Victorian Narrative Paintings
“When praising the French artist and sneering at the English painter, we neglect to put ourselves in the place of each.” These revealing words were written ninety years ago by the American sea painter and free-lance journalist, S.W.G. Benjamin, who collected his reports on the European art scene for Harper’s Magazine in a book on Contemporary Art in Europe (1877). Each of the European schools, he insists, “possesses marked traits of its own, but no one of them can be said to be in all respects superior to the other.” The point of view of this gifted observer was that of Hippolyte Taine, which he distills into the words: “The truest, highest art is the spontaneous outgrowth of the tendencies of an age or a race…what may be the best art for one age or country may not be the best for another.”
Few art historians would explicitly reject these principles in theory, but fewer still would want to apply them in practice. Nowhere, perhaps, is this inconsistency more apparent than in our attitude toward nineteenth-century art, for nowhere are art historians more selective. It is instructive here to turn the pages of Benjamin’s book and to compare his panorama of European art in the 1870s with ours. The difference is most marked in his chapter on French painting. Not unexpectedly he honors the memory of Corot and Millet, who had recently died, but does not even mention Manet nor any of the Impressionists. Some of the artists he does discuss and praise would probably be unknown even to specialists today. His first illustration is a painting by Chevilliard called An Entertaining Story showing two jolly clergymen relaxing in a country inn; another, Expectation by Toulmouche, of an elegant woman in evening dress impatiently watching the clock on the mantelpiece.
But while Benjamin’s picture of French art thus differs radically from ours, his account of English painting corresponds much more closely to that now presented in Mr. Graham Reynolds’s excellent survey. In both books due weight is given to the figure of Sir John Everett Millais, whose very uneven oeuvre was recently presented in a large exhibition at the Royal Academy. But here the American critic also correctly estimated the relevance of more recent movements and reputations: He describes the role of the Grosvenor Gallery and lists among artists of the “Romantic School” exhibiting there the young Walter Crane; he also comments on the strong note of social criticism in English painting and singles out, in this context, S. Luke Fildes as “one of the most recent aspirants to artistic honors in England.” Fildes was subsequently to paint one of the most popular pictures of the late Victorian age, The Doctor, which used to hang in many a waiting room, It showed a bearded doctor gazing worriedly at a sick child bedded on two chairs in a pauper’s cottage. In a dark corner a woman has collapsed at a table while her husband stands helplessly beside her. As Mr. Lister tells us in his text, “such scenes were, alas, not uncommon in Victorian times. It was, in 1851, calculated that only about forty-five per cent of babies born in Liverpool lived to be twenty years of age.” He urges that the picture is “painted with deep understanding and sympathy,” and his verdict is echoed by Mr. Reynolds, who says that “there is sentiment but not sentimentality about it.” However that may be, the painting has recently been brought up from the cellars of the Tate Gallery and is once more displayed together with The Last Day in the Old Home by Martineau and Hopeless Dawn by Frank Bramley. It would be far from easy to gain similar access through books and public galleries to French paintings which had once enjoyed a comparable success in the Salon.
There are many reasons for this discrepancy. The first is no doubt our continued resentment at the fact that it was the popularity of the French Salon painters which stood in the way of the true masters of their country. The English painters do not have to bear this stigma, because the artistic scene of the nineteenth century in England, vividly described in Mr. Reynolds’s book, was more complex than the embattled situation in France. True, there was also periodic dissatisfaction with the Academy; rival groups were formed, but the most significant of these groups, the Pre-Raphaelites, was blessed with an unconscious gift for publicity, and since its members enjoyed the championship of Ruskin, they soon rose to success and even affluence. In art as in politics England differs from most countries of the continent in having had no violent revolutions. The lines of communication with the past were never totally broken. Hence the English school enjoyed a certain prestige among the progressives on the continent of Europe, largely because of the role which the medievalizer William Morris played so paradoxically in the formation of the Modern Movement. When the German champion of Modernism, Richard Muther, published his Geschichte der englischen Malerei in 1903, he devoted enthusiastic chapters to Burne-Jones and Watts.
THE REVIVAL OF INTEREST in Victorian painting to which the two books under review testify is therefore a less dramatic event than would be a similar revival of interest in the totality of French painting of the Second Empire and the Third Republic, embracing the Salon painters as well. Even this, of course, is not in the cards: witness a recent exhibition of Bouguereau in Paris, once the darling and then the butt of the critics. By now the crosscurrents of present-day taste and fashions are so complex that the very fact that these paintings strike us as corny may recommend them to the young. The once-popular appeals to the “Pop” artist and his audience precisely because it does not rank as “Art” with the Establishment.
The art historian who has followed the traditional line, depicting the nineteenth century as the scene of the heroic struggle of progressive artists against the foil of “official art” may thus soon be confronted with an interesting dilemma. If he sticks to his guns that artists outside the modern movement represented a decadent and unworthy phase of painting, he may invite the charge of inconsistency. Did he not otherwise subscribe to the principles enunciated by Hippolyte Taine and applied by Benjamin, which enjoin the historian to look at the varieties of art as the botanist looks at the varieties of plants, without wishing to praise or condemn any of them? Was it not the triumph of the scientific approach to the history of style to have removed the stigma of decline from the Middle Ages, the Baroque, Late Antiquity, and Mannerism? Is the retention of value judgments in nineteenth-century art not simply a symptom of the art historian’s greater involvement, and is not involvement something he should shun as an impartial historian? I suppose his first answer would have to be that the study of art does differ from the study of botany, and that the art historian has always been involved and should be involved. All the revaluations of the past, though advocated in the name of objectivity, were in fact rooted in the new aesthetic preoccupations of the present. It was this response to new sensibilities which gave urgency and coherence to the writings of great art historians. Without this, it might be argued, they would have remained chroniclers who would indeed label and record the succession of styles and artists as a botanist surveys the flora of a region.
Much could be said in favor of this answer, but it is still possible to object that the responsibility for value judgments is merely shifted from the individual art historian to his age. The historian, in this reading, just applies the changing values of his time to the past, because that is all he can do. There are no objective values in art any more than there are in plants, and historical relativism is therefore the only tenable philosophy. I am not sure that the historian need be satisfied with this position. As far as he is a historian rather than a chronicler he must try to offer an interpretation of the events he describes. It was such an interpretation that enabled critics of a distant past first to see the history of art as a coherent story. Both in Antiquity and in the Renaissance this history was seen as the systematic development of means toward an end. What is vaguely called the imitation of nature, the mastery of anatomy, or the rendering of spatial relationship in painting, served the end of evoking the convincing picture of a sacred or at least significant event before the eyes of the spectator, as if he were witnessing the event itself. A relativist is certainly entitled to reject this aim in favor of others embodied in the art of other cultures, but even if he prefers Far Eastern to Western art, he could still write a non-relativistic history of Renaissance painting interpreting the gradual conquest of the means that went into the painting of Leonardo’s Last Supper, Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, or, at a later date, Rembrandt’s Denial of Peter.
IT MIGHT BE INTERESTING to apply this approach to the nineteenth century. In one respect it is traditionally so applied: The history of painting in that century is given coherence by the aim of the progressive painters in France to discard visual conventions and to render reality in a novel and convincing way. The triumph of Impressionism, the acceptance of a new pictorial notation that had first to be learned by the public, forms the climax of this story. We have no history yet of the pursuit of the other aim, the presenting of a moving scene exemplified by The Doctor.
The first step here would have to be to distinguish between this aim and that of earlier narrative traditions with which it is often confused. The Renaissance artist who represented The Annunciation or Apollo and Daphne did not expect the beholder to read off the story from the picture. His skill and his inventiveness lay in presenting a familiar episode in a novel and convincing way. We are meant to be able almost to hear the Virgin’s Ecce ancilla Domini even without the benefit of a written scroll, or to listen to Apollo’s amorous pleading; but it is understood that we have heard or read their words before, that we know them from texts deeply embedded in our culture. Hence such representations were frequently judged by contemporaries as we might judge the staging of a familiar classic, the way, for instance, in which the difficulties of the Balcony Scene in Romeo and Juliet are resolved by an imaginative producer. By contrast the narrative paintings of the nineteenth century are rarely concerned with familiar stories. They use painting not to interpret but to convey an episode. That is a very different aim indeed, demanding very different means. Instead of the producer of a classic we need an expert in dumb shows or what, in cinematic terms, is called a “still.”
Admittedly the contrast between these two aims is here overdrawn for the sake of clarity. Religious and didactic narratives also sometimes shaded into storytelling, and yet the new aim was only fully proclaimed and established in the eighteenth century with William Hogarth’s didactic picture stories from modern life, such as The Rake’s Progress. It is significant that Hogarth needed the context of serial dumb shows to tell his stories. Greuze took a further step in distilling his modern subjects into one dramatic and sentimental scene. At the same time Academic painters were increasingly casting around for novel and unusual historical or mythological themes, thus subtly unsettling the place of subject in the scheme of things. It was this attitude which the nineteenth century inherited, and which accounts for the range of subjects listed in the exhibitions of the Salon and the Royal Academy. Historical paintings should evoke a scene or episode never visualized before and do it as accurately as archaeological research will allow. The French and the Belgians including at times such painters as Ingres and Delacroix, liked to pursue this aim. Even with them, it is sometimes difficult for us to appreciate these efforts on their own terms.
Historical paintings were even less well than do historical novels, because they can leave nothing to the imagination. Take Alma Tadema’s painting An Apodyterium, reproduced in color by Mr. Reynolds. In spite of its learned title (or because of it?) the Roman ladies undressing in a bath look hopelessly Victorian. Perhaps the most embarrassing painting in his volume is Henry Holiday’s Dante and Beatrice, once a famous composition, and even now frequently on sale in Florence as a picture postcard. It shows Dante with his inevitable hood by the bank of the Arno pressing his hand to his heart while a glum-looking Beatrice stares past him. The diaphanous and clinging dress of Beatrice’s coquettish companion must strike a historian of manners as a curiosity in the thirteenth century, but it is probably explained by the fact that the artist was an opponent of the abuse of tight lacing and projected the longed-for freedom from this restriction into his vision of a golden age. As a reconstruction the painting is merely comic, as miming it is hamming, and as painting it is wooden. Even its period flavor cannot save it.
In this respect the scenes from contemporary life seem to us more promising. Mr. Reynolds has already devoted a volume to Painters of the Victorian Scene in 1953, but he is all the more aware of their importance within the context of his present study. It was on this branch of painting that the reputation of the English school rested. “With some notable exceptions,” writes Benjamin, “the best modern art of that country is in the treatment of this class of subject.” Here the storyteller’s and stage manager’s art is subjected to a special strain. We can still recognize Dante and remember his love for Beatrice, but what are we to make of a bewhiskered man holding hands with a pale woman who stares at a tree? The picture by Arthur Hughes is called The Long Engagement. The curate is presumably too poor to marry, and the woman is looking wistfully at an inscription they once cut into the bark of the overgrown tree. Could we guess this? Could we find out unaided when looking at William Holman Hunt’s more famous painting, The Awakening Conscience, that the woman who interrupts her music-making with a cheerful young man, and is wringing her hands and gazing heavenward, has not just remembered that she had a chicken in the oven, but was intended to represent “in actual life the manner in which the appeal of the spirit of heavenly love calls a soul to abandon a lower life”? Are the resources of genre painting adequate to meet such a highminded purpose? Are facial expressions or gestures ever legible enough, when arrested, to convey these and similar nuances? Perhaps it is unfair to ask this question in front of this particular painting, for Mr. Lister tells us that its original owner could not bear the expression on the woman’s face and asked the artist to repaint it. But it is precisely this request which is revealing, for the owner surely had a point. The frozen expression easily turns into an intolerable grimace. Thus the “distorted grimacing features” to which Mr. Reynolds objects in many Pre-Raphaelite paintings may not really be due, as he alleges, to any desire on the part of the artists to épater le bourgeois. They are due to a genuine difficulty inherent in their self-imposed task. Nor can I see any “deliberate ugliness” in the awkward gesture of the little boy in Millais’s The Woodman’s Daughter. Though I, too, dislike the picture, I am persuaded that children do stand and move in this way.
HERE, AS ELSEWHERE, the story of this genre cannot really be told without judging the relation of ends and means. The new narrative themes must be admitted to have added to fresh explorations and to a widening of the painter’s resources. Anecdotal paintings of the nineteenth century show an increasingly subtle observation of human behavior, aided, perhaps, by the spread of photography. I would venture to say that the paintings of this kind dating from the last quarter of the century are more legible and more convincing in this respect than those of Hogarth or of Wilkie. It is up to us whether we want to take a painting such as Orchardson’s The First Cloud seriously. Certainly the mixture of stubbornness and embarrassment with which the husband watches his wife stalking out of the room would impress one in an actor. Of course, the history of this technical progress could not be told by English art alone. The narrative genre had its famous representatives on the continent of Europe in painters such as Knaus, Vautier, and Defregger who might have influenced the repertoire of speaking gestures found in Thomas Faed’s The Mitherless Bairn or Jealousy and Flirtation by Haynes King. Nineteenth-century critics were fully aware of the traditions of skill embodied in genre painting. In 1868 the English writer, P. G. Hamerton in a book on French painters told how “a French classicist took to genre-painting to earn money,” thinking it would be the easiest thing to do, only to discover that “though he could paint a leg, he could not paint a face.”
But though it might conceivably be possible to write the history of this achievement in nineteenth-century painting as a coherent story much in the way the history of perspective in the Renaissance has been told, it might still be argued that such an analysis would also bring out the inherent obstacles in the way of a perfect solution to the problem of unaided pictorial narrative. Such pictures will either tell a trite story or resort to cues, symbolism, and “program notes” which tend to turn the painting into a puzzle. The pathos of Redgrave’s painting The Poor Teacher depends largely on our discovering that the letter she holds in her hand has a black margin. It is significant how often these paintings represent the reaction of people to letters or messages they are reading whose content we are asked to infer. In Raymond Lister’s Victorian Narrative Paintings there are eight such examples which can be supplemented from Mr. Reynolds’s book. The poignancy of Godall’s A Letter from Papa depends on our knowledge that Papa is far away in the Crimea. In every one of these cases the picture is only the starting point for our musings, our projections. There are a number of other themes which lend themselves to this embroidery on the part of the spectator, the anxieties of the sickbed with its hopes and fears, the tryst observed or betrayed, the whole gamut of typical stage situations which bring out the actor’s art or enable the composer of operas to mobilize the emotional potentialities of music. Indeed, if there is an art of the nineteenth century which still preserves a similar appeal, it is opera. We don’t resent the nonsense of Verdi’s librettos, but we would find the equivalent of II Trovatore or La Traviata in paint difficult to take. Are we unjust here? Perhaps, but after all, the role of subject in the two arts is bound to differ. The subject in music is more readily detached than that in painting, and though a sentimental picture may be well-painted—as Mr. Reynolds points out in individual instances—it should not be too difficult for a future historian of nineteenth-century art to account for the victory of the anti-literary camp. “The day will come,” exclaims the hero of Zola’s L’Oeuvre, “when a single turnip painted with originality will be pregnant with revolution.”
This single-minded concentration of the revolutionaries was almost bound to win over the divided aims of the opposing camp. For these aims were much less clearcut than the mental diagram presented above allowed for. Even the program of the Pre-Raphaelites was inconsistent and contradictory. Ford Madox Brown, in Writing about his painting The Pretty Baa-Lambs, asserted that his only intention was “to render the effect of sunlight.” He doubted “the genuineness of that artist’s ideas who never painted from love of the mere look of things.” The narrative painter C. R. Leslie, Constable’s biographer, specially commended in his Handbook for Young Painters (1855) the old Dutch masters for their “absence of all affected and mawkish sensibility—all the stage trickery of the spectator by which he is made to believe himself touched at heart. This false sentiment began with Grenze and has ever since more or less infected modern Art.” He was right, the worm was in the bud, to speak in the Victorian way. For this is the real difference between the realization of the aims of anecdotal art and that of other coherent evolutions: that in anecdotal art the bud never burst into blossom. The art of the High Renaissance or that of Impressionism can be interpreted as a culmination, embodied in the famous masters of these styles. There is no great master of the narrative genre, at least no great painter. If our imaginary historian were to pursue its development he would be more likely to find its climax in graphic artists such as Charles Keene than in any of the painters discussed in these books.
Of the two books, Mr. Raymond Lister’s is by far the slighter essay. But his explanations of some of the paintings, discursive as they are, sometimes light up a meaning which would otherwise escape a modern reader. Mr. Reynolds, by contrast, covers much more ground. Much unobtrusive research has gone into his text, which deals with several aspects of the subject not touched upon in this review. But his book, like his subject, occasionally suffers from divided aims. The author of the standard work on Constable’s sketches in the Victoria and Albert Museum cannot be blamed if he looks primarily for pictorial quality in the works he discusses. Where one may part company with him is in his attempt to see purely pictorial qualities, indeed an abstract imagination at work not only in the compositions of Burne-Jones but even in the saccharine confections of Albert Joseph Moore. If these well-groomed languid maidens, robed and unrobed in flowery settings of sickening obviousness, are “the work of one of the first English artists to ignore the questions of subject matter in his pictures,” as Mr. Reynolds claims, I, for one, feel like calling for The Doctor.