B[allantyne], J[ohn]. "The Pre-Raffaelites." Art Journal 13 (1 Jul. 1851), 185-186.

full text

As labourers in the vineyard of civilisation, of which the Fine Arts form so conspicuous a portion, it becomes our duty to endeavour to weed and root up every thing detrimental to their growth and their extension, upon those principles which have been handed down to us in the great works of each succeeding age, from Giotto to Raffaele and Michael Angelo in design, and from Correggio and Titian in colour. If we cannot extend what has already been achieved by the great geniuses in painting, it is ridiculous to throw the art back to its infancy, and to its early gropings in darkness and uncertainty. We are led into these remarks by observing the attempts of a few young men who style themselves the Pre-Raffaelite school, but more properly might be called the Gothic school, or that style which might be engendered by the contemplation of monumental brasses or ancient stained glass windows, where the objects are flat, and inlaid, and coloured without any reference to harmony or chiaro-oscuro. This new sect pretends that as all the great colourists from Titian to our own Reynolds have lost much of their outline of objects in softness and shadow, it is necessary to return to the study of the early frescoes to recover the higher principles of design, which have become deteriorated by this mode of treatment: aerial perspective is in consequence set at nought; nor is linear perspective much better served, but is cast overboard like another Jonah.

To attempt to criticise such works seems trifling with time, but when we see this junto held up to notice and favourable observation, by such men as the Undergraduate of Oxford, it becomes our duty to enter into the mêlée. The curious may see the germs of this school in a work published some years ago by Longman’s, and since reprinted, (Du Sommirard’s Moyen Age;) but we must consider the German artists as the great revivers of this style, particularly in their frescoes at Munich. Who has the merit of being the founder in England we are not certain, but we believe Rosetti [sic], and, after him, Millais, Browne [sic], Hunt, and Collins. These are the artists who may be expected to "found a school in England, such as the world has not seen for three hundred years; provided," says Mr. Ruskin, "they are not driven from their purpose by harsh and severe criticism." If they are sincere, no severity of observation can alter their purpose; on the contrary, it will confirm them in their habits and creed, as we find it has done in all ages.

Let us first speak of the sentiment of their pictures, so talked of by their admirers. Sentiment, both in writing and painting, must be pure and untainted by affectation: perhaps there is no line so difficult to draw,–it trembles between mawkishness and sublimity. Shakespeare is the great master to whose works we must look for examples; unadulterated as they are by any attempt at ostentation or anxiety; for instance, we might refer to his few lines commencing thus–

"She never told her love,

But let concealment, like a worm i’the bud,

Feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought,

And with a green and yellow melancholy,

She sat like Patience on a monument,

Smiling at Grief."

No painting can surpass, or even come up with, such a combination of touching imagery; on the other hand, when sentiment is evidently adorned, it loses its charm. Sterne, who is a great master of this quality, is nevertheless faulty, from its being too evident and strained; we might mention two instances, the one in his Sentimental Journey, where the poor man has lost his ass, and having the dead animal’s bridle with him, he lays a piece of bread on the bit at the time he is taking his own dinner at the inn-door; the other is a well-known one in his "Tristam Shandy," where my uncle Toby utters an oath, in the fervour of his exclamation, respecting Le Fevre,–"the recording angel, as he wrote it down, let fall a tear which blotted it out for ever." These are very pretty, as Christopher North would say, but are too much as if they were written within the sound of Bow Bell; so in painting, sentiment must not only be natural and unaffected, but not too palpable. An example occurs to our recollection, in one of Raffaele’s designs of the "Plague," (of which there is a print by Mark Antonio,)–a child is creeping to suck the nipple of its mother who has fallen dead, while the father is stooping over the corpse, with is hand on his face to guard against the infection, while pushing the infant away. This incident, from its being copied in a variety of ways by succeeding artists, is a proof of its truth and beauty. The sentiment enunciated in the two pictures of "Peace" and "War" from which two engravings have just been published, are examples where incidents are chosen to embellish and strengthen the subject: in "War" we have its horrors carried into the peaceful cottage, and while the horse and his rider are destroyed in all their strength, and an explosion has laid in ruins the shattered building, we perceive a small rose standing uncut and unscathed in the midst of the havoc. In the "Peace," which is laid in the centre of a fortress, we have the guns dismantled and scattered on the ground, while the scene is occupied by children, and sheep, and goats tending their young; the sentiment of tranquillity is conveyed by two lambs lying by the instruments of destruction and peacefully eating the few blades of grass out of the dismounted cannon’s mouth. The sentiment of Raffaele is sublime, that of Landseer barely escapes from the appellation of pretty.

In the treatment of a subject much is gained by an unostentation of arrangement either in the composition or chiaro-oscuro; the early masters had this quality, for in fact they knew no better, and time has laid his hallowing hand on their works. This dryness and primitive look of simplicity has been imitated by the modern Germans, in whose wake our young friends the Pre-Raffaelites are gliding. Indeed, Raffaele himself is pressed into the service, and those pictures he painted while with his master Perugino are termed his religious pieces, in contradistinction to his later works, when he had extricated himself from the trammels of severe Gothicism: regularity in the composition, as one of the great sources of grandeur, may be preserved through all the captivating adjuncts of harmonious colouring and chiaro-oscuro. In fact, if Millais had chosen Correggio for his guide (if he must have one), we are persuaded the result would have been more successful. "Two young Females caressing a Dove" requires not the severity of John Van Eyck or Albert Durer; neither does the absence of beauty in the countenance add to the sentiment. At the period of Noah theScripture [sic] says: "The daughters of men were fair," and the character may be cast back to the most primitive era without giving a look of familiar individuality. From John Van Eyck to Rubens there are many intermediate stations; but if conventionality is what the Pre-Raffaelites seek to avoid, why not go back to times antecedent, where the human figure is represented as if copied from models found drowned, or starved to death?

In criticising pictures of this class, it seems impossible to get a starting-point; they defy rules, or any affinity to the progress of painting. If we ask "where is your story?"–they may say with the knife-grinder, "God bless you, sir, I have no story to tell." If we say, "where is your principle light?"–they answer, "we don’t intend to have a principle light." If we say, "it is considered, when a strong colour is present in a picture, it is indispensable that it should be repeated at least twice in a lesser degree, otherwise it becomes a spot or blot,"–"that is conventional art," is the reply, "which it is our principle to reject." Our only chance, therefore, is to meet them on their own ground; that is, nature, unsophisticated by rules. Where, we inquire, is that to be found in their works?–do we find beauty or sentiment in the countenance of the "Woodcutter’s Daughter?"–do we find it in the "Two Children of Noah?"–or even in the personification of the "Nun?" Look even at the treatment of the hands, and if the painting of flesh be considered the great criterion of a work of excellence, what have they to show to Mr. Ruskin that would lead him to suppose "they are destined to lay the foundation of a school in England which the world has not seen for three hundred years?" We can only say we hope and trust that it will be three hundred years before the prophecy is fulfilled. If they succeed in gaining the patronage of the country, all the other artists must add more harshness and brightness to their pictures. At present they look feeble and appalled in their presence; but we believe the patronage they are now receiving arises out of the novelty of the matter, and may go down as quickly as it has arisen; whereas good drawing, and good colouring, will live for ever.

This, however, must be considered as a digression: we will, therefore, return to our critical remarks, seriatim. Sentiment, in a picture, it has been observed, often springs from a very small incident; and if we concede to the sentiment of the "Daughters of Noah caressing the Dove on its return to the Ark," we must also allow the idea engendered by "The Nun" of Mr. Collins contemplating the passion-flower, which contains figures of the cross, and nails used at the crucifixion, also the imitation of the glory encircling the whole, and which, in fact, obtained for it in early times the name which the flower still retains; but the expression of the countenance and action of the figure must accord, and explain to the spectator the incident which gives rise to it. The earlier masters seldom introduced a variety of action or diversity of natural expression to embellish their story; hence their simplicity: but when their ideas were afterwards extended by the great genius of Michael Angelo and Raffaele, many incidents were introduced both to embellish and illustrate the story. This gave rise to composition: combination of the several parts of the picture; simplicity, therefore, in the first instance, was a species of baldness arising out of the infancy of the art: but in our day, when the knowledge of painting is diffused over Europe, it becomes and affectation, unless adorned by those advantages placed within our reach by the great geniuses of succeeding ages. If we cannot extend the art by following the examples of Michael Angelo and Raffaele, we can only make the ignorant wonder by our falling back on the works of Signorelli and Masaccio. Nature is inexhaustible, but we are more likely to be original and effective by studying the works of the great perfecters of the art, than in trusting to our own uninhibited conception. Composition is a necessary combination of the figures for the purpose of telling the story, and it is also requisite that it should be so arranged for the purpose of taking in masses of light and shade, as to give repose and action to the several groups, to strengthen the whole, and prevent confusion to the eye; likewise to prepare for the distribution of warm and cold colours. If all these qualities are to be cast aside, it may then be dispensed with as unnecessary, but the work will in consequence be defective to any one endowed with the smallest particle of taste. Whether pictures in the Pre-Raffaelite school of Art can ever be arranged so as to present a mass of shade or of light is a question, for the early masters on which these compositions are founded were ignorant of both. But we know that Paul Veronese, one of the brightest and most ornamental of the Venetians, considered a quantity of shadow indispensable; for, when asked upon what authority he threw a portion of on eof his pictures into shade, he replied, "A cloud is passing." If, however, these renovators of this style are determined to preserve a continuity of cutting outline, undisturbed, as a sine quá non, it is needless to attempt to reason on the matter. But with such resolutions they never can advance, and their last pictures will be similar to their first; no portion gives way to another, but, like Milton’s description of Pandemonium, each ingredient strives for mastery. In writing, we generally put a stroke of the pen under those words we wish to draw the attention to as being the most important, but what would that avail if a line were drawn under every word? Reynolds remarks upon Algarotti’s criticism of Titian’s picture of the "Peter Martyr" that the plants and flowers in the foreground are so finished, that a botanist might lecture from them; "which," says the author of the Discourses, "is detrimental to the fame of Titian, who always keeps his high finish for the principle parts of his picture." Now the P.-R. School reverses Reynolds’s doctrine; for the subordinate parts, or what ought to be subordinate, are more highly finished and more like nature than the principle [sic] portions; witness the flowers and leaves in "The Woodcutter’s Daughter," the flowers in the picture of "The Nun," and the hay in the picture of "The Dove’s return to the Ark," to which Mr. Ruskin draws the spectator’s attention. On would have thought that the heads and hands ought to take precedence: but no; it seems that is a false doctrine, and must be consigned to the tomb of the Capulets!

Having said a few words upon composition and chiaro-oscuro, we will now proceed to make a few remarks on colour. On the revival of the art in Italy, the colours were not only less broken, compared with those in the works at a later period, but they were likewise less skillfully arranged ; [sic] in fact, harmonious disposition was unknown. Hence we find in the early pictures and in the illuminated missals, no signs of either classification or subordination; on the contrary, blue, red, yellow, and green struggle for superiority; their works therefore present the appearance of a coloured map, each portion divided from the other by a boundary line. In process of time, colours were used on the figures symbolically, and also with greater variety in their strengths, arising from the folds and shading of the draperies. The Chinese up to the present time pursue the same process; nor are they likely to alter or improve, unless they become educated by examples. Even if we go back to the Greek sculpture and painting, we see the same effect; and what painting has gained since is by the help of linear and aerial perspective, which have separated them, and made them independent arts. As these qualities are not so necessary in sculpture, it is a question whether sculpture has advanced in the same ratio, or whether it has made any advance. The late Sir David Wilkie, in one of his letters from Naples, writes, "The painting and sculpture dug out of the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii interested us greatly. The sculpture was not so new to me as the pictures were, which, although common ornamental decorations only for the walls of rooms, are highly curious, as the only remains left of what the ancients did in the art of painting. It is from these only that we can judge of what Apelles and Zeuxis may have done, and it is from these that we may gather what these celebrated painters could not do. This has suggested a theory which has staggered some of my friends; but to ascertain it four of us went to Portici the day before I left Naples, that I might explain better what I meant. We found reason to agree in this–that if Greek sculpture remains paramount yet, that Greek painting as an art has been decidedly improved upon by the ingenuity of modern times." We are strengthened in these observations by a similar remark of Sir Joshua Reynolds, who examined the copies made for Sir. W. Hamilton. Without going through the various changes and improvements at the restoration of the art, we must stop at Correggio to make some remarks–to Correggio we are indebted for all that is now practised by modern painters. "Fulness [sic] seems generally the great power of Correggio, making other work look flat beside his–to him we are indebted for the marshalling of the colours, the deep-toned glazings and shadows." Wilkie, speaking of the St. Jerome at Parma, says–"This for force, richness, beauty, and expression, makes everything give way. Hundreds of copies have been made, but all poor compared with the fearless glazings, the impasted bituminous shadows, of this picture. Yet who that could paint like this would venture to exhibit at Somerset House?" We reply that Reynolds did, and laid a foundation for a school in England that has made us the greatest colourists in Europe at the present time, and will continue to exist unless Mr. Ruskin and his friends the P.-R.s upset it. We may say that Turner has given a modifying quality to the bituminous shadows Wilkie speaks of; but no artist knows better the value of warm colour in the shadows, and cool and pearly tones in the lights, than our great colourist.

From Corregio we naturally extend our views to Titian, as the great perfector of colour. Bellini, and Giorgione were his precursors, but to Titian we are indebted for many of the highest requisites in painting; to him Spain owes the excellence of Velasquez, and the great colourists in Madrid and Seville; and to Titian England is indebted for the excellencies in the works of Reynolds and his successors. Whether Rembrandt or Adrian Ostade ever saw his works in the Low Countries is not recorded, but they are followers in that high class of colourists. Wilkie, in his journal at Venice, notices this similarity:–"See the Pietro Martiro. This appeared when at Paris, for grandeur, poetical feeling, and for deep-toned colour, without doubt, a master-work of Art. Here the only white or light is yellow; the chief half tint of a deep greenish-blue, and the darks of the picture of deep olive-green and brown,–have often seen such a combination in Ostade. The impression produced is of awe and terror." And again, speaking of the Pesaro family, by Titian, in the Frari, he says, "This is a first-rate work; seems in colour an assemblage of the finest qualities of all the great colourists, and on the highest scale of tone; reminding one by turns of the richest specimens of Ostade, of Reynolds, and Rembrandt." At the time fresco painting was proposed to our artists for the purpose of decorating the houses of Parliament, many considered that the style would interfere with the high state of perfection English art still retains in colour; and it yet remains to be proved that it will not do so, for though the frescoes of Titian are equally rich in tone with his oil pictures, the frescoes done in Munich and in Paris, and even those few executed in London, have no pretentions to deep-toned brightness.

Although these pre-Raffaelite brethren have not hitherto done much in the way of expression, yet it is evident they fancy they have, or at least mean to strive at accomplishing it: in a letter written by Wilkie from Rome, as far back as 1826, he explains what was the mode the originators of this school proposed in acquiring it. He says, "In modern art, Rome is the school for other countries, though opposite styles are here to be found suited to each. In painting, the Italians and French are alike followers of David; the English students (excepting Lane) are chiefly occupied with subjects of Roman costume; while the Germans, for a devotedness, more like a sect than a school, have attracted much attention by their novel experiment of copying the masters and precursors of Raffaele (not Raffaele himself), in hopes that by passing over the same course they will arrive at Raffaele’s excellence. Their names are, Schnorr, Figüt, Schadow, and Overbeck: Schnorr takes the lead, has married a Catholic, and changed his religion to feel more devotedly the Scriptural subjects of his art." We shall not be surprised if some of the present sect follow the same example, notwithstanding Mr. Ruskin says he has had letters disavowing their inclining to Puseyism. To acquire a knowledge of expression by studying from works devoid of it, seems a crab-like crotchet. On the revival of art in Italy, Giotto and his followers were imbued with the remains of Greek painting found about Florence and Rome, which are invariably the extensions of Greek sculpture to pictures, more perfect in form compared with the early German restorers of painting: these latter are equally devoid of expression, but have less refinement in their heads, figures, and the costume, being severe copies of the living models of their countrymen; and hence more Gothic, less ideal in the heads, and less elegant in their attitudes. Even at the time of Albert Durer, who possessed the designs of Raffaele, in the prints of Marc Antonio, the dry German style poisoned all their productions: nor was art entirely emancipated till the genius of Rubens gave to his figures action and expression, and the living appearance of flesh. In accomplishing this great advance, however, he went into the opposite extreme, and extended the outline beyond the boundary handed down to us in the finest specimens of Greek sculpture. Painting may, and often does, require a greater breadth than sculpture, to enable the artist to give it rotundity, by the application of light and shade; but Raffaele and Michael Angelo, and even Leonardo da Vinci, seem to have been governed by the symmetrical works of Greece. The Venetian colourists appear to have been influenced by the same principles which guided the Flemish school, and the works of Paul Veronese and Tintoretto are often devoid of sentiment and expression; even those of Titian made Michael Angelo remark with regret that the Venetians had not in their youth learnt a better style in design: this observation induced the Carracci to combine the two, writing over their painting-room door, "The design of Michael Angelo, with the colouring of Titian." As one of the best examples of this combination, we refer to the "Dead Christ" by Annibal Carracci, in Castle Howard (at present in the British Institution). It has been remarked that the eye is the great seat of expression, and the outlet to the inward thoughts. In sculpture this, however, is impossible, and therefore the Greeks depended upon the mouth, which is generally opened in contradistinction to the Egyptian practice, from whom their art descended. This intensity of expression, and sentiment may be traced in the persevering attempts of the restorers of painting down to P. Perugino, but carried out to complete perfection by Raffaele, who not only employs the eye, but the character of the mouth, especially in violent or agonising subjects: this feature, in the hands of his pupil Julio Romano, became distorted, and carried out to the greatest extreme. As we have remarked upon the difficulty of treating sentiment, so we may notice the great caution to be used respecting action and expression.

J. B.

This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

Return to the list of reviews