"Foreign Art: The Exhibitions of the British and French Paintings in New-York." New York Times 7.1915 (7 Nov. 1857), 2.

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The only section of the English School, too, which is prominently put forward in a way to convey something like an adequate idea of its qualities is the fantastic little knot of the pensive Pre-Raphaelites, and even of these we have not an absolutely satisfactory deputation. Neither Millais nor Rossetti are here, nor more than five or six of the faithful twenty-two, who held their "chapel" in Pimlico, in the days of June. Still we have quite Pre-Raphaelites enough among us, and if we cannot measure their highest aspirations in Holman Hunt’s "Light of the World," or Madox Brown’s "King Lear," we can at least touch their lowest deep in the "Mother’s Grave," the "Fair Rosamond," and "Clerk Saunders."

Possibly a better thing could not have been done, both for the interests of British Art and for the Pre-Raphaelites themselves, than to give them the unluckily conspicuous place which they occupy in the present exhibition. For if anything can make the clever but crotchety adepts of this Eleusinian corporation understand the enormity of the absurdities on which they are wasting their talents, their utter failure to touch the sympathies of a people almost entirely new to the appeals of art, almost as ignorantly fresh, in fact, as were the Italians of the really Pre-Raphaelite period, ought to do so. The Pre-Raphaelites undertake to revive the traditions of the time "when art was still religion." They wish to make a penance of every picture, and of every penance at once a spiritual pleasure and a spiritual profit. Because the painters who tried to paint before Massaccio and Perugino, and Ghirlandajo, Leonardo and Raphael succeeded in painting, naturally devoted their energies to the details which they could master, rather than to the broad effects of which they had not yet achieved the secret, and because these same painters put themselves to the infinite pains they were at, out of their passionate love for their art–therefore, argue the modern Pre-Raphaelites, no man can possibly cherish a passionate love of his art unless he abdicates all the facilities of subsequent experience, and all the principles subsequently discovered, and goes back to the tedious processes and the minute results of the "Ages of Faith." This logic is bad enough, but its practical results are still worse. Conceived by men of genius the Pre-Raphaelite theory has been adopted by weaker brethren, who are pertinaceously painting up all the weeds, dandelions, bits of straw, old glass, fence-rails and pokers that can be found in Great Britain, in an orgasm of mingled tenderness for the "neglected truths of Nature," and contempt for sentimental fellows like Claude Lorraine and Edwin Landseer. Some of these interesting fanatics are further afflicted with religious and poetic tendencies which they indulge in the representation of the most incredible mediœval [sic] anatomy, and the most incom prehensible [sic] antique symbolism. In a word those of them who have nothing to say keep repeating the letters of the alphabet in an oracular manner, while those of them who have something, [sic] to say insist upon saying that something in the Norman-French of the Plantagenets, instead of the improved English of her Most Gracious Majesty Victoria.

This is the sum of Pre-Raphaelitism as a specialty. For the mere fidelity in the study of nature, of which they speak as if it were their monopoly, belongs to a dozen other sections of the World of Art as truly as to themselves. Without going back to Mieris, and Metzu and Terburg, who would be but names to most of our readers, we have only to refer to the French Exhibition in Broadway for fifty examples of truth of detail, not to be surpassed by the indefatigable Hunt or the incoherent Millais, and not to be equalled by most of their followers.

It is on the strength of this truth of detail alone that the Pre-Raphaelites can claim as their own Mr. Windus’ capital picture of "Middlemass’ Meeting his Parents," which (No. 165) is one of the most thoughtful of the paintings in the English Exhibition. For Mr. Windus’ picture is positively painted with so little "earnestness" that he has neglected to deprive Middlemass of his midriff, and has pandered to the popular eye by obeying the laws of perspective. That in doing these things he has outraged the sanctities of the Pre-Raphaelite faith any man can see at a glance by turning to "Fair Rosamond" under her "pleachèd bower," or to the mildewed boy who lies upon his "Mother’s Grave," a miracle of misery and of white mushrooms, while a little lamb skips along, a neat pathetic symbol of orphanage, through the air, or rather through the space that should be air, and at some considerable distance above the level of the pea-green turf. How much real power has been thrown away upon the puerile cant of this imaginary "new school," we have evidence enough in the King Lear of Madox Brown, and in the Light of the World of Holman Hunt. In the latter of these pictures one knows not which most to admire, the splendor of the tones, which is not unworthy of Decamps, the elaborate elegance of the execution, which Meissonier has hardly surpassed, or the delicacy and tenderness of the sentiment, which would have moved the heart of Albert Durer, and which attains what Ary Scheffer has all his life been trying, and in vain, to comprehend. This is one of the few Pre-Raphaelite pictures in which the artist and his "elevated motives" do not immediately obtrude themselves between the spectator and the canvas; it is, of course, a piece of mere mystical symbolism, but it has all the interest of true power. So, too, has the "King Lear" of Madox Brown, although the preposterous tricks of the school are more offensively prominent in this picture. The Cordelia is studied not after Shakespeare, but after the "nature" of the ancient Britons, and she is consequently a slightly coarse and repulsively vehement person, while Lear is a mere huddle of white flakes. The perspective, too, is atrociously bad, and the lights throughout the picture dismally theatrical. But there is a positive wealth of feeling and of fancy in the countenances of the group brought out of the tragedy to symbolize the story.


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Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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