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The Bethnal Green Museum by By Henry James

 

BETHNAL GREEN is mainly known to Americans who remember their nursery ballad books as the residence of a certain Blind Beggar's daughter, the details of whose history indeed we confess ourselves to have forgotten. Known by its beggars in the era of primitive poetry, the region has beggary still for its sign and token. Its wretchedness has been so great that, till within a few months past, there may well have been a question whether a blind beggar was not rather a lucky person, and his imperfect consciousness a matter of congratulation. But now there is a premium on good eyesight, for Bethnal Green discerns itself through the thick local atmosphere the unillumined possessor of a Museum and a gallery of pictures,—-treasures which all well-dressed London is flocking eastward to behold. Half in charity and (virtually) half in irony, a beautiful art-collection has been planted in the midst of this darkness and squalor,—-an experimental lever for the “elevation of the masses.” The journey to Bethnal Green is a long one, and leads you through an endless labyrinth of ever murkier and dingier alleys and slums, and the Museum, whether intentionally or not, is capitally placed for helping you to feel the characteristic charm of art,—-its being an infinite relief and refuge from the pressing miseries of life. That the haggard paupers of Bethnal Green have measured, as yet, its consolatory vastness, we should hesitate to affirm; for though art is an asylum, it is a sort of moated strong-hold, hardly approachable save by some slender bridge-work of primary culture, such as the Bethnal Green mind is little practised in. There are non-paying days at the Museum, as well as days with a sixpenny fee, and on the occasion of our visit the sixpence had excluded the local population, so that we are obliged to repeat from hearsay a graceful legend that the masses, when admitted, exhibit, as one man, a discrimination of which Mr. Ruskin himself might be proud, and observe and admire on the very soundest principles. In the way of plain fact we may say that the building, as it stands, is the first of a projected series of District Museums, to be formed successively of various fragments of the temporary structure at South Kensington, as this great collection is more solidly enclosed; that it was erected toward the close of last year, and opened with great pomp by the Prince of Wales in the following June; and that it immediately derived its present great interest from the munificence of Sir Richard Wallace,—-heir of that eccentric amateur the late Marquis of Hertford,—-who offered the Museum the temporary use of his various art-treasures, and bad them transported and installed at his own expense. It is with the Marquis of Hertford's pictures that we are concerned; the collection otherwise consisting of a small Animal Products Department, which we leave to more competent hands, and (rather grimly, under the circumstances) of a group of Food Specimens, neatly encased and labelled,—-interesting from a scientific, but slightly irritating from a Bethnal Green, that is, a hungry point of view.

Sir Richard Wallace has become eminent, we believe, for his large charities to the poor of Paris during the tribulations of the siege and the Commune, and the observer at Bethnal Green may almost wonder whether a portion at least of his benevolence may not have come to him by bequest, with Lord Hertford's pictures. The most striking characteristic of the collection, after its variety and magnificence, is its genial, easy, unexclusive taste,—-the good-nature of well-bred opulence. It pretends as little as possible to be instructive or consistent, to illustrate schools or to establish principles; that a picture pleased him was enough; he evidently regarded art-patronage as an amusement rather than a responsibility. The collection, for instance, is rich in Berghems; a painter for whom you haven't a word to say but that you like him, and that, right or wrong, the pretty trick which is his sole stock in trade amuses you. We remember, apropos of Berghem, expressing in these pages a rather emphatic relish for the very favourable little specimen in the possession of the New York Museum. The painter was then new to us he has since become familiar, and we have at last grown to think of him as one of that large class of artists who are not quite good enough—-to put it discreetly—-to be the better for being always the same. The Bethnal Green catalogue opens with Sir Joshua Reynolds and Gainsborough, and it mentions no more delightful works than the three or four first-rate examples of these deeply English painters. There is something, to our perception, so meagre and ineffective in the English pictorial effort in general, that when it asserts itself as in these cases, with real force and grace, it stirs in the sensitive beholder a response so sympathetic as to be almost painful. The merit is not at all school-merit, and you take very much the same sort of affectionate interest in it as you do in the success of a superior amateur; Nothing could well be more English, from the name inclusive, than Gainsborough's “Miss Boothby”; a little rosy-cheeked girl, in a quaint mob cap and a prodigious mantilla, surveying adult posterity from as divinely childish a pair of hazel eyes as ever was painted. The portrait, though sketchy as to everything but the face, is rich with the morality of all the English nurseries, since English nurseries were. Of Reynolds there are a dozen specimens; most of them interesting, but all inferior to the justly famous “Nelly O'Brien,” a picture in which you hardly know whether you most admire the work or the subject.

In a certain easy, broad felicity it is almost a match for the finest Italian portraits, and indeed one may say that what Titian's “Bella Donna” at Florence is in the Italian manner, this charming portrait is in the English. Here, truly, is an English beauty, and an English beauty at her best,—-but comparisons are odious. Otherwise we should not scruple to say that character plays up into the English face with a vivacity unmatched in that of Titian's heroine,—-character, if we are not too fanciful, as sweet and true as the mild richness of colour, into which the painter's inspiration has overflowed. As she sits there smiling in wholesome archness, a toast at old-time heavy suppers we may be sure, his model seems to us the immortal image of a perfect temper. She melted many hearts, we conjecture, but she broke none; though a downright beauty, she was not a cruel one, and on her path through life she stirred more hope than despair. All this we read in the full ripe countenance she presents to us, slightly flattened and suffused by the shadow in which she sits. Her arms are folded in her lap; she bends forward and looks up smiling, from her book. She wears a charming blue hat, which deepens the shadow across her face (out of which her smile gleams all the more cheerfully); a black lace shawl envelopes her shoulders, and exposes her charming throat adorned with a single string of pearls; her petticoat is of a faded cherry colour, further subdued by a kind of gauze overskirt, and her dress is of blue satin striped with white. The whole costume is most simply, yet most delightfully, picturesque, and we respectfully recommend it as a model to be followed literally by any fair reader at loss what to wear at a masquerade. Sir Joshua's treatment of it shows him to have been within his narrow limits an instinctive colourist. His watery English sunlight compels the broken tones of silk and satin into a delicious silvery harmony; and hanging there in its crepuscular London atmosphere, the picture has a hardly less distinct individuality of colouring than that to which, as you stand before the Veroneses of the Ducal Palace, the reflected light of the Venetian lagoon seems to make so magical an answer. The painter's touch in the flesh-portions is less forcible; the arms and hands are sketchy, and rigidly viewed, the face and bosom lack relief; but expression is there, and warmth and a sort of delightful unity which makes faults venial. The picture misses greatness, doubtless; but it is one of the supremely happy feats of art. If as much can be said for another Sir Joshua, equally noted, the “Strawberry Girl” (from the collection of Samuel Rogers), it must be said with a certain reserve. This is a charming sketch of a charming child, executed in hardly more than a few shades of brown with that broad, tender relish of infantine dimples in which the painter was unsurpassed; but that it is a little more fondly mannered than critically real, such a trio of neighbours as the uncompromising little Spanish Infants of Velasquez (to whom a child had the same sort of firm, immitigable outline as an adult) helps us materially to perceive. Velasquez's children are the children of history; Sir Joshua's, of poetry, or at least of rhymed lullaby-literature: and the two sorts of representation are, as far asunder as Wordsworth and Cervantes. An irresistible little ballad-heroine is this Strawberry Maiden of Sir Joshua's: her pitifully frightened innocent eyes make her the very model of that figure so familiar to our childish imagination,—-the Little Girl Devoured by a Wolf. There are various other Reynoldses in the collection, but they rarely approach the high level of the two we have spoken of oftenest, and especially in the case of the portraits of women, their principal charm is the air of fresh-coloured domestic virtue in the sitter. They offer a vivid reflection of this phase of English character. Sir Thomas Lawrence's “Lady Blessington” in no degree casts them into the shade. The lady's extremely agreeable face is no more that of a model English countess than the artists clever hand is that of a first-rate painter.

Except in a couple of capital little Wilkies, four small Turners, and a charming series of Boningtons, English talent figures further with but moderate brilliancy. Turner, however, is a host in himself, and the four little finished water-colours which represent him here are almost a full measure of his genius. That genius, indeed, manifests, proportionately, more of its peculiar magic within the narrow compass of a ten-inch square of paper than on the broad field of an unrestricted canvas. Magic is the only word for his rendering of space, light, and atmosphere; and when you turn from the inscrutable illusion of his touch in these matters, the triumphs of his cleverest neighbours—-those of Copley Fielding, for instance—-seem but a vain placage of dead paint. He never painted a distance out of which it seems a longer journey back to your catalogue again than the receding undulations of rain-washed moor in the little picture entitled “Grouse-Shooting” It is hard to imagine anything more masterly than the sustained delicacy of the gradations which indicate the shifting mixture of sun and mist. When Art can say so much in so light a whisper, she has certainly obtained absolute command of her organ. The foreground here is as fine as the distance; half a dozen white boulders gleam through the heather beside a black pool with the most naturally picturesque effect. The companion to this piece, “Richmond, Yorkshire,” reverses the miracle, and proves that the painter could paint slumbering yellow light at least as skilfully as drifting dusk. The way in which the luminous haze invests and caresses the castle-crowned woody slope which forms the background of this composition is something for the connoisseur to analyse, if he can, but for the uninitiated mind simply to wonder at Opie's famous reply to the youth who asked him with what he mixed his colours, “With brains, sir!” is but partly true of Turner, whose pigments seemed dissolved in the unconscious fluid of a faculty more spontaneous even than thought,—-something closely akin to deep-welling spiritual emotion. Imagination is the common name for it, and to an excess of imagination Turner's later eccentricities are reasonably enough attributed; but what strikes us in works of the period to which these belong is their marvellous moderation. The painter's touch is as measured as the beat of a musical phrase, and indeed to find a proper analogy for this rare exhibition of sustained and, as we may say, retained power, we must resort to a sister-art and recall the impression of a great singer holding a fine-drawn note and dealing it out with measurable exactness. If Turner is grave, Bonington is emphatically gay, and among elegant painters there is perhaps none save Watteau (here admirably represented) who is so rarely trivial. Bonington had hitherto been hardly more than a name to us, but we feel that he has been amply introduced by his delightful series of water-colours (some thirty in number) at Bethnal Green.

Bonington died young; these charming works and many more he executed before his twenty-eighth year. They are full of talent and full of the brightness and vigour of youth; but we doubt whether they contain the germs of a materially larger performance. The question, however, is almost unkind it is enough that while Bonington lived he was happy, and that his signature is the pledge of something exquisite. His works, we believe, have an enormous market value, and this generous array of them gives much of its lordly air to the present collection. He was a colourist, and of the French sort rather than the English. His use of water-colour is turbid and heavy, as it is apt to be in France, where he spent most of his life; but he draws from it the richest and most surprising effects. He packs these into small and often sombre vignettes, where they assert themselves with delicious breadth and variety. “Inattention, “—-an ancient duenna droning aloud from some heavy tome to a lady lounging, not fancy-free, in a marvellous satin petticoat of silver-grey, among the mellow shadows of an ancient room; the “Old Man and Child,”—-a venerable senator in a crimson cap, bending over a little girl whose radiant head and tender profile are incisively picked out against his dusky beard and velvet dress: these are typical Boningtons,—-bits of colour and costume lovingly depicted for their own picturesque sake, and that of that gently fanciful shade of romantic suggestion which so much that has come and gone in the same line, during these forty years, has crowded out of our active conception. The painter strikes this note with an art that draws true melody; his taste, his eye, as the French say, are unsurpassable. No wonder your aesthetic voluptuary will have his Bonington at any price.

Bonington brings us to the French School, which contributes largely, both in its earlier and its later stages. As we see it here, its most salient modern representative is unquestionably Decamps, of whom there are more than thirty specimens. We have already had occasion to speak of Decamps in these pages; if not with qualified praise, at least with a certain qualified enjoyment. But it is the critic's own fault if he doesn't enjoy Decamps at Bethnal Green; such skill, such invention, such force, such apprehension of colour, such immeasurable vivacity, are their own justification; and if the critic finds the sense of protest uppermost, he need only let out a reef in his creed. His protest, in so far as he makes it, will rest on his impression of what for want of a polite word he will call the painter's insincerity. The term is worse than impolite: it is illogical. There are things, and there is the intellectual reflex of things. This was the field of Decamps, and he reaped a richer harvest there than any of his rivals. He painted, not the thing regarded, but the thing remembered, imagined, desired,—-in some degree or other intellectualised. His prime warrant was his fancy, and he flattered—-inordinately, perhaps—-that varying degree of the same faculty which exists in most of us, and which, we should never forget, helps us to enjoy as well as to judge.

Decamps made a specialty of Eastern subjects, which he treated with admirable inventiveness and warmth of fancy,—-with how much, you may estimate by comparing his manner, as you have here two or three opportunities of doing, with the cold literalness of Jérome. Decamps paints movement to perfection; the animated gorgeousness of his famous “Arabs fording a Stream” (a most powerful piece of water-colour) is a capital proof. Jérome, like Meissonier, paints at best a sort of elaborate immobility. The picturesqueness—-we might almost say the grotesqueness—-of the East no one has rendered like Decamps; it is impossible to impart to a subject more forcibly that fanciful turn which makes it a picture, even at the cost of a certain happy compromise with reality. In colour, Decamps practised this compromise largely, but seldom otherwise than happily; generally, indeed, with delightful success. We speak here more especially of his oil pictures. His water-colours, though full of ingenious manipulation, are comparatively thick and dull in tone. Several of these (notably the “Court of Justice” in Turkey and the “Turkish Boys let out of School") are masterpieces of humorous vivacity; and one, at least, the “Fording of the Stream,” with its splendid dusky harmonies of silver and blue, its glittering sunset, and the splash and swing and clatter of its stately cavaliers, has a delicate brilliancy which possibly could not have been attained in oils. A noticeable point in Decamps, and the sign surely of a vigorous artistic temperament, is that he treats quite indifferently the simplest and the most complex subjects. Indeed he imparted to the simplest themes a curious complexity of interest. Here is a piece of minute dimensions, entitled, for want of a better name, “The Astronomer,” a little ancient man in a skull-cap and slippers, sitting in profile at a table, beyond which an almost blank white wall receives a bar of sleeping sunlight. This meagre spectacle borrows from the artist's touch the most fascinating, the most puzzling interest. Decamps preserves his full value in the neighbourhood of Delaroche and Horace Vernet, who contribute a number of small performances, most of them early works. “Touch” had small magic with either of these painters; pitifully small with the former, we may almost say, in view of his respectable and generous aims. He was the idol of our youth, and we wonder we can judge him so coldly. But, in truth, Delaroche is fatally cold himself. His “Last Illness of Mazarin” and his “Richelieu and Cinq Mars” (small pieces and meant to be exquisite) exhibit a singular union of vigorous pictorial arrangement and flatness and vulgarity of execution. His clever sunset-bathed “Repose in Egypt” (a much later picture) shows that he eventually only seemed, on the whole, to have materially enriched his touch. Various other contemporary French painters figure in the Museum; none at all considerably save Meissonier, whose diminutive masterpieces form a brilliant group. They have, as usual, infinite finish, taste, and research, and that inexorable certainty of hand and eye which probably has never been surpassed. The great marvel in them is the way in which, in the midst of this perfect revel of execution, human expression keenly holds its own. It is the manliest finish conceivable. Meissonier's figures often sacrifice the look of action, but never a certain concentrated dramatic distinctiveness.

We hardly know why we have lingered so long on these clear, but, after all, relatively charmless moderns, while the various Dutch and Spanish treasures of the collection are awaiting honourable mention. The truth is that Velasquez and Murillo, Ruysdael, Terburg, and their fellows have been so long before the world that their praises have been sung in every possible key, and their venerable errors are a secret from no one. Before glancing at them again we must not omit to pay a passing compliment to Watteau, surely the sweetest French genius who ever handled a brush. He is represented at Bethnal Green on a scale sufficient to enable you to say with all confidence that, the more you see him, the more you like him. Though monotonous in subject, he is always spontaneous; his perpetual grace is never a trick, but always a fresh inspiration. And how fine it is, this grace of composition, baptised and made famous by his name. What elegance and innocence combined, what a union of the light and the tenderly appealing! It almost brings tears to one's eyes to think that a scheme of life so delicious and so distinctly conceivable by a beautiful mind on behalf of the dull average of conjecture, should be on the whole, as things go, so extremely impracticable: a scheme of lounging through endless summer days in grassy glades in a company always select, between ladies who should never lift their fans to hide a yawn, and gentlemen who should never give them a pretext for doing so (even with their guitars), and in a condition of temper personally, in which satisfaction should never be satiety. Watteau was a genuine poet; he has an irresistible air of believing in these visionary picnics. His clear good faith marks the infinite distance, in art, between the light and the trivial; for the light is but a branch of the serious. Watteau's hand is serious in spite of its lightness, and firm with all its grace. His landscape is thin and sketchy, but his figures delightfully true and expressive; gentle folks all, but moving in a sphere unshaken by revolutions. Some of the attitudes of the women are inimitably natural and elegant. Watteau, indeed, marks the high-water point of natural elegance. With the turn of the tide, with Lancret, Nattier, Boucher, and Fragonard—-masters all of them of prettiness, and all here in force—-affectation, mannerism, and levity begin. Time has dealt hardly with Watteau's colouring, which has thickened and faded to a painfully sallow hue. But oddly enough, the dusky tone of his pictures deepens their dramatic charm and gives a certain poignancy to their unreality. His piping chevaliers and whispering countesses loom out of the clouded canvas like fancied twilight ghosts in the garden of a haunted palace.

In the Dutch painters, Sir Richard Wallace's gallery is extraordinarily rich, and many a State collection might envy its completeness. It has, for instance, no less than five excellent Hobbemas, a painter whose works have of late years, we believe, brought the highest of “fancy prices.” Ruysdaels, too, Cuyps and Potters, Tenierses and Ostades, Terburgs and Metzus,—-the whole illustrious company is there, with all its characteristic perfections. Upon these we have no space to dilate we can only say that we enjoyed them keenly. We never fail to derive a deep satisfaction from these delectable realists,—-the satisfaction produced by the sight of a perfect accord between the aim and the result. In a certain sense, no pictures are richer than the Dutch the whole subject is grasped by the treatment all that there is of the work is enclosed within the frame. Essentially finite doubtless: but the infinite is unsubstantial fare, and in the finite alone is rest. M. Ary Scheffer (to whom we owe a hundred apologies for not mentioning him more punctually) has attempted the infinite in his famous “Francesca da Rimini”; he sends us over with a rush to Gerard Duow. There is no great master of “style” to gainsay us here; the two small Titians being of slender value. The eleven Rembrandts are, for the most part, powerful examples of the artists abuse of chiaroscuro; of the absolute obscure we might indeed almost say, for in some of them the lights are few and far between. Two or three of the portraits, however, are very frank and simple, and one extremely small picture, “The Good Samaritan,” is a gem. If the little figures were ten feet high, they couldn't be more impressive. There is a splendid array of Murillos, though perhaps the term would be extravagant if applied to them individually. Four or five out of the eleven represent Murillo at his best,—-his ease, his grace, his dusky harmonies, his beggars and saints, his agreeable Spanish savour; but even these merits fail to make him seriously interesting. His drawing, though often happy, is uncomfortably loose, and his intentions, somehow, fatally vague. Velasquez proudly outranks him. His intentions were distinct enough and his execution seldom betrayed them.

 
 
 

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