"Fine Arts." Athenaeum 1485 (12 Apr. 1856), 463.

full text

What is Pre-Raphaelitism? By John Ballantyne, A.R.S.A. Blackwood & Sons.

This is a sensible pamphlet, written with due earnestness, and with that temperance which gives grace to advocacy, without depriving it of force. Mr. Ballantyne calls attention to the fallacy which arrogates to the Pre-Raphaelites the possession of surpassing truth in delineating Nature, on the strength of their truth in finishing certain details,--pointing out, that such bit-by-bit exactitude in parts may lead to elaborate falsehood in the whole picture when it is disproportionately studied. Mr. Ballantyne, also, seems to us timely and judicious in asserting that there have been great modern painters, long ere Pre-Raphaelitism was thought of, who observed Nature closely, and transcribed the minutest details with the most conscientious reality,--still, however, in accordance with the proportions and principles of Art. The following comparison betwixt a Pre-Raphaelite painter and Wilkie is warrantable and striking:--"In the other picture [that of ‘Christ in a Carpenter’s Workshop’ is the picture referred to] [author’s brackets] there is a total absence of beauty; and though there is a certain amount of religious solemnity of feeling aimed at, it is greatly marred and interfered with by the almost caricatured vulgarity of the forms and drawing, and the obtrusive prominence given to mean and secondary objects. In viewing it, the mind is distracted by the exaggerated individuality (if the term be admissible) of the limbs, heads, and hands of the figures, and by such objects as shavings, and knots in the wood of the furniture, being thrust, as it were, upon its notice; and it is not till after looking at it again and again that the spectator can bring himself to understand that it is a scriptural subject which is meant to be represented, and when he does arrive at this understanding he is tempted to exclaim, ‘How can the painter have so entirely escaped the sentiment of a subject of this class?’ So much for the intellectual of the picture: its mechanical qualities will be best brought to light by comparing it with another class of pictures, which may be represented by Wilkie’s ‘Blind Man’s Buff.’ The painter, in this picture, has succeeded marvellously in producing what Mr. Ruskin says is so all-important for a student to aim at, a correct, conscientious imitation of Nature. Every figure in it, even the most distant from the eye, is evidently carefully copied from Nature; every head, every hand, drawn and painted in the most perfect manner; the most minute light and shade, and reflection of light, rendered with the extremest ‘conscientiousness.’ Every fold and wrinkle, even in the draperies, laboriously and faithfully given, in the shade as well as in the prominent lights; and yet every figure, and part of a figure, keeps its proper place and plane in the picture. The principal actors in the scene first attract attention, then the secondary and more distant, and finally the still life and accessories generally contribute their mite of pleasure to the eye; and all this results, not from the adoption of any strained or very artificial effect of light and shade, or strictly conventional method of composition, but simply from studying Nature carefully without prejudice, and painting it as it appears."--There may be nothing very new in the above, but much that is true,--and which is not to be gainsaid by the revived falsities of olden times decked out in eccentric and glaring attire, which are now, by the advocates of Pre-Raphaelitism, put forth as the unchanging principles of Art.


This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

Return to the list of reviews