"The Fine Arts and the Public Taste in 1853." Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 74.453 (Jul. 1853): 90-102. Excerpt.

[O]ne of Mr Ruskin's lamps is suspended in another gallery, illuminating the public path that leads to it, and commanding all people to come and fall down before it and worship. That lamp, as you have seen by quotation from Mr Ruskin's "Pre-Raphaelitism," is Joseph [sic] Everett Millais. There is the authority of Mr Ruskin that Mr Millais and his school call themselves pre-Raphaelite. The assumption of a title, and such a title, provokes criticism. I do not see why they, or their promoter, advocate, and defender should ascribe, with astonishing impudence-because their nonsensical dicta, by word or by paint, are not received by all-to malice the criticisms which they seek. They affect thereby to show the world what painting should be. Their chief advocate pours his contempt upon [what] all the usual "idiot Londoners" are doing, or [are] causing to be done, and then with an affected eccentricity takes you, not to any picture of the new school, but to look at something quite different, and what probably few have beheld; and that as a drop-scene to the ridiculously mock-sentimental of really idiotic fine writing, which bids you break every fibre of your heart. Nay, if you doubt, you post-Raphaelite, read. Here it is-speaking of subjects-"O[u]r mountain sceneries, with young idiots of Londoners, wearing Highland bonnets and brandishing rifles, in the foregrounds. Do but think of these things in the breadth of their inexpressible imbecility, and then go and stand before that broken bas-relief in the southern gate of Lincoln Cathedral, and see if there is no fibre in the heart in you that will break too." Now, any young Londoner would be guilty of inexpressible imbecility indeed, and something more, that should choose there and then to stand (if he could) and cut through his waistcoat into his heart, to look for fibres, and only to break them. This is really "inexpressible imbecility." The man who writes about breaking his heart or his fibres over a work of art, has no heart to break about the matter. Shall we ever see a donkey break the fibres of his heart with his own braying? No one will give him credit for caring one farthing for the said bas-relief. He only wishes you to picture him standing there, for the notoriety of it. This is not the heart of a man, but full-budded vanity bursting into expanded nonsense. Yet this is the self-constituted arbiter elegantiarum, who has too long had listeners or readers-writes bombastical confusion on what he knows nothing about, and misleads people by the ears. But, my post-Raphaelite, I lend you my eyes, for a few minutes, while I attempt to describe what I see-the wonder of wonders to those led admirers who think not and feel not, Mr Millais's picture of the "Release." The story is this: A wife, with her child in her arms, comes to the prison with a warrant for the release of her condemned husband. There is a dog and a jailer-the one playing the only really sentimental part in the picture, and the other the hard and unsentimental. Now, what would you imagine the woman's feelings to be on such an occasion, and how would she show them? Were you to order the subject, what directions, if you chose a painter that required any, would you give? You would say, Let her face be pale, as of one who had been long watching in weary sadness-let the joy even be tearful in the eye and quivering in the mouth. Let the thought of the jailer be altogether out of her mind; let her have a look of sadness habitual, and transport and joy breaking into it; and let her be lovely, tender, and such a one as would make the release to the man a happiness indeed. I am sorry to tell you, that if you had given such directions to Mr Millais, and this picture had been the result, you would woefully have wasted your breath and your sentiment. Her face, instead of being lovely, is plain to a degree; and if it be true that he had a certain model, this is really inexcusable, and is a proof that Mr Millais has no perception of beauty whatever. Indeed, Mr Ruskin in one passage inconsistently enough allows this, and yet makes the beauty of nature to be the field of his labours. The face, far from pale, is blotched with red, and the shadows stippled in with bilious brownish green. Instead of the eye dimmed even with a tear, it looks defiance, as if she had contested at some previous time the matter with the jailer, and looks a triumph, as much as to say, "I've won, and so pay me." Instead of tenderness, she is the hardest looking creature you can imagine. Her under lip-and both are as red as peonies-is thrust out to a very disagreeable expression. You would doubt before you would accept a certificate of her belonging to a temperance society. As to grace in her figure, you may not know that it is feminine, it is so huddled up in her clothes, and shapeless. The hand and arm which presents the warrant, of course is meant to be on the other side of her husband: at first sight it seems to go through him; it does not look as if it went round him. There is not much to say of the child; but the cognoscenti in pre-Raphaelitism are taken wonderfully with its legs, which are life-like enough at a little distance; but the laborious stipple execution in them is painful. So is the work upon the dog, who is rather an awkward animal, and strangely sticks upright upon the canvass, like a blue-bottle perpendicular upon a window. If he was more substantial, you might expect him to fall back. Then there is the husband: It appears that he has been wounded-a Scot-probably a rebel-not the worse subject for a picture on that account now. He leans his head upon his wife's bosom, and unfortunately shows only the most unheroic portion of the human face-the jaw; as does also the jailer, and with him it is not amiss. But it is wrong so to exhibit the released man. The painter should have considered that he should be shown worthy a reprieve-that he was, after all, a fine manly fellow. As it is, you have little sympathy for him or with him. And a friend of ours said aloud, "I would rather remain in prison all my life, or even be hanged, than go out of prison to live with that woman; and for aught I know, the man thinks so, for you do not know that he thinks anything else; and that is a defect in his portraiture." The best painting is the soldier-jailer. There is a natural look about him, and that indifferent air which might have been a foil to sentiment, if there had been any elsewhere. There is one characteristic in these pre-Raphaelite pictures that people talk a great deal about, and it should seem because in oil-painting it is a novelty-the stipple miniature execution. To my eye it is perfectly disagreeable. It is called high finish-and miscalled. Neither Raphaelites nor pre-Raphaelites so painted. You would doubt, in looking into the work, if it be oil-painting at all. It looks like streaky, stipply, gum-painting. There is no vigour of execution, no power in it-all weak and laboured.

This artist has no proper conception of a story. There is the other picture, the "Cavalier," in the hollow of a tree-in a most unheroic position-in a terrible fright-receiving a loaf of bread, as I suppose it to be-and with such a hand! A woman is giving him this relief-in appearance a Puritan. The accessories are said to be wondrously painted. I expected, therefore, to see true substantial drawing. The fern, I hear, has put some people into ecstasies; but I, who have really studied fern, did not know what it was. There is certainly a light sunshine in this part of the picture, but it is given at a sacrifice of other more important truth-the truth of drawing, and the proper substance of the things meant-and is most disagreeably gummy and gambougy. As to the tree and the ground under it, there is work enough there; but whether it represents bark of a tree, stones, dried sticks and leaves, or copper chips, I, for one, cannot tell. These things would be of minor importance if they had not the pretence of superlative truth. The best part of the painting is the woman's gown, because it is broad, and has more solid fair paint on it. Nor should I quarrel with her expression of countenance; but it would have been as well if she had used a face-lotion, to have got rid of those yellow and brown little stipples, that some bilious people have in reality, and that the pre-Raphaelites love to perpetuate in pictures. That the man in the hollow of the tree should have them, and pretty strongly marked, is quite agreeable to his position, and the sad terror he is in; but I do protest, in the name of the lovers of historical truth, against giving the good old cavaliers any such frightened character. That they knew what is the better part of valour, was consistent with their sense and their cause; but if any one did bide in the hollow of a tree, I am quite sure he never looked like that man. Even O'Brien very properly protested against being represented as hid behind a cabbage. A hero, with out-staring eyes, and like a rat in a hole, is sadly unheroised. The fellow looks as if he should rather be hunted out by terriers, than by a troop even of Puritan soldiers. Who would not, if he saw the terriers on the spot, bid 'em in, and turn out the caitiff? Would you not rather see the too great hardiness of a man, that should make him step out with the dignity of a man, and say, "Here I am, do your worst," than the portrayed cowardice of a two-legged vermin in a hole? Ajax, in the Iliad, would not endure a cloud between him and death.-"En de faei kai olesson." "Kill me, but let it be in the face of day." Raphaelites and pre-Raphaelites never forgot that men were men, and should be represented with proper manly actions, and not creeping, through fear, like reptiles, into holes. The sentiment of this picture is vile. It is so ultra-peaceable, that it ought to make the Peace Society ashamed, and take up the cudgels against it. Even Broadbrim, though a "Quaker," would admit that there are circumstances under which "A man's a man for a' that." If the Fine Arts will set up their "Chamber of Horrors," for the credit of humanity I would have this picture exposed, in terrorem, to all future painters of such patches of history.

Mr Ruskin not only admires, nay lauds to the skies, to his "cirri" of the skies, and far above them, these pre-Raphaelite gentlemen, for their "singular success in certain characters (a little ambiguous) and finish of detail," but also for their "brilliancy of colour." People have such different notions of brilliancy in colour, that it would not be surprising if Mr Ruskin should write a book to direct oculists how to reform, or somehow to sophisticate people's eyes, after the model of his own. An admirer of this school, and of the Graduate's writings, and who dabbles in art, said to me the other day, "Do come and look at my picture, and see if I haven't put light into it. I shall put more yet." A few days after, I met him, and asked him if he had succeeded in putting more light into it. "That I have," said he; "come and look at it; it will quite put your eyes out with the light in it now." Having no fancy for the operation, I waited for a very dull day. I think the Graduate would have been delighted with it, for it out-faced the sun, and took the shine out of the "rainbow" which Mr Ruskin saw upon Mr Turner's head, when he was pleased to fancy him to be the "Angel of the Apocalypse." You, and I, with, our foolish post-Raphaelite prejudices, like best that brilliancy of colour which is not all in a blaze-such a sober brilliancy as Titian loved. You would rather look at a precious stone in the shade, than with the hot sun directly upon it, to take away both its wondrous depth and its colour. I am certain you will not apply to the Graduate, as the sole and patent vendor of "Turner's cerate," or salve, to have your eyes rubbed therewith. You and I have walked over breezy downs with such eyes in our heads as nature gave us, and as she kindly gives to most people; but we never yet saw prismatic sheep, with blue-shaded faces bordered by pink, and the rainbow yellows, and the tops of their backs whitened with hair-powder. We never did, and I hope we never shall; for if ever it should happen, it would be best to apply to an oculist, for there must be something wrong. These sheep in Mr Hunt's picture in the Exhibition must be the sheep which "little Bo-Peep" lost; and are represented just in that condition in which it "made her heart bleed to find 'em." The colour in this picture is disagreeable throughout; it has no atmosphere. The grouping is unpleasant. The sheep's legs must have been drawn from the wire-legged models which are carried about the streets covered with real wool, and sold as playthings for children. And this is a specimen of pre-Raphaelite truth. If the price spoken of by everybody was really given for this, never were sheep sold in a better market. There is, however, a cholera-blue about them which indicates very bad mutton. The best of these pre-Raphaelite performances, in spite of some vulgarity in the character of Claudio, is the scene taken from "Measure for Measure," between Claudio and Isabella. The intensity of thought in Claudio is well expressed; and there is some dignity in Isabella, but her countenance suffers by being placed so near to the light. This picture makes the faults of the other appear wilful, and done in perverse defiance of the common truth of nature.

If any think these critical remarks upon the pre-Raphaelite school too severe, let them first consider if they be unjust. For, not doubting that the young men who have been instigated to set up, or persist in trying to establish this their false, and, as I think, presuming school, are men of ability, and have perceptions of many truths of nature, I think it no unkindness, but, on the contrary, a true kindness, to show them, even by censure-which they may not like at the time-that they are making sad mistakes; that they mistell a story; that they are wrong in discarding beauty, and too often, in so doing, do not reach sentiment. That they may engage in the end a more safe public regard, I do not doubt; and therefore I strongly warn them, and remind them, that when the world is pleased with novelties and eccentricities, those who provide for such tastes are in the most danger of being discarded, and then are apt to meet with the treatment so well described by Lucian in his "Private Tutor;" and as criticism of this kind has been ascribed to malice, let them not scorn what is here said upon any suspicion of the kind-for I assure them that I know nothing whatever of them but through their works; but I grieve to see power misdirected, and in danger of being ruined by a gross and ignorant flattery. . . .

There is to be a general, a national patronage of the Fine Arts, and of every art. I hope the fostering will be judicious, and that no Academy will be Ruskinised into pre-Raphaelitism.

Yours ever, _____.


This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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