Pre-Raphaelitism by John Ruskin. Review. Economist 9.417 (23 Aug. 1851), 933-934.

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PRE-RAPHAELITISM. By the Author of "Modern Painters." Smith, Elder, and Co., Cornhill.

Some young artists, it appears, have been following Mr Ruskin’s advice, given eight years ago, "Go to Nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly, having no other thought but how best to penetrate her meaning, rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing." They have not only gone to Nature, but they have passed by and disregarded all who have gone to Nature before them; they have followed Mr Ruskin’s "advice to the letter, and for" their "reward have been assailed with the most scurrilous abuse," that Mr Ruskin ever "recollects seeing issue from the press." We are in happy ignorance of these quarrels of the press and the painters, and have not read one line of that abuse against which Mr Ruskin, in all the panoply of war, now takes the field. Nor can we judge of it by his pamphlet, for the only example he gives us is this:–"Writers for the press take it on them to tell us that the forest trees in Mr Hunt’s Sylvia and the bunches of lilies in Mr Collins’s Convent Thoughts are out of perspective." We hope, there fore, that Mr Ruskin, in his zeal in defence of those who have followed his advice, has much exaggerated the scurrility with which he says they have been assailed; and that meritorious efforts, such as he describes, to copy Nature in all her phases, instead of Raphael with all his faults–to discard all mere conventionalism, and study only the Great Mistress herself, will meet with encouragement. We dabble not with the so-called fine arts, still as ever disfigured by the contentions of artists, and we are not, therefore, in a condition either to encourage meritorious exertions, or discourage meretricious attempts to gull the public by substituting strangeness for truth.

One circumstance we must notice, not as writers on art, but common observers. Mr. Ruskin insists strongly on the principle, in which we agree with him, that probably no two minds, or the perceptive faculties and imagination of no two beings, are exactly the same; they do not, therefore, see or perceive, and cannot study Nature exactly in the same manner. How do they convey their different impressions of the same object to one another? How do they know that they see and feel the same objects? The instrument of communication is conventional language, originating in a mutual kind of agreement, at the same time touching and naming objects. Painting is as much a part of this conventional language as speaking, writing, or printing. It is an art, and though it is right to paint better than Raphael, or Titian, or Leonardo, if modern painters can, it is not to be accomplished by rejecting all that they discovered and taught and made common amongst artists and their admirers. By discarding their art, painters discard the means of making themselves understood. How can they be sure that other men will understand what they mean by the colours and the forms–saying nothing of the laws of perspective–they use, if they have no resemblance to and are no part of the colours and forms used by other painters to convey what are supposed to be similar perceptions? A man might nearly as well invent a spoken language of his own, discarding all common forms of speech, and expect what he said to be understood. If Raphaelitism have become conventionalism, it is because the forms and colours used by Raphael and his followers are most in accordance with the general and common perceptions of the material world. The greater part of Mr Ruskin’s pamphlet is taken up with an explanation of Mr Turner’s mode of painting, and a defence and praise of his peculiarities. Mr Turner, therefore, is to be considered, we presume, a Pre-Raphaelite; and it is quite plain, from what Mr Ruskin says of Mr Turner, that this artist labours to introduce amongst painters a new conventional language or style. During twenty years, he says, Mr Turner "attempted, and with more or less success had rendered, every order of landscape subject, but always on the same principle, subduing the colours of Nature into a harmony of which the key notes are greyish green and brown; pure blues, and delicate golden yellows being admitted in small quantity as the lowest and highest limits of shade and light: and bright local colours in extremely small quantity in figures and other minor accessaries [sic]." "A stone in the foreground might in Nature have been cold grey, but it will be drawn, nevertheless, of a rich brown, because it is in the foreground; a hill in the distance might in Nature be purple with heath, or golden with furze; but it will be drawn, nevertheless, of a cool grey, because it is in the distance." Mr Turner, then, has a system of conventionalism which he has worked out; he does not copy Nature, or the stone would have been "cold grey," and the hill "purple or golden." We come, therefore, to the conclusion, with all deference to Mr Ruskin’s great critical acquirements, that if his advice went to discard all the conventionalisms established by all the masters of the art of painting, instead of only improving them, it was erroneous, and we do not wonder at those who have endeavoured to follow it becoming to some extent the laughing-stock of the critics of the newspaper press.

It is, perhaps, from not being familiar with the fine arts, that we most approve of those parts of Mr Ruskin’s pamphlet which speaks [sic] more of general habits than of the peculiarities of the arts. We commend the following passages to consideration:–


But now that a man may make money, and rise in the world, and associate himself, unreproached, with people once far above him, not only is the natural discontentedness of humanity developed to an unheard-of extent, whatever a man’s position, but it becomes a veritable shame to him to remain in the state he was born in, and everybody thinks it is his duty to try to be a "gentleman." Persons who have any influence in the management of public institutions for charitable education [have?] known how common this feeling has become. Hardly a day passes but they receive letters from others who want all their six or eight sons to go to college, and make the grand tour in the long vacation, and who think there is something wrong in the foundations of society, because this is not possible. Out of every ten letters of this kind, nine will allege, as the reason of the writers’ importunity, their desire to keep their families in such and such a "station of life." There is no real desire for the safety, the discipline, or the moral good of the children, only a panic horror at the inexpressibly pitiable calamity of their living a ledge or two lower on the molehill of the world–a calamity to be averted at any cost whatever, of struggle, anxiety, and shortening of life itself.


Let those who are interested in the history of Religion consider what treasure we should now have possessed, if, instead of painting pots, and vegetables, and drunken peasantry, the most accurate painters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had been set to copy, line for line, the religious and domestic sculpture on the German, Flemish, and French cathedrals and castles; and if every building destroyed in the French or in any other subsequent revolution, had thus been drawn in all its parts with the same precision with which Gerard Douw or Miesis paint basreliefs [sic] of Cupids. Consider, even now, what incalculable treasure is still left in ancient basreliefs [sic], full of every kind of legendary interest, of subtle expression, of priceless evidence as to the character, feelings, habits, histories, of past generations, in neglected and shattered churches and domestic buildings, rapidly disappearing over the whole of Europe–treasure which, once lost, the labour of all men living cannot bring back again; and then look at the myriads of men, with skill enough if they had but the commonest schooling, to record all this faithfully, who are, making their bread by drawing dances of naked women from academy models, or idealities of chivalry fitted out with Wardour street armour, or eternal scenes from Gil Blas, Don Quixot [sic], and the Vicar of Wakefield, or mountain sceneries with young idiots of Londoners wearing Highland bonnets and brandishing rifles in the foregrounds. Do but think of these things in the breadth of their inexpressible imbecility, and then go and stand before that broken basrelief [sic] in the southern gate of Lincoln Cathedral, and see if there is no fibre of the heart in you that will break too.

The pamphlet will of course be much read, as all Mr Ruskin’s writings on art are, but it is only a defence of Pre-Raphaelitism if Mr Turner be a Pre-Raphaelite. After Turner most is said in praise of Prout and John Lewis, neither of whom can, we apprehend, be said to be Pre-Raphaelite, because they were both forced by circumstances to study Nature as well as conventional art.

This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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