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The Early Nineteenth Century Pictures in the Forbes Magazine Collection and the Decline of Traditional Academic Values
The Forbes Collection, with its concentration on Victorian art, contains a high proportion of works with narrative subject matter. Not surprisingly, this predominance also occurs in the earlier nineteenth-century pictures in the Collection which, in a more balanced selection, would be dominated by portraits and landscapes. This distribution, however, casts an interesting light on one of the main problems of subject painting in the early nineteenth century, the collapse of the academic standards based on High Renaissance values and given most recent expression in England by the establishment of the Royal Academy in 1768 and the Discourses of its first President, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792). Under these criteria, the most important category of art was the work with the most important subject, usually Biblical or historical, told in a suitable style based on the appropriate Old Master; landscape and portraiture came well below in the hierarchy of genres. The onset of Romanticism was at first contained within this academic theory, but eventually helped to bring about its collapse.
The Forbes Collection contains no portraits from the years up to 1848 (the foundation of the Pre-Raphaelite movement), and the only pure landscape, by David Cox (1783-1859), dates from about that crucial year (lot 345). The Collection does, however, contain a number of historical landscapes, in which important subjects, suitable to the highest aspirations of art, are wedded to the lower genre of landscape. A good example of this is The Return of Ulysses (lot 4), again of 1848, by John Linnell (1792-1882). Although Linnell painted a considerable number of landscapes with Biblical subjects, this is a very rare example of his painting a classical subject, a fact emphasised by his quoting from Homer in Greek in an inscription on the actual picture. The composition goes back to those pictures of J.M.W. Turner most inspired by the ideal Old Master of the genre, Claude, beginning with the near-copy after Claude, Apullia in Search of Apullus, of 1814, and progressing in a great series of exhibits until the end of the 1830s. Even the sky is Turnerian, to emphasise the bloody deeds awaiting Ulysses on his return to Ithaca.
The Good Samaritan, 1843, by William James Müller (1812-1845) is another example of a landscape painter using his preferred mode of expression to enhance the status of his work (lot 157). Essentially a landscape painter from nature, his introduction of cliffs and a few palm trees barely affects the general approach of his depictions of English scenery, despite his first-hand experiences of the Near East.
Francis Danby (1793-1865) marked his arrival in London in 1824 by undertaking some far more ambitious essays in the genre of historical landscape. Christ Walking on the Sea (lot 212), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1826, is a prime example, challenging Turner's largest sea-pieces in its scale, as also did the rising star John Martin (1789 -1854). Danby also echoed some of Turner's less ambitious studies in the creation of mood and atmosphere solely through the evocation of different effects of light and weather, as in Calais Sands, Low Water, Poissards Collecting Bait, R.A. 1830, or the unfinished Evening Star of much the same date. Danby's own efforts were followed by his son James Francis Danby (1817-1875) in his The Rescue, exhibited in 1858 (lot 213).
John Martin himself is represented in the Forbes Collection by one of his most dramatic masterpieces, Pandemonium (lot 3), an illustration to Milton's Paradise Lost painted in 1841. Typically, this develops aspects of Turner's art, such as the contrasting effects of light and the receding diagonal of the building that dominates the composition of, for instance, Ancient Rome: Agrippina landing with the Ashes of Germanicus, R.A. 1838, which his own interest in categorising architecture and such exciting new industrial developments as that of gas lighting, here contrasted with the primaeval river of molten rock that flows through his imaginary setting. The classical restraints of the academic historical landscape, based on the example of Claude and Poussin, are here developed with a degree of exaggeration and sensationalism that looks forward to the epics of Hollywood.
Much more academic in his emphasis on the figure, but equally sensational in his imaginative vision, is the work of Johann Heinrich Füssli, or Fuseli as he became in his adopted land (1741-1825). His Vision of the Deluge (lot 216), another illustration to Milton's Paradise Lost painted for Fuseli's own Milton Gallery in the late 1790s, concentrates on the two main figures, based on classical prototypes, but adds a sense of horrifying frisson through the suggestion of the about-to-drown girl, whose sex is subtly suggested by the delicate pale hand and the bracelet. Like Martin, but in the grand manner, Fuseli is tugging at the bonds of academic restraint.
Superficially representing the same attitude to high art is Manlius hurled from the Rock (lot 314) by William Etty (1787-1849). Here, however, the motivation is different: how to enoble the life studies that were Etty's lifelong preoccupation, and of which there are many examples in the Forbes Collection.
A direct evocation of an Old Master prototype can be seen in The Baptism of Christ (lot 154) by James Ward (1769-1859). Here the elongated format stresses its dependence on the altarpieces of Veronese, though even this model reflects a softening in its acceptances of a Venetian rather than a Florentine or Roman example.
Alfred Edward Chalon (1780-1860) similarly bases his study for Automne 1848 (lot 73), on an (unsuited) painterly model, Rubens, while the illustration to Shakespeare's Two Gentleman of Verona (lot 68) by Thomas Stothard (1755-1834) demonstrates the delicate, prettified side to neo-classicism, close to the book-illustrations that also occupied Stothard and based heavily on French models, in particular, Watteau. Sir David Wilkie (1785-1845), whose earlier works astounded London in the years following his arrival in 1805 with their combination of 'the spirit of Teniers and Hogarth', and very unsuitable models for academic theorists, moved to an equally unsuitable, softer style under the influence of Murillo, whom he studied during his tour of Spain in 1827-8. This is seen at its most attractive in the illustration to Cervantes Don Quixote, Sancho Panza in the Days of his Youth of 1835 (lot 303). All these pictures have immense charm and facility of execution, but all represent a far cry from the tenets of academic subject painting that Reynolds had sought to establish with the foundation of the Royal Academy.