"Minor Topics of the Month: Pre-Raphaelitism." Art Journal 16 (Aug. 1854), 250.

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PRE-RAPHAELITISM.–Dr. Waagen has recently addressed a letter to the Times on this subject, which, from the pen of so eminent an Art-critic, is worthy of all attention. In this communication he utterly and entirely deprecates the introduction of such a style of painting into modern Art, as altogether unadapted to the age in which we live, and as, therefore, in some degree, a recurrence to the comparatively unenlightened taste, and to the absence of technical knowledge, which existed in the mediæval times. And yet he can "sympathise entirely with the painters (modern) of this class, both German and English, in the exceeding attractiveness of that pure and earnest religious feeling which pervades the work of Fiesole and other masters of the 15th century. I also comprehend the liability in their minds to identify the expression of that feeling with the forms peculiar to those masters. At the same time, it is no less true, that this identification, and the efforts, however well meant, to which it has led, are totally mistaken, and can only frustrate that end for which these painters are so zealously labouring." After some few further observations, Dr. Waagen comments upon representing our times:–"It must also be borne in mind, that the whole style of feeling proper to those early masters, deeply rooted as it was in the religious enthusiasm of their times–of which it may be considered as the highest and most refined fruit–cannot possibly be voluntarily recalled in a period of such totally different tendencies as the present. It stands to reason, therefore, that the pictures even of the most gifted modern artists, produced by such a process, can at most be considered but as able reminiscences of the middle ages, but by no means as the healthy expositors of the religious feeling, now, thank God, greatly revived and proper to our age, or of the resources of art so plentifully within their reach; while those of the less gifted, able only to counterfeit the defects, but not to emulate the spirit of the olden time, present scenes of misplaced labour the most painful a true lover of art can well behold." There are few, we believe, even among the ardent admirers of the system, who will be disposed to question the truth of these remarks, or who could successfully argue against them. They are confirmatory of what we have ourselves frequently written and said. Dr. Waagen next proceeds to show how the great modern painters of Germany–Cornelius, Schnorr, Overbeck and others–who first started this new movement, were forced ultimately to give up their extreme theories, and to bring their practice within the scope of modern understanding and of naturalism; although, he adds, Overbeck "alone, of all the higher artists, has never entirely thrown off the erroneous theories he started with, and has thus deprived many of his finely-conceived pictures of their full powers of expression as works of Art." From generalities the writer refers to a single particular, selecting Mr. Hunt’s picture of the "Light of the World" as an example of errors of conception and treatment; Dr. Waagen analyses this picture at considerable length; we need scarcely say his opinions do not agree with those of Mr. Ruskin, recently communicated through the same channel as the doctor’s letter, namely, in the Times. We can scarcely expect Dr. Waagen’s remonstrance will much influence those to whom it is more especially addressed, though we trust it will be effectual in enabling them to perceive some of the "errors of their ways."


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Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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