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An essay by George Augustus Moore

Nationality In Art

Title:     Nationality In Art
Author: George Augustus Moore [More Titles by Moore]

In looking through a collection of Reynolds, Gainsboroughs, Dobsons, Morlands, we are moved by something more than the artistic beauty of the pictures. Seeing that peaceful farmyard by Morland, a dim remote life, a haunting in the blood, rises to the surface of the brain, like a water-flower or weed brought by a sudden current into sight of the passing sky. Seeing that quiet man talking with his swineherd, we are mysteriously attracted, and are perplexed as by a memory; we grow aware of his house and wife, and though these things passed away more than a hundred years ago, we know them all. That other picture, "Partridge Shooting", by Stubbs, how familiar and how intimate it is to us! and those days seem to go back and back into long ago, beyond childhood into infancy. The life of the picture goes back into the life that we heard from our father's, our grandfather's lips, a life of reminiscence and little legend, the end of which passed like a wraith across the dawn of our lives. For we need not be very old to remember the squire ramming the wads home and calling to the setter that is too eagerly pressing forward the pointer in the turnips. A man of fifty can remember seeing the mail coach swing round the curve of the wide, smooth coach roads; and a man of forty, going by road to the Derby, and the block which came seven miles from Epsom. And so do these pictures take us to the heart of England, to the heart of our life, which is England, to that great circumstance which preceded our birth, and which gave not merely flesh and blood, but the minds that are thinking now. We have only to pass through a doorway to see sublimer works of art. But though Troyon and Courbet were greater artists than Morland, Morland whispers something that is beyond art, beyond even our present life; as a shell with the sound of the sea, these canvases are murmurous with the under life.

That young lady so charmingly dressed in white, she who holds a rose in her hand, is Miss Kitty Calcraft, by Romney. Do we not seem to know her? We ask when we met her, and where we spoke to her; and that mystic when and where seem more real than the moment of present life. The present crowd of living folk fades from us, and we half believe, half know, that she spoke to us one evening on that terrace overlooking those wide pasture lands. We see the happy light of her eyes and hear the joy of her voice, and they stir in us all the impulses of race, of kith and kin.

Romney is often crude, but the worst that can be urged against this portrait is that it is superficial. But what charm and grace there is in its superficiality! Romney was aware of the grace and charm of the young girl as she sat before him in her white dress: he saw her as a flower; and in fluent, agreeable, well-bred and cultivated speech he has talked to us about her. The portrait has the charm of rare and exquisite conversation; we float in a tide of sensation. He was only aware of her white dress, her pretty arm and hand laid on her soft lap. But while we merely see Kitty, we perceive and think of Gainsborough's portrait of Miss Willoughby. We realise her in other circumstances, away from the beautiful blue trees under which he has so happily placed her; we can see her receiving visitors on the terrace, or leaning over the balustrade looking down the valley, wondering why life has come to her so sadly. We see her in her eighteenth-century drawing-room amid Chippendale and Adams furniture, reading an old novel. No one ever cared much about Miss Willoughby. There is little sensuous charm in her long narrow face, in her hair falling in ringlets over her shoulders; and we are sure that she often reflected on the bitterness of life. But Kitty never looked into the heart of things: when life coincided with her desires, she laughed and was glad; when things, to use her own words, "went wrong", she wept. And in these two portraits we read the stories of the painters' souls.

But the question of nationality, of country, in art detains us. Beautiful beyond compare is the art of Tourguenieff; but how much more intimate, how much deeper is the delight that a Russian finds in his novels than ours! However truly the purely artistic qualities may touch us--great art is universal--we miss our native land and our race in Tourguenieff. We find both in Dickens, in Thackeray. Miss Austen and Fielding have little else; and vague though Fielding may be in form, still his pages are England, and they whisper the life we inherited from long ago. The superb Rembrandt in the next room, the Gentleman with a Hawk, lent by the Duke of Westminster, is a human revelation. We only perceive in it the charm, the adorableness, the eternal adventure of youth; nationality disappears in the universal. This beautiful portrait was painted in 1643, a year after the "Night-watch". The date of the portrait of the Lady with the Fan is not given. They differ widely in style; the portrait of the man is ten years in advance of the portrait of the woman; it seems to approach very closely, to touch on, the great style which he attained in 1664, the year when he painted the Syndics. Of his early style, thin, crabbed, and yellow, there is hardly a trace in the portrait of the Man with the Hawk; it is almost a complete emancipation, yet it would be rash to say that the Lady with the Fan is an early work, painted in the days of the Lesson in Anatomy. In Rembrandt's work we find sudden advancements towards the grand final style, and these are immediately followed by hasty returnings to the hard, dry, and essentially unromantic manner of 1634. The portrait of the Young Man with the Hawk was painted in middle life. But if it contains something more than the suggestion of the qualities which twenty years later he developed and perfected for the admiration of all time, if the immortal flower of Rembrandt's genius was still unblown, this is blossom prematurely breaking. The young man is shown upon darkness like a vision: the face is illuminated mysteriously, the brush-work is large and firm, the paint is substantial without being heavy, the canvas is smoky, an unnatural and yet a real atmosphere surrounds the head. The black velvet cap strikes in sharp relief against the background, which lightens to a grey-green about the head. The modelling of the face is extraordinarily large and simple, and yet without omissions; we have in this portrait a perfect example of the art of being precise without being small. The young man is a young nobleman. He stands before us looking at us, and yet his eyes are not fixed; his moustache is golden and frizzled; his cheeks are coloured slightly; but the picture is practically made of a few greys and greens, and white, slightly tinted with bitumen; yet we do not feel, or feel very little, any lack of colouring matter. Rembrandt realised in the romantic young man his ideal of young masculine beauty. Truly a beautiful work, neither the boyhood nor the manhood, but the adolescence of Rembrandt's genius.

Between the portrait of the Lady with a Fan and Sir Joshua's portrait of Miss Frances Crewe it would be permissible to hesitate; but to hesitate even for one instant between Miss Crewe and the Young Man with the Hawk would be unpardonable. Sir Joshua painted as he thought; he had an instinctive sense of decoration and a deep and tender feeling for beauty; he was especially sensible to the agreeable and gay aspect of things; his eyes at once seize the pleasing and picturesque contour, and his mind divined a charming and effective scheme of colour. He saw character too; all the surface characteristics of his model were plain to him, and when he was so minded he painted with rare intelligence and insight. He did not see deeply, but he saw clearly. Gainsborough did not see so clearly, nor was his hand as prompt to express his vision as Sir Joshua's; but Gainsborough saw further, for he felt more keenly and more profoundly. But light indeed were their minds compared with Rembrandt's. Rembrandt was a great visionary; to him the outsides of things were symbols of elemental truths, which he expressed in a form mighty as the truths themselves. There is no question of comparison between him on one hand and Reynolds and Gainsborough on the other. Yet we should hesitate to destroy our Reynolds and Gainsboroughs, to preserve any works of art, however beautiful. Were we to keep what our reason told us was the greatest, we should feel as one who surrendered England to save the rest of the world, or as a parent who sacrificed his children to save a million men from the scaffold.

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George Moore's essay: Nationality In Art