"The Royal Academy." Athenaeum 1 Jun. 1850, 590-591.

full text

ROYAL ACADEMY.

We have already in the course of our Exhibition notices of this year come in contact with the doings of a school of artists whose younger members unconsciously write its condemnation m the very title which they adopt, that of pre-Raffaelite: and we would not have troubled ourselves or our readers with any further remarks on the subject, were it not that eccentricities of any kind have a sort of seduction for minds that are intellectual without belonging to the better orders of intellect. It is difficult in the present day of improved taste and information to apprehend any large worship of an Art-idol set up with visible deformity as its attribute; but it is always well to guard against the influence of ostentatious example and the fascination of paradox.

The idea of an association of artists whose objects are the following out of their art in a spirit of improved purity, making sentiment and expression the great ends, and subordinating to these all technical considerations is not new. The difference between the proceedings of a band of German painters who in the early part of the present century commenced such an undertaking in Rome and those of these English pre-Raffaelites is, nevertheless, striking. The Germans in question who had each tested the difficulties of composition in his own several style, each encountered the struggle of pictorial principle in his own studio, yearned to throw off the yoke of conventionalism which, commencing with the eclectics ages before, had brought the art in their time in Italy down to its lowest level. To this task of purification they brought experience in Art, erudition in letters, and general intelligence. Although the notion of arriving at the conclusions and the reputation of a Raffaele by strict imitation of the master is not the most sensible, yet the view, such as it was, taken by these Germans was never degraded by bad taste, ignorance, or puerile conceit. They felt strongly and intelligently what has been so well expressed by our own Wilkie, "that the only Art pure and unsophisticated, and that is worth study and consideration by an artist, or that has the true object of Art in view, is to be found in the works of those masters who revived and improved the art, and those who ultimately brought it to perfection. From Giotto to Michael Angelo, expression and sentiment seem the first things thought of; whilst those who followed seem to have allowed technicalities to get the better of them, until, simplicity giving way to intricacy, they seem to have painted more for the artist and the connoisseur than for the untutored apprehensions of ordinary men."

Yet, earnest as was their spirit, and sound to a certain extent, their view of the works of Overbeck, Veit, Schadow, and their school have but a limited acceptance in our day--impaired always by the memories of the great compositions which they chose for the immediate type of their modern imitation. With all their good taste and acquirement, their formal recurrence to ancient art has been repressive of the first great condition of success, originality of thinking. That a body of young English painters untravelled, without experience, and below these German Intelligence, going back for revival to a yet earlier period, from a yet later should fail far more signally and find that they have arrived at an absurdity, might have been expected beforehand from the mere conditions of the case.

This school of English youths has, it may be granted, ambition, but not of that well-regulated order which, measuring the object to be attained by the resource possessed, qualifies itself for achievement. Their ambition is an unhealthy thirst, which seeks notoriety by way of mere conceit. Abruptness, singularity, uncouthness are the counters with which they play for fame. Their trick is, to defy the principles of beauty and the recognized axioms of taste. Again, these young artists are mistaken if they imagine that they have recurred to any early period of Art for their type of pictorial expression. The quaintness and formal looking character of Art in the schools of Siena, Pisa, or Florence were the results of a primitive condition of society whose most familiar acquaintance with the imitative language of Art was made through the medium of the Byzantine Mosaic or Missal. Devotional feeling, observation, and natural taste, in spite of the want of artistic training, were the secrets of the improvement manifested by Giotto when dealing with traditional themes. The dwellers in the cloister, the then sole depositories of learning, soon began to apply the principles of science to fine art: and, whether in painting or in the other branches, as knowledge increased, Art in its imitative capacity became more and more accomplished. Perspective through the teaching of a layman who had studied the science of Chiar-oscuro through that of a monk, and other increasing appliances down to the school of Perugino, attest to the gradual development and invigoration of the art. During the rudest times when Art-language was at its lowest ebb, earnestness and refinement, dramatic action and sentiment prevailed. The Passion of Christ by Giotto, the numerous Saints by Simone Memmi, are eloquent of these qualities. Divine feeling spoke by the pencil of Fra Angelico. In all these painters the absence of structural knowledge never resulted in positive deformity. The disgusting incidents of unwashed bodies were not presented in loathsome reality; and flesh with its accidents of putridity was not made the affected medium of religious sentiment in tasteless revelation. Purity of presentment inspired by devotional enthusiasm marked the works of these old rude masters: qualities gathered from their association with ecclesiastics of the class of which Savonarola may be taken as a conspicuous example. Their incongruities and inaccuracies are the accidents of their time. The progress shown in the anatomically well-studied forms of Luca Signorelli, in the bold and picturesque combinations of Ghirlandello, and in the devotional expressions of Perugino's heads, profess the aspiring tendencies of the artist, the developing character of his art. These all culminated in the person of Raffaelle: whose inspiration led him not back upon the earlier forms of pictorial expression, but to engraft on these the added lights lent by the recent discoveries of the sculptured remains of antiquity.

Let us conjure these young gentlemen to believe that Raffaelle may be received as no mean authority for soundness of view and excellence in practice. They stand convicted of insincerity by the very cleverness of some of their pictures. What a willful misapplication of powers is that which affects to treat the human form in the primitive and artless manner of the Middle Ages, while minor accessories are elaborated to a refinement of imitation which belongs to the latest days of executive art. By the side of their affected simplicity and rudeness they write the condemnation of the same: saying "You see by the skill with which we can produce a shaving, that we could joint and round these limbs if we would. We show you that while some of us could, if we chose, do as well as they who use the enlarged means and appliances of Art, we can also do, and choose to do, as ill as they who wanted our knowledge. We desire you to understand that it is not for want of knowing what Nature is that we fly to affectation."

In point of religious sentiment Mr. Rossetti stands the chief of this little band: Mr. Hunt stands next, in his picture of A Converted British Family sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids (No. 663). There are a sense of novelty in its arrangement and of expression in its parts, and a certain enthusiasm, though wrongly directed, in its conduct. Mr. Millais, in his picture without a name (518), which represents a Holy Family in the interior of the carpenter's shop, has been most successful in the least dignified features of his presentment, and in giving to the higher forms, characters and things a circumstantial language from which we recoil with loathing and disgust. There are many to whom his work will seem a pictorial blasphemy. Great intuitive talents have here been perverted to the style of an eccentricity both lamentable and revolting. Ferdinand Lured by Ariel(504), by the same hand, though better in the painting, is yet more senseless in the conception: a scene built on the contrivances of the stage manager, but with very bad success. Another instance of perversion is to be regretted in Berengaria's Alarm for the Safety of her Husband, Richard Coeur de Lion, awakened by the sight of his Girdle offered for sale in Rome (535), by Mr. Charles Collins. This young artist's little pictures had before inspired the hope that the example afforded him in the person and practice of his late father would yield fruit in a second generation. Of others of less note we will say no more than to express our hope that their good sense will bring them back to a more rational course of study, better calculated to help the expression of originality of view and more profitable in renown and in remuneration. Such results will more surely be arrived at by the honest exercise of their talents than by any trick of eccentricity, however striking.


This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

Return to the list of reviews