"Art. VII.–Pre-Raphaelitism." Irish Quarterly Review 1 (Dec. 1851): 740-762.

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

PRE-RAPHAELITISM.–Such is the title of a pamphlet, lately from the pen of Mr. Ruskin. The phrase is new, and is applied to a style or method of art practised by a few London artists, mostly very young men–which takes nature for its model, rejecting the dicta of schools, and which is thought to resemble much the works of artists before the time of Raphael–hence the name Pre-Raphaelitism. In a short preface, Mr. Ruskin says:

"Eight years ago, in the close of the first volume of ‘Modern Painters,’ I ventured to give the following advice to the young artists of England:–‘They should 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.’ Advice which, whether bad or good, involved infinite labor and humiliation in the following it; and was therefore, for the most part, rejected. It has, however, at last been carried out, to the very letter, by a group of men who, for their reward, have been assailed with the most scurrilous abuse which I ever recollect seeing issue from the public press. I have, therefore, thought it due to them to contradict the directly false statements which have been made respecting their works; and to point out the kind of merit which, however deficient in some respects, those works possess beyond the possibility of dispute."

This fully explains the purpose of his pamphlet, and does not exaggerate the abuse which has been almost universally lavished on the Pre-Raphaelites. It is in the very nature of any kind of innovation to elicit cavil, but regard should always be had to intention. These men may seek but for truth, and if they are wrong, it ought not to be difficult to prove them so. They have bestowed infinite pains and labor on a by no means easy art; and if that labor has been mis-directed there will be no necessity to increase the pang which such a conviction would bring to the minds of these same Pre-Raphaelites. At all events, abuse never did any good, and bad pictures are sufficiently plenty on the walls of our exhibitions to make us regret that those in question should have had the outpourings of all the vials; for a spectator possessed of but a moderate share of judgment, will easily see that the works of the Pre-Raphaelites are not the productions of inferior artists: there is much to commend and admire–"however deficient in some respects," as Mr. Ruskin modestly urges.

So far as the press is concerned, Mr. Ruskin’s literary labors have been viewed in the same light as the artistic efforts of the Pre-Raphaelites, but the circumstances which elicit this are the same in both instances–peculiarities of style and a departure from the beaten track. It is to be regretted that there is not more of beauty in the artistic works, and more method and clearness in the style of Mr. Ruskin’s books; it is sometimes difficult, if not impossible, to clearly make out his meaning. When writing of "ideal and vital beauty," his own ideas seem to be not altogether determined, and some inconsistencies are occasionally apparent. His last pamphlet, however, is not obnoxious to this censure. He appears to have changed somewhat from opinions heretofore advanced, and taken a more healthy and rational tone concerning the ideal. There are two great points in Mr. Ruskin which are amply sufficient to redeem either his crotchets or peculiarities–those are, his innate love and admiration of nature, and his talented advocacy of the artists of our own times, and especially the landscape painters of England. He has effectually disposed of much of the twaddle of connoisseurs, and the cant of Old Mastership. Each generation of mankind evinces decided superiority over the preceding. Science and literature have advanced–the appliances of civilization and refinement, manufactures, commerce, theory of government, and sanitary regulations, all have made astonishing progress in the last four centuries. Art ought to be no exception, but connoisseurship will have it that the tendency of art is the reverse of onward, that having made extraordinary and rapid progress at the beginning of the sixteenth century, has never advanced since–but on the coutrary [sic], retrograde; and connoisseurship is even now fighting to the death against the heresy which dares to differ from this their darling tenet.

However, style is but of secondary importance. Mr. Ruskin writes:–

"For it is always to be remembered that no one mind is like another, either in its powers or perceptions; and while the main principles of training must be the same for all, the result in each will be as various as the kinds of truth which each will apprehend. Therefore also, the modes of effort, even in men whose inner principles and final aims are exactly the same."

He also makes a very excellent apology for the want of beauty so apparent in the works of the Pre-Raphaelites:–

"Consider, farther, that the particular system to be overthrown was, in the present case, on of which the main characteristic was the pursuit of beauty at the expense of manliness and truth; and it will seem likely, a priori, that the men intended successfully to resist the influence of such as system should be endowed with little natural sense of beauty, and thus rendered dead to the temptation it presented. Summing up these conditions, there is surely little cause for surprise that pictures painted, in a temper of resistance, by exceedingly young men, of stubborn instincts and positive self-trust, and with little natural perception of beauty, should not be calculated, at the first glance, to win us from works enriched by plagiarism, polished by convention, invested with the attractiveness of artificial grace, and recommended to our respect by established authority."

Nevertheless, it would have been better had the beautiful been more studied, which it might be, and no risk of losing either "manliness or truth:" the want of this essential has been a fruitful theme for what Mr. Ruskin designates–

"The loudness and universality of the howl which the common critics of the press have raised against them, the utter absence of all generous help or encouragement from those who can both measure their toil and appreciate their success, and the shrill, shallow laughter of those who can do neither the one or [sic] the other,–these are strangest of all–unimaginable unless they had been experienced."

Mr. Ruskin commences by some admirable remarks upon work–its quantity, and the fitness of the work to the individual. Its precise bearing on Pre-Raphaelitism is not so evident, but is not therefore the less excellent. He says:–

"I find that, as on the one hand, infinite misery is cause by idle people, who both fail in doing what was appointed for them to do, and set in motion various springs of mischief in matters in which they should have had no concern, so on the other hand, no small misery is caused by over-worked and unhappy people, in the dark views which they necessarily take up themselves, and force upon others, of work itself."

The most distinctive feature of modern society, especially in England, is the living in a hurry, which this constant and unceasing work impels to. We find that the Turk takes matters much more easily, and yet somehow he contrives to live–and live very comfortably too–certain social relations, which in our opinion ought to have a contrary tendency, notwithstanding. But with us, a man conceives he will be destroyed and his family ruined, unless in the pursuit of wealth he works himself to a degree that nearly shuts out all enjoyment and relaxation. There is no such thing as contentedness with a little moderate prosperity, but an incessant craving to engross a little of some one else’s; and thus when a man by a happy thought strikes some new path, and appears to profit in it, directly he has to endure a fierce struggle with others, who hope to engross some of its fruits. Plagiarism, too, is ready to pounce on intellect, if it appears to attract the smallest degree of favour; and this craving re-acts from class to class, until the lowermost in the scale, is forced to work to the extreme of endurance, merely to procure the necessary essentials to bare existence. Mr. Ruskin, in the following extract, glances at the proximate cause of all this; but we do not suppose him as thereby advocating a return to that state of society which debarred talent from advancing itself, because it happened to be plebeian [sic], but as pointing to an abuse of what is otherwise excellent:

"The very removal of the massy bars which once separated one class of society from another, has rendered it tenfold more shameful in foolish people’s, i. e. in most people’s eyes, to remain in the lower grades of it, than ever it was before. When a man born of an artisan was looked upon as an entirely different species of animal from a man born of a noble, it made him no more uncomfortable or ashamed to remain that different species of animal, than it makes a horse ashamed to remain a horse, and not to become a giraffe. 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 his duty to try to be a ‘gentleman.’"

Also–

"There is no real desire for the safety, the discipline, or the moral good of the children, only a panic horror of 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."

He sums up with the following excellent remark, which it is to be regretted occurs so seldom to many who by education and position ought to feel its force:–

"I do not in the least see why courtesy, and gravity, and sympathy with the feelings of others, and courage, and truth, and piety, and what else goes to make up a gentleman’s character, should not be found behind a counter as well as elsewhere, if they were demanded, or even hoped for, there."

We do not see why they should not be both demanded and hoped for, there, and everywhere.

In a paper read by Mr. Crabbe, some years back, at a meeting of the Decorative Art Society, very similar ideas to the above are set forth; one paragraph occurs, in which he says–

"We have only to compare the productions of those countries with our own, and we shall find that their staples are all connected with taste, and that our staples are those of quantity. Their’s [sic] tend to elevate the whole people in mental enjoyment, our simply aim at an increase of wealth."

With us everything is measures by money, and the fine arts are no exception. No matter how brilliant may be the genius or talent of an artist, he has no position in public estimation until the idea gets disseminated, that he receives very high prices; our ideas of a work of Art are wonderfully changed, when the intimation is conveyed, that the artist "got a thousand guineas for it;" the change in the spectator’s mind is marvellous, and he looks with awe on the production which ere while obtained scarce a passing glance. As a consequence, nothing is done for its own sake; and although at his first starting the young man of genius may have enthusiasm for his art, before he arrives at thirty, it has been pretty effectually dissipated by the kind efforts of those about him. We must hear Mr. Ruskin again:–

"I have only a word or two to say about one special cause of over-work–the ambitious desire of ding great or clever things, and the hope of accomplishing them by immense efforts: hope as vain as it is pernicious; not only making men over-work themselves, but rendering all the work they do unwholesome to them. I say it is a vain hope, and let the reader be assured of this (it is a truth all-important to the best interests of humanity.) No great intellectual thing was ever done by a great effort; a great thing can only be done by a great man, and he does it without effort."   *   *

"Is not the evidence of Ease on the very front of all the greatest works in existence? Do not they say plainly to us, not ‘there has been a great effort here,’ but ‘there has been a great power here?’ It is not the weariness of mortality, but the strength of divinity, which we have to recognise in all mighty things; and that is just what we now never recognise, but think that we are to do great things, by help of iron bars and perspiration:–alas! we shall do nothing that way but lose some pounds of our own weight."

This is unquestionably true. What charms most in a work of art is the seeming facility, and yet, withal, the care evinced in every touch. But care must not be confounded with labor; this latter is always painful, and is, besides, in the power of every drudge who happens to possess great patience. Not that we wish to decry this very necessary virtue. There is a large class of people who are unable to recognise any other excellence in a work of art than labor and excessive finish. Such people are almost certain to inquire how long the artist took to produce it, and the answer determines in their minds its relative excellence. Canova was commissioned by one of this class to execute a small statue; but, from the pressure of his many engagements, he was very slow in putting it in hands, and the gentleman called several times. At last, Canova felt so much ashamed of the repeated disappointments, that he said it was in progress, and named that day week for its inspection. At the time appointed, the gentleman came–saw the statue, which was everything he wished–agreed upon the price–and so won upon Canova, that he, by way of enhancing the work in his patron’s estimation, acquainted him with the fact of its only having been commenced since his last visit. But the result was altogether the opposite of Canova’s expectations; for the gentleman felt it as a most scandalous extortion to require such a price for a thing done so rapidly, and intimated as much to Canova, who tartly replied, that he would be sorry to disappoint such an admirer of art, and broke the statue into fragments before the eyes of his astonished patron. Mr. Ruskin is careful to guard against the misapprehension of being supposed, in deprecating misdirected over[-]work, to countenance what he calls "the favorite dogma of young men, that they need not work if they have genius." He supposes that a man of genius is even more ready to work than other people, and more apt to derive good from it also. We rather differ from the first assertion, although fully agreeing with the last. Men of abstract pursuits–such as painting and literature–are very apt to be desultory in their work, and wanting in that steady application which men of more common-place minds so generally possess. They are prone to fits of indolence and of extreme activity–sometimes getting through an amount of work astonishing often to themselves on a retrospect, and that, too, without being conscious of much effort. The more methodical and plodding have a great advantage over men of this temperament, which is that of most men of genius. But in the moments of their concentrated application, they derive much more good than do the others–being in the right vein–and matters are perhaps more equal than at a superficial glance one would imagine. Without industry and perseverance there is nothing to be achieved in art. The seeming facility and absence of effort, evident in the works of great artists, they possessed not always; it is the result of practice, of thought, and enthusiastic application. There is no more frequent mistake made by young artists than the attempt to imitate this charming facility, this power. They seek to achieve in a few months what is the gradual development of years; and in endeavouring to imitate style, forget that it is but a result–that every great man makes his own style–and that their’s [sic] can only be made by a similar procedure; in other words, they commence at the wrong end, and end where they ought to begin.

It is the besetting sin of Academies that their tendency is rather to encourage this pursuit of style–the study of art being by them much more inculcated than the study of nature. Academies are admirably adapted for the producing of a certain mediocrity in art, but are uncongenial to higher development. Scarce any of the great artists–either ancient or modern–were Academy pupils: and it has been remarked how seldom students who have gained prizes and medals ever attain to any great eminence as artists. Dr. Johnson says, that "he who follows must necessarily be behind!" and Buffon has written, that "every man received two educations: one at infancy and at schools, the other from himself; and this last is really an education." So it is with an artist–the education which he gives himself is the true and valuable one. We, therefore, entirely agree with Mr. Ruskin in the following:–

"Understand this thoroughly; know, once for all, that a poet on canvas is exactly the same species of creature as a poet in song, and nearly every error in our methods of teaching will be done away with. For who among us now thinks of bringing men up to be poets?–of producing poets by any kind of general recipe or method of cultivation?"

It is because those young men, termed Pre-Raphaelites, seem conscious of this–and seem energetically to strive by careful study of nature to substitute some better methods–that the severity of the criticism with which their efforts have been met, is to be regretted. Mr. Ruskin’s description of what is inculcated upon young artists is but little exaggerated:–

"We begin, in all probability, by telling the youth of fifteen or sixteen, that Nature is full of faults, and that he is to improve her; but that Raphael is perfection, and that the more he copies Raphael the better; that after much copying of Raphael, he is to try what he can do himself in a Raphaelesque, but yet original, manner: that is to say, he is to try to do something very clever, all out of his own head, but yet this clever something is to be properly subjected to Raphaelesque rules, is to have a principal light occupying one-seventh of its space, and a principal shadow occupying one-third of the same; that no two people’s heads in the picture are to be turned the same way [not a rule to Raphael], and that all the personages represented are to possess ideal beauty of the highest order, which ideal beauty consist partly in a Greek outline of nose, partly in proportions expressible in decimal fractions between the lips and chin; but partly also in that degree of improvement which the youth of sixteen is to bestow upon God’s work in general."

The concluding portion of this would seem to imply that Mr. Ruskin has arrived at more rational conclusions respecting "the ideal," than those he held when he wrote his second volume of "Modern Painters," in which he has devoted several chapters to an elaborate investigation concerning ideal form; and as to what kind of ideal form may be attributed to a "limpet or an oyster," and he concludes that–

"Their ideality consists in the full development of all the powers of the creature as such–and is inconsistent with accidental or imperfect developments–and even with great variation from average size, the ideal size being neither gigantic nor diminutive, but the utmost grandeur and entireness of proportion, at a certain point above the mean size."

Next he goes to primroses and violets, and so gradually up to oak trees–his ideal of the park oak, being–

"Full size, united terminal curve, equal and symmetrical branches on each side. The ideal of the Mountain Oak may be any thing–twisting, and leaning, and shattered, and rock-encumbered–so only that amid all its misfortunes it maintains the dignity of oak."–"Therefore the task of the painter in his pursuit of ideal form, is to attain accurate knowledge, so far as may be in his power, of the character, habits, and peculiar virtues and duties of every species of being; down even to the stone, for there is an ideality of stones according to their kind, an ideality of granite, and slate and marble, and it is in the utmost and most exalted exhibition of such individual character, order and use, that all ideality of art consists."*

Now we conceive the plain practical application of all this to be, that an artist is by careful study and comparison of many different instances, to find out the average oyster, violet, oak, horse, or man, as the case may be; and having discovered it, he is always to make use of that ideal form; and that this constitutes ideality of treatment. The great characteristic of nature is extraordinary variety, even in forms very similar to each other–for instance, the leaves of trees, as, if a branch be carefully examined, not two leaves will be found exactly alike, therefore idealizing them is altogether antagonistic to what we see in nature. Sheep and goats, of all animals, possess the least individuality, yet it is said shepherds readily distinguish each one of their flock, and see nearly as great differences between them as we perceive in human physiognomy. Dr. Henderson, in his Icelandic tour, mentions his surprise on one occasion when he came suddenly on a flock of nearly sixty goats which two young peasant women were milking, and in reply to his inquiries as to how they could distinguish such as were unmilked when crowded closely together, they said they knew them all by name. The pictures by David in the Louvre, are instances of this ideality of treatment. The figures, especially in the mythological subjects, are all brothers and sisters, with a strong family likeness, and the spectator cannot but remark the want of naturalness and apparent truth in the whole composition. We find Mr. Ruskin, in the work above referred to, praises

"That habit in the old and great painters, of introducing portrait into all their highest works. I look at it, not as error in them, but as the very source and root of their superiority in all things, for they were too great and too humble not to see in every face about them, that which was above them, and which no fancies of theirs could match nor take place of–wherefore we find the custom of portraiture constant with them."

This is admirable and just, but in the very next page he says:–"There is no face which the painter may not make ideal if he choose"–thereby spurring the artist on to that tinkering and patching up of nature’s work, which, the moment before, he praises the old masters for being too great and too humble to practice. Any study from nature is useless as a study, if it be departed from, or not made with extreme care: of course it is necessary to select nature–but having made a selection, it will be best to exert the energies upon imitating it, (and it will be a sufficient task for them,) and give up all ideas of improving nature, for there is always a fitness of one part to another, which is certain to be destroyed by any grafting upon it, of what in other instances might be considered better form. There is a propriety and perfect suitableness in the growth of every man’s hair and beard–the complexion, and color of eye, to his general contour, which cannot be bettered. No man ever improved his personel by dyeing his hair, even though his locks were of the reddest, nor do certain exquisites improve themselves by the strange fantastic forms the hair and whiskers are sometimes tortured into assuming.

There are many who decry what they designate a tame and servile copy of nature, and so lead young men to think it derogatory to their genius to study. It was some of those to whom Dr. Walcot held out the ironical hope, "that perchance nature might come and copy them." There is no doubt that a vulgar-minded man will give a vulgar transcript of any thing he seeks to represent, but as there is no vulgarity in nature, so a truthful rendering of it, will be in no degree vulgar.

At page 61 we find the following:–

"Many critics, especially the architects, have found fault with me for not ‘teaching people how to arrange masses;’ for not ‘attributing sufficient importance to composition.’ Alas! I attribute far more importance to it than they do;–so much importance, that I should just as soon think of sitting down to teach a man how to write a Divine Commedia, or King Lear, as how to ‘compose,’ in the true sense, a single building or picture. The marvellous stupidity of this age of lecturers is, that they do not see that what they call ‘principles of composition’ are mere principles of common sense in every thing, as well as in pictures and buildings.–A picture is to have principal light. Yes; and so a dinner is to have a principal dish, and an oration a principal point, and an air of music a principal note, and every man a principal object. A picture is to have harmony of relation among its parts? Yes; and so is a speech well uttered, and an action well ordered, and a company well chosen, and a ragout well mixed. Composition! As if a man were not composing every moment of his life, well or ill, and would not do it instinctively in his picture as well as elsewhere, if he could. Composition of this lower or common kind is of exactly the same importance in a picture that it is in any thing else,–no more. It is well that a man should say what he has to say in good order and sequence, but the main thing is, to say it truly. And yet we go on preaching to our pupils as if to have a principal light was every thing, and so cover our academy walls with Shacabac feasts, wherein the courses are indeed well ordered, but the dishes empty."

"The infinite absurdity and failure of our present training consists mainly in this, that we do not rank imagination and invention high enough, and suppose that they can be taught."

There is a world of truth in this; the higher principles of art and design cannot be taught. All we can do is to inculcate certain facts and ascertained principles, which may shorten the labor of the pupil, and become useful at a future period. High excellence is innate, it almost resembles an instinct in this wise, that the man of genius cannot tell how he achieves his result, he only knows that he does it. In the paragraph which we subjoin, Mr. Ruskin glances at the widespread and universal taste, against which connoisseurs who revel in ideas of the classic, committees of taste, and smatterers in art, have waged such fierce and justly ineffectual war.

"The sudden and universal Naturalism, or inclination to copy ordinary natural objects, which manifested itself among the painters of Europe, at the moment when the invention of printing superseded their legendary labors, was no false instinct. It was misunderstood and misapplied, but it cam at the right time, and has maintained itself through all kinds of abuse; presenting, in the recent schools of landscape, perhaps only the first fruits of its power. That instinct was urging every painter in Europe at the same moment to his true duty–the faithful representation of all objects of historical interest, or of natural beauty existent at the period."

Mr. Ruskin dwells much on the power of memory in treasuring up form and effect; but memory, even when possessed in a high degree, and coupled with keen observation, is very likely to mislead; there are many effects in their nature so fleeting, that it is impossible to take any other method of recording them save mentally–to be brought out at the fitting time; but it will be well to reserve the memory only for such, and anything that can be rendered, ought to be registered in the sketch-book in preference. Speaking of Turner’s power of memory he ash the following:–

"There is a drawing in Mr. Fawkes’s collection of a man-of-war taking in stores: it is of the usual size of those of the England series, about sixteen inches by eleven; it does not appear one of the most highly finished, but is still father removed from slightness. The hull of a first-rate occupies nearly one-half of the picture on the right, her bows toward the spectator, seen in sharp perspective from stem to stern, with all her portholes, guns, anchors, and lower rigging elaborately detailed; there are two other ships of the line in the middle distance, drawn with equal precision; a noble breezy sea dancing against their broad bows, full of delicate drawing in its waves; a store-ship beneath the hull of the larger vessel, and several other boats, and a complicated cloudy sky. It might appear no small exertion of mind to draw the detail of all this shipping down to the smallest ropes, from memory, in the drawing-room of a mansion in the middle of Yorkshire, even if considerable time had been given for the effort. But Mr. Fawkes sat beside the painter from the first stroke to the last. Turner took a piece of blank paper one morning after breakfast, outlined his ships, finished the drawing in three hours, and went out to shoot."

We would prefer to hear what the first lieutenant of a first-rate, would have said as the details of rigging, &c., for we feel quite certain that a daguerreotype of a line of battle ship, in a similar position, or a careful study from the pencil of an artist skilled in such subjects, would be infinitely more truthful in such particulars; and this we say without in the least questioning either the memory or great artistic skill of Mr. Turner. Let an artist, or any one possessing a tolerably cultivated power of drawing, make a careful study of any well known object, such as a hat, tea-kettle, or parlour chair, in a given position; we will suppose the hat, a form that is sufficiently familiar–after making the sketch it is at all events fully impressed on the memory–let him then make another sketch of the hat from recollection, taking care to vary its position, either looking down on it, or some such change; let him then place the hat in exactly the same position, and compare the sketch with it, and he will be astonished to see how much it is out: this will do more to convince him of the absolute necessity of studying all that can be studied from nature, than the most elaborate treatise. And this brings also another consideration of what slight knowledge of anatomy is sufficient for an artist: it is with the outside appearance only that he has to deal, and knowing exactly where this or that particular tendon is, or how the muscles pull, will, as we have shown by the above example of the hat, be but of small use. He must study the living model in the position he requires–no other method will serve.

There never was a period when such a quantity of works on the fine arts have appeared as at present, by artists as well as amateurs; and what with volumes, pamphlets, articles in periodicals, and critiques, if the young student is not set on the right road, it will be a wonder. But there is a proverb about too many cooks. It is remarkable that artists, when they write, for the most part modestly confine themselves to practical details, hints, and suggestions likely to be useful to the young artist, in his endeavours to overcome the insufficiency of his material; but the amateur is certain to rush into the highest flights. He it is who descants upon high art–the imaginative and the ideal–the lofty mission of the artist, and what Thackeray calls the beautiful with the big B"–until the anxious inquirer and the writer are alike mystified.* Those last have written much about the creative power of art. The plain truth is, art is vastly more imitative than anything else. The artist who follows his imagination, instead of his eye, is tolerably certain to go wrong. Pascal says–"L’homme n’est ni ange ni bête; et le malheur est, que qui veut faire l’ange, fait la bête [Man is neither angel nor beast, and the misfortune is, that who wishes to represent an angel, makes a beast]." This straining after the ethereal is a prolific source of absurdity in painting, which passes with many for lofty sublimity. This it is which has made artists represent the Almighty in the semblance of an old man, with a long beard–makes angels by well-formed, handsome young men, with birds’ wings out of their shoulder-blades. A bird’s wing is the representative of a man’s arm; therefore there should be either the one or the other, but not both; it is not one iota superior to that ignorant abortion, the sculpted Centaur, with a double sternum apparatus, two stomachs, and two abdomens! But why wings at all? they are suited only to our atmosphere–some fifty miles above us, it is contemplated–a very small portion of an angel’s journey through space. Then they give us stout, able-bodied men, sitting on clouds–those who have gone up in a balloon know what description of resting place they afford; and some show us heaven and the people in it, just as they were on earth–hats, and coats, and other raiment–yea, we are even afforded a peep at the celestial choir, one of whom plays on a fiddle! and scrapes catgut as vigorously as ever did mountebank at a fair. Yet the admirers of such natural ideas smile with pity at the poor Pagan, who places the bow and arrows beside his departed brother, in the belief that he will need them in "happy hunting grounds." But it will be urged, this is all allegorical. So much the worse: allegory in painting is abominable. It may be appropriate for a nation who have no alphabet, but with us, who are able to describe all we want to convey in a written language, it is totally out of place.

Let it not be assumed, that because we decry the extravagant flights which over-zeal impels certain idolaters of art to take, that we wish to question the intellectuality of painting, or the high mental endowments requisite for an artist. We are enemies to cant of all kinds, but especially artistic cant. There are quite enough of real tangible difficulties in the path of the young artist, without strewing it with imaginary ones, to distract and waste his energies: such, for instance, as the following bathos:–"We posses this double power of embellishing in our imagination all the objects of nature, and of communicating to our own works that ideal and moral beauty which comes from the soul. Genius does not paint as it sees outwardly; it expresses what it sees inwardly. The sense of the beautiful is the light of the mind." We would like to see the landscape an artist could produce by only looking inwardly. This twaddle is by a French writer–Aimé Martin–and passes current mostly because no one likes, in exposing its absurdity, to risk being thought deficient in soul, and by assenting, it is a cheap and easy way to get credit for lofty aspirations, and cultivated intellect. We are forcibly reminded of the fable, in which certain swindlers announced that they could weave and make up magnificent robes, but that only clever people could see them, being invisible to the dull herd. The rogues had no cloth, but pretended to manufacture it, and everybody was in the greatest ecstasy at its magnificence.

Mr. Ruskin has the following admirable passage. Speaking of the "Seven Ages," he truly says–

"This subject cannot be painted. In the written passage, the thoughts are progressive and connected; in the picture they must be co-existent and yet separate; nor can all the characters of the ages be rendered in painting at all. One may represent the soldier at the cannon’s mouth, but one cannot paint the "bubble reputation" which he seeks."

Many of the mistakes made by artists, and writers on art, are owing to the comparisons the institute between painting and writing. An artist has but a moment of time for his representation, and can only show what passes at the particular instant he has chosen. A poet can tell all that precedes what he describes, and can also make us aware of what is passing in the mind, often so much at variance with outward manifestation. Painting cannot give this; if it could, it would be false. Poets and painters often attempt what cannot, and what ought not to be represented. Nor can painters express two passions on the one face; all who have attempted it have failed, and any approach to its realization is existent much more in the imagination of the spectator than in the picture. A criticism of Aimé Martin’s on a painting of the "Swearing of the Horatii," by David, occurs to us as exemplifying these mistakes. He writes–

"There is something energetical in the attitude of these three warriors. Their gesture is an oath; they swear to fight–but for what? Here the work of the intelligence stops short. The painter has made fine picture, but no voice emanates from the canvas.

"The father who presents the swords might be considered but a drunken man; the three young men who listen, only vulgar warriors. I do not hear that energetic cry which responds to the call of Rome–I do not see the assurance of victory which radiates from the brow of heroes. All these heads are mute; and yet among these warriors there is a conquerer, a noble conquerer, who will become a cruel murderer. Where is this Roman, so eager for the honor of Rome, who, in his enthusiasm, sacrifices his sister to her? Show him to me. Give him a soul at once sublime and ferocious, or lay aside your pencil."

He discovers that they swear to fight, yet he cannot comprehend for what. The oath might just as well be not to fight, for anything a spectator can tell, who is ignorant of the story illustrated; and we thin if M. Aimé Martin found out the first, he ought, by the same rule, to learn the second. But no; he must hear the oath, or else, in his opinion, the work of the intelligence stops short. He wants to see the assurance of victory in their brows; but it may be–and no doubt this was David’s conception–that, like truly brave men, they knew well the difficulties of the task they had to achieve, and neither undervalued the prowess of their adversaries, nor overvalued their own; and in two, at least, of the warriors it would have been a mistaken confidence, as we know they were slain. Because M. Martin is aware that one of the three becomes afterwards a murderer, he wants to see some manifestation of what at the time had no existence. It may be, that in a moment of passion–although naturally kind and humane–he did a cruel, a horrible act; or, being in nature a thorough savage (which is the most probable), he acted accordingly. And because David has not made this furious savage look sublime (an utter impossibility), he says, "lay aside your pencil!" He thinks that the father might be considered drunken. Possibly, if he was a spectator of the actual occurrence, and unable to hear what passed, he might think the same thing; and this is precisely the position an artist fancies himself to be in, when he wishes to illustrate any occurrence that has ever happened: he shows it exactly as he supposes it to have occurred, keeping the modesty of nature in view, and following her where he can; where he cannot, following that in nature which resembles what he seeks to illustrate. We are no admirers of David, but we wish to rescue him from false criticism. It is odd that M. Aimé Martin praises David highly for qualities his works do not possess. And with regard to art criticisms generally, we fear it is more of pictures than of painting, that nature is not sufficiently accounted of; and that, without some practical knowledge of the difficulties of the art, and the inadequacy of the material by which nature has to be represented, it is almost impossible to estimate the degree of merit that is due to the painter. Mr. Pyne, in one of his admirable letters on landscape, published in the "Art Journal," mentions the meeting of his little son, on one occasion, with a brush and a small piece of canvas; and, to his inquiry of what he was going to paint, replied–"I am going to paint the beautiful bright sun." "Poor little fellow!" he adds, "one day he will learn that the only material he has to imitate it, is a spot of white paint."

Mr. Ruskin is quite correct in attributing much of the different rendering of nature by artists, to their different kinds of sight–the near-sighted man, as a matter of course, sees objects comparatively indistinctly–and his pictures are therefore more remarkable for breadth of effect, and absence of minute detail–some carrying it to an extreme. Men with keen vision, on the contrary, see everything, and in the endeavour to represent what they see, give us pictures crowded with minute objects, and foregrounds showing almost every blade of grass. There are many degrees of vision between those extremes, as indeed, portrait painters very soon discover to their infinite mortification, for numbers of people see the same object very differently, and hence, cannot be similarly gratified by a representation which necessarily only give the particular appearance that is evident to the painter; and this accounts for the diversity of opinions regarding likenesses that are so constantly met with. The Pre-Raphaelites, we should say, judging by their works, must have very keen vision. By the same rule we should imagine Turner to be equally near-sighted–for a greater contrast to the works of the former cannot well be; and it seems to us strange, that Mr. Ruskin should continue equally enthusiastic in his advocacy of both, for he devotes a large portion of his pamphlet in defence of the Pre-Raphaelites, to a glowing panegyric on Turner. We extract the following, as affording an explanation of the grounds on which Mr. Ruskin’s admiration of such opposite styles, is founded:–

"I wish it to be understood how every great man paints what he sees or did see, his greatness indeed being little else than his intense sense of fact. And thus Pre-Raphaelitism and Raphaelitism, and Turnerism, are all one and the same, so far as education can influence them. They are different in their choice, different in their faculties, but all the same in this, that Raphael himself, so far as he was great, and all who preceded or followed him who were ever great, became so by painting the truths around them as they appeared to each man’s own mind, not as he had been taught to see them, except by the God who made both him and them."

This appears very reasonable and just, but nevertheless there is an education of the eye, and men require to be taught to see nature’s truths. Few are aware how very rapidly objects diminish in apparent size as they recede from the eye; because it is known that objects are really not smaller, there is a difficulty in seeing that they appear so. If a man be placed at the distance of two feet from the human eye, and another at the distance of eight feet, the farthest off will be diminished one-fourth. Again, if any object be viewed reflected upon the ground glass of an ordinary camera, it will appear very small–but if the glass and lenses are removed, and the eye placed exactly where the reflection on the glass appeared, it will be found that the object was scarcely, if at all, diminished; from this it would appear that groups of figures represented life-size, are incorrect, as under no circumstances could groups appear that size; indeed it is questionable id the pictorial representation of every figure that is life-size is not a falsity, for unquestionably no artist can see his sitter of such a size, as the distance is always about six or eight feet from the artist. It is not a sufficient answer to this, to say that the picture is to be viewed at that distance, and will diminish in the same ration, because the picture is to represent the object as if at the same distance from the base line of the picture, that the object is really distant from the artist’s eye.

When we look at any group of objects in nature, it is self-evident that we only see one particular local part at the same moment; while regarding the foreground the distance is all but invisible: and if the eye be kept steadily on one point, the appearance would be, only a very small portion distinct–in fact, a picture truthfully representing such appearance, would resemble the view reflected in a camera, when everything is out of focus, except one prominent object in the foreground; but the observer of nature can, by moving his eye, see almost every object equally distinct in turn, save only, that distant objects seem less defined on account of the atmosphere intervening, an effect termed by artists "aerial perspective." In a picture treated as we suppose, this could not be done by the spectator, and a feeling of disappointment would of course result; the artist is therefore driven to make a compromise–he gives us a conventional representation, and the art consists in so balancing those opposites, that no sense of incongruity is felt–a result which, in our opinion, the Pre-Raphaelites have not achieved: in their great effort to be truthful the become untrue–for they show almost every object equally distinctly; and although such is the fact in nature, there is this difference in the pictorial representation, that all the objects are necessarily on the same plain [sic], but in nature, being on different ones, the eye, as it travels further off, pitches itself to a different focus, and as it does not require to do this when opposite a picture, a sense of the want of naturalness is the result. This, also, is the cause of that seeming hardness of form and harshness of outline, so evident in their works. Draperies are by them most accurately and carefully studied–yet they give us the idea of being hard and unbending, instead of soft and textile, liable to be displaced by the smallest movement. A very marked change has taken place of late years in the treatment of draperies by artists, and in their attention to propriety of costume. Sir Joshua Reynolds’ axiom, "it should be drapery, it should be nothing more," is now deservedly exploded; but the taste of his time was to look on all such matter as quite secondary. Inflated ideas of the classical were the only ones considered legitimate; and artists, in painting historical and scriptural subjects. generally invented their costumes, and thereby saved themselves a world of trouble. The old masters, too, for the most part, followed the same course. We have often fancied, in looking at some of their paintings, that if the people they represent wore such costume, they must have been so constantly occupied in keeping their pieces of cloth from falling to the ground, that they could not possibly have had leisure to do anything else. The artist of the present day requires to be a more generally informed man than sufficed heretofore; anachronisms, which then passed current, would not be tolerated now. How different are the paintings by Horace Vernet, illustrating the patriarchal age. He travelled in the East, and saw the resemblance between the manners and customs of the Nomadic tribes of the desert and those mentioned in holy writ–and, knowing how unchangeable are the habits of these people, he transcribed their costume and physiognomy to his canvas, and produced the most striking and characteristic illustrations of that age, that have ever been produced. Barry’s treatment of the death of Wolfe was the very opposite. Allan Cunningham says, that the people who knew all the different regiments that were engaged, even to the color of their facings, were astounded to see nothing but naked men.

The Germans have unquestionably been foremost in their strict attention to detail, and in giving the appropriate costume of the period represented. In looking over some back volumes of the Quarterly Review, we lately met with an article on Modern German Painting, in which it is very severely handled–too severely, in our opinion. There are many points of resemblance between the works of the German artists and the Pre-Raphaelites–and both have fallen into similar mistakes. The Reviewer is particularly caustic in his remarks upon Mr. Hildibrandt’s picture of the Murder of the Young Princes in the Tower–because of the satin mattresses, arabesque patterns, gold borders, and load of finish in every part. "Who, " he says, "in telling the tale, would stop to point out the pattern of the coverlid, or the border of the smock, or excruciate you by faddling over the binding of the book? The narrator would feel that these minutiæ–though they might be there–in no way helped to tell the story." If they were there the artist ought to represent them; and Shakspeare [sic] says–

"A book of prayers, too, on their pillow lay."

Lord Chesterfield was of opinion "that anything that is worth doing at all, is worth doing well," and we think all the details of a picture should be carefully and accurately rendered–for these matters do help to tell the story; but they should be given with such art as only to appear when looked for–like the real objects–and should not equally arrest attention with the principal subject matter of the picture–and this is precisely the art which the Pre-Raphaelites seem most to lack. The writer commences by stating that for several years an impression has been gaining ground that the Germans are leaving us far behind in art–"and with the national absence of self-esteem, which works in us so strongly, for good and for evil, we are at once ready to draw disparaging comparisons, and discouraging conclusions." We thought how a German or a Frenchman would smile at this; for if there is one character[istic] of John Bull’s more marked than another, it is his perfect conviction that every thing English is right, and that whatever differs must be wrong–and this, probably, accounts for the rough handling he has given to German art.

In the last Exhibition of the Royal Academy, David Roberts had a painting of an Attack on a Caravan in Syria, which gave the effect of nature most charmingly; it was remarkable, also, as being not at all labored; indeed, on a near inspection, it was almost coarse–but there were all the evidences of great care and consummate art. In the same Exhibition was the painting, by Maclise, of Caxton’s Printing Office, in the Almonry, at Westminster, which, in point of high finish and extraordinary attention to every minute detail, surpasses anything that the Pre-Raphaelites have produced, and is much more truthful, as well as graceful. The smallest and most trifling object is as carefully labored as the most more prominent and important. In the left hand corner are scattered some brushes and colors, and one little glass vial contains a yellow pigment in powder, in which the different appearance of the loose grains on the top and the closely compressed part at the sides, is plainly distinguishable. In looking at this picture it is impossible to disassociate from the mind an idea of the immense quantity of labor bestowed upon it. In our opinion, Landseer’s method is more desirable, for, with great care, and all requisite attention to detail, he has combined a mastery and play of the pencil exceedingly captivating; his pictures are, also, pre-eminent for great natural truth. The following passage from Mr. Ruskin is quite true, and shows that, however partial he is to the Pre-Raphaelists, he is not insensible to their demerits:–

"I have a word to say to the Pre-Raphaelites specially. They are working too hard. There is evidence in failing portions of their pictures, showing that they have wrought so long upon them that their very sight has failed for weariness, and that the hand refused any more to obey the heart. And besides this, there are certain qualities of drawing which they miss from over-carefulness. For, let them be assured, there is a great truth lurking in that common desire of men to see things done in what they call a ‘masterly,’ or ‘bold,’ or ‘broad’ manner; a truth oppressed and abused, like almost every other in this world, but an eternal one nonetheless; and whatever mischief may have followed from men’s looking for nothing else but this facility of execution, and supposing that a picture was assuredly all right if only it were done with broad dashes of the brush, still the truth remains the same; that because it is not intended that men shall torment or weary themselves with any earthly labour, it is appointed that the noblest results should only be attainable by a certain ease and decision of manipulation. I only wish people understood this much of sculpture, as well as of painting, and could see that the finely finished statue is, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, a far more vulgar work than that which shows rough signs of the right hand laid to the workman’s hammer."

One thing that they are successful in, is propriety of attitude and expression. The painting by J. E. Millais, illustrative of Tennyson’s lines–

"She only said ‘my life is dreary,

He cometh not!’ she said;

She said ‘I am aweary, aweary,

I would that I were dead.’"

The perfect truth with which the idea is portrayed, and the utter weariness evident in the attitude and air of the figure, cannot be exceeded. His other picture of the Woodman’s Daughter, is equally successful. The sullen and abrupt air with which the rich squire’s young son offers the fruit to the little girl, and the open, confiding and gratified manner evident in her reception of his gift, is exceedingly truthful–but one cannot help saying, what a pity they are not handsome!

Whether those gentlemen will realize the high hopes and expectations Mr. Ruskin indulges in–and "found a new and noble school in England," remains to be seen, but that they possess the essential qualities likely to lead them to greatness–industry, perseverance, and earnestness, is undeniable.

Painters and poets, but especially the former, are by general consent of mankind classed as the genus irritable. Mr. Ruskin, we fancy, has mixed much with artists–and probably had this peculiarity of theirs in his mind when penning the following:–

"In general, the men who are employed in the Arts have freely chosen their profession, and suppose themselves to have special faculty for it; yet, as a body, they are not happy men. For which this seems to me the reason,–that they are expected, and themselves expect, to make their bread by being clever–not by steady or quiet work; and are, therefore, for the most part, trying to be clever, and so living in an utterly false state of mind and action."

With the following passage we conclude. It may be read with advantage by legislators, by painters, and by amateurs:–

"Suppose that every tree of the forest had been drawn in its noblest aspect, every beast of the field in its savage life–that all these gatherings were already in our national galleries, and that the painters of the present day were laboring, happily and earnestly, to multiply them, and put such means of knowledge more and more within reach of the common people–would not that be a more honorable life for them, than gaining precarious bread by ‘bright effects?’ They think not, perhaps. They think it easy, and therforec [sic] ontemptible [sic], to be truthful; they have been taught so all their lives. But it is not so, whoever taught it them. It is most difficult, and worthy of the greatest men’s greatest effort, to render, as it should be rendered, the simplest of the natural features of the earth; but also, be it remembered, no man is confined to the simplest; each may look out work for himself where he chooses, and it will be strange if he cannot find something hard enough for him. The excuse is, however, one of the lips only; for every painter knows, that when he draws back from the attempt to render nature as she is, it is oftener in cowardice than in disdain."

* Modern Painters, vol. ii, pages 99, 101, 104.

* "It is expected, in this nineteenth Century, that a man of culture shall understand and worship Art. Among the windy gospels addressed to our poor Century, there are few louder than this of Art."–Carlyle’s Life of John Stirling, page 228.


This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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