Ruskin, John. Letter to the Editor. The London Times 21,733 (25 May 1854), 7.

full text

THE PRE-RAPHAELITES

TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES,

Sir,–Your kind insertion of my notes on Mr. Hunt’s principal picture encourages me to hope that you may yet allow me room in your columns for a few words respecting his second work in the Royal Academy, the "Awakening Conscience." Not that this picture is obscure, or its story feebly told. I am at a loss to know how its meaning could be rendered more distinctly, but assuredly it is not understood. People gaze at it in a blank wonder, and leave it hopelessly; so that, although it is almost an insult to the painter to explain his thoughts in this instance, I cannot persuade myself to leave it thus misunderstood. The poor girl has been singing with her seducer; some chance words of the song "Oft in the stilly night" have struck upon the numbed places of her heart; she has started up in agony; he, not seeing her face, goes on singing, striking the keys carelessly with his gloved hand.

I suppose that no one possessing the slightest knowledge of expression could remain untouched by the countenance of the lost girl, rent from its beauty into sudden horror; the lips half open, indistinct in their purple quivering, the teeth set hard, the eyes filled with the fearful light of futurity, and with tears of ancient days. But I can easily understand that to many persons the careful rendering of the inferior details in this picture cannot but be at first offensive, as calling their attention away from the principal subject. It is true that detail of this kind has long been so carelessly rendered that the perfect finishing of it becomes matter of curiosity, and therefore an interruption to serious thought. But, without entering into the question of the general propriety of such treatment, I would only observe that, at least in this instance, it is based on a truer principle of the pathetic than any of the common artistical expedients of the schools. Nothing is more notable than the way in which even the most trivial objects force themselves upon the attention of a mind which has been fevered by violent and distressful excitement. They thrust themselves forward with a ghastly and unendurable distinctness, as if they would compel the sufferer to count, or measure, or learn them by heart. Even to the mere spectator, a strange interest exalts the accessories of a scene in which he bears witness to human sorrow. There is not a single object in all that room, common, modern, vulgar (in the vulgar sense, as it may be), but it became tragical, if rightly read. That furniture, so carefully painted, even to the last vein of the rosewood–is there nothing to be learned from that terrible lustre of it, from its fatal newness; nothing there that has the old thoughts of home upon it, or that is ever to become a part of home? Those embossed books, vain and useless–they also now–marked with no happy wearing of beloved leaves; the torn and dying bird upon the floor; the gilded tapestry, with the fowls of the air feeding on the ripened corn; the picture above the fireplace with its single drooping figure–the woman taken in adultery; nay, the very hem of the poor girl’s dress, which the painter has laboured so closely, thread by thread, has story in it, if we think how soon the pure whiteness may be soiled with dust and rain, her outcast foot failing in the street; and the fair garden flower, seen in the reflected sunshine of the mirror–these also have their language–

"Hope not to find delight in us, they say,

For we are spotless, Josy–we are pure."

I surely need not go on. Examine the whole range of the walls of the Academy; nay, examine those of all our public and private galleries, and, while pictures will be met with by the thousands which literally tempt to evil, by the thousand which are devoted to the meanest trivialities of incident or emotion, by the thousand so the delicate fancies of inactive religion, there will not be found one powerful as this to meet full in the front the moral evil of the age in which it is painted, to waken into mercy the cruel thoughtlessness of youth and subdue the severities of judgement into the sanctity of compassion.

I have the honour to be, Sir, your obedient servant,

THE AUTHOR OF "MODERN PAINTERS."

Denmark hill.


This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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