How to be an art critic. A Victorian guide (tips from PUNCH). Part 1

The following tongue-in-cheek guide to art criticism is adapted from Punch Magazine (volume 8, 1845) (my commentaries in black*).

Punch was a leading satirical magazine in the UK. Established in 1841, it run until 2002 (with a break between 1992 and 1996).[1] Art and artists of the day were often ridiculed in Punch during the Victorian period.

Published in 1845 ‘ARTICLES AND ART’ presents some ground rules for would-be art critics and those wishing to pass themselves off as art connoisseurs.

It is always good to begin with a catchy first sentence:

‘Nothing can be finer than the exhibition of the Royal Academy, except the articles upon it in the newspapers.’ **

Punch has studied the said articles diligently and ‘has arrived at a thorough knowledge of art, and, what is more, of the principles of criticism thereof’

The principles that some lucky Victorian readers could acquaint themselves with in 1845 are as follows:


  1. The power of criticism is a gift, and requires no previous education. Still true in the 21st century.
  2. The critic is greater than the artist. Judging from art reviews in leading newspapers of today it seems that at least some critics believe this to be true.
  3. The artist cannot know his own meaning. The critic’s office is to inform him of it. Wasn’t this the reason we needed art critics in the first place
  4. Painting is a mystery. The language of pictorial criticism, like its subject, should be mysterious and unintelligible to the vulgar. It is a mistake to classify it as ordinary English, the rules of which it does not recognise. It has been half-jokingly recognised in art circles that International Art English (IAE, sometimes also ArtSpeak) is very much still a thing.
  5. Approbation should be sparingly given: it should be bestowed in preference on what the general eye condemns. The critical dignity must never be lowered by any explanation why a work of art is good or bad. It seems to me that reviews in major publications tend to lean towards the positive side, although there are occasional insults directed at some artists (mostly long-dead artists, probably to be on the safe side). To my horror one reviewer of a major newspaper has recently called Edward Burne-Jones a stupid painter.
  6. Never use the word “picture”, say “canvas” it looks technical. Never speak of a picture being “painted;” say, rather, “studied” or “handled”. I wonder what the Victorian Mr Punch would have to say about our contemporary art, such as art installations or even ‘interventions’ (like the artworks displayed in the Space Shifters exhibition, read my review here).

The following terms are indispensable, and may be used pretty much at random:- “Chiaroscuro”, “texture”, “pearly greys”, “foxy browns”, “cool greens”, “breadth”, “handling”, “medium”, “vehicle”. I feel that the term “foxy browns” sounds somehow cooler today.

img_1663(2) foxy browns and cool greens
In this picture (cannot be qualified as canvas, which is slightly disappointing) the photographer (me) handled some foxy browns and cool greens.

End of Part 1

Part 2 coming soon. ——- Now available here.



*Please do not take any of the above too seriously.

**The Royal Academy of Arts celebrated its 250 years of existence in 2018 and I have to note that the institution has definitely improved since Victorian times.


Further reading: On International Art English Fantastic collection of cartoons from PUNCH In this online catalogue you can find digitized archive editions of Punch


  1. This is great . I think I know who the Burne Jones nincompoop was . A few years back the NYT gave a withering review of a PreRaphaelite show at the Washington National Gallery . I was dismayed .


    • I am glad you liked my post. As for the PRB, I cannot stop wondering why so many reviewers seem to hate them so much. Burne-Jones might not be everyone’s cup of tea, and tastes in art are changing all the time, but still, no need to be rude or condescending.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree . I’m perplexed . B-Jones was an astonishing draftsman , this weekend I had the chance to study a drawing by Raphael and was struck by the shared level of taste , skill and execution.
        I also however overheard a gaggle of young people openly mocking Renaissance artists : Mantegna didn’t understand anatomy , Durer unable to fathom proportion.
        I don’t know what the standard is when both Raphaelite and Pre- Raphaelite are despised.
        I’m pretty much stuck at Pater and Ruskin so what the heck do I know .
        Happy we met , look forward to more posts.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Happy to meet you too.
        I wonder what those young people you overheard would have to say about the art of Cosimo Tura 🙂 He was quite something.
        My tastes in art are quite eclectic, I don’t like when so-called experts tell us what art we are ‘supposed’ to like and admire these days.
        I will be doing more digging into mid-19th century Punch so watch this space.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s