Christie Johnstone by Charles Reade
IT was some two hours after this that a gentleman, plainly dressed, but whose clothes seemed a part of himself (whereas mine I have observed hang upon me; and the Rev. Josiah Splitall's stick to him) — glided into the painter's room, with an inquiry whether he had not a picture or two disposable.
"I have one finished picture, sir," said the poor boy; "but the price is high!"
He brought it, in a faint-hearted way; for he had shown it to five picture-dealers, and all five agreed it was hard.
He had painted a lime-tree, distant fifty yards, and so painted it that it looked something like a lime-tree fifty yards off.
"That was mesquin," said his judges; "the poetry of painting required abstract trees, at metaphysical distance, not the various trees of nature, as they appear under positive accidents."
On this Mr. Gatty had deluged them with words.
"When it is art, truth, or sense to fuse a cow, a horse, and a critic into one undistinguishable quadruped, with six legs, then it will be art to melt an ash, an elm, and a lime, things that differ more than quadrupeds, into what you call abstract trees, that any man who has seen a tree, as well as looked at one, would call drunken stinging-nettles. You, who never look at nature, how can you judge the arts, which are all but copies of nature? At two hundred yards' distance, full-grown trees are more distinguishable than the animal tribe. Paint me an abstract human being, neither man nor a woman," said he, "and then I will agree to paint a tree that shall be no tree; and, if no man will buy it, perhaps the father of lies will take it off my hands, and hang it in the only place it would not disgrace."
In short, he never left off till he had crushed the non-buyers with eloquence and satire; but he could not crush them into buyers — they beat him at the passive retort.
Poor Gatty, when the momentary excitement of argument had subsided, drank the bitter cup all must drink awhile, whose bark is alive and strong enough to stem the current down which the dead, weak things of the world are drifting, many of them into safe harbors.
And now he brought out his picture with a heavy heart.
"Now," said he to himself, "this gentleman will talk me dead, and leave me no richer in coin, and poorer in time and patience."
The picture was placed in a light, the visitor sat down before it.
A long pause ensued.
"Has he fainted?" thought Gatty, ironically; "he doesn't gabble."
"If you do not mind painting before me," said the visitor, "I should be glad if you would continue while I look into this picture."
The visitor held his tongue.
At first the silence made the artist uneasy, but by degrees it began to give him pleasure; whoever this was, it was not one of the flies that had hitherto stung him, nor the jackdaws that had chattered him dead.
Glorious silence! he began to paint under its influence like one inspired.
Half an hour passed thus.
"What is the price of this work of art?"
"I take it," said his visitor, quietly.
What, no more difficulty than that? He felt almost disappointed at gaining his object so easily.
"I am obliged to you, sir; much obliged to you," he added, for he reflected what eighty pounds were to him just then.
"It is my descendants who are obliged to you," replied the gentleman; "the picture is immortal!"
These words were an epoch in the painter's life.
The grave, silent inspection that had preceded them, the cool, deliberate, masterly tone in which they were said, made them oracular to him.
Words of such import took him by surprise.
He had thirsted for average praise in vain.
A hand had taken him, and placed him at the top of the tree.
He retired abruptly, or he would have burst into tears.
He ran to his mother.
"Mother," said he, "I am a painter; I always thought so at bottom, but I suppose it is the height of my ideas makes me discontented with my work."
"What has happened?'
"There is a critic in my room. I had no idea there was a critic in the creation, and there is one in my room.
"Has he bought your picture, my poor boy?" said Mrs. Gatty, distrustfully.
To her surprise he replied:
"Yes! he has got it; only eighty pounds for an immortal picture."
Mrs. Gatty was overjoyed, Gatty was a little sad; but, reviving, he professed himself glad; the picture was going to a judge.
"It is not much money," said he, "but the man has spoken words that are ten thousand pounds to me."
He returned to the room; his visitor, hat in hand, was about to go; a few words were spoken about the art of painting, this led to a conversation, and then to a short discussion.
The newcomer soon showed Mr. Charles Gatty his ignorance of facts.
This man had sat quietly before a multitude of great pictures, new and old, in England.
He cooled down Charles Gatty, Esq., monopolist of nature and truth.
He quoted to him thirty painters in Germany, who paint every stroke of a landscape in the open air, and forty in various nations who had done it in times past.
"You, sir," he went on, "appear to hang on the skirts of a certain clique, who handle the brush well, but draw ill, and look at nature through the spectacles of certain ignorant painters who spoiled canvas four hundred years ago.
"Go no further in that direction.
"Those boys, like all quacks, have one great truth which they disfigure with more than one falsehood.
"Hold fast their truth, which is a truth the world has always possessed, though its practice has been confined to the honest and laborious few.
"Eschew their want of mind and taste.
"Shrink with horror from that profane culte de laideur, that 'love of the lopsided,' they have recovered from the foul receptacles of decayed art."
He reminded him further, that "Art is not imitation, but illusion; that a plumber and glazier of our day and a medieval painter are more alike than any two representatives of general styles that can be found; and for the same reason, namely, that with each of these art is in its infancy; these two sets of bunglers have not learned how to produce the illusions of art."
To all this he added a few words of compliment on the mind, as well as mechanical dexterity, of the purchased picture, bade him good morning, and glided away like a passing sunbeam.
"A mother's blessing is a great thing to have, and to deserve," said Mrs. Gatty, who had rejoined her son.
"It is, indeed," said Charles. He could not help being struck by the coincidence.
He had made a sacrifice to his mother, and in a few hours one of his troubles had melted away.
In the midst of these reflections arrived Mr. Saunders with a note.
The note contained a check for one hundred and fifty pounds, with these lines, in which the writer excused himself for the amendment: "I am a painter myself," said he, "and it is impossible that eighty pounds can remunerate the time expended on this picture, to say nothing of the skill."
We have treated this poor boy's picture hitherto with just contempt, but now that it is gone into a famous collection, mind, we always admired it; we always said so, we take our oath we did; if we have hitherto deferred framing it, that was merely because it was not sold.
MR. GATTY'S PICTURE, AT PRESENT IN THE COLLECTION OF LORD IPSDEN!
There was, hundreds of years ago, a certain Bishop of Durham, who used to fight in person against the Scotch, and defeat them. When he was not with his flock, the northern wolves sometimes scattered it; but when the holy father was there with his prayers and his battle-ax, England won the day!
This nettled the Scottish king, so he penetrated one day, with a large band, as far as Durham itself, and for a short time blocked the prelate up in his stronghold. This was the period of Mr. Gatty's picture.
Whose title was:
"Half Church of God, half Tower against the Scot."
In the background was the cathedral, on the towers of which paced to and fro men in armor, with the western sun glittering thereon. In the center, a horse and cart, led by a boy, were carrying a sheaf of arrows, tied with a straw band. In part of the foreground was the prelate, in a half suit of armor, but bareheaded; he was turning away from the boy to whom his sinking hand had indicated his way into the holy castle, and his benignant glance rested on a child, whom its mother was holding up for his benediction. In the foreground the afternoon beams sprinkled gold on a long grassy slope, corresponding to the elevation on which the cathedral stood, separated by the river Wear from the group; and these calm beauties of Nature, with the mother and child, were the peaceful side of this twofold story.
Such are the dry details. But the soul of its charm no pen can fling on paper. For the stately cathedral stood and lived; the little leaves slumbered yet lived; and the story floated and lived, in the potable gold of summer afternoon.
To look at this painted poem was to feel a thrill of pleasure in bare existence; it went through the eyes, where paintings stop, and warmed the depths and recesses of the heart with its sunshine and its glorious air.