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Of Mural Painting








There seems no precise reason why the subject of this note should differ
much from that of Mr. Crane's article on "Decorative Painting" (pp.
39-51). "Mural Painting" need not, as such, consist of any one sort of
painting more than another. "Decorative Painting" does seem, on the
other hand, to indicate a certain desire or undertaking to render the
object painted more pleasant to the beholder's eye.

From long habit, however, chiefly induced by the constant practice of
the Italians of modern times, "Mural Painting" has come to be looked
upon as figure painting (in fact, the human figure exclusively) on
walls--and no other sort of objects can sufficiently impart that dignity
to a building which it seems to crave for. I can think of no valid
reason why a set of rooms, or walls, should not be decorated with
animals in lieu of "humans," as the late Mr. Trelawney used to call us:
one wall to be devoted to monkeys, a second to be filled in with tigers,
a third to be given up to horses, etc. etc. I know men in England, and,
I believe, some artists, who would be delighted with the substitution.
But I hope the general sense of the public would be set against such
subjects, and the lowering effects of them on every one, and the kind of
humiliation we should feel at knowing them to exist.

I have been informed that in Berlin the walls of the rooms where the
antique statues are kept have been painted with mixed subjects
representing antique buildings with antique Greek views and landscapes,
to back up, as it were, the statues. I must own it, that without having
seen the decoration in question, I feel filled with extreme aversion for
the plan. The more so when one considers the extreme unlikelihood of the
same being made tolerable in colour at Berlin. I have also been told
that some painters in the North of England, bitten with a desire to
decorate buildings, have painted one set of rooms with landscapes. This,
without the least knowledge of the works in question, as landscapes, I
must allow I regret. There is, it seems to me, an unbridgeable chasm,
not to be passed, between landscape art and the decoration of walls; for
the very essence of the landscape art is distance, whereas the very
essence of the wall-picture is its solidity, or, at least, its not
appearing to be a hole in the wall. On the matter of subjects fit for
painting on walls I may have a few words to say farther on in this
paper, but first I had better set down what little I have to advise with
regard to the material and mode of executing.

The old-fashioned Italian or "Buon Fresco" I look upon as practically
given up in this country, and every other European country that has not
a climate to equal Italy. If the climate of Paris will not admit of this
process, how much less is our damp, foggy, changeable atmosphere likely
to put up with it for many years! It is true that the frescoes of
William Dyce have lasted for some thirty years without apparent damage;
but also it is the case that the Queen's Robing Rooms in the House of
Lords have been specially guarded against atmospheric changes of
temperature. Next to real fresco, there has been in repute for a time
the waterglass process, in which Daniel Maclise's great paintings have
been executed. I see no precise reason why these noble works should not
last, and defy climate for many, many long years yet; though from want
of experience he very much endangered this durability through the too
lavish application of the medium. But in Germany, the country of
waterglass, the process is already in bad repute. The third alternative,
"spirit fresco," or what we in England claim as the Gambier-Parry
process, has, I understand, superseded it. I have myself painted in this
system seven works on the walls of the Manchester Town Hall, and have
had no reason to complain of their behaviour. Since beginning the
series, however, a fresh change has come over the fortunes of mural art
in the fact that, in France (what most strongly recommends itself to
common sense), the mural painters have now taken to painting on canvas,
which is afterwards cemented, or what the French call "maronflee," on to
the wall. White-lead and oil, with a very small admixture of rosin
melted in oil, are the ingredients used. It is laid on cold and
plentifully on the wall and on the back of the picture, and the painting
pressed down with a cloth or handkerchief: nothing further being
required, saving to guard the edges of the canvas from curling up before
the white-lead has had time to harden. The advantage of this process of
cementing lies in the fact that with each succeeding year it must become
harder and more like stone in its consistency. The canvases may be
prepared as if for oil painting, and painted with common oil-colours
flatted (or matted) afterwards by gum-elemi and spike-oil. Or the canvas
may be prepared with the Gambier-Parry colour and painted in that very
mat medium. The canvases should if possible be fine in texture, as
better adapted for adhering to the wall. The advantage of this process
is that, should at any time, through neglect, damp invade the wall, and
the canvas show a tendency to get loose, it would be easy to replace it;
or the canvas might be altogether detached from the wall and strained as
a picture.

I must now return to the choice of subject, a matter of much importance,
but on which it is difficult to give advice. One thing, however, may be
urged as a rule, and that is, that very dark or Rembrandtesque subjects
are particularly unsuited for mural paintings. I cannot go into the
reasons for this, but a slight experiment ought to satisfy the painter,
having once heard the principle enunciated: that is, if he belong to the
class likely to succeed at such work.

Another sine qua non as to subject is that the painter himself must be
allowed to select it. It is true that certain limitations may be
accorded--for instance, the artist may be required to select a subject
with certain tendencies in it--but the actual invention of the subject
and working out of it must be his. In fact, the painter himself is the
only judge of what he is likely to carry out well and of the subjects
that are paintable. Then much depends on whom the works are for; if for
the general public, and carried out with their money, care (it seems to
me but fair) should be taken that the subjects are such as they can
understand and take interest in. If, on the contrary, you are painting
for highly-cultured people with a turn for Greek myths, it is quite
another thing; then, such a subject as "Eros reproaching his brother
Anteros for his coldness" might be one offering opportunities for shades
of sentiment suited to the givers of the commissions concerned. But for
such as have not been trained to entertain these refinements, downright
facts, either in history or in sociology, are calculated most to excite
the imagination. It is not always necessary for the spectator to be
exact in his conclusions. I remember once at Manchester, the members of
a Young Men's Christian Association had come to a meeting in the great
hall. Some of them were there too soon, and so were looking round the
room. One observed: "What's this about?" His friend answered: "Fallen
off a ladder, the police are running him in!" Well, this was not quite
correct. A wounded young Danish chieftain was being hurried out of
Manchester on his comrade's shoulders, with a view to save his life. The
Phrygian helmets of the Danes indicated neither firemen nor policemen;
but the idea was one of misfortune, and care bestowed on it--and did as
well, and showed sympathy in a somewhat uncultivated, though
well-intentioned, class of Lancastrians. On the other hand, I have
noticed that subjects that interest infallibly all classes, educated or
illiterate, are religious subjects. It is not a question of piety--but
comes from the simple breadth of poetry and humanity usually involved in
this class of subject. That the amount of religiosity in either
spectator or producer has nothing to do with the feeling is clear if we
consider.

The Spaniards are one of the most religious peoples ever known, and yet
their art is singularly deficient in this quality. Were there ever two
great painters as wanting in the sacred feeling as Velasquez and
Murillo? and yet, in all probability, they were more religious than
ourselves.

It only remains for me to point to the fact that mural painting, when it
has been practised jointly by those who were at the same time
easel-painters, has invariably raised those painters to far higher
flights and instances of style than they seem capable of in the smaller
path. Take the examples left us, say by Raphael and Michel Angelo, or
some of the earlier masters, such as the "Fulminati" of Signorelli,
compared with his specimens in our National Gallery; or the works left
on walls by even less favoured artists, such as Domenichino and Andrea
del Sarto, or the French de la Roche's "Hemicycle," or our own great
painters Dyce and Maclise's frescoes; the same rise in style, the same
improvement, is everywhere to be noticed, both in drawing, in colour,
and in flesh-painting.

F. MADOX BROWN.





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