"Fine Arts." Pre-Raphaelitism by John Ruskin. Review. Athenaeum 1243 (23 Aug. 1851), 908-909.

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Pre-Raphaelitism. By the Author of ‘Modern Painters.’ Smith, Elder, & Co.

Whether the enthusiasm of this Victorian era be more conscientious or comical in the multiplicity of its shrines and the inconsistency of its articles of belief, we leave to be decided by the holders of "the real mesmeric truth." Certain it is, that our expounders of latter-day oracles blow hot and cold with marvellous versatility. The same self-installed priests who at matins chaunted their lusty "Woe!" against all empiricism, will at vespers be found hymning the praises of some pet nostrum; and well it is for their congregations if betwixt saint’s-day and saint’s-day the nostrum hymned be not exchanged for its opposite,–well if those who shouted on Monday "Try Joanna!" do not towards Friday strike up their "Sing we Ronge!" with equal courage. In this characteristic lies one main difference between ancient and modern fanaticism;–and of this characteristic the author of ‘Modern Painters’ furnishes a signal illustration. Here he has betaken himself, in all the pomp of his infallibility, to induce us to put trust in two opposite faiths at once,–to satisfy us that hot and cold are one,–that licence and pedantic formality are alike to be reverenced,–and that with Turner-olatry as strongly professed by him as ever, the canonization of St. Millais and other Pre-Raphaelites is entirely compatible and on every ground to be defended.

Rarely has any oracle’s "Ego" been stretched further in the demand for blind faith and acquiescence than in this pamphlet:–rarely has "Ego" been more vain-glorious. "Eight years ago," asserts our author in his preface, "I advised the young artists of England" to be natural! "My advice has been carried out to the very letter," he continues, "by a group of men," who have therefore been assailed "with the most scurrilous attacks which I ever recollect seeing issue from the public press."–"I have, therefore, thought it due to them to contradict the directly false statements which have been made respecting their works." The cool and unhesitating assumption in all of this of a commission "to bind and loose" is something to turn the authority, whatever it otherwise might have been, into burlesque.

Ere we deal with our author’s contradictions and self-contradictions, let us offer a word with regard to the above epithet "scurrilous." It is curious to see how our modern law-giver forgets his own vocabulary of epithets. Mr. Ruskin is quite familiar enough with hard names and disproportioned epithets to be competent to understand the value of judgments that keep a measure and involve a meaning. Did we not read in his ‘Modern Painters’ of the ‘Laocoon’ as "disgusting,"–of Salvator Rosa as "base-born and thief-bred,"–of Raphael as "corrupted"? True, these temperate adjectives are applied to dead men–who have neither quarter-staff nor pen to answer them withal:–but it would be a new canon of criticism, that words permissible on a tomb-stone should become offensive when employed in every-day parlance. Granting, for argument’s sake, that the critics against whom our critic whines in so genteel a note have been ever so emphatic in their adjectives, they could not "better the instruction" of the author of ‘Modern Painters.’ Would it not, then, have been more consistent, as well as more comfortable, in him to have added to his " I advised"–"I abused,"–and to have rather rejoiced that humbler connoisseurs had followed his example in emulating his vituperative powers–at a modest distance?

But, leaving the self-approving preface of this pamphlet,–passing over its preamble and its somewhat trite talk about the divinity and the discipline of genius,–let us see what, when our writer fairly arrives at his subject, at his seventeenth page, he has to say in defence of the Pre-Raphaelites. We have first the following general proposition.–

The sudden and universal Naturalism, or Inclination to copy ordinary natural objects, which manifested itself among the painters of Europe, at the moment when the invention of printing superseded their legendary labours, was no false instinct. It was misunderstood and misapplied, but it came at the right time, and has maintained itself through all kinds of abuse; presenting, in the recent schools of landscape, perhaps only the first-fruits of its power. That instinct was urging every painter in Europe at the same moment to his true duty–the faithful representation of all objects of historical interest, or of natural beauty existent at the period; representation such as might at once aid the advance of the sciences, and keep faithful record of every monument of past ages which was likely to be swept away in the approaching eras of revolutionary change.

Some pages of ingenious illustration follow,–with which it is needless to concern ourselves. Let us suppose our author’s dogma to be an assumed fact,–let us admit with him that the registry of what was around them by Van Eyck, Dürer, Hemling [sic], Cranach, &c. &c. was a matter of duty and devotion with these painters, and not a necessary accident belonging to their time and place in Art. Let us not only do fullest honour to the quaint and laborious old painters by whom the highest thoughts were personated in the most work-a-day garb,–let them be enthroned as Art-angels and the Ghirlandajos and Raphaels and Correggios be spat on as a hierarchy of enemies to the artist’s soul. When all this is done, we do not understand that our Ithuriel’s detection of falsehood in the beauty of the old masters, and truth in the stiffness and uncomeliness of the older ones, serves his clients much. Certainly, our Pre-Raphaelites are not–what the antique truth-tellers whom they imitate were–too intensely penetrated with the objects around them to be able to dream of aught remote or past or imaginative. Their Bethlehems are not Victorian but Düreresque. Let any one of the Pre-Raphaelites make his picture presentable with a hardy use of contemporary accessories, and we will then recognize his identity of spirit with Dürer and Matsys–will then speak of the school as one of sincerity, not grimace,–of birth, not dotage.

But, again, pleads our Pre-Raphaelite champion, these Regenerators have been driven to their course by a natural antagonism to academical folly, sickliness, &c. &c. The doctrine of Raphael was preached till honest folk could abide it no longer. Men became weary of painting by receipt,–minds began to awaken–hands to busy themselves in the quest after truth.–

     Within the last few years some essence of the real tendency of such teaching has appeared in some of our younger painters. it only could appear in the younger ones, the older men having become familiarised with the false system, or else having passed through it and forgotten it, not well knowing the degree of harm they had sustained. This sense appeared, among our youths,–increased,–matured into resolute action. Necessarily, to exist at all, it needed the support both of strong instincts and of considerable self-confidence, otherwise it must at once have been borne down by the weight of general authority and received canon law. Strong instincts are apt to make men strange, and rude; self-confidence, however well founded, to give much of what they do or say the appearance of impertinence. Look at the self-confidence of Wordsworth, stiffening every other sentence of his prefaces into defiance; there is no more of it than was needed to enable him to do his work, yet it is not a little ungraceful here and there. Suppose this stubbornness and self-trust in a youth, labouring in an art of which the executive part is confessedly to be best learnt from masters, and we shall hardly wonder that much of his work has a certain awkwardness and stiffness in it, or that he should be regarded with disfavour by many, even the most temperate, of the judges trained in the system he was breaking through, and with utter contempt and reprobation by the envious and the dull. Consider, farther, that the particular system to be overthrown was, in the present case, one of which the main characteristic was the pursuit of beauty at the expense of manliness and truth; and it will seem likely, a priori, that the men intended successfully to resist the influence of such a system should be endowed with little natural sense of beauty, and thus rendered dead to the temptation it presented. Summing up these conditions, there is surely little cause for surprise that pictures painted, in a temper of resistance, by exceedingly young men, of stubborn instincts and positive self-trust, and with little natural perception of beauty, should not be calculated, at the first glance, to win us from works enriched by plagiarism, polished by convention, invested with all the attractiveness of artificial grace, and recommended to our respect by established authority.

"This is all mighty fine," as the Irish lady said when she was shown the Torso, –"but where are the features?" This sense of beauty and the want of it, where do they begin?–where do they end? Does not colour count for something as well as form? Have not our Pre-Raphaelites been sternly stingy to Dalilah’s face and figure that they might be lovingly lavish on her farthingale?–stinted her in her graces that they might spend on her laces? Have they not, to come to our point, carried beauty of colour and manipulation to as high a perfection as they could,–while they have as perseveringly, on the other hand, avoided beauty of form? If so, where is the consistency of protest? Why not, if all known charms and meretricious devices were to be waived aside, have rejected the rainbow? Why not have clad the Shemina and Japhetina of the ark who are caressing the dove and the orange (not olive) branch, in no rich purples and greens, but in the unattractive grey garb of their wooden toy-box originals? What right has weary Mariana, when about to yawn till her back breaks, to that lovely blue petticoat of hers? There is nothing Spartan, heroic, self-sacrificing, or otherwise exalted as to motive, surely, in the Pre-Raphaelites’ desperate love for fine clothes.

Thus much for their champion’s two main defences:–thus much, to state the patent un-truth on which to our judgment Pre-Raphaelitism is based,–and which can no more pass for a reality than could a galvanized Hildegarde or Beowulf were either now to walk our churches and picture galleries. The idea of truth destroyed,–what remains to these gentlemen? Admirable hand-work, surpassing ugliness, and sedulous affectation. Indeed, the great "Ego" who is their defender himself seems disposed at an early stage of his oration to give them up; since, after having laid down the two points which have here been touched on, and said a civil thing in passing to Messrs. Hunt, Prout, Mulready, and Lewis,–having a considerable amount of pamphlet to let, he once more launches into the full tide of rapture touching Turner. If Turner be not a Pre-Raphaelite, more than half the pamphlet has nothing to do with "Pre-Raphaelitism."

With this new issue of rhapsodies conveyed in pictorial language we will not now interfere, save to offer one remark. So far as we understand the writer, he has always, he has always done battle for Mr. Turner as the poet who, by indication, rendered all the charming and sublime aspects of nature not as they are, but as they seem. If this be the true principle of art, how can those be in the right way who measure their steps in a direction entirely converse, and boast that they paint the things of nature not as they seem, but as they are? A catholic thinker who can see the good in everything may do justice to the pore and pimple work of Denner,–while he pays homage to the soul and spirit of Titian’s portraiture:–but such is not our author. Combining in himself bigotry and unconformity, with a most illogical and autocratic disdain of all the obstacles and inconsistencies which occupy the middle distance,–he admires little–and that little, he says, on system.–But it will be difficult to make even his congregation comprehend how the same enthusiasm can accept ‘The Rock Limpet’ and ‘The Woodman’s Daughter.’


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Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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