[Stillman, William.] "Pre-Raphaelitism and Its Lessons." Crayon 1.16 (18 Apr. 1855), 1-2.

full text

In a reply to a correspondent a couple of weeks since, we gave at some length our ideas of the movement in Art known as Pre-Raphaelitism, but, necessarily, not entering so fully into the philosophy of the thing as we should have done with more leisure. There are some trains of thought connected with the subject which we will now endeavor to follow out, and make of more practical use to our artists and amateurs.

We stated Pre-Raphaelitism to be a preliminary state of Art-study. We do not imagine that one of its advocates ever considered that he had attained the end of Art in embracing what is known by that title, and the rapid progress of the school towards higher beauty and fuller power, proves that they were not content to remain in it. It is most essentially an educational or preparatory state, and as such, notable for two qualities which we intend now to consider, with reference to the results of this education.

The first is–conscientiousness–the rigid adherence to that which the artists sees in Nature and considers worthy of imitation by Art–a contempt of the smooth-glozed falsehoods of popular Art, and all those points which weak artists resort to to catch the applause of the weak and thoughtless–glitter of apparel, and show of sanctity or emotion. The P. R. B., as they were popularly called, painted what they had before them as truly as their faculties would admit, adhering in all cases to portraiture of their models, believing that Nature’s imperfections even, were better than their perfections. No specious allurements of a superficial beauty or false ideality could take them from this–truth, and, if truth and beauty are inconsistent, truth only, was the sentiment in which they labored, and for which they defied the authority of fashion and the criticisms of the thoughtless. With faces turning neither for calls at the right or left (rather from the calls, if turning at all) they pushed on, with an energy indomitable by labor or neglect, to what they believed to be the supreme good of Art, perhaps not knowing fully what that was, but full of faith that it was to be found in the pursuit of truth alone.

The second is–intensity. Pre-Raphaelitism, indeed, seems to us like an awakening of Art from a long sleep, when, for the first time recognizing the features of his loved Nature, his embrace is so ardent that no fold of her garment, no hair of her head, no grain of dust on her feet even, could escape his loving regard, but reverencing, adoring everything pertaining to her, he worships his supreme devotion and self-forgetfulness. It is that love which "clasps everything it embraces so hard that it crushes it if it be hollow," that characterizes Pre-Raphaelitism, and as all but truth is hollow, so all but truth was crushed. The intensity of the new school is indeed a thing to be considered, how in all her details, even to the painting of single hairs, and the individualizing of leaves on a forest tree, they followed Nature, and this not with the careless hands and idle hearts of many of their contemporaries, but with an earnestness that made their hands tremble and seem weak, and made power itself timid.

These were the qualities which divided the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood from all other modern schools of Art, and linked them to the glorious elder brethren, who wrought in the love and fear of God–as they in the love and reverence of Nature. It was a bold experiment on a grand scale, and let us see, for our own profit, how it has resulted.

There are two way in which we may examine it–in fact, two kinds of success to be reached by it–success in attaining true excellence; and in commanding the respect of the world. We were in England in the year when Millais’ Christ in the Carpenter’s Shop, was exhibited–a picture which displayed all of the imperfections of the preparatory state, in a remarkable degree. The picture was awkward in composition, ugly in expression, and heavy in color–but conscientious and intense to such a degree, that it commanded the respect of the hanging committee, who placed it on the first tier above the line–a very favorable position for a young artist who had made his début, we believe, the year before. It was not at all prepossessing–but, we recollect remarking to an artist friend at the time, that if Art ever became great in England, it would be through these men upon whom, then, the ridicule of nearly all England was poured. That was five years ago; and, only two years after, we found the pictures of Millais on the line, and attracting more real admiration than any others in the exhibition; and, now, Mr. Millais is one of the most prominent candidates for the vacant academicianship. This was no slight triumph for a young man of twenty-six or seven; but, it is true that the leading Pre-Raphaelites are ranked among the best artists of England, and the school has nearly revolutionized Art in that country. So much for outside success. Millais’ color, instead of the heavy, opaque qualities it had in the first picture we saw of his, has become so pure, that he is ranked as the second colorist to Turner, and his confrères are but little behind him; and we have, indeed, never seen flesh color–the great test of the colorist–so clear and pure as in Millais’ pictures. The rendering of character, particularly in the female faces, is as refined and subtle, and expressive of masterly drawing, as with many artists who have labored, with equal natural power, a year for Millais’ month. And, even yet, the school is no more than educational. This is much for young men to do, and it teaches a lesson worth ten times all the lessons you can get in all the academies of Europe, viz. that conscientiousness and intensity are the noblest masters in Art. Will our school study this lesson of Pre-Raphaelitism?

But, since it is in its rendering of detail that the school has most received attention, it is worth while to consider further the objections commonly urged against the minuteness of which we have spoken. It is true that the rendering of detail is not the object of Art–for, when you have learned all the objects in Nature, and can repeat them with entire correctness and ease, you have still only acquired the means of expressing ideas–you have not attained Art or the Ideal–not even to the full meaning of the actual, because, under all this surface detail, there is laid a greater truth–the harmony of all things with each other. But, how will you express the greater truth before unrolling the case which contains it? And, how further can you feel the grandeur and beauty of the great, where you have not measured fully the little? Detail is not the end of Art, but it is the means of it–as indispensable to it, as the knowledge of our letters to learning to write?


This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

Return to the list of reviews