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An essay by George Augustus Moore

Our Academicians

Title:     Our Academicians
Author: George Augustus Moore [More Titles by Moore]

That nearly all artists dislike and despise the Royal Academy is a matter of common knowledge. Whether with reason or without is a matter of opinion, but the existence of an immense fund of hate and contempt of the Academy is not denied. From Glasgow to Cornwall, wherever a group of artists collects, there hangs a gathering and a darkening sky of hate. True, the position of the Academy seems to be impregnable; and even if these clouds should break into storm the Academy would be as little affected as the rock of Gibraltar by squall or tempest. The Academy has successfully resisted a Royal Commission, and a crusade led by Mr. Holman Hunt in the columns of the _Times_ did not succeed in obtaining the slightest measure of reform.... Here I might consult Blue-books and official documents, and tell the history of the Academy; but for the purpose of this article the elementary facts in every one's possession are all that are necessary. We know that we owe the Academy to the artistic instincts of George III. It was he who sheltered it in Somerset House, and when Somerset House was turned into public offices, the Academy was bidden to Trafalgar Square; and when circumstances again compelled the authorities to ask the Academy to move on, the Academy, posing as a public body, demanded a site, and the Academy was given one worth three hundred thousand pounds. Thereon the Academy erected its present buildings, and when they were completed the Academy declared itself on the first opportunity to be no public body at all, but a private enterprise. Then why the site, and why the Royal charter? Mr. Colman, Mr. Pears, Mr. Reckitt are not given sites worth three hundred thousand pounds. These questions have often been asked, and to them the Academy has always an excellent answer. "The site has been granted, and we have erected buildings upon it worth a hundred thousand pounds; get rid of us you cannot."

The position of the Academy is as impregnable as the rock of Gibraltar; it is as well advertised as the throne itself, and the income derived from the sale of the catalogues alone is enormous. Then the Academy has the handling of the Chantrey Bequest Funds, which it does not fail to turn to its own advantage by buying pictures of Academicians, which do not sell in the open market, at extravagant prices, or purchasing pictures by future Academicians, and so fostering, strengthening, and imposing on the public the standard of art which obtains in Academic circles. Such, in a few brief words, is the institution which controls and in a large measure directs the art of this country. But though I come with no project to obtain its dissolution, it seems to me interesting to consider the causes of the hatred of the Academy with which artistic England is saturated, oftentimes convulsed; and it may be well to ask if any institution, however impregnable, can continue to defy public opinion, if any sovereignty, however fortified by wealth and buttressed by prescription, can continue to ignore and outrage the opinions of its subjects?

The hatred of artistic England for the Academy proceeds from the knowledge that the Academy is no true centre of art, but a mere commercial enterprise protected and subventioned by Government. In recent years every shred of disguise has been cast off, and it has become patent to every one that the Academy is conducted on as purely commercial principles as any shop in the Tottenham Court Road. For it is impossible to suppose that Mr. Orchardson and Mr. Watts do not know that Mr. Leader's landscapes are like tea-trays, that Mr. Dicksee's figures are like bon-bon boxes, and that Mr. Herkomer's portraits are like German cigars. But apparently the R.A.'s are merely concerned to follow the market, and they elect the men whose pictures sell best in the City. City men buy the productions of Mr. Herkomer, Mr. Dicksee, Mr. Leader, and Mr. Goodall. Little harm would be done to art if the money thus expended meant no more than filling stockbrokers' drawing-rooms with bad pictures, but the uncontrolled exercise of the stockbroker's taste in art means the election of a vast number of painters to the Academy, and election to the Academy means certain affixes, R.A. and A., and these signs are meant to direct opinion.

For when the ordinary visitor thinks a picture very bad, and finds R.A. or A. after the painter's name, he concludes that he must be mistaken, and so a false standard of art is created in the public mind. But though Mr. Orchardson, Sir John Millais, Sir Frederick Leighton, and Mr. Watts have voted for the City merchants' nominees, it would be a mistake to suppose that they did not know for whom they should have voted. It is to be questioned if there be an R. A. now alive who would dare to deny that Mr. Whistler is a very great painter. It was easy to say he was not in the old days when, under the protection of Mr. Ruskin, the R.A.s went in a body and gave evidence against him. But now even Mr. Jones, R.A., would not venture to repeat the opinion he expressed about one of the most beautiful of the nocturnes. Time, it is true, has silenced the foolish mouth of the R.A., but time has not otherwise altered him; and there is as little chance to-day as there was twenty years ago of Mr. Whistler being elected an Academician.

No difference exists even in Academic circles as to the merits of Mr. Albert Moore's work. Many Academicians will freely acknowledge that his non-election is a very grave scandal; they will tell you that they have done everything to get him elected, and have given up the task in despair. Mr. Whistler and Mr. Albert Moore, the two greatest artists living in England, will never be elected Academicians; and artistic England is asked to acquiesce in this grave scandal, and also in many minor scandals: the election of Mr. Dicksee in place of Mr. Henry Moore, and Mr. Stanhope Forbes in place of Mr. Swan or Mr. John Sargent! No one thinks Mr. Dicksee as capable an artist as Mr. Henry Moore, and no one thinks Mr. Stanhope Forbes as great an artist as Mr. Swan or Mr. Sargent. Then why were they elected? Because the men who represent most emphatically the taste of the City have become so numerous of late years in the Academy that they are able to keep out any one whose genius would throw a doubt on the commonplace ideal which they are interested in upholding. Mr. Alma Tadema would not care to confer such a mark of esteem as the affix R.A. on any painter practising an art which, when understood, would involve hatred of the copyplate antiquity which he supplies to the public.

This explanation seems incredible, I admit, but no other explanation is possible, for I repeat that the Academicians do not themselves deny the genius of the men they have chosen to ignore. So we find the Academy as a body working on exactly the same lines as the individual R.A., whose one ambition is to extend his connection, please his customers, and frustrate competition; and just as the capacity of the individual R.A. declines when the incentive is money, so does the corporate body lose its strength, and its hold on the art instincts of the nation relaxes when its aim becomes merely mercenary enterprise.

If Sir John Millais, Sir Frederick Leighton, Mr. Orchardson, Mr. Hook, and Mr. Watts were to die tomorrow, their places could be filled by men who are not and never will be in the Academy; but among the Associates there is no name that does not suggest a long decline: Mr. Macbeth, Mr. Leader, Mr. David Murray, Mr. Stanhope Forbes, Mr. J. MacWhirter. And are the coming Associates Mr. Hacker, Mr. Shannon, Mr. Solomon, Mr. Alfred East, Mr. Bramley? Mr. Swan has been passed over so many times that his election is beginning to seem doubtful. For very shame's sake the elder Academicians may bring their influence and insist on his election; but the City merchants' nominees are very strong, and will not have him if they can help it. They may yield to Mr. Swan, but no single inch further will it be possible to get them to go. Mr. Mouat Loudan, Mr. Lavery, Mr. Mark Fisher, and Mr. Peppercorn have no chance soever. Mr. Mouat Loudan, was rejected this year. Mr. Lavery's charming portrait of Lord McLaren's daughters was still more shamefully treated; it was "skied". Mr. Mark Fisher, most certainly our greatest living landscape-painter, had his picture refused; and Mr. Reid, a man who has received medals in every capital in Europe, has had his principal picture hung just under the ceiling.

On varnishing-day Mr. Reid challenged Mr. Dicksee to give a reason for this disgraceful hanging; he defied him to say that he thought the pictures underneath were better pictures; and it is as impossible for me as it was for Mr. Dicksee to deny that Mr. Reid's picture is the best picture in Room 6. Mr. Peppercorn, another well-known artist, had his picture rejected. It is now hanging in the Goupil Galleries. I do not put it forward as a masterpiece, but I do say that it deserved a place in any exhibition, and if I had a friend on the Hanging Committee I would ask him to point to the landscapes on the Academy walls which he considers better than Mr. Peppercorn's.

Often a reactionary says, "Name the good pictures that have been rejected; where can I see them? I want to see these masterpieces," etc. The reactionary has generally the best of the argument. It is difficult to name the pictures that have been refused; they are the unknown quantity. Moreover, the pictures that are usually refused are tentative efforts, and not mature work. But this year the opponents of the Academy are able to cite some very substantial facts in support of their position, a portrait by our most promising portrait-painter and a landscape by the best landscape-painter alive in England having been rejected. The picture of the farm-yard which Mr. Fisher exhibited at the New English Art Club last autumn would not be out of place in the National Gallery. I do not say that the rejected picture is as good--I have not seen the rejected picture--but I do say that Mr. Fisher could not paint as badly as nine-tenths of the landscapes hanging in the Academy if he tried.

The Academy is sinking steadily; never was it lower than this year; next year a few fine works may crop up, but they will be accidents, and will not affect the general tendency of the exhibitions nor the direction in which the Academy is striving to lead English art. Under the guidanceship of the Academy English art has lost all that charming naivete and simplicity which was so long its distinguishing mark. At an Academy banquet, anything but the most genial optimism would be out of place, and yet Sir Frederick Leighton could not but allude to the disintegrating influence of French art. True, in the second part of the sentence he assured his listeners that the danger was more imaginary than real, and he hoped that with wider knowledge, etc. But if no danger need be apprehended, why did Sir Frederick trouble to raise the question? And if he apprehended danger and would save us from it, why did he choose to ask his friend M. Bouguereau to exhibit at the Academy?

The allusion in Sir Frederick's speech to French methods, and the exhibition of a picture by M. Bouguereau in the Academy, is strangely significant. For is not M. Bouguereau the chief exponent of the art which Sir Frederick ventures to suggest may prove a disintegrating influence in our art?--has proven would be a more correct phrase. Let him who doubts compare the work of almost any of the elder Academicians with the work of those who practise the square brushwork of the French school. Compare, for instance, Sir Frederick's "Garden of the Hesperides" with Mr. Solomon's "Orpheus", and then you will appreciate the gulf that separates the elder Academicians from the men already chosen and marked out for future Academicians. And him whom this illustration does not convince I will ask to compare Mr. Hacker's "Annunciation" with any picture by Mr. Frith, or Mr. Faed, I will even go so far as to say with any work by Mr. Sidney Cooper, an octogenarian, now nearer his ninetieth than his eightieth year.

It would have been better if Sir Frederick had told the truth boldly at the Academy banquet. He knows that a hundred years will hardly suffice to repair the mischief done by this detestable French painting, this mechanical drawing and modelling, built up systematically, and into which nothing of the artist's sensibility may enter. Sir Frederick hinted the truth, and I do not think it will displease him that I should say boldly what he was minded but did not dare to say. The high position he occupies did not allow him to go further than he did; the society of which he is president is now irreparably committed to Anglo-French art, and has, by every recent election, bound itself to uphold and impose this false and foreign art upon the nation.

Out of the vast array of portraits and subject-pictures painted in various styles and illustrating every degree of ignorance, stupidity, and false education, one thing really comes home to the careful observer, and that is, the steady obliteration of all English feeling and mode of thought. The younger men practise an art purged of all nationality. England lingers in the elder painters, and though the representation is often inadequate, the English pictures are pleasanter than the mechanical art which has spread from Paris all over Europe, blotting out in its progress all artistic expression of racial instincts and mental characteristics. Nothing, for instance, can be more primitive, more infantile in execution, than Mr. Leslie's "Rose Queen". But it seems to me superficial criticism to pull it to pieces, for after all it suggests a pleasant scene, a stairway full of girls in white muslin; and who does not like pretty girls dressed in white muslin? And Mr. Leslie spares us the boredom of odious and sterile French pedantry.

Mr. Waterhouse's picture of "Circe Poisoning the Sea" is an excellent example of professional French painting. The drawing is planned out geometrically, the modelling is built up mechanically. The brush, filled with thick paint, works like a trowel. In the hands of the Dutch and Flemish artists the brush was in direct communication with the brain, and moved slowly or rapidly, changing from the broadest and most emphatic stroke to the most delicate and fluent touch according to the nature of the work. But here all is square and heavy. The colour scheme, the blue dress and the green water--how theatrical, how its richness reeks of the French studio! How cosmopolitan and pedantic is this would-be romantic work!

But can we credit Mr. Dicksee with any artistic intention in the picture he calls "Leila", hanging in the next room? I think not. Mr. Dicksee probably thought that having painted what the critics would call "somewhat sad subjects" last year, it would be well if he painted something distinctly gay this year. A girl in a harem struck him as a subject that would please every one, especially if he gave her a pretty face, a pretty dress, and posed her in a graceful attitude. A nice bright crimson was just the colour for the dress, the feet he might leave bare, and it would be well to draw them from the plaster cast--a pair of pretty feet would be sure to find favour with the populace. It is impossible to believe that Mr. Dicksee was moved by any deeper thought or impression when he painted this picture. The execution is not quite so childlike and bland as Mr. Leslie's; it is heavier and more stodgy. One is a cane chair from the Tottenham Court Road, the other is a dining-room chair from the Tottenham Court Road. In neither does any trace of French influence appear, and both painters are City-elected Academicians.

A sudden thought.... Leader, Fildes, David Murray, Peter Graham, Herkomer.... Then it is not the City that favours the French school, but the Academy itself! And this shows how widely tastes may differ, yet remain equally sundered from good taste. I believe the north and the south poles are equidistant from the equator. Looking at Sir Frederick Leighton's picture, entitled "At the Fountain", I am forced to admit that, regarded as mere execution, it is quite as intolerably bad as Mr. Dicksee's "Leila". And yet it is not so bad a picture, because Sir Frederick's mind is a higher and better-educated mind than Mr. Dicksee's; and therefore, however his hand may fail him, there remains a certain habit of thought which always, even when worn and frayed, preserves something of its original aristocracy. "The Sea giving up its Dead" is an unpleasant memory of Michael Angelo. But in "The Garden of the Hesperides" Sir Frederick is himself, and nothing but himself. And the picture is so incontestably the work of an artist that I cannot bring myself to inquire too closely into its shortcomings. The merit of the picture is in the arabesque, which is charming and original. The maidens are not dancing, but sitting round their tree. On the right there is an olive, in the middle the usual strawberry-cream, and on the left a purple drapery. The brown water in the foreground balances the white sky most happily, and the faces of the women recall our best recollections of Sir Frederick's work. In the next room--Room 3--Mr. Watts exhibits a very incoherent work entitled "She shall be called Woman".

The subject on which all of us are most nearly agreed--painters' critics and the general public--is the very great talent of Mr. G. F. Watts. Even the Chelsea studios unite in praising him. But were we ever sincere in our praise of him as we are sincere in our praise of Degas, Whistler, and Manet? And lately have we not begun to suspect our praise to-day is a mere clinging to youthful admirations which have no root in our present knowledge and aestheticisms? Perhaps the time has come to say what we do really think of Mr. Watts. We think that his very earliest pictures show, occasionally, the hand of a painter; but for the last thirty years Mr. Watts seems to have been undergoing transformation, and we see him now as a sort of cross between an alchemist of old time and a book collector--his left hand fumbling among the reds and blues of the old masters, his right turning the pages of a dusty folio in search of texts for illustration; a sort of a modern Veronese in treacle and gingerbread. To judge him by what he exhibits this year would not be just. We will select for criticism the celebrated portrait of Mrs. Percy Wyndham--in which he has obviously tried to realise all his artistic ideals.

The first thing that strikes me on looking on this picture is the too obvious intention of the painter to invent something that could not go out of fashion. On sitting down to paint this picture the painter's mind seems to have been disturbed with all sorts of undetermined notions concerning the eternal Beautiful, and the formula discovered by the Venetian for its complete presentation. "The Venetians gave us the eternal Beautiful as civilisation presents it. Why not select in modern life all that corresponds to the Venetian formulae; why not profit by their experience in the selection I am called upon to make?"

So do I imagine the painter's desire, and certainly the picture is from end to end its manifestation. Laurel leaves form a background for the head, and a large flower-vase is in the right-hand corner, and a balustrade is on the right; and this Anglo-Venetian lady is attired in a rich robe, brown, with green shades, and heavily embroidered; her elbow is leaned on a pedestal in a manner that shows off the plenitudes of the forearm, and for pensive dignity the hand is raised to the face. It is a noble portrait, and tells the story of a lifelong devotion to art, and yet it is difficult to escape from the suspicion that we are not very much interested, and that we find its compound beauty a little insipid. In avoiding the fashion of his day Mr. Watts seems to me to have slipped into an abstraction. The mere leaving out every accent that marks a dress as belonging to a particular epoch does not save it from going out of fashion. It is in the execution that the great artists annihilated the whim of temporary taste, and made the hoops of old time beautiful, however slim the season's fashions. To be of all time the artist must begin by being of his own time; and if he would find the eternal type he must seek it in his own parish.

The painters of old Venice were entirely concerned with _l'idee plastique_, but on this point the art of Mr. Watts is a repudiation of the art of his masters. Abstract conceptions have been this long while a constant source of pollution in his work. Here, even in his treatment of the complexion, he seems to have been impelled by some abstract conception rather than by a pictorial sense of harmony and contrast, and partly for this reason his synthesis is not beautiful, like the conventional silver-grey which Velasquez used so often, or the gold-brown skins of Titian's women. The hand tells what was passing in the mind, and seeing that ugly shadow which marks the nose I know that the painter was not then engaged with the joy of purely material creation; had he been he could not have rested satisfied with so ugly a statement of a beautiful fact. And the forehead, too, where it comes into light, where it turns into shadow; the cheek, too, with its jawbone, and the evasive modelling under and below the eyes, are summarily rendered, and we think perforce of the supple, flowing modelling, so illusive, apparent only in the result, with which Titian would have achieved that face. Manet, an incomplete Hals, might have failed to join the planes, and in his frankness left out what he had not sufficiently observed; but he would have compensated us with a beautiful tone.

For an illustration of Mr. Watts' drawing we will take the picture of "Love and Death", perhaps the most pictorially significant of all Mr. Watts' designs. The enormous figure of Death advances impressively with right arm raised to force the door which a terrified Love would keep closed against him. The figure of Death is draped in grey, the colour that Mr. Watts is most in sympathy with and manages best. But the upper portion of the figure is vast, and the construction beneath the robe too little understood for it not to lack interest; and in the raised arm and hand laid against the door, where power and delicacy of line were indispensable for the pictorial beauty of the picture, we are vouchsafed no more than a rough statement of rudimentary fact. Love is thrown back against the door, his right arm raised, his right leg advanced in action of resistance to the intruder. The movement is well conceived, and we regret that so summary a line should have been thought sufficient expression. Any one who has ever held a pencil in a school of art knows how a young body, from armpit to ankle-bone, flows with lovely line. Any one who has been to the Louvre knows the passion with which Ingres would follow this line, simplifying it and drawing it closer until it surpassed all melody. But in Mr. Watts' picture the boy's natural beauty is lost in a coarse and rough planing out that tells of an eye that saw vaguely and that wearied, and in an execution full of uncertain touch and painful effort. Unless the painter is especially endowed with the instinct of anatomies, the sentiment of proportion, and a passion for form, the nude is a will-o'-the-wisp, whose way leads where he may not follow. No one suspects Mr. Watts of one of these qualifications; he appears even to think them of but slight value, and his quest of the allegorical seems to be merely motived by an unfortunate desire to philosophise.

As a colourist Mr. Watts is held in high esteem, and it is as a colourist that his admirers consider his claim to the future to be best founded. Beautiful passages of colour are frequently to be met with in his work, and yet it would be difficult to say what colour except grey he has shown any mastery over. A painter may paint with an exceedingly reduced palette, like Chardin, and yet be an exquisite colourist. To colour well does not consist in the employment of bright colours, but in the power of carrying the dominant note of colour through the entire picture, through the shadows as well as the half-tints, and Chardin's grey we find everywhere, in the bloom of a peach as well as in a decanter of rich wine; and how tender and persuasive it is! Mr. Watts' grey would seem coarse, common, uninteresting beside it. Reds and blues and yellows do not disappear from Mr. Watts' palette as they do from Rembrandt's; they are there, but they are usually so dirtied that they appear like a monochrome. Can we point to any such fresh, beautiful red as the scarf that the "Princesse des Pays de la Porcelaine" wears about that grey which would have broken Chardin's heart with envy? Can we point to any blue in Mr. Watts' as fresh and as beautiful as the blue carpet under the Princess's feet?

With what Mr. Watts paints it is impossible to say. On one side an unpleasant reddish brown, scrubbed till it looks like a mud-washed rock; on the other a crumbling grey, like the rind of a Stilton cheese. The nude figure in the reeds--the picture purchased for the Chantrey Fund collection--will serve for illustration. It is clearly the work of a man with something incontestably great in his soul, but why should so beautiful a material as oil paint be transformed into a crumbly substance like--I can think of nothing else but the rind of a Stilton cheese. Mr. Watts and Mr. Burne-Jones seem to have convinced themselves that imaginative work can only be expressed in wool-work and gum. A strange theory, for which I find no authority, even if I extend my inquiry as far back as Mantegna and Botticelli. True, that the method of these painters is archaic, the lights are narrowed, and the shadows broadened; nevertheless, their handling of oil colour is nearer to Titian's than either Mr. Watts' or Mr. Burne-Jones'.

It is one of the platitudes of art criticism to call attention to the length of the necks of Rossetti's women, and thereby to infer that the painter could not draw. True, Rossetti was not a skilful draughtsman, but not because the necks of his women are too long. The relation between good drawing and measurement is slight. The first quality in drawing, without which drawing does not exist, is an individual seeing of the object. This Rossetti most certainly had; there his draughtsmanship began and ended. But the question lies rather with handling than with drawing, and Rossetti sometimes handled paint very skilfully. The face and hair of the half-length Venus surrounded with roses is excellent in quality; the roses and the honeysuckle are quite beautiful in quality; they are fresh and bright, pure in colour, as if they had just come from the garden. The "Annunciation" in the National Gallery is a little sandy, but it cannot be said to be bad in quality, as Mr. Watts' and Mr. Jones' pictures are bad. Every Rossetti is at least clearly recognisable as an oil painting.

In the same room there is Mr. Orchardson's picture of "Napoleon dictating the Account of his Campaigns". I gather from my notes the trace of the disappointment that this picture caused me. "Two small figures in a large canvas. The secretary sits on the right at a small table. He looks up, his face turned towards Napoleon, who stands on the left in the middle of the picture, looking down, studying the maps with which the floor is strewn. A great simplicity in the surroundings, and all the points of character insisted on, with the view of awakening the spectator's curiosity. From first to last a vicious desire to narrate an anecdote. It is strange that a man of Mr. Orchardson's talent should participate so fully in the supreme vice of modern art which believes a picture to be the same thing as a scene in a play. The whole picture conceived and executed in that pale yellow tint which seems to be the habitual colour of Mr. Orchardson's mind." A pity, indeed it is that Mr. Orchardson should waste very real talent in narratives, for he is a great portrait painter. I remember very well that beautiful portrait of his wife and child, and will take this opportunity to recall it. It is the finest thing he has done; finer than the portrait of Mr. Gilbey. Here, in a few words, is the subject of the picture. An old-fashioned cane sofa stretches right across the canvas. A lady in black is seated on the right; she bends forward, her left arm leaning over the back of the sofa; she holds in her hand a Japanese hand-screen. The fine and graceful English profile is modelled without vulgar roundness, _un beau modele a plat_; and the black hair is heavy and loose, one lock slipping over the forehead. The painter has told the exact character of the hair as he has told the character of the hand, and the age of the hand and hair is evident. She is a woman of five-and-thirty, she is interested in her baby, her first baby, as a woman of that age would be. The baby lies on a woollen rug and cushion, just beneath the mother's eyes; the colour of both is a reddish yellow. He holds up his hands for the hand-screen that the mother waves about him. The strip of background about the yellow cane-work is grey-green; there is a vase of dried ferns and grasses on the left, and the whole picture is filled and penetrated with the affection and charm of English home-life, and without being disfigured with any touch of vulgar or commonplace sentimentality. The baby's face is somewhat hard; it is, perhaps, the least satisfactory thing in the picture. The picture is wanting in that totality which we find in the greatest masters--for instance, in that exquisite portrait of a mother and child by Sir Joshua Reynolds, exhibited this year in the Guildhall--that beautiful portrait of the mother holding out her babe at arms'-length above her knee.

Room 4 is remarkable for Stanhope Forbes' picture of "Forging the Anchor". Mr. Stanhope Forbes is the last-elected Academician, and the most prominent exponent of the art of Bastien-Lepage. Perhaps the most instructive article that could be written on the Academy would be one in which the writer would confine his examination to this and Mr. Clausen's picture of "Mowers", comparing and contrasting the two pictures at every point, showing where they diverge, and tracing their artistic history back to its ultimate source. But to do this thoroughly would be to write the history of the artistic movement in France and England for the last thirty years; and I must limit myself to pointing out that Mr. Clausen has gone back to first principles, whereas Mr. Stanhope Forbes still continues at the point where Bastien-Lepage began to curtail, deform, and degrade the original inspiration. Mr. Clausen, I said, overcame the difficulty of the trousers by generalisation. Mr. Stanhope Forbes copied the trousers seam by seam, patch by patch; and the ugliness of the garment bores you in the picture, exactly as it would in nature. And the same criticism applies equally well to the faces, the hands, the leather aprons, the loose iron, the hammers, the pincers, the smoked walls. I should not be surprised to learn that Mr. Stanhope Forbes had had a forge built up in his studio, and had copied it all as it stood. A handful of dry facts instead of a passionate impression of life in its envelope of mystery and suggestion.

Realism, that is to say the desire to compete with nature, to be nature, is the disease from which art has suffered most in the last twenty years. The disease is now at wane, and when we happen upon a canvas of the period like "Labourers after Dinner", we cry out, "What madness! were we ever as mad as that?" The impressionists have been often accused of a desire to dispense with the element of beauty, but the accusation has always seemed to me to be quite groundless, and even memory of a certain portrait by Mr. Walter Sickert does not cause me to falter in this opinion. Until I saw Mr. Clausen's "Labourers" I did not fully realise how terrible a thing art becomes when divorced from beauty, grace, mystery, and suggestion. It would be difficult to say where and how this picture differs from a photograph; it seems to me to be little more than the vices of photography magnified. Having spoken so plainly, it is necessary that I should explain myself.

The subject of this picture is a group of field labourers finishing their mid-day dinner in the shade of some trees. They are portrayed in a still even light, exactly as they were; the picture is one long explanation; it is as clear as a newspaper, and it reads like one. We can tell how many months that man in the foreground has worn those dreadful hobnailed boots; we can count the nails, and we notice that two or three are missing. Those disgusting corduroy trousers have hung about his legs for so many months; all the ugliness of these labourers' faces and the solid earthiness of their lives are there; nothing has been omitted, curtailed, or exaggerated. There is some psychology. We see that the years have brought the old man cunning rather than wisdom. The middle-aged man and the middle-aged woman live in mute stupidity--they have known nothing but the daily hardship of living, and the vacuous face of their son tells how completely the life of his forefathers has descended upon him. Here there is neither the foolish gaiety of Teniers' peasants nor the vicious animality of Brouwers'; and it is hardly necessary to say that the painter has seen nothing of the legendary patriarchal beauty and solemnity which lends so holy a charm to Millet's Breton folk. Mr. Clausen has seen nothing but the sordid and the mean, and his execution in this picture is as sordid and as mean as his vision. There is not a noble gesture expressive of weariness nor an attitude expressive of resignation. Mr. Clausen seems to have said, "I will go lower than the others; I will seek my art in the mean and the meaningless." But notwithstanding his very real talent, Mr. Clausen has not found art where art is not, where art never has been found, where art never will be found.

Looking at this picture, the ordinary man will say, "If such ugliness as that exists, I don't want to see it. Why paint such subjects?" And at least the first part of this criticism seems to me to be quite incontrovertible. I can imagine no valid reason for the portrayal of so much ugliness; and, what is more important, I can find among the unquestioned masters no slightest precedent for the blank realism of this picture. The ordinary man's aversion to such ugliness seems to me to be entirely right, and I only join issue with him when he says, "Why paint such subjects?" Why not? For all subjects contain elements of beauty; ugliness does not exist for the eye that sees beautifully, and meanness vanishes if the sensation is a noble one. Have not the very subjects which Mr. Clausen sees so meanly, and which he degrades below the level even of the photograph, been seen nobly, and have they not been rendered incomparably touching, even august, by----Well, the whole world knows by whom. But it will be said that Mr, Clausen painted these people as he saw them. I dare say he did; but if he could not see these field-folk differently, he should have abstained from painting them.

The mission of art is not truth, but beauty; and I know of no great work--I will go even further, I know no even tolerable work--in literature or in painting in which the element of beauty does not inform the intention. Art is surely but a series of conventions which enable us to express our special sense of beauty--for beauty is everywhere, and abounds in subtle manifestations. Things ugly in themselves become beautiful by association; or perhaps I should say that they become picturesque. The slightest insistance in a line will redeem and make artistically interesting the ugliest face. Look at Degas' ballet-girls, and say if, artistically, they are not beautiful. I defy you to say that they are mean. Again, an alteration in the light and shade will create beautiful pictures among the meanest brick buildings that ever were run up by the jerry-builder. See the violet suburb stretching into the golden sunset. How exquisite it has become! how full of suggestion and fairy tale! A picturesque shadow will redeem the squalor of the meanest garret, and the subdued light of the little kitchen where the red-petticoated housewife is sweeping must contrast so delicately with the white glare of the brick yard where the neighbour stands in parley, leaning against the doorpost, that the humble life of the place is transformed and poetised. This was the ABC of Dutch art; it was the Dutchmen who first found out that with the poetising aid of light and shade the meanest and most commonplace incidents of every-day life could be made the subjects of pictures.

There are no merits in painting except technical merits; and though my criticism of Mr. Clausen's picture may at first sight seem to be a literary criticism, it is in truth a strictly technical criticism. For Mr. Clausen has neglected the admirable lessons which our Dutch cousins taught us two hundred years ago; he has neglected to avail himself of those principles of chiaroscuro which they perfected, and which would have enabled him to redeem the grossness, the ugliness, the meanness inherent in his subject. I said that he had gone further, in abject realism, than a photograph. I do not think I have exaggerated. It is not probable that those peasants would look so ugly in a photograph as they do in his picture. For had they been photographed, the chances are that some shadow would have clothed, would have hid, something, and a chance gleam might have concentrated the attention on some particular spot. Nine times out of ten the exposure of the plate would not have taken place in a moment of flat grey light.

But it is the theory of Mr. Clausen and his school that it is right and proper to take a six-foot canvas into the open, and paint the entire picture from Nature. But when the sun is shining, it is not possible to paint for more than an hour--an hour and a half at most. At the end of that time the shadows have moved so much that the effect is wholly different. But on a grey day it is possible to paint on the same picture for four or five hours. Hence the preference shown by this school for grey days. Then the whole subject is seen clearly, like a newspaper; and the artist, if he is a realist, copies every patch on the trousers, and does not omit to tell us how many nails have fallen from the great clay-stained boots. Pre-Raphaelitism is only possible among august and beautiful things, when the subjects of the pictures are Virgins and angels, and the accessories are marbles, agate columns, Persian carpets, gold enwoven robes and vestments, ivories, engraven metals, pearls, velvets and silks, and when the object of the painter is to convey a sensation of the beauty of these materials by the luxury and beauty of the workmanship. The common workaday world, with accessories of tin pots and pans, corduroy breeches and clay-pipes, can be only depicted by a series of ellipses through a mystery of light and shade.

Beauty of some sort there must be in a work of art, and the very conditions under which Mr. Clausen painted precluded any beauty from entering into his picture. But this year Mr. Clausen seems to have shaken himself free from his early education, and he exhibits a picture, conceived in an entirely different spirit, in this Academy. Turning to my notes I find it thus described: "A small canvas containing three mowers in a flowering meadow. Two are mowing; the third, a little to the left, sharpens his scythe. The sky is deep and lowering--a sultry summer day, a little unpleasant in colour, but true. At the end of the meadow the trees gleam. The earth is wrapped in a hot mist, the result of the heat, and through it the sun sheds a somewhat diffused and oven-like heat. There are heavy clouds overhead, for the gleam that passes over the three white shirts is transitory and uncertain. The handling is woolly and unpleasant, but handling can be overlooked when a canvas exhales a deep sensation of life. The movement of mowing--I should have said movements, for the men mow differently; one is older than the other--is admirably expressed. And the principal figure, though placed in the immediate foreground, is in and not out of the atmosphere. The difficulty of the trousers has been overcome by generalisation; the garment has not been copied patch by patch. The distribution of light is admirable; nowhere does it escape from the frame. J. F. Millet has painted many a worse picture."

Mr. Solomon and Mr. Hacker have both turned to mythology for the subjects of their pictures. And the beautiful and touching legends of Orpheus, and the Annunciation, have been treated by them with the indifference of "our special artist", who places the firemen on the right, the pump on the left, and the blazing house in the middle of the picture. These pictures are therefore typical of a great deal of historical painting of our time; and I speak of them because they give me an opportunity of pointing out that before deciding to treat a page of history or legend, the painter should come to conclusions with himself regarding the goal which he desires to obtain. There are but two.

Either the legend passes unperceived in pomp of colour and wealth of design, or the picture is a visible interpretation of the legend. The Venetians were able to disregard the legend, but in centuries less richly endowed with pictorial genius painters are inclined to support their failing art with the psychological interest their imaginations draw from it. But imaginative interpretation should not be confused with bald illustration. The Academicians cannot understand why, if we praise "Dante seeing Beatrice in a Dream", we should vilify Mr. Fildes' "Doctor". In both cases a story is told, in neither case is the execution excellent. Why then should one be a picture and the other no more than a bald illustration? The question is a vexed one, and the only conclusion that we can draw seems to be that sentimentality pollutes, the anecdote degrades, wit altogether ruins; only great thought may enter into art. Rossetti is a painter we admire, and we place him above Mr. Fildes, because his interpretations are more imaginative. We condone his lack of pictorial power, because he could think, and we appreciate his Annunciation--the "Ecce Ancilla Domini!" in the National Gallery, principally because he has looked deep into the legend, and revealed its true and human significance.

It is a small picture, about three feet by two, and is destitute of all technical accomplishment, or even habit. It is painted in white and blue, and the streak of red in the foreground, the red of a screen on which is embroidered the lily--emblem of purity--adds to the chill and coldness. Drawn up upon her white bed the Virgin crouches, silent with expectation, listening to the mystic dream that has come upon her in the dim hush of dawn. The large blue eyes gleam with some strange joy that is quickening in her. The mouth and chin tell no tale, but the eyes are deep pools of light, and mirror the soul that is on fire within. The red hair falls about her, a symbol of the soul. In the drawn-up knees, faintly outlined beneath the white sheet, the painter hints at her body's beauty. One arm is cast forward, the hand not clenched but stricken. Behind her a blue curtain hangs straight from iron rods set on either side of the bed. Above the curtain a lamp is burning dimly, blighted by the pallor of the dawn. A dead, faint sky--the faint ashen sky which precedes the first rose tint; the circular window is filled with it, and the paling blue of the sky's colour contrasts with the deep blue of the bed's curtain, on which the Virgin's red hair is painted.

The angel stands by the side of the white bed--I should say floats, his fair feet hanging out of a few pale flames. White raiment clothes him, falling in long folds, leaving the arms and feet bare; in the right hand he holds a lily all in blossom; the left hand is extended in rigid gesture of warning. Brown-gold hair grows thick about the angel's neck; the shadowed profile is outlined against the hard, sad sky; the expression of the face is deep and sphinx-like; he has come, it is clear, from vast realms of light, where uncertainty and doubt are unknown. The Dove passes by him towards the Virgin. Look upon her again, crouching in her white bed, her knees drawn to her bosom, her deep blue eyes--her dawn-tinted eyes--filled with ache, dream, and expectation. The shadows of dawn are on wall and floor--strange, blue shadows!--the Virgin's shadow lies on the wall, the angel's shadow falls across the coverlet.

Here, at least, there is drama, and the highest form of drama--spiritual drama; here, at least, there is story, and the highest form of story--symbol and suggestion. Rossetti has revealed the essence of this intensely human story--a story that, whenever we look below the surface, which is mediaeval and religious, we recognise as a story of to-day, of yesterday, of all time. A girl thralled by the mystery of conception awakes at morn in palpitations, seeing visions.

Mr. Hacker's telling of the legend is to Rossetti's what a story in the _London Journal_ is to a story by Balzac. The Virgin has apparently wandered outside the town. She is dressed in a long white garment neither beautiful nor explicit: is it a nightdress, or a piece of conventional drapery? On the right there is a long, silly tree, which looks as if it had been evolved out of a ball of green wool with knitting-needles, and above her floats an angel attired in a wisp of blue gauze. Rossetti, we know, was, in the strict sense of the word, hardly a painter at all, but he had something to say; and we can bear in painting, as we can in literature, with faulty expression, if there is something behind it. What is most intolerable in art is scholastic rodomontade. And what else is Mr. Hacker's execution? In every transmission the method seems to degenerate, and in this picture it seems to have touched bottom. It has become loose, all its original crispness is lost, and, complicated with _la peinture claire_, it seems incapable of expressing anything whatsoever. There is no variety of tone in that white sheet, there is nobody inside it, and the angel is as insincere and frivolous as any sketch in a young lady's album. The building at the back seems to have been painted with the scrapings of a dirty palette, and the sky in the left-hand corner comes out of the picture. I have only to add that the picture has been purchased out of the Chantry Bequest Fund, and the purchase is considered to be equivalent to a formal declaration that Mr. Hacker will be elected an Associate of the Royal Academy at the next election.

Mr. Hacker's election to the Academy--I speak of this election as a foregone conclusion--following as it does the election of Mr. Stanhope Forbes, makes it plain that the intention of the Academy is to support to the full extent of its great power a method of painting which is foreign and unnatural to English art, which, in the opinion of a large body of artists--and it is valuable to know that their opinion is shared by the best and most original of the French artists--is disintegrating and destroying our English artistic tradition. Mr. Hacker's election, and the three elections that will follow it, those of Mr. Shannon, Mr. Alfred East, and Mr. Bromley, will be equivalent to an official declaration that those who desire to be English Academicians must adopt the French methods. Independent of the national disaster that these elections will inflict on art, they will be moreover flagrant acts of injustice. For I repeat, among the forty Academicians there is not one who considers these future Academicians to be comparable to Mr. Whistler, Mr. Albert Moore, Mr. Swan, or Mr. Sargent. No one holds such an opinion, and yet there is no doubt which way the elections in the Academy will go.

The explanation of this incredible anomaly I have given, the explanation is not a noble one, but that is not a matter for which I can be held responsible; suffice it to say, that my explanation is the only possible explanation. The Academy is a private commercial enterprise, and conducts its business on the lines which it considers the most advantageous; its commercialism has become flagrant and undeniable. If this is so--how the facts can otherwise be explained I cannot see--it is to be regretted that the Academy got its beautiful site for nothing. But regrets are vain. The only thing to do now is to see that the Academy is no longer allowed to sail under false colours. This article may awaken in the Academy a sense that it is not well to persist in open and flagrant defiance of public opinion, or it may serve to render the Academicians even more stiff-necked than before. In either case it will have accomplished its purpose.

[The end]
George Moore's essay: Our Academicians