"Pre-Raphaelitism." Review. Art Journal 13 (Nov. 1851), 285-286.

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

However close may be the connexion between genius and that "fine phrensy" to which poets and psychologists have declared it nearly allied,–the relationship between the conceit of it and folly is most easily determined. Extraordinary phenomena, mental and moral, may flow from either of these sources, as the experience of all time, and most emphatically the present, testifies. Extraordinary books have been written by the author of "Modern Painters," about the true characteristics of which the critics have expressed very different opinions. One quality, however, is ascribed to them with a general unanimity; they are extraordinary. Not the least extraordinary of this author’s productions is the pamphlet about "Pre-Raphaelitism." From which of the above-named sources its "extraordinariness" springs, we will not, just now, decide, but hope shortly to make it tolerably apparent.

Our readers are, of course, aware that a pseudo-system of art has, for some time, obtruded itself on the public, under the presumptuous name borne by our author’s pamphlet, and originating with three or four, according to their chivalrous advocate, "exceeding young men, of stubborn instincts, and positive self-trust, and with little natural perception of beauty!" To associate anything from such a source, with the name of the great Italian painter, whether in a manner expressive of concurrence or antagonism, is offensive in the highest degree. The act is presumptuous, but, perhaps, pitiable if done in all simplicity and sincerity. If the name is adopted, however, for the sake of èclat, which is far from being improbable, it is a piece of empiricism, ranking with the trickery by which eager tradesmen entrap the unwary into reading illusory advertisements by prefixing to them such portentous phrases as "Calamitous Fire," "The Crystal Palace," or "Cardinal Wiseman."

Pre-Raphaelitism, left to its own merits, would have passed away like any other similar specimen of conceit or craft, of like origin, exciting, at most, a momentary smile in the lively, or extorting a passing sarcasm from the saturnine.

The author of "Modern Painters" has, however, conferred a factitious importance on the "school," as he calls it, by taking it under his protection, and giving it the benefit of his public advocacy. He has recently issued a pamphlet with the title assumes by his juvenile protègès, and with little or no more just claim to it. It is a "maundering" medley of the most incongruous ingredients, of sixty-eight pages, of which six or seven only make any mention of the professed theme. The first twenty or thereabouts are filled with a fantastic, not to say irreverent disquisition on the purpose of the Deity in decreeing labour as the lot of man, and the "infinite misery," caused by idle people meddling in other men’s business, and others being overworked. Abortive attempts at Shandean humour alternate with seeming sanctimonious homilies. The imaginary self-communing of a man as to whether he is not "fit to be Chancellor of the Exchequer," or, as he "used to be a good judge of peas, might not he do something in a small greengrocery business?" is in profane juxtaposition with the solemn admonition that "our full energies are to be given to the soul’s work–to the great fight with the dragon–the taking the kingdom of heaven by force!"

Afterwards, by an eccentric movement, our author relapses into another laudation of his old idol Turner, with which he occupies the last forty pages. This somewhat trite rhapsody might, considering how very unapparent its connexion with Pre-Raphaelitism, surely have been omitted, and the more specially as we are promised another repetition of it in the forthcoming volume of "Modern Painters." The author’s declared object in putting forth his pamphlet is to contradict the alleged "directly false statements" that have been made respecting his protègès’ works. It affords him also an opportunity of making an indirect claim to the supposed honour of laying, as it were, "eight years ago," the foundation of a "school from which he hopes all things," by advising the "young artists of England to go to nature, rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing." Good advice this in part, but not wholly so; nor is that portion which is good of such recent date as "eight years ago," seeing that it is as old as the practice of Art. The advice to reject nothing and select nothing, we counsel the young artists of England to reject altogether. A higher authority than the author of "Modern Painters," says on this subject, ‘The arrangement which, apparently artless, fixes the attention on important points, the emphasis on essential as opposed to adventitious qualities, the power of selecting expressive forms, of arresting evanescent beauties, are all prerogatives by means of which a feeble imitation successfully contends even with its archetype." Rejection and selection are not, indeed, the prerogative merely, but the duty of the artist. Elements antagonistic to the main sentiment are present in the most enchanting scene, and features subversive of the prevailing character obtrude into the fairest face. The highest truth of Art demands the rejection of these hostile elements, and this theoretic rule is fully borne out by the practice of all the great masters of Art. The true function and best occupation of the artist are not what the author of "pre-Raphaelitism" would have us believe them,–"to copy, line for line, the religious and domestic sculpture on the German, French, and Flemish cathedrals and castles," for archæological purposes, but to unfold the beauty and glory of the material world, as visible to their exalted perceptions, and place them consciously before the eyes of common observers; thus redeeming the senses from the low and servile office of ministering to the mere animal pleasures. To do this the artist must pourtray that typical form of nature which she nowhere presents in any single object. Where, then, is it to be found? There, where Phidias found the grand character and sublime conception of his Jupiter, and Zeuxis the fascinating loveliness of his Helen–in universal nature, over which they looked abroad and selected what they found to be the faithful and entire expression of her will, and rejected all exceptions to it. The graduate’s dogma, that "no great intellectual thing was ever done by great effort," is not so much untrue as absurd; it is, indeed, a contradiction of terms. A great effort is, literally, the exertion of great power; and the graduate himself tells us, in the very next page to that that from which we quote, that "all the greatest works in existence say plainly to us there has been a great power here."

Will the author of "Modern Painters" deny that the Alexandrian geometry is a "great intellectual thing," and that it has been "done by a great effort?" Or that those sublime deductions, the laws of the planetary motions, made from a twenty years’ series of observations by the immortal Kepler, are intellectually "great" and demanded "effort?" We presume even our Oxford graduate will admit the establishment of the theory of universal gravitation, or the production of the "Principia," or the "Mècanique Cèleste," or the prediction of "Neptune," or the composition of the "Divine Commedia," or of "Paradise Lost," falls within his category? We dissent wholly from the dictum that the artist’s "function is to convey knowledge to his fellow-men, of such things as cannot be taught otherwise than ocularly," and that, "for a long time this function remained a religious one," whose aim was "to impress upon the popular mind the reality of the objects of faith, and the truth of the histories of Scripture, by giving visible form to both." We can understand how Art can enforce historical facts, but do not perceive by what means it can authenticate them. The subjects of Art being derived from history, must necessarily depend upon it for their own credibility. Nor has the function of the artist, in any sense, "passed away," but remains just what it has been from the beginning, and will remain so long as the visible creation and the human heart with its divine instincts and holy sympathies, endure. The painter is no "idler on the earth," but a great missionary from Heaven, sent among men to enkindle and keep alive the flame of love for all that is beautiful and glorious of the works of God. He can, too, still find his patrons as useful an occupation in contemplating even "eternal scenes" from the Vicar of Wakefield, as in standing "before the broken bas-relief on the southern gate of Lincoln Cathedral.["]

The senseless sneer at "Royal Academy lecturings," and the directions given by professors to students to study the works of Raphael, may be left to its own inanity. The beneficial influence of such studies is attested by the experience of ages, and has the sanction of men quite as sagacious and learned as the Oxford graduate. We have neither time nor space to expose a hundredth part of our graduate’s false philosophy and shallow psychology.

"True, no meaning puzzles more than wit:" and the attempt to grasp his Protean nonsense and flagrant inconsistencies would be as embarrassing to us as wearisome to our readers. One or two specimens of these we must, however, point out.

With the view of proving that, notwithstanding "the main principles of training," the characteristics of an artist’s productions are necessary consequences of his physical organisation and mental endowments, he supposes two artists, in one of whom elaboration of detail and meanness of general effect are due to his having "a feeble memory, no invention, and an excessively keen sight." The other owes his grandeur of effect and soft masses of true gradation to "a memory which nothing escapes, and invention which never rests, and is comparatively near sighted."

Now, if this hypothesis is of any value in the question, these physical and mental peculiarities in the artists, are the necessary cause of the characteristic qualities of their respective works. Yet the graduate immediately tells us that by modifying! "no invention" into "considerable inventive powers" and bestowing upon the purblind gentleman "the eye of an eagle," both the characters are real. "The first is John Everett Millais, and the second, Joseph Mallard William Turner." But it is obvious that these modifications destroy the original hypothesis, and, according to the Oxford graduate, these artists produce their works not only without the conditions assumed to be the cause of them, and thus not only produce effects without causes, but in spite of the presence of the most antagonistic powers; for the pictures ascribed to the hypothetical artists are painted by the real ones.

Again, near the beginning of the pamphlet, the author ridicules–with great effort, we presume, judging, on his own principles, from the weakness of the effect–the modern system of teaching the Fine Arts by Royal Academy "lecturings," and by copying and studying the works of the great masters, and especially those of Raphael. He further tells us that the "Pre-Raphaelites" have opposed themselves as a body to that kind of teaching above described; and have, "therefore, called themselves Pre-Raphaelites." Yet, notwithstanding all this, the graduate, when writing, near the end of his own work, on representing the freedom of the lines of nature, and commending the power and ease in the works of Leonardo da Vinci, gravely admonishes the Pre-Raphaelites, if they "do not understand how this kind of power, in its highest perfection, may be united with the most severe rendering of all other (!) orders of truth, and especially of those with which they themselves have most sympathy, let them look at––" what do our readers suppose?–at the productions of Leonardo da Vinci, or Michael Angelo, or Raphael, or Correggio, or Titian, or any of those grand works which have received the homage of civilised man for hundreds of years?–No!–not at any of these, but at,–Oh, powers of bathos!,–"at the drawings of John Lewis!" And for this our author would have his young proselytes–that promising "school"–abjure the first article of their creed, and denude themselves of everything that constitutes their character.

Could any inconsistency in the author of "Modern Painters" excite remark, we might recommend him to reconcile this advice with that given eight years ago. Exceptionable as that is, it is sounder than the present. Without wishing to insinuate anything to the disparagement of the graduate’s great exemplar, we must say we prefer nature, with all her conflictions.

Whether we regard the pamphlet as a vindication of certain pictures from unmerited censure, or as an exposition of the leading principles of a "school" of Art, it is an utter failure. The attempt, indeed, to carry out the professed object is confined to the narrow limits of a foot-note. Here we are told the grounds on which the name of Pre-Raphaelite is assumed, grounds for which we have searched the productions of the "school" in vain. "The Pre-Raphaelites," says their defender, "imitate no pictures, they paint from nature only. But they have opposed themselves as a body, to that kind of teaching above described, which only began after Raphael’s time: and they have opposed themselves as sternly to the entire feeling of the Renaissance schools,–a feeling compounded of indolence, infidelity, sensuality, and shallow pride."

This passage certainly does not justify the arrogance involved in the assumption of the title Pre-Raphaelitism. It is, besides, incorrect in two essential points: Firstly, It [sic] assigns to the "hopeful school," as an exclusive characteristic, that which is not their characteristic at all, in any truthful sense; and, secondly, it states, in other words, that the influence of schools began after Raphael’s time. Passing the first point for the present, we may remark of the second that it is not true that the teaching of schools, as described by the graduate, "began after Raphael’s time." There were schools of art in Crete with scholars, at Sparta, and other places, five hundred years before the Christian era; and this kind of teaching has been continued from that time to the present "Royal Academy lecturings," so sneered at by our author. Polygnotus had his disciples in Art, and Zeuxis did not disdain to copy Apollodorus.

The Pre-Raphaelites’ assumption of the designation of "school" on the ground of repudiating the teaching of schools, is a contradiction of terms and an absurdity. The very idea of a school involves the existence of masters with perceptive authority, models, canons of art, and principles of association. The hopeful school, however, ostentatiously abjures all these, and then claims to be a school on the ground of this very abjuration. And in this folly they are abetted by the Oxford graduate! It might have been supposed that the logical training the title implies would have saved him from this inconsistency.

The antecedents of the author of "Modern Painters" would have led us to suppose that he must be aware that schools of art are not founded for the purpose of making mere copyists of other men’s works, but for the dissemination of those principles on which all works of Art must be executed. Such an enlightened critic ought to know that studying the works of the great masters is one of the most efficient means for teaching these principles. In this way taste is formed and perception quickened, and the most unpoetical mind taught to see those meanings in nature which are hidden to all but the highly endowed few among men. In this way Giotto’s works were studied, and gave rise to all the higher developments of Art that distinguish the Italian schools of the fourteenth, and the greater part of the fifteenth, centuries.

A moment’s glance at the mental and manual characteristics of these schools, to which we conceive the term Pre-Raphaelite is exclusively applicable, will show us that the soi-disant Pre-Raphaelites have not, indeed, the smallest claim to the title, historic or èsthetic. Their pictures have not one quality in common with the works of the early Italian masters.

The true Pre-Raphaelites are distinguished by the simplicity, the ideality, and abstract grandeur of their conceptions, the frequently elegant forms and graceful actions of their figures, the sweetness and serenity of their expression, and their abstemious style of colouring. The pseudo Pre-Raphaelites, on the contrary, are remarkable for the affectation and meanness of their conception–their stark, starveling forms, constrained actions, repulsive expression, and gaudy colouring.

The most prominent characteristic of the Italian masters is their intensely spiritual expression. It is, of course, found in the different masters in varying degrees, but is more or less predominant in all of them. To this emphatic exposition of their sacred theme every other quality was made subservient, or if not susceptible of being made so, was willingly sacrificed. This strict subordination of the technical, enhanced, indeed, the value of the purely intellectual part of the work, by exhibiting it through the most refined medium, just as the purest atmosphere and the most perfect telescope display celestial bodies to the astronomer most clearly, without suggesting, for a moment, their instrumentality to his mind.

Some of these masters, especially towards the end of the fifteenth century, united to their high expression a more vigorous treatment. Masaccio endeavoured to impart more than the previous dignity to the human form. He, too, introduced a bolder relief, with a more flowing and grander style of drapery. Benozzo elaborated his landscapes, and Ghirlandajo somewhat strengthened the heretofore pale colouring, but both maintained the pre-eminence of expression. The same may be said of Mantagna and Pietro Perrugino.

With the Englishmen, on the other hand, expression, if considered at all, seems quite a secondary matter. Handling and colour, in their most mechanical and meretricious aspects, apparently absorb their whole attention. Expression, when it constitutes the subject and cannot, therefore, be wholly neglected, is overlaid by gaudy colouring and obtrusive accessories. In their abstract theory and guiding principles too, the Italians were quite as opposite to the Englishmen as in their visible characteristics. The former recognise the maxims of the leading masters, not only in the positive or demonstrative rules of Art, so far as they were then known, but also in those more indefinite principles which, although having a real foundation in the nature of human emotion, are not from their subtle and modificable characters, so susceptible of being reduced to distinct rules, and are, therefore, usually considered to be altogether conventional.

We have shown how Giotto impressed his own modes of perception and feeling on all the Italian art of his time, and indeed long after him. Some of the schools, the Paduan for example, went so far in their obedience to these so-called conventional rules, as to revive the study of the ideal art of ancient Greece.

The "exceeding young men of stubborn instincts and positive self-trust," look upon the lessons of the great schools of art as folly, and scoff at the accumulated experience of the "old masters" as mere fatuity. Their own sagacity is sufficient to penetrate her profoundest mysteries, and their works show the lessons of wisdom the derive from their self-willed study of her.

In all things, then, both manual and mental, technical and theoretical, the real Pre-Raphaelites are the complete antithesis to the pretended ones, and prove these young men to be as ill informed as they are presumptuous in assuming the title.

The important question, however, and that involved in the former of the propositions above quoted, is not the propriety of a name, so much as appropriateness of practice and truth of results. Whether the "school" should be designated pre-Raphaelite or post-Raphaelite, or, indeed, called a school at all, in the sense of being governed by intelligible and distinct principles, is not so necessary to be considered, as whether their works afford evidence of their having a perception of the true relation of Art to nature, and of their realising that perception in their productions. The answer to be given to this question is the complete solution of the problem. Into this question the author of "Modern Painters" has not thought it incumbent upon him to enter. We have examined their pictures for the purpose of ascertaining their theoretical principles. All that we can find expressive of intention is ugliness of form and constrained action, combined with a laboriously niggled handling and a style of colouring in which force alone, irrespective of subject and sentiment, is obtained by the common artifice of placing the primary colours and their complimentaries in immediate juxtaposition. They defend their first peculiarity by pleading that they "dare not improve God’s works." As if the creatures of this sin-polluted world, were unchanged since they came fresh from their Maker’s hand. Admitting, however, that nature were perfect and harmonious in every part, the question remains, do they study her intelligently? We believe they do not. They paint from nature as an idiot counts the strokes of a clock, as so many isolated units, without having any idea of aggregation. In the same intelligent spirit the hopeful school gives us an assemblage of dry, meagre, disjointed objects, without the smallest expression of relation either of sentiment or effect. They individualise strongly, but are totally devoid of the power to unite with the individuality the expression of a general whole, and thus fail to convey the spirit of their subject. Every form, near or remote, is elaborated with the same mechanical minuteness. This method of imitating Nature produces results which are wholly false; Nature unites her separate elaborations by the nicest gradation of tint, tone, and force, into one broad and grand harmony. The imitations of her by the hopeful school have none of these qualities; they all strike the eye with the same force, and, consequently, all seem to be projected on the same vertical plane. While Nature is all grace, sweetness, and simplicity, the Pre-Raphaelites’ renderings are all constraint, harshness, and affectation. Thus, even regarding the aim of Art as being a servile and mechanical imitation of nature, these pictures have no pretension to the title of works of Art.

When, however, we consider what the true function of the artist is, what a grotesque and repulsive mockery do the productions of the hopeful school appear! Instead of skillfully-conducted incident, these "young men" give us a microscopist’s copy of some trivial accessory, and for the pathos or dignity of human emotion we are treated to a childish display of glaring pigments. This is not only false philosophy, but also depraved taste. Colour and form are the language in which the artists expresses his thoughts and feelings; they should, therefore, be made subservient to this as means to an end, and never be allowed to rise into such prominence as to become separate qualities apart from that end. Few things injure the works of acknowledged great masters more than this obtrusion of mechanical qualities and secondary objects. It is a mere truism to say that the mechanical should be subordinated to the mental, and accessories developed in the order of their æsthetical relation, and not in that of their mere local contiguity, to the central idea of the work. Every one of the pictures exhibited by the so-called Pre-Raphaelites furnishes examples of the violation of this rule.

Our space will not permit us to pursue this subject further at present. We may, however, return to it at a future opportunity.

But we cannot conclude these remarks of "Pre-Raphaelitism" without adverting to the tone in which it is written. Its author professes to be exceedingly susceptible of offence at any plainness of speech used towards him, or inadvertent disparagement of his dignity; but seems singularly forgetful of his own requirements in his treatment of others. He uniformly imputes the worst motives in the strongest terms. Opinions which differ from his, and which, if erroneous, are at most, errors of judgment, are stigmatised as "falsehoods," "direct falsehoods," &c.; whilst "indolence, infidelity, sensuality, and shallow pride," are the best sources to which he can ascribe the actions of whole generations of men. The author of "Modern Painters" has written works which advance rather high pretensions to a piety of more than ordinary purity, and even in the pamphlet under notice, expatiates with seeming unction on "taking the kingdom of Heaven by force." We should be sorry to impugn his Christianity, but cannot refrain from suggesting a comparison of it with that of Him who admonished his followers to do to others as they would have men do to them; and we even venture to recommend the consideration of how far charitable construction of motive and courteous language are essential to the character of a gentleman.


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Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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