Il Dolce far Niente (1859, retouched by the artist 1874–75, The Schaeffer Collection)

Colvin claims that beauty in our modern day images has become subordinate, and gives examples of past masters ‘in whom the sense of beauty was strong’ such as Hogarth Reynolds and Gainsborough.[17] In opposition to this, Colvin names present day artists who encapsulate beauty: Leighton and Moore and Whistler, as well as Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Solomon and Watts.

Leighton is mentioned first and appears to capture much of what Colvin values: the classical ideal mixed with effeminacy voluptuous grace and pastoral repose of feeling. Leighton has ‘an exquisite delicacy and monumental breadth of treatment’.[87]  Colvin particularly names Leighton’s Venus at the Bath (otherwise known as Venus Disrobing at the Bath, 1866, Private Collection)) as a fine example of the female form, although interestingly he doesn’t impress the term beauty within his description.[19]

The Shulamite
Moore, The Shulamite (1864–1866, Walker Gallery)

Moore’s utilisation of form is what seems to excite Colvin, his interest lying in form and not expression. In fact, many of his figures lack any form of expression, in the typical sense: appearing instead to be fleshy classical images. Colvin notes that the public is discerning of Moore’s work but only in small numbers, but appears hopeful they may linger more on Moore’s monumental works. When discussing the positioning of Moore’s work, Colvin does note the influence of the Royal Academy’s hanging of individual pictures, e.g. The Shulamite (1864–1866, Walker Gallery).

Colvin’s view of Whistler is as an artist who ‘aims at beauty without realism’, proclaiming his works ‘mystify the average spectator’.[20] Whilst clearly an admirer of Whistler, Colvin also notes their exclusiveness and one-sidedness of treatment.  Rossetti on the other hand is considered to be one of the original and chief intellects of the Pre-Raphaelites: an artist with ‘amazing power of realisation and extreme splendour of colour’.[21] Colvin acknowledges the ‘archaic quaintness’ of Rossetti’s work and also uses adjectives such as ‘melancholy’ and ‘half morbid’.[22] Colvin further classes Burne-Jones alongside, rather than subordinate or subsequent to Rossetti. Colvin considers Burne-Jones to have the capacity to rattle his viewers, through cries of ‘How hideous! How horrid!’, a fascinating corollary of the beautiful and the awful (which can be found in the work of Moreau, Munch or many other Symbolist artists yet to find their feet in 1867). Colvin assesses Burne-Jones’ greatest successes as being the ones ‘in the extra-human sphere, in the embodiment of his own and other people’s mythical creations’.[23] Burne-Jones gives ‘corporeal substance to entities too airy to assume it’.[24]

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Solomon, Habet! (1865, Private Collection)

Solomon is further mentioned as an example of an artist with ‘spiritual inventiveness, not wholly unlike that of Blake, that should one day place him in the front ranks of Art’.[25] Sadly this is still a process in action, but Colvin was right in his assessment of Solomon’s gifts, even if he leaned in preference toward his smaller works. Habet! is specifically mentioned by Colvin, a work that is 101.5 x 122 cm in size, and although it was described as being ‘monotonous’ when exhibited, it was posthumously described by The Times August 19th, 1905 as having been one of the ‘pictures of the year’.[26]

The final artist given attention is Watts, a man forced by ‘public apathy’ to devote himself to portrait-painting (a skill Watts struggled with possessing). Colvin omits the word ‘beauty’ in any concentrated fashion, and gives no mention of any particular painting, but he ascribes a mental grasp of character and a passion for beauty to Watts. As a final addendum, Colvin also mentions Hughes (Albert) and Mason (unsure).

All of the artists Colvin selected to present in his article were done so as part of a demonstration of a group of artists who were making beauty their aim, even if there was no unanimity between their means or the final images.

For Colvin it was no use quarrelling about the merits of art, but it was worth lamenting and acknowledging the different artistic temperaments of the time. Colvin proclaimed the ‘state of aesthetic deadness is our misfortune’.[27] It was part of Colvin’s own endeavour to ‘kindle in the majority the love of beauty’.[28]


See: Sidney Colvin, ‘English painters and painting in 1867’, Fortnightly Review, n.s. 2 (October 1867), 473 – 476

[1] Sidney Colvin, ‘English painters and painting in 1867’, Fortnightly Review, n.s. 2 (October 1867), 473 – 476 (p. 464).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Colvin, p. 465.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Colvin, p. 467.

[8] Ibid., p. 468.

[9] Ibid., p. 468.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, p. 469.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., p. 470.


[15] Ibid., 471.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 472.

[18] Ibid. 473.

[19] Ibid. 473.

[20] Ibid., p. 473.

[21] Ibid., p. 474

[22] Ibid., p. 474.

[23] Ibid., p. 474.

[24] Ibid., p. 475.

[25] Ibid., p. 475.


[27] Ibid., p. 476

[28] Ibid., 476.