According to an article in the Art Journal, Arthur Hacker was possessed with a similar spirit to that of Mr Dicksee in endeavouring to avoid the danger of painting in a single groove (vol. for 1897, p. 170). The writer might also have mentioned Holman Hunt, another artist who was intensely reluctant to be seen operating 'in a single groove', and who deliberately jumped from one mode to another to avoid giving any such impression. However, of all the artists who adopted this practice, none is more difficult to pigeonhole than Hacker. He is the ultimate grasshopper of late Victorian art.
Born in London, the son of an engraver, Hacker entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1876, and made his debut at the Summer Exhibition two years later. In the 1880s he continued his studies under Léon Bonnart in Paris and, like Stanhope Forbes, his fellow pupil both in London and Paris (where they shared accommodation), he was influenced by French plein air realism. In 1881 he attracted attention at the R.A. with a scene of peasant life, Her Daughter's Legacy, and in 1886, again with Forbes, he helped to establish the New English Art Club as a venue for artists who were open to French influence and who wanted an alternative both to the R.A. and the Aesthetically-orientated Grosvenor Gallery. As late as 1892 Hacker was capable of producing such an essay in social realism as The Woodcutter and his Daughter, which will be offered in these Rooms on 10 June 2003, lot 144.
Meanwhile in 1887 Hacker had painted Pelagia and Philammon (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), the first of a series of works which exhibit all the more histrionic tendencies of contemporary French academic painting. The fact that he chose to show it at the Grosvenor Gallery within a year of the foundation of the NEAC is itself a demonstration of his desire to keep his options open. The picture takes its subject from Charles Kingsley's novel Hypatia (1853), a story set in 5th century Alexandria. Hacker had paid the first of several visits to North Africa in 1881, travelling with the slightly younger Solomon J. Solomon, another fellow RA student, and a number of works betray his response to this region. Vae Victis! The Sack of Morocco by the Almohades would follow in 1890, and (in a more symbolist vein) 'And there was a Great Cry in Egypt' in 1897.
But Hacker was equally happy to apply French academic values to other types of subject. A time-honoured religious theme was tackled in The Annunciation (Tate Gallery), purchased for the Chantrey Bequest in 1892, while The Temptation of Sir Percival (Leeds City Art Gallery), exhibited in 1894, the year he was elected ARA, ventures onto territory which the Pre-Raphaelites had colonised as far back as the 1850s. One of the highlights of the Last Romantics exhibition held at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, in 1989, the picture teeters precariously on the very brink of bathos, but it is handled with such panache that the viewer is disarmed; even as we smile, we realise that we must respond with more than mirth to this astonishing display of artistic self-confidence. However, Hacker does not always strike the balance found in Sir Percival, which is arguably his masterpiece. Certainly campness is taken further in The Cloister or the World (1896; Bradford Art Gallery), a theatrical and knowing take on the age-old theme of the choice between Virtue and Vice, while The Cloud (1901; also at Bradford) moves unashamedly into the realms of the higher pornography. The picture made a perfect comparative illustration when we sold H.J. Draper's equally erotic Mountain Mists (1912) three years ago.
As the taste for literary and historical subjects declined in the 1890s, artists who had made their reputation in this field were forced to diversify. Hacker was no exception; indeed, his natural versatility made him more equal to the challenge than many. Like J.W. Waterhouse, Frank Dicksee and others, he developed a flourishing portrait practice. Politicians, army officers, high-ranking clergy, aldermen, headmasters, physicians and society women were among his many sitters; so were a number of figures connected with the arts: the sculptors E. Onslow Ford and Sir William Goscombe John, the architect Ernest Newton, the engraver Sir Frank Short, the critic M.H. Spielmann, the collector C.W. Dyson Perrins, and the actor Sir George Alexander, whom he immortalised in the role of Benedick. Hacker's other tactic was to return to earlier ideas which still retained some vitality in the present climate. He renewed his interest in rustic and domestic genre; The Little Mother of 1912, sold in these Rooms in 1996, is an attractive example. He also began to experiment with misty, atmospheric renderings of the London streets, apparently under the influence of Impressionism. Westminster Abbey, also of 1912 and sold by Christie's in 1996, is typical, but the best-known work of this kind is A Wet Night at Piccadilly Circus, which he deposited as his diploma work on his election as a full academician in 1910. When this was shown in the Impressionism in Britain exhibition held at the Barbican in 1995, Kenneth McConkey wrote in the catalogue: 'It is almost as though this establishment figure, now in his fifties, wished to reclaim some of the radicalism of his student years... Critics were supportive of [the] development, recognising Turneresque, if not Impressionist, qualities in the handling.'
Musicienne du Silence, which, like Sir Percival, represented Hacker in the Last Romantics exhibition, appeared at the RA in 1900. The picture is typical in that it once again shows the artist varying his style dramatically, but unusual in that it seems to be his only essay in the idiom in question, namely that of the Venetian pastoral associated with the names of Giorgione and the young Titian. Pictures of this type deliberately set out to evoke an elegiac mood speaking of beauty, sadness and loss. Figures tend to recline in sylvan landscapes bathed in a warm evening light, often listening to some plaintive tune played on a quaint old viol or lute. Hacker's contribution to the genre has all these ingredients, as critics recognised at the time. F.G. Stephens, in one of the last RA reviews he would pen for the Athenaeum, called the picture an 'echo of certain Venetian motives', while the Art Journal observed that it gave the artist 'scope for his colour-sense' and suggested 'a memory of music-haunted silence in an old-world spot.'
The Boar War was currently raging, and many artists used the exhibition to comment on the tragic events in South Africa, either realistically or in terms of symbolism. Hacker was not an over-subtle artist, but it is possible that he saw the bittersweet nature of his subject as an oblique contribution to this groundswell of sentiment, or was deliberately going out of his way to offer an escapist image.
The most famous prototype for Hacker's experiment is the Concert Champêtre in the Louvre, now given to Titian but for long considered to be by Giorgione. This may well have been a favourite with the artist during his student days in Paris, rather as it had been with Manet, whose Déjeuner sur l'Herbe (1863; Musée d'Orsay) is itself an 'echo' of the Venetian masterpiece. There is also a sense in which Hacker's picture, like the earlier Sir Percival, shows him looking back to the pre-Raphaelite past. D.G. Rossetti had written a sonnet on the Concert Champêtre after a visit to the Louvre in 1849, and compositions of this type had been popular during the Venetian revival to which the Pre-Raphaelites and many of their associates had contributed during the late 1850s and early 1860s. Burne-Jones's Green Summer, first painted in watercolour in 1864 and repeated in oils in 1868, is probably the key example. Critics sometimes referred to such pictures as 'Boccaccio compositions' because they recalled images of the story-telling described in the Decameron. Some artists treated this very subject, E.J.Poynter, for instance, did so in 1859, during the brief period when he was a crypto-Pre-Raphaelite.
Burne-Jones continued to explore the Giorgionesque idiom longer than most, largely because it appealed so strongly to his chief patron, William Trahern. Large oil versions of two more designs of this kind, Laus Veneris and Le Chant d'Amour, appeared at the Grosvenor Gallery as late as 1878, the year Hacker made his debut at the RA. By this time, moreover, the convention had been celebrated in Walter Pater's essay 'The School of Giorgione', published in his Studies in the History of the Renaissance in 1873. Time and again Pater evokes such images as the Louvre Concert Champêtre or the Tempesta in the Accademia in Venice to support his argument that art is essentially subjectless, 'a matter of pure perception' in which form and content are indivisible. For centuries, he observes, theorists had drawn a parallel between painting and poetry, quoting ad nauseam the old Horacian adage 'ut pictura poesis'; but for him it was not poetry, with its connotations of narrative, but music - the music that so often sets the tone of Giorgione's pictures and which is by definition abstract - that represents 'the true type or measure of perfected art'. 'All art,' he had already stated earlier in the essay, 'constantly aspires towards the condition of music', thus giving lapidary form to one of the most cherished principles in the Aesthetic agenda.
Hacker was not alone in attempting to revive Pre-Raphaelite values towards the end of the century. It was a widespread phenomenon, although expressed in many different forms. Some artists, notably the Birmingham School, saw their work in terms of breathing new life into a still existing tradition, while others were concerned to re-create Pre-Raphaelite forms in a more academic spirit. The obvious subject is J.W. Waterhouse, whose whole later career was an attempt to realise this programme; but E.A. Abbey and T.C. Gotch were in their own way hardly less consistent, while Dicksee, Hacker, Solomon, Greiffenhagen and others all made sporadic gestures in the same direction. All this, moreover, takes no account of the concerted efforts of the next generation, whether they were products of the academic system like Byam Shaw, Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale and Frank Cadogan Cowper, or those two essentially self-educated aesthetes, Charles Ricketts and his lifelong companion Charles Shannon.
Needless to say, such a variety of talents focussed on different aspects of the Pre-Raphaelite legacy. The Birmingham artists were mainly interested in the Arts and Crafts dimension. Byam Shaw and Cadogan Cowper looked back to early Rossetti and Millais. But here and there we find parallels to Hacker's bid to revive the Giorgionesque idiom, espescially if we broaden the scope to include 'Boccaccio compositions'. Waterhouse, Dicksee, Byam Shaw, his friend Gerald Metcalfe, and Charles Shannon all painted pictures which qualify in one respect or another. Shannon is a particularly interesting case since the Venetian element in Pre-Raphaelitism made a unique appeal to him and Ricketts. It is no accident that they also revered G.F. Watts, an artist who had played a central role in the Venetian revival of the late 1850s, or that Ricketts saw Rossetti as 'a sort of Giorgione' and wrote a monograph on Titian (1910).
One of the most innovative features of Musicienne du Silence is its technique. The forms tend to be modelled in thin glazes of colour, often laid over a richly textured underpainting in a way that creates an almost abstract effect. Several artists commented on this aspect of the picture. F.G. Stephens described 'the colouration [as] that of a transparency in stained silk', while the Times observed that it was 'always a mistake to imitate the golden yellow tone which only time can give to a picture.' The writer seems to have been equating Hacker's technical approach with the many botched attempts that had been made in the past, by Reynolds, Benjamin West and others, to discover the so-called 'Venetian secret'. However, he concluded a rather grudging review by remarking that 'the best thing in this composition is the shot-purple dress of the reclining damsel'.
The title of Hacker's picture, given in inverted commas in the RA catalogue, is redolent of French Symbolism, and in fact is taken from a poem by Mallarmé. Ostensibly, Aestheticism and Symbolism were poles apart, one stressing the absence of meaning in a picture, the other its presence, albeit in an ambiguous form. But in practice the two ideologies tended to overlap. Artists such as Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Whistler and Leighton often seem to have a foot in both camps, evolving compositions which are highly decorative yet hint at dimensions beyond the formal plane. Similarly, Swinburne and Pater may descant on a head by Leonardo or Michelangelo in a context designed to emphasise Aesthetic values, but they do so in such sensuous terms that they fire the imagination of a Symbolist generation hooked on the concept of the femme fatale. The very focus on Giorgione speaks volumes; music may be abstract, but when introduced as an image in a picture, or even exploited by Whistler to give a picture its title, it immediately conjures up an emotional response that goes far beyond the pleasure to be gained from design, form and colour. Hacker's picture, by applying a Symbolist title to a Giorgionesque image, seems to both point up and resolve this arresting paradox.