This section is from the book "Ideals In Art: Papers Theoretical Practical Critical", by Walter Crane . Also available from Amazon: Ideals in Art: Papers Theoretical, Practical, Critical.
Our late veteran idealist-sculptor-painter so often sat in the chair of the literary operator, whether journalistic critic, interviewer, or more serious biographical appraiser, that one imagines that in his life-time he must long have ceased to wonder what manner of man - or artist - he might be, and, like enough, vexed not himself when vivisected to make a British holiday.
The necessity for a more or less complete "sizing up" of a famous artist, of classifying him and affixing a descriptive label, or brand, seems to answer to some requirement of the age, despite the chance of the label becoming out of date, owing, perchance, to the unexpected versatility or longevity of the labelled.
It accords with the habits of a commercial people to have "all goods marked in plain figures;" curiosity, too, must be satisfied, and art, not always at once clearly speaking out for itself in the vernacular, the literary interpreter and critical labeller find their opportunity.
1 "G. F. Watts," by G. K. Chesterton. London, Duckworth and Co.
It is, however, difficult enough to attempt to sum up the quality and range of an artist in his lifetime, and in the short perspective of the present assign to him his proper relative position for all time; but, as it may be still more difficult after he has gone, there may be some excuse for the attempt - which has at least the excitement of daring - to make a true estimate of his powers and position while he yet liveth, and while his works change their character under different impulses and influences under our very eyes.
Not that such a brilliant and sympathetic little study as this by Mr. Chesterton needs any excuse. He is always such good reading, and has such a bright epigrammatic way of putting things, that even if he were less penetrating he could not fail to be amusing and stimulating. The rapid flash of his searchlight, as it were, touches so airily on so many interesting objects in its sweep that, as one might say of a painter, his background, with its wealth of subsidiary and illustrative detail, is often more fascinating than the treatment of his main subject or principal figure.
The book for one thing is remarkable for the attitude the author takes up in regard to the nineteenth century - in endeavouring to account for Mr. Watts - and, as it appears to be a not altogether uncommon view with men of the present generation - although mostly born in that mythical century - one may take his view as more or less typical, but, really, from the way in which the century just closed is regarded one might suppose it was as distant almost as the thirteenth.
"Love and Death"
By G. F. Watts, R.A.
Have we then changed so much, or is it only the figure-heads or brain-heads and their ideals which have changed? That "there is a tide in the affairs of men" we all know - a flood and an ebb tide, indeed, and it may be the tide of aspiration is now rather low, and some of us may sigh as we look seaward at the stately departing ships with their brave ensigns glowing in the fading light of sunset which has left the foreshore, encumbered with the drift and wreckage of disappointed hopes and disillusion.
We may have to wait some time for the flood and we know not what argosies of new hopes and thoughts it will bring us. In the meantime we must make shift with our one hope, or our hope with one string as best we may.
But if our young men have ceased to dream dreams, our old men have not ceased to see visions, and the great idealist-painter we have so lately lost must be counted as the foremost of such.
It will always be to his honour that through good report and evil report he steadfastly upheld the banner which proudly asserts the intellectual character of painting, and claims its right and its power, as a language of peculiar vividness, richness, and resource, to express certain typical and profound thoughts and emotions, and to embody by definite but delicate symbolism ideas and ideals not possible to be conveyed so succinctly, so suggestively, and above all, so beautifully by any other means.
Matter and manner cannot really be separated in any vital art. Form and spirit become fused in all its highest, even in all its genuine shapes.
By G. F. Watts, R.A.
Mr. Chesterton rather steps aside in one place to poke fun at Allegory (as I note literary men are, curiously enough, prone to do), although elsewhere he appears to admit that it has its due place and value in art, and he grows enthusiastic over Mr. Watts's use of it.
But that is just the crux. Everything is in the artist's use and treatment.
There is allegory and allegory. In its highest form it is a species of poetry, in its lowest it becomes a catalogue. We may go to Cesare Ripa and get a recipe for the correct make-up of any virtue we wish to symbolize. Fedelta (Fidelity), for instance, is given, "Donna vestita di bianco, colla destra mane tiene una chiave, ed ha alii piedi un cane." Well, there you are - but it all depends upon the artist whether the emblem represents each item in the crudest form, or becomes a really fine design, full of refinement and inner meaning. To appreciate the allegory of a past age one must be able to read oneself into its spirit. The Allegories of Botticelli seem to belong to a different world from those of Rubens, and appeal to a different mood and even order of mind. I quite agree with Mr. Chesterton that a lady in classical drapery and a cornucopia, or caduceus, would quite inadequately represent modern commerce. (A bull and a bear playing see-saw across the globe would be nearer the mark, perhaps!) But the lady might have a place in a decorative composition, symbolizing things in the abstract, when beauty of treatment is again all-important. The spirit of Spenser's "Faerie Queene" is more painter-like in allegory (which is always in Spenser perfectly definite) than that of any other writer, and it is perfectly blended with poetic and imaginative feeling, just as in a painted allegory the matter of it should be inseparable from its form.
We feel this to be so in the finest works of
By G. F. Watts, R.A. Watts, such as the "Love and Death." It is strange, however, to find Mr. Chesterton writing of allegorical pictures as if they were as plentiful as blackberries. "Millions," he mentions - I wonder how many he could count in any Royal Academy exhibition? I had supposed that allegorical design was almost a lost art, as well as a dead language, in the estimation of our people - except perhaps the species which goes to the making of political cartoons.
Mr. Chesterton's discriminating appreciation of Mr. Watts's portraits is excellent, and his remarks upon the affinity between Watts and Tennyson very true. In the comprehensiveness, but indefiniteness, of their intellectual view they are akin; but vastness involves vagueness, and vagueness is a characteristic in the painter's work. In Mr. Watts's cosmic and elemental designs great half defined shapes loom up out of vaporous space. His heroes belong to no definite historic time, though in his wide catholicity and sympathy his work embraces all human types. His eye is fastened on the type and slights the circumstance. The accident, the realization of the moment is nothing to him; but one never saw a drawing in pure outline by the artist, and the charm of clear silhouette does not appear to appeal to him, neither is essential to his art. And Mr. Watts himself cannot be outlined, and therefore it seems curious to find him set down as a Puritan in one place, and a democrat (!) in another. Although Mr. Chesterton speaks of clear outline or "hard black line," as a quality not Celtic, and bases his argument that Mr. Watts is not Celtic upon the character of his line, his phrase, "sculptor of draughtsmanship," is incisive, as it is certainly a grasp of structure rather than outline which distinguishes Mr. Watts's work; and in this quality it may be said lies the true reason of the difference between his portraits and much modern portraiture which seeks rather the expression of the.moment and the accidental lighting, as in a landscape, rather than the type and the underlying structure, the expression of which establishes a certain relation, and that fundamental family likeness between very different individuals which Mr. Chesterton has noted. For, indeed, men and women fare moulded in types far more than is commonly supposed.
After all, the great merit of Mr. Chesterton's critical remarks consists in their not quarrelling with an oak tree because it does not happen to be a pine; and in that he does not think it necessary in order that his subject may be properly appreciated to make a pavement of all other reputations, or, like the irrelevant Walrus and Carpenter on the sand - with much virtue in that "if" - "if this," - certain essential characteristics, say, of an artist's style - "were only cleared away it would be grand."
For the rest, Mr. Chesterton's sparkling style and wealth of whimsical illustration make the book uncommonly readable, which cannot always be said with regard to monographs on artists.