[Dixon, Richard W.] "Gothic Art–John Ruskin." London Quarterly Review 7 (Jan. 1857), 478-501.

excerpt

And even at the present moment, in the face of the admiration and reverence of those whom we own to be the greatest among us, there are too many who regard of these of our ancestors [in the Middle Ages] as strange, irreconcileable [sic] with good sense, and the fit subject for the laugh of scorn. When with the aid of the writer whose name stands at the head of our article, we shall have shown some of the points of contrast between mediævalism and modernism, and also the influence which a recognition of the greatness and glory of mediævalism is having, and is likely to have, upon our morality and our art, the object of the present paper will be accomplished. . . .

Most of our readers have heard something of the Præ-Raphaelites, though, perhaps, not many have any distinct idea of the signification of the word: many, however, will have looked at certain pictures upon the walls of our exhibitions, which bear the names of the Præ-Raphaelites, and are in some way different from the usual run of pictures. Very different emotions have been aroused by the works of the men who bear this name. Some have proclaimed themselves in open abhorrence of them; great numbers who, of their own natural minds, might have been inclined to admire, have been led, after the manner of all multitudes, to join the cry of depreciation; while a few have perhaps stood by in silence, doubting, yet loving. Only one man, so far as we know, has from the beginning perceived and hailed with unwavering voice in the Præ-Raphaelites the dawn and beginning of a great epoch in the history of art. That one man is John Ruskin; and to those whom timidity prevents from expressing their full sense of what is admirable in the Præ-Raphaelites’ work, or who are held neuter by the great names which appear against them, or by ignorance of the causes which malice the pictures of the Præ-Raphaelites different from those of other men, as though something strange, novel, and dangerous were at work, he speaks thus, in explanation of the name adopted by the ‘Præ-Raphaelite’ brethren, and of the principle upon which they work.

In the fourth of the Edinburgh Lectures, entitled Præ-Raphaelitism, he begins by inquiring into the difference between the principles upon which art has been pursued before and since Raphael:--

‘You must be aware,’ he says, ‘that the principal ground upon which the Præ-Raphaelites have been attacked, is the charge that they wish to bring us back to a time of darkness and ignorance, when the principles of drawing, and of art in general, were comparatively unknown; and this attack, therefore, is entirely founded on the assumption that although, for some unaccountable reason, we cannot at present produce artists altogether equal to Raphael, yet that we are, on the whole, in a state of greater illumination than, at all events, any artists who preceded Raphael; so that we consider ourselves entitled to look down upon them, and say that, all things considered, they did some wonderful things for their time; but that as for comparing the art of Giotto to that of Wilkie or Edwin Landseer, it would be perfectly ridiculous,--the one being a mere infant in profession, and the others accomplished workmen.’

In reply to this, he observes that this progress has certainly taken place in some things; but that this is by no means the main thing to be noticed respecting modern and ancient art.

‘The fact is, that modern art is not so much distinguished from old art by greater skill, as by a radical change in temper. The art of this day is not merely a more knowing art than that of the thirteenth century,--it is altogether another art. Between the two there is a great gulf, a distinction for ever ineffaceable. The change from one to the other was not that of the child into the man, as we usually consider it; it was that of the chrysalis into the butterfly. There was an entire change in the habits, food, method of existence, and heart of the whole creature. That we know more than thirteenth-century people is perfectly true; but this is not the essential difference between us and them. We are different kind of creatures from them, as different as moths are different from caterpillars; and different in a certain broad and vast sense, which I shall try this evening to explain and prove to you; different not merely in this or that result of minor circumstances, not as you are different from people who never saw a locomotive engine, or a Highlander of this century from a Highlander of 1745; different in a far broader and mightier sense than that, in a sense so great and clear, that we are enabled to separate all the Christian nations and tongues of the early time from those of latter time, and speak of them in one group as the kingdoms of the Middle Ages. There is an infinite significance in that term, which I want you to dwell upon and work out: it is a term which we use in a dim consciousness of the truth, but without fully penetrating into that of which we are conscious. I want to deepen and make clear to you this consciousness that the world has had essentially a trinity of ages,--the Classical Age, the Middle Age, the Modern Age; each of these embracing ages and individuals of apparently enormous separation in mind, but united in the spirit of their age,--the Classical Age having its Egyptians and Ninevites, Greeks and Romans; the Middle Age having its Goths and Franks, Lombards and Italians; the Modern Ages having their French and English, Spaniards and Germans: but all these distinctions being in each case subordinate to the mightier and broader distinction between Classicalism, Mediævalism, and Modernism.’

He then paints this distinction in few and terrible words:--

‘I Say that Classicalism began, wherever civilization began, with Pagan Faith. Mediævalism began and continued, wherever civilization began and continued to confess Christ. And, lastly, Modernism began and continues, wherever civilization began and continues to deny Christ.’

The bitter truth contained in these words is not to be denied. So far as we do confess Christ, the Lord, we are one with the believers of all times; but in so far as we deny our own creed in many ways great and small, are we not essentially ourselves, the Christians of the nineteenth century, in this distinguished from the Christians of all other ages, and from the Turk and Jew of our own age? So that a Christian of the nineteenth century may boast to be the only man in the world who practically ignores his religion upon every possible occasion, seems ashamed of it as if it were a skulking necessity, will not bring it into his actions and daily life, acknowledge it in all his ways, set it always before him; but who brings it up reluctantly, at intervals, very much as though it were a ‘ghost to trouble joy,’ and certainly as if it had never been written, Let the children of Zion be joyful in their King. To take the example with which we are here concerned. Do any of us ever dream that an acknowledgment of Christ may be made in art? Truly, it is far otherwise. ‘When you go home to your own rooms, supposing them to be richly decorated at all, examine what that decoration consists of. You will find Cupids, Graces, Floras, Dianas, Jupiters, Junos. But you will not find, except in the form of an engraving, bought primarily for its artistic beauty, either Christ, or the Virgin, or Lazarus, or Dives. And if, a thousand years hence, any curious investigator were to dig up the ruins of Edinburgh and not know your history, he would think that you had all been heathens.’ Here we begin to see the greatness of the revolution attempted by these Præ-Raphaelite heretics, as they have been called. This change from mediævalism into modernism, this abnegation of the moral and religious power of art, which looks for no truth higher than mere gracefulness and beauty of execution, and is utterly careless of the higher and deeper meanings, engrained in our Christian feelings, of which art was once the medium, takes its date from the lifetime of Raphael; and the Præ-Raphaelite brethren have steadfastly resolved no more to bury their souls in the so-called schools of ‘high art,’ but to return in spirit, to return to the style of subject and treatment which inspired the mighty mediævals before Raphael; which may be expressed in these few words,--the painting of what they have themselves seen and felt. But we must again quote Mr. Ruskin.

‘Now so justly have the Præ-Raphaelite chosen their time and name, that the great change which clouds the career of mediæval art was effected, not only in Raphael’s time, but by Raphael’s own practice, and by his practice in the very centre of his available life. You remember, doubtless, what high ground we have for placing the beginning of human intellectual strength at about the age of twelve years. (Luke ii. 43, 49.) Assume, therefore, this period for the beginning of Raphael’s strength. He died at thirty-seven. And in his twenty-fifth year, one half-year only past the precise centre of his available life, he was sent for to Rome, to decorate the Vatican for Pope Julius II.; and having until that time worked exclusively in the ancient and stern mediæval manner, he, in the first chamber which he decorated in that palace, wrote upon the walls the Mene, Tekel, Upharsin of the arts of Christianity.

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

‘Observe, however, the significance of this fact is not in the mere use of the figure of the heathen god to indicate the domain of poetry. Such a symbolical use had been made of the figures of heathen deities in the best times of Christian art. But it is in the fact, that being called to Rome especially to adorn the palace of the so-called head of the Church, and called as the chief representative of the Christian artists of his time, Raphael had neither religion nor originality enough to trace the spirit of poetry and the spirit of philosophy to the inspiration of the one true God, as well as that of theology; but that, on the contrary, he elevated the creations of fancy on the one wall to the same rank as the objects of faith on the other; that in deliberate, balanced opposition to the rock of the Mount Zion, he reared the rock of Parnassus, and the rock of the Necropolis; that among the masters of poetry we find him enthroning Petrarch and Pindar, but not Isaiah nor David; and for lords over the domain of philosophy, we find the masters of the school of Athens, but neither of those greater masters by the last of whom that school was rebuked,--those who received their wisdom from heaven itself in the vision of Gibeon [sic] and the lightning of Damascus.

‘The doom of the arts of Europe went forth from that chamber; and it was brought about in great part by the very excellencies of the man who had thus marked the commencement of decline. The perfection of execution and the beauty of feature which were attained in his works and in those of his great contemporaries, rendered finish of execution and beauty of form the chief object of all artists; and thenceforward execution was looked for rather than thought, and beauty rather than veracity.’

We wish that space allowed us to proceed with these extracts; but we can only entreat all who may be interested in this all-important subject, the present position of art, the way in which it has falsified itself and its uses, and the noble remedy for this evil,--the simple boldness to follow your own instincts, to do what you can really do, from your own soul, not seeking to root yourself and flower upon the soul of another:--let all who are anxious for truth and impatient of evil, read the Lecture from which we have taken these illustrious words. But, once more, we claim to allow Mr. Ruskin to give his own account of the Præ-Raphaelite brethren.

‘But the time has at last come for all this to be put an end to; and nothing can be more extraordinary than the way in which the men have risen who are to do it. Pupils in the same schools, receiving precisely the same instruction which for so long a time has paralysed every one of our painters,--these boys agree in disliking to copy the antique statues set before them. They copy them as they are bid, and they copy them better than any one else; they carry off prize after prize, and yet they hate their work. At last they are admitted to study from the life; they find the life very different from the antiques, and say so. Their teachers tell them the antique is the best, and they mustn’t copy the life. They agree among themselves that they like the life, and that copy it they will. They do copy it faithfully, and their masters forthwith declare them to be lost men. Their fellow-students hiss them whenever they enter the room. They can’t help it; they join hands, and totally resist both the hissing and the instruction. Accidentally a few prints of the works of Giotto, a few

casts from those of Ghiberti, fall into their hands, and they see in these something they never saw before,--something intensely and everlastingly true. They examine further into the matter; they discover for themselves the greater part of what I have laid before you to-night; they form themselves into a body, and enter upon that crusade which has hitherto been victorious, and which will be absolutely and triumphantly victorious. The great mistake which has hitherto prevented the public mind from fully going with them, must soon be corrected. That mistake was the supposition that, instead of wishing to recur to the principles of the early ages, these men wished to bring back the ignorance of the early ages. This notion, grounded first on some hardness in their earlier works, which resulted--as it must always result--from the downright and earnest effort to paint nature as in a looking-glass, was fostered partly by the jealousy of their beaten competitors; and partly by the pure, perverse, and hopeless ignorance of the whole body of art-critics, so-called, connected with the press. No notion was ever more baseless or more ridiculous. It was asserted that the Præ-Raphaelites did not draw well: in the face of the fact, that the principal member of their body, from the time he entered the schools of the Academy, had literally encumbered himself with the medals given as prizes for drawing. It was asserted that they did not draw in perspective, by men who themselves knew no more of perspective than they did of astrology. It was asserted that they sinned against the appearances of nature, by men who had never drawn so much as a leaf or a blossom from nature in their lives. And, lastly, when all these calumnies or absurdities would tell no more, and, it began to be forced upon men’s unwilling belief that the style of the Præ-Raphaelites was true according to nature, the last forgery invented respecting them is, that they copy photographs. You observe how completely this last piece of malice defeats all the rest. It admits they are true to nature, though only that it may deprive them of all merit in being so. But it may itself be at once refuted by the bold challenge to their opponents to produce a Præ-Raphaelite picture, or anything like one, by themselves copying a photograph...... Let me at once clear your minds from all these doubts, and at once contradict all these calumnies…… Præ-Raphaelitism has but one principle, that of absolute, uncompromising truth in all that it does, obtained by working everything, down to the most minute detail, from nature, and from nature only. Every Præ-Raphaelite landscape background is painted, to the last touch, in the open air, from the thing itself. Every Præ-Raphaelite figure, however studied in expression, is a true portrait of some living person. Every minute accessory is painted in the same manner. And one of the chief reasons for the violent opposition with which the school has been attacked, by other artists, is the enormous cost of care and labour which such a system demands from those who adopt it, in contradistinction to the present slovenly and imperfect style.’

The works of the Præ-Raphaelites, as a body, are marked by an openly aggressive character, which may sufficiently account for the violence of the opposition offered to them. They are averse from all the ordinary mannerism of artistic gracefulness, desiring nothing more than to be sincere in whatever they undertake. And this had given them an appearance of hostility to other schools, which, according to the prediction of Mr. Ruskin, will more and more wear off, as the school extends itself, and embraces whatever is noble in the art of other countries. Another thing to be remarked, as belonging to them in common, is the extreme care paid to their foregrounds, and their neglect of distant effects, which can only be rendered by a bold conventionalism. Ruskin says, that they end where Turner delighted to begin; and that they, as landscape painters, take up a part of the work upon which Turner, except in some instances, chose not to expend his chief power. How healthy, how all-embracing is the eye and heart of this great man, who is equally at home in the Turnerian picturesque as in the Præ-Raphaelite realization, and can as well appreciate the rude vigour of the Dutch painters, as he can the purism of Monk Fra Angelico! Meanwhile, what he has been declaring to us is coming to be believed. A few days, and the nation will be doing reverence before the remains of the misunderstood Turner: a few years, and England will have in her Præ-Raphaelites a school, an epoch of painting, worthy of the third age of the world.

Mr. Ruskin speaks most hopefully of the prospects of painting in this country at the present hour, as compared with the time when he began his career by unfolding to the English public the greatness of their own Turner. There was scarcely a picture in the Exhibition of the Society of Artists last year, he assures us, which did not betray marks of the influence of the Præ-Raphaelites.


This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

Return to the list of reviews