Great Pictures, As Seen and Described Part 21

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What shall we say of the physiognomy, of the grace, and also the penetrating charm of those three child figures? Such a work would alone suffice for the glory of a museum, above all when it has kept its freshness like the flowering of genius.

Every moment of the painter was consecrated to the various members of the royal family. That was natural enough. Charles I. never desisted from watching his clever _protege_ at work, and spending his leisure in his studio,--the habitual _rendez-vous_ of the young gentlemen and the beauties of fas.h.i.+on. The establishment of the artist permitted him to receive such guests becomingly. Hired musicians were instructed to divert his aristocratic models during the hours of work. Thus he was enabled to attract and hold at his home the very best society in London. Every day at his table sat numerous guests chosen from the _elite_ of the artists and _litterateurs_ mingled with the greatest personages. Carried into the whirlwind of this light world so full of entertainment, Van Dyck hastened to enjoy all the pleasures and exhaust all the delights, without considering his strength, or h.o.a.rding his health....

The King would never let him stop painting the pictures of his children.

On his side, Van Dyck brought to this task all his art, we might say all his heart. Doubtless, he derived from Rubens and also from Van Balen that very lively intelligence for the graces of childhood. Also, when he occupied himself in rendering those delicious faces of rosy and chubby babies, in the midst of glimmering stuffs, he found colours of incomparable freshness....

Every artist of high degree carries within himself the ideal type whose expression he pursues without pause. This search imprints upon each of his works the characteristic mark of genius: originality. Thus we recognize at the first glance the giants that sprang from the brain of Michael Angelo, the enigmatical sirens of da Vinci, and those superhuman figures with which Raphael has peopled his immortal compositions. t.i.tian lived in a world of kings and magnificent princes. Correggio's individuality is grace of form and charm of colour; his portion is not to be scorned. The exuberant nature of Rubens betrays itself in his least important canvases. The personages of his innumerable pictures share in common the affinities of race and family which make them recognizable everywhere.

Anthonius Van Dyck obeys, likewise, the common law. Each of his works is marked by that sign of originality, which in him consists of the incessant pursuit of elegance and distinction. Distinction,--that is the gift _par excellence_, the dominating quality of this artist, that which const.i.tutes his individuality, that which marks with an indelible imprint all his glorious works, from the first gropings of the pupil of Rubens to those immortal images of Charles I., his family, and his court.

Whether he belongs to the highest spheres of society or whether he comes from the simple _bourgeoisie_ of Antwerp, the model receives from Van Dyck's brush the most aristocratic mien. One would insist that the painter spent his life only in a world of gentlemen and patricians.

Never does he surprise even the men that he knows the best, his most intimate friends, in the familiar carelessness of their daily occupations. Rarely, very rarely, does it come into his mind to group them in some intimate interior scene. Everybody is made to pose before posterity; each sitter has the smile to give his or her descendants the most exalted idea of his or her station and manners. Not one is vulgar, not one dares to show himself in his ordinary work, or in the careless good nature of daily life. Nothing alters their immutable serenity; nothing troubles the unalterable placidity of their physiognomy. Let others paint the people of taverns, the world of _kermesses_ and peasants! Van Dyck wished to be and to live for ever the painter of aristocracy.

_Antoine Van Dyck--sa vie et sonnoeuvre._ (Paris, 1882).




"The flag which braved the battle and the breeze No longer owns her."

Exhibited at the Academy in 1839, with the above lines cited in the Catalogue. Of all Turner's pictures in the National Gallery this is perhaps the most notable. For, _first_ it is the last picture he ever painted with _perfect_ power--the last in which his execution is as firm and faultless as in middle life; the last in which lines requiring exquisite precision, such as those of the masts and yards of s.h.i.+pping, are drawn rightly at once. When he painted the _Temeraire_ Turner could, if he liked, have painted the _s.h.i.+pwreck_ or the _Ulysses_ over again; but when he painted the _Sun of Venice_, though he was able to do different, and in some sort more beautiful things, he could not have done _those_ again. His period of central power thus begins with the _Ulysses_ and closes with the _Temeraire_. The one picture, it will be observed, is of sunrise, the other of sunset. The one of a s.h.i.+p entering on its voyage, and the other of a s.h.i.+p closing its course for ever. The one, in all the circ.u.mstance of the subject, unconsciously ill.u.s.trative of his own life in its triumph, the other, in all the circ.u.mstances of its subject, unconsciously ill.u.s.trative of his own life in its decline. Accurately as the first sets forth his escape to the wild brightness of nature, to reign amidst all her happy spirits, so does the last set forth his returning to die by the sh.o.r.e of the Thames.

And besides having been painted in Turner's full power, the _Temeraire_ is of all his large pictures the best preserved. _Secondly_, the subject of the picture is, both particularly and generally, the n.o.blest that in an English National Gallery could be. The _Temeraire_ was the second s.h.i.+p in Nelson's line at the Battle of Trafalgar; and this picture is the last of the group which Turner painted to ill.u.s.trate that central struggle in our national history. The part played by the _Temeraire_ in the battle will be found detailed below. And, generally, she is a type of one of England's chief glories. It will be always said of us, with unabated reverence, "They built s.h.i.+ps of the line." Take it all in all, a s.h.i.+p of the Line is the most honourable thing that man as a gregarious animal, has ever produced. By himself, unhelped, he can do better things than s.h.i.+ps of the line; he can make poems and pictures, and other such concentrations of what is best in him. But as a being living in flocks, and hammering out, with alternate strokes and mutual agreement, what is necessary for him in those flocks, to get or produce, the s.h.i.+p of the line is his first work. And as the subject was the n.o.blest Turner could have chosen so also was his treatment of it. Of all pictures of subjects not visibly involving human pain, this is, I believe, the most pathetic that was ever painted. The utmost pensiveness which can ordinarily be given to a landscape depends on adjuncts of ruin; but no ruin was ever so affecting as this gliding of the vessel to her grave. A ruin cannot be so, for whatever memories may be connected with it, and whatever witness it may have borne to the courage and glory of men, it never seems to have offered itself to their danger, and a.s.sociated itself with their acts, as a s.h.i.+p of battle can. The mere facts of motion, and obedience to human guidance, double the interest of the vessel: nor less her organized perfectness, giving her the look, and partly the character of a living creature, that may indeed be maimed in limb or decrepit in frame, but must either live or die, and cannot be added to nor diminished from--heaped up and dragged down--as a building can. And this particular s.h.i.+p, crowned in the Trafalgar hour of trial with chief victory--prevailing over the fatal vessel that had given Nelson death--surely, if ever anything without a soul deserved honour or affection, we owed them here. Those sails that strained so full bent into the battle--that broad bow that struck the surf aside, enlarging silently in steadfast haste full front to the shot--resistless and without reply--those triple ports whose choirs of flame rang forth in their courses, into the fierce revenging monotone, which, when it died away, left no answering voice to rise any more upon the sea against the strength of England--those sides that were wet with the long runlets of English life-blood, like press planks at vintage, gleaming goodly crimson down to the cast and clash of the was.h.i.+ng foam--those pale masts that stayed themselves up against the war-ruin, shaking out their ensigns through the thunder, till sail and ensign drooped--steeped in the death-stilled pause of Andalusian air, burning with its witness-clouds of human souls at rest,--surely, for these some sacred care might have been left in our thoughts, some quiet s.p.a.ce amidst the lapse of English waters? Nay, not so. We have stern keepers to trust her glory to--the fire and the worm. Never more shall sunset lay golden robe on her, nor starlight tremble on the waves that part at her gliding.

Perhaps, where the low gate opens to some cottage-garden, the tired traveller may ask, idly, why the moss grows so green on its rugged wood; and even the sailor's child may not answer, nor know, that the night-dew lies deep in the war-rents of the wood of the old _Temeraire_. And, _lastly_, the pathos of the picture--the contrast of the old s.h.i.+p's past glory with her present end; and the spectacle of the "old order" of the s.h.i.+p of the line whose flag had braved the battle and the breeze, yielding place to the new, in the little steam-tug--these pathetic contrasts are repeated and enforced by a technical _tour de force_ in the treatment of the colours which is without a parallel in art. And the picture itself thus combines the evidences of Turner's supremacy alike in imagination and in skill. The old masters, content with one simple tone, sacrificed to its unity all the exquisite gradations and varied touches of relief and change by which nature unites her hours with each other. They gave the warmth of the sinking sun, overwhelming all things in its gold, but they did not give those gray pa.s.sages about the horizon, where, seen through its dying light, the cool and the gloom of night gather themselves for their victory.... But in this picture, under the blazing veil of vaulted fire, which lights the vessel on her last path, there is a blue, deep, desolate hollow of darkness out of which you can hear the voice of the night wind, and the dull boom of the disturbed sea; the cold deadly shadows of the twilight are gathering through every sunbeam, and moment by moment, as you look, you will fancy some new film and faintness of the night has risen over the vastness of the departing form. (Compiled from _Modern Painters_, Vol. I. pt. ii.

Sec. I. ch. vii. -- 46 _n._, Sec. II. ch i. -- 21; _Harbours of England_, p. 12; and _Notes on the Turner Gallery_, pp. 75-80.)

[Ill.u.s.tration: THE FIGHTING TeMeRAIRE.


Finally a few words about the history of the picture itself may be interesting. The subject of it was suggested to Turner by Clarkson Stanfield (who himself, it will be remembered, had painted a _Battle of Trafalgar_). They were going down the river by boat, to dine, perhaps, at Greenwich, when the old s.h.i.+p, being tugged to her last berth at Deptford, came in sight. "There's a fine subject, Turner," said Stanfield. This was in 1838. Next year the picture was exhibited at the Academy, but no price was put upon it. A would-be purchaser offered Turner 300 guineas for it. He replied that it was his "200 guinea size"

only, and offered to take a commission at that price for any subject of the same size, but with the _Temeraire_ itself he would not part.

Another offer was subsequently made from America, which again Turner declined. He had already mentally included the picture, it would seem, amongst those to be bequeathed to the nation; and in one of the codicils to his will, in which he left each of his executors a picture to be chosen by them in turn, the _Temeraire_ was specially excepted from the pictures they might choose.[30]

Edward T. Cook, _A Popular Handbook to the National Gallery_.


[30] Mr. W. Hale White recently drew up for Mr. Ruskin, from official records, the following history of the _Temeraire_. To him and to Mr.

Ruskin I am indebted for permission to insert the history here. It will be seen that Turner was right in calling his picture the _Fighting Temeraire_ and the critic who induced him to change the t.i.tle in the engraving to the _Old Temeraire_ wrong:--

"The _Temeraire_, second-rate, ninety-eight guns, was begun at Chatham, July, 1793, and launched on the 11th September, 1798. She was named after an older _Temeraire_ taken by Admiral Boscawen from the French in 1759, and sold in June, 1784. The Chatham _Temeraire_ was fitted at Plymouth for a prison s.h.i.+p in 1812, and in 1819 she became a receiving s.h.i.+p and was sent to Sheerness. She was sold on the 16th August, 1838, to Mr. J. Beatson for 5,530. The _Temeraire_ was at the Battle of Trafalgar on the 21st October, 1805. She was next to the _Victory_, and followed Nelson into action; commanded by Captain Elias Harvey, with Thomas Kennedy as first lieutenant. Her maintopmast, the head of her mizzenmast, her foreyard, her starboard, cathead and b.u.mpkin, and her fore and main topsail yards were shot away; her fore and main masts so wounded as to render them unfit to carry sail, and her bowsprit shot through in several places. Her rigging of every sort was cut to pieces; the head of her rudder was taken off by the fire of the _Redoutable_; eight feet of the starboard side of the lower deck abreast of the mainmast were stove in, and the whole of her quarter-galleries on both sides carried away. Forty-six men on board of her were killed, and seventy-six wounded.... The _Temeraire_ was built with a beakhead, or, in other words, her upper works were cut off across the catheads; a peculiarity which can be observed in Turner's picture. It was found by experience in the early part of the French war that this mode of construction exposed the men working the guns to the enemy's fire, and it was afterwards abandoned. It has been objected," adds Mr. White, "that the masts and yards in the picture are too light for a ninety-eight gun s.h.i.+p; but the truth is that when the vessel was sold she was juryrigged as a receiving s.h.i.+p, and Turner, therefore, was strictly accurate. He might have seemed more accurate by putting heavier masts and yards in her; but he painted her as he saw her. This is very important, as it gets rid of the difficulty which I myself have felt and expressed, that it was very improbable that she was sold all standing in sea-going trim, as I imagined Turner intended us to believe she was sold, and answers also the criticism just mentioned as to the disproportion between the weight of the masts and yards and the size of the hull." Part of the _Temeraire_, Mr. White tells me, is still in existence. Messrs. Castle, the s.h.i.+pbuilders of Millbank, have the two figures of Atlas which supported the sterngallery.




Of all the ancient Italian painters, Botticelli has, for several years, been the master most in fas.h.i.+on. Why? The first reason should be sought in that reaction against the pseudo-cla.s.sic style of the Renaissance which has seemed to be the dominant tendency of art in the Nineteenth Century. But this explanation does not suffice to tell us for what reasons the favour of the public has specially fallen upon Botticelli.

Why select Botticelli rather than any other artist of the Fourteenth or Fifteenth Century? Why Botticelli and not Giotto, or Fra Angelico, or, to cite none but his contemporaries, why not Signorelli, or Ghirlandajo?

It is because Fra Angelico's art is too religious for our century and Giotto's art too philosophical, or, at least, it is because our century no longer thinks of demanding from its artists, as in the time of Giotto and Fra Angelico, the expression of the moral questions with which it is occupied. And if we seem to-day somewhat indifferent to the art of Ghirlandajo, or Signorelli, it is because their thought is too grave and because we desire before all else that art shall bring smiles into our laborious life; we demand that it shall give repose to our tired brains by charming us with the vision of all terrestrial beauties, without exacting any labour or any effort from our minds.

In this quest of beauty, our curious minds, which know so many things and which have been able to compare the works of the most diverse civilizations, are perpetually seeking novelty, eager for rare forms, and inimical to everything ba.n.a.l and to everything that ordinary life brings before our eyes. And in our _fin de siecle_ we have been so much the more to subtle pursuits because for some time our French art has seemed to take delight in the forms of a gross realism.

This refinement of art, this intimate a.n.a.lysis of form and thought, this love of sensual beauty, had appeared at the court of the Medici by the same causes that prompt us to seek them; they are the fruit of a society that has attained the highest degree of well-being, wealth and knowledge.

This kind of art lasted only for a moment in Florence. It is correct to say that Florentine art did not seem destined to speak the charms of feminine beauty. From its beginning, this school had been stamped by Giotto with the philosophic impress, and for two centuries its artists had been before everything else, thinkers, occupied more with moral ideas than with the beauty of form.

The first in Florence to be enthralled by the charm of beautiful eyes was the poor Filippo Lippi. It was he who created that new form of art which was to continue with Botticelli, his pupil, and which attained its perfection under the hands of Leonardo. If, to the Lucrezia Buti of Filippo Lippi, we join Botticelli's Simonetta and Leonardo's Monna Lisa, we should have the poem of love sung by Florentine genius under its most exquisite form.

[Ill.u.s.tration: SPRING.


What Botticelli was, _Spring_ will tell us; and this work is so significant, its essence expresses the thought of the master so clearly that it has preserved all its charm for us, although its particular meaning is not known to us. We call it _Spring_, but if one of the figures in the picture really represents Spring, it is only an accessory figure; and, moreover, this name given to the picture is entirety modern. Vasari says that it represents _Venus surrounded by the Graces_, but if we find the three Graces in the picture, it is not likely that the figure represents Venus. In my opinion, it is that figure that is the key to the picture; it is for this figure that everything has been done, and this it is, above all, that we must interrogate if we wish to know Botticelli's meaning. Evidently it is neither Venus, nor Spring; and the precision of the features, and the fidelity of the smallest details of the costume make us believe that we are in the presence of a veritable portrait.... Around her, Nature adorns herself with flowers; Spring and the Graces surround her like a train of Fays. Here is one of the familiar poetical forms of the Fifteenth Century; and, doubtless, by attentively reading the Florentine poets, we should discover the meaning of all the allegorical figures that Botticelli has united in his work and which we do not understand.[31]

But whatever may be the particular meaning of each of these figures, it is certain that here we have to do with love and beauty, and that perhaps in no other work may we find the charm of woman described in more pa.s.sionate accents.

In this world of feminine fascination Botticelli loved everything. He knows the attraction of the toilet and of jewels, but he knows above all that no gem and no invention of man can rival the beauty of the female form. He was the first to understand the exquisite charm of silhouettes, the first to linger in expressing the joining of the arm and body, the flexibility of the hips, the roundness of the shoulders, the elegance of the leg, the little shadow that marks the springing of the neck, and, above all, the exquisite carving of the hand. But, even more, he understood "_le prestige insolent des grands yeux_,"--large eyes, full, restless, and sad, because they are filled with love.

Look at these young maidens of Botticelli's. What a heavenly vision! Did Alfred de Musset know these veiled forms that seem to float over the meadow and did he think of them in the sleeplessness of his nights of May? Did he think of that young girl whose arm rises supple as the stem of a flower, of that young Grace so charming in the frame of her fair hair confined by strings of pearls, or, indeed, of that _Primavera_, who advances so imperiously beautiful, in her long robe of brocade, scattering handfuls of flowers that she makes blossom, or of that young mother more charming still in her modest grace, with her beautiful eyes full of infinite tenderness.

And around this scene, what a beautiful frame of verdure and flowers!

Nature has donned her richest festal robes; the inanimate things, like the human beings, all speak of love and happiness, and tell us that the master of this world is that little child with bandaged eyes, who amuses himself by shooting his arrows of fire.

To say a word about the technique of this work, we should remark that Botticelli always painted in fresco or distemper, and that he did not seek the supple modelling that painting in oil affords; and, on the other hand, he submitted profoundly to the influence of Pollaiolo; he observed Nature with the eyes of a goldsmith; and he painted his works as if, working a niello or enamel, he had to set each figure in gold-wire.

Finally, is it necessary to speak of the date of the _Primavera_? This would occasion a long discussion if the s.p.a.ce were accorded me. Let it suffice to say that the biography written by Vasari merits no credence, that it has been unfortunately accepted by the majority of historians, and that we have not yet a good chronology of Botticelli's works, nor even a simple catalogue. As for the chronology, most historians, relying upon Vasari, place nearly all of Botticelli's works before his trip to Rome in 1481. I think, on the contrary, and I will prove it elsewhere, that the great productive period of Botticelli belongs to the ten last years of the century and that the _Primavera_ should be cla.s.sed in this period. The _Primavera_ represents, with _The Birth of Venus_ and _The Adoration of the Magi_, the culminating point of Botticelli's art.

Jouin, _Chefs-d'oeuvre; Peinture, Sculpture, Architecture_ (Paris, 1895-97).


[31] See notably the _Stanze_ of Politian, where one will find nearly all the details of Botticelli's picture; the shady grove, the flowery meadow, even the att.i.tudes and the garments of the personages. Is it not a figure of Botticelli's which is thus described:

"She is white and white is her robe, All painted with flowers, roses, and blades of gra.s.s."

Great Pictures, As Seen and Described Part 21

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