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Years Ago in Art and Life

A Report of a Lecture by Eli Siegel

As a student and teacher of art it was a tremendous privilege to study via tape recording in an Aesthetic Realism class the lecture Eli Siegel gave on October 15, 1976, titled Years Ago in Art and Life, in which he discussed the art reviews of the great English novelist, William Makepeace Thackeray, who lived from 1811 to 1863.

Thackeray, the author of such classic novels as Vanity Fair and Henry Esmond, studied art in Paris and wrote reviews of exhibitions at London’s Royal Academy, which were published in Fraser's Magazine during the 1830’s and 40’s.  In fact, Mr. Siegel said, the best known art criticism in the English language, next to Ruskin and Hazlitt, was by Thackeray.  He read from a 1906 edition of The Works of William Makepeace Thackeray, Essays, Reviews, Etc.—reviews written in the form of letters to a friend under the pen name Michael Angelo Titmarsh.  In Thackeray's criticism, Mr. Siegel said, the relation of life to what [we see] on a canvas, comes up again and again.

David Wilkie, "Queen Victoria holding her First Council"
Wilkie's Queen Victoria holding her First Council

In an 1838 review titled Strictures on Pictures, Thackeray writes about a painter who was very popular at the time:
Yonder is Sir David Wilkie's grand picture, Queen Victoria holding her First Council.  A marvelous painting in which one admires the exquisite richness of the color, the breadth of light and shadow, the graceful dignity and beauty of the principal figure and the extraordinary skill with which all the figures have been grouped, so as to produce a grand and simple effect.

It is good to see statements made that bring together all the arts and all periods, Mr. Siegel commented.  One of the earliest ideas seen as true and central about all the arts is the idea that art is something that takes details, manyness, and makes a one of them. Wilkie, he explained, had the problem of Bruegel, of Bosch—the problem of a photographer: how to group all these people and not have them look too dull. How something is many and one affects people—Mr. Siegel pointed outin the Rockettes; also when you look in the mirror and ask, How well do the buttons on your sleeve or the decoration around your neck or earrings go with your stockings?

While outwardly I tried to look like I had everything “together,” before I met Aesthetic Realism, the details of my life were anything but unified. My family, friends, the people I went to school and worked with all seemed to be in different compartments which I wanted to keep separate, and felt nervously ill-at-ease if they mingled.  David Wilkie, "Rent Day"I tried to feel more unified by having less diversity—less to do with other things and people, but instead of greater composition I felt more empty and divided. Aesthetic Realism teaches that the questions of life are solved in art. One and many, Mr. Siegel was showing in this class, are in everyday life situations, and in every movement in the history of art. He stated:

Many persons have wanted to say the opposites of one and many are not in Pop Art and Absurd Art.  But no matter how avante-garde you are in art, you think of the ensemble.

When Thackeray speaks of the extraordinary skill with which all the figures have been grouped, so as to produce a grand and simple effect, he is saying David Wilkie did a good job with one and many.  Wilkie's most famous painting, Mr. Siegel mentioned, was Rent Day, “about paying rent to a landlord.” [shown above]

Thackeray then writes about Joseph Severn, the painter who was with the poet John Keats when he died in Italy, and says that while Severn doesn’t have the “dash and dexterity of Wilkie,” he does have a “religious quality.”  One of his paintings is Crusaders Catching a First View of JerusalemThis first view of the holy city,” said Mr. Siegel is a large thing. Some people have tried to get Columbus dazzled as he first saw America. Painters, Mr. Siegel continued, have moods, as composers do. He described the comic mood of Hogarth, the melancholy of Durer. There's an attitude to the world, he explained, which can be called a mood. In historical painting—a genre popular in Thackeray's time—an artist tries to capture the mood of one important event. Thackeray is both praising and critical of Severn's work, saying the figures are stiff and don't show the crusades powerfully enough—but that his majestic and pious harmony merits hanging beside the great Raphael.

Along with technique, Thackeray says, beauty arises from something larger—the purpose impelling an artist.  He writes:
There is a higher ingredient in beauty than mere form; a skilled hand is only the second artistical quality, worthless… without the first, which is a great heart.

William Etty, "The Prodigal Son"A problem still in [art], commented Mr. Siegel, is: what is your attitude, what is in your mind [or, as Thackeray says, 'heart'] in relation to your technique.

We learned about William Etty, a painter Thackeray praises, calling him “Rubens of England.” Mr. Siegel read a passage of Thackeray's writing that he said is remembered, about Etty's painting, The Prodigal Son.[shown to the right] Thackeray writes: 

O conscience-stricken Prodigal!—you shall find a good father, who loves you; and an elder brother who hates you— and a dear, kind stout old mother...who has a tear and a prayer for you night and morning...and a poor young thing down in the village, who has never forgotten your walks in the quiet nut-woods [and] who swore she should be his little wife...

Thackeray continues:

...Down to her at once.  She will pretend to be cold at first, and then shiver, and turn red, and deadly pale; and then she tumbles into your arms, with a gush of sweet tears....To her, man!—never fear miss! Hug him and kiss him as though you would draw the heart from his lips.

“This, said Mr. Siegel, “is Thackeray itching to be a novelist [and] trying to somewhat supersede the painter.  We can see here the difference between art criticism and literary observation. Thackeray’s criticism is so human, so popular, and in a way so inadequate.

However, the review he read next he said, is a great instance of art criticism—and, Mr. Siegel noted, one of the famous things in English prose.  In Thackeray’s 1839 review “A Second lecture on the Fine Arts, he describes a work by the great English painter, Turner, the best known today of all the early Victorian painters exhibiting in the Royal Academy. Like many others, I love the paintings of Turner, and am so grateful for what I learned about him from Aesthetic Realism consultant and painter Dorothy Koppelman, and her important paper—“Light and Dark, Hiding and Showing in Joseph Mallord William Turner.”
JMW Turner, The Fighting Temeraire
Turner's Fighting Téméraire

I was very moved as Mr. Siegel read a beautiful passage by Thackeray about this painting:
The old Téméraire is dragged to her last home by a little, spiteful diabolical steamer. A mighty red sun, amidst a host of flaring clouds, sinks to rest on one side of the picture, and illumines a river that seems interminable, and a countless navy that fades away into such a wonderful distance as never was painted before. The little demon of a steamer is belching out a volume (why do I say a volume? not a hundred volumes could express it) of foul, lurid, red-hot, malignant smoke, paddling furiously, and lashing up the water round about it; while behind it (a cold gray moon looking down on it), slow, sad, and majestic, follows the brave old ship, with death, as it were, written on her....It is absurd, you will say (and with a great deal of reason), for Titmarsh, or any other Briton, to grow so poetically enthusiastic about a four-foot canvas, representing a ship, a steamer, a river, and a sunset. But herein surely lies thc power of the great artist. He makes you see and think of a great deal more than the objects before you...

“That is what criticism is,” said Mr. Siegel.  “Aesthetic Realism believes that no matter what the subject of a painting, it is a means of liking the world more.

The nearest Thackeray gets to saying that art is praise of the world, Mr. Siegel explained, is in this passage:
The great artist who is the priest of nature is consecrated especially to this service of praise; and though it may have no direct relation to religious subjects, the view of a picture of the highest order does always fill the mind...with an inexpressible content and gratitude towards the Maker who has created such beautiful things for our use!

Priest of nature, said Mr. Siegel, is the same as a person who wants to like the world. It's a little flossy but the main idea is quite true….Like most critics, Thackeray is very uncertain of [his] basis, Mr. Siegel continued, but every now and then he implies there’s something that makes a picture right.”  He calls an altar-piece “very meritorious,” and then apologizes, saying he is only giving a “private opinion” and “being mortal” and it's quite possible he's wrong.  If the critic is wrong, Mr. Siegel explained, it means there [still] must be something right. Just what is right in art is a large matter.

There are persons, from Aristotle on, who are important in the history of thought and art criticism because of their desire to see something right or beautiful. Thackeray,” commented Mr. Siegel, “like every [true] critic, plumbs for the opposites—I’ve seen that in the criticism from the 3rd century.”  He read this sentence of Thackeray about the great Michelangelo:
See oh ye painters! How in Michel Angelo strength and beauty are here combined, wonderful chastity and grace, humility and a grandeur almost divine.

After centuries of thought, Eli Siegel is the critic who, in our time, has given the world the criterion for understanding beauty, past and present, and its relation to our everyday lives.  “All beauty,” he stated “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.

As the class continued Mr. Siegel showed how Thackeray's criticism of art becomes, at times, criticism of life itself. He read about a painting by Leullier of the 1794 British sinking of a French ship.  “Thackeray gets moralistic,” Mr. Siegel observed—and in what he writes we can see a relation to the statement of Aesthetic Realism that “contempt is...the main cause of wars.”  Thackeray writes:

In war there are always two parties; and though it often happens that both declare themselves to be victorious, it still is generally the case that one party beats and the other is beaten. The conqueror is thus filled with national pride, and the conquered with national hatred, and a desire to do better next time. If he has his revenge, and beats his opponent as desired, these agreeable feelings are reversed; and so Pride and Hatred continue....Thus the great truth is handed down from father to son, that

A Briton
A Frenchman
An Ashantee
A Hohenzollernsigmaringenite, &c.

r brace

is superior to all the world...

“Thackeray is right,” said Mr. Siegel. “He doesn’t use the word contempt, but one can get the feeling that it’s there. This is part of art criticism, he continued, if you see that you are criticizing God as artistic arranger.

It is hard to convey fully in a brief report the richness of this magnificent lecture. All in all, Mr. Siegel commented on over 40 artists, and both art and life in early Victorian England, was made so vivid! We learned about how art was changing in the 19th century. 
Landseer, the challenge stag in snow
Landseer's The Challenge [Stag in snow]
“You don’t find any blizzards,” Mr. Siegel pointed out, “in Renaissance painting,” but the painter Edwin Landseer put some ice in his picture with the stag, ‘which looking at,’ says Thackeray your teeth begin to chatter.

I was glad to learn about Landseer’s work, including this painting, mentioned by Mr. Siegel—a dog remaining by the side of his dead master;

Edwin Landseer, "Old Shepherds Chief Mourner"

and about Daniel Maclise, known for one of the best portraits of Charles Dickens;

Daniel Maclise, Portrait of Charles Dickens

about paintings that were very popular at this time—including “The Doctor” of Luke Fildes,

Fildes, The Doctor

and William Powell Frith’s “Derby Day.”


And the new mode of travel, the railroad, got into a painting by Turner. Thackeray writes:
[Turner] has made a picture with real rain, behind which, is real sunshine....There comes a train down upon you, really moving at the rate of fifty miles an hour....The world has never seen anything like this picture.

JMW Turner "Rain, Steam and Speed – the Great Western Railway"

Turner's Rain, Steam and Speed – the Great Western Railway

“What you are hearing now,” Mr. Siegel commented near the end of this lecture, “is the longest consideration of Thackeray’s art criticism.”

As I studied this lecture, my respect for both art and life grew, and I thank Ellen Reiss for the opportunity to report on this class. I remember seeing reproductions of some of the paintings Thackeray writes of with such excitement, on the walls of my grandmother's home. But as I grew interested in modern art and abstract sculpture, I wanted to feel everything else was old-fashioned, not worth knowing—and this hurt my knowledge of and care for art. Hearing this great lecture, being introduced to the art criticism of William Makepeace Thackeray, learning about some of the things that occurred years ago in art and life has broadened my mind, and made my feeling for art wider, deeper, more accurate. It is a thrilling study to see how central the opposites are in every period of art, and in the situations of our lives. Aesthetic Realism makes this joyful, practical study a reality for every person.

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