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 …