"Pre-Raphaelitism." Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine 18 (Oct. 1851), 626-629.

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Pre-Raphaelitism. By the author of "Modern Painters." London: Smith, Elder and Co. 1851.

It is a very difficult task to write upon art; and when a gentleman steps forward and writes a rhapsody upon one particular artist, as Mr. Ruskin did upon Turner in his "Modern Painters," he has the argument all to himself; for those who do not agree with him are free to confess that possibly they have not the same high feeling for art with himself, and that they must suspend their own judgment till Time and concurrent opinions have verified or confirmed whatever he may have advanced; and when an author may have written with great elegance and with poetic feeling, as Mr. Ruskin undoubtedly has in his "Modern Painters," he acquires, even from those who differ from him, a certain consideration to which he is entitled as far as his language is concerned, and no farther.

And this has happened to Mr. Ruskin. He is of a tender, poetic temperament; he sketches with great feeling; but as to his sound judgment upon artists or upon art, Turner would have been as much appreciated by posterity, and the world would have been as well informed upon art, if he had never written "Modern Painters" or the work before us, entitled "Pre-Raphaelitism." But having, like many young artists, been flattered by the public, he has fancied himself an oracle; and whenever an opportunity has occurred he has written to the Times, and his eloquence in charming the ears has lulled the judgment of the public as to the soundness of his arguments.

And now he has put forward this pamphlet to defend the Pre-Raphaelites; and when we read it with any attention, we are quite at a loss how to review it, for it reviews itself. As soon as the author has advanced a dogma which startles us out of our seven senses, he very considerately waives it entirely, contradicts it, gives it the lie, and leaves the reader quite comfortable. As soon as he has broached a piece of advice which seems questionable,[ ]he qualifies it at once. His pamphlet has the high merit of Burton’s "Anatomy of Melancholy;" it shows you, only without the quotations, how much may be said on both sides, and leaves you, if you have read it attentively, to draw your own conclusions, which, if you be a man of sense, is just what you must desire.

But, then, why did he write? Why, because the public had spoilt him; because he could speak of an artist "dipping his pencil in dew," "indulging in the luxury of a peacock." He could talk of the "heather as it grows, and the foxglove and the harebell as they nestle in the clefts of the rocks, and the mosses and bright lichens of the rocks themselves;" and he knew when he had written this the public would read it. And so they did: it gilded his counterfeit argument, and made it pass current.

What in the world did Mr. Ruskin mean to say when he sat down to write this pamphlet? And when he rose, of what huge idea did he feel himself disburdened, what great truth had he promulgated, or whom had he defended? Let us open the book and see, and let us patiently try to understand him.

In the preface he alludes to the advice he had formerly given to painters. "They should go to Nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly, having no other thought than how best to penetrate her meaning, rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing"–advice which we frankly confess we cannot understand. We don’t know how to walk trustingly with Nature and select nothing; it appears to us nonsense. It may have a meaning, but it must be very unhappily expressed. However, the Pre-Raphaelites have, it seems, understood it, and have followed it; and Mr. Ruskin is going to contradict the directly false statements which have been made respecting their works.

He then begins: "It may be proved with much certainty that God intends no man to live in this world without working; but it seems to me no less evident that he intends every man to be happy in his work." Afterwards, he goes on to say that infinite misery is caused by idle people in the dark views they necessarily take up themselves, and force upon others, of work itself. "Were it not so," he says, that is, did they not take up these dark views and force them upon others, "the fact of their being unhappy would be in itself a violation of divine law;" why, if they did not take up these dark views we may presume they would not be unhappy. What does the author mean here in this very opening page?

"Now, in order," he says, "that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: they must be fit for it, they must not do too much of it, and they must have a sense of success in it, not a doubtful sense, such as needs some testimony of other people for its confirmation, but a sure sense, or rather knowledge, that so much work has been done well, and fruitfully done, whatever the world may say of it."

He then laments that every one flies so high when they start in life, and deplores that state of society which allows every one a better chance than formerly, and very modestly and rationally invites some of those "undeniably in the class of gentlemen" to go and stand behind the counter and show how happy they can be.

With regard to the confidence that an artist should feel in his work, our own little experience reminds us that the best artists have ever been the most diffident, and that the greatest confidence and complacency have been found hand in hand with incompetency. Exceptions there are, and the very constitutions and temperaments of men vary as much as their powers; but if Mr. Ruskin means that they can only be happy when they are confident in their own powers, it is but a truism in one sense and quite the reverse in another; in short, it is saying nothing at all. His philosophy, when he wishes people to begin in humble trades, is quite childish, and makes one hesitate to go on with a book with such trash in the beginning.

The very ambition to be a gentleman is the only feeling that actually ennobles so may people whom fate has placed in the lower classes, the very "discontentedness" he reprobates is a virtue just as much as it is a folly, and the very change in society which he laments is a subject for congratulation. And again Mr. Ruskin has said nothing.

From page 10 to page 13, we find the difficulty which always arises when we endeavour to understand a man who does not himself comprehend what he means to say. Sifting rubbish is unprofitable work. "No great intellectual thing was ever done by great effort." "A great thing can only be done by a great man, and he does it without effort." "The body’s work and the head’s work are to be done quietly, and comparatively without effort." "Neither limbs nor brain are ever to be strained to their utmost, never to be worked furiously, but with tranquillity and constancy." "If a great thing can be done at all, it can be done easily." "Is not the evidence of ease on the front of all the greatest works? Do they not plainly say, not there has been a great effort here, but there has been a great power here?" The he begs not to be misunderstood, for the fact is, that a man of genius "is far more ready to work than other people."

The whole murder is out. The reason that Mr. Ruskin has written such foolish books is, that he has not worked at them; he has taken no pains, he has done it easily to himself; for he knew that he was a genius, and that it would be best done "peacefully." Yet in declaring that a genius is always more ready to work he has at once acknowledged work to be the great desideratum, and has answered himself.

It is very easy to see from what he himself has done that he does not know how great things are produced in this world. The very ease so evident on the front of all great works is the very confession of the labour that has been spent upon them. The great end of all labour is to give this apparent ease to its results. The "strength of divinity" is born of "the weariness of mortality," which he declares to be barren.

When Sheridan’s works were read, the impression was that they had been written off-hand; when he died, we found from the manuscripts good evidence how he had laboured at them. The "Rape of the Lock," the most finished of Pope’s productions, had cost him the greatest labour. The marvellous facility of Etty was the result of a lifetime of unparalleled industry. When Liston, the surgeon, performed an operation, the rapidity and ease with which it was effected appeared like a divine gift; but no surgeon had ever fagged as Liston is known to have done in operating on the dead subject. Ars est celare artem. Mr. Ruskin has been juggled; he has seen something executed with ease, and he has fancied it done by magic. "How long have you been about this picture?" said a man to Titian. "All my life," replied the painter. Shall we go and ask Mr. Stephenson if the Tubular Bridge were designed "peacefully," without any great intellectual effort? But the instances are too numerous. The very example which the author himself, in pages 60 and 61, adduces in proof of the "fallacy of over-toil,’ we mean the anecdote where Turner so astonished Mr. Fowkes by the elaborate detail of a man-of-war in a drawing finished in three hours, proves only and most undeniably the immense industry of the artist’s whole life, which Mr. Ruskin has dwelt upon in pages 41 and 42, and of which he intends to give us a catalogue raisonèe in the third volume of "Modern Painters." He must know that Turner never could have done this if he had not previously studied the parts of the vessel; therefore, where is the "fallacy of over-toil?" or what is over-toil?–for the constant work he so frequently urges upon all artists is the hardest work of all. We all know that many men, if they had worked still harder, would never have done the drawing for Mr. Fowkes as Turner did it; but that is no argument against toil, and if Mr. Ruskin says, Do not work too hard, but work constantly, he says nothing. Q.E.D.

Our author’s next crotchet is, that artists "are for the most part trying to be clever, and so living in an utterly false state of mind and action;" very much the case with himself, we are afraid. "Originality," he says, "dexterity, invention, imagination, everything is asked of an artist except what alone is to be had for asking, honesty and sound work, and the due discharge of his function as a painter." Well, we do ask all this of a painter, and if he be found wanting he is no painter; who can say he is? But who is to convince him of the fact? Where is the common-sense of Mr. Ruskin’s remark? All these should have been required of him, else why is painting a glorious art? But, says our author, we ought then to ask from him "honesty and sound work, and the due discharge of his function as a painter." And what is that? Why, that those painters from whom it is too much to ask originality, dexterity, and imagination, "having disciplined themselves into drawing with unerring precision," should "resolve themselves into two great armies of historians and naturalists: the first to paint with absolute faithfulness every object and scene of historical interest, and the last the plants, animals, natural scenery, and atmospheric phenomena; and would not that be an honourable life for them?" "And quite difficult enough," he adds, "if they rendered them as they should be rendered." Why, that is asking for originality, dexterity, and imagination all in a breath! Then they would be clever indeed, and artists of the first rank; but if they did not render them as they should be rendered, let Mr. Ruskin ask himself who would care for their pictures, which, according to him, are to be confined to "faithful records of every monument of past ages which was likely to be swept away in the approaching eras of revolutionary change." All these pictures to crowd our museums, and what the interest in them? All legendary! It happens that he himself has been engaged in sketching broken bas-reliefs, and he thinks there is nothing like leather.

The author then announces that imagination and invention cannot be taught. That is starting with a truism. "Understand," he says, "that a poet on canvass and a poet in song are the same species; and who," he asks, "would think of educating a man to be a poet?" We answer that poets must be taught to speak or to write; and that when an artist is taught to draw and to paint, to give perspective, and atmospheric effect, and light and shade to his picture, he is only learning to speak with his fingers; it is but giving him utterance, and this is indispensable. Some artists give this utterance so sweetly that there is poetry in their very execution of a common subject; others will paint with so high an imagination that their pictures are poetry, though perhaps not so well expressed; but they must all be able to speak. So poetry may consist in a common idea beautifully embodied, or in a fine image indifferently represented. But the poet must be able to speak, and the more he is educated the better for him.

In page 21, the author says, in reference to imagination and invention, "Throughout every sentence I have ever written the reader will find the same rank attributed to these powers; the rank of a purely divine gift, not to be attained, increased, or modified;" and afterwards, at page 28, declares, "Whatever faculties higher than imitative may be in these men (the Pre-Raphaelites) I do not yet venture to say; but I do say that, if they exist, such faculties will manifest themselves in due time all the more forcibly because they have received so severe a training." So, first, he says that imagination and invention cannot be attained or increased, and then he says that they can be by severe training. Mr. Ruskin’s greatest opponent is Mr. Ruskin. And this gentleman is a graduate at Oxford! We are sorry that he should so soon have forgotten his Aristotle.

Arrived at page 25, our author begins at last to defend the Pre-Raphaelites, complains of the reception they met with from the public, reiterates "There is not a single error in perspective in three out of four of their pictures," forgetting there is such a thing as aerial perspective, in which the Pre-Raphaelites are stupidly deficient; and then, after page 28, leaves them to their fate, and talks of little else than Turner. And this is his defence of the Pre-Raphaelites.

At the end of the book, at page 62, he tells the Pre-Raphaelites that they are working too hard, and that they must learn to do things in a masterly broad manner, which is only telling them to alter their style of painting altogether; and feeling, with his usual modesty, a little distrust of the consistency of his own advice, he bids them, if they feel any difficulty, just to look at the drawings of John Lewis. Now this is the most unfortunate reference that he could possibly have made, for John Lewis is noted for working with less facility than any living artist; he is forever sponging out what he has done; he is the greatest evidence of incapacity that we have; he is an engraver in water-colours and nothing better. Nay, not so good; for he never made a figure in colour look as if it were a rotund body in all his life, nor did he ever study aerial perspective, but, like the Pre-Raphaelites in that respect, he has entirely neglected that which Coreggio first taught, and by which he did more to raise the art of painting than has ever been done before or since by any single artist.

In conclusion, we are only very sorry that Mr. Ruskin’s vanity should have prompted him to write such a pamphlet. We are quite sure that he does not at all appreciate what is best in the Pre-Raphaelites, and that he only praises them for their faults. He should rather have induced them to avail themselves of what is now known in art, and, bearing that in mind, to have endeavoured as they looked at the old masters to have improved upon them; and when they contemplated the works previous to Raphael not to have forgotten Coreggio.

We should tremble for the progress of art in this country if we could believe for a moment that Mr. Ruskin would be held as an authority from anything he has written in this pamphlet, in which, as long as he has been describing Nature and Turner, as one and the same thing, he has written as powerfully and more eloquently than any man of his day, but when he has attempted to reason upon art or to explain himself logically, we confess our utter inability to follow him.


This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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