top of page
The Critical Writings of Charles Dickens:
A resource for scholars and Dickens lovers

Public Painting

Opinions on Contemporary Art

Though Dickens was not a painter, he had a greater understanding of the visual arts than is generally realized. Closely connected to the artists who illustrated his books, he gave them very detailed instructions for each scene to be drawn. ("Dickens on His Own Works"). The same faculty that enabled him to describe a scene so that it could be visualized absolutely made him sensitive to the merits of contemporary painters. In art, as in literature, this was accomplished, he thought, when realism was colored by imagination.


The Letters of Charles Dickens:  The Pilgrim Edition Volume 2: 1840-1841
Edited by Madeline House, Graham Storey
Oxford University Press, USA, 1969
Read Letter


Dickens gave a speech in Edinburgh on June 25, 1841 honoring Sir David Wilkie (1785-1841), a Scottish painter.


Charles Sumner (1811-1874) was a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts whom Dickens met in Boston early in 1842. Dickens wrote to him on July 31, 1842 about Maclise's illustration of a Hamlet scene.


Johnson, Edgar. The Heart of Charles Dickens. New York:  Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 

Edition may be found online, but text is unavailable.

Dickens wrote this letter from Rome. Read Letter


Dickens published "The Spirit of Chivalry in Westminster Hall" in Douglas Jerrold's Shilling

Magazine in August 1845. In the article he mentions Charles Lock Eastlake (1793-1865), a historical painter and keeper of the National Galleries.


In Pictures From Italy, published in 1846, Dickens included much description of art in Rome, starting with "At the head of the collection in the palaces of Rome…"


George Cruikshank, illustrator of many of Dickens' novels and close friend, was one of the artists Dickens most admired. But, although Dickens valued Cruikshank's artistic powers, he criticized the doctrinaire rigidity which he found weakened his work. "Whole Hogs."


Dickens wrote a letter to Forster on September 2, 1847, criticizing and praising one of Cruikshank's drawings.

When Cruikshank drew a sequel to "The Bottle," titled "The Drunkard's Children," Dickens published a critique of its teaching in the Examiner, published July 8, 1848.


On December 16, 1848, Dickens published "The American Panorama" in the Examiner. In the article he mentions John Banvard, who lived 1820-1891, and Clarkson Stanfield (1793-1867), who was a landscape and scenery painter and close friend of Dickens.


Dickens wrote "Leech's ‘Rising Generation'" in the Examiner, reviewing the artist John Leech's twelve drawings.


Dickens published "Old Lamps for New Ones" in HW on June 15, 1850, examining changing fashions in art. In it he mentions William Collins (1788-1847), landscape and figure painter, William Etty (1787-1849), William Mulready (1786-1863), genre painter, and Charles Robert Leslie (1794-1859), who illustrated Irving's Sketch Book and Scott's Waverly novels. Dickens also refers to Joseph Mallard William Turner (1775-1851), the celebrated landscape painter, Sir Edwin Landseer (1802-1873), painter of animals, David Roberts (1796-1864), Scottish painter, Francis Danby (1793-1861), Irish painter, Thomas Creswick (1811-1869), English landscape painter, Frederick Richard Lee (1799-1879), landscape painter and portraitist, John Rogers Herbert (1810-1890),  pre-Raphaelite painter, William Dyce (1806-1864), Scottish painter, and Charles West Cope (1811-1890), English genre painter. He ends with the architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852), prominent in the gothic revival.


"The Ghost of Art," a short story by Dickens, was published in HW on July 20, 1850.


Dickens published "The Fine Arts in Australia" on March 13, 1852 where he references Marshall Claxton (1811-1881), an English genre painter.


In a letter to Forster in October 1855, Dickens bemoaned the state of the English art he found at the Arts Exposition in Paris. In the letter he mentions William Powell Frith (1819-1909), English genre painter, and Edward Matthew Ward (1816-1879), a painter of historical scenes.


"To Think or Be Thought For," by Wilkie Collins is an attack on the critics who form public opinion about painting and on the people who allow their opinion to be formed by others. That point of view was shared by Dickens who always insisted on the ability of even the least educated man to grasp the essence of a work of art. Any work of art that could not be grasped by such a person, was, Dickens believed, defective.


Dickens wrote to W.C. Macready on August 3, 1857, praising the English paintings at the Exhibition, but noting that the works were over the heads of common people.

W.H. Wills published an article titled "The Manchester School or Art" in HW, criticizing the wealthy who acquired paintings at important exhibitions. In the article he mentions George Scharf (1788-1860), a watercolor painter, and Peter Cunningham (1816-1869), a writer.

Dickens' article "An Idea of Mine," published in HW on March 13, 1858, pokes fun at the overuse of models in contemporary painting.

On June 1, 1867, Dickens wrote a tribute to the painter Clarkson Stanfield in AYR.

Charles Collins, younger brother of Wilkie, was a painter who became a protégé of Dickens in the early 1860s. Dickens gave Collins assignments related to visual art and extensively revised the articles as necessary. See Nuel Pharr Davis, The Life of Wilkie Collins, p. 219, and letter to Leech. "Our Eye-Witness At The National Gallery" by Collins appeared in AYR on June 16, 1860.


The following week, Collins published "Our Eye-Witness (Still) At The National Gallery."


The Nonesuch Dickens:  The Letters of Charles Dickens, Volume III
Edited by Walter Dexter
The Nonesuch Press
Duckworth & Co, London, 2005
Read Letter

On July 5, 1862, Charles Collins published "Mr. Leech's Gallery" in AYR, reviewing the collection of paintings.

bottom of page