The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘The Language of Art’

The New Age, 28 July 1910, pp.300–1.

The language of art.
By Walter Sickert.
There is a saying of Diderot’s which is full of consolation for the critic. Though it is often quoted I venture to repeat it for the encouragement of such of my critical brethren as are inclined to suffer from too introspective doubts as to their own wisdom or infallibility. He says, “I would rather have foolish things said on matters of importance than have them passed over in silence. At least thus they become subjects of discussion and dispute, and truth is elicited.”
Since the “night of time,” as they say in France, criticism has set in opposition the words “subject” and “treatment.” Is it not possible that this antithesis is meaningless, and that the two things are one, and that an idea does not exist apart from its exact expression? Pictures, like streets and persons, have to have names to distinguish them. But their names are not definitions of them, or, indeed, anything but the loosest kind of labels that make it possible for us to handle them, that prevent us from mislaying them, or sending them to the wrong address. If the names we give pictures were indeed their subject, there would have been need of but one picture in the world entitled “Madonna and Child.” The subject is something much more precise and much more intimate than the loose title that is equally applicable to a thousand different canvases. The real subject of a picture or a drawing is the plastic facts it succeeds in expressing, and all the world of pathos, of poetry, of sentiment that it succeeds in conveying, is conveyed by means of the plastic facts expressed, by the suggestion of the three dimensions of space, the suggestion of weight, the prelude or the refrain of movement, the promise of movement to come, or the echo of movement past. If the subject of a picture could be stated in words there had been no need to paint it. Writers on art wisely, in their own interests, mostly ride off at once from any real contact, either with a picture or its subject, to irrelevant secondary reflections capable of being buttoned on to that subject. The nearer a writer on art is to the heart of the subject, the better he knows that the subject is very poor copy. The subject would require words that are a little too simple. The excessive simplicity of the words required would render the expressions meaningless, or merely risible to readers accustomed to literature. More risible perhaps to English readers than to any others, who have been so drilled to avoid and despise words bordering on the expression of feeling. (I am assured, on excellent authority, by a French friend that he has been told an English gentleman must not sign “yours affectionately.”)
Writers on art not infrequently take refuge in what are called in politics “planks.” These planks are always of a quasi-political nature, as that for instance –
(a) Sir William Richmond must not be allowed to put up mosaics in St. Paul’s;
(b) The Chantrey Bequest is to buy pictures from the New English Art Club;
(c) That the death of this or that second-rate portrait painter or illustrator is a blow from which British Art will never recover.
The instinct of these writers guides them aright. An actor knows that he cannot “take the corner” without a point to make. And “points” are not made with illuminating ideas, nor ideas that will bear examination or reflection. They are meant to bring the house down, or their more modest ambition may but be to “get a hand,” after which their purpose is served. I cannot remember who it was said “Peut-être les émotions douces sont elles peu littéraires.” I think it was Balzac. Certainly nothing is less literary than the language of the plastic arts. There are persons born with a natural gift for reading this language, persons to whom it speaks clearly, intelligently, and profoundly. I am not now speaking of artists.
Certain generalisations not at all precise, of the nature of queries rather than assertions, that I seem to have observed during a quarter of a century may not be without interest, and may elicit from other observers confirmations or refutations of much greater interest. On the whole I have noticed (and I waive aside gently, but firmly, the foreseen accusation that I now propose to divide the world into two categories, those who like what I like, and those who do not) – I have noticed that the language of art has a meaning for men, and very little for women. This is almost a truism, and only another way of stating the fact that the male mind deals willingly with, and is naturally at home in, abstract ideas, while the female mind, fortunately for the race, is entirely concentrated on positive and personal and immediate considerations. Women are interested in art when it ministers to their vanity, as in the flattering portrait, or even in the unflattering portrait, when its exhibition brings them personal advertisement or notoriety, or when they suppose it places them a peg or two higher in those social classifications they understand so well. Women are interested in landscape that represents scenes where they would like to be, alone, or in sympathetic society. They are interested in optimistic presentations of life, in which the figures represented are given sympathetic parts, in which they “look nice”; but the language of art is not one they read naturally or willingly, or of themselves. They may be made free of that language, and learn to read it through sympathy with a man who understands it. The marriage of true minds may give a woman the key to some of the mansions of art, just as it may give a man the key to some notions of economy and common-sense, and to the thousand and one short views that it is so vital he should understand in this dangerous and makeshift life.
Then again, I think the language of art is one that is not often legible to young men for two reasons. The one is that life itself is too interesting and absorbing to young men to leave many blank pages on which the artist may write. The other is that the appreciation of art is a matter of long preparation, of many preludes, that it comes as a cumulative revelation, prepared by long underground processes, like all the work of nature, by repetitions unconsciously received, by drawn-out longueurs, tracts of æsthetic education, that seem, as they unroll themselves, most uneventful and most insignificant. There is no coup de foudre in the understanding of art, no love at first sight. A man who does not know Corot and Courbet can certainly not understand Pissarro, any more than a man can appreciate Keene fully who does not love Leech and Cruickshank, or Leech and Cruickshank without a knowledge of Gillray and Rowlandson. Nor, indeed, can he truly love and understand any of these if he has not turned with a daily, and turned with a nightly, hand the pages of the work of Mantegna. The whole of art is one long roll of revelation, and it is revealed only to those whose minds are to some extent what Horace, speaking of a woman whose heart is free, calls vacant. It is not for those whose minds are muddied with the dirt of politics, or heated with the vulgar clatter of society. Strangely enough the history of art proves that she has often smiled on the elderly tradesman who has circumscribed his life to minding his own business, and has found a most intelligent and complementary resource to his useful and dignified life in the love of art. Flaubert says in one of his letters that his object is to avoid annoyances, and that it is certain that in doing everything to avoid annoyances to himself, he is likely to cause as few as possible to anyone else.
We are fond in England of talking of “refinement,” and by refinement we do not at all mean what the French mean when they say “raffinement.” The word “refinement,” as currently used in England, stands, I believe, for a highly cultivated capacity for suffering acutely from noise, from the smell of inferior tobacco, from inferior clothes, from inferior cooking, worst of all, perhaps, from inferior service. We bring our children up with the greatest care, in our admirably appointed homes, and our still more admirably appointed schools, to the highest potential perfection [end of p.300] possible for suffering more than probable torture. When we have added to this a strenuous exclusion of as much education as we can keep out of them, or keep them out of, we are rather proud of ourselves. “At least I have dowered my children,” we say, “with refinement.” With this goes, in the region of taste, an utter impossibility of living for twenty-four hours in a room with the “wrong” wall-paper, and as a corollary of the wallpaper, a mild liking for inoffensive and slight watercolours in the “right” mounts, and framed the “right” way. For guidance in these matters we rely entirely on snobisme, on the hope to secure the tip from someone else who has got the tip from the “right” tipster. The refined are perhaps further from art, who is a robust and racy wench, than any class.
A curious and undoubted fact is that in these days literary culture tends to foster not indifference, but positive hostility to painting. Writers of talent, writers of intelligence, great intellects, great hearts, great comprehensions in the world of more human letters, almost always cordially detest art. They accept the more ordinary and pushing official exponents of art in the same spirit as admits these same representatives to a public funeral, and as they say in Germany, “Damit punctum.” I have often wondered why this is. No one can deny it. We read their books. We follow with interest and some understanding points of delicate literary difference, but us they will not have at any price. The most cultured writer will perhaps mention Mr. Sargent in a speech as he would the Lord Mayor, but that is the extent of the contact. He will use the word “impressionist” sometimes, with a sneer, will touch it, as it were, with the end of his lips, as they say in France, much as a lady might use the word “Socialist” in a drawing-room. I am not at all sure, I have often wondered whether the spiritual divorce is not due to the commercial divorce for which painters and dealers are responsible by forcing the price of pictures up. Nothing knits man to man, the Manchester School wisely taught, like the frequent passage from hand to hand of cash. My milkman is my friend because he brings me milk every day, and we often pass the time of day, and because I sometimes give him a little money. Though I am a poor man, I can afford to buy a book of Mr. Hardy’s a year, therefore I have had the opportunity of learning to love Mr. Hardy, but I doubt very much if the earnings of literature would enable Mr. Hardy to buy a picture a year by me or anybody else. Something in this system is wrong. It is not only their money we want, as the saying is. We believe our thoughts, which are not verbal thoughts, would be as interesting to them, are in fact as necessary to them, as theirs are interesting and necessary to us.
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert

How to cite

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘The Language of Art’, in The New Age, 28 July 1910, pp.300–1, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012,, accessed 16 April 2024.