"Ruskin’s Pre-Raphaelitism." Leader 2.74 (23 Aug. 1851), 803-804.

full text

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

We have already intimated that the thesis maintained by Mr. Ruskin in this pamphlet is the ancient truism that success in Art can only be achieved by an earnest, self-forgetting study of Nature–that the Painter must intensely observe facts, and allow reverence for mere tradition to sit lightly on him. He must follow Nature, not the Royal Academy; fact, not the critic in the Times; truth, not convention. This, though it be a truism, needs frequent emphasis. Mr. Ruskin, as every other critic, does well to keep it prominent. But we looked for something more from him. He should have more distinctly specified its application to the new school. Instead of doing so he treats of almost everything except the Pre-Raphaelites. His evasion of one point is too remarkable to be overlooked. Not only does it leave a capital question, as regards the P.R.B.’s, unnoticed, but it also betrays a reticence or misgiving in Mr. Ruskin’s own mind on the subject of Human Form. We need few sentences to show that the Human Form, as the flower and consummation of creative energy, must also be the crowning difficulty in Art. It is known that the P.R.B.’s have peculiar views on this subject; indeed, this we should call the capital point of their system. Mr. Ruskin is silent on it. Nay, this silence is to be regretted in all his writings. The Human Form was to have been treated in the third volume of his Modern Painters; but that volume has never appeared, other works have taken precedence, and his silence on the all-important subject is unbroken. Is this reticence or misgiving? Has he not made up his mind?

There are excellent pages, however, in his pamphlet.

He begins by very properly demanding that the Painter be fit for his work; that he choose a branch of the Art because it suits him, and not because it is in the abstract fine. The advice is not restricted to Artists. We all need it, for we have all a passion for inequality:–

"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 artizan 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.’ Persons who have any influence in the management of public institutions for charitable education know how common this feeling has become. Hardly a day passes but they receive letters from others who want all their six or eight sons to go to college, and make the grand tour in the long vacation, and who think there is something wrong in the foundations of society, because this is not possible. Out of every ten letters of this kind, nine will allege, as the reason of the writers’ importunity, their desire to keep their families in such and such a ‘station of life.’ There is no real desire for the safety, the discipline, or the moral good of the children, only a panic horror 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. I do not believe that any greater good could be achieved for the country, than the change in public feeling on this head, which might be brought about by a few benevolent men, undeniably in the class of ‘gentlemen,’ who would on principle, enter into some of our commonest trades, and make them honourable; showing that it was possible for a man to retain his dignity, and remain, in the best sense, a gentleman, though part of his time was every day occupied in manual labour, or even in serving customers over a counter. 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."

The special application of this to Painters is obvious. A man gifted with a talent for drawing cows should draw cows, and not splash with vague ambition at historical subjects because they are grander. Poetry has spoiled many excellent clerks; the drama has robbed commerce of many excellent shopmen; historical painting has likewise wasted the mediocrity of many clever men.

Connected with this ambition to achieve greatness in the highest departments, is the false notion that Will can do the work of Intellect, that Effort can supply Genius, and that mere intensity of desire can give intensity of power. As we often say, it is a fatal mistake that of Aspiration for Inspiration–the desire to be great for the consciousness of greatness! Mr. Ruskin touches on a point of very great importance, to our thinking; when he says boldly that No great intellectual thing was ever done by great effort. A great thing can only be done by a great man. He does it without effort. A paradox, but a truth! This is no encouragement to idleness, for Genius is essentially active, creative; nor does it flatter the conceit of Heaven-descended Genius in turned down collars that work may be dispensed with. It simply and sternly says that the Crow is not an Eagle, and no amount of sun-starings will make it one:–

"Therefore, literally, it is no man’s business whether he has genius or not: work he must, whatever he is, but quietly and steadily; and the natural and unforced results of such work will always be the things that God meant him to do, and will be his best. No agonies nor heart-rendings will enable him to do any better. If he be a great man, they will be great things; if a small man, small things; but always, if thus peacefully done, good and right; always, if restlessly and ambitiously done, false, hollow, and despicable."

This is sound sensible teaching. Mr. Ruskin will not be accused of undervaluing labour because he here says that labour is not genius; labour is necessary to attain mastery in Art; but no amount of concentrated effort will produce dignity, grace, grandeur, beauty. "Is not the evidence of Ease on the very front of all the greatest works in existence? Do they not plainly say to us, not ‘there has been great effort here,’ but, ‘there has been a great power here?’"

An illustration enables Mr. Ruskin to show the vanity of the present–


"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? Suppose even that we see in a youth that which we hope may, in its development, become a power of this kind, should we instantly, supposing that we wanted to make a poet of him, and nothing else, forbid him all quiet, steady, rational labour? Should we force him to perpetual spinning of new crudities out of his boyish brain, and set before him, as the only objects of his study, the laws of versification which criticism has supposed itself to discover in the works of previous writers? Whatever gifts the boy had, would much be likely to come of them so treated? unless [sic], indeed, they were so great as to break through all such snares of falsehood and vanity, and build their own foundation in spite of us; whereas if, as in cases numbering millions against units, the natural gifts were too weak to do this, could anything come of such training but utter inanity and spuriousness of the whole man? But if we had sense, should we not rather restrain and bridle the first flame of invention in early youth, heaping material on it as one would on the first sparks and tongues of a fire which we desired to feed into greatness? Should we not educate the whole intellect into general strength, and all the affections into warmth and honesty, and look to Heaven for the rest? This, I say, we should have sense enough to do, in order to produce a poet in words: but, it being required to produce a poet on canvas, what is our way of setting to work? 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. This I say is the kind of teaching which through various channels, Royal Academy lecturings, press criticisms, public enthusiasm, and not least by solid weight of gold, we give to our young men. And we wonder we have no painters."

The P.R.B.’s may be accepted as the energetic exponents of reaction against such a system:–

"Consider, farther, that the particular system to be overthrown was, in the present case, one of which the main characteristic was the pursuit of beauty at the expense of manliness and truth; and it will seem likely, á priori, that the men intended successfully to resist the influence of such a system should be endowed with little natural sense of beauty, and thus rendered dead to the temptations 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 all the attractiveness of artificial grace, and recommended to our respect by established authority."

But Mr. Ruskin, while thundering against Royal Academy twaddle (and it is great) avoids the delicate and difficult question which meets every student at the vestibule of Art, viz., Are the great master to be wholly rejected, and their experience disregarded, so that each painter must begin de novo, as if painting had never been; or are they to be accepted under certain restrictions; and what are those restrictions? The student ought to be told whether, if he reject Raphael, he may accept Giotto or Fra Bartolommeo; and if so, why so? Mr. Ruskin evades the question altogether. Rules of Art, i. e., the conclusions which the best painters have come to as the result of their experience–he treats with implied scorn. To look at Nature and copy her is the whole process. Read this vivid description of–


"Suppose, for instance, two men, equally honest, equally industrious, equally impressed with a humble desire to render some part of what they saw in nature faithfully; and, otherwise, trained in convictions such as I have above endeavoured to induce. But one of them is quiet in temperament, has a feeble memory, no invention, and excessively keen sight. The other is impatient in temperament, has a memory which nothing escapes, an invention which never rests, and is comparatively near-sighted[.]

"Set them both free in the same field in a mountain valley. One sees everything, small and large, with almost the same clearness; mountains and grasshoppers alike; the leaves on the branches, the veins in the pebbles, the bubbles in the stream; but he can remember nothing, and invent nothing. Patiently he sets himself to his mighty task; abandoning at once all thoughts of seizing transient effects, or giving general impressious [sic] of that which his eyes present to him in microscopic dissection, he chooses some small portion out of the infinite scene, and calculates with courage the number of weeks which must elapse before he can do justice to the intensity of his perceptions, or the fulness of matter in his subject.

"Meantime, the other has been watching the change of the clouds, and the march of the light along the mountain sides; he beholds the entire scene in broad, soft masses of true gradation, and the very feebleness of his sight is in some sort an advantage to him, in making him more sensible of the aerial mystery of distance, and hiding from him the multitudes of circumstances which it would have been impossible for him to represent. But there is not one change in the casting of the jagged shadows along the hollows of the hills, but it is fixed in his mind for ever; not a flake of spray has broken from the sea of cloud about their bases, but he has watched it as it melts away, and could recall it to its lost place in heaven by the slightest effort of his thoughts. Not only so, but thousands and thousands of such images of older scenes remain congregated in his mind, each mingling in new associations with those now visibly passing before him, and these again confused with other images of his own ceaseless, sleepless imagination, flashing by in sudden troops. Fancy how his paper will be covered with stray symbols and blots, and undecipherable shorthand: as for his sitting down to ‘draw from Nature,’ there was not one of the things which he wished to represent, that stayed for so much as five seconds together; but none of them escaped for all that; they are sealed up in that strange storehouse of his; he may take one of them out perhaps, this day twenty years, and paint it in his dark room, far away. Now, observe, you may tell both of these men, when they are young, that they are to be honest, that they have an important function, and they are not to care what Raphael did. This you may wholesomely impress upon them both. But fancy the exquisite absurdity of expecting either of them to possess any of the qualities of the other.

"I have supposed the feebleness of sight in the last, and of invention in the first painter, that the contrast between them might be more striking; but, with very slight modification, both the characters are real. Grant to the first considerable inventive power, with exquisite sense of colour; and give to the second, in addition to all his other faculties, the eye of an eagle’ and the first is John Everett Millais, the second Joseph Mallard William Turner."

But, we repeat, this pamphlet is little more than the jottings down of a critic; interesting enough as the rambling observations of one who does observe, but carrying forward no "high argument." He is led incidentally to speak of Turner, and straightway fills half the pamphlet with a review of Turner’s different styles. For Turner, you must know, is as much a P.R.B. as Millais or Hunt! According to Mr. Ruskin, every man is a P.R.B. who really succeeds in painting nature; an extension of the school which renders criticism somewhat vague. Therefore we argue not with Mr. Ruskin; we content ourselves with two brief passages, one as a specimen of his pictorial style, the other as the iteration of a principle we are incessantly applying to poets and novellists:–


"Reubens, Rembrandt, Snyders, Tintoret, and Titian, have all, in various ways, drawn wild beasts magnificently; but they have in some sort humanized or demonized them, making them either ravenous fiends, or educated beasts, that would draw cars, and had respect for hermits. The sullen isolation of the brutal nature; the dignity and quietness of the mighty limbs; the shaggy mountainous power, mingled with grace as of a flowing stream; the stealthy restraint of stealth and wrath in every soundless motion of the gigantic frame; all this seems never to have been seen, much less drawn, until Lewis drew and himself engraved a series of animal subjects, now many years ago."


"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 ever were 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 document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

Return to the list of reviews