[Stillman, William.] "Pre-Raphaelitism." Crayon 1 (4 Apr. 1855), 219-220.

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NEW YORK, March 23, 1855.

MESSRS. EDITORS:--As the term "pre-Raphaelite" has become a "household word" in Art criticism, and as many of your non-Artist readers may be in an equally unenlightened state, will you, in your next number, please explain the exact meaning of the term, provided it can be done without encroaching too much upon your space, and thus oblige


We have hesitated to enter on the subject of Pre-Raphaelitism, although solicited to do so many times, because we hoped for a communication from an English contributor, who is better acquainted with the school called Pre-Raphaelite and its works than we are; but, as the article has not come, we will do our best to give the information desired, and if we are not exactly right, our English correspondent will correct us.

The name "Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood" was assumed by a fraternity of young artists, who, being of more than usual earnestness, had become disgusted with the shallow and conventional simulation of Art which seemed to command the public taste and patronage of England, and, feeling that the namby-pamby spirit which actuated the great majority of the artists, had nothing in common with the sincerity and intensity in which the great artists of the past had arisen, they determined to go back to first principles, and reject entirely the teachings of artists, working out their own solution of the problem of the representation of Nature. Justly assuming that conventionalism began with Raphael, they assumed the name Pre-Raphaelite to signify their determination to go behind conventionalism and represent what they saw as justly as possible. Their works were immediately marked by their intensity of thought and elaborateness of finish, rivalling, in this respect the mediæval painters whom their name connected them with. They seemed to defy all limit to the elaboration of detail, and carried it, in fact, to a point an unpractised eye can scarcely appreciate–to a rivalry with the works of Durer and Bellini.

But following on this exceeding faithfulness of study, came necessarily a certain hardness and rigidity of their forms, and a want of grace which made their pictures sometimes seem little less than grotesque. This peculiarity cannot be understood in its nature and causes by any one who has not, like the Pre-Raphaelites, attempted to be absolutely true without regard to prettiness or agreeableness of any kind. Such an one will have felt, perhaps, that, from the effort to be thus minutely true, there arises a constraint in a drawing–a want of freedom in its lines which can only be perceived and felt, but cannot be defined or corrected. The labored study gives a rigidity and awkwardness which is painful, but the keenest eye could scarcely discern the distance which lies between the awkward form and the graceful one–the breadth of a line would change it, but it requires the eye of a Raphael to find which way that line ought to fall. Any one can illustrate this for themselves by taking an engraving of a gracefully drawn face, and tracing it on transparent paper. Then compare the two and you will find that the tracing is awkward and ugly, though you cannot see wherein is the difference between the two.

This was the case with the pre-Raphaelites. They had, by their exceeding care, given a constraint to their drawing, which, to the unappreciative feeling, is very offensive, and in their case was characterized as ugliness, and which a perception still far short of perfect, would not enable them to correct into the absolute truth and grace of nature. There are only two horns to this dilemma–to go back and compromise by obtaining partial truth and partial grace at once, or go forward in this severe process of training until their perceptions should have been developed to that power that they should be able to see the infinite line wherein perfect truth unites itself to perfect beauty–the subtlest, noblest and divinest problem of Art.

The true definition of pre-Raphaelitism then, is that it is a phase of Art preliminary to the attainment of the ideal of truth and beauty–not desirable in itself and for itself, but as a condition of Art, preparatory to something most desirable, and which can in no otherwise be attained than through this unfaltering devotion to truth, though it were temporarily repulsive in all its results.

This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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