Oscar Wilde on Common-Sense in Art

Oscar Wilde’s journalism is tremendously entertaining and deserves to be more widely read than it currently is. Here is his review, in the Pall Mall Gazette of January 1887, of John Collier’s A Manual of Oil Painting. I have inserted a reasonably indicative example of Collier’s painting (he was a leading artist of the day) halfway through the review.

At this critical moment in the artistic development of England Mr. John Collier has come forward as the champion of common-sense in art.  It will be remembered that Mr. Quilter, in one of his most vivid and picturesque metaphors, compared Mr. Collier’s method as a painter to that of a shampooer in a Turkish bath. As a writer Mr. Collier is no less interesting.  It is true that he is not eloquent, but then he censures with just severity ‘the meaningless eloquence of the writers on æsthetics’; we admit that he is not subtle, but then he is careful to remind us that Leonardo da Vinci’s views on painting are nonsensical; Collier’s qualities are of a solid, indeed we may say of a stolid order; he is thoroughly honest, sturdy and downright, and he advises us, if we want to know anything about art, to study the works of ‘Helmholtz, Stokes, or Tyndall,’ [* see note below] to which we hope we may be allowed to add Mr. Collier’s own Manual of Oil Painting.

Circe. John Collier (1850-1934). Oil on canvas. 1885. 132.7 x 220cm.

For this art of painting is a very simple thing indeed, according to Mr. Collier.  It consists merely in the ‘representation of natural objects by means of pigments on a flat surface.’  There is nothing, he tells us, ‘so very mysterious’ in it after all.  ‘Every natural object appears to us as a sort of pattern of different shades and colours,’ and ‘the task of the artist is so to arrange his shades and colours on his canvas that a similar pattern is produced.’  This is obviously pure common-sense, and it is clear that art-definitions of this character can be comprehended by the very meanest capacity and, indeed, may be said to appeal to it.  For the perfect development, however, of this pattern-producing faculty a severe training is necessary.  The art student must begin by painting china, crockery, and ‘still life’ generally.  He should rule his straight lines and employ actual measurements wherever it is possible.  He will also find that a plumb-line comes in very useful.  Then he should proceed to Greek sculpture, for from pottery to Phidias is only one step.  Ultimately he will arrive at the living model, and as soon as he can ‘faithfully represent any object that he has before him’ he is a painter.  After this there is, of course, only one thing to be considered, the important question of subject.  Subjects, Mr. Collier tells us, are of two kinds, ancient and modern.  Modern subjects are more healthy than ancient subjects, but the real difficulty of modernity in art is that the artist passes his life with respectable people, and that respectable people are unpictorial.  ‘For picturesqueness,’ consequently, he should go to ‘the rural poor,’ and for pathos to the London slums.  Ancient subjects offer the artist a very much wider field.  If he is fond of ‘rich stuffs and costly accessories’ he should study the Middle Ages; if he wishes to paint beautiful people, ‘untrammelled by any considerations of historical accuracy,’ he should turn to the Greek and Roman mythology; and if he is a ‘mediocre painter,’ he should choose his ‘subject from the Old and New Testament,’ a recommendation, by the way, that many of our Royal Academicians seem already to have carried out.  To paint a real historical picture one requires the assistance of a theatrical costumier and a photographer.  From the former one hires the dresses and the latter supplies one with the true background.  Besides subject-pictures there are also portraits and landscapes.  Portrait painting, Mr. Collier tells us, ‘makes no demands on the imagination.’  As is the sitter, so is the work of art.  If the sitter be commonplace, for instance, it would be ‘contrary to the fundamental principles of portraiture to make the picture other than commonplace.’  There are, however, certain rules that should be followed.  One of the most important of these is that the artist should always consult his sitter’s relations before he begins the picture.  If they want a profile he must do them a profile; if they require a full face he must give them a full face; and he should be careful also to get their opinion as to the costume the sitter should wear and ‘the sort of expression he should put on.’  ‘After all,’ says Mr. Collier pathetically, ‘it is they who have to live with the picture.’

Besides the difficulty of pleasing the victim’s family, however, there is the difficulty of pleasing the victim.  According to Mr. Collier, and he is, of course, a high authority on the matter, portrait painters bore their sitters very much.  The true artist consequently should encourage his sitter to converse, or get some one to read to him; for if the sitter is bored the portrait will look sad.  Still, if the sitter has not got an amiable expression naturally the artist is not bound to give him one, nor ‘if he is essentially ungraceful’ should the artist ever ‘put him in a graceful attitude.’  As regards landscape painting, Mr. Collier tells us that ‘a great deal of nonsense has been talked about the impossibility of reproducing nature,’ but that there is nothing really to prevent a picture giving to the eye exactly the same impression that an actual scene gives, for that when he visited ‘the celebrated panorama of the Siege of Paris’ he could hardly distinguish the painted from the real cannons!  The whole passage is extremely interesting, and is really one out of many examples we might give of the swift and simple manner in which the common-sense method solves the great problems of art.  The book concludes with a detailed exposition of the undulatory theory of light according to the most ancient scientific discoveries.  Mr. Collier points out how important it is for an artist to hold sound views on the subject of ether waves, and his own thorough appreciation of Science may be estimated by the definition he gives of it as being ‘neither more nor less than knowledge.’

Mr. Collier has done his work with much industry and earnestness.  Indeed, nothing but the most conscientious seriousness, combined with real labour, could have produced such a book, and the exact value of common-sense in art has never before been so clearly demonstrated.

Note: Hermann von Helmholtz. George Stokes and John Tyndall were all physicists and all had a special interest in light – colour theory, particles vs. wave theories, refraction, spectroscopy and so on. Collier was keen to use science underpin his no-nonsense approach to the demystification of art, hence the preoccupation with ‘ether waves’ and much else.