[Rossetti, William Michael]. "Fine Arts. Pre-Raphaelitism." Spectator 24.1214 (4 Oct. 1851), 955-957.

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The rules of art may be broadly divided into two classes, the positive and the conventional. We say conventional, not here in the invidious sense in which the term is more currently used, but merely to imply the presence of general consent. The rules of perspective, of anatomy, are positive rules; there are both positive and conventional rules of light and shade, and of colour; those of composition, as teachable under any system, are wholly conventional. And the reason of this distinction is too obvious to need being more than alluded to. Nature is always in perspective, and any conspicuous departure from her ordinary plan of anatomy is a monstrosity; there are natural facts and harmonies of colour, and uniform effects of light and shade, as well as combinations and proportions of these, generally adopted, but not constantly visible in nature; while no certain means exist for determining the relation of position in which a given event or emotion will place those affected by it.

To the positive rules obedience is imperative; he is not a correct artist who violates them: obedience to the conventional rules can rationally be based only on conviction of their value as conducive to truth or beauty. No man is born into the world under obligation to subscribe to the opinions or see according to the perceptions of another; least of all is the artist bound to do so. Art–except such as consists in the mere collection of materials through the medium of strict copyism–represents individual mind and views working from absolute data of fact. Turn and twist it as we may, nature and the man are the two halves of every true work of art. The imitation of natural objects, as specimens, unblended, unsubordinated, with no purpose save imitation, is confessedly a low branch of art: but the imitation of another man’s perception of natural objects? The imitation of a form of a face, through which you are incompetent to trace or portray the character, is a laborious imbecility: but the imitation of Phidias’s or Raphael’s preference in feature, because Phidias or Raphael liked that, while you prefer Miss Smith?

The conventional rules of painting are, and must ever be, matter of opinion; they are not fact, but belief of the best adaptability of fact. Of such are the rules of a principal light and a principal shadow in certain definite proportions, of the balance of colour, and of specific forms of grouping–as the pyramidal, for instance. The faith in these or the like of these as imperative dogmas in art, the non-observance of which is heresy, has been the result of one of two causes; either that general opinion, and consequently that of the artists who first acted on and promulgated them, was in their favour, or that the public taste was indoctrinated by the artists. There can be little doubt that the second supposition represents the true state of the case; it being difficult to believe that, on questions of the practical management of nature by art, the public should have been in advance of its professors, or that any but floating notions, waiting to be put into shape, but incapable of guiding, should have been abroad on the subject. We may assume, then, that the public was educated into these principles successively by their visible influence in renowned works or the direct authority of the painter; and that they have come down to late generations insisted upon, magnified from methodic practice perhaps into tradition and formal rule, with all the additional weight derived first from admiring disciples, then from unquestioning scholars, lastly from drowsy and comfortable imitators. It is so pleasant to learn what you have to do, instead of studying and discovering it!

On inquiry, the artist of the nineteenth century finds that conventional rules rest on some one’s ipse dixit or ipse fecit; and, reflecting further on the point, it may possibly occur to him that he too is endowed, or, to be an artist, ought to be endowed, with the faculties of observation and analysis, and might exercise those faculties for the confirmation or otherwise of the axioms he has been taught. Perhaps he will walk out into the sunlight, and be struck with the teasing fact, that, so far as his unaided perceptions testify, there is no principle shadow occupying one third of the space, and that really the background declines to recede in that accommodating ratio which he knows it is bound to abide by. Or perhaps he will mix with the intellectual and the beautiful, and, finding a hardly appreciable leaven of Greek ideal, be compelled to lapse into the notion that mind can speak through homely features, and loveliness be English as well as Hellenic. Or he will come across groups of endless variety, consistency, and interest, which by rights do not compose at all.

It is now three years ago that three young artists asserted in concert through their pictures that such was their deliberate conviction. They informed the general body of artists and the public at large, in the language of practical demonstration, that, in fact, they intended to divest themselves of not a little of the academical arraying supplied to them, and would replace it from their own resources to the best of their ability: that what they saw, that they would paint–all of it, and all fully; and what they did not see they would try to do without. And they called themselves Pre-Raphaelites.

The painters before Raphael had worked in often more than partial ignorance of the positive rules of art, and utterly unaffected by conventional rules. These were not known of in their days; and they neither invented nor discovered them. It to the latter fact, and not the former, that the adoption of the name "Pre-Raphaelites" by the artists in question is to be ascribed. Pre-Raphaelites truly they are–but of the nineteenth century. Their aim is the same–truth; and their process the same–exactitude of study from nature; but their practice is different, for their means are enlarged. Nor is it in direction, but in tone of mind–in earnestness and thoroughness–that they are otherwise identified with their prototypes.

Such we understand to be the character of the protest which the "P.R.B.s" have devoted themselves to record,–investigation for themselves on all points which have hitherto been settled by example or unproved precept, and unflinching avowal of the result of such investigation; to which is added the absolute rejection of all meretricious embellishment–of all which might be introduced to heighten effect or catch the eye to the disregard or overlaying of actual or presumable fact. It is in the nature of conventional rules that their true authority diminishes in proportion as their factitious sway extends itself; for they come to be looked on as inherent and necessary elements in pictorial practice, instead of what they really are, means to a certain end, useful only in so far as they subserve that. But this end may be, and often must be, one not germane to the true purpose of the work in hand, when its introduction and all that ministers to it are but so much excrescence. Thus it is that the pernicious use to which rules of this kind are applied has narrowed the word conventional into an epithet of reproach. The artist is taught to rely not on fact, but on another’s use or combination of fact. He puts his eyes to school. He takes results, and not materials, as his ways and means for working in a creative and imitative art; and rejoices to find that his secondary creation is like a previous secondary–comparatively careless whether either resembles the primary.

The main dangers incidental to Pre-Raphaelitism are threefold. First, that, in the effort after unadulterated truth, the good of conventional rules should be slighted, as well as their evil avoided. Certainly it is not the first glance at any aspect of nature which will inform the artist of its most essential qualities, and indicate the mode of setting to work which will be calculated to produce the noblest as well as the closest representation possible .Minute [sic]study, however, such as the Pre-Raphaelite artists bestow on their renderings from nature, cannot but result in the attainment of one order of truth. Besides this, it is a practical education; an apprenticeship to the more accurate learning of structure, to the more eclectic appreciation of effect; and tends in a more thorough manner to answer the purpose contemplated by the cramming education which they set aside. To the disadvantage under notice the Pre-Raphaelite method of study from nature is liable as are the executive and manipulative parts of a picture under any system–and for the same reason, that, in all, experience is required for perfect mastery; with this difference in its favour, that it has an absolute value of sincerity and faithfulness.

The second danger is, that detail and accessory should be insisted on to a degree detracting from the importance of the chief subject and action. But this does not naturally, much less of necessity, follow from the Pre-Raphaelite principle; which contemplates the rendering of nature as it is,–in other words, as it seems to the artist from his point of view, material and intellectual, (for there is no separating the two things,) and the principal, therefore, in its supremacy, the subordinate in its subordination. The contrary mistake is one to which only a low estimate, a semi-comprehension of his own principles, can lead the Pre-Raphaelite. It can scarcely, under any circumstances, be fallen into by a man of original or inventive power.

Thirdly, there remains the danger of an injudicious choice of model; a danger of whose effect the Pre-Raphaelite pictures offer more than one instance. All artists, indeed, unless they have emancipated themselves into so imaginative an altitude, far from the gross region of fact, as to dispense with models altogether, are exposed to it; for Virgin Maries and Cleopatras are not to be found for the wanting; but he who believes that "ideal beauty consist partly in a Greek outline of nose, partly in proportions expressible in decimal fractions between the lips and chin, but partly also in that degree of improvement which the youth of sixteen is to bestow upon God’s work in general,"* will find the difficulty yielding enough under the influence of idealism by rote. The Pre-Raphaelite dares not "improve God’s works in general." His creed is truth; which in art means appropriateness in the first place, scrupulous fidelity in the second. If true to himself, he will search diligently for the best attainable model; whom, when obtained, he must render in form, character, expression, and sentiment, as conformably as possible with his conception, but as truly as possible to the fact before him. Not that he will copy the pimples or the freckles; but transform, disguise, "improve," he may not. His work must be individual too–expressive of me no less than of not-me. He cannot learn off his ideal, and come prepared to be superior to the mere real. It is indeed a singular abuse to call that idealism which is routine and copy; a solecism which cries aloud to common sense for extinction. A young artist cannot enter the lists armed with an ideal prepense, though he may flaunt as his pennant the tracing-paper scored with fac-similies of another man’s ideal. If he will have one, properly so called, he must work for it; and his own will not be born save through a long and laborious process of comparison, sifting, and meditation. The single-minded artist must, in the early part of his career, work according to his existing taste in actual living beauty, whether or not he means eventually to abide on principle by unidealized fact; and tastes in beauty differ notoriously. The prescription-artist corrects his by Raphael and the Greeks. For the other there is nothing but watchfulness, study, and self-reliance. He is working arduously not to self-expression only, but to development.

Modern Pre-Raphaelitism is equally distinct from mediævalism of thought as of practice, so far as the latter depends on education, skill of hand, and acquaintance with the principles of design or perspective. Even in the works which bring the originators of this "totally independent and sincere method of study" within the same lines of thought or of period with the predecessors of Raphael, the points of variance are essential and decisive. Yet more alien are they from that important section of the modern German school which is said to have recurred to a past phasis of art with the view of reaching by gradual stages to their ideal. This ideal, to judge by the chief works of the separatists, seems beyond doubt to be the Raphaelesque. The works of Overbeck, of Steinle, and in a less degree of Cornelius and even Bendemann, bear a strong affinity to the Raphaelesque standard of form and sentiment–sometimes to that of Raphael’s later period, seldom to his earliest. Other painters, such as Schnorr, or Fuhrich in the compositions which display himself most vividly, can hardly be said to have reverted to any previous school; the character of conception and invention being with these, where not markedly original, German and national to the fullest extent, similarly with the quality of form; for the sources of which characteristics, it would be futile to refer back from the artists themselves. Historically, however, some of this subdivision also may be counted in the same class; and in the works of all, a standard, a preconception of some kind, is equally and unmistakably evident. But the German and the English cases present this important difference. The former was an academic revival: the principles of an unquestioned dogma had fallen into degradation, and the aim has been constantly after the highest issue of the school which announced it. In England the Raphaelesque dogma is not only a convention but a cant; few, if any, enforce it systematically in practice. It is held in terrorem over the head of students; but such is the almost unlimited range of subject and attempt recognized in England, that little beyond fragments of precept, intended to enhance the telling attractiveness of a picture, are seriously laid to heart. These are enough to restrain the student from launching out unfettered on the study of nature, but do not suffice to create a school even academically correct. One may imagine them as like a confection in the form of a rod; an image of affright to the child in one respect, in another cloying him with unsubstantial sweet. The English innovation corresponds with the German in no other sense than this. The English revivalists recur to the one primary school–nature, as interpreted by their own eyes and feelings; the Germans, to the purest form of a school ready-organized for them. The English, starting with the acquired knowledge of the day, and having before them an unbounded horizon, may be expected to work out such faculties as are in them to original and progressive results; the Germans, with the same advantages, but a rigorously fixed goal to aspire towards, may at best rival their most cherished prescriptions. Actual consonance between the outcomings of the two systems there is none.

The Pre-Raphaelites have been working bravely and without compromise for three years, and have fought their way into public disfavour,–a gain perhaps, as art goes. We hold them to be in the right path: not only because they have achieved unique excellence in imitative execution, nor that we consider their system exceptional, and as such specially needed at the present moment, (though these would be grounds of rational approbation); but because we believe it to be intrinsically the true one, capable, and alone capable, of leading its adherents each to the highest point of attainment his mental faculties will permit him to reach. It is of secondary importance, yet matter for satisfaction and of good omen, that the young men who have set the first example in this course of study are, unless we mistake, of power themselves to work out the process to worthy intellectual results.

* As Mr. Ruskin phrases it in his pamphlet, Pre-Raphaelitism, lately published by Smith and Elder; where, as in the author’s letters to the Times, will be found much matter of encouragement and reflection for the Pre-Raphaelites. His main principle, however–that our artists should, and that these do, "select nothing"–would in truth, as it appears to us, while it assumes to beg too much in their favour, carry their condemnation in it, could its application to them be verified. This we believe not to be the case; and that, indeed, strict non-selection cannot, in the nature of things, be taken as the rule in a picture of character or incident. But perhaps Mr. Ruskin intended his exhortation in a much more limited sense than it bears, thus broadly put.


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Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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