"The Exhibition of the Royal Academy." Illustrated London News 20.558 (8 May 1852), 368-369.

excerpt, with illustration

. . . The multitude of independent artists have come in in fuller force than ever; and whilst the Academy seems to have abandoned its province as a school, there are those who threaten to introduce a school of their own, which, if it succeed, will displace many laurels, and despoil of fame and authority many who are now in high place. We allude, of course, to the small knot of "Pre-Raffaelites," as they are termed by many who do not fully understand what is implied in the term; and who, whilst they this year marshal in greater numbers than ever, have also managed to dismiss some of the wilder points of eccentricity which laid them open to ridicule on former occasions. As it is, they have certainly much to get rid of, and much naturalness to embody with their painstaking art. But for all this, let us not be too lavish with our jibs against Pre-Raffaelitism, nor, indeed, presume to say that there is anything so excellent in the "school" of the present day, that it may not be improved by a diligent search after other models and principles. Though it is undoubtedly true that ar[t] arrived at a culminating point of excellence in the day of Raffael’s prime, it is also a melancholy fact that its decadence in the three centuries which have elapsed since, has been much greater in degree than its rapid advance in the century preceding that great master; and that at the present time we wholly lack power and principles of action in essentials of art, which Raffael’s predecessors were possessed of, though it remained for him to combine them all, and to add to them his own ineffable grace of treatment. In oneness of purpose, simplicity of design, and breadth and intensity of colouring, the "Pre-Raffaelites" Massacio [sic], Fra Filippo Lippi, Signovelli [sic], Andrea Mantegna, and others, accomplished all that honest art could do, falling on the planes of the picture, as upon an actual group. The discovery of the principles of chiaroscuro, and the introduction of arbitrary lights, and their disposal through various planes of the picture, whist it gave increased resources to the artist, also laid him open to increased temptations for stolen triumphs, in the procuration of which the natural powers of art have been frittered away. We make these observations in no spirit of partizanship, nor in any ignorance of the many points of weakness and downright absurdity which are remarkable in the Pre-Raffaelite school of the present day. We would merely disabuse artists of the no-school-at-all of the notion that they can suppress that school by means of ridicule; or that when the strong points of that school are matured in association with feelings now wanting, unschooled efforts, in which there is too often neither purpose in design nor principle in colouring, can stand in competition for a single moment.

The crowds which assemble daily round Mr. Millais’ two pictures, the "Huguenot" (478) and the "Ophelia" (556), come many of them to scoff, but stop not a few of them to scrutinise and to admire; and certainly when they quit them, and look around, they find all the other pictures in the neighbourhood "killed" in comparison–not by trick or glare of chiaroscuro, but by the intensity of genuine colouring of these modern antiques. The subject of the "Huguenot" is a simple but touching episode in the history of the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre–a Huguenot refusing to wear the Roman Catholic badge, by which he may escape the slaughter. The expression of the face of the female as she tries to tie the white scarf round his arm–a look of mild entreaty and earnest soul-wrapped affection–is a masterpiece of study and execution; that of the male figure, who gently, but firmly, resists, as he takes a last look into the eyes which speak of truthfulness on earth to him, for the last time, is effective, though inferior to the other. The scene is beneath an ivy-clad wall, the details of which, as well as those of some flowers, the leaves of which have been dashed to the ground in the struggle, are elaborated with a painstaking and realness which are among the little triumphs of the new school. The "Ophelia," sprawling on her back in the water, though equally wonderful as a specimen of depth of colouring and minute study, is objectionable simply on the score of the absurdity of the situation. Everybody knows that if a person falls into the water backwards, the head has a tendency to sink first, that it would sink the faster if the heels were buoyed up by the clothes, or otherwise. Shakspere says that Ophelia’s "clothes spread wide," meaning around her, which would have the effect of supporting the head and shoulders for a time; but Mr. Millais has not supported the head; whilst the hands are also out of the water. The absence of the slightest ripple on the water into which the hapless heroine has just intruded her presence, and the calm chirruping of the robin-redbreast on the tree from which she has fallen, are amongst the conceits of this school which common sense cannot approve of.

This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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