"Mr Ruskin and his Theories-Sublime and Ridiculous." Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 80.493 (Nov. 1856): 514-516. Excerpt.

In an unguarded moment, a clique of gifted youthful enthusiasts, in no way disposed to underrate the importance of their self-imposed mission, took to themselves the appellation of "pre-Raphaelite Brethren." Appearing before the world under a misnomer, it is perhaps but natural that their productions should now be justified by misconstrued history and mistaken philosophy. The English Brethren emphatically called themselves pre-Raphaelites; it was, therefore, in the outset, necessary to justify the pre, and, accordingly, continued attempts are made to show that the world for three centuries has been the victim to a pernicious predilection in taking the works of Raphael as patterns of "High Art" and the "Grand Style." The English Brethren pursue what they call truth, even to servility: it is needful, therefore, to discover that truth was the distinguishing characteristic of the Italian pre-Raphaelites. The English Brethren are enamoured with countenances and forms which are ugly and ungainly: it therefore is now attempted to be shown that beauty was not sought after till art had fallen into decline. The Brethren will sit in a lane for weeks to copy a brick wall-in a field to identify with the details of a photograph a smouldering heap of "Autumn leaves"-or in a ditch to paint the sodden weeds which grow in its bottom; and, accordingly, their champion, Mr Ruskin, directs the reader, as we have seen, to "lie down on" his "breast on the next bank" he "comes to," when assuredly he shall see "a mystery of soft shadow in the depths of the grass, with indefinite forms of leaves, which you cannot trace nor count."-(P. 126.) The works of "the Brethren" are, for the most part, destitute of what is technically termed "effect," while they are crowded with all but infinite detail, and we are accordingly told that historical art has always failed because of the "universal endeavour to get effects instead of facts," which we are further told is "the root of false idealism."-(P. 93.) The Brethren copy implicitly what is before them; they diligently seek in actual life for a living example of the character they require, and, when found, set themselves accurately to transcribe what is before them without alteration or attempted amendment. This is to them the highest ideal. Mr Ruskin consequently lays it down, that "high art" "consists neither in altering nor in improving nature"-(p. 35); that "ideal art" "concerns itself simply with things as they are, and accepts in all of them alike the evil and the good."-(P. 81.) Finally, Mr Ruskin loads great names with obloquy, refutes established truths, glories in unheard-of discoveries; insults, as we have seen, all previous historic efforts, to reach at length, in "Hunt's Light of the World," the consummation of his hopes and teachings, the crowning climax to six centuries of vain struggling!

It may be desirable, and but fair, that Mr Ruskin, Mr Hunt, and his brethren, as well as our own readers, should enjoy the honour and advantage of such passages as the following, in which things both old and new, true and false, are blended with a confidence and grace which we fear have with many carried conviction:-

"The perfect unison of expression, as the painter's main purpose, with the full and natural exertion of his pictorial power in the details of the work, is found only in the old pre-Raphaelite periods, and in the modern pre-Raphaelite school. In the works of Giotto, Angelico, Orcagna, John Bellini, and one or two more, these two conditions of high art are entirely fulfilled, so far as the knowledge of those days enabled them to be fulfilled; and in the modern pre-Raphaelite school they are fulfilled nearly to the uttermost. Hunt's 'Light of the World' is, I believe, the most perfect instance of expressional purpose with technical power which the world has yet produced."-(P. 30)

Again, in the chapter treating of the Religious False Ideal, it is thus written:-

"All the paradises imagined by the religious painters-the choirs of glorified saints, angels, and spiritual powers, when painted with full belief in this possibility of their existence, are true ideals; and so far from our having dwelt on these too much, I believe, rather, we have not trusted them enough, nor accepted them enough, as possible statements of most precious truth. Nothing but unmixed good can accrue to any mind from the contemplation of Orcagna's 'Last Judgment,' or his 'Triumph of Death;' of Angelico's 'Last Judgment,' and 'Paradise;' or any of the scenes laid in heaven by the other faithful religious masters: and the more they are considered, not as works of art, but as real visions of real things, more or less imperfectly set down, the more good will be got by dwelling upon them. The same is true of all representations of Christ as a living presence among us now, as in 'Hunt's Light of the World.'"-(P. 59.)

Lastly, in that eminently original chapter on the Naturalistic yet True Ideal, after speaking of the inanity of historic art, Mr Ruskin dashes across several centuries and countries within the limits of a few lines, and arrives at our own favoured time and country, where art, it would appear, is happily likely to reach the desired consummation among "the Brethren."

"True historical ideal," he says, "founded on sense, correctness of knowledge, and purpose of usefulness, does not yet exist; the production of it is a task which the closing nineteenth century may propose to itself."

"Another point is to be observed. I do not, as the reader may have lately perceived, insist on the distinction between historical and poetical painting, because, as noted in the 22d paragraph of the third chapter, all great painting must be both."

"Nevertheless, a certain distinction must generally exist between men who, like Horace Vernet, David, or Domenico Tintoret, would employ themselves in painting, more or less graphically, the outward verities of passing events-battles, councils, &c.-of their day (who, supposing them to work worthily of their mission, would become, properly so called, historical or narrative painters); and men who sought, in scenes of perhaps less outward importance, 'noble grounds for noble emotion,'-who would be, in a certain separate sense, poetical painters, some of them taking for subjects events which had actually happened, and others, themes from the poets; or, better still, becoming poets themselves in the entire sense, and inventing the story as they painted it. Painting seems to me only just to be beginning, in this sense also, to take its proper position beside literature, and the pictures of the 'Awakening Conscience,' 'Huguenot,' and such others, to be the first fruits of its new effort."-(Pp. 93-4.)


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Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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