London Guildhall Exhibition
The loan collection of pictures at the Guildhall, which is opened this week, consists this year of a selection of works by "English and French painters of the eighteenth century." As far as the French pictures are concerned this is not the most interesting period, and some of the few great names of the century—Watteau for instance, are not represented at their best. On the other hand, the exhibition is the occasion of bringing before the public some French painters whose works, though familiar to students of art history, are not popularly known.
The large room is devoted entirely, except the small gallery, to the larger pictures of the French school. The painter best represented is Boucher, of whose superficial but brilliant art there are two or three large examples, of which the finest is the "Fortune Teller" (39), a work very striking in composition and effective in colour in a hard mechanical way; that sort of colouring which seems addressed to the optics rather than to the intellect. Nattier, a less powerful painter of the same school, whose name has been a good deal revived lately by writers on art, is represented by some works which probably show him at his best; they are good solid painting, so to speak, but his plump and rounded ladies are utterly devoid of sentiment or of flesh texture; they are like paintings on ivory magnified; in the portrait group of "The Comtesse de Neubourg and her Daughter" (32) the young girl's face is exquisitely pretty, despite the hard character of the painting. A large portrait group by a less-known painter of the same school, Francois Drouais, called "A Family Group" (18), is perhaps the finest example of this type of picture. It represents a married pair and their little daughter, grouped with an admirable feeling for line in composition, with a great deal of expressive character in the heads, and a less hard texture than is to be found in Boucher and Nattier. It is, no doubt, somewhat prosaic in comparison with a portrait group of Reynolds or Gainsborough; the painter does not aim at anything beyond realism; but he achieves that thoroughly, along with an elevation of style which cannot be denied.
As already observed, the Watteau pictures are not very remarkable. There are several examples of the work of his pupil and close imitator, Pater, but the best specimen of Pater is to be found in Gallery IV., the: "Plaisir Champetre" (136), a picture which in fact might almost be taken for a Watteau. Among the more notable paintings in the large gallery two portraits of ladies claim notice, that of Mme. Roland, by Mme. Le Brun, a fine and effective portrait of a lady in a blue and white striped satin gown playing the harp; and that of Mme. Lambert de Thorigny, by Largillière, a portrait with a kind of bravura of rich costume about it which recalls both Vandyck and the artist's modern successor in French fashionable portraiture, M. Carolus-Duran.
It is when we come to the "Foire de St. Cloud" (28), by Fragonard, however, that we are suddenly brought up by the contrast between a painter of genius and men of mere talent, like the Bouchers and Nattiers and their school. This is a truly wonderful little picture, and quite the most remarkable thing in the large room. It shows a crowded fair held in a golden sunlight beneath masses of trees, the whole pervaded with a diffused glow, as if all the dust of the fair were making a kind of rainbow effect in the hot sunlight. As an example of the poetic treatment of what might have been an ordinary fête champêtre subject, it is a work quite exceptional in character. Even Fragonard's smaller and less interesting picture on the same wall, "Le Baiser Gagné" (23), though in a way rather vulgar (as Fragonard sometimes was), is marked out from the Boucher school by the genuine passion depicted on the countenance of the man, an intensity of expression to be found in no other picture in the room.
When we come into Gallery II., devoted to the small collection of English pictures, what a change we find again from the prevalent superficiality of expression and hardness of colouring of the larger French pictures. Here again is genius, not mere talent, genius inventive in respect of colour and treatment. English painting was far ahead of French at that time; art with Reynolds and Gainsborough was art, and not a plaything for a careless aristocracy. Among the pictures here are Gainsborough's beautiful and pathetic "Cottage Girl" (77), with quite a history in her face; his sumptuous portrait of "Lady Bate Dudley" (80), with a rather plain face which has no history in it; and Reynolds's "Countess of Temple and her Son" (86), and his "Countess of Tyrconneil" and "Mrs. C, J. Fox" (58 and 50). There are some fine examples of Romney, especially his "Lady Hamilton" (79) in a white dress and tall straw hat, and his joyous group of "The Stafford Children" (57). But among the most interesting things are two examples of that now little-remembered portrait painter, Hoppner; "Mrs. Pearson at the Age of Eighteen" (78), a half-length portrait in a beautifully balanced and complete, style, and "Edward Fifth Earl of Darnley" (84), a portrait of a little boy in a dark dress with a white collar, which is a perfectly masterly piece of colour and style in portraiture; even the painter of "The Blue Boy" could hardly have surpassed it. Among the smaller pictures some little landscapes by George Morland are not worth much except as curiosities; there is a small but powerful landscape by J. C. Ibbetson; and several good ones by Gainsborough. It is rather curious to find, in the gallery at the end of the large room, Gainsborough's fine landscape (50) in which the distance and middle distance so strongly recall the manner of Claude; and then to find, as the first thing in Gallery II, a "Landscape and Cattle" by Gainsborough (57) which is as decidedly a reminiscence of Cuyp.
It is in Gallery III, that we have the apotheosis, as one may say, of Fragonard, whose series of paintings and decorative panels, under the general title "La Vierge et l'Amour," constitute perhaps the most remarkable section of the exhibition. They consist of five scenes which make a little history of the love affair of two young people, the last unhappily exhibiting only one of the couple as "Abandonée." These are half-decorative pictures, the idyll being carried on amid a setting of rather scenic foliage and flowers; the remarkable thing about them is that, while the two figures are clad in that conventional mock shepherd and shepherdess costume which fits so exactly with the artificial tone of the French poetry of the time, their faces and attitudes are instinct with genuine feeling. It is "the modish Cupid of the day" with a heart put into him. Look at the earnest expression of the lover who runs in with a rose in the first scene, and the bright face of the girl who starts away with an alarm which is half pretence; and look, again, at the countenances and attitude of the two where in the third scene, "Les Souvenirs," they read over again together one of their old love-letters; in spite of the artificial character of the scenery and dresses the expression is that of the very romance of love. There is something curiously piquant in this combination of artificial circumstance and real passion; it is unlike anything else one remembers to have seen in painting The "Abandonnée" scene is obviously not finished as regards colour; we do not agree with the catalogue quotation that "it is absolutely complete as it is;" it is pervaded by a yellowish tone which is obviously a ground for something else, and it does not look satisfactory except as regards expression. The narrow upright panels of floral decoration which were intended to frame the principal subjects are very good bits of decoration; the panels of symbolical Cupids are not so good; the Cupids are flabby in character and disagreeable in colour. But the pictures which tell the main story are of quite exceptional beauty and interest.
The smaller French pictures in Gallery IV. are of unequal interest; they include some small but very pretty Watteaus, especially "L'Union Paisible" (122); a striking portrait head of Robespierre by Greuze (107); two or three specimens of Chardin's still-life subjects; a small beautifully painted nude by Boucher, "L'Attention Dangereuse" (125), and a very pretty picture by Trinquesse, "Jeune Femme Assise dans un Parc" (142). But the gem of this part of the collection is the exquisite little picture called here "The Artist's Model" (105; we doubt if this was the original title), by Boilly. This is a perfect little masterpiece of finish in figures and surroundings combined with perfect harmony of colour; it seems to belong to the school of Meissonier rather than to the eighteenth century. The "model" is a small plaster statuette, which forms the high light in the picture, but without the least crudity of white about it. This is one of the most perfect works of its class that we have ever seen, and one would rather possess it than, perhaps, all the other works in this room.
Those who are interested in art, whether in the historic or in the purely artistic sense, ought to feel much indebted to the Corporation of the City of London for having collected such an interesting and instructive exhibition.