Tim Linnell [email@example.com], a descendant of the artist, has kindly shared with readers of the Victorian Web his scanned text of The Life of John Linnell, which the London publishers Bentley and Son brought out in 1892. George P. Landow has adapted it for html, adding links to the original text.
Views on Art — Dialogue between the Painter and his Friend — Morality in Art — Murillo — Rubens — Rembrandt — Raphael — The Dutch School — The Italian School — Taste and Morals — Qualifications of an Art-teacher — Figure-drawing.
NCIDENTALLY here and there in the preceding pages we have obtained hints and glimpses of Linnell's views on art in general, while, at the same time, we have been enabled to gather what his opinions were in regard to particular artists and their work. We have seen, too, what his own aims were, and to what extent he realized them. Those views are probably not such as would be endorsed by the generality of artists, but in art, as in other matters, Linnell brought so much thought, knowledge, and experience to bear upon his subject, that not only are his ideas worthy of respect, but, even if sometimes erroneous, they cannot be otherwise than helpful.
Fortunately we are enabled to give his views in a very clear and telling form from his own writings. In the years 1853-54 he contributed a couple of 'Dialogues upon Art' to the little periodical before mentioned, entitled 'The Bouquet'. It was published at first for private circulation only, and probably never had many readers. The Bouquet was edited by 'Bluebell' and 'Mignonette,' and all the contributors had floral quill-names. Linnell's was 'Larkspur, and under this pseudonym he contributed dialogues to Nos. 25 and 33, in which he sets forth in detail some of his views.
The first dialogue is between the Painter and his Friend. The latter begins by affirming that art is nothing, after all, but the imitation of Nature. 'Whoever comes closest to that,' he says, 'is the greatest artist, I suppose. Is he not? The stories of Zeuxis and Parhasius show this, I think, where it is related how one deceived the birds and the other Zeuxis himself.'
The Painter replies 'The best story is that of Zeuxis when he deceived the birds and failed to deceive them at the same time.'
'How do you mean?' asks the Friend.
'Why, don't you remember the story of his painting a boy holding a basket of grapes, and that the grapes were so like nature that the birds came and pecked at them, in spite of the figure of the boy, which would have frightened them away had it been as well painted as the grapes, and that the painter justly considered his work a failure upon the whole on this account?'
'Good! I remember now' (replies the Friend), 'and it reminds me of Fuseli's criticism upon Northcott's picture of Baalam and the Ass. "Master Norcott," said Fuseli, "has painted de ass like an angel, but he has painted de angel like an ass."'
The Painter replies that it is certainly easier to paint inferior objects so as to satisfy most people, than to paint tolerably the expression of elevated thought; but, strictly speaking, he says Northcott could not have done as Fuseli said, for if he had possessed the power of painting the brute with angelic skill, he would not have handled the angel so brutally.
This leads the artist to controvert the common notion that the most deceptive imitation of Nature is the greatest triumph of art, and to develop his own theory of art. Such stories, he considers, are degrading to art, as the vilest imitations sometimes deceive the eye. Such imitation of the mere 'skin of nature,' he avers, is but the handwriting of art, though rather a difficult one to learn; and even that cannot be found in any great perfection, uncombined with higher art — qualities resulting from a perception of the more spiritual and deeper-seated attributes of Nature. For if those most beautiful qualities escape the observation of anyone, he cannot be a good imitator of even Nature's mere surface qualities. He may satisfy some who see no further than himself, and, like the false prophet, may deceive many; but those who can perceive the spiritual qualities of Nature will be disappointed, and feel that the chief end of art is not attained or even aimed at.
Thus, while he grants that the only way to be original and to produce the best works is to study nature, and that all the finest principles are founded upon nature, he yet holds that something else is needed. In short, the artist must add something to the product, and that something must be himself.
This is undoubtedly what he means by those 'spiritual qualities of Nature' which are to be studied and imitated. Such, however, he perceives, is not what is commonly thought of when the imitation of nature is said to be everything in art. All that is then meant is that the picture should look real, and if it deceives the eye, as in the Zeuxis stories, it is thought perfection.
Linnell held that a picture may be as like nature as possible to the minds of some people, and may deceive the eye, and yet be worthless compared with others not possessing, or even aiming at, that eye-deceiving quality, but having an emphasis of imitation upon those qualities of nature which give us ideas of sublimity and beauty; and those are the higher or more refined principles of art which regard the perceptions of those qualities of nature, and teach how the ideas of beauty and sublimity may be best excited in the mind by a work of art. These principles themselves lie in the deeper aspects of nature; that is to say, they are found in it, as Shakespeare so well expresses in the lines:
'Nature is made better by no mean,
But Nature makes that mean'
a perception on the part of the poet as profound as it is aptly put.
Linnell's view, therefore, was that the great end of art is to develop the perceptions of beauty and sublimity, not to make us stare with wonder how one thing can be so like another; for the feeling of mere wonder is the result of ignorance, while the perception of beauty and sublimity is the result of knowledge — is knowledge, in short, for it is reading something unintelligible to others.
Our astonishment may be excited without admiration or any pleasant feeling whatever, the work which excites it may be disgusting; but such art is not to be praised or cultivated, for that would be to make art a Gorgon's head. The skill of imitation is wasted unless the representation teaches some moral or spiritual truth.
The business of the artist should be to create spiritual perceptions ; and all the powers of imitation, the skill in design, and the facility in colouring and expression, should be used to this end. The artist has, indeed, to do with the senses; but his object should be to reach the heart, the inner man, through that medium. What is called ideal art, poetic, imaginative, or high art, results not only from a vivid perception of those qualities of nature which most affect the mind with emotions of moral sympathy, and the sense of sublimity and beauty, but also from a perception of the means by which the effect is produced.
The effect is traced to its cause not only in its broad result, but in all the details in the machinery. Not only must there be a dissection of the plan, but a reading of the design — in other words, a perception of what every variety and shade of emotion depends upon. Then, superadded to this, there must be the power of reproducing these qualities in a work of art, divested of all that is calculated to hinder those impressions, and heightened by an increased emphasis upon some things, together with an enlarged and more perfect combination upon nature's own principles than is commonly found to exist in nature itself. A true genius for art can only coexist with an intelligence and a moral perception capable of receiving and producing in others such impressions as these.
Such are, in a brief and succinct form, Linnell's views in reference to art. As to those among the Old Masters whose works attest their fidelity to these principles, Linnell placed first and foremost, as we have already seen, the great artists of the Roman, Florentine, and Venetian schools; whilst he holds that Murillo in his religious art exemplifies all that is to be most avoided.
In the second dialogue in The Bouquet we are given the artist's reasons for condemning the Spanish painter's art. I cannot do better than give his views in his own words.
'I met a gentleman,' the dialogue begins, 'who had just come from the British Gallery, where the two large Murillos which had lately arrived from Marshal Soult's collection were hanging. One of the pictures was "The Prodigal Son," the other the "Three Angels appearing to Abraham." My friend asked me if I had seen the pictures, and finding I had, he inquired rather eagerly
'"Well, how do you like them?"
"Not at all," said I; "I cannot bear them."
'"Oh," said he, "I am delighted to hear you say so; for, to tell you the truth, I felt disgusted with the pictures, but was afraid to say so, because the praise was so general, and the price said to have been given for them so large,"'etc.
In reply to the query why he dislikes these Murillos so much, the artist says:
'I can give you some idea by telling you what a friend of mine said to me when we were looking at the two pictures together at the British Gallery
'"I say," said he, whispering, "what do you think of those three angels? Don't you think if they were to make their appearance in Belgrave Square that the new police would be after them pretty soon?"
'"To be sure," said I; "and they would be taken up on suspicion, and locked up for want of bail."
'"I see what you mean, and I remember the expressions are anything but elevated. However, you must allow the design and colouring to be splendid."
'"Indeed I cannot; nor do I think that fine design and fine colour are found in original works combined with such expression and character."
'"What! Doubt that fine design and colour can be found united with vulgar forms? Look at Rembrandt and Rubens: all speak of these masters as great in design and colouring. Why, nearly all the lecturers on art wind up their discourses with the praise of Rubens for these qualities."
'"Rembrandt certainly was a colourist, and composed finely; and though his figures are not fine specimens of form as to limb, the action is natural and unaffected, often beautiful, and always original, the expressions also generally true and sincere ; but above all, he displays such a profound sentiment and depth of feeling in everything by his extraordinary treatment of the light and shade, that he stands alone as a wonderful example of what may be done, in spite of certain defects, by working out with confidence and diligence original perceptions by an original method. Rubens I think very inferior to Rembrandt in all these qualities. He was natural, but very coarse, and in some respects corrupt ; and there is no veil like Rembrandt's twilight thrown over his defects. His vulgarity stands out with a brazen front in broad sunlight, and is the more offensive. But though Rubens is not without affectation in his allegorical and religious subjects, and exhibits in the latter some of that hypocrisy so common in the second-rate painters of sacred history, yet he is not so hypocritical as Murillo."
'"Yes; and Raphael has been justly praised for the opposite. His cartoons alone are sufficient to establish this. Look at the action and expression of every figure, how both correspond most sincerely! Do you remember the figure which steps forward present the sacrifice to Paul at Lystra, and the dignity of the Messiah giving the charge to 'to feed His sheep? Why, if you can rememember these enough to compare them with the dancing-master attitudes of the figures in the Murillo before us, and especially the figure of the youthful Christ in the centre, I think you will agree with me that the is more like a scene in a ballet than anything; and as to the colour, I think it is as inferior to the colouring of the Roman, Florentine, and Venetian schools as the design, the drawing, and the expression."'
In regard to these criticisms on Murillo, Linnell used to repeat a saying of Mulready's respecting a 'Holy Family' of the Spaniard in the National Gallery. Referring to the air of fashionableness and conventionality about it, Mulready once said, 'You can't help thinking that it is Master Christ with his mamma and his papa.' But while he condemned Murillo's religious pictures for their false sentiment, Linnell had much genuine admiration for his secular subjects, such as his 'Beggar Boy,' finding them full of truthfulness and sincerity.
In his antipathy to Rubens' grossness, the artist was undoubtedly betrayed into doing an injustice to the great Flemish painter, overlooking, amongst other noble qualities, his preeminence in composition But even while recognising this error of judgment we are enabled all the more distinctly to perceive and appreciate Linnell's point of view in regard to art. He has only one criterion whereby to test the truth of things. As in his daily conduct, so in his views of art: he finds the Scriptures the only safe guide. 'I cannot find the true principles of fine art,' he says, 'anywhere but in the inspired writings; and in my opinion it is only by the knowledge of what is therein taught that true taste can be acquired; for as the most minute things exist, and are sustained by the same laws which uphold the universe, so the Divine laws of universal truth must base and sustain our least perceptions if we expect to build up an edifice of truth in our minds.'
He therefore holds, with Ruskin, that all corruption of art proceeds from moral corruption, and that one of the very worst of moral corruptions is hypocrisy. 'Christ said with great emphasis to his disciples, "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy ;" and I believe it is the deadliest of poisons wherever it is found.'
We may see in his judgments on the Old Masters what was Linnell's aim, in his later art, in the works that proceeded from his brush when he could devote himself freely to the form of art he loved best. In his earlier days he had been much influenced by the Dutch and Flemish schools, and not a few of his pictures then produced show many of the excellencies of the Teniers, Ruysdaels, Hobbemas, Paul Potters, etc. It was only when, later, he came to know more about the Italian masters, and perceived how greatly superior they were in conception and expression, that his views broadened and his art ripened, till it became like nothing else in the English school — a style sui generis.
It was not then so easy to study the Old Masters as now. Specimens of their work had not at that time been reproduced by photography, and such copies as were to be seen were scarce, and often bad. Hence he took every opportunity that was afforded him of procuring copies of Raphael, Titian, Michael Angelo, etc.
Thus he strengthened his belief that fine design and fine colouring invariably go together. 'Fine design and fine colour,' he said, 'can only proceed from a well-disciplined and superior mind, where perceptions — of every excellent quality — are more likely to exist from the same cause.'
This he held to be the reason of the wonderful universality of genius displayed by the first-rate painters. Giulio Romano, Andrea del Sarto, and, above all, Da Vinci, he considered, support his view that fine colour and fine design are found together only in the works of the best masters, because they are imagined or conceived together, being one perception of the poetic vision.
'Did you ever see,' he asks in the second dialogue, 'the copy by Da Vinci's favourite pupil, Marco Oggione, of the "Last Supper," which the Royal Academy possesses, in which the design, expression, colour and light and shade, all work out one profound sentiment of the sublimest pathos?'
He goes on to say that 'the holy sincerity of expression in those figures is enough, in my opinion, to make one sick of Murillo and Rubens for ever,' and holds that whoever perceives and delights in the highest qualities of the best works of the Roman and Florentine schools, will be too much disgusted with what he meets with generally in Rubens, and nearly always in Murillo, to care much about either of them.
'It appears to me that, if anyone does not see what those masters are deficient in, they are pleased only as children, by something affecting merely. the visual organs; or they have a depraved taste, which may soon be detected in things of more importance than pictures, and that is a serious matter ; for there is a woe to those who call evil good, and good evil, in all matters more or less according to the nature of the subject.'
'That which is not good is not delicious to a well-governed and wise appetite,' says Linnell, quoting Milton; and while he holds that the difference of temperament and organization gives a different bias towards different kinds of beauty, and such differences are legitimate if connected with knowledge and discipline, yet no one should love what is corrupt and debasing.
In short, in John Linnell's opinion, the question of taste is a moral one. It is also a religious question; for to him there is no distinction to be made with safety.
'It seems to me that he whose morality is not essentially religious, or whose religion is not essentially moral, has little of either morality or religion. Taste, therefore, though depending on organization for its bias to one kind of beauty more than another, is kept pure and good by the moral sense.'
Similar views in regard to the connection between morals and art were expressed by our artist in a letter which he wrote about this time in answer to a landscape-painter who was a candidate for the position of drawing-master to the City of London School, and who applied to him for a testimonial. It has an additional value, because it gives very precisely his views as to the requirements of a teacher of drawing. The letter, which is dated 1852, is as follows:
I have great pleasure in being able to express my admiration of the works which I have seen of yours in the Exhibition; but as the testimony you seek relates entirely to your qualification as a teacher, of which I know nothing, I really think my opinion of your general artistic power as a landscape painter ought not to weigh much in the matter. For my notions of a good drawing-master are that he should draw the human figure accurately, divested of all peculiarity of manner or style in the process; be able to show clearly how such drawing of the figure is the only true basis of artistic power; make science the means of developing a perception of beauty, and to prove that perception to be the great end of art; be able to show that taste in art is intimately connected with moral feeling, and that no one can innocently admire a corrupt style: to do all which you may be fully competent, and if so, I hope you may succeed in your application; for he who has most of that sort of ability is, in my opinion, best calculated for the office.
His views in regard to figure-drawing are emphasized in the following aphoristic lines written about this time:
'There is a race of scribblers in art,
Who cannot well delineate one feature,
Muddling and dabbling on through thick and thin,
Not knowing when to leave or how begin.
For want of discipline in figure-drawing,
Their work is feeble, or presumptuous pawing;
Handling it can't be called, for from a hand
Should come some handiwork that well would stand
The test of knowledge, by sound practice got,
And workmanlike, without a smear or blot.'
Last modified 8 December 2001