"Fine Arts. The Pre-Raphaelites." Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine 18 (Aug. 1851), 512-513.

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In our recent notice of the Exhibition of the Royal Academy we passed shortly over the works of Messrs. Millais, Hunt, and Collins. We did so because we think that silence is the most reproof for obtrusive folly and conceit; but as Mr. Ruskin has thought fit to throw down the gauntlet on their behalf, we feel it incumbent upon us to take it up, and to state shortly in what respects we hold that these gentlemen offend against the true principles of art. We shall offer no disclaimer of underrating their talent: what talent they possess they devote to pernicious objects. We shall express no respect for their opinions: we hold them to be utterly heretical and damnable. But we think that their example may be eminently useful in showing what should be avoided. They have gibbeted themselves as the voluntary martyrs of conceit, affectation, and ignorance. These are hard words, but we are prepared to justify them; to do so, however, we must, at the risk of being trite and common-place, state plainly, and freed from al the jargon of art, some of the fundamental principles which no painter should ever lose sight of.

Painting is an art both imitative and creative. It attains its highest perfection in these works in which the powers of imitation and creation are jointly developed to the greatest degree; its humblest aspect is, when the creative merges and disappears into the imitative faculty of the artist. Raphael’s cartoon of "Paul preaching at Athens" is a familiar example of the one, a daguerreotype is the most apt illustration of the other extreme; or, as it may be objected that the latter is not a painting, take a portrait by Denner, which will do nearly as well to illustrate what we mean; and to avoid all questions as to the unfairness of a comparison between history and portrait, take instead of the cartoon any portrait by Velasquez, Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, or Reynolds. Perhaps portrait is the department of art which most aptly illustrates our meaning; it is the department most essentially imitative, yet dependent for its excellence equally with all other branches on the creative mind of the artist. The portrait reflects the mind of the artist as well as the features of the sitter; and this renders even the most ordinary and commonplace subjects delightful on the canvass [sic], though id any art could be discovered which would fix the reflection of the original as rendered in a mirror, it would be utterly worthless.

The generation who sat to Reynolds were probably in no respect more beautiful than their grandchildren, and the fidelity of Rembrandt leaves us in no doubt as to the quality of the subjects of his magnificent portraits. In both it is the creative, not the imitative faculty in the mind of the artist that has conferred immortality on the work. When the painter undertakes the duty of the poet or the historian, the truth of what we have been saying becomes more apparent–most of all when the subject with which he deals is divine, awful, or mysterious. There is no historical evidence that the apostles bore any outward indication in their forms or faces of their divine mission, yet how offensive, how monstrous, would be the error of that artist who should seek the fitting type of St. Paul in a common sailmaker or St. Peter in a fisherman! The duty of the painter when he deals with these subjects is, to give material form and colour, to render palpable to the outward sense the image created in the mind by the grandest and holiest associations. When the Redeemer of the world was made man, He took upon Himself al the physical infirmities of humanity; He hungered and He thirsted, He was subject to pain and to disease; yet so strong are our associations with that Sacred Name that it is impossible to connect it with the ordinary every-day ills and infirmities of life without shrinking from the attempt. Let any of our readers who doubt this try the experiment Mr. Millais plunges headlong into this revolting absurdity when he represents the infant Christ under the semblance of an unhealthy, unwashed, whining brat, scratching itself against rusty nails in a carpenter’s shop in the Seven Dials.

There is exhibited this year at the British Institution a small picture by Annibale Caracci called "Le Raboteur." The subject is the same as Mr. Millais’ picture of last year. The composition is the simplest possible. St. Joseph marks a plank with the common chalk line; the infant Saviour holds the end of the line; the Virgin sits by sewing. Such are the materials in the hands of the master; now mark how he treats them. The child is the principal figure. The purity of childhood, the grace of youth, the thoughtful dignity of manhood, all adorn that figure. The light of Divinity beams from the face; the hands fall naturally into a cross; the attitude and the red line awaken holy and awful associations; the Virgin pauses from her work, and contemplates with divine resignation the future destiny of her son. St.Joseph [sic] is at the same time venerable and reverential; he only of the group does not partake of the Divine essence, he alone sees no further than the present hour. Such is the mode in which a master treats these simple materials. There is not more difference between the violin in the hands of Paganini and the same instrument in those of the vilest scraper in a village alehouse, than between the carpenter’s shop of Caracci and that of Mr. Millais.

The same grovelling taste has induced Mr. Millais to select a stumpy maid-of-all-work as the model for the daughter of Noah, and Mr. Hunt a stale and withered virgin of five-and-forty as the prototype of Silvia, a loutish plough-boy (for no stretch of imagination can conceive female charms to lurk beneath the fantastical dress in which he has shrouded those clumsy limbs) as the representative of Julia, and for Proteus the veriest sneak that ever lied for six and eight pence in a low attorney’s office, which, by the way, Mr. Ruskin justifies on the grounds that Proteus "warn’t no gentleman, and didn’t behave himself as sich," a lame excuse, though ingenious. We are not disposed to go at any length into the question whether, under certain given circumstances, the crude colours, rigid outlines, and abrupt lights and shadows of these pictures might be produced in nature. The most unpractised eye will detect the gross inconsistency between the brilliancy of the light on the drapery and straw in "The Return of the Dove to the Ark," and the utter opacity of the background.

It is difficult, where an artist’s taste leads him to select models as nearly approaching to deformity as possible, to say how many of the defects of drawing, anatomy, and proportion, are due to nature, how many to the artist; they are, however, sufficiently numerous to satisfy the claims of both.

In Lord Ellesmere’s collection, there are two pictures which tell to anyone who will study them with diligence the story of the works of the two men of whom they are portraits, and by whom they are painted–Velasquez and Rembrandt. Each is the concentration of the genius of the country and the man. The Spaniard, haughty, chivalrous, poetical, his dark eye flashing with genius, his features chiselled to the utmost degree of refinement consistent with manly vigour, his black hair and moustache flowing in glossy curls, polished as his rapier, living in the glory of the past, radiant with the beams of a sun that is setting. The Dutchman, proud, independent, brave, indomitable, roughly hammered out of the sternest and toughest materials on the anvil of necessity, equally ready to do battle with the ocean for the strip of ground on which he stands, and to open his gates and call in the defeated element to overwhelm his country for the protection of his freedom. These men painted Nature, painted her faithfully and humbly, and as they saw her. But with what eyes did they see her? They saw her with the same eyes with which Burns saw the daisy and the

–––burr-thistle spreading wide

Amang the bearded bean.

Not as Mr. Collins saw his passion-flower, or Mr. Hunt his crushed toad-stools, or Mr. Millais his straw and shavings. Who would give twopence for a daguerreotype of the whole court of aldermen, or a short-hand writer’s note of the conversation of a lot of drunken beggars in a Scotch pot-house? Let Rembrandt paint the one, and Burns report the other, and we have pictures which Lombard-street could not purchase, and lyrics which Pindar never equalled.

There is no need to go back to the giants of old. If conceit and affectation have not sealed the eyes of the pre-Raphaelites too effectually, let them look round at the works of men of the present day. Let them stand reverentially by the easel of the veteran Mulready and watch his hand as he traces Nature’s own forms in his immortal canvass [sic]. Let them humbly try to catch some faint reflection of the glorious effulgence shed from the brush of Etty; let them drink deep of the dews of Constable, lave in the stream and bask in the sunshine of Creswick, read history with Maclise and Cope, novels and poetry with Leslie, trace the mountain-stream with Lee, pluck the fruits of Lance and the flowers of Bartholomew, make friends with all Landseer’s "beasties," rest and refresh in the village hostel with Goodall and, returning to the drawing-room of London or Edinburgh, learn grace from Richmond and truth and vigour from Watson Gordon.

If they have sense enough left to do this, there may be some hope for them yet.


This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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