"The English Pre-Raphaelites." Eclectic Review 11, 5th ser. (Jan. 1856), 1-20.

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Art. I.–A Handbook for Young Painters. By C. R. Leslie, R. A., Author of the "Life of Constable." London: John Murray. 1855.

2. Lectures on Architecture and Painting, delivered at Edinburgh in November, 1853. By John Ruskin. London: Smith, Elder, and Co. 1854.

3. Art and Poetry; being Thoughts towards Nature. Conducted principally by Artists. London: Aylott and Jones. January, February, March, April, 1850.

In Art we live in an age of anarchy and disorganization. In the multitude of counsellors is no longer safety. Positive art-guidance is needed, and instead thereof are raised only opposing and discordant cries: in the indefinite multiplication of authorities, all authority is overthrown; confusion and strife but thicken as knowledge augments, and these last days become perplexed and dazzled by the conflict and excess of light. How rightly to read the past history of Art, how to deduce from the great works that have come down to us, laws for our philosophy or rules for our practice, daily becomes more difficult. At what epoch Art culminated? what masters through their works and teachings art Art’s great lawgivers? what are the true aims and ends towards which our modern Art should tend?–these vital and fundamental questions daily lead to interminable dispute. The public is thus confounded and misled, and the artist, driven about by every wind of doctrine, sinks a victim when he should rise a victor. It is altogether vain to hope that this battle of the schools, this conflict of systems, may conduce in the result to the establishment of recognized law; that, so what is false may be overthrown, and that which is indeed fundamental and vital, consolidated into a sound Art-philosophy. We believe, that at the present moment, great responsibility devolves on the office of the critic. It is he who is to adjudicate on conflicting claims, to weigh opposing evidence, to unravel the intricacy of involved precedents, and finally, if it be possible, to deduce therefrom the true laws and principles which shall govern future decisions, and guide the general practice. The works prefixed to the present article are opposing witnesses, or rather contending counsel, brought into the court of public opinion; and after having given to the question raised by the evidence and arguments adduced, mature consideration, we will now endeavour to pronounce a judgment which, though it should fail to settle the question in dispute, may yet tend to reconcile and remove existing difficulties, and at all events, not augment present confusion.

The English Pre-Raphaelite reformation or heresy is the subject on which we propose to treat. The periodical entitled "Art and Poetry" prefixed to this article, may be taken as an ex parte statement of the case by "the Pre-Raphaelite Brethren" themselves, the plaintiffs in the suit. Mr. Ruskin, in his Edinburgh Lectures, is their volunteer counsel, and shows, perhaps, greater zeal than discretion in his advocacy. Mr. Leslie, on the other hand, in engaged in the defence, and seeks to maintain against these radical renovators the authority and rights to which Raphael, by the common consent of three centuries, has been deemed entitled. The case involves important and fundamental considerations; it threatens an utter revolution in acknowledged Art-authorities. If the plaintiffs in the suit should win, the decisions of three centuries are overthrown, ancient landmarks removed, and great names disinherited. The question is complex; the plaintiffs cannot fairly be nonsuited on a bare statement of the matter in dispute; they merit a patient hearing, and have a case worthy of the due deliberation of the court. That the arguments are not unequally balanced, and that each party has its strongholds more easy to defend than to capture, may well be inferred by the obstinate prolongation of the contest without any definite or final result. The conflict, moreover, is not one of mere words, but of deeds. The plaintiffs enforce their arguments by example, and add to the novelty of their faith the startling eccentricities of their works: their words are but a prelude to substantiate their claims and position in the court of public opinion, in order to give to the licence of their practice the sanction of established law. Now, shall all past decisions be reversed in their favour? Do they show sufficient cause? This is the question. We put them to their proof and trial. The plausibility, if not the soundness of their arguments, no less than the undoubted merit of their works, will at least claim for the whole question a calm and considerate investigation.

Without further prelude, we will, therefore, at once allow Mr. Ruskin to open the case for his clients, "the Pre-Raphaelite Brethren." In his Edinburgh Lectures, Mr. Ruskin thus speaks of Raphael, and the Art-degradation to which he is accused of having led:–

"He died at thirty-seven; and, in his twenty-fifth year, one half year only past the precise centre of his available life, he was sent for to Rome, to decorate the Vatican for Pope Julius II., and having, until that time, worked exclusively in the ancient and stern mediæval manner, he, in the first chamber which he decorated in that palace, wrote upon its walls the Mene, Tekel, Upharsin of the arts of Christianity.

"And he wrote it thus: on one wall of that chamber he placed a picture of the World, or Kingdom of Theology, presided over by Christ. And on the side wall of that same chamber, he placed the World, or Kingdom of Poetry, presided over by Apollo. And from that spot, and from that hour, the intellect and art of Italy date their degradation."

. . . . "Raphael had neither religion nor originality enough to trace the spirit of poetry, and the spirit of philosophy, to the inspiration of the true God, as well as that of theology; but that, on the contrary, he elevated the creation of fancy on the one wall, to the same rank as the subjects of faith upon the other; that, in deliberate, balanced opposition to the rock of the Mount Zion, he reared the rock of the Parnassus and the rock of the Acropolis. . . . . . The doom of the arts of Europe went forth from that chamber, and it was brought about in great part by the very excellences of the man who had thus marked the commencement of decline. . . . The mediævalist principles led up to Raphael, and the modern principles led down from him."–pp. 213-215.

Mr. Ruskin further insists that mediæval Art was religious, and all modern Art is profane; that mediæval Art confessed Christ, while modern Art denies Christ.

The justness of his charge against Raphael we have already examined in a previous paper; at the present moment it will suffice to mark that this master is here degraded in order that the early Italian Pre-Raphaelite painters may be exalted. The comparative merits of the two periods is, in fact, the historical turning-point of the whole question. The Pre-Raphaelite epoch extends from Cimabue, born in Florence in the year 1240, to Perugino, the master of Raphael, who was born in the year 1416. The modern English Pre-Raphaelites, it is well known, claim their descent from the early Italian masters; acknowledge them as the true fathers in Art; renounce the accustomed allegiance paid to Raphael, and pass by in silence, as unworthy of notice, the great names of Leonardo da Vinci and Michael Angelo. In "Art and Poetry," we doubt if the names of Leonardo and Michael Angelo once occur; and Raphael is mentioned only as a contrast to earlier masters. As an example of the general teaching of the school, we quote the following passage from the work just referred to:–

"Let us now turn to the early Italian painters. . . . . In Ghiberti, in Fra-Angelico (well named), in Masaccio, in Ghirlandajo, and in Baccio della Porta, in fact, in nearly all the works of the painters of this school, will be found a character of gentleness, grace, and freedom, which cannot be surpassed by any other school, be that which it may; and it is evident that this result must have been obtained by their peculiar attachment to simple nature alone, their casting aside all ornament, or rather, their perfect ignorance of such,–a happy fortune none have shared with them."

Speaking of Orcagna’s well known fresco, The Triumph of Death, in the Campo Santo, the writer continues–

"Altogether this picture contains, perhaps, a greater amount of bold imagination and originality of conception than any of the kind ever painted. For sublimity, there are few works which equal the Archangels of Giotto, which stand singly holding their sceptres, and with relapsed wings. The Paul of Masaccio is a well known example of the dignified simplicity of which these artists possessed so large a share. These instances might be multiplied without end; but surely enough have been cited in the way of example to show the surpassing talent and knowledge of these painters, and their consequent success, by following natural principles, until the introduction of false and meretricious ornament led the chiefs from the simple chastity of nature, which it as useless to attempt to elevate as to endeavour to amend the works of God by those of man."–p. 62.

Now, we do not adduce this passage as absolutely false in doctrine, but as partial and one-sided, and likewise as an example of the bias with which these men read Art-history, ascribing all possible excellences to the early Italian masters, and passing Leonardo de Vinci, Raphael, Michael Angelo, Titian, and Correggio, as unworthy of their notice. The work last quoted contains a dialogue of some originality and elevation of thought, in which is found the following passage, from which the tenets of "the Brethren" are further evident:–

"What an array of deep, earnest, and noble thinkers, like angels armed with a brightness that withers, stand between Giotto and Raffaele: to mention only Orcagna, Ghiberti, Masaccio, Lippi, Fra-Beato Angelico, and Francia. Parallel them with Post-Raffaelle artists. If you think you can, you have dared a labour of which the fruit shall be to you as Dead Sea apples, golden and sweet to the eye, but in the mouth, ashes and bitterness."–p. 159.

In justice to this modern school, we quote, in conclusion, the following passage, which will serve to show in what manner "the Brethren" seek to avail themselves of the aid of mediæval works, without merging their own individuality and independence:–

"The discovery of the New World without the compass would have been sheer chance; but with it, became an absolute certainty. So, in such manner, the modern artists seeks to use early mediæval Art as a fulcrum to raise through, but only as a fulcrum; for he himself holds the lever, whereby he shall both guide and fix the stones of his Art-temple; as experience which shall be to him a rudder, directing the motion of his ship, but in subordination to his control; and as a compass, which shall regulate his journey, but which, so far from taking away his liberty, shall even add to it, because, through it his course is set so fast in the ways of truth as to allow him, undividedly, to give up his whole soul to the purpose of his voyage, and to steer a wider and freer path over the trackless, but to him, with his rudder and compass, no longer trackless or waste ocean; for God and his endeavours prospering him, that shall yield up unto his hands, discoveries as man-worthy as any hitherto beheld by men or conceived by poets."–p. 160.

It must be confessed, that unless these passages possess more truth than perspicuity, they can have but little value. However, we think, from their general purport may be darkly conjectured what these men really teach and seek to embody in their practice. It is evident that the term "Pre-Raphaelites" is no misnomer, but aptly expresses the purposed revival of an early Art epoch.

In the Paris Exhibition we had an opportunity of again examining many of the more noted pictures of the Pre-Raphaelite brethren. Now, we would ask, why were they greeted in Paris as in London, with laughter and derision?–there must be some reason for this: the reason is, that their absurdities, not their merits, first attract the general notice. A characteristic trait in the ridiculous is, that its absurdity is instantaneously patent. Merit, at least in some of its forms, may lie hidden, and its appreciation often requires technical knowledge, careful study, or cultivated taste; but the ridiculous at once arrests the eye and excites the mind. Merit may demand the slow process of reason for its appreciation; the absurd is instantaneously detected by intuition. Now, that manifest absurdity is a leading characteristic in even the better pictures of the modern Pre-Raphaelites, is necessarily inferred from the general derision which greets these productions. To corroborate this charge of the ridiculous and grotesque, we would adduce Mr. Hunt’s pictures of The Hireling Shepherd and The Light of the World. They were both pictures of unquestionably deep thought and serious purpose; yet we appeal to our readers, if the first feeling and impression on seeing these works, was not that of surprise and repulsion at their strange quaintness, stiffness, and gratuitous deformity. With the multitude, such pictures cannot fail to bring serious subjects into ridicule. We admit that further examination might reveal hidden merits; but an artist has, manifestly, no right to hide his merits in obscurity, and openly parade without veil or hesitation his conceits and deformities. He has no right to make his pictures disagreeable to the general eye, offensive to unsophisticated tastes, trusting to the fancied discrimination of the dilletanti few to raise a cry of acclamation in his favour. A picture that is disagreeable is bad, notwithstanding its technical merits. Paintings that require sophisticated ingenuities for their explanation, are but learned and elaborate failures. But it is not right that Mr. Hunt should, alone, furnish examples of the grotesque and the ridiculous: The Return of the Dove to the Ark, Mariana in the Moated Grange, by Mr. Millais, and Recollections of Bethlehem, by Mr. Collins, are equally open to the same charge.

In attentively reconsidering these collected works in Paris, it became more than ever apparent that "the Brethren" fail in catching the real essential spirit of the early Italian masters. Their professed imitation is superficial; the resemblance is only that which meets the casual eye. They have not earnestly dwelt on the works of these early men, looking through the outward form and fashion into the indwelling soul, and thus becoming, at length, transformed into the same spiritual life and image. On the contrary, our modern Pre-Raphaelites have much more affinity with the stiff quaintness of Albert Durer, than with the unearthly purity of Fra-Angelico. They evidently live in the common-place actualities of their own age and country; they are Englishmen, who, decrying their own times and nation, put on the mask and disguise of a foreign land and mediæval period. But it is all a mere outward assumption and pretence. This becomes abundantly evident when we contrast the type of form adopted by the modern men, with that of the mediæval period. The countenances of the Italian masters are pure, spiritual, and unearthly; the features well and regularly formed; the figures and characters, however saint-like and abstracted, are still living examples of that worship which is in the beauty of holiness. Our modern men, on the contrary, for the most part paint countenances of a realistic, and even vulgar type,–their characters are actual, practical, efficient; it may be, that they possess sound sense and clear intellect, but are evidently no dreamers of dreams, or seers of visions; and certainly, by personal appearance and demeanour upon canvas, evince no inward perception of the æsthetic in life or religion. We do not condemn "the Brethren" because, discarding the mediæval types, they have taken to forms of their own conceiving. Far from it. But why then assume a name when–wanting the essential spirit of antiquity–nothing remains to them but that name and a garb of repulsive austerity. But further, these men challenge censure, inasmuch as the forms they have chosen are low and vulgar. For example, a particular form of countenance, has, by common consent and general adoption, been ascribed to our Saviour. Let it be granted that this form comes with no adequate authority, yet we think it wise to adhere to it until one still more worthy shall be formed. Now let us ask, can Mr. Hunt show any such justification for his new rendering of the head of Christ in The Light of the World? Is it possible to conceive of a countenance less worthy of the character? If Art be, under any circumstances, justified in attempting to represent the Redeemer, it is manifest that a form should be adopted, which might, if possible, express Divinity dwelling in Humanity. It is true, that the prophet foretold that the Saviour should have "no form or comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him." But the Church, after much controversy, rightly decided, that the Redeemer should be represented with all the attributes of heavenly beauty. It is evident, indeed, that this is as imperative condition in all Art-representation, that to endow a divine character with other than divine attributes, would not only be repulsive to reverent feelings, but render Art a hindrance, not an aid, to our worship and our faith. Art lives in the concord, not in the conflict, between the outward and the inward, and it becomes sometimes necessary, as in the example of the figure of St. Paul, to violate historical truth, in order to fulfill a higher law. This paramount Art-law, whereby beauty is made inseparable from truth and goodness, these modern Pre-Raphaelites designedly violate. We have spoken of Mr. Hunt’s ignoble conception of the Saviour’s character: in contrast, we would refer to the reverent spirit in which Leonardo approached the subject. We are told, that to the head[s] of the Apostles, the master gave so much beauty and majesty, that he was constrained to leave the countenance of Christ unfinished; he was convinced that he could not hope to find on earth all that perfection of beauty and celestial grace which appeared to him needful, fittingly to represent Divinity Incarnate. The Pre-Raphaelites have still to learn, that they cannot, through mere expression, confer divinity on the features of a Judas. Mr. Hunt’s Light of the World is but one example among many of the utter neglect of form and elevation of type; that preference, in fact, for the revolting; that too obvious selection, not of the beautiful, but of the grotesque and degraded, which disfigures and debases many of these modern works. It is just possible that low features may be elevated and redeemed by noble expression. This is, indeed, the victory which these men are ever aiming to achieve. But why studiously select a low type, when nobility is within reach[?] The highest, purest form irradiated by heavenly thoughts and feelings, is not only within the possible compass of art, but, should ever be the constant and primary aim towards which the true poet-artist should invariably strive. This is his high mission in the world. To gather and select out of nature all the noblest, the most beautiful, and, therefore, the most true; to redeem and exalt, and purify that which is low and common-place; to correct nature’s errors by nature’s perfections, and thus to restore and reveal a noble humanity, is the true province of art.

The Light of the World, by Mr. Hunt, is no solitary example. The Return of the Dove to the Ark, by Mr. Millais, may equally be adduced in proof of our position. The two children are most commonplace in character, arrest attention solely by their absolute ugliness; in short, belong to the class of children in whom we can feel not the slightest interest. Again we ask, when beautiful children might easily be found, why designedly select the grotesque, awkward, and the disagreeable[?] Mr. Ruskin tells us that "such works as Mr. Hunt’s Claudio and Isabella have never been rivalled, in some respects never approached, at any other period of art." Now we must readily admit the high merits of this work; yet unquestionably it is but another example of the unfortunate and fatal tendency of which we speak. Why should all the forms be so odd, quaint, and repulsive? Surely these are not the necessary concomitants of thought and deep feeling. Was it needful that Isabella should be common-place in countenance, and uncouth in general appearance? Is it desirable that art should transcend nature only by invariably representing good people as proportionately ugly? Is this a fixed principle in art, although fortunately not an absolutely uniform law in nature? Was it imperatively necessary, in order to give effect to the words of Shakspeare, "Death is a fearful thing," that Claudio should be high shouldered, wooden in frame, and his countenance revoltingly ugly? On the contrary, we cannot but think that Art would accomplish a nobler mission did it seek to stamp vice and depravity with their inherent deformity, and mould virtue and truth in their native loveliness and beauty. Thus would the world of Art differ from our actual experience, as the world of grace differs from the natural man. Thus would that perfect harmony and oneness reign in the world of Art, which faith and hope tell us will one day be restored to the hostile and discordant elements of life.

We have been the more anxious to insist on this tendency to the grotesque, commonplace, and ridiculous, because we believe the error in practice arises from a corresponding fallacy in principle. This indeed was the mistaken theory which misled Wordsworth, perverted his genius, and marred so many of his works. He tells us that in his poems he designedly chose incidents, situations, and characters from common life, and purposely adopted the language of humble and rustic society. It will now be generally admitted that Wordsworth has himself proved the fallacy of this doctrine in the character of his works. The best portions of his poems, as in like manner the best parts of the pictures painted by the modern Pre-Raphaelites, are in obvious violation of the theory which they severally teach. Coleridge has successfully shown that poetry is essentially ideal and generic; that rustic life is specially unfavourable to the formation of human diction; that the best parts of language are the product, not of clowns or shepherds but of philosophers, and that thus the language of Milton is more truly the language of real, because of noble life, than that of the rustic cottager. It would be well could our Pre-Raphaelites apply the principles involved in this celebrated controversy to the elucidation of their art-philosophy, and the amelioration of their practice. Before quitting the subject, we would direct attention to another point likewise agitated in this controversy. By Wordsworth’s assailants it was stated that the object and end of poetry is to please. In Mr. Wordsworth’s preface, before quoted, is the following passage, in which the same doctrine is, in fact, clearly admitted: "The poet writes under one restriction only, namely, the necessity of giving immediate pleasure to a human being possessed of that information which may be expected from him, not as a lawyer, a physician, a mariner, an astronomer, or a natural philosopher, but as a man." This is, in fact, a condemnation of learned and abstruse poems and pictures. Both poetry and painting must speak to universal sympathies, appeal to natural and unsophisticated, not solely to artificial and acquired, tastes. Now on this ground the Pre-Raphaelite works, as we have already hinted, obviously stand condemned. But the passage implies still more. Far be it from us to insist that the highest function of Art is pleasure, still it is incontrovertibly true that no picture can either be a successful or real work of Art which is absolutely displeasing. It may, and ought to, do something more than please; but still, that it should at all events please, is absolutely needful. Now we have shown that these Pre-Raphaelites disdain to please; they are, therefore, not true artists. They might, we think, learn much that they require to know from the Post-Raphaelites, whom they hold in such utter contempt. There cannot be a doubt that the power of fascination grew with the outward development of art, that even Raphael’s greatest works are often less pleasing to the eye than Correggio’s delicately blended pictures. Suavity of manner and graces of demeanour may be contemptible when they stand alone, unsupported by more sterling and inherent qualities; but the man who shall designedly violate decorum is as unfitted for our drawing-rooms, as the pictures which uniformly disregard all the elegances and winning beauties of art are unsuited to our galleries. A picture may excite our wonder, our curiosity–it may attract notice by its novelty or its antiquity, but unless it inspire pleasurable emotions, it is assuredly not fitted to become the inmate of our houses, or the companion of our lives. We, therefore, protest against these Pre-Raphaelite works because they are grotesque and unbeautiful. While they do not scruple to violate common sense, they are content in their types to sink into commonplace. We have been told that their manner is a salutary protest against hacknied conventionalism, but this manner is, in fact, itself a gross mannerism; and the protest against conventionalism unfortunately comes in the not less hacknied, and far less pleasing, form of mediæval conventionality.

These clever innovators start with the assertion, that "the principles on which art has been taught for these three hundred years back are essentially wrong;" and in exemplification of the dogma, they reproduce a style and manner which has become extinct, simply because the age and circumstances in which it rose have been succeeded–and forgotten in the revolutions of later, and as we think, better times. We gladly acknowledge the service of the antiquary in literature, and receive the republications which his learning and research bring to light with interest and gratitude. We even look with pleasure on the ingenious and harmless simulation by which fictitious diaries in antique bindings seek to incite our interest in the olden time. In like manner also, the artists whose industry, love, and antiquarian tastes, carry us back by their skillful revivals into periods well nigh forgotten, are deserving of our thanks and commendation. We thank these men, because they do the world good service; it is pleasant, and may be profitable, thus to revert to the past. Having perhaps mentally exhausted the thoughts and feelings of modern art, and seeing no immediate prospect of new creations, the eye and mind, jaded by endless repetition, finds grateful excitement in revivals of an Art-age the opposite of our own. We believe, as we have already said, that this is one cause of the interest created by these productions. Old china, antique furniture, and in the same way old pictures, or revivals of obsolete forms and fashions, are like romances of the olden times, of special charm and interest to many minds. We would not wish to curtail an enjoyment so far from irrational. If the question might rest here, we should contentedly maintain a complaisant silence. But this Art-caprice is not permitted to live merely by virtue of our capricious sensibilities. To sanction these antiquarian eccentricities, involves, as we have seen, not only an approval of their dogmas, but an equal censure upon "the principles on which art has been taught for these three hundred years." These are consequences from which we shrink. We consequently fell necessitated to restrain vagrant sympathies, to curb thoughts which would take a flight into the past, rather than sanction by implication dogmas so ultra and denunciatory. To recur to a former illustration, we read and admit into our libraries imitations of diaries pretended to be written by the good of former days, and piety may be thus promoted, and literature enriched; but if these works were heralded by prefaces dogmatically asserting that the principles upon which all biographies and fictions had been hitherto written were utterly false, the true interests of literature would demand from us that we should denounce such vain presumption, and suppress so daring an innovation. If, then, "the Brethren" have to complain of severity, we tell them that ridicule and condemnation are well merited by assumption so offensive. If critics and artists, who have laboured zealously for art’s honour, are told "that the principles on which art has been taught for these three hundred years back are essentially wrong;" if thus the challenge has been given and the battle opened, can "the Brethren" complain, should their self-created enemies refuse to fraternize in the spirit of brotherhood? Can they complain when the truth is boldly spoken, when their art is decried as an anachronism of the dark ages unsuited to this nineteenth century; their works condemned as archaisms ignoring the progress made during the three centuries they despise, and their teaching stigmatized as not only offensive, but unsound[?] Let them learn that the reputation they rightly merit and now enjoy is chiefly owing to the fact that they themselves have violated their dogmatic creed. Thus their best works have refuted their cherished principles by abandoning and renouncing the eccentricities of their former mistaken practice.

This English revival is, after all, but the echo of a similar movement in Germany. Overbeck in Rome and Cornelius in Munich are the leaders, as they were the revivers, of the modern mediæval school in Germany. Germany has taken the same position in art as in literature. Studious, learned, and of untiring industry, the Art which she has elaborated is the accumulated product of thought and study devoted alike to the records and muniments in Art-history, and to the fundamental principles in human nature upon which Art-philosophy is built. We believe that among the varied examples of German Art precedents may be found for almost any vagary and eccentricity with which "the Brethren" may seek to astonish and amuse the public. Yet we have been glad to find that the greatest men in that country have studied nature not less diligently than mediæval pictures, and have thereby, in great measure, escaped a morbid, stiff, and affected mannerism, and attained for the most part to a manly, vigorous, and independent style. Overbeck, whose studio in Rome we visited some years since, has, perhaps, of all others most sedulously moulded himself on the earlier Italian masters. He would appear to live in the past, to breathe in its atmosphere, and thus, in his works, to become instinct with its spirit. The severe, emaciated beauty of his countenance, the saint-like loftiness of his head, with the calm subdued dignity of his bearing, are the best comments upon his works. His productions and character are, indeed, one; to understand each you must see the other; his pictures and designs are but the counterparts, the outward sign of a spiritual grace.

It is worthy of remark that this special Art-manifestation has hitherto always been circumscribed within the pale of the Roman Catholic church. Its first origin in Italy dates prior to the Reformation, and under Protestantism has never prospered. Protestantism may, possibly, in other respects afford abundant recompense; permitting, as it does, greater freedom to the mind–to it may be reserved the office of breaking the last shackles which bind Art and encumber genius; and thus, less servilely dependent on the past, enfranchised man may press forward towards the prize of Art’s high calling in the future. Protestants as we are in Art, no less than in theology, we will not willingly surrender our confidence that the true, the good, and the free must ultimately be found best conducive to the highest, fullest, and freest development of the beautiful. Still we cannot fail to mark the wide gulph which separates Protestant from Roman Catholic art, a gulph as broad as that which stands between the two contending theologies. The consequence to which this leads is evident. We can imagine a revival of mediæval Christian Art in a Roman Catholic country; in a Protestant we cannot. An Art whose vital spirit is legendary lore; an Art in which Mariolatry is the ever-fruitful source of inspiration, whose atmosphere is the cloister, whose aim and function is to inspire in the worshippers that spirit in which itself lives, moves, and has its being, is certainly in its whole life, genius and soul unsuited to a Protestant age and country. Protestantism disdains to allure through the senses; it overthrows legends and traditions by a stern appeal to the law and to the testimony, and places the creations of flights of imagination under the cold control of reason. Let it be admitted that thus truth is attained–it is not equally evident that pictorial Art is advanced. The Reformation, seeking to substitute for a religion of the senses a pure spiritual Christianity, in the blind zeal of a reactionary movement overlooked and ignored the mysterious union and oneness subsisting between body and soul; forgot that the invisible is a mental creation out of things visible, that the spiritual and supersensuous rest on the senses and the material world as a basis, and that therefore it becomes the province and glory of Art to redeem matter from its grossness, to suffuse spiritualism into materialism, to make even the senses ministers to our higher being, that so there may be no schism in the body, no disunion or antipathies in the whole creation of God. But Protestantism has hitherto overlooked for the most part these vital principles, and it yet remains a problem practically unsolved, whether a phase of religion aiming at unadorned, immaterial truth, however conducive to man’s advancement, is compatible with Art’s development. We, therefore, regard, as we have already said, this attempted revival of mediæval Art as a great anomaly.

The Art of the middle ages was the expression and product of the times in which it rose. All genuine vital Art must be so. To reproduce the mere outward form and fashion of mediæval works is to feed on the husks and leave the grain. Now, the outward form and embodiment of the early works evince a technical Art condition as infantile and immature as middle-age science itself. To revert to mediæval times, therefore, for instruction in the materialism and technicalities of Art is about as reasonable as to search among the manuscripts of monasteries for the construction of the telescope or the manufacture of chronometers. All that is valuable in mediæval Art is its spirit; and that spirit, as we have seen, is counter to the whole tenour and purport of the religion, science, and philosophy of the days in which we live. When these modern "Brethren" speak, then, of these ancient works as containing all that is needful for the salvation of their country’s Art, it is evident that they read amiss the spirit of our times, and the agencies and thoughts which are struggling for expression. Our modern Art chiefly wants the infusion of soul, but it must be the soul of this nineteenth century, not that of the middle ages, which is dead. Our age in the mighty forces at work, in the tragedies not less than the achievements of our civilization, is calling for a painter as it needs the poet to give expression to its energies in the highest Art. High Art is not necessarily extinct because Holy Families are not seen on the walls of our Academy. Raphael himself, born an Englishman in the nineteenth century instead of an Italian in the fifteenth, would have given to his genius a largeness and expansion fitted to these later and freer times. He probably would have felt that all families are holy where God and his truth rules and reigns, and might, even in these days, or, indeed, equally in any time, have won for himself the epithet, "divine," by seizing on the essential and true dignity inherent in general humanity.

"The Brethren," are evidently moved by high thoughts, and so far merit our respect. They have earnestly questioned how best out of the past may be educed [sic] and Art worthy of England’s future. The intention and purpose are noble, but they have sought their end by means too exclusive and circumscribed. The metaphor in which Milton likened the dismembered form of truth to the mangled body of Osiris, is equally applicable to beauty. We venture to adapt the figure to our present purpose. Beauty came, indeed, once into the world in 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 becomes the last sad office of the friends of beauty, wandering up and down, to gather together limb by limb still as they can find them, hoping to bring together every joint and member, and mould them into an immortal feature of loveliness and perfection. Let ‘the Brethren" apply the metaphor to their own instruction. As the friends of a beauty mangled, and mutilated, and scattered to the four winds, let them not limit their search to the narrow confines of one age or country. They will not bring together every scattered joint and member unless they carry their loving search far and wide. We do them no injustice to tell them plainly that they have as yet failed to mould into an immortal feature beauty’s loveliness and perfection. The metaphor is bold, but not less literal. Is truth limited to the Christian era? Can the Christian of our day, or, indeed, of any other day, neglect; without loss and prejudice, the lessons which heathen, but not, therefore, wholly unenlightened, sages have left for our instruction? And, in like manner, was no manifestation of universal beauty vouchsafed to heathen times? Is it necessary to argue the point? Are the classic forms which have been received for ages as models of essential beauty to be discarded and condemned merely because they are not Christian? The Roman Catholic works of mediæval times, which at the present moment it is the fashion exclusively to extol, are surely not admirable so far as they are Romish; and in like manner the classic remains are not beautiful and imitable so far as they are pagan. True philosophy surely would teach us to cast aside and exclude from each the extraneous and the vicious; and to seize upon that saving and essential beauty present in these, and indeed, in all genuine works. An Art worthy of our present attainments and position must formed on an investigation and deduction commensurate with the entire cycle of Art-history.

Our modern science is built on the most extensive investigation and combination of known facts, from which no true data are excluded, and art cannot rank on an equality with our science till it likewise has embraced into its philosophy and practice every true manifestation of the beautiful, however diversified and apparently incompatible. In the progress of the sciences are there not facts which sometimes war against too hasty generalizations? Are there not, likewise, indisputable facts in Art-history which war against the circumscribed and most hasty conclusion of "the Brethren," and their champion, Mr. Ruskin? Is it a fact that the classic remains are examples of the beautiful or not? Did Correggio attain to a certain grace and fascination denied even to Raphael? Is it a fact or not that Titian outvied all previous and subsequent painters in colour? If these things be true, widen the basis of your Art-teaching, and make your conclusions commensurate with your facts. Do not presume to teach others till you have rightly taught yourselves, nor attempt to remodel the Art of your country till your thoughts are raised to the height of the great argument which you enter.

An important distinction, said to exist between the principles and aims of mediæval and modern art, merits our consideration. Mr. Ruskin says:–

"When the entire purpose of art was moral teaching, it naturally took truth for its first object, and beauty and the pleasure resulting from beauty only 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."–Lecture IV., p. 208.

He further insists that the old artists endeavoured to express the real facts of the subject or event, this being the chief business, with only a secondary regard to grace and beauty, "while a modern painter invariably thinks of the grace and beauty of his work first and unites afterwards as much truth as he can with its conventional graces." Now, as a matter of fact and history, this distinction is important and not wholly untrue. Prior to the invention of printing the multitude were, to an extent now not easily understood, dependent upon Art for their knowledge of Scripture. Art was then rightly didactic; actual truths, positive events, were thus made patent and familiar to a people by whom books and book-learning were almost unknown. This is an important consideration, necessarily and rightly regulating the respective characters of ancient and modern Art. But when Mr. Ruskin would draw therefrom the positive and universal inference that truth and not beauty is, and ought to be, the first aim of Art, we are bound to dissent from the conclusion, and will now attempt to show the fallacy of his position. We admit, with Mr. Ruskin, that a spurious beauty is abroad which has become the bane of Art. The sickly, sentimental prettiness of our once fashionable annuals; the commonplace beauty of our portraits, moulded to a low and false ideal; the disposition of scenes upon the stage in which truth and nature are violated for captivating, theatrical effect, are surely sufficient to disgust men of taste, truth, and sincerity. But God forbid that we should thus readily renounce all faith in the truly beautiful; on the contrary, the prevalence of the spurious should rather increase our loyalty and worship for the genuine and the sincere. Let it never be forgotten that, as Mr. Ruskin tells us, "Beauty has been appointed by the Deity to be one of the elements by which the human soul is continually sustained." Thus it is ever the primal province and prerogative of Art in manifesting to the world a high, pure, and transcendent beauty, to raise and ennoble our thoughts and lives by the sense of a spiritual and unearthly presence.

We regret that any conflict should be engendered between the brotherhood of truth and beauty, still there are philosophical distinctions between these two fundamental elements which the interests of Art require to be pointed out. Now, everything that exists or has existed is a fact, and therefore a truth, in the most extended sense of the term. All actual beauty, which by its existence becomes a fact, is not less a truth because it is likewise beautiful. Truth in this sense is the major and more general term, including beauty as a minor. In this the more general signification, therefore, it becomes self-evident that truth is, and necessarily must be, the sole object of the fine arts. But it is not the less evident that various truths differ most materially amongst themselves in character, and that according to the purposes they severally serve, and the relations in which they stand to the human mind, it is necessary to draw between them corresponding distinctions. It is manifest, for instance, that the truth contained in a statistical table is not just that truth best suited for pictorial representation. There is the truth of a geometrical axiom, the truth of a scientific fact, and there is likewise the truth belonging to a poem or a picture. There are truths of the intellect, and nothing more; are likewise truths which in addition to their actual and intellectual existence, obtain not only an intellectual assent, but move our imagination and emotions. Now, we will not here enter upon an analysis of the real essence of the beautiful; but it becomes abundantly evident that beauty is truth, plus something else, which something, although an unknown quantity, is yet, when found or recognized in its results, the true essence of the beautiful. A literal, bald, matter-of-fact truth appeals to and moves the intellect, and nothing more. Such facts are emphatically truths, and it is greatly to be desired, in order to avoid ambiguity and confusion, that the term truth should be taken in this limited sense, and no other. Now truth, so defined, is not the essential and fundamental aim of the fine arts. It is the object of our mathematical and physical sciences; but again we repeat, it is not the essential and fundamental aim of the fine arts. But when the cold intellectual body of truth is, so to say, warmed into life by the intromission of a soul,--when, in addition to that which demands a mere intellectual assent, is added, the element which inspires within us a certain rapture, whose highest manifestation is love,--then it is that we approach to the beautiful and the lovely. Now it is this element which constitutes the life and essential soul of art. For example, geological strata may be painted with the accuracy of a chart, but if merely true in a scientific sense, the drawing is not a work of art;--to the mere dry intellectual fact must be added a certain charm and fascination, known only in the presence of the beautiful, which thus moves the feelings to raptures and ecstacy [sic]; and then, and not till then, does the picture, ceasing to be a mere scientific record, rise to the dignity and worth of a poem or work of art. It is this element, whatever be its essence, which thus moves our imagination and emotions, to which we give the name of beauty. We trust, therefore, that we have now rendered it abundantly evident that science primarily concerns itself with truth; and art with beauty. The two elements may, nay, must, constantly intermingle. There may be the poetry of science, and likewise a science in poetry; but yet it is not less indubitable that truth, with its correlative intellect, is the sphere of science, and that beauty, with the corresponding emotions, tastes, or æsthetic faculties, is the rightful and exclusive domain of poetry and art.

We have already admitted that a sickly, sentimental, spurious beauty is prevalent, debilitating not only to the mind, but degrading to art. We most gladly aid Mr. Ruskin and "the Brethren" in denouncing this false similitude of a glorious reality. It is essential to the health and progress of art that it should concern itself with beauty in its highest manifestations. The Divine Philosophy, of which Milton speaks, must justify its divinity by dealing with the noblest truths. Raphael was not constituted the divine by the embodiment of trivial and ephemeral beauties; and art cannot justify its dignity and worth as a teacher and regenerator, till, forsaking, the pretty and the puerile, it mounts to the transcendental and eternal. Mr. Leslie, in his "Lectures," has given us some valuable remarks on the higher and more spiritual phases of beauty on the human form. The beauty of age which adorns the hoary head, is the more noble and lovely, because it is the impress of thought, the record of mental strivings and conflicts; it is, in its calm serenity of expression, the symbol and bodily sign of that rest and peace to which the just are hastening. The beauty of youth devoid of care,--the clear sunrise of a mind, with no cloud to darken its horizon,--has likewise spiritual aspects in the promise of its future, if not in the records of its past history, above an beyond the clear complexion and the well-formed features which constitute the hackneyed mannerism of the conventional artist. There is likewise the beauty of sickness and frailty, the chastened purity, induced by calamity,--that beauty made perfect through suffering. There is the beauty which belongs not to this world, which shines with an unearthly lustre in the body’s decay: a frail, tottering tenement, through whose flaws and time-worn fissures we look as it were into the mysteries of the spirit-world. Now, we would ask, are beauties such as these beneath the notice of these heralds of an Art-regeneration? Is there here no fitting sphere for the manifestation of their powers in the development of a noble, because a spiritual, Art? Again: these instances may be taken as corroborations of our position, that truth and beauty are not identical. The manifestations of age, or of disease, as facts and simple truths, come exclusively within the province of scientific observation and induction. Whether alluring or repulsive in their aspect, it matter not for the man of science. But to bring them within the province of art something more is requisite. To the mere literal truth must be added that other element–unknown in its essence, yet so manifest through its effect–to which we attach the term of beauty. Here again we see that simple truth is science; truth plus beauty is Art. We will not now enter upon the consideration of that highest phase of Art-beauty, the ideal–that type of absolute perfection which the imagination creates and Art embodies to satisfy the soul’s cravings and aspirations. This transcendental beauty, like the highest and transcendental truth, descends to earth on angels’ wings. Such ideas are but heavenly visitants among us, and soon take wing and fly away, even when most we crave high converse. They are indeed ideals–unembodied spirits which man will fail to realize till earth become regenerate. These are the conceptions through which, when actual realities pall, and the old heavens and earth become stale and unprofitable, we build to ourselves a new heaven and a new earth, our fancy-created habitation. The mind having attained these heights, it is the poet’s task to give to the subjective vision expression in words; the painter’s highest office to embody them in forms and colours.

The existence of the modern art-schism may be taken as an indication of an Art-need. It is a rebellion against felt wrongs, and will only fail in constituting itself into a legitimate and lawful authority; because, as we have said, it proves itself unequal to the emergency. It may be taken as one of those preludes which give to established authorities warning of the coming storm of revolution: if it be a faction merely, and fail to become a national outburst of the common mind, it is only because the movement is founded, as we have shown, on a partial, instead of an universal, truth. Still, however, it will probably leave some lasting impress: if not a revolution, changing the constituted Art-government, it may yet succeed in enforcing the removal of proved wrongs and the recognition of neglected rights. We deem Mr. Ruskin’s lecture on the Pre-Raphaelites somewhat ill-timed and misjudged. It repledges them and their cause to dogmas which their more recent practice had improved upon, if not ignored. Such pictures as The Huguenot and The Order of Release by Mr. Millais, are rightly entitled to the highest praise, and evince a genius unbiassed and unshackled. In a passage already quoted, "the Brethren" have told us that they seek to use early mediæval art as a fulcrum, by means whereof to raise and fix the stones of their art-temple. Now, as we have already shown, classic Art, nay, the art of every clime and epoch, so far as it is genuine and true, is a fulcrum and a means whereby they may add to the stability and beauty of the great Art-temple they seek to rear. In these last days rich is their inheritance; nature has been ransacked and investigated by our science, and the discovery of an infinite truth has led to the love of an endless beauty. Man is not slumbering within himself, but his faculties, like scouts and delegated ministers, are sent out on missions of enterprise, discovery, and conquest, and return richly laden with countless spoil. Man now knows nature as he never did before, and with the knowledge has grown a love, and therefrom arisen a landscape-art worthy of our extended science and of our sympathetic admiration for nature’s workings. The science of man, likewise, is maturing; the love of man for his brother is taking and organized form: in philanthropy, the spirit of justice and equity is abroad; a civilization, mighty for good and pregnant of evil, is marching on for conquest: man socially, politically, and religiously in ceaseless ferment, knows of no rest till he has secured his highest well-being. We demand, then, that the arts which portray human nature shall partake of this ambitious energy, this high, untiring purpose. We have seen that the Art which depicts the outward landscape has grown with the growth of science, and we demand that the forces, the movements, the wants, the destinies, the voices of praise, and the cry of woe, shall alike find in Art a recording hand and sympathetic heart. To talk of early mediæval examples as the true want and remedy for the present hour is puerile, trifling. To seek high Art exclusively in the repetition of mediæval subjects, in like seeking for Christ in the cerements of the sepulchre, when we should rather look for his second coming from heaven. It is to make Art a tradition, instead of an inspiration. While in this very hour there are high thoughts conceived, high deeds enacted, high Art need not fear extinction. If Art beat in unison with the pulses throbbing in society, it will be instinct with high life and noble meaning. To speak of revival when we want living creations, implies and necessitates the decrepitude of age, when we need the energy of youth. Let Art throw itself into the great stir and onward movement of mankind; its destiny will be involved in that of humanity, and its progressive life secured in the sure advancement of civilization. To use early mediæval Art as the sole fulcrum, is to limit your powers and circumscribe your action. In the great task make every science your fellow labourer, and bring every possible accession of knowledge to your aid. Bind science, literature, art, philosophy, into indissoluble union: in their united action will be your strength and victory. A temple thus reared will not fall. In such a temple we ourselves would gladly join the throng of worshippers: in the meantime, however, we are content to stand apart in the outer court of the Gentiles. "The Brethren," as we have already said, are still a mere sect and schism, and failing of universal brotherhood, their worshippers must necessarily remain as circumscribes as their dogmas are exclusive.

This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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