[Durand, John B.] "Sketchings: Pre-Raphaelitism." Crayon 5 (Apr. 1858), 84-85.

full text

Many people seem not to understand the meaning of this term. We do not propose to throw any new light upon it, but we will endeavor to set before our readers one or two analogies, familiarly known, that may define it clearly, as well as show the relation of the Pre-Raphaelite movement to other phases of Art development.

Everybody is more or less versed in the history of the progress of the Reformation; perhaps, however, not so cognizant of its history as of the phenomenon of its climax, which event stands forth as its great result, taking place at the time when Luther opened the dykes of conventional opinion, allowing society to be flooded with the pent-up waters of reform. But this was not the beginning of the Reformation; other and equally able minds prepared the way. Without going beyond Abelard, one of the most brilliant and popular of middle-age heretics, we find his name at the commencement of a powerful race of thinkers; men who denounced abuses, and who shed new light upon disputable points until they were resolved into established and operative truths; it was a royal genealogy of masters in thought, embracing such men as Arnauld de Brescia, Wickliffe, Huss, and Melanchthon, ending in the person of Luther, whose good fortune it was to bring matters to a popular focus, and complete the structure designed by his thinking ancestors. Just so is the progress of painting. Like Abelard, Cimabue was the first artist who had the courage to embody beautiful thought in forms of new and great significance; who stepped forward a pace by quitting the sphere of inanimate symbolism, and who painted human forms and accessories associated with human feeling, under such aspects as to warm the heart of every sympathetic contemporary. "Cimabue, instead of devoting himself to letters, consumed the whole day in drawing men, horses, houses, and other various fancies, an occupation to which he felt himself impelled by Nature." Then came Giotto, Taddeo Gaddi, Orcagna, Massaccio, Fra Angelico, Perugino, finally, Raphael. All these artists, and others not mentioned, worked from the same inspiration, that of expressing the thought which they and their times loved best in its most beautiful garb; each artist in lineal descent showing something to his successor that had not to be done over again–unless it could be better done. And Raphael, in the sum and compass of his genius, he being the flower of his predecessors, gave to the world the most beautiful creation of the most cherished idea of his age, and the world recognized his work, and pronounced it good. Raphael stands before humanity as the highest artist-type of a certain cycle of moral and spiritual growth, the onward progress of which growth is reserved to the hierarchy of future artists to illustrate. If our readers, therefore, can understand the relation of Abelard, Arnauld de Brescia, Wickliffe, Huss, and Melanchthon, who were Pre-Lutherites, to Luther, it is not difficult to comprehend the meaning of the term Pre-Raphaelitism as referring to the artists who lived and paved the way for Raphael.

What we have said above applies only to our attempt to convey to the mind the meaning of the term Pre-Raphaelitism. A glance at its origin and its pretensions is next in order. Pre-Raphaelitism originated with the English. This remarkable people, as an eminent historian says, in substance, take pride in manifesting themselves institutionally; they love to bring ideas under the wing of a material dress, by clothing them in some peculiar English law, creed or system, either of which may be known by a chosen term. Their social, political, and religious systems are the result of a law of custom or statute; no principle of liberty outside of the British constitution is held to be of any account until English humanity has grown up to it; no individual excellence takes precedence of organized social distinction; no religious movement without the pale of the established church is more than tolerated. Instead of the spirit of an idea creating its own law, so as to find instant and current recognition, no spirit of any kind is allowed to diffuse itself without undergoing the baptism of a legal or sectional distinction;–the principle of pure, stern, uncompromising law controls everything. In accordance with this national disposition, Pre-Raphaelitism arose in England, the natural result of a preceding "ism." Pre-Raphaelitism sprung up to put down Royal-Academyism. Pre-Raphaelitism is a species of Puritan reform against the cavalier pretension of Royal Academy sins. As the Puritans aimed to obtain the spirit of a good government by stern adherence to special forms of truth, so do the Pre-Raphaelites aim to reach the spirit of Cimabue, Giotto, and Fra Angelico, by returning to a careful study of "men, horses, and houses." Like the Puritans, too, they have an able champion. John Ruskin is the vigorous Cromwell that leads and sustains the rebellion, and he honestly uses his superb rhetorical weapons for the good of the cause and of truth.

We do not pretend to prophetic acumen, nor to take the responsibility of saying that English Pre-Raphaelitism will or will not rule the universe of Art. Truth will certainly prevail, but we do not believe that it will prevail in Art, at the expense of Beauty. The spirit of Art is Beauty, and Beauty is the mysterious, indefinable glory of the Good, a condition the existence of which is far above the measure of the past, and too free a nature to be confined within a cage made of the old wires–once brightly burnished, but now rusty and corroded–of past attainment. We leave such metaphysical and psychological puzzles to those that like them.

The Pre-Raphaelites have produced meritorious works, many that stand at this time by the side of the very best productions in their class of subject. But their works and aims do not justify sectarian distinctions. A work of Art is not a mere intellectual construction, to be accepted on account of its ingenious symbolism, or for mechanical polish. Men are artists through feeling, not through the intellect, and to an artistic feeling the intellect is subservient, and the prescriptions of a system are offensive. Conscientiousness, love of truth, and executive ability are not to be gauged by the microscopic powers of the eye; these qualities are rather to be tested by what they reveal of beauty, which, if revealed at all, is as incomprehensible and defiant of analysis, as is the perfume of the rose, or the mysteries of musical harmony. When Pre-Raphaelites paint good pictures, it is not because they paint in accordance with the principles of their sect, but because they are artists in feeling, and possess adequate executive ability to place that feeling before us.

This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

Return to the list of reviews