"The English Pre-Raphaelites." Review. Crayon 2 (26 Mar. 1856), 96.

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The Eclectic Review, for January 1856, contains an article on the above topic, from which we will extract or condense a few passages. It purports to review three books–Leslie’s Hand-Book, Ruskin’s Edinburgh Lectures, and "Art and Poetry, being thoughts towards Nature. Conducted principally by Artists. London, 1850."

The writer supposes a suit in Court. The P. R. Brotherhood, through "Art and Poetry," being the plaintiffs. Ruskin is their volunteer counsel. Leslie is for the opposite side; the defendants upholding Raphael and those who acknowledge his authority. If the plaintiffs win, the decisions of three centuries are overthrown. The words of the plaintiffs are but a prelude and apology for their works. Ruskin opens the case. "Raphael worked exclusively in the ancient and stern mediæval manner, till he decorated his first chamber in the Vatican; and wrote upon its walls the Mene Tekel Upharsin of the arts of Christianity. On the wall he placed the kingdom of Theology, presided over by Christ; on the side wall he placed the kingdom of Poetry, presided over by Apollo. Here the intellects and art of Italy date their degradation, because he elevated the creation of fancy on the one wall to the same rank as the subjects of faith upon the other. The mediæval principles held [sic] up to Raphael, and the modern principles led down from him." Mediæval art was religious, modern art profane; the former confirmed Christ, the other denies Him.

The P. R. epoch extends from Cimabue (born 1240) to Perugino (born 1446), the master of Raphael. The modern P. R. Brotherhood consequently ignore the great names of Da Vinci and Angelo. Art and Poetry claim [sic] for the plaintiffs an unsurpassed gentleness, grace, and freedom, derived from their peculiar attachment to simple nature alone. "Parallel the noble thinkers between Giotto and Raphael with the Post-Raphaelites, and you have dared a labor of which the fruit shall be to you as Dead-sea apples." They urge their dependence on, and yet their independence of, mediæval artists in this style. "The discovery of the New World, without the compass, would have been sheer chance. But with it, it became an absolute certainty. The modern artist seeks to use early mediæval art as a fulcrum to raise through, but only as a fulcrum; for he holds the lever, whereby he shall both guide and fix the stones of his Art Temple."

At the Paris and London exhibitions their pictures have been laughed at; because their absurdities, and not their merits, are most attractive at first. Thus the strange quaintness, stiffness, and gratuitous deformity, were sooner observed in Hunt’s "Hireling Shepherd," than his deep thought and serious purpose. So with Millais’ Return of the Dove, and Collins’s Recollections of Bethlehem. The reviewer charges the Brethren with superficiality of resemblance only to the P. R. artists. The modern P. R. B. has more affinity to Durer’s stiff quaintness than to the unearthly purity of Fra-Angelico. They are Englishmen decrying their own times and nation. The early Italian masters gave us countenances which were regular, pure, spiritual, unearthly. Their modern followers give their painted faces a realistic and even vulgar look. The former gave us the ordinary type of Christ’s head, which Hunt has discarded for one in his "Light of the World" which is decidedly ignoble. These moderns designedly violate a permanent Art-law, that beauty should be inseparable from truth and goodness. Contrast Leonardo’s reverent spirit when he left the head of Christ unfinished, because he had bestowed the highest beauty and grace conceivable on the heads of the apostles, and was unable to exceed it for the Christ. The P. R. B. claim to make atonement for low features by an elevated expression.

Take a parallel from Poetry. Wordsworth held their theory, and his genius was accordingly perverted, while his best portions are in decided violation of it. Coleridge, on the other hand, shows that poetry is essentially ideal and genuine, and "that the language of Milton is more truly the language of real, because of noble life, than that of the rustic cottager. The object of poetry, among other things, is to please generally; while Wordsworth discards all attempts at pleasing, so do the P. R. B. Their works are grotesque and unbeautiful, and cannot please. They violate common sense, and hold by the commonplace. Their protest against conventionalism turns out to be gross mannerism itself.

The modern mind is tired of modern Art, and goes, for novelty’s sake, chiefly to this old Art, just as we have taken to old China, old furnitures, and fashions. As a source of enjoyment, it is commendable; but we should not so approve such antiquities as to condemn thereby our modern excellencies. There have been progresses made during these last centuries, which must not be ignored. What suited the mediæval ages may not fall in harmony with ours.

This English revival only sprung from a similar revolution in Germany, under the guidance of Overbeck in Rome, and Cornelius in Munich. A similar precedence is accorded to their literature. Their artists, however, the best of them, have studied Nature as well, and consequently have lost the inherent stiff mannerism of the school, and attained a manly and vigorous style.

Hitherto this special Art-manifestation has only been found where the Catholic religion prevails, originating in Italy prior to the Reformation. Consequently, we can imagine a revival of mediæval Art in a Catholic country, but in a Protestant, never. An Art, whose vital spirit is legendary lore, is unsuited to a Protestant age and country. Protestantism disdains to allure through the senses, and overthrows legends and traditions, by a stern appeal to the law and the testimony; and, therefore, an attempted revival of mediæval Art is a great anomaly.

Genuine vital Art must be the expression of its age. All that is valuable in mediæval Art is its spirit, and that is counter to the whole tenor and purport of the religion, science, and philosophy of our days. If our modern Art wants the infusion of soul, it must be the soul of this nineteenth century. High Art is not necessarily extinct because "holy families" are not in vogue. All families are holy where God and His truth reigns.

The P. R. B. have noble purposes, but too exclusive means. "Beauty came, indeed, once into the world a perfect shape most glorious to look on, but her lovely form, hewn into a thousand pieces, is now scattered to the four winds of Heaven. It is the last sad office of her friends to gather them together, and mould them into an immortal feature of loveliness and perfection." The P. R. B. should, then, search beyond the narrow confines of one age and country. Mr. Ruskin rejoins–"When the entire purpose of Art was moral teaching, it naturally took Truth for its first object, and Beauty and the pleasures resulting from Beauty for its second. But, when it lost all purpose of moral teaching, it as naturally took Beauty for its first object, and Truth for its second."

Art was rightly didactic before printing was invented, when painting was used to inculcate moral truth and scriptural history; now, books can do this, and Art can claim, with Ruskin himself, that Beauty by Divine appointment is one of the elements by which the human soul is continually sustained. There should be no enmity between Truth and Beauty, although there are distinctions. There is the truth (fact) of science and the truth of a poem–truths of intellect and truths of emotions. Truth warmed by the intromission of soul and love becomes Beauty, which is the essential element of Art. Simple truth (fact) is Science; fact, plus Beauty, is Art.

This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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