"Fine Arts: Pre-Raphaelitism." Daily News 1629 (13 Aug. 1851), 3. Full Text.

Pre-Raphaelitism. By the Author of "Modern Painters." Smith and Elder, 1851.

Mr. Ruskin has just issued, in pamphlet form, his thoughts on the past, present, and future of Pre- Raphaelitism. Mr. Ruskin seldom writes better than when he loses his temper–we call to witness the first volume of the "Modern Painters," which was a generous defence against the violent attacks on Turner. The support now proffered to the Pre-Raphaelites seems to originate from the same laudable motive. Though the present pamphlet is much less voluminous than the first, it nevertheless contains about all that can be said on the subject, with, perhaps, an overplus. The notes are prefaced by an acknowledgment that the writer had some hand in the formation of the present school, and by some remarks which are inserted from the "Modern Painters." Though this assertion may be founded in truth, we should rather feel inclined to bestow the greatest share of the distinction on Lord Lindsay, who, at the very period of the uprising of the Pre-Raphaelites, four years since, strongly advised all young men to fling to the winds all the exploded theories of schools or academies. This was, if memory serves us right, towards the close of the volumes on "Christian Art," in which Fra Beato Angelico is held up as a recluse demi-god. And he has been held ever since as such by all pictorial Young Englanders. It is difficult to follow Mr. Ruskin through his first pages, for with greater perversion of reason than usual he over labours plain matter of fact with transcendental commentary, and with a due accompaniment of paradox. Thus while at the outset we are told that no great intellectual thing was ever done by great effort; following out a parity of reasoning we might come to the conclusion that the works of the Pre-Raphaelites are no great things, as Mr. Ruskin subsequently tells us that they are intensely laboured. But even this Mr. Ruskin will no more allow than that they are of middling worth. The whole pamphlet seems to vacillate between the vindication of what is of equivocal worth, and applause of what is intrinsically bad. It is of course out of the question to try and follow the writer through his critical maze; but some half dozen pages seem to contain a summary of all that is more immediately connected with the subject. It is like an intelligible oasis lying between an exordium, on the one hand, of 24 pages–on the necessity of having an artistic vocation before becoming a painter; and on the other, a lengthy peroration on the merits of Turner, which was doubtless torn from a chapter in the long-expected last volume of the "Modern Painters." The sum and substance of this is to commend to every one the fact that two youths, of the respective ages of eighteen and twenty (Hunt and Millais), should in four years’ time have founded a school which in a measure deserves to rank with that of Albert Durer; that that school has been malevolently ill-treated, alike by the public, the press, and the Royal Academy. The latter venerable society Mr. Ruskin recommends to endorse with their signature of approval the panels of the P. R. Bs. All modern art is then stigmatized as being tainted with the grossest depravity of taste, which surpasses even that of the Renaissance. Mr. Ruskin sees in modern art, as it were, an arid desert, in which he now endeavours to set up five land-marks, viz., John Everett Millais; and Joseph Mallord Turner. Between these two poles stand William Hunt, who paints still life; Samuel Prout, of street architecture renown; John Lewis, the harem scene delineator; and finally, Mulready and Landseer. Whilst every one else had previously found in each of these a marked originality, Mr. Ruskin, on the contrary, discovers a secret link which rivets them to the same self-taught principle. In the concluding pages containing a catalogue raisonné of Turner’s latest drawings, Mr. Ruskin treats Turner, as he invariably does a dead master, dwelling on the beauty of his imagery, noting his pleasantest peculiarities, but especially pointing out to his young friends how different from their toilsome elaboration is the splendid ease with which the master expresses his ideas, be they ever so lofty. Here again, where most people would find a striking dissimilarity, Mr. Ruskin finds none; and he fearlessly asserts that "Pre-Raphaelitism" and Raphaelitism and Turnerism are all one and the same, so far as education can influence them.

As if quite unworthy to hold a place with the judicial form of criticism carried on throughout the pamphlet, the refutation of the charges brought against his young pupils are somewhat ignominiously thrust into a foot-note. Seldom have we seen a more lame or unsatisfactory defence of undeniable assertions. These resolve themselves into three heads. The first relates to the condemnation of reviving the errors of early painters. With unworthy ingenuousness, Mr. Ruskin satisfies himself that this cannot be the case, inasmuch as Pre-Raphaelitism has not the remotest resemblance to the style of early Italian Masters. Without stopping here to inquire why such a palpable misnomer was of all others selected by these brethren of the brush, we will only say that by early painters were probably meant, not either Gentile-da-Fabriano or Pietro Perugino, but rather the Van Eyck family. With that set, ante-Hemlingers would have been at once a more euphonous [sic] and a more correct appellation for the rising artistic generation. The analogy between these borders on plagiarism. As every one knows, before the invention of oil-painting, the only vehicle used was egg-yolk and fig-juice, which, under the name of tempera, required slow methods and hatching processes in finishing. Having acquired this habit, it was introduced into oil-painting, though the necessity for it had ceased to exist; would it be believed that such a method could be revived in the nineteenth century. Yet such is the case. These worthy Flemish people introduced the portraits of members of their family and friends, as well as their strange costumes, into compositions of a sacred character. This practice is once more prevalent amongst us. The old Flemish painters pertinaciously persisted in surrounding their personages with accessories which, however marvellous in themselves, were ever an unpleasant substitute for other beauties, and told damagingly against them. The same characteristic is again noticeable of late amongst us. Perfectly reckless as to whether the head stands properly on its shoulders, or the limbs, if any there be, dangle beneath the outer garment, the sole intent is to bring down mice and missals, tadpoles and toad-stools, to telescopic accuracy. In a word, Pre-Raphaelitism wants healthy southern ventilation; in Umbria alone is to be found the reality of which that is not even a shadow. Thus much we have thought fit to protest, less against those who might quietly work their way out of their defects, than against erroneous notions tending to blind them to their defects. Mr. Ruskin has shown satisfactorily in his noble work on Venice, that he has gone deeper into the subject than any one before him. Yet one lesson he seems not yet to have learnt from its illustrious citizens, painters, or architects; and that is that they ever allowed their works to speak for themselves, and never drew sword but in defence of their faction.


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Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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