Fine Arts of England - Expo Paris 1867

Fine Arts of England at the Exhibition Expo Paris 1867

If there are two peoples in the world who have everything to gain from the sincerity of their friendship and the constancy of their good relations, these two peoples are, surely, the English and the French.

I shall not enter into the political question and shall confine myself to the discussion which is in our domain. Here again, as well as in politics, it is easy to show that England and France, by visiting each other as they do, by exchanging their ideas and their systems, by learning more and more from each other, are visibly progressing and improving.

The English will teach us practical and positive virtues which will make a just balance to our graceful and light qualities, and will give, so to speak, more consistency and more weight to our very pleasantness and charm; for, it must not be doubted, we are above all a pleasant and charming people. Honni soit qui mal y pense!

On the other hand, do not our neighbours across the Channel lack a little of that delicate and fine sense which knows how to distinguish in all things even the most imperceptible nuances of beauty and ugliness, of good and evil, and which is so ingeniously called taste? There is, in fact, in taste, something that has to do with the physical and the moral, with the subtle impressions of the palate and the tongue, and with the wonderful perceptions of the soul and the spirit!

Well, since ancient Greece, since Athens the incomparable, taste has taken refuge with us, and we have the privilege, the monopoly of it. If this is a chauvinist axiom, so be it!

So I thought the other day, while browsing through the exhibition of paintings and sculptures from England and the United States of America. From the point of view of art, the two illustrious nations are twins, and, as they say, they are a pair. Then I wondered with astonishment how it could be that in a country where so many great men, poets and philosophers, were born, who knew how to see and interpret so well, not only the ideal, but also the external nature and its high truth, painters and sculptors were left behind, in this state of childhood and awkwardness.

Who, then, has rendered better and in more striking, more vivid, more colourful words, man and the world, society and life, solitude too, and fields and woods, than Shakespeare and Milton, and Addison and Swift, and William Cowper, Wordsworth, Coleridge and all the Lakists, and Robert Burns, and Byron, and Thomas Moore? Would these hands, so skilled in handling the pen, have fumbled, hesitated, faltered in handling the brush, and would they have produced nothing but those clashed and false tones, those colours that squeak and swear, those landscapes that no one has known and fortunately will never know, or those stiff, dry, stilted, pretentious characters, which are scarcely any less untraceable?... This is a cruel problem!

England is green and white. It is called Albion. It looks from afar like a flock of swans on a field of emeralds. The beauty of her daughters is without rival. Never have sweeter blue eyes lit up fresher faces. And yet see the paintings that are sent to us from there!

However, I must quickly point out that, as it stands, this exhibition is better, as a whole, than the 1855 exhibition where, despite the works truly worthy of esteem and honour that Mulready had submitted to international appreciation, one would never have suspected, even in a Salon des Refusés, a more diverse collection of everything that naive and unaware bad taste can produce.

Now progress is real. One senses, on the right and on the left, excellent intentions which testify to a keen desire to correct themselves and to do better in the future, if one can. The French influence is evident in certain details where one can already guess more than the instinct for what is right and true. Now, by following this path, one arrives straight at talent.

We will not quibble with Mr. W. Linneli, who likes to place shepherds and shepherdesses in red clay among yellow goats and yellow and grey sheep, in the presence of such omens. All this, and the background of the painting, looks as if it has just come out of the pot, and one could even write underneath: A little overcooked!

Mr. A. Richard Belgrave has a weakness for country girls, as seen by M. Courbet in his days of realistic debauchery. It is difficult to find uglier ones. On the other hand, these harvesting damsels are lying here and there under tufts of wheat, which are a real pleasure to see, if you like soldiers in full dress. These tufts of ears of corn, interspersed with cornflowers and poppies, stand straight and severe like drum-majors on a review day in the Bois de Boulogne, in front of foreign sovereigns.

They look like charges drawn and painted by mischievous schoolboys, and one is tempted to call these ways of understanding and representing nature -- the primitive way.

And the pictures, which are made and understood in this way, run all the way along the wall, - and they abound.

I cannot forgive Mr. George Leslie for giving us, in a landscape so flat and trivial, a Clarisse Harlowe who reminds us so much of the sentimental and romantic chambermaid in Lady Sw...or Mrs. K.... She is reading a letter, probably from Lovelace. Now, if Clarisse's portrait is accurate, Lovelace's infidelity can be explained and, in the eyes of any clear-sighted observer, deserves the benefit of extenuating circumstances.

Mr. Henry Walis' Chatterton is not without success with many of the unfortunate poet's countrymen. This is understandable, and we ourselves were deeply moved by the misfortunes of this prodigious child whom genius itself did not save from misery and death. It is true that Mme Dorval played the role of Kitty-Bell, and that there resounded all the eloquent chords of her soul and her talent. Geffroy, in his turn, had resurrected and rejuvenated this seventeen year old lover in him.

M. Walis puts us in front of Chatterton's garret. The dead poet is lying on the bed of poverty. His young, pale head is crowned with red hair. Then, by a fancy that nothing seems to motivate, the dead man's shirt is light blue, his breeches are dark blue, and his violet coat has blue highlights. A trunk is ajar at the bedside, and from it escape torn and tattered manuscripts. Needless to say, these manuscripts, Chatterton's verses, have, like everything else, a light blue tint. However, a flowerpot is melancholically placed on the attic window, and one is reminded, without meaning to, of the narrow window of Jenny the Worker.

Through the glass, flooded with blue reflections, you can see blue roofs and blue steeples, grouped and tiered under the blue sky.

In short, it is impossible to spread more blue over a more lamentable story.

Nothing is so singular or bizarre, and yet there is a feeling and an idea in this picture. In no respect, therefore, is it a common work.

Mr. Henry 0,'Neil has, under this title: Leaving for the Crimea, he has grouped together a very lively scene in which English sailors and soldiers on board the ship which is going to take them away from their homeland, receive the last embraces and farewells of their wives, their sisters, their mothers, their friends. All these various types are very English, very historical, and, carefully observed, they are reproduced with naturalness.

Style is man, said Buffon. We also find the man and even the people in his painting. The English predilection for horses and dogs is well known: consequently, there is no lack of dogs and horses in the English Fine Arts exhibition, and this is not the least successful. The Puritan character, the exaggerated prudery and the strict and dry devotion, as we see them, for example, in the painting which is designated by this name: a Sunday School, have likewise provided their motive and their inspiration for many paintings of which we shall not speak.

I prefer to stop in front of a bright and fiery painting by Mr. John-B. Burgess, and to remember the time when he was a young man. Burgess, and remember the people of Andalusia, who are gay, laughing, enthusiastic and expansive talkers, and who will never suspect, however religious and Christian they may be, the dour and puritanical rigor of the misty banks of the Thames.

Mr. Burgess has taken and cut out his picture from a corner of the gallery in the Seville circus on a day when the bulls are running.
It is the hour when the attentive crowd is tripping with joy, and with eyes aflame they shout and clap their hands. Men and women, young men and women, Spanish grandees and street beggars, all feel the same emotion; and a single passion flows from one to the other. Bravo, toro!
Bravo, toro!

I will not mention here the too raw and too jagged tones of a hard and surly brush. The execution undoubtedly leaves much to be desired, but all these faces live, all these chests throb, and whoever has known Spain as I have will greet with pleasure all these physiognomies encountered a hundred times and everywhere, in Seville and Cadiz, along the streets, in the squares and in the churches. This little brunette with blue eyes stays at the Puer a Real. This one, with a flower in her hair, was rolling cigarettes at the tobacco factory, and this one, under her rich mantilla, is a little person in love and coquettish, who was laughing at her novio, next to me, last night, under the orange trees of the Plaza Nueva. Dolores, Martirio, Remedios! And this old man with a beard, and this young man with a tan like an African, shining his white teeth! They come from Triana. They are gitanos. Others bite into oranges, or ask for a glass of water and azucarillos, and there are only bursts of voices, noisy laughter, gestures, bravos or quips to the toreador and the bull!
This is certainly not too bad; but nothing in the English exhibition is better, in my opinion, than two paintings by Mr. Erskine Nicol, one entitled Paying the rent and the other Both puzzled.

The public is not mistaken, and one hears nothing but exclamations of surprise and admiration around Paying the Rent. The two paintings are not as striking at first glance, and more than one detail goes unnoticed which, on a second visit, is noticed and appreciated.

These two pictures do not pretend to raise the mind to higher regions or to open up sources of deep emotion in the heart, but they paint common life and everyday accidents with a rare happiness of expression and an almost photographic truth.

The English, as you know, excel in these kinds of studies where satire is mixed with reality, and their observation then knows no bounds. They leave nothing out, despise nothing; but, on the contrary, they make the most of the smallest trifles and know how to draw out characteristic features as unexpected as they are true and taken from life. This is why their novelists have often achieved a degree of realism unattainable to most French novelists, who in these attempts stand either above or below the exact note.

In Le Payement du loyer, we find ourselves in front of office people, sitting at their work tables, and who, frowning, with a pen in their teeth or behind their ears, looking sullen, bored, impertinent, are perfect samples of the whole species. Business people in all countries of the world have the same recognisable face. One of those whom M. Nicol has portrayed, sharpens his pen and spikes it with impeccable application. In front of the desks sit, in the attitude of defendants on the saddle, or standing with respectful awe, country men and women in their peasant costumes. All these faces, very different in fact, have the same grimace of disappointment and sadness. It is Rabelais' quarter of an hour, and the hand is slow to reach into the pocket. Embarrassment, discomfort, poverty, could not be rendered more sensitively, and, if one looks at it right, more distressingly. There is not even a hat, all shiny with age and grease, all peeled off, all broken and flattened in places, that does not have its own language and does not make the spectator of this tragi-comedy dream.

The other painting, Tous Jeux Embarrassés, presents us with a poor devil of a village schoolmaster, the same one who was just now paying his rent with such a pitiful air, and a poor devil of a little schoolboy, scratching his head and anxiously thinking about the outcome of an adventure in which the rods must, it seems, come into play. The magister does, indeed, hold the rods in his hand. Who is sadder, the master or the pupil? Who is the less disguised of the two? Alas, one does not know. Everything oozes indigence and misery, even the lame table and the books, which are also ragged.

But this cannot be analysed: you have to go and see it for yourself.

We will not touch other paintings, and for good reason, I assure you. Let us wait for better times.

Among our friends and neighbours, sculpture goes hand in hand with painting. What dominates are the statues and busts of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, of the Prince and Princess of Wales, of Lord Palmerston, etc. There could not be a more patriotic and national feeling.

©L'Exposition Universelle de 1867 Illustrée