"The English and French Exhibitions." New York Evening Post 14 Nov. 1857, 2.


The only semblance of a school which has ever existed in English art is the pre-Raphaelite, and this is far from being a school in the common acceptation of the term. It is rather an association of like-minded men banded against opposition, rather than agreed in conventionalism. Outside of this movement, English art is a singular array of the highest talent, genuine poetic feeling, occasional genius of the noblest order; all mingled with the coarsest and rudest reading of nature, absurd childishness, and the most hopeless and senseless inanities. . . . We have not room at present, to catalogue the real greatness shown in the British exhibition, . . . to commend the full-toned melodies of Wm. Hunt, or with as strong condemnation to visit . . . such childish vagaries as Hughes’s "Fair Rosamond," or Miss Siddal’s "Clerk Saunders."

Of the pre-Raphaelites we have something especial to say, not because they only are worth speaking of, but because they have most been misunderstood and misrepresented. The absurd notion that pre-Raphaelitism is stiffness and ugliness, or, as a most sapient critic not half as wise as clever, states it in one of our contemporaries, "They wish to make a penance of every picture and of every penance at once a spiritual pleasure and a spiritual profit." If the critic had said much less we should have understood him much better, but we presume that the above notion is the intended meaning of his fine sentence. That a certain stiffness and constraint is characteristic of most of the pre-Raphaelite pictures is very true, but from no intention on the part of the painters, and the true reason of it lies in this–that when a man whose powers of execution are slight, either from inexperience or otherwise, sets earnestly to paint an object, his very earnestness and intensity beget an awkwardness and heaviness of expression which will make the (otherwise) best drawn figure graceless, for a graceful line is always a quickly drawn one, and men who insist on being true before they are graceful may have a long course of study to go through, but they are sure of being finally both graceful and true. The pre-Raphaelists are in this course of study–most of them in the beginning of it–and their "stiffness" is the result of earnest thought and uncompromising intention struggling with feeble hands. Understanding this, if any would still wish them to be more facile, at the loss of meaning and earnestness, would say other than words of cheer to men whose faith in truth is so strong as to lead them to make any present sacrifice to it–if, in short, they desire to momentary pleasure of shallow graces before earnest thought and simple truth, such can have no possible sympathy with pre-Raphaelitism, either in its present training or its future triumph. The artists of the P. R. B.* are unfortunate in one respect, that they must display their art in its incompleteness to those who have no capacity to perceive purpose through incompletion–in many cases they may do it rashly, as in the "Fair Rosamond" of Hughes, which is utterly childish, and which the artist’s self-respect should have kept among his childhood’s efforts–good enough there, but not fit for exhibition. And of all the P. R. B. pictures in this exhibition, there are but three which do not fail in some respect to declare intelligibly all their purpose, or stand in the list ot [sic] juvenile short-comings, viz.: Hunt’s "Light of the World," Windus’s "Middlemas," and Brown’s "King Lear," (not that either of these is perfect by any means, for the King Lear is the only one in which the drawing can be said to be thoroughly good.) All the rest are evidently the work of children in art, but they are as evidently by children of the race of Shakespeare and Milton, whose childhood is full of power even in play, nor are there more than two or three pictures in the whole number in which something is not painted more truthfully than the world has ever seen it before. The figure of the boy in Hughes’s "Mother’s Grave" is most absurdly drawn and bad in color, and the foreground grass more like cut-paper work than the sod of nature; but the upper half of the picture, for absolute truthfulness, is surpassed by nothing we know of in any time. The result may not be pleasing to the general eye; but what of that. Truth first, and pleasure afterward, should be the motto of every artists and lover of art. And here we may draw the great distinction which lies between the pre-Raphaelite and the great mass of art since Raphael–the distinction by which it deserves its name–that it is a truth-seeking art, while the other is a pleasure-seeking art–the one is philosophic, poetic, religious; the other the pander to any fallacy of taste or freak of pride or fashion–the one is a pursuit worthy of a human soul, the other is but a dignified kind of decoration, better left to upholsterers, grainers of wood and that ilk. All works which belong to the former class are akin to pre-Raphaelitism whether they recognize the P. R. B. or not–but no man who has not once in his life sat down before nature, with his heart full of some beauty she has shown him, gone resolutely to work to tell all of it that he could see, and worked until his eyes grew dim and his hand weak with his intensity, can ever fully comprehend the earnestness and devotion of these pre-Raphaelite pictures, qualities which should ever secure them against the flippancy of any but fools or the sarcasm of any but professed critics. Dislike them if you will, it is your right; but do not jest with the souls of earnest men laid open in their work to the world.

* Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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