The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
An Idealist of To-day.
by S. A.
In going the round of the winter exhibitions now in London, of which so much has been written in the papers, it may easily happen that one enjoys most where one had anticipated least. The Rembrandts at Burlington House * have been greatly praised, perhaps, even somewhat overpraised, and having expected much, one is surprised not to find more; the general effect of the Royal Academy rooms is at first that of a black and white exhibition, so dark, even quite black, are the backgrounds to most of the canvases there, so little colour do they now contain, and the beauty or meaning of the gleaming pale faces needs to be sought for at closer quarters. The Burne-Jones pictures at the New Gallery, on the contrary, have not suffered in this way; they have been as much disparaged as praised, their delicate colour is undimmed by the shades of varnish or of time, the larger ones need distance for their proper appreciation, and so the general and entire view is most attractive.
[Burlington House was built as a mansion on Piccadilly in London. It is currently owned by the British government and houses, among other things, the Royal Academy of Arts. In 1899, they were displaying 102 Rembrandt paintings; three from that exhibit are discussed in "S. A's" other PR article, "A Trio of Rembrandt Pictures."]
The catalogue opens with a very interesting preface by Mr. J. Comyns Carr, setting forth in his own and Rossetti's words the confession of faith that "the noblest picture is a painted poem," and as this is certainly a saying that cannot be accepted of all men, it tends probably to the alienation of the critic from the painter, and to that controversial criticism which cannot be entire praise.
This is a very easy set of pictures to see and to enjoy; most of them are so familiar to us, that we have not got to learn them now, only to enjoy. Many of them were in these same rooms in 1892; many of the best were together at Manchester in 1887, forming with others, equally well chosen, a fine representation of English art in Victoria's reign; and some one, two or three have been in the summer exhibitions for years past; hence they are almost all old friends, and we come to them once again only to enjoy them more, and realize them better, as they are placed in a sort of ordered sequence, to show clearly the developing manner of the master, through its earliest to its latest phase. Most of them are pictures of classic stories, and we have not, on this second or third time of seeing them, to go through again the mental evolution of substituting the painted ideal of that classic story for the one we had already made for ourselves, if it happens that we had made one.
It was said by Burne-Jones that Rossetti taught him all that he ever learnt, and this is amply illustrated in he first room that we enter, where on the left wall hang many pictures that most vividly recall Rossetti, notably the attitudes of the figures in the first picture "Clerk Saunders," and the heads of the "Backgammon Players," which is No. 5. On this wall, beautiful to look at as a whole and full of interest, where is drawn together the earliest manner and work of the painter, is a large triptych, with the dark glow and glory of an old master about it, designed originally for a church altar-piece. It is quite alone and by itself here, there is nothing more that is at all like it; it shows how well this master could have followed in the steps of the older ones had he chosen to do so: in its central panel have been introduced portraits of Burne-Jones himself, his friends William Morris and Swinburne, a proceeding interesting in itself and following, too, in the steps of the old masters.
"The Marriage of Sir Tristam," another early work, recalls not this time Rossetti, but Madox Brown. Further on is the lovely pale-coloured "Marriage Feast of Peleus," an al fresco entertainment of the Gods; there are the [six] "Days of Creation" to look over again, to follow to the sixth and last and to turn back perchance with renewed satisfaction to the most expressive face of the angel of the first day. There is the trio of the "Briar-Rose," the first a wild tangle of gigantic briar stem and sleeping men; to end with the "Sleeping Beauty" in the third, seems incomplete. Was the wakening too impossible?
The water-colours here are wonderful, they are so strong; not placed in a room alone but indiscriminately among the others, they are scarcely to be differentiated, and one finds with surprise, from the catalogue, what they are. Such is the beautiful whole harmonious colour, the "Merciful Knight," where the centre of attraction lies in the expression of the worn fine face furrowed by pain. Another of the strongest and most beautiful of the water-colours is the "Wine of Circe," where the orange dress of the bending figure and the blackness of the panthers makes an astonishing colour harmony.
Here are the graceful "Hours" in divers colours, as bright a picture as the "Feast of Peleus"; here is the well-known and almost-monotone in brown and grey, the "Wheel of Fortune"; the indescribably lovely "Laus Veneris," and the brightest of all the pale pictures the "Mirror of Venus," and the picture that may well be the favourite of many, "Le Chant d'Amour."
"King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid," held by some to be the master's greatest work, does not appeal in the same degree to all, yet it is grand and sombre. "Love among the Ruins" is a new picture, the older version, the water-colour, having been burnt it appears in 1894. It is, as far as I remember, much the same as the old one, perhaps stronger and less peculiar; there is the same grey-haired lover, and the same perfect sculptured building beyond the ruin. All the pictures are not equally beautiful, and of such is the "Tree of Forgiveness," but the "Fall of Lucifer," which follows it, rises again to the level of splendour; the find blue-green procession seems to wind down slowly from the courts of heaven in the curve that recalls that of the "Golden Stairs," but is more beautiful because more long drawn out. With wings and flags, helmets and armour, a haloed multitude, bearing shields and spears, they look stately and quiet in hollow-eyed despair. All the picture-series seem to be here; there are the six of the Perseus pictures, and the seven of "St. George and the Dragon," of which the second and third, as they hang here, produce a fine decorative effect. Lastly, there is the touching poem in four paintings, named together "Pygmalion and the Image," and respectively "The Heart desires," "The Hand refrains," "The Godhead fires," and "The Soul attains."
"Love and the Pilgrim" is a recent work, completely only about two years ago, a largish canvas of only two figures, set to Swinburne's lines--
"Love that is first and last of all things made,
--and dedicated to him. The figure of Love draws the Pilgrim out of a tangle of briars and thorns, while above circles a flight of small birds.
At the far end of the last room is placed the unfinished picture [The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon] on which the artist was working when death touched him, appropriately placed, that one comes last to the crowning work of the whole exhibition, the largest of all the canvases, and yet a perfect whole that cannot be taken to pieces, a scene of exquisite repose! It recalls, one knows not quite why--unless it be the general scheme of the composition--Rossetti's great picture, "Dante's Dream." It is a surface of many colours and of many figures, besides the three Queens who have borne King Arthur to the Isle of Avalon, there to sleep and wait. It is a picture that rests one to look upon, it is a picture that means and portrays and emits rest, the last rest, the quiet waiting, the sleep that is not death!
It is pleasant to wander once more through these three rooms and try to surmise which is the most beautiful face there. Is it the Madonna of the early triptych? or the Venus of "Laus Veneris"? the Venus of the mirror? or rather the lady of the "Chant d'Amour," though that is, perhaps, the picture one would choose to have to live with rather than any other! Perhaps it is the face of winged love that guides the Pilgrim through the briars of life, and pulls him from the formidable tangle the surpasses nature? Perhaps it was meant so, but however that may be, there is plenty of choice of lovely faces, and each may choose just exactly as it pleases him or herself.
After Burne-Jones had passed out of his Rossetti phase, he has said that it was [George Frederic] Watts who compelled him to try to draw better, and there is much of his drawing and "trying to draw better" to be seen here in the central hall and balcony. These beautiful pictures did not come at once and of themselves; for one of them, "King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid," there is a set of thirteen careful drawings, there is the design of the first conception and then another variety of it; there are four studies of the Beggar Maid and then another of her with the King; there are more and separate studies of heads, of figures, of armour, and even of drapery. There are many many drawings for "Arthur of Avalon," and some of them, as the Hill Fairies, are not to be found in the final form that the picture assumed. It is interesting to follow these drawings and so to trace the evolution of the work from its first conception to its final form. The faces of the Beggar Maid do not vary much in the preliminary drawings, for with all the untiring industry displayed in studies from nature, this painter approached every task with a certain ideal of his own, and he was never allured from that ideal by any of the attractions or idiosyncrasies in the real face from which he was drawing--drawing, not to portray that face as it was, but to embody his own idea in perfect form. If the noblest picture be a painted poem, it is certainly not every painted poem that comes to a noble picture! If it be so here, is it not through the love of it all that led this tireless hand through countless studies of leaf and flower and fold, each one a scrap only, and perhaps a discarded scrap of a perfect picture, and yet each one also entire in itself and a joy to its possessor for ever.
Proofread by LNL, June 2020
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