Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of George Augustus Moore > Text of Religiosity In Art

An essay by George Augustus Moore

Religiosity In Art

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

One Sunday morning, more than twenty years ago, I breakfasted with a great painter, who was likewise a wit, and the account he gave of a recent visit to the Dore Gallery amused me very much. On entering, he noticed that next to the door there was a high desk, so cunningly constructed both as regards height and inclination that all the discomforts of writing were removed; and the brightness of the silver inkpot, the arrangement of the numerous pens and the order-book on the desk, all was so perfect that the fingers of the lettered and unlettered itched alike with desire of the caligraphic art. By this desk loitered a large man of bland and commanding presence. He wore a white waistcoat, and a massive gold chain, with which he toyed while watching the guileless spectators or sought with soothing voice to entice one to display his handwriting in the order-book. My friend, who was small and thin, almost succeeded in defeating the vigilance of the white-waistcoated and honey-voiced Cerberus; but at the last moment, as he was about to slip out, he was stopped, and the following dialogue ensued:--

"Sir, that is a very great picture."

"Yes, it is indeed, it is an immense picture."

"Sir, I mean great in every sense of the word."

"So do I; it is nearly as broad as it is long."

"I was alluding, sir, to the superior excellence of the picture, and not to its dimensions."


"May I ask, sir, if you know what that picture represents?"

"I'm sorry, but I can't tell you."

"Then, sir, I'll tell you. That picture represents the point of culmination in the life of Christ."

"Really; may I ask who says so?"

"The dignitaries of the Church say so."

Pause, during which my friend made an ineffectual attempt to get past. The waistcoat, however, barred the way, and then the bland and dulcet voice spoke again.

"Do you see that man copying the right-hand corner of the picture? That gentleman says that the man who could paint that corner could paint anything."

"Oh! and who is that gentleman?"

"That gentleman is employed to copy in the National Gallery."

"Oh! by the State?"

"No, sir, not by the State, but he has permission to copy in the National Gallery."

"A special permission granted to him by the State?"

"No, sir, but he has permission to copy in the National Gallery." "In fact, just as every one else has. I am really very much obliged, but I must be getting along."

"Sir, won't you put down your name for a ten-guinea proof signed by the artist?"

"I'm very sorry, but I really do not see my way to taking a ten-guinea subscription."

"Then, perhaps, you will take one at five--the same without the signature?"

"I really cannot."

"You can have a numbered proof for L2, 10s."

"No, thank you; you must excuse me."

"You can have an ordinary proof for a guinea."

"No, thank you; you must really allow me to pass."

Then in the last moment the white waistcoat, assuming a tone in which there was both despair and disdain, said--"But you will have a year and a half before you need pay your guinea."

Who does not know this man? Who has not suffered from his importunities? Twenty years ago he extolled the beauties of "Christ leaving the Praetorium"; ten years later he lauded the merits of "Christ and Diana"; to-day he is busy advising the shilling public thronging the Dowdeswell galleries to view Mr. Herbert Schmalz's _impressive_ picture of "The Return from Calvary". I do not mean that the same gentleman who presided at the desk in the Dore Gallery now presides at the desk at 160 New Bond Street. The individual differs, but the type remains unaltered. The waistcoat, the desk, the pens and the silver inkstand, such paraphernalia are as inseparable from him as the hammer is from the auctioneer. All this I have on the authority of Messrs. Dowdeswell themselves. When engaging their canvasser, they offered him a small table at the end of the room. Their ignorance of his art caused him to smile. "A table," he said, "would necessitate sitting down to write, and the great point in this business is to save the customer from all unnecessary trouble. Any other place in the room except next the door is out of the question. I must have a nice desk there, at which you can write standing up, a lamp shedding a bright glow upon the paper, a handsome silver inkstand, and a long, evenly-balanced pen. Give me these things, and leave the rest to me."

Messrs. Dowdeswell hastened to comply with these requests. I was in the gallery on Monday, and can testify to the pleasantness of the little installation, to the dexterity with which customers were led there, and to the grace with which the canvasser dipped the pen in the handsome silver inkstand. The county squire, the owner of racehorses, the undergraduate, and the Brixton spinster, are easily led by him to the commodious desk. Go and see the man, and you will be led thither likewise.

It is a matter for wonder that more artists do not devote themselves to painting religious subjects. There seems to be an almost limitless demand for work of this kind, and almost any amount of praise for it, no matter how badly it is executed. The critic dares not turn the picture into ridicule however bad it may be, for to do so would seem like turning a sacred subject into ridicule--so few distinguish between the subject and the picture. He may hardly venture to depreciate the work, for it would not seem quite right to depreciate the work of a man who had endeavoured to depict, however inadequately, a sacred subject. Everything is in favour of the painter of religious subjects, provided certain formalities are observed. The canvasser and the arrangements of the desk are of course the first consideration, but there are a number of minor observances, not one of which may be neglected. The gallery must be thrown into deep twilight with a vivid light from above falling full on the picture. There must be lines of chairs, arranged as if for a devout congregation; and if, in excess of these, the primary conditions of success, one of the dignitaries of the Church can be induced to accept a little excursion into the perilous fields of art criticism, all will go well with the show.

It would be unseemly for a critic to argue with a bishop concerning the merits of a religious picture--it would be irreverent, anomalous, and in execrable taste. For it must be clear to every one that the best and truest critic of a religious picture is a bishop; and it is still more clear that if the picture contains a view of Jerusalem, the one person who can speak authoritatively on the matter is the Bishop of Jerusalem. And it were indeed impossible to realise the essential nature of these truths better than Messrs. Dowdeswell have done; they have even ventured to extend the ordinary programme, and have decreed a special _matinee_ in the interests of country parsons--truly an idea of genius. If a fault may be found or forged with the arrangements, it is that they did not enter into some contract with the railway authorities. But this is hypercriticism; they have done their work well, and the _matinee_, as the order-book will testify, was a splendid success. The parsons came up from every part of the country, and as "The Return from Calvary" is the latest thing in religious art, they think themselves bound to put their names down for proofs. How could they refuse? The canvasser dipped the pen in the ink for them, and he has a knack of making a refusal seem so mean.

About Mr. Schmalz's picture I have really no particular opinion. I do not think it worse than any picture of the same kind by the late Mr. Long. Nor do I think that it can be said to be very much inferior to the religious works with which Mr. Goodall has achieved so wide a reputation. On the whole I think I prefer Mr. Goodall, though I am not certain. Here is the picture:--At the top of a flight of steps and about two-thirds of the way across the picture, to the left, so as not to interfere with the view of Jerusalem, are three figures--as Sir Augustus Harris might have set them were he attempting a theatrical representation of the scene. There is a dark man, this is St. John, and over him a woman draped in white is weeping, and behind her a woman with golden hair--the Magdalen--is likewise weeping. Two other figures are ascending the steps, but as they are low down in the picture they interfere hardly at all with the splendid view. The dark sky is streaked with Naples yellow, and the pale colour serves to render distinct the three crosses planted upon Calvary in the extreme distance.

In this world all is a question of temperament. To the aesthetic temperament Mr. Schmalz's picture will seem hardly more beautiful or attractive than a Salvationist hymn-book; the unaesthetic temperament will, on the other hand, be profoundly moved, the subject stands out clear and distinct, and that class of mind, overlooking all artistic shortcomings, will lose itself in emotional consideration of the grandest of all the world's tragedies. That Mr. Schmalz's picture is capable of exercising a profound effect on the uneducated mind there can be no doubt. While I was there a lady walked with stately tread into the next room, and seeing there nothing more exciting than rural scenes drawn in water-colour, exclaimed, "Trees, mere trees! what are trees after having had one's soul elevated?"

That great artist Henri Monnier devoted a long life to the study and the collection of the finest examples of human stupidity, and marvellous as are some of the specimens preserved by him in his dialogues, I hardly think that he succeeded in discovering a finer gem than the phrase overheard by me in the Dowdeswell Galleries. To appreciate the sublime height, must we not know something of the miserable depth? And the study of human stupidity is refreshing and salutary; it helps us to understand ourselves, to estimate ourselves, and to force ourselves to look below the surface, and so raise our ideas out of that mire of casual thought in which we are all too prone to lie. For perfect culture, the lady I met at the Dowdeswell Galleries is as necessary as Shakespeare. Is she not equally an exhortation to be wise?

[The end]
George Moore's essay: Religiosity In Art