"Manchester Exhibition of Art-Treasures." Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 81.502 (Jun. 1857): 159-172. Excerpt.

In this independent and indigenous origin of our English school we recognise a close relation with the national characteristics of our people. In the naturalistic tendencies of our art we not less trace the corresponding direction of the nation's studies and sympathies. Nature has become with us an idolatry; natural science and natural history a passion; the knowledge of nature in a thousand ways ministers to our wealth; and in art, in like manner, its study becomes subservient to our pleasure. Now, if asked in what consists the health and the hope of our English school, we should assuredly say, in its close relation to nature and to actual life. In landscape-art, for example, the minute and accurate transcript of nature has been carried to the last degree even of excess. It were now indeed almost possible to use a landscape painting as a diagram to illustrate a geological conformation, and a foreground in a picture might have been a scientific study from a Botanic Garden. It must be admitted that the Italian masters never attained to a like accuracy; their object was rather to portray nature in her general aspects than in her minute detail; their knowledge was in those days sufficient for the imagination, but not enough to satisfy the present prying curiosity of the senses. The accuracy of science, however, at length came, and required of art a corresponding truth; and now, finally, the detail of the photograph demands that the artist's eye shall be the lens of a camera, and his hand an untiring and unerring mechanism. All this, we have said, is healthful and hopeful,-and so it is, so far, at least, as it is not absolutely absurd. That these hopes have indeed been already realised, we think the present Exhibition, though not strong in landscape-art, sufficiently proves. . . . We will not now stop further to characterise the school which has taken to itself the name pre-Raphaelite. A mistaken love of nature has become with these men a monomania; and beginning with the attempt to render all which was visible, they have at length, by a strange anomaly, actually succeeded in painting what is invisible. Mr Hunt, for example, in "The Hireling Shepherd" (424), not content with counting the blades of grass in the field, the leaves on the tree, has painted, with utmost pains and detail, the eye, the beak, and the plumage of a swallow swiftly upon the wing! . . .

The difficulty of assigning to these pre-Raphaelite works their rightful position in the history of past art, or among the works of our own times, is indicated at once in the violence of their opponents, and by the ardour of their friends. To take a middle course would be more easy, were they not themselves, both in their doctrine and by their works, so aggressively antagonistic. For ourselves, we have, in our previous article, already shown that this Manchester Exhibition abundantly proves that the brethren have imitated the middle ages by the resuscitation of exploded errors, rather than through the adoption of high spiritual graces. But perhaps the members of this school would rather be tested by their truth to living nature than by their literal transcript of a past history. Even, however, upon this issue we shall find that verdicts are conflicting. One man, with magnifying lens in hand, but with no notion, as we think, of what is requisite to a picture, examines and counts every separate hair on the ruddy peasant's head, or individualises each blade of grass in the field (see 424), and forthwith in ecstasy exclaims how wonderful, how like to nature! Another man, who has studied nature not less diligently, and who is certainly not less informed on the true philosophy of art, eschewing the numerously-supplied magnifying and opera glasses by which the Manchester Committee have unconsciously satirised the execution of the works exhibited, or the injustice of their hanging,-this man, we say, anxious to test these pretentious pictures by unaided vision and unbiased mind, exclaims in execration, how detestable! how untrue to nature! It is evident, then, that on this point the public are divided into diametrically opposing parties. We think, however, it must be admitted that this new school is the last and the most ultra development of the naturalistic tendencies which we have already pointed out as the special characteristic of our national art. Whether this new aspect of naturalism be indeed simple nature, or a gross mannerism, and altogether a caricature of nature, is another question. We think, however, we may positively assert that these works, even if true to nature as she is, are at least utterly false to nature as she appears. It is, therefore, manifest that these pictures, as translations of nature into art, are utterly untrue and false. This is indeed the fundamental error which vitiates all their industry, their pretended honesty and truth. It may be admitted that, in nature, a cube has eight sides, but if an artist should in his picture paint more than three, he violates the possibilities of vision. In like manner, a swallow on the wing may have eye, bill, and plumage; but when Mr Hunt actually puts all these details into his picture (124), pretending to be true to nature, he paints, in fact, a pictorial falsehood. Whatever may have been an earlier doctrine, it has now been the practice of several centuries, that the action of a picture must be limited to a moment of time; that, for example, on the same canvass cannot be represented a man going to execution, the scene of his execution, and the subsequent burial; and, accordingly, Mr Cope, in his "Martyrdom of Lawrence Saunders" (560), has thrown an analogous subject into three separate compartments or pictures. Now, it is this visual and mental, no less than pictorial law, which the English pre-Raphaelites substantially violate in their works. In the "Hireling Shepherd" (424), it may be possible that the eye should mark, for example, each individual hair on the peasant's head, but, consequently, it could not at the same moment see the down on the moth's wing, or count the ears of corn in the distant field. In order to mark with equal distinctness these varied details, so widely distant from the focus of vision, a succession of moments, and still more, several distinct points of sight, are needful. Thus this equal emphasis of detail throughout the picture, so fatal to pictorial effect, arises in the fundamental error, that it is the province of a picture to represent nature as she is, not as she appears.

This doctrine of aspects and appearances constitutes, in fact, the very philosophy and poetry of art. If art be nothing but a literal transcript of nature, then is picture-making mechanical, and the painter's vocation drudgery. Art is no longer the rendering of what the poet-mind perceives or feels, but the manual and servile transcript of detail which can be spelt out and counted. This is a naturalism which defeats itself, by leading to an art which, as art, is unnatural and monstrous; a naturalism which is, in fact, materialism; and in proportion as it is material, ignores the artist's mind, whose special province it is to compose, to create, to idealise. This is the philosophical error which infects and vitiates, to a greater or less degree, all the works which have proceeded from this presumptuous school. Sir Joshua Reynolds would seem, as it were by anticipation, to have denounced the delusions of these men, when he wrote as follows,-

"Among the painters and writers on painting, there is one maxim universally admitted and continually inculcated. Imitate nature is the invariable rule; but I know of none who have explained in what manner this rule is to be understood; the consequence of which is, that every one takes it in the most obvious sense, that objects are represented naturally when they have such relief that they seem real. It may appear strange, perhaps, to hear this sense of the rule disputed; but it must be considered that, if the exclusive excellence of a painter consisted only in this kind of imitation, painting must lose its rank, and be no 1onger considered as a liberal art and sister to poetry. This imitation being merely mechanical, in which the slowest intellect is always sure to succeed best, for the painter of genius cannot stoop to drudgery, in which the understanding has no part; and what pretence has art to claim kindred with poetry but its powers over the imagination?"

There are other errors and perversities which seem to belong to individual taste, or rather to the want of good taste, rather than to arise from any dogmatical theory. For instance, we know of no theory which lays down that flesh should be made of brick-dust; that human hair should be uniformly red; that women should be unexceptionally ugly; that men should be ungainly and uncouth; that beauty should be eschewed as a moral evil, and poetry be sought only in the repulsive. That we are in no way over-rating the special claims of these works to public attention and admiration, will be at once evident on appealing to Mr Hunt's "Hireling Shepherd" (424), and his equally startling "Gentlemen of Verona" (470). It is strange, nay, it is unpardonable, that the pretended love of nature-a nature which shows herself so beauteous, so placid, and unobtrusive-should result in pictures so repulsive, so meretricious and offensive.

We readily admit that, notwithstanding such abhorrent qualities, the works of these men possess some remarkable merits. If they did not, it were impossible that they could so long have maintained their ground in public attention. Some of the best works which have emanated from this school, it must, be admitted, are not in Manchester. It is to be regretted that Millais's pictures of "The Huguenots" [sic] and the "Order of Release" are not here exhibited, and that the undoubted genius of this artist has no better witness to attest his merit than his "Autumn Leaves" (543). Yet, notwithstanding these deficiencies, the Exhibition contains works, to deny all merit to which would assuredly be to condemn ourselves. For example, in Mr Hunt's "Claudio and Isabella" (563), there is a dread fear in Claudio, a reproof in the Isabella, with her steadfast manner and soul-piercing eye, which makes this work, notwithstanding its repulsive aspect, a marvel in expression. "The awakened Conscience" (550) is likewise in this respect not less remarkable, every incident adding emphasis to the story, and the marvellous detail aiding the realisation. It is these mental attributes which have given to the best works of these artists a high position with all men who, tired of conventionalism and elegant trifling, would fain look to art for suggestive thought and the mind's expression. We would, as far as in us lies, earnestly beseech these ardent painters to throw aside their repulsive mannerism, their false dogmas, and the dogmatising teachers who have betrayed their best interests; and henceforth, according to the sound and long-estab1ished canons in art, throw into their works more and more of thought, deep intent, and mental expression. They are wholly in error when they suppose that to them was confided a fresh revelation. All that is essentially new in themselves and their works is a repulsive and utterly false mannerism, which in their best pictures they have themselves already in great measure abandoned. What is good and admirable in their practice is in nowise new, and belongs not specially to them; it is coeval with the origin of all noble art, and immutable as the best faculties of man. Surely they do not pretend that to them is due the discovery that truth, honesty, and sincerity are essential to all high labour, and that thought and mental expression are the highest attributes in the works of man. The entire history of art enforces the truth of these doctrines, old as the records of the human race. It is thought and mental expression which gives to the classic heads of Jupiter, of Alexander, and of Psyche, their claim to immortality. It was thought and mental expression which gave to the now much-abused Raphael in the "Dispute" and "the School of Athens," his supreme position in the middle-age revival. This same thought and expression, found in the greatest works of Titian and Tintoret, still subsisting in such pictures as "The Three Marys" (310),not [sic] extinct in the school of Spain, and in "The Descent from the Cross" by Rubens, have in all ages, and in all countries, given to art its value and renown. Among the presumptuous errors, then, which our pre-Raphaelite brethren have yet to unlearn, is the flattering notion, that to them pertains the honour of any grand discovery. In proportion as they henceforth learn humility, learn to acknowledge that before the dawn of their light the world was not in utter darkness; just in proportion as they submit to the wisdom that has gone before them-a wisdom which, though they think it not, may still be found living around them;-just in this same proportion will they lose the noisy notoriety belonging to a revolutionary clique, and gain that enduring renown which their genius merits.*

* We need scarcely say that this year's Exhibition of the Royal Academy justifies and confirms all that we had written on the English pre-Raphaelites in Manchester. We gladly admit, however, that such works as "Thoughts of the Future," by Mr R. Carrick, and "The Mountain-Path," by Mr J. T. Linnell, give, at least to some members of this school, the promise of honourable escape from what is monstrous and repulsive.

This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

Return to the list of reviews