The Royal Academy. The general notion of the artist as wild man was quite out of place in the hey day of the Royal Academy. The notion of art as an enclosed world, obedient to its own laws only, did not come easily at all to a people which essentially considered the painter to be a sort of upper class decorator and recorder of domestic incident who could show a deft hand idyllic landscapes and pull the strings with sentimentality. Kitsch before pop culture. An institution which by its very nature consolidatory could hardly be blamed for reflecting those half conscious but immensely powerful drives toward security and reassurance that everywhere characterized the mid-Victorian age.
The general level of pictures that resulted of course, was low, but gravy producing syrup for the most part when one considers that across the channel Manet’s La Musique aux Tuileries appeared in 1862, and Monet’s Camille in 1866. The British public, meanwhile, had scarcely advanced beyond the lowest rung of the aesthetic ladder. Yet, if we compare an Eastlake’s learning and wit and kindness and social resource against Turner’s complete unrespectability of speech, dress, bearing, manners and outlook, there is no doubt as to where original genius lay.
During the last half of the nineteenth-century, when the impressionists were revolutionizing art across the channel, the Royal Academy gave its imprimateur only to the bland, the sentimental, and the safe. One of the most accomplished painters to exhibit there was James Tissot, who might almost have been a Renoir, except that in art, as in everything else, “almost” can cover a wide gap. He was especially good with ships and beautiful women, as his Ball on Shipboard shows. It is thought to represent an actual occasion. What Tissot did, the camera does today, but this charming and other inconsequential pictures are more attractive to us than most of the Diploma Works that were deposited in the R.A. during this period, and long afterward by newly elected Academicians. Genrally, these fell into generic categories: coy nudes, high class cultural nudes, the anecdote, the conversation piece, and the Biblical theme.