[Patmore, Coventry]. "A Pre-Raphaelite Exhibition." Saturday Review 4.88 (4 Jul. 1857), 11-12.

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In two rooms on a first-floor of a private house, No. 4, Russell-place, Fitzroy-square, there has lately been a private exhibition of au interesting collection of paintings and drawings by the pre-Raphaelites and their followers. The artists whose pictures have been exhibited are, Millais, Holman Hunt, Gabriel Rossetti, Ford Maddox [sic] Brown, Arthur Hughes, Charles Collins, Inchbold, John Brett, R. B. Martineau, J. Wolf, the late Thomas Seddon, William Davis, W. L. Windus, and a few others who have yet their names to make. There were in all seventy-two pictures and drawings, and with a very few exceptions, they were all worth looking at. In this and in other respects the display was a singular and instructive one ; but it was especially interesting as showing what are the real views and aims of the people calling themselves pre-Raphaelites. There could scarcely be a greater diversity of styles and natural capacities than in the score or so of artists whose works were here collected together; but there was one property common to all, or very nearly all, the pieces displayed. Notwithstanding the abundant immaturity to be detected in some of them, we confess that we do not remember to have seen any equally numerous collection of modern pictures equally distinguished by the property we mean–namely, that resulting from the artist’s simple and sincere endeavour to render his genuine and independent impressions of nature. From Seddon and John Brett, whose eyes are simple photographic lenses, to Gabriel Rossetti and Holman Hunt, who see things in "the light that never was on sea or land," but which is, for all that, a true and genuine light, everything, as a rule, and as far as it goes, is modest, veracious, and effective. The one or two exceptions to the rule remarkably prove its predominance. Mr. Martineau’s "Taming of the Shrew" is just one of those pictures which form the staple of every Academy Exhibition–clever, but theatrical. In this little exhibition, however, the above picture appeared as startling and as strange in its effect, by contrast with the others, as one of the most peculiar of Millais’ or Hunt's does an the walls of the Academy.

The somewhat numerous contributions of Mr. Gabriel Rossetti unquestionably constituted the main interest of the exhibition. Rossetti’s name is almost as well known to the public as that of Mr. Millais or Mr. Holman Hunt; yet, strange to say, the public has never had an opportunity of looking upon his works. These are known only to the friends, or the friends of the friends, of the artist; and the extent to which his name, through them, has become famous, is at least a proof that, within the circle to which he chooses, for reasons with which we do not profess to be acquainted, exclusively to address himself, his influence is one of singular power. The drawings displayed by Mr. Rossetti, in Russell-place, are by no means his best works, but they are sufficient to convey to those who have seen no others, a very high opinion of his capacity, and perhaps to afford a clue to his unwillingness to exhibit his works upon the walls of the Academy. Profound thoughtfulness, and the peculiar tenderness which comes of profound thoughtfulness when directed to humanity, are the leading characteristics of Mr. Rossetti’s performances. These qualities seem to have rendered him impatient of long labours and technical finish. He finds himself able to note down his ideas in a pen-and-ink sketch or a water-colour drawing; and having so noted them down with sufficient clearness for the comprehension of a congenial mind, he prefers noting down scores of fresh ones in the same approximate and suggestive manner, to a full elaboration of a few. His drawings are highly elaborate, but their elaboration is that of accumulated rather than developed thought, so that for minds of only ordinary activity and vigour, the contemplation of them is rather a task than a delight. Probably there is no other artist living who demands so much mental and moral culture for his appreciation, or who appeals so little to the passive senses, by which alone ninety-nine spectators out of a hundred are to be won. Mr. Rossetti’s powers as a colourist are of a very high order, but his employment of them is singular and not likely to be commonly felt or understood. He neither follows nor violates nature in his colours, but employs them as a symbolic commentary on his thought. In this and in some other points he is entirely opposed to the other leading members of the pre-Raphaelite school, of which be is reputed to have been the founder. But he is a true pre-Raphaelite nevertheless; for if, with Fuseli, he "damns nature," as we suspect he sometimes does in his heart, it is only in order to be more simply and devotedly true to that, in his mind’s eye, which is more beautiful than nature–to a nature not to be adequately expressed in words or art at all, and only approximately rendered by non-natural and symbolic rearrangements of the elements of natural effect–form, sound, colour, &c. This is a region of art which none but men of extraordinary powers can tread with safety. Without "the vision and the faculty divine," "ideality" in art is simply the moping and mowing of an idiot–the gestures of a drunkard who has lost his legs and dreams that he has wings.

It is most difficult to criticise Mr. Rossetti’s drawings in detail[.] The greatest charm of them is the inspired and untraceable mode by which he obtains his effects. We know not how to describe the two principal pieces in this exhibition better than by quoting the passages from Dante’s Vita Nuova which they illustrate, and declaring that the drawings really give the solemn, mysterious, spiritual, and yet most simple pathos which the words convey to the "few" who are the "fit" audience of that high prose poem. The first is, "Dante's Dream at the time of the Death of Beatrice"–

Then Love said unto me: "It is true that our lady lieth dead." And so strong was this idle imagining, that it made me to behold my lady in death; whose face certain ladies seemed to be covering with a white veil; and who was so humble of her aspect, that it was as though she said, "I have attained to look on the beginning of peace." And I saw in heaven a multitude of angels who were returning upwards, having before them an exceedingly white cloud.

To show how far Mr. Rossetti is from being the servile imitator of the facts and phenomena of external nature–which is the popular notion of a pre-Raphaelite–we need only mention that "Love," in this picture is personified, as in Dante’s Vita, and appears as a grown youth, with red wings and blue robe, and a bow and arrows in his hand. The companion piece, "The Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice," illustrates these words:–

On that day which fulfilled the year since my lady had been made of the citizens of eternal life, I sat in a place apart, where, remembering me of her, I was drawing an angel upon certain tablets. And as I drew, I turned my eyes, and saw beside me persons to whom it was fitting to give honor, and who were looking at what I did; also, as it was told me afterwards, they had been there awhile before I perceived them. Perceiving whom, I arose, and saluting them, said: "Another was present with me."

The ascetic severity, the grave rapture, the stern and deep pathos, and the profound veracity, which characterize the Vita Nuova beyond all human works, except the Divine Comedy, are translated into form and colour in a surprising manner in these two pictures. "Hesterna Rosa" is a sketch having for its subject the thought in the following fine stanzas by Mr. Henry Taylor:–

Quoth tongue of neither maid nor wife

To heart of neither wife nor maid,

Lead we not here a jolly life,

Betwixt the shine and shade?

Quoth heart of neither maid nor wife

To tongue of neither wife nor maid,

Thou wag’st, but I am sore with strife,

And feel like flowers that fade.

Two men are playing at dice in the society of their mistresses, one of whom is caressing the head of her paramour, who is intent on nothing but his play. The second woman covers her averted face with one hand, while the other hand is being kissed by the second gambler, whose mind is divided between her and his game. Both women are crowned with thorn-like flowers; and on one side of the sketch is a girl of innocent years, playing on a lute, and on the other a baboon, who is engaged in tickling and scratching his own neck, with a grin of perfect animal satisfaction. It would be hard to devise a more forcible and pathetic rendering of the subject. "Mary Magdalene" and "The Blue Closet" are among the most characteristic of Mr. Rossetti’s drawings, but their qualities are not of a kind to be in anywise described in a critical paragraph. Nay, we doubt whether the strange delight which these works must afford to all imaginative minds is capable of being explained to the understanding–depending, as, in common with all highly original works, they do, upon the subtlest laws of association, and on artistic arcana which "reason rather surmises than discerns."

Millais exhibited four small portraits–one of Mr. Holman Hunt, another of Mr. Wilkie Collins, and two female heads. One of these, called the "Wedding Cards," justifies the highest praises the artist has ever received as a colourist, and yet, strange to say, there was less positive colour in this picture than in any other in the room.

Holman Hunt had three small pictures–two, in water colours, of eastern landscape, and one, called the "Haunted Manor," an English scene–the latter not quite up to the mark of his average quality. The "Great Sphynx" represents the back of the colossal head, and seems somewhat wilful in the point of view taken, until we discern that the desert is the true subject, over which we are desired to look with the sphynx, who has been regarding the same for thirty centuries.

"The Last of England," by Ford Maddox [sic] Brown, gained a prize at Liverpool, where it was exhibited last year; but it is new to Londoners. The subject is one of those which the pre-Raphaelites sometimes venture to take, not as comedy, but as tragedy, from modern every-day life. A gentleman and his wife, of the middle class, are seated on the hen-coops in the stern of an outward-bound vessel, looking their last of England as the white cliffs fade away. On the frame is written the date of the great year of emigration, 1852. In the man’s look there is bitterness of heart at the failure of his labours to maintain a footing in his native land–in the wife there is anxiety and regret, just brimming over into tears. Her face, indeed, is the chief charm of the picture. The man’s hand lies listless, but tightly clasped in one of hers; and under her large grey shawl, which is wonderfully well painted, we catch a glimpse of her other hand, clasping the tiny fingers of her second treasure on earth. Behind this group is a graceless scoundrel, who shakes his fist at the receding fatherland, and curses it between his cigar and his broken teeth, to the dismay of his old mother, who protests with uplifted arms, while his drunken companion seems to be suggesting another pull at the bottle which he holds, as the best remedy for the spleen. There are several other figures, each having a distinct dramatic purpose, and perfectly co-operating, as complement or contrast, with the main group which occupies the bulk of the picture. No space or opportunity is lost, and everything helps the story–even the streak of rust that falls from a nail and crosses the name of the vessel, El Dorado. Mr. Maddox [sic] Brown exhibited several other pictures, all more or less notable for originality of feeling, and conscientious workmanship.

There was one lady contributor, Miss E. E. Siddal, whose name was new to us. Her drawings display an admiring adoption of all the most startling peculiarities of Mr. Rossetti’s style, but they have nevertheless qualities which entitle them to high praise. Her "Study of a Head" is a very promising attempt, showing great care, considerable technical power, and a high, pure, and independent feeling for that much misunderstood object, the human face divine. "We are Seven" and "Pippa Passes," by the same lady, deserve more notice than we can stop to give them. Her "Clerk Saunders," although we have heard it highly praised by high authorities, did not please us so much. Mr. Collins’s "Long Engagement" is a great advance, in some respects, upon the works hitherto exhibited by him. Mr. Brett’s drawing of "The Engel’s Hörner and Glacier from Rosenlaui," and "Moss and Gentians from the Engel’s Hörner," are wonders of laborious and effective finish. J. W. Inchbold’s "Mid-day on the Lake of Thun" and "In March," are that and a good deal more. The most valuable landscapes, however, were those of Mr. William Davis, who paints less the scene than the feeling of the scene before him. "The Mother’s Grave," by Arthur Hughes–the painter of "April Love"–would have been unexceptionable, but for the almost impossible posture into which he has thrown the despairing boy, who buries his face in the long and sunlit grass. Mr. Martineau’s "Spelling Lesson" is a charming picture of English country life in the present day.

There were several other pieces in this exhibition entitled to praise, and not a few which might call for blame, but that the private nature of the display may be allowed, to some extent, to disarm criticism by considerations of courtesy.

This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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