Oscar Wilde’s review of the 1879 summer exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery was published in Saunders’ Irish Daily News. Wilde’s descriptions of the artworks are vivid, but it is easier to follow his comments if they can be compared with the pictures. Below is the full text of Wilde’s article with images where available. Click on the images to enlarge. You can also read Wilde’s review of the 1977 exhibition.
The Grosvenor Gallery, 1879
While the yearly exhibition of the Royal Academy may be said to present us with the general characteristics of ordinary English art at its most commonplace level, it is at the Grosvenor Gallery that we are enabled to see the highest development of the modern artistic spirit as well as what one might call its specially accentuated tendencies.
Foremost among the great works now exhibited at this gallery are Mr. Burne-Jones’s Annunciation and his four pictures illustrating the Greek legend of Pygmalion—works of the very highest importance in our æsthetic development as illustrative of some of the more exquisite qualities of modern culture. In the first the Virgin Mary, a passionless, pale woman, with that mysterious sorrow whose meaning she was so soon to learn mirrored in her wan face, is standing, in grey drapery, by a marble fountain, in what seems the open courtyard of an empty and silent house, while through the branches of a tall olive tree, unseen by the Virgin’s tear-dimmed eyes, is descending the angel Gabriel with his joyful and terrible message, not painted as Angelico loved to do, in the varied splendour of peacock-like wings and garments of gold and crimson, but somewhat sombre in colour, set with all the fine grace of nobly-fashioned drapery and exquisitely ordered design. In presence of what may be called the mediæval spirit may be discerned both the idea and the technique of the work, and even still more so in the four pictures of the story of Pygmalion, where the sculptor is represented in dress and in looks rather as a Christian St. Francis, than as a pure Greek artist in the first morning tide of art, creating his own ideal, and worshipping it. For delicacy and melody of colour these pictures are beyond praise, nor can anything exceed the idyllic loveliness of Aphrodite waking the statue into sensuous life: the world above her head like a brittle globe of glass, her feet resting on a drift of the blue sky, and a choir of doves fluttering around her like a fall of white snow. Following in the same school of ideal and imaginative painting is Miss Evelyn Pickering, whose picture of St. Catherine, in the Dudley of some years ago, attracted such great attention. To the present gallery she has contributed a large picture of Night and Sleep, twin brothers floating over the world in indissoluble embrace, the one spreading the cloak of darkness, while from the other’s listless hands the Leathean poppies fall in a scarlet shower. Mr. Strudwich [sic] sends a picture of Isabella, which realises in some measure the pathos of Keats’s poem, and another of the lover in the lily garden from the Song of Solomon [My Beloved Has Gone Down to His Garden], both works full of delicacy of design and refinement of detail, yet essentially weak in colour, and in comparison with the splendid Giorgione-like work of Mr. Fairfax Murray, are more like the coloured drawings of the modern German school than what we properly call a painting. The last-named artist, while essentially weak in draughtsmanship, yet possesses the higher quality of noble colour in the fullest degree.
The draped figures of men and women in his Garland Makers, and Pastoral, some wrought in that single note of colour which the earlier Florentines loved, others with all the varied richness and glow of the Venetian school, show what great results may be brought about by a youth spent in Italian cities. And finally I must notice the works contributed to this Gallery by that most powerful of all our English artists, Mr. G. F. Watts, the extraordinary width and reach of whose genius were never more illustrated than by the various pictures bearing his name which are here exhibited. His Paolo and Francesca, and his Orpheus and Eurydice, are creative visions of the very highest order of imaginative painting; marked as it is with all the splendid vigour of nobly ordered design, the last-named picture possesses qualities of colour no less great. The white body of the dying girl, drooping like a pale lily, and the clinging arms of her lover, whose strong brown limbs seem filled with all the sensuous splendour of passionate life, form a melancholy and wonderful note of colour to which the eye continually returns as indicating the motive of the conception. Yet here I would dwell rather on two pictures which show the splendid simplicity and directness of his strength, the one a portrait of himself, the other that of a little child called Dorothy, who has all that sweet gravity and look of candour which we like to associate with that old-fashioned name: a child with bright rippling hair, tangled like floss silk, open brown eyes and flower-like mouth; dressed in faded claret, with little lace about the neck and throat, toned down to a delicate grey—the hands simply clasped before her. This is the picture; as truthful and lovely as any of those Brignoli children which Vandyke [sic] has painted in Genoa. Nor is his own picture of himself—styled in the catalogue merely A Portrait—less wonderful, especially the luminous treatment of the various shades of black as shown in the hat and cloak. It would be quite impossible, however, to give any adequate account or criticism of the work now exhibited in the Grosvenor Gallery within the limits of a single notice. Richmond’s noble picture of Sleep and Death Bearing the Slain Body of Sarpedon, and his bronze statue of the Greek athlete, are works of the very highest order of artistic excellence, but I will reserve for another occasion the qualities of his power. Mr. Whistler, whose wonderful and eccentric genius is better appreciated in France than in England, sends a very wonderful picture entitled The Golden Girl, a life-size study in amber, yellow and browns, of a child dancing with a skipping-rope, full of birdlike grace and exquisite motion; as well as some delightful specimens of etching (an art of which he is the consummate master), one of which, called The Little Forge, entirely done with the dry point, possesses extraordinary merit; nor have the philippics of the Fors Clavigera deterred him from exhibiting some more of his ‘arrangements in colour,’ one of which, called a Harmony in Green and Gold, I would especially mention as an extremely good example of what ships lying at anchor on a summer evening are from the ‘Impressionist point of view.’
Mr. Eugene Benson, one of the most cultured of those many Americans who seem to have found their Mecca in modern Rome, has sent a picture of Narcissus, a work full of the true Theocritean sympathy for the natural picturesqueness of shepherd life, and entirely delightful to all who love the peculiar qualities of Italian scenery. The shadows of the trees drifting across the grass, the crowding together of the sheep, and the sense of summer air and light which fills the picture, are full of the highest truth and beauty; and Mr. Forbes-Robertson, whose picture of Phelps as Cardinal Wolsey has just been bought by the Garrick Club, and who is himself so well known as a young actor of the very highest promise, is represented by a portrait of Mr. Hermann Vezin which is extremely clever and certainly very lifelike. Nor amongst the minor works must I omit to notice Miss Stuart-Wortley’s view on the river Cherwell, taken from the walks of Magdalen College, Oxford,—a little picture marked by great sympathy for the shade and coolness of green places and for the stillness of summer waters; or Mrs. Valentine Bromley’s Misty Day, remarkable for the excellent drawing of a breaking wave, as well as for a great delicacy of tone. Besides the Marchioness of Waterford, whose brilliant treatment of colour is so well known, and Mr. Richard Doyle, whose water-colour drawings of children and of fairy scenes are always so fresh and bright, the qualities of the Irish genius in the field of art find an entirely adequate exponent in Mr. Wills, who as a dramatist and a painter has won himself such an honourable name. Three pictures of his are exhibited here: the Spirit of the Shell, which is perhaps too fanciful and vague in design; the Nymph and Satyr, where the little goat-footed child has all the sweet mystery and romance of the woodlands about him; and the Parting of Ophelia and Laertes, a work not only full of very strong drawing, especially in the modelling of the male figure, but a very splendid example of the power of subdued and reserved colour, the perfect harmony of tone being made still more subtle by the fitful play of reflected light on the polished armour.
I shall reserve for another notice the wonderful landscapes of Mr. Cecil Lawson, who has caught so much of Turner’s imagination and mode of treatment, as well as a consideration of the works of Herkomer, Tissot and Legros, and others of the modern realistic school.
Note.—The other notice mentioned above did not appear.