"Art." Westminster Review 63 (Jan. 1855), 152-155.

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Some five-and-twenty or thirty years ago a number of young Art-students at Munich, of serious minds and enthusiastic temperament, shocked by the prosaic worldliness into which Art had sunk, and discontented with the routine of "academic" painting and its results, resolved upon starting on a new course. Their minds had been fed with the "romantic" literature which sprang up in Germany under the pressure of the French invasion, inflamed the national sentiment, during the excitement of the "war of liberation," and the echoes and reminiscences of which were still loud and melodious. Fouqué, Tieck, Novalis, Frederic Schlegel, the Stolbergs had, in song, in story, and in philosophy, set forth the glories of the mediæval times; the brothers Boisseré had rediscovered Gothic architecture and "christian Art;" their collection of early Flemish and German pictures, gathered with singular assiduity and untiring devotion, during many years of most Don-Quixotic adventure, from secularised convents, from the dark garrets and dusty storerooms of half Europe, had been housed at Munich; and King Lewis was busy restoring old Gothic churches, and building and decorating new ones after the ancient style. The era of German Puseyism was just going out, and that of Puginism had just begun. Our young artists, mostly Roman Catholics, or on the way to it, aspiring, enthusiastic young men, with not many clear views in their sanguine heads, saw clearly one thing: That the "Greek ideal" and the imitation of Raphael, that the established canon of the academics, had not led Art into pleasant places; that, indeed, ever since the days of Raphael the Art of painting had taken a downward course. Whereupon they resolved to go back behind Raphael, to ignore him, as it were, to revert to his teachers, to Perugino and the naif "Christian" painters of the fifteenth century, and they called themselves Pre-Raphaelites. There were men of great talent amongst them; and what they did and do can now already be judged. The works of the masters and disciples of that school, of Overbeck, Schadow, Veit, Heinrich Hess, Steinle, and others, are known to all tourists; greatly admired by many, respectfully acknowledged by all. With every respect, on our part, too, for the intentions, the talent, and the labours of these men, we are yet constrained to say that they were and are in error. To pursue the conventional path of Art they found ready-made for them, certainly, was hopeless and ignoble; to see that it was so was houest [sic] and ingenious; to look out for a new way was brave and manly; but to go back four hundred years, to ignore Raphael and the realities of history and of life, was impossible. A man, or painter, may be behind, or before, his time; but he belongs to it, and he can truly express only the thoughts, beliefs, and manners of it, and of none other. Raphael himself began and ended true to the realities of his life. The pious affectionate home of the simple Sanzio family of Urbino; the bright thoughts of the student of Florence; the "new heaven and new earth" which the disinterred "Grecian beauty" opened to those large round eyes of his; and, finally, the gorgeous court of Pope Julius, with its pagan spirit under Christian forms, are all to be found in his works. Overbeck went upon the principle that Art should serve the highest purposes only, those of religion; very nobly thought; but then he ought to have found out what the really believed religion which nourished and moved the people of time was, and to paint, symbolize, and express it by his art. That was, perhaps, not very easy to do; but, certainly, it ought not to have been difficult to see that the pretty marble fountain (in his great picture at Frankfort), with the Virgin Mary presiding over it, is not the symbol of the religion, nor his sentimental Christ an adequate representation of the Saviour of these latter days.–Thus much of the Pre-Raphaelites who arose in Germany nearly a generation ago.

And now, in our own time, there have risen amongst us also young artists of serious disposition and acknowledged talent, who have adopted the appellation of Pre-Raphaelites, have revolted against the routine of the academy, and have reverted–not to the Pre-Raphaelitic painters of Italy, but to ever-new Nature, the great mother and teacher of all times and all learners. We believe they have entered a safer path than their precursors at Munich, after whom they call themselves,–not happily, we must say; for in their case the name sounds more like a conceit than a summary of purpose or meaning. We suppose the principle which they meant to assert against the imitators of the great Italian was that of Naturalism versus Idealism, which is by no means a novel feat in the history of painting; but which received its highest expression and vindication not by any Pre-Raphaelitic painters, but by masters of the German school of Raphael’s own time and after his time: Dürer, Kranach, the Holbeins, whose distinguishing characteristic is a loving and reverent fidelity to nature and concrete fact. These men of "Gothic" veracity, are the real leaders and patterns of our Pre-Raphaelites, and it is to these that the designation of their school ought to have pointed; not to the Italians of the fifteenth century, who followed traditional types, cared mainly for the rendering of certain exalted states of the "inner man," and very little for natural realities or accessories–the very reverse of the characteristics of our young artists in question. However, our objection applies only to their name, and by no means to their enterprise, which we regard as a wholesome reaction against conventional inanities; therefore, as a hopeful sign, and of an interest that reaches beyond the artistic; and as a timely start that may lead to better things. Diderot tells of a friend of his, a painter of great talent, who had been educated at the French Academy, and who, always before beginning a picture, went down on his knees and prayed to be delivered from the model! Our young friends are somewhat in the position of that French artist. Seeing how the old routine had deadened sincerity and originality; how the imitation of the ancient masters had estranged modern Art from modern life, they seem to have said to themselves: Let us have done with that; let us go to Nature and to such truths as God has placed around us; let us paint that; it will be something true, at all events. It was an honest and a modest beginning. Regarded as the sole aim and end of Art, it would be a fatal mistake; otherwise the daguerreotype would be the highest artist, which we all feel that it is not. The mere faithful copying of indifferent nature is not the ultimate office of Art. Man has to put something of himself, some ideal thing, into his picture; he always does.* We all of us are for ever bent to impress our image upon our work and upon the world around us. Society itself, as well as civilization and the "progress of the species," are founded upon that. Neither does the artist take all things indifferently: he chooses and discriminates, guides our eyes, and interprets nature for us. We do not thank the painter whose picture does not put us into some mood or other, which he must himself have first felt and "put into his picture." As a beginning then, Pre-Raphaelism is to be commended for honestly and meekly associating itself with the work and thought of the time; for resolving to be with us and of us, and for refusing to let a mist of the so-called ideal and beautiful blind it to the rough realities of the world we live in. Each time has its task; and that of ours–the peculiar work laid upon us by the mute instincts of mankind, as well as by the lessons of our best and sincerest minds, the salt of our earth–is, not to go for beauty, but for use and truth. Beauty, we all hope, may and should be added to it; but beauty radiates from the perfect surface, and our work is still in the chaotic under-ground; has to be done more by faith than by sight, and we know not yet what its beauty will be. It is not a desirable time for the artist, who is happiest in the sunshine of social and spiritual opulence and unquestioned organizations. It was but last century that Europe declared itself bankrupt in these matters, and we are the heirs, heirs of debts and neglects. Practically, though not with words, we do acknowledge our poverty: the ambitious amongst us do but accumulate fresh stores, without the sense or the joy of their fit application; and the charitable humbly limit their action to washing and cleansing. It is an existence of industrious sober sadness. We have heard it wittily remarked that ours was a scavenger age: we have to wash off the accumulated dirt of generations.

Then, again, it is an age of science too, the handmaiden of material knowledge. We are mathematical and logical, believe in physical laws, and our imagination refuses to be fed with lies. The artist who will persist in speaking to us under these circumstances–not content with playing merely the part of adjunct to the upholsterer–must first of all be true, and tell us about things he has seen and known, so that, perchance, we also may get to know them. The Greek artist was bound by law of the state to idealize; the gods were beautified men, and the sculptor who "expounded" them popularly in marble was forbidden, under penalties, from being "too true to nature." The religion was mythical; the state was closely identified with the religion, and the enormity of introducing portraits–natural realities–into his works, was a matter of life and death to the artist.

The belief of the middle ages condemned and feared nature as of evil from the beginning. The spiritual element in man only, and his relation to a higher world, were realities worthy of concern. The painters, not by the constraint of law, but by the law of liberty, being filled with the thought of their time, embodied that thought in mythical representations, in the faces (the expression of the soul) of heavenly virgins and saintly martyrs.

The reformation brought reaction. Sincere men were driven to the facts of concrete life, and to respect common things. Nature, too, was the work of God, and accepted as such: whatever reported revelation of Him may be doubtful, this visible one, with wonders of its own, must be true. Naturalism arose; noblest in the school we named, it was carried to the extreme of materialism by the Dutch painters; true to the character of their people and climate, we must pronounce them also successful in their way, and even innocent. Sincere works only, such into which the artist has deposited the truth that was in him, possess the elements of endurance. Which English pictures of last century do we care most for? Sir Joshua’s portraits, Hogarth’s stories of life and manners, and Gainsborough’s "bits of England." Indeed English painting altogether dates only from those modern periods of realism; the organization of the Englishman is stubbornly sincere, and he is singularly awkward when leaving the terra firma of his realities. Accordingly it is the landscape-painter who has arrived at the highest success amongst us. He depicts things which he knows, and which we know. This is the earth, our dwelling-place, the mother and nourisher of us all. These are the green hills, the cloudy skies, the shady lanes and yellow fields of our happy land. Those are the moods and humours, the smiles and frowns of our climate. This the noble platform appointed to us to work and worship thereon, the scenes amidst which we are destined to love, to suffer, and to do. We see the fresh breezy morning, arousing energy and exertion; the blazing mid-day with golden harvests; the gloomy coppice and the rippling brook, telling its secrets to silence and you; the calm valley, with lengthening shadows and distant spire, awakening old thoughts in your breast, like those of Dante’s wanderer when he heard

the evening bells and thought of home. These things the painter still shows us, and we answer, Yes, this is true; this we have seen and felt, and we thank him for recording it for us. Why should not our public and domestic life be capable of similar true recordings? Such as we are, we are; and always a living dog is better than a dead lion. In the Dresden Gallery are two Madonnas of transcendent merit but unequal celebrity. Raphael’s heaven-descended Virgin-Mother, with unspeakable things in her dreamy somnambule eyes, a Pope and a Saint worshipping in the clouds, and two cherubs looking on, is known to all the world. The other, less known, is by the younger Holbein; his Madonna, also, is a beautiful woman, and such as may deserve heaven, but as yet belongs to our earth; and she is surrounded by a worthy burgomaster of Basle and his family; wife, sisters, sons and daughters, all "done to the life" as they appeared in their holiday costume of the sixteenth century;–sturdy, innocent, Teutonic physiognomies, with the stamp of their time upon them, and the living spirit of three hundred years ago still looking out upon us from their "speaking eyes." Naturalism and Idealism, both in highest excellence, are there in close proximity, challenging critical comparison, which we will not venture on; yet will timidly confess that we take a heartier interest in the burgomaster picture than in that of San Sisto. Not but that the latter gave us more of what is called "pleasure;" but we were always half afraid of the mood it inspired, while the effect of the other was like that of the fresh air and the mountains.

We have been led into these remarks by the Rev. Edward Young’s pamphlet on "Art,"* which consists in great part of a running criticism on our Pre-Raphaelite artists, and their prophet, Mr. Ruskin. It treats of painting, music, and architecture under the four aspects of the technical, the æsthetical, the expressive, and the ideal element. The author shows himself an enthusiastic lover of art, and an accomplished amateur according to conventional tradition. Raphael’s "School

of Athens," the Apollo, and the Laocoon are rapturously held up as the perfect ideals to be aspired after. Unmindful, if not unaware, of the practical results of this æsthetic doctrine, visible wherever it has been followed (and it has more or less been followed everywhere), and what sort of works of art the "classical" artists of these two centuries past have produced, the author winds up without misgivings: "As regards the ideal in art, let me conclude by putting my meaning in a single instance–The Apollo Belvidere." Is not this a very striking "instance" how little talk about art amongst us is expected to be serious? Mr. Young emphatically condemns the popish conception of Christ in Michael Angelo's Last Judgment, "it has the brand of Rome" (p. 76); and yet it never seems to have occurred to him that an artist of genius, and whose theory of the universe was taken from the Bible, which the Reverend author upholds and "always goes to," could not possibly embody his ideal after the manner of the Greek Apollo, which is a deification of the bodily man; beauty even at the sacrifice of truth; for Mr. Young informs us exultingly that one of the Apollo legs is several inches longer than the other!

To an art-lover of that stamp, the practice of the Pre-Raphaelites and the theories of Mr. Ruskin must naturally be a stumbling-block and foolishness. Accordingly he has no charity with the former, and no end of quarrel, evidently carried on con amore, with the latter; whom, however, he allows to possess "an innate sense of beauty." Mr. Ruskin’s frequent dogmatisms are inviting enough to antagonistic criticism; but a writer of such intensity of conviction has a right to be construed with the utmost candour, balancing the occasional extravagance of the letter by the general truth of the spirit; and to Mr. Ruskin belongs the special merit of recalling to manliness, veracity, and mortality, human occupations, noble in themselves, but too long given over to the domain of dilettantism and conventionalism. Neither would we quarrel with Mr. Young, whose little book gives evidence of educated taste, a cultivated mind, and a praiseworthy desire to enlighten the good people of Bristol in matters æsthetical; and we sincerely hope, that "the authorities" of that ancient city have lost no time in placing their cast of the divine Apollo according to Mr. Young’s suggestion, so that the latter may be no longer "uneasy about his (the Apollo’s) position amongst us."

* upon the Not-Me; a saying of more truth than euphony.

* "Art; its Constitution and Capacities, popularly Considered, being the First of Two Lectures, on the Use and Abuse of Art." Delivered at Bristol, January 19, 1854, and published by request. By the Rev. Edward Young. Bristol. 1854.


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Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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