In the following comments on a painting Brett exhibited at the 1873 summer exhibition, the critic for The Art-Journal sounds surprisingly like Ruskin, who also thought that the painter, having brilliantly achieved the major first step in becoming an artist — the ability to see and record the most detailed visual facts found in the natural world — now, like Turner, had to move to the higher stage which requires imagination and a sense of the human observer. Brett decided to go his own way and did so throughout his career. — George P. Landow

In Gallery No. VII we find a few landscapes of more than ordinary accomplishment. And particularly it is necessary to study carefully the remarkable piece of work contributed by J. Brett. ‘A Morning amongst the Granite Boulders’ (681) expresses the mere physical qualities of the scene it represents almost without a fault. The firm, clean sand, that has been washed smoothly around the embedded rocks, the rocks themselves, and the bright, glistening seaweed that covers them,—all these things are real almost to the point of illusion. They are painted with marvellous solidity and thoroughness, as by one who has studied every minutest incident of their formation. The sea is not so real: it needs greater transparency. But, with this exception, the picture is as powerful a piece of painting as the exhibition contains. And yet, with all its power and talent, this view of sea and sand is wholly devoid of imaginative significance. There is no trace of human sensibility, no suggestion that the scene so clearly realised has influenced the mind of' the painter. All that is shown is the scene itself, untouched and unchanged, and suggesting no human passion save a passion for mechanical fidelity. A cold and unsympathetic attitude towards nature belongs to many other English landscape painters besides Mr. Brett. It is especially observable in his work only because the executive talent is greater there than elsewhere. He has given a complete and masterly fulfilment to views about nature that very many artists hold, and few have so remarkable a power to express. The truth is, our supposed supremacy in this department of Art rests upon a very uncertain foundation, as those who take the trouble to study tne work of FreneTT painters may readily discover. In a landscape by Corôt or Dupré, as in a landscape by Constable or Müller, one dominant sentiment always controls the picture. The outward facts of nature become obedient to an impulse that proceeds from the painter himself, and without sacrifice of actual truth, the scene is made to express beauties of thought and feeling that are suggested to a mind which has dwelt long and lovingly upon its natural beauties of form and colour. This view of the art is not common among contemporary English painters. With the majority, a landscape is either a thing of trick and receipt, based upon seme rigid and presumably artistic plan, or it is a mere literal realisation. Of the two, the latter is certainly to be preferred, and it becomes almost admirable when it employs the talents of so powerful a painter as Mr. Brett.


“Exhibition of the Royal Academy.” The Art-Journal. 35 (1873): 236-37.

Created 21 November 2019