Waagen, G. F. "To the Editor of the Times." London Times 21,792 (13 Jul. 1854), 7.

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Sir,—Having in my visits to this country had the opportunity of hearing much difference of opinion expressed regarding the merits and demerits of the so-called pre-Raphaelite painters, and, knowing the difficulty felt by many in defining the principles which should regulate the composition of a work of art, I venture, through the medium of your journal, to offer a few remarks to those interested in the subject.

Within a few years a school of painters has arisen in England whose aim it is to elevate the character of modern art, not only by the treatment of sacred subjects, but by the adoption of the more or less undeveloped forms of the 15th century. Considering the warm interest I feel for the true advance of art in this country, the kindness and deference with which my opinions are here received by artists and friends of art, and the experience which a German especially has gathered from the results of a similar movement, originating 40 years ago, in his own country, I feel it a kind of obligation to call the attention of the art-loving portion of the public to the real tendency of this school. I need hardly say that I sympathize entirely with the painters of this class, both German and English, in the exceeding attractiveness of that pure and earnest religious feeling which pervades the work of Fiesole and other masters of the 15th century. I also comprehend the liability in their minds to identify the expression of that feeling with the forms peculiar to those masters. At the same time, it is no less true, that this identification, and the efforts, however well meant, to which it has led, are totally mistaken, and can only frustrate that end for which these painters are so zealously labouring. Guided by this erroneous principle, they have sought to transfer to their pictures not only the beauties, but the defects of their great models; unmindful of the fact, which a general survey of the history of art does not fail to teach, that those early masters attract us not on account of their meagre drawing, hard outlines, erroneous perspective, conventional glories, &c., but, on the contrary, in spite of these defects and peculiarities. We overlook these simply and solely because, in the underdeveloped state of the scientific and technical resources of painting at that period, they could not be avoided. But it is quite another thing when, under the false impression that the feeling they emulate can be better reared by ignorance than by knowledge, we see these defects and peculiarities transferred to the works of modern artists, who purposely close their eyes to those scientific and technical lights which have now become the common property of art, and retrograde to a state of darkness for which there is no excuse.

It must also be borne in mind, that the whole style of feeling proper to those early masters, deeply rooted as it was in the religious enthusiasm of their times—of which it may be considered as the highest and most refined fruit—cannot possibly be voluntarily recalled in a period of such totally different tendencies as the present. It stands to reason, therefore, that the pictures even of the most gifted modern artists, produced by such a process, can at most be considered but as able reminiscences of the middle ages, but by no means as the healthy expositors of the religious feeling, now, thank God, greatly revived and proper to our age, or of the resources of art so plentifully within their reach; while those of the less gifted, able only to counterfeit the defects, but not to emulate the spirit of the olden time, present scenes of misplaced labour the most painful a true lover of art can well behold.

As regards this movement in Germany, the better part of those thus misled in their earlier days, such as Cornelius Schnorr, and others, soon opened their eyes to the fact that a deep religious feeling, as proved by the works of Raphael, and those of the early time of Michael Angelo in the 16th century, is quite compatible with the most developed forms of art; as a specimen of which I need only mention the illustrations to the Bible from drawings by Schnorr, now in the hands of all lovers of art. Overbeck alone, of the higher artists, has never entirely thrown off the erroneous theories he started with, and has thus deprived many of his finely-conceived pictures of their full powers of expression as works of art. A younger generation—as representatives of which I may quote Deger of Dusseldorf and Schrandorf of Munich—have taken warning from the fate of their predecessors, and have produced works—Deger in the church of the Apollinarisberg on the Rhine, and Schrandorf in the cathedral at Spire—which may be safely bequeathed to posterity as worthy specimens both of the religious feeling and of the resources of art proper to our day.

It is therefore the more to be deplored that English painters should voluntarily enter a course which has not only crippled the powers of so many of their foreign brethren, but which the best of them have hastened to quit. That the system is already bearing its inevitable fruit is at once apparent in a picture by the well known and highly-talented painter W. H. Hunt, now in the exhibition of the Royal Academy, called "The Light of the World."

In the first place, it may be doubted whether the passage in the Apocalypse, referred to, be literally adapted for pictorial treatment; but, setting this aside, the great question is the mode of treatment itself, and here we are at once met by the fact that the painter has voluntarily—but most unfortunately—sought to combine both these conceptions of the Saviour which the feeling of religious art, at the period of its widest prevalence and highest development, always kept strictly distinct. Our Lord, when represented as a single figure, was either conceived as the man dying for all men—the Ecce Homo—with the crown of thorns; or as the glorified Lord of the World, in regal majesty, judging the quick and the dead. As a man, therefore, knocking by night at an actual door, the artist has rightly given him the crown of thorns; but the superaddition of the regal crown and mantle, which designate him as King of All, is totally at variance with the rest of the composition. Another contradiction is still more striking:—while the hardly painted golden glory belongs altogether to the idealistic and conventional tendency and time of art, the effect of light from the lantern is rendered with all that skilful reality with which the knowledge of the present day represents such effects. Thus we see two distinct conceptions of the same Person, two widely separated periods, and two utterly opposite tendencies of art arbitrarily united in the same picture. Another fault, the smallness of the head in proportion with the figure, is probably attributable to that ambition to imitate the early masters, even in their defects, which might have been better employed in observing the natural artistic bounds within which their conceptions are restrained. Nor is this defect in any way retrieved by a depth of feeling in the head, where an exaggerated rendering of the bones of the eyebrows produces a very unpleasant effect. For the green shadows in the hand, though the picture is otherwise most carefully painted, the painter must be held solely responsible, as this is a defect which cannot be laid to the account of those early masters whom he must have studied.

I am your obedient servant,


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Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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