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TO THINK, OR BE THOUGHT FOR?

SOME weeks since, there appeared in the
Times newspaper two letters referring to the
recent purchase for the National Gallery of a
picture by the old Venetian painter Bellini.
The letters were signed by gentlemen well
known as connoisseurs and critics in the
world of Art; the name of the one being Mr.
William Coningham, and the name of the
other Doctor Waagen. Mr. Coningham wrote
to inform the public, as the result of his
critical knowledge of painting, that the
Bellini had been "daubed over,"—that it was, "for
educational purposes, utterly worthless,"—
and that the nation had been cruelly imposed
on in buying it. Doctor Waagen wrote (not
with overstrained politeness) to inform the
public, as the result of his critical knowledge
of painting, that the picture was "decidedly
genuine,"—that it "surpassed every example
of the subject that he had hitherto seen by the
master,"—and that the nation was unspeakably
fortunate in having secured such a
treasure. Mr. Coningham rejoined by
recommending all persons interested in the
discussion to go and judge for themselves which
was in the right, Dr. Waagen or himself. And
there, so far as the writer of these lines knows,
the matter ended.

It may, perhaps, tend to reassure all readers
not deeply interested in discussing the last
debateable purchase for the National Gallery,
if I state, at the outset, that I have no
intention of entering into the controversy
described above. I have only alluded to it
because I think it affords a practical example
of what a singularly conventional thing the
question of the value or worthlessness of a
picture by an old master has become in our
day. Here are two critics on art, notorious,
on many past occasions, for discoursing
learnedly and authoritatively on painting,
both writing of the same picture, and both
arriving at diametrically opposite conclusions
respecting it. Surely, if nothing else will
awaken the public mind from its indolent
and hopeless dependence on arbitrary rules
and critical opinions in matters of Art, the
plain inference to which this remarkable
controversy leads ought to supply the necessary
stimulant. Surely the bewildered visitor to
the National Gallery, standing opposite the
Bellini, with Doctor Waagen on his right
hand begging him to admire it, and Mr.
Coningham on his left entreating him to
despise it, must end, in mere self-defence, in
shaking both the critical gentlemen off, and
judging for himself, not of the Bellini only,
but of every other picture in the collection as
well. If anything I can say here will help,
in the smallest degree, towards encouraging
intelligent people of any rank to turn a deaf
ear to everything that critics, connoisseurs,
lecturers, and compilers of guide-books can
say to them, to trust entirely to their own
common sense when they are looking at
pictures, and to express their opinions
boldly, without the slightest reference to any
precedents whatever, I shall have exactly
achieved the object with which I now apply
myself to the writing of this paper.

Setting aside, then, all further reference to
particular squabbles about particular
pictures, let me now ask in regard to pictures
in general, what it is that prevents the public
from judging for themselves, and why the
influence of Art in England is still limited to
select circles,—still unfelt, as the phrase is,
by all but the cultivated classes? Why do
people want to look at their guide-books,
before they can make up their minds about
an old picture? Why do they ask
connoisseurs and professional friends for a
marked catalogue before they venture inside
the walls of the exhibition-rooms in Trafalgar
Square? Why, when they are, for the most
part, always ready to tell each other
unreservedly what books they like, or what
musical compositions are favourites with
them, do they hesitate the moment pictures
turn up as a topic of conversation, and
intrench themselves doubtfully behind such
cautious phrases, as, "I don't pretend to
understand the subject,"—"I believe such and
such a picture is much admired,"—"I am no
judge," and so on? No judge! Does a really
good picture want you to be a judge? Does
it want you to have anything but eyes in
your head, and the undisturbed possession of
your senses? Is there any other branch of
intellectual art which has such a direct
appeal, by the very nature of it, to every
sane human being as the art of painting?
There it is, able to represent through a
medium which offers itself to you palpably

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