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1892 The New Art Critics

At the Royal Academy in 1892, writers such as D.S. MacColl, George Moore, Elizabeth Robins Pennell, Frederick Wedmore (who was of an older generation, and a perceptive critic of sculpture), and Charles Whibley, used the Summer Exhibition as a site to mount a critique about the state of modern painting and engage in debate with other critics whose taste was much more conservative. Challenging the perceived traditionalism and commercialism of the Academy’s Annual Exhibition, these “New Art Critics” focused their attention on writing about the pictorial and aesthetic qualities of art, with an emphasis on composition, colour, and technique.

They officially came into the public eye as the “New Art Critics” in 1893, when they defended the exhibition in London of Edgar Degas’s painting L’Absinthe. Although they never saw themselves as formal group, their origins can be traced to ideas espoused by the artists and critics, Walter Richard Sickert and R.A.M. Stevenson. Between 1890 and 1895, they created a “chorus of resistance” against storytelling in painting.1 By 1892, six or seven wrote for the national papers. Forgoing the emphasis usually placed by critics on genre, and thus on an artwork’s subject matter, they believed that formal pictorial qualities held more importance, and had been roundly mocked by the conservative press.

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Reviewing the Academy Exhibition in 1892, they agreed that most of the paintings were of very poor quality, including Marcus Stone’s Two’s Company, Three’s None, one of his never-ending tryst subjects. Sickert’s portrait of George Moore, a work that he showed at the winter 1891 Exhibition of the New English Art Club, had been mocked by numerous guests at the Academy Banquet. To emphasise that the way a picture was painted, rather than its subject, was what made it beautiful, the New Art Critics wrote that the “masterpieces” exhibited that year by the less adventurous artists J.J. Shannon and W.B. Richmond were proof that choosing an attractive woman to paint would not necessarily produce a great picture.

The New Art Critics also complained about the “reckless squandering”2 of Chantrey Bequest funds by its trustees and the iniquitous system that allowed them to be both “buyers and sellers”, who paid the highest prices in a closed market for appalling pictures.3 John MacWhirter’s June in the Austrian Tyrol was seen as emblematic of this practice, and Charles Whibley snidely commented that it must be for the “impoverished citizen, unable to make the Grand Tour”.4 Further subjects of protest were the glaringly inappropriate placement of pictures, the rejection of impressionist landscapes by A.D. Peppercorn and Mark Fisher, the general overall average quality of the exhibits, and the election of John Brett, Stanhope Forbes, and Benjamin Leader as Associates—at the expense of Albert Moore and J.M. Swan. All of these disappointments showed that the Academy was, according to George Moore, “strictly a commercial enterprise”.5 He questioned whether financial gain was necessary, when the Academy had a prime site on valuable commercial property, an extensive exhibition space, and a Royal Charter.6 At the same time, Moore pointed out that the very “few painters” who exhibited there, did so in the hope that they might sell a picture, arguing that no other purpose would compel painters of such different styles to exhibit together.7

The New Art Critics believed themselves far superior to the rest of the press, who were “so venal and so reptile-like”, and paid “more attention to this Piccadilly shop” than any other exhibition.8 In their evident dismissal of the Royal Academicians, they suggested that Millais “had great talent” but complained that he sold it to the highest bidder, and wrote that Marcus Stone’s palette was no more “entertaining than cheap wallpaper”.9

On the other hand, they liked the opulent Garden of Hesperides by the Academy President, Frederic Leighton, because its arrangement of line and colour, and pleasing composition and decorative effect, satisfied their strict criteria favouring formal qualities over the subject of a picture. They only complained about what they considered to be a jarring combination of bright colours. MacColl, for one, thought the palette employed by Leighton was too close to the commercially available colours used straight from the tube that gave the Garden the effect “of a shop window filled with Art Colours”.10

According to the New Art Critics, the best picture of the Exhibition was George Clausen’s The Mowers (Fig. 1). They liked its colour and original technique, which have the effect of heat and light on a summer’s day, and praised its treatment of the working men mowing hay. Clausen took a keen interest in the art of Edgar Degas, Jean François Millet, and Claude Monet, and is rightly described as a British Impressionist. His favoured subject of English rural life could not be more different from Leighton’s classical subjects. Although none of these critics used the term “impressionist”, they were essentially describing impressionist landscapes. At the same time, they ignored the hierarchies that determined, for example, the definition of impressionist painting in France—ignoring the role of subject matter. In this respect, they were forerunners of the supporters of modern painting in the twentieth century. 

Several of these critics, including Pennell and Wedmore, also wrote perceptively about Alfred Gilbert’s Posthumous Bust of Baron Huddlestone, and The Shelley Monument by Edward Onslow Ford, which they considered in many respects to be superior to the painting on show (Fig. 2). To appreciate the unique quality of the sculpture, Wedmore explained, the ideal viewer would possess “taste and knowledge” and the ability to appreciate “invention and veracity, style and life”11 with a “special sensitiveness to the rhythm of line”, and “the virtues of style”.12 Here they are saying that only the educated viewer, able to engage with aspects of the painting beyond its apparent subject or genre, could be sufficiently qualified to judge a good work of art.

  1. Kimberly Morse Jones, Elizabeth Robins Pennell: Nineteenth-Century Pioneer of Modern Art Criticism (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015), 9.↩︎

  2. A.U. [Elizabeth Robins Pennell], “Art and Artists”, Star, 9 May 1892.↩︎

  3. Charles Whibley, “The Academy’s Bargain”, The National Observer, 21 May 1892, 6.↩︎

  4. Charles Whibley, “The Academy’s Bargain”, The National Observer, 21 May 1892, 5.↩︎

  5. G[eorge] M[oore], “The Royal Academy”, The Speaker, 23 April 1892, 497.↩︎

  6. G[eorge] M[oore], “The Royal Academy”, The Speaker, 23 April 1892, 497.↩︎

  7. D.S.M. [MacColl], “The Royal Academy—1”, The Spectator, 7 May 1892, 642.↩︎

  8. A.U. [Elizabeth Robins Pennell], “Art and Artists”, Star, 9 May 1892.↩︎

  9. G.M., The Speaker, 30 April 1892.↩︎

  10. D.S.M. [MacColl], “The Royal Academy—11”, The Spectator, 14 May 1892, 678.↩︎

  11. Frederick Wedmore, The Standard, 2 June 1892.↩︎

  12. Frederick Wedmore, The Standard, 30 April 1892.↩︎

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