"Pre-Raphaelitism." The Ecclesiastic and Theologian 17 (Jan. 1855), 1-5.

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PRE-RAPHAELITISM.

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

Lectures on Architecture and Painting. By John Ruskin. London: Smith, Elder, and Co. 1854.

Art : its Constitution and Capacities. A Lecture. By the Rev. Edward Young, M.A. London: Hamilton, Adams, and Co. 1854.

In a former article we criticised Mr. Ruskin’s architectural principles and the manner in which he puts them forth to the world, as exhibited in the two first of his lectures at Edinburgh. We propose at present to examine the two last lectures in that volume, together with the author’s former pamphlet on Pre-Raphaelitism. We have added the book which stands last on our list, as exemplifying some characteristics of Mr. Ruskin’s antagonists.

The progress of Pre-Raphaelite art forms a curious chapter in the history of public opinion. Five years ago critics were divided between virulent abuse and contemptuous silence, and even those who thought they could discern powers in the new school not much inferior to the mass of artists whose works crowd the walls of our exhibition rooms, could utter no more favourable prediction than that they would soon outgrow their folly, and give no better advice, than that they should abjure, as soon as possible, both their name and their theory, and subside into common sense. Time enough has elapsed for these predictions to be realised, and that advice followed, and what is the result? Neither the name nor the theory has been surrendered, and yet no pictures command a larger share of attention and admiration than those of Millais and Hunt. They have grown indeed in artistic power, but not outgrown their principles. They have proved that the realization of those principles affords scope for the highest efforts, and has its issue in the noblest results. They have borne their full share of obloquy and contempt, and if the foundation of a new school of English painting, and the inauguration of a new era in the history of art, be anything, they have their reward. It may be of service perhaps to some of our readers, if we state in a few words, what the principles of Pre-Raphaelitism are. They will be found developed at greater length in Mr. Ruskin’s fourth lecture.

Now there is one common error which lies at the very threshold of the subject, and stands in the way of any correct estimation of the merits and position of the artists in question. They are supposed to desire the reduction of art precisely to the state in which it existed previous to the time of Raphael, and to ignore, or rather condemn, all the improvements which it has undergone since that period. And on this hypothesis it is very justly argued that art was never designed to be stationary, any more than science or politics, and that to despise progress in the one, must be just as ridiculous as it is admitted to be in the others. But unfortunately for the point and application of the argument, the Pre-Raphaelites have never denied its truth, and the most casual glance at one of their works would, one might have thought, have convinced any one that its execution evinced an advance on the great painters of early Italy, at least as marked as could be furnished by any of their contemporaries. Art is made up of principles and practice. The latter is susceptible of constant improvement, but in the former (except by the discovery of principles always in existence, but hitherto unperceived) change is impossible. It is in this respect only that the Pre-Raphaelites desire to imitate the early schools. Up to a certain point in the history of art, marked with great precision by the middle period of Raphael’s career, two leading principles pervaded its manifestations–the presence of a moral purpose and the preference of truth to beauty. The distinction between modern and mediæval works, as regards the first of these, cannot be drawn out without reference to many things which do not come within the domain of art, and we refer those who wish to follow it up to the Stones of Venice. The other is of narrower compass. In all early painters there will be found rigid adherence to the truth of nature. It does not conflict with this assertion, that there is much in nature which they do not represent at all, and much in what they do represent which stops far short of the reality. Their works indeed are imperfect, but they are always true. They painted what they saw around them, and where they are unable to do that fully, they give with the utmost accuracy what they can, and use a conventional formula for that which is beyond their power of execution, so that their imperfections and shortcomings shall not detract from the value of that which they do represent. Each successive generation of painters exemplified the same principle with constantly increasing power and mastery over the resources of their art, but the last step was coincident with the advent of the Renaissance, and when the religious purpose of the artist was gone, his love of truth went also. That love of nature which found the thought and labour of a life-time far too short to obtain a full insight into her beauty, or to fathom the unknown depths of her teaching, vanished; and with it went all desire to spend and be spent, in depicting her to others, instead of it came contentment with mere beauty of effect, the continual repetition of blue skies and still water and green foliage, stripped of all distinctive features, a generalization from nature rather than a representation of her.

We need not stop to point out, in how many ways the great English painters of the present and last generation have gone back to the earlier and truer principle, and how entirely their popularity has sprung from the truth with which they have rendered natural objects. Wilkie in the one, and Landseer in the other period, sufficiently evidence this. But the important point to be noticed is, that they have done this, in spite of their education, and in a great measure contrary to their own professions. They have rejected the spirit of Renaissance art, but adhere slavishly to the letter of Renaissance teaching. Their theory and their practice have been contradictory; and the result of this has been the rise of a school which, while in common with all great modern painters it adopts the principles of pre-renaissance art, and imparts to its representations of nature a degree of truth never, except in a single instance, reached before, does not consider itself bound to proclaim adherence to rules which it does not follow, and in the departure from which it recognises the only possibility of greatness. What their progress has been since they took up their new position our readers know. They began by simply copying nature in her most ordinary aspects, despising nothing, neglecting nothing. Every leaf of their foliage, every petal of their flowers was painted with all the care, and thought, and exactness of which they were capable. Their pictures were met with many opposing objections; first, their truth was denied, and here every spectator thought himself a competent critic, able to pronounce whether what he saw before him on the canvass was a faithful transcript of what he might see around him in the meadow or the garden. There can be no greater mistake. Nothing so completely escapes men’s observation as ordinary natural objects, not merely effects, which they may see but seldom, perhaps only once, but objects, which they may see every day. Which of us can delineate with certainty a leaf or flower even of those few plants which constantly meet our eye? Men had never before been brought so directly face to face with nature, as when they gazed on a Pre-Raphaelite picture, and they started back amazed, preferring to deny the truth of the representation rather than admit the inaccuracy of their own perceptions. But from this humble patient beginning how great has been the advance to such pictures as those of Mr. Hunt in the exhibition of last year. The real strength of the Pre-Raphaelite movement was first seen in the "Light of the World" and the "Awakened Conscience." In both of these there is the same careful drawing of detail; every thorn of the bramble is given with the same accuracy as of old, but the detail has fallen back into a subordinate place, and become only an accessory to the central thought.

The "Light of the World" could hardly be seen to advantage on the walls of an exhibition room unless indeed the majority of the pictures hung on them were greatly changed; but it requires only to be viewed by itself, or still better, as we have seen it, in the fitting company of such pictures as "Convent Thoughts," where neither eye, nor ear, nor mind are distracted by a throng of incongruous works, and still more incongruous spectators, to be recognised as one of the very noblest offsprings of religious art, in any age. And praise the same in kind ought, we think, to be accorded to the "Awakened Conscience." It may create some surprise, perhaps, that we should thus place the two pictures side by side. And we can easily imagine that in an age which considers morality to be violated rather by sin being known and confessed, than by its being cherished and practised, such a picture may be stigmatised as "improper." We own to thinking differently. We know no picture in which sin is painted so thoroughly in its true colours; none in which its refinement and deformity, its polished surface and cankered heart, are placed so unflinchingly side by side. For Mr. Hunt has not fallen into the common error of painting vice as necessarily coarse, thereby encouraging by implication the false and mischievous notion that its evil resides wholly in its grossness. He has given the truer version, and shown its compatibility with graceful exterior and cultivated intellect. But the lesson conveyed is all the more striking. The unconscious heartlessness of the lover’s face; the evidence it gives of the light in which he views his victim, as holding a plaything’s place, and destined to share a plaything’s fate; the hatred of herself and of him painted on the girl’s features; the despair that needs but a word or touch to quicken it into revenge; all this, and far more besides, go to make up a picture, to which for the sternness of its moral teaching we hardly know an equal.

Under such auspices has the Pre-Raphaelite Movement sprung up and prospered. Contempt, opposition, foreboding, has alike been lost upon it. Strong in the possession of a great idea, and of the purpose needful to carry it out, it has struggled and triumphed. In the words of Mr. Ruskin, "The ‘magna est veritas’ was never more sure of its accomplishment than by these men. Their adversaries have no chance with them. They will gradually unite their influence with whatever is true or powerful in the reactionary art of other countries; and in their works such a school will be founded as shall justify the third age of the world’s civilisation, and render it as great in creation as it has been in discovery."

We have but little space left for Mr. Young’s pamphlet; but it is a fair instance of a species of criticism which has been used with great frequency against Mr. Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites, and therefore is considered, as we must suppose, a serviceable weapon. As such, it deserves the few words for which we have yet room.

Mr. Young commences by remarking that he will not stop to "ask whether Gerald Douw was well employed in devoting a fortnight’s labour to a broomstick." The point of this inquiry he evidently considers to rest in the "fortnight’s labour." We should have thought that the question would rather be, was Gerald Douw "well employed" in painting a broomstick at all. If he was, and supposing less labour would not paint it well, that he was "well employed" in devoting even that time to his work. But Mr. Young thinks differently. Nature must be imitated, he grants, but the less time spent on it the better. He seems to have forgotten the common notion (and we think the correct one), that if a thing be done at all, it may as well be done thoroughly. The next point we have to notice (passing over several equally perhaps deserving it), is a criticism on Mr. Ruskin’s assertion, that when "there are things in the foreground of Salvator, of which I cannot pronounce whether they be granite, or slate, or tufa, I affirm there is in them . . . . simple monstrosity." To this Mr. Young makes answer: "You do generalise rocks and mountains when you call them rocks and mountains." (There appears to be some confusion here between an operation of the mind and an operation of the brush.) "I read, ‘Thy truth is like the great mountains.’ Am I to suspend my responsive feelings till I can pronounce whether they be granite, slate, or tufa?" We wish to put a parallel case to Mr. Young. We read, "All Thy works praiseThee [sic]." Ought a painter, in depicting. the works of God, to "generalise" them as they are generalised here by being called works, and so put upon his canvass an abstraction from a man, a cactus, and a giraffe? We are not confident as to Mr. Young’s answer; we are quite so as to the result of one trial of his theory.

There are many things in the Lecture of an equally remarkable character, and should our readers fall in with it, they may be sure of some amusement. We cannot recommend them to buy it, lest Mr. Young should be induced by the sale of a copy of one Lecture, to venture on the publication of another.

We are conscious of having done anything but full justice to the Pre-Raphaelites in these remarks. But if any one who has not yet considered the merits of the question should desire to do so, he will find all he needs in Mr. Ruskin’s fourth Lecture and Pamphlet, and still more in the careful study of the works of the painters themselves.


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Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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