"Pre-Raphaelitism" by John Ruskin. Review. Builder 449 (13 Sep. 1850), 571-572.

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We have not found that gratification or satisfaction in the perusal of Mr. Ruskin’s recently published pamphlet, "Pre-Raphaelitism,"* which we expected. It is scarcely necessary to say that it is intended as a defence of the works of a certain number of young artists who have called themselves Pre-Raphaelite Brethren, and have gained very considerable notoriety by the peculiar character of their works. In his preface the writer says,–

"Eight years ago, in the close of the first volume of ‘Modern Painters,’ I ventured to give the following advice to the young artists of England:–’They should go to Nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly, having no other thought but how best to penetrate her meaning; rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.’"

This, the author says, has at last been carried out by the P.R.B.’s, and their works having been attacked, he comes forward, as a matter of course, in support and exaltation of them. More than half the pamphlet, sixty-two pages in all, is devoted to eulogistic comments on the works of Turner. In appreciation of Turner’s genius and admiration of his works we go hand in hand with the author of "Modern Painters;" but we fail to discover the ground on which Mr. Ruskin seeks to connect him with the school in question. He surely is not amongst those who "select nothing?" He has walked with Nature laboriously, and sought to penetrate her meaning, but it was to select her beauties, fix her transient effects, and, knowing what is, show what might be.

Mr. Ruskin sets himself against those who would better their positions in the world: don’t look up, says our author, look down, and you will find your right place at last. Very likely,–facilis descensus, &c. "People usually reason," he writes, "in some such fashion as this: ‘I don’t seem quite fit for a head manager in the firm of –– and Co., therefore, in all probability, I am fit to be Chancellor of the Exchequer.’ Whereas, they ought rather to reason thus: ‘I don’t seem quite fit to be head manager in the firm of –– and Co., but I dare say I might do something in a small greengrocery business: I used to be a good judge of pease;’ that is to say, always trying lower instead of trying higher, until they find the bottom: once well set on the ground, a man may build up by degrees, safely, instead of disturbing every on in his neighbourhood by perpetual catastrophes.’ It is easy to go down, there is no doubt; less easy to get up again. As Dryden paraphrases Virgil,–

"Smooth the descent, and easy is the way,

But, to return, and view the cheerful skies,

In this the task and mighty labour lies."

Yes, but why labour, says Mr. Ruskin: the hope of doing great or clever things by great efforts is as vain as it is pernicious:–

"I say it is a vain hope, and let the reader be assured of this (it is a truth all-important). . . a great thing can only be done by a great man, and he does it without effort. Nothing is, at present, less understood by us than this–nothing is more necessary to be understood. Let me try to say it as clearly, and explain it as fully as I may.

I have said no great intellectual thing: for I do not mean the assertion to extend to things moral. On the contrary, it seems to me that just because we are intended, as long as we live, to be in a state of intense moral effort, we are not intended to be in intense physical or intellectual effort. Our full energies are to be given to the soul’s work–to the great fight with the Dragon–the taking the kingdom of heaven by force. But the body’s work and head’s work are to be done quietly, and comparatively without effort."

And again, he says it should be understood that,–

"If a great thing can be done at all, it can be done easily; that, when it is needed to be done, there is perhaps only one man in the world who can do it; but he can do it without any trouble–without more trouble, that is, than it costs small people to do small things; nay, perhaps, with less. And yet what truth lies more openly on the surface of all human phenomena? Is not the evidence of ease on the very front of all the greatest works in existence? Do they not say plainly to us, not, ‘there has been a great effort here,’ but ‘there has been a great power here?’ It is not the weariness of mortality, but the strength of divinity, which we have to recognise in all mighty things; and that is just what we now never recognise, but think that we are to do great things, by help of iron bars and perspiration. Alas! we shall do nothing that way but lose some pounds of our own weight."

This doctrine, notwithstanding some qualifying remarks, seems to us as dangerous as it is untrue. "The evidence of ease" may be "on the front of all the greatest works in existence," but it is the ease which results from previous effort: the practised soldier does with ease what costs the recruit sore labour. A great effort at one period of life is needed, and then much may be done with ease. Should an artist be taught that because he cannot now produce a work of mind calculated to charm, soothe, elevate, or instruct, he is to use no efforts to obtain that power, but quietly resign himself to make faithful representations of existing objects? This is very desirable as a means,–very necessary as a first step; but other ends must be set up and other studies superadded if we would develop artists. "A portrait-painter," says Reynolds, "when he attempts history, unless he is upon his guard, is likely to enter too much into detail. He too frequently makes his historical heads look like portraits; and this was once the custom amongst those old painters, who revived art before general ideas were practised or understood. A history-painter paints man in general: a portrait painter a particular man, and, consequently, a defective model. Thus a habitual practice in the lower exercises of the art will prevent many from attaining the greater." And then elsewhere the same elegant writer says,–"On the whole it seems to me that there is but one presiding principle, which regulates and gives stability to every art. The works, whether of poets, painters, moralists, or historians, which are built upon general nature, live for ever; while those which depend for their existence on particular customs and habits, a partial view of nature, or the fluctuation of fashion, can only be coeval with that which first raised them from obscurity." The great aim of the painter is, as it seems to [be, to portray both the inci]dental and particular, the general and the infinite;–to set forth the beautiful, to gain honour for the good. As a course of training, or beginning in art, the minute transcript of nature attempted by the Pre-Raphaelites is calculated to be serviceable, and one, at all events, amongst them, if he be not detained in a practice and a manner by the erroneous exaltation of them into excellencies,–if he be not stayed in what ought to be a progress, and led to think he has reached the goal when he has but started in the race,–will make a great artist. Their energy, resolution, and earnestness have our warm praise; but their expressed avoidance of beauty, the apparent selection of improper models to avoid the appearance of any selection, and contempt for that knowledge which is to be gained from the works of the wonderful painters of the 16th century, a r errors which ought not to be supported by those who are interested in the progress of the English School of painting.

"All the elements," says Kugler, "which had existed apart from each other, and had composed distinct styles in the periods hitherto considered, all the qualities which had been successively developed, each to the exclusion of the rest, but which in the aggregate fulfilled the conditions of a consummate practice of art, were united about the beginning of the sixteenth century. This union constituted a most rare and exalted state of human culture–an era when the diviner energies of human nature were manifested in all their purity. In the master-works of this new period we find the most elevated subjects, represented in the noblest form, with a depth of feeling never since equalled. It was only for a short period that art maintained this high degree of perfection–scarcely more than one quarter of a century! But the great works then produced are eternal–imperishable. They bear, indeed, the stamp of their own age, but are created for all ages; and as they were the pride and admiration of the time when they were produced, so they will awaken the enthusiasm of the latest posterity. For the truly beautiful depends not on external or local circumstances: the Madonna di S. Sisto of Raphael, the Heroes of Phidias, Leonardo’s Last Supper, and Scopa’s group of the Niobe and her Children, belong not exclusively to Catholic Italy, nor to heathen Greece. In all places, in all times, their power must be felt, and must produce its impression on the heart of the spectator."**

The name assumed is not a wise one. Vasari exclaims at the close of his biography of Raphael, the greatest of painters,–

"O happy and blessed spirit! every one speaks with interest of thee; celebrates thy deeds; admires thee in thy works! Well might painting die when this noble artist ceased to live; for when his eyes were closed she remained in darkness. For us who survive him it remains to imitate the good, nay, excellent method which he has left us for our guidance; and as his great qualities deserve, and our duty bids us, to cherish his memory in our hearts, and keep it alive in our discourse by speaking of him with the highest respect which is his due. For in fact through him we have the art in all its extent, colouring, and invention, carried to a perfection which could hardly have been looked for; and in this universality let no human being ever hope to surpass him."

Those artists who intend to remain Pre-Raphaelites intend to remain behind the farthest point to which art has been advanced. It is as if the makers of steam-engines were to determine on being Pre-Wattites, and to deal with the subject as it stood before Watt touched it. Nature is the great and true field of study; but the mere study of nature without knowledge of what to select, will not lead to the production of fine works. To avoid the error of ugliness, deformity, and unfitness, a standard is needed to guide us; and this standard can only be gained, the shortness of life being considered, by the study of the works of the great masters who have gone before.

* Smith, Elder, and Co.

** Eastlake’s edition.


This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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