PRINT Summer 1968

Romantic Art in England

THE EXHIBITION, ROMANTIC ART in Britain, 1760–1860, that was shown in Detroit and Philadelphia was a very interesting show. Some of the names in it are big (e.g., the Pre-Raphaelites: Rossetti, Millais and Holman Hunt), but their reputations are really survivals from a century ago, and in recent decades their work has not been much appreciated in this country. In the case of others, such as Romney, the artist is well-known, but not by the kind of work that represents him here. The result is that even the big names seem unfamiliar, and since the great bulk of the show consists of work by artists who are hardly known at all, an over all context is created that is very largely new, and in which even the best-known figures, such as Constable and Turner, fit so well as to seem as fresh as the unknowns.

Nevertheless, it is in regard to this “context” that I might incline to criticize the show. Exhibitions that are surveys are always hard to mount. Generally, one requisite is that the material in them be fully known and understood; otherwise, the selections seem random and the show disorganized. But if there is a generally agreed-upon interpretation of the material, a show that conforms to it will seem banal. I am not sure that the present exhibition entirely avoids this dilemma of the commonplace or the incoherent. To make a successful survey, it is preferable to have a clear idea of what the individual artists composing it are up to—otherwise, one cannot know quite how or whether they will fit in. But where so little of the work is even known, as is here the case with Runciman, or where it has not until very recently even begun to be studied—as with Mortimer, who is having his first one-man show only this summer, in England—I am unsure that the time is ripe for synthesis. I am especially sensitive to this point as I am obliged, in reviewing the show, to attempt a synthesis of the kind imposed on me by the nature of the show itself, and this I would not have thought I was ready to do; so the following remarks are offered with apologies and hesitation.

It seems to me that a number of apparently diverse artists may be grouped together to form a first generation or period in the art represented by this show. It begins, roughly, with Sir Joshua Reynolds (born 1723) and ends with Sir Thomas Lawrence (born 1769); the kind of work that is most characteristic of it is that done by Fuseli, Mortimer, Barry and Runciman, and a disconcerting style it is. It is neither linear nor painterly: the forms are sharply outlined and the contour is generally closed, but the values depend on contrasts of light and dark that are abrupt, dramatic and altogether very painterly, both in touch and in the space they create. The visual difficulty of coping with the effects that are gotten with this technique is paralleled by the problem of coping with the associations of the style as a concept. We generally equate linearity with the Neoclassical and painterliness with the Baroque or the Romantic, which is for us a 19th-century species of Baroque, and we consider Neoclassicism to have been a reaction against the Baroque and Romanticism a reaction against Neoclassicism; yet here are artists who conform to our definition of the Neoclassical in so many ways but are just as much Romantic or Baroque. It is for this reason (among others) that I prefer not to suggest a classification based on a contrast between Neoclassic and Romantic—to me this distinction seems to create more problems than it solves.

At any rate, this kind of style is made of irresolution, and that is its interest. In Blake its contradictions are resolved—he was the only artist of this period to possess a formal imagination that was equal to his symbolic (in the sense of literary) imagination. For the others, they tend rather to suppress one term or the other of the conflict. Flaxman is pure line, uncomplicated by any lighting at all, and here the effect of engravings after antiquities is evident. At the opposite pole is such work as the drawings of Romney, in which the shapes are open and the line is rough, often being drawn with a brush instead of a pen; painterliness takes command, although it is often deliciously qualified by a classical subject matter. Runciman’s work shows how important Poussin must have been in these cases, and it is hard to say where these are so obviously not 17th-century things, although clearly they are not. I think that one reason for the difference is the treatment of the subject, and about this I want to make some very tentative suggestions.

A contemporary critic spoke of the content of Fuseli’s work as “the wild effusions of a perturbed imagination.” It is fair enough: their quality is obviously subjective, and the register of this subjectivity—in him as in Barry, Mortimer, Runciman and Ward, although not usually in Blake—is somber, disturbed, violent, always on the verge of disequilibrium. But only on the verge. The assertiveness of the contours acts to keep order, as (above all) does the subject, which almost invariably is borrowed and literary—so that, at least to that extent, the artist renounces the direct expression of his own fantasy. What this means is that the content, in such pictures, is not the same as the subject: the content is private, whereas the subject is some episode drawn from Milton or Aeschylus, from the common domain of a tradition of which the values were supposed to be normative and objective. The content passes merely through the subject, which acts now only as a kind of vehicle. The terms of the experience of looking at a picture are the artist and the spectator, not the picture; the picture is a transparent or semiopaque screen through which artist and spectator try to divine each other in a process involving two subjects instead of a subject and an object. The artist hopes the spectator will apprehend the associations of his (the artist’s) fantasy by relating them to his (the spectator’s) own, while the spectator uses the artist’s fantasy as the occasion for starting a chain of associations on the spectator’s part. The ostensible subject of the picture, the episode or image from literature, acts not as an exemplary object in its own right, but through its aptness to evoke.

In this way, through a bias that in the later 18th century was also articulated in the theory of associationist psychology, two things happened. First, as we have seen, the function of a picture was no longer to act as an object embodying normative values, but as a medium expressing and arousing subjective fantasy. And along with this—or rather as a result, since what is involved is a radical change in the nature of history painting—the intellectual values and emotional register of history are assimilated to those of landscape. It is this confused drama that is acted out in what seems to me to form a second period or generation in this exhibition, comprising some three decades dominated by Constable and Turner but also including Girtin, J. S. Cotman, Danby and Martin in landscape, Wilkie and Mulready in genre, Etty, Landseer and Palmer (born 1805).

It is significant that the prevalent kind of painting in this second period was landscape. Barry, Mortimer, Fuseli, Runciman and Blake were figural painters; very often, landscape passages do not occur in their work at all, in however subordinate a role. And yet, as I have tried to suggest, they treated figural subjects as inanimate ones, to which one would have not an intellectual or a moral response but a sensuous or emotional one: in associationist theory, the senses and the feelings they engender are always at the origin of even a chain of ideas. It is for this reason that such painters can be considered lyrical rather than dramatic artists, unlike the Baroque painters from whom they so often borrowed their subjects—which is how, to return to a question that was asked earlier, Runciman is unlike Poussin.

But here another notion from the theory of the time has to be introduced, the concept of the picturesque: as landscape was not so noble a category of painting as history, so the picturesque was a degree or so lower than the sublime. It was the attainment of the picturesque that was the purpose of landscape art. And since the appropriate response to the picturesque was thought to be a sensory and sensuous one, as the intellectual was considered the proper response to history, landscape tended inevitably to fall under the purview of associationist psychology: as, for example, when the writer Richard Payne Knight observed that scenes were not picturesque in themselves but in their associations. So it was their associations that gave landscapes their attractiveness or value for an artist, just as we have seen it was with literary motifs. Indeed, Knight happened also to be an important collector of antiquities, which shows how an interest in classicizing history art can go hand in hand with an interest in landscape and the picturesque: for the picturesque of landscape painting is very close to what results when the sublime of history painting is seen from an associationist point of view.

An instance in the present exhibition of the kinds of painting that were involved can be found in Loutherbourg. His Midsummer Afternoon, With a Methodist Preacher has a sky consisting all of tangibility of texture, brokenness of value and irregularity of hue; these are the qualities the painter of the picturesque was supposed to develop, and it is fitting that they occur here in a work of which the human action is not history but more modest genre. Loutherbourg aspired also to a more stirring register of landscape, as in The Falls of the Rhine at Schaffhausen—in general, the Alps began at that time to be very popular, since while they were landscape they yet tended toward the sublime. This is the sort of picture that so influenced Turner, both in treatment and in motif; it is very close to his most characteristic work. And Turner was so strongly drawn to Poussin for the same reason: he was trying to combine the qualities of both history and landscape in a composite usually called, in fact, historical landscape. It was a follower of his, Martin, who was named Historical Landscape Painter to Prince Leopold; and in the same way, one of the first and most important of the painters of the picturesque, Girtin, helped to found a sketching club which aimed to choose its subjects not from actual landscape but from poetry.

I have had to present all this very schematically, of course, but one can see what was going on. As the emotionalizing of history brought it closer to the sensuous kind of response associated with landscape, so at the same time landscape tended toward the ideal generalizing of history. These landscapists of our second generation were always to be found trudging about country lanes, while those of the first were not: Gainsborough had said that he felt no need to look about him, since in the whole of England he would find no site to rival Claude. Constable, on his part, did look; but, as he said, his criterion in deciding whether or not to paint a site was its similarity to what he was already accustomed to from the paintings of another idealizing Baroque landscapist, Gaspard Dughet.

The same tendencies were at work in genre, as can be seen if we consider three painters who remain to be discussed from those of our second group, Wilkie, Mulready and Etty. Mulready painted entirely genre, in a very tight style; Etty did compositions of nudes that were Baroque in intention, but not always in effect, because unlike most Baroque figures his aren’t doing anything: by his time the ideals of heroic action, which are the ideals he tried to hold, were no longer entirely believable. Wilkie is a kind of sum total of these other two. His early work is genre, and its style is sober and hard; but as, on his trips abroad, his study of the modest Dutch genre painters gave way to admiration for the more ambitious vein of Velasquez and Titian, not only his touch but also his design became grander. This is true a fortiori when, in his later work, he painted portraits of great personages or histories representing the highest exploits of British colonial conquest, but the significant thing is that even when the subject was genre he kept this more exalted handling and design. In this part of his later work the heroic idealization of Etty and the unassuming naturalism of Mulready are combined: the subject is genre, but of an anecdotal and moralizing slant that is normative in its content as the technique, also, has historical connotations. How right this amalgam was for the moment at which it occurred may be judged from Wilkie’s enormous stature in the eyes of his contemporaries. After his death, Martin—who, as we have seen, attempted an analogous fusion in the area of landscape—painted a Last Judgment in which Wilkie was placed alongside Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and others of that rank!

We are here entirely within the register of attitudes that characterize the last of our three periods, the Victorian age. This generation is of course dominated by the triumvirate of Pre-Raphaelites, Millais, Rossetti and Holman Hunt, but it includes partial precursors like Dyce and partial followers like Brett, friendly contemporaries like Madox Brown and hostile ones like Frith. The transposition of values we have been following may have been effected first in landscape, but it was in genre, treated according to the Wilkie formula, that it found its most complete image. For the Victorian age is an age of figural painting, and the ideal of the human figure was still heroic, but in the progressively lower register we have seen emerging history became anecdote as the sublime had become the picturesque, and grandeur was not comprehensible except as sentimentality.

Of this compound Frith, whose good-natured philistinism led him to an almost straightforward, photographic depiction of contemporary life, may serve to represent one of the elements, and Leighton’s almost pure formal estheticism the other. In the middle ground between these two one finds, in one way or another, such painters as Holman Hunt or Madox Brown. Dyce’s work is the first to represent the Victorian composite with any degree of completeness, although it is not to be found entire in any one of his paintings—it is no accident that the Pre-Raphaelites admired him so much, or that of the older artists it was he who first and most admired them. His interest in the Italian painting that preceded Raphael and the Mannerists and in a school of early 19th-century German painters, the Nazarenes, expressed two elements that would soon be characteristic: a religiosity that is much too nostalgic and sentimental to be grand and—as the stylistic counterpart of this poignant wish for the simple purity of bygone times—a very hard style of clear colors and clean, sweeping contours. This line is certainly a recollection of Flaxman, and even for Flagman’s generation—this is most evident in Blake—as for the Nazarenes, the historical nostalgia for early Renaissance art and the spiritual nostalgia for a purer life reinforced each other. But in Dyce these two elements drifted apart. The culmination of his idealizing history style was a series of frescoes depicting a medieval fairyland; while on the other hand, his linearism ended in a number of small landscapes or genre scenes of a precision that was more meticulous and fussy than generalized and had no apparent idealistic import.

Perhaps the clearest expression of the tensions that were involved can be found in the writing of Ruskin. Ruskin considered himself to be the champion of that kind of excessive realism and fidelity to visual sensation which is one of the period’s most pronounced characteristics. It has been suggested that his views may have had an effect on the meticulous later pictures of Dyce; certainly he was the impetus behind the brush when Brett painted his Val d’Aosta, which is at once the climax of Victorian naturalism and a throwback to the 18th-century tradition of the picturesque topographical view, of which the main function was to show a site as (pretty as) it really is. Ruskin wrote that Brett’s kind of painting was the historical painting of his time, the historical, in his mind, retaining its preeminence but meaning no longer idealized but factual; yet once Brett’s work was finished Ruskin with some embarrassment tried to disavow it, as he had criticized Frith. Evidently facts without associations and pretensions were in the last analysis really not enough for him, and it must have been for the relief he afforded that Ruskin was always so ready to praise Turner: Turner’s work had been just realistic enough for a presentation of it as realism to be viable, while at the same time the idealized sublimity of it was so assertive that it could be left unsaid.

For this Victorian realism was itself an ambivalent thing. It is important to see that the Victorians’ painting was not hallucinatory for them, as it so often is for us. Its surreality simply stems from a kind of composition of which the principal centers of interest are conceived as flat cut-outs, while the spaces within and without them are filled with a total disregard for scale—the detail is uniform as the main design is flat, and so a naturalistic or rational space is denied. But for the Victorians the irrationality of the space was scarcely noticed, because they were wholly engrossed in the irrationality of the detail: for them, this detail was a function of a kind of spirituality that sees each blade of grass as particularly the work of God, and that is why their extreme realism goes very well with the highly sublimated sentiment of their themes.

This can be put in another way. The manner was realistic because it was intended to be persuasive; and it had to be persuasive because it was intended no longer merely to embody certain ideals, as Baroque history painting had done, but to propagandize on their behalf: this is art with a message, if ever any art was. But to whom would one bring a message, if not to those who didn’t yet believe it or who once did but needed now to be reminded of it? In the end, I think the Victorian style is best taken as the final working out of that mutation of values I have tried to outline. For myself, it seems to me the last time a large number of artists of real talent were able to sustain a style in which perceived particulars and conceptual generalizations hold each other in equilibrium. The irony is that the insistence with which the generalizations or ideals were being asserted was principally a measure of the extent to which they were felt to have been lost and to be heeded back. If what I have been trying to say has any validity, the show is more unified than one might have thought—certainly far more unified than I thought when I first visited it.

Jerrold Lanes