Rippingille, E. V. "Pre-Raphaelitism; or, Obsoletism in Art." Bentley’s Miscellany Jun. 1852, 598-609.

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PRE-RAPHAELITISM; OR, OBSOLETISM IN ART.

A review of the present year’s Exhibition at the Royal Academy demonstrates but too clearly the increase and extent of the mischief-working agency of what is now generally understood as Pre-Raphaelite Art. One consideration alone indicates in a forcible manner its evil influence; for it is above all others the style best calculated to catch the vulgar, with whom identity of imitation has ever formed the scale of pictorial excellence. Resemblance and bright colours have always been panders to bad taste. That this opinion does not rest on unsupported assertion we have the evidence and authority of Mr. E. V. Rippingille,* whose observations are so just, and opportune, that they cannot but be welcome to every lover of genuine art.

"Some three or four artistical aspirants," says Mr. Rippingille, "have within the last four years exhibited certain pictures distinguished by a peculiar quaintness of conception, a cold, dry, hard, meagre manner, an equalized distinctness of parts, and a laborious and superabundant detail of particulars, mistakenly regarded as high finish. In these doings we find great attention paid to little things, and little consideration bestowed on great ones, and supposing a purpose, the object of the artists seems to be, to paint Nature as she appears to untutored eyes, single, separate, unconnected, ungrouped, agreeable with the practice of the earliest, the rudest and the most unformed aspirants in art–a practice exploded centuries ago, entirely distinct from that adopted by the artists of England or the intelligent of any other country.

"Hence the claim of these aspirants to originality.

"These attempts have none of that loose, vague, careless, offhand, bold, free and dexterous execution which distinguish the works of the English school, and which, taken together, constitute its bane, its reproach, and its excellence. Pre-Raphaelite Art has none of these.

"Hence the claim of its professors to improved practice!

"The works of the Pre-Raphaelites exhibit none of that want of confidence, timidity or modesty, with which the sensible and sincere ever approach a great and a difficult undertaking. We do not find here as we do in the works of beginners, and which is a sure and invariable type of early art, any of that patchiness and inequality of success which mark and distinguish the course pursued by men who are earnestly striving to make their way in a new and difficult pursuit, wanting altogether the guidance and the light of experience and example. Nothing of the sort is to be found in Pre-Raphaelite Art, but, in its place, ‘the appearance of impertinence’–full evidence of a settled plan of operation resolutely determined upon, and obstinately persisted in; the whole conducted in a ‘temper of resistance by exceedingly young men of stubborn instincts and positive self-trust,’ just in proportion as these works betray no evidence of the learner they arrogate to themselves that of the master.

"Hence their claims to style.

"In these productions we find full evidence that certain excellences of Art, which are the acknowledged result of improved practice, vast experience, and evident advancement, which have been approved and exercised by men of the highest powers, the most profound knowledge, and the most refined taste; taught in theory, exemplified in practice, and supported by the fullest and best authority, are entirely dispensed with, neglected, overlooked, rejected, and unfelt. In the place of all this, we have the adoption of Art before its crudities were corrected and its principles understood; before Raphael had made over to himself the high honour of reaching that peculiar artistic excellence, completeness, and perfection which before his time had not even been dreamt of or approached by other labourers in the pursuit of Art; thus affording examples and lessons which none but the prejudiced and the imbecile will neglect.

"Hence the claim of these aspirants to the high-sounding title of Pre-Raphaelites!

"The peculiar ‘eccentricities’ of this little band have very naturally startled the public, who, unaccustomed to see such things, and unacquainted with the practices of artists, and what they may take up in whim, or adopt in earnest, have divided upon their merits, the one party admiring, the other denouncing what is difficult without some knowledge of Art to understand. Many, no doubt, believing that this new-light faction has discovered some of the lost secrets of Art, of which we have read or heard, whilst others have assailed them with abuse, and denied to their works the possession of any merit at all.

"In the midst of this conflict of opinions the author of ‘Modern Painters’ steps forward as their champion; let us see in what way and upon what grounds he supports their cause.

"In the preface of the work before us are quoted some remarks from the close of the first volume of ‘Modern Painters,’ which are offered as advice to young artists.

"The sense we find in these remarks is very like the subject, presented to us sometimes in the rough and indefinite sketch of a picture in which something is made out, but a great deal more is left to be supplied by the fancy of the inquirer.

"The advice given to the young artists of England is, that ‘they should go to Nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly, having no other thought but how best to penetrate her meaning; rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.’

"Now this advice to be rendered serviceable must be understood: it means constructingly, work hard, trust to Nature’s teaching you very much of what it is indispensable for you to know. Go to her therefore with pure singleness of heart, and trust in her as if you had nothing else to learn; for the time, think nothing of she presents too trifling to be studied and imitated, and do not favour one thing, or one course of study, to the exclusion and neglect of all others.

"This is clearly enough a free interpretation of what as an indefinite precept must prove a fallacious guide; but as if meant to be taken literally and regarded as a maxim full of instruction and replete with intelligence, it is exultingly stated that this advice, although for the most part rejected, has ‘at last been carried out to the very letter by a group of men who, for their reward, have been assailed with the most scurrilous abuse which I ever recollect seeing issue from the press. I have therefore thought it due to them to contradict the directly false statements which have been made respecting their works; and to point out the kind of merit which, however deficient in some respects, those works possess beyond the possibility of dispute.’

"By a reference to the works themselves, therefore, we have a clear illustration of the advice given and the results expected, for we are told here ‘it is carried out to the very letter.’ In order to save us from the trouble and peril of conjecture, we are at once told that we may here see the thing realized, which the advice given was intended to produce.

"But let us examine these precepts and the practice founded upon them.

"First of all, what is meant by going to Nature–what is copying or imitating Nature? Answer: The cultivation and exercise of a power which has for its object the representation of things real and ideal by pictorial means, namely, forms and colours, lights and shadows, &c. Imitation, therefore, whatever other attributes pictures may possess, is directly and essentially the foundation of Art. Every artist, as a matter of necessity, studies, copies, and imitates what it is the end and object of his Art to represent: and he either goes directly to nature or indirectly to the works of those who in his own pursuit have studied, imitated, and represented nature. Now there may be danger in adhering exclusively to either; but the aspirant must of necessity be right who will avail himself of both!

"Upon this principle the Pre-Raphaelites are decidedly wrong; for our author says ‘they imitate no pictures, they paint from Nature only.’

"If danger is to be apprehended in following a course which has led to the evils of conventionalism, as much mischief is to be dreaded from stagnating in a pursuit in which thousands have lived and died the victims of their own weakness, want of experience and example.

"Justly to laud a man for the course he is taking, we must be able to see that in the novelty and ingenuity of the means there is a rational promise for the end; but Pre-Raphaelitism tried by this test becomes an absolute fallacy. There is no intelligent artist who has not commenced Art and the study of nature, as the Pre-Raphaelites are doing, viz., in a timid, careful, and laborious way; descending to the minutest details, and striving to give to the representation of things, that mirror-like exactness, truth, and reality, of which Art, in its progress, furnishes innumerable examples.

"So it was that Art began, and so it has ever appeared in all its revivals: it is the course which artists always have and always will pursue: how, then, you will ask, do they differ from this little clique called Pre-Raphaelite? Answer: The intelligent employ such studies as a means not an end! To represent a thing with the exactness and truth with which its image is reflected in a looking-glass, is an acquirement which every artist aims at and knows the value of, as tending to a well understood specific and indispensable end, but when this is all that he attempts, he gives unequivocal proof of his unfitness to cope with the thousand-fold difficulties that lie before him. As in learning a language the mere literal constitutes the smaller portion, so, in the study and exercises of Art, mere imitation comprizes the smaller portion of a painter’s difficulties. In the one, success lies open to every plodder who is determined to persevere, whilst in the other success is partial, and distinction rare: to imitate is an easy task, but to render artistically is an acquirement which demands the exercise of some thought, the possession of some feeling, and the advantage of no small degree of experience, observation and reflection. The mere exercise of the hand and eye directed by the commonest mind is enough for the aspirant in the first stage of his pursuit, but to know when and where to leave this, when he has done enough, what is still to be done, and how best to do it, are obstacles of serious consideration and importance in the career of every artist alive to the true difficulties of his pursuit.

"It might puzzle many a practised artist, perhaps, to explain why a representation of objects seen in a looking-glass is not the truest and the best picture of them that could be given, and to the mere copyist such a representation would be perfection; and if it be remarked that the man who could do as much would be no mean operator, it may with the same truth be said that the aspirant who can do no more will never be an artist.

"However little the well-informed may need such observations as these, it certainly requires some knowledge of the subject to comprehend that in every really artistic operation there is a large portion of the thing to be achieved, which is almost independent of the imitation of the thing as it is seen by an uncultivated eye.

"Now although a portion of this is explanatory upon the principles of optics and the laws of vision, &c., there is a part still less easily understood in reference to the sentiment manifested–the poetic as well as the artistic rendering of the subject or the thing, by which the conception of the painter’s mind is perceived and felt by the spectator; yet, make this as plain and easy as you will, the aspirant in such a case, will know and acknowledge that he has no trifling difficulty to contend with, no mean study to pursue!

"What then shall we say of men who exhibit no signs whatever of being touched by the difficulties, stimulated by the beauties, or alarmed by the dangers which all sensible artists regard with interest, contemplate with awe, and reflect upon with misgivings.

"What is the character of ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ Art? That which Art presented long before the experience of the artist had advanced it to that high state of perfection which was exemplified by such men as Giorgione, Titian, M. Angelo, Raphael and others, and which is acknowledged by the universal approbation of mankind. Pre-Raphaelite Art attempts what these men found to be impossible, and what the voice of experience has denounced as absurd and impracticable–that which is repugnant to the inherent condition of man’s nature, to the intelligence of his mind, to the perceptions of his sense, and to the inevitable conditions of his Art.

"Pre-Raphaelite Art is even more deficient than this, since it exhibits, but in the most subordinate degree, that high power, which in the works of the early painters is often associated with the rudest and most unformed execution; namely, a just and artistic conception of the subject, manifested by appropriate action, true to the sentiment, however incompletely worked out and embodied; for men could feel and think before they could paint.

"But, let us see with an artist’s knowledge of the subject, and in plain language whether the merits and demerits of ‘Pre-Raphaelites’ cannot be pointed out and rendered clear and understandable.

"What is the aim of Art in its earliest, its simplest (or as our author would phrase it, its lisping) attempts? The representation of some object perceptible to the eye, and intelligible to the mind of a spectator. What are the means employed? Imitation by some process of Art of all the parts and particulars of which the object is occularly [sic] made up. This representation in the artistic essentials of form, colour and texture, and variously affected by light, constitutes Art in its very existence; and in its modifications and combinations, the sum and substance of its manifold attributes, and furnishes the catalogue of its merits and its claims to the homage and respect of mankind!

"The exact resemblance of an object by pictorial means, was in the commencement of the Art all that the painter aimed at or knew of the work he had to perform; it was all he cared about, all that was looked for or expected of him by those who judged and appreciated his doings.

"His first attempt was to copy in detail every item, every little particular of which an object is made up. Thus every leaf on the branch of a tree, every little atom of moss on its bark, every separate weed, flower, and blade of grass, and all other similar trifles, were imitated with careful precision, until it was discovered that this was rather representing what the mind knew, than what the eye saw; and that it was impossible, without purposely singling out such matters to see them but in masses and groups. This practice, therefore, if it imitated the nature of the thing, failed in imitation of the eye that saw them, and the faculty exercised in that operation.

"As the painter extended his operations and his sphere of observation and reflection at the same time, he became sensible that the same object assumed a character more or less pleasing in accordance with the aspect chosen, and the light in which it was seen. Presently he began to perceive that its appearance was affected, and rendered more or less striking and agreeable by the neighbouring influence of certain things, seen in connexion with it, placed near it, or removed to a distance. It was some time, of course, before the lookers-on could see this, but in the course of time they began to get a glimmer of this light, and thence found themselves unconsciously in possession of the first item of taste.

"From one object the painter proceeded to another, from single to double examples; from simple to complex, and from one to many, from the separate to the combined.

"Now it is very natural to suppose, and such was really the fact, that the many were treated exactly the same as the few and the single: the multiplied, simply increasing the labour as in the complex, and the parts, instead of being parts of a whole, were made to appear independent of it, and to exist for themselves.

"For a long series of years, and through a vast waste of life and exertion, the painters continued thus to practise their Art, occasionally, no doubt, catching a glimpse of the light which shone bright in the far, far distance, and whose rays had yet to penetrate the obscure space that lay between.

"That this practice of the painters might have continued for almost any length of time, without increasing the stock of information, or advancing at all, there is good reason to believe, in analogy with the remembered fact of how long the philosophers adhered to the belief that ‘nature abhorred a vacuum.’ The experience of mankind has clearly demonstrated that nothing is so likely to retard the progress of the right, as putting something wrong in the place of it.

"After various attempts had been made, and numerous examples collected, it is very natural to suppose that the notion of combining these several particulars presented itself. Then it was that subject was thought of and tried. Objects illustrative of one idea were brought together, and the near, the mediate, and the distant, began to suggest different modes of treatment characteristic of their several appearances and situations. Repetitions of forms and colours were soon felt to be objectionable, and varieties were introduced, and hence were derived the first hints in composition and in colouring.

"Light and shadow, and tone, embracing many objects–or what in the present day is understood by painters as chiar-oscuro–were still far distant, and belonging to a very remote futurity, and as there is no difficulty in showing, were reserved for the fulfillment, if not for the destruction, of Art.

"Practice thus continued, slowly and uncertainly began to develop principles, which as is well known in all cases are results of the applied thing, and not the applied thing the produce of principles. Lights and darks began to be understood as the elements of effect, and the mode of combining them began to be studied. If these elements were separated and put wide apart, the effect was enfeebled; if brought into the vicinity of each other the effect was strengthened, and when combined and in juxtaposition, the effect was then the strongest that could be produced by their means.

"Here at once was the demonstration of a principle, but slow, languid, wearisome, and dreary, were the instances of its recognition reduced to practice. But Nature, true to herself, however vacillating and ‘infirm of purpose’ her votaries might be, went on steadily pursuing her kind instructions, until at last her efforts were felt and acknowledged, and the attempt to reduce them to practice crowned with success!

"It is very curious to remark how slow the painters of old were in making their way towards that condition of Art, which has in our day become its boast and glory, and the test of its pretensions, namely, the Art of Picture Making. With all that is good and all that is bad in this faculty of Art, now more extensively, and perhaps better understood, than it ever was at any period of the world’s age; it appears never to have suggested itself to the early painters, or to those that after some ages succeeded them. Judging from the debasing influence this power has exercised, it appears fortunate for the progress of Art that this was the case, and however highly we may feel disposed to rate it, and regard it as indispensable, it is quite clear that it was disregarded even by some of the master spirits in Art, and unknown and unpractised, until the highest condition of Art arrived, and threatened its downfall.

"I must now tell the reader in a concise way, lest he should not be professional, what is meant by the Art of Picture Making. The Art of Picture Making, then, is that kind of tact, by which a great number of objects, forms, and colours, are so treated in their several resemblances, that, taken together, they form an agreeable whole. Each thing holds its place in relation to each other thing, and all have that quantity of detail, of force, colour, and tone, which properly belongs to them. Now, this whole is necessarily an ensemble in which there are no conflicting or discrepant parts; but a perfect harmony of parts and particulars, so that the spectator’s attention is not distracted, but he is allowed to see and understand what is before him. First he is struck with the most important object, and he thence proceeds, leisurely and pleasantly, by a certain ingenious route contrived for him by the painter, till he comes to the subordinate and the insignificant. The most important object will, very naturally, be the most worthy, in short, the subject, and the

rest its auxiliaries and props. Now, the difference between the picture makers of modern times and the painters of old is, that supposing the subject to contain human figures, animals, and so on, everything introduced will occupy its proper place, and have its right quantity of force, in tone and in colour; the darks and the lights will be equally balanced and dispersed, and the tints so arranged as to produce an agreeable effect as a whole. But don’t go too near it, for perhaps, the men, women, and children have not the humanity of frogs, nor the character and expression of barber’s blocks; whilst all the subordinates are of a creation fit, and intended only to keep the principals in countenance. No consideration, no pains, no feeling whatever, have been bestowed upon any of the individual parts and particulars: all that has been attempted, is to adapt each of these to their proper places, so that together they may make up the required whole! Hundreds of pictures are annually produced upon this picture-making principle; so that when you enter an exhibition room, and take a casual glance, you are disposed to believe yourself surrounded by the finest works of Art.

"This trick has been so extensively and successfully practised, that it has become the vulgus ad captandum of taste, and being so, some of the highest aspirations of Art have been absorbed by it, innumerable artists have been found ready to take advantage of it, and thus the public perception and feeling have been rendered unpropitious to anything better.

"Now, what would one of the old fellows have done, knowing nothing of this Art-Picture Making? He would have presented you with an assemblage of objects so heterogeneously put together, so patchy, hard, dry, and uncomfortable, that you would have turned away in disgust. But stop, wait a moment, overcome your repugnance, and look more closely into them. It is the subject (we will say) of the ‘Prodigal Son.’ That round light patch is the head of the old man–the Father; and that black patch behind it is the doorway into the house: never mind its being so small that the occupier must always have crept in and out upon his hands and knees–that is a slight mistake in perspective; and its being so black is to force the head out of the picture, as people are fond of saying, an innocent attempt to give it relief. Although living in so dark a hole, light enough must have been afforded for cleaning and dressing the old gentleman’s beard, for you can see ‘each particular hair’ in it: it wants a little massing, which any modern artist would have done by simply wiping his pencil dry, and with its broken points have brushed together the objectionable particulars. But look at that care-worn face, that wrinkled, but still open forehead, and those furrowed cheeks, which have been the ‘channels of floods of tears;’ that nose with its wide nostrils, that tells of passions in other days indulged, and no doubt transmitted. Look at that generous mouth, that could not refuse a solicited indulgence, scarcely one unsought; see what heart there is in it, what joy, what forgiveness; and then those worn-out eyes, that have watched so long in vain, morning, noon, and night, that, closed in sadness, and opened in disappointment; even now they appear blurred and sightless, and looking inward, where he alone was to be seen, who is now in reality present. His old and withered hands are not directed towards the object of his bodily sense–that may be an illusion, a mockery–but pressing on his own heart, as if sure of the presence of the lost one there. And what a position is that of the kneeling, supplicating, and ungrateful Son; what an outbreak of sorrow, of love, repentance, and remorse; what prostration of self; what reliance; what confidence in him who has ever been so good, so indulgent, so wronged. How little is there, in the look and gesture of either Father or Son, that one has ever seen mimicked by actors on the stage, or even described by the best of artists in books, unless, indeed, the description is helped out by some recollection, some sad reality, some item of our own experience; perhaps forgotten, but now revived, and brought before us by the agency of forms and colours.

"But what, you will ask, is that strange round patch of orange and yellow light in the sky? Does that belong to the story? Not to the prose of the thing certainly; but if you will look into it, you will find it filled with little figures of angels playing musical instruments, singing and rejoicing; and if you pay attention, you will find some of these fanciful creatures very prettily conceived. In some there is a high degree of beauty, and even an unearthly character; there is evidently an attempt made to embody the idea of celestial nature! The introduction of this unseen, and thus far unnatural episode, is suggestive to unpictorial man, that Heaven approves such acts as that he sees passing below and before him. Do not let the spectator turn from this rude attempt at Picture Making without looking again at the marvellous and unremitting earnestness of purpose which is seen everywhere, never once yielding to any little or unworthy temptation; the painter appears to have worked at his subject as if the picture had been stamped upon his heart, reflected in his mind, seen by his eye, and copied by his hand. How else comes those still breathing faces? how that touching and marvellous look of life and intelligence? These faces are not the pretty conventional examples of humanity that we see everywhere; they are not human generalities, but individual existences–faithful, true, real, unquestionable. You shall have lived a hundred years, and been an unblinking observer all that time; but you shall never have seen in all that has fallen under your notice that face, nor any to which it is akin; and yet Nature has millions just as distinct, just as true, just as accessible. How is it that the artists so rarely give them? Because there must be the power for seizing, the grasp for holding, and the machinery for realizing them. And these are the gifts of Heaven alone!

"This, I say, and even a great deal more, is what one of the old, earnest and inveterate artists would have done, before Picture Making, according to the present practice, was thought of; before it had corrupted Art and sown the seeds of decay and death in its path; before it had become the boast and glory of English artists and been practised by the rawest tyros amongst them. Nothing would have drawn the early aspirant aside from the dignity and truth of his purpose; with his whole soul set upon his subject, he would have thought of nothing, and cared for nothing, but how to grapple with its real difficulties, and to identify himself with, and consecrate the resources of his mind, his heart, as well as those of his Art to the labours of his hand. He would have transformed himself into the father with all his new-found joys, his past weaknesses and indulgences; he would have become the repentant son with all his remorse, he would have embodied the past with all its sorrows, the future with all its hopes; and in reacting the history of their lives, he would have thought with their thoughts, and felt with their feelings; his look and attitude would have been those of the actors in the drama he had to represent, and thus his work would have become but a reflection of himself! With objects as dignified and as difficult as these, what shall we say to the painters of modern date, who can be drawn aside, and satisfied with the display of some paltry trick of the palette. With this important truth before our eyes, the ‘Pre-Raphaelites’ are almost to be commended for the possession of negative excellence; if they are insensible to the highest characteristics of their pursuit, they, at least, have not been deluded by the lowest. Allowing that the course pursued by these young men is directed by a rational fear of falling into certain practices, which are readily admitted to be prejudicial to the progress and welfare of Art; and that they are anxious to preserve the dignity, purity, and truth of nature in all its stern and uncompromising character; that they rather choose to leave objects in their crude and uninviting nakedness, than to dress them up in the prettiness and frippery of modern practice; there is yet, not one thing, but many, for the neglect of which there is no excuse, nor any explanation but that which is furnished by their blindness or their incapacity. These are, the absence of true and appropriate action; the absence of personal beauty; the absence of expression, living, thinking, touching expression, and that look of life and intelligence abounding in the works of the earlier masters.

"Again, the absence of that modification of colour and of light which painters recognize under the name of tone and tint, a mode of treatment which confers the sentiment appropriate to the subject and the occasion; these are the peculiarities which ought to distinguish a new sect in Art, one from which anything novel or great is to be expected or obtained. One sole item, one single hint, one indication, however slight it may be, that these great and rare attributes of Art were attempted, or dreamt of, would be worth all the praise that could be bestowed upon them.

"Undeniably, however, there is nothing here of what is so worthy of imitation in the early masters. With the quaintness, rigidity, and indiscriminating finish we find in these works, there is all the feebleness and none of the strength, earnestness of purpose, force and truth, which so much distinguish and give value to their productions. The labour of the old artists was the labour of love and intelligence, of thinking and feeling, persisted in, until the whole warmed into life, and glowed with the sense and sentiment of the subject.

"Some of the small life-size heads of these early aspirants, are in this respect not pictures merely, but real living men and women; you can look into their eyes, as you do into those of the ‘Doge’ and the ‘Gervatius’ in the National Gallery, and feel as you do when confronting a rational creature–one who is looking at you with the same look with which you regard him. Alas! what a lamentable lack of this, the highest achievement of Art, do we find in our own day; and what a wretched substitute is that excellence so much boasted of and so much relied upon–dextrous handling, modelling, touch, impasto, &c., often the result of a life devoted to uniformly wrong-doing without one wholesome interruption from the right–till that can be done with facility and ease, which gives other artists much trouble and loss of time to perpetrate and complete.

"We are disposed to ask with some surprize, and some misgivings too, why is our author so anxious to defend his protégés against the charge of false perspective in the ‘forest trees’ and the ‘bunches of lilies’ he speaks of?–matters, by the way, hardly amenable to the rigours of Science. Suppose fifty such faults instead of one, and the genuine critic will know how to consider them, and smile at their assailants. One perfect specimen of the humanity spoken of, and found in such quantity and perfection in the doings of the earlier aspirants, would atone for them all, and claim for the work not only the character of superiority, but of greatness.

"Yet this is what our author calls going to Nature, &c.; this is carrying out his instructions ‘to the very letter.’ Surely in the school of Nature, other things are taught besides quaint composition, rigid forms, and that confusion of parts and particulars that distracts the attention and wearies the eye. Nature offers lessons and examples of agreeable combinations of lines and masses, tones and colours; contrasting one with the other in such a way as to produce the most pleasing and striking effects, true to the requirements of Art, and to the inherent conditions of man’s nature.

"In reference to the study of Nature, properly understood, too much cannot be said. The landscape painter, desirous to represent a tree, will not disdain to take a lesson even from a single leaf, which will afford him many items of the knowledge he must possess in order to cope with the greater difficulties of his pursuit. From a little leaf he will learn the principles of light, shadow, colour, transparency, reflection, and mirrorism; and the twig and the branch will lead him to the fully developed tree in all its general and peculiar characteristics. From simple examples, the artist who is qualified by nature and study will fit himself for the nobler achievements of his Art: and as the whole stock of a man’s mind is made up of the gatherings of his senses, collected, imbibed, digested, and assimilated, so will the supply with which the painter has furnished himself, constitute his stock in trade, and become a continual source of profit and advantage. It is what he has found in Nature, properly speaking, which can alone be turned to good and general account, and not what he may search for, find, and adapt to any particular purpose or occasion. The Nature he now wants is only accessible through herself, and available not in the body, as it were, but in the spirit. It is not the servile copyist that will benefit–not the mere imitator of what is seen, but the operator in what is known and felt; not the student who is just able to read what is before him, but he who has learnt Nature’s lessons, and have them by heart.

"It is by studies like these properly applied that the artist is enabled to meet and overcome the greatest difficulties of his Art. The leaf, the twig, the branch, the tree, taken singly and detached, are but parts of a great whole; which whole the landscape painter must find in his own mind–in Nature he will look for it in vain. It is true that in Nature he will find the multiplied, the congregated, the extended thing in all its complicated varieties; but what he looks for artistically he must seek only in himself, for here even the works of others will not avail him. Whatever portion of his means he may have obtained from grander sources, he will still find instruction in all the objects, single and combined, which present themselves to his observation; in every tree, shrub, herb, and weed; in the full-blown glories of the forest, with its wild, fantastic, and delicate tracery, its endless diversities of hues, its flickering lights and shadows, its sombre and soft tones, its bold projection and its dark recesses. But who shall explain the mode by which the sentiment that characterizes the scene is derived from the pencil of the painter, and is felt by those who look upon his work? What colours and tones are there which bring to our minds the silence and the solitude of the forest, its touching stillness, or the soft motion and music of its leaves, that suggest to us the song of the birds?–that whisper soft things to our hearts, and that talk to us in a language which none but the initiated, the lovers of nature can understand?

"When and where are the pupils of Art to learn the secret of rendering Nature, not in shapes and colours alone, but in the sentiment with which she hallows and adorns the scenes and the things she presents to our feelings, our minds and our eyes? It is greatly to be feared that the illustration afforded by ‘Pre-Raphaelitism,’ which our author tells us is carrying out the instruction given ‘to the very letter,’ is not that which is competent to this greatly desired and difficult end, and likely either to hasten or accomplish a condition of things calculated to ‘found a new and noble school of Art in England.’ Something beyond this is clearly indispensable, and no artists imbued with a particle of the right spirit will fail to seek it.

"Again, this which has been said of the landscape painter, is not only applicable to every subordinate branch of Art, but to the highest, that which deals with humanity–with the rational and the sentient, instead of the inanimate and insensate, and which demands of its votaries the exercise of a power and a skill infinitely beyond all other. Just in proportion as man with the whole stock of his impulses, passions, thoughts, and feeling is exalted beyond inanimate existences in all the possible phases they can ever assume, so is the power required to render them with truth and purity in all that is characteristic of him, far greater than any other the artist is called upon to exercise.

"In the study and representation of the human creature therefore, who shall enumerate or describe the number or the Nature of the painter’s studies general and particular? or estimate how much of the exalted, the low, the little, the magnificent and the microscopic, have been included in the aspirations of his mind and adapted to the practice of his hand? Where is the artist who has not taken many a lesson from a clod, a tuft of grass, a dock-leaf, or a daisy?–and that the fantastic tracery of the ivy, with its polished leaves and shaggy stems hugging the trees, covered with their rugged bark, and fringed and dotted over with patches of soft moss, has not supplied with material for many a crouching and laborious day’s enjoyment? No one who knows anything of what is attempted and intended by artists can fail to see that the true object of studies conducted in this minute and laborious way is rather for a future than a present purpose, and that the real intelligence displayed in these, is in adapting them to a specific, well-defined and well-understood end.

"In a word, there is no precept so deceptive, so incomplete, vague and calculated to bewilder a young artist, however just and true his bias and his powers may be, as directing him to trust implicitly to Nature, and to take her for his guide in every operation that he may have to perform.

"It is true that Nature, rightly understood and rightly employed, is all-sufficient for the painter’s purpose. The profoundest philosophy of Art both in theory and practice is to be derived from the lessons she herself teaches and offers to the painter in the endless variety of appearances she presents. In the same way a knowledge of all the Sciences is to be derived from Nature: the laws of mechanics, of optics, almost every principle of natural philosophy is to be found congregated in that little cosmos–man: but none but the weak and wrong-headed would go there to find them, when the ingenuity and industry of his fellow-labourers have laid bare the elements, explained the laws, and made manifest and plain all the principles and other matters of information, both in structure and function, which he has occasion to know.

"Art is the honey which that human bee, the painter, extracts from what Nature provides for him: and you might just as rationally except chemists or caterpillars to create that delicious sweet as that the apiary of taste should be stocked exclusively from the stores of Nature, and the treasures of Art left untouched. We must know clearly what the study of Nature has done, to know exactly what to expect from it. This is a great difficulty, since painters find it hard to explain, what, even in their own personal experience, they take but little pains to understand. If we go to those great analogies, the progress of hundreds of aspirants during hundreds of years, we shall find illustrated the true character and condition of any individual case. Whilst artists trusted to Nature alone, which they did until pictures multiplied and increased in excellence, their pursuit was stagnant and hopeless; but when their unabated efforts brought forth beauties and developed new principles and rules of practice, these added additional stimulants, fresh knowledge, new powers and resources, and Art progressed.

"Now as the Pre-Raphaelites imitate no ‘pictures [;] they paint from Nature only,’ it may not be entirely useless to recommend to their attention, reflection and study, the substance of a remark made by an artist, who will be allowed to know something of the subject in question. In that free intercourse and discussion which artists hold with each other, Sir Edwin Landseer remarked to me, THAT HE HAD SPOILED MANY OF HIS PICTURES BY ADHERING TOO CLOSELY TO NATURE!

* A Reply to the Author of "Modern Painters," in his "Defence of Pre-Raphaelitism," by E. V. Rippingille, will be published in a few days.


This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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