THE ancients (says Longuerue) were not in possession of the art of painting in oil, invented by John of Bruges; yet their colours were more glowing and durable than ours. Our colours are considerably diminished, even since the last age: compare the colouring of Le Brun and Mignard with that of their predecessors. This is said to proceed from the avarice of the Dutch, and others who corrupt the drugs used in painting; perhaps, too, they have induced the natives themselves to corrupt them. The colouring of the two great painters above mentioned fades every day. It is the same in Italy; and this great evil has become general.
Those who have inspected the paintings on vellum, or illuminated manuscripts, of which many fine specimens are preserved in the British Museum, will confess, that not only the artists of those times excelled us in the elaborate finishings of their pieces; or, to express myself in the language of Pope—
“The patient touches of unwearied Art,”
but that the brilliancy of their colours is such, that no just conception can be formed of their beauty but by inspection. They preserve all their vivid tints, though they are so ancient. We might perhaps hope to emulate them, if something could be effected to preserve the drugs from adulteration.
Painters, even several masters in the art, have strangely violated the costume, and thus have disgusted the sensibility of taste. They have rendered many a fine picture ridiculous. These offences are like grammatical solecisms in a beautiful composition. We have had in the journals of our tourists several blunders of this kind noticed. The following critical remarks by Chevreau, are for the greater part sufficiently curious. Some connoisseurs will recollect the very pictures which are blemished with these imperfections. Those artists who paint Isaac on his knees before an altar, with Abraham behind him, who raises a knife in the act of striking at him, describe Isaac imperfectly. Before Abraham lifted his arm, Isaac was not prostrated at the altar, but lay on it, as clearly appears in the twenty second chapter of Genesis, where it is said, that Abraham, after having raised an altar, bound Isaac, placed him on the wood, and seized the sacrificial knife. In several pictures Jesus is seen on the cross, with a perspective view of the city of Jerusalem behind him, in which place are represented pyramids, domes, cupolas, and obelisks. This is a gross blunder; because at Jerusalem, and all eastern cities, the tops of the houses were flat and open; there company walked, held assemblies, and celebrated the feasts of tabernacles. The Virgin should not be painted with a book on the table, when the angel Gabriel salutes her; nor should Saint John the Evangelist, when, he wrote his Revelations, be represented young; nor Jesus be made to recline his head on the table, as if asleep, at the supper with his apostles. St. James is ridiculously represented by several, with a pilgrim’s staff in his hand, and shells hung about him, because catholicks go in pilgrimage to Saint James of Compostella in Galicia. In the collection of the French king there is a celebrated picture, in which Jesus is represented at table, in the castle of Emmaus, with two of his disciples; one with a slouched hat, with broad brims hanging over his back, and a huge chaplet round his waist. The other has a scarf or shoulder-belt on his coat. They are served by a man, who wears a kind of handkerchief, which only covers half his head; his arms naked to the elbows, like a cook; his coat open, standing by a page, who has a little hat with a feather in it, and is dressed in the Venetian fashion. We may judge whether this picture, the work of an admirable painter, is adapted to time and place.
Perhaps the blunder of painters most susceptible of raillery, is that of representing Moses with horns on his head, when he descends from Mount Sinai with the tables in his hands. This is copied in many engravings, which are very common. Chevreau explains this blunder. It is owing to one in the Vulgate, which thus renders the verses twenty-nine and thirty-five of chapter thirty-four of Exodus. It is singular this absurdity was not detected by Saint Jerom. The noun keren, in Hebrew signifies horns, and the verb karan to emit rays, or to glitter; because the rays of the sun appear like horns, if regarded somewhat steadily. When the Jews (observes Chevreau) come into our churches, they laugh, and even hate us, for representing Moses like Satan, Our good critic should have also observed, that it is an indecency, which must prove offensive to every married man, Christian or Jew,
Other versions render the word karan luminous, brilliant, or by “a multiplied splendour on the face of Moses.”
Jesus is always represented on the cross with a pale deadly colour, which, as Longuerue observes, is by no means just. It should be remembered, that just before he was crucified, he had been scourged; and therefore his flesh should appear mangled and wounded, and not as if he had been placed on the cross without any marks whatever.
Mr. Strutt has detected some singular improprieties of our Saxon painters. He writes, “They were far from having the least idea of any thing more ancient, than the manners and customs of their own particular times. They put Noah, Abraham, Christ, and King Edgar, all in the same habit, that is, the habit worn by themselves at that time; and in some MSS. illuminated in the reign of Henry VI. are exhibited the figures of Meleager, Hercules, Jason, &c. in the full dress of the great lords of that Prince’s Court.” In one of these MSS. the erudite artist having heard something about Hercules and his lion’s skin, he has covered the shoulders of his athletic beau with a hide of that noble Animal, and which is made to hang upon a splendid load of silk and gold embroidery!