IT has already been said that one of the reasons for beginning at the middle of the nineteenth century the study of painting undertaken in this book is that the Pre-Raphaelite movement arose at that time. The movement was a revolt, though not purposely so at the outset. Perhaps no revolts ever are ; revolutionaries begin simply by wanting more of their own way. The powers that be will not let them have ‘it. They insist ; and this means that the powers that be have to be opposed. In art the established authorities at any time are the artists who are wedded to a particular style, and the public that has come to think that this style is the only right one. They are the ” grave copiers of copies,” and the admirers of such copies. The revolutionaries are the artists who, somehow or other, manage to throw aside the spectacles of tradition, look at nature and life with their own eyesight, and then seek to paint what they see. This does not mean that tradition is wholly cast aside, or that the artist becomes a mere machine for recording facts. It means that he is to be free to modify tradition and to interpret nature and life in accordance with his own experience and temperament. Any one who did not know much about art and its history might think that such freedom would readily be granted. The fact is that it is almost invariably bitterly resented and opposed. The battles of the orthodoxies and heresies of art are only less fierce than those of the orthodoxies and heresies of religion. And there is in both spheres the same tendency to go to absurd extremes.
The name Pre Raphaelite appears to have been suggested by Madox Brown, who was familiar with the German Pre-Raphaelite movement, having met the leaders of it, Cornelius and Overbeck, in Rome, and having been much impressed by the men and their work. The name itself suggests revolt when we think of the high estimation in which Raphael and his contemporaries and chief followers were then held. Mr. Holman Hunt has drawn a distinction between Pre-Raphaelitism and Pre-Raphaelism. He and his companions, he says, had no lack of admiration for Raphael, at least in part of his work, or for Michael Angelo ; it was from admiration of the work of the Raphaelites, the followers and imitators of Raphael, that they wished to dissociate themselves.
Really, if we were to accept as entirely satisfactory Mr. Holman Hunt’s interpretation of the movement, the name by which it has come to be known could not be considered an appropriate one. But his interpretation is too narrow, and it is difficult to accept what he says about the meaning put upon the name. According to him, he and Millais were the only true Pre-Raphaelites in the Brotherhood; and he almost seems to ask us to think of himself as being, in a few years, the only one deserving the name. He finds fault with Madox Brown’s early work because it really is in the manner of the predecessors of Raphael ; Rossetti’s Girlhood of Mary Virgin he describes as being Overbeckian in manner, but ” completed and realised with that Pre-Raphaelite thoroughness which it could not have reached under Brown’s mediaeval supervision.” That is to say, Pre-Raphaelitism did not mean mediaevalism, according to Mr. Hunt, but only thoroughness, elaboration of detail, and that of a kind not to be found in the works of Raphael’s predecessors.
The truth is that the revolutionaries were only united in revolt. They could not have agreed upon a new constitution for art. They did not so agree, and soon went each his several way. The movement was away from the current theories of art, but it was not towards a single, clearly defined, alternative theory. If its chief promoters Hunt, Millais, and Rossetti started out together in one direction, though this can hardly be maintained, Rossetti was soon off in another direction; and it was not long before thoroughness ceased to be a mark of Millais’ work. The cry of Mr. Holman Hunt’s book, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, is, ” I, even I, am left alone.”
It must not be assumed that there was no re-awakening in English art outside the Brotherhood and its circle. It will be convenient for us, however, to confine ourselves at the moment to the organised movement and the work of those who were closely associated with it, if not formally members of the Brotherhood.
The first of the innovators, in priority of date, was Ford Madox Brown. The real leadership of the movement has often been attributed to him. There was, however, no single leader, because, as already said, there was no single leading idea, or clearly defined and limited group of ideas. The importance of Madox Brown’s influence on the movement is, however, indisputable. English by parentage, he was born in 1821 at Calais, and spent most of his early life abroad. Life and work in Belgium, France, and Italy, with occasional sojourns in England, is the record until, after the death of his wife in Paris, he settled permanently in this country. His art-training was received under Gregorovius at Bruges, and Baron Wappers at Antwerp, and, as we have already seen, he studied in France and Italy. It would have been impossible for him simply to fall into line with the conventions and traditions then in vogue in England. He was an Englishman who approached the art of his country from the outside. The master who most influenced him was Baron Wappers, whose style M. de la Sizeranne calls Gothic, which means not Latin, or not the late Latin of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It did not subordinate forcible expression to beauty. Madox Brown’s style is nothing if not forcible. It was too forcible for Holman Hunt’s liking, at least more so than he thought likely to be acceptable to the British public. He thought it “grimly grotesque,” and on this account, amongst others, was opposed to Madox Brown’s being invited to become a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Among the earliest of Madox Brown’s works to attract the attention of the future members of the Brotherhood were the cartoons he executed in connexion with the competitions for the decoration of the Houses of Parliament. One of these cartoons, executed in Paris in 1843, and exhibited at Westminster in the following year, represented the body of Harold being brought before William the Conqueror after the battle of Hastings an incident, it should be said, that has no historical foundation. It is quite to our purpose to quote his own description of this cartoon. “Excessive and exuberant joy,” he says, “is described by the old chronicles as possessing the Norman host after the victory. This is shown variously in the demeanour and expressions of the conquerors. Harold was a more than usually large and athletic man, even among Saxon heroes,. Three men bear his body to the victorious Duke. All that are left alive on the scene are Normans no prisoners were taken. Quarter was neither expected nor given. One ancient knight, some-what of the Polonius kind, with raised hand, seems to say, Here indeed was a man. In my young days,’ etc. etc. Others seem of the same mind. One of William’s attendants, of the waggish sort, catches a silly camp-boy by the fist and exhibits its puny proportions alongside of the dead Harold’s hand, still with the broken battle-axe in its iron grasp, drawing a grün smile from the Conqueror. A fair-haired Norman officer, regardless of the fact that his body is gashed pretty freely with wounds, twists about to get a sight of Harold. The monk who is dressing his wounds, tired out with much of such work, surlily bids him to be quiet. Friends join hands, glad to meet again after such a day. A father supports his wounded son. In one corner, embraced in death-grapple, lie the bodies of a Norman and Saxon ; one has stabbed the other in the back, while he in turn has bitten his adversary’s throat like a dog. Beachy Head, which is just perceptible from the scene of the battle, appears across the bay in the extreme distance. The effect is after sunset.”
It is evident from this description that Madox Brown and this is true of all his works vividly imagined the scene to be represented, even to small details, and entered the dramatist’s privilege into the thoughts and emotions of those who took part in it. Then, what he had thus seen he set forth with unflinching fidelity. The close of a battle must be a horrible scene, and here, after sundown on this English hill-side, at the end of one of the most memorable fights in our history, one of its great turning-points, we sup full with horrors.
When Holman Hunt saw this cartoon, he thought the drawing robust and nervous, the costume treated with manly taste, giving actuality to the historic scene, and the colour honest and acceptable, and although without mysterious charm of hue, altogether appropriate and sound. He thought that the painter was glaringly unreasonable in making William wear round his neck the saints’ bones over which Harold had made his renunciation of the crown; and he did not like the biting and dagger incident. Here came in the grimly grotesque.
I have dwelt at length on the treatment by Madox Brown of an historical subject, because, in his zeal for vivid and detailed dramatic representation, he shows himself clearly of the same race as Hogarth; yet, as his grandson, Mr. Ford Hueffer, says, “He was then to all intents and purposes a foreigner, and as such he regarded himself during the short stay in England whilst he was actually executing his cartoons and before his journey to Italy.”
The journey to Italy, which was made in 1845, had for one result, as we have already seen, an awakening of interest in the painters who preceded Raphael and their modern followers, the Germans, Overbeck and Cornelius. He returned to England ambitious of painting, in honour of English poets, pictures which should be as inspired and inspiring as those of the Italian masters ; and the first two pictures he painted after his return Chaucer at the Court of Edward III and Wycliffe reading his Translation of the Bible to John of Gaunt were not only done in pursuance of this desire, but were early Italian in manner, groups of figures being symmetrically balanced, one by another, and enclosed within Gothic arches. The pictures were architectonic in design. According to Holman Hunt, this Pre-Raphaelitism was not Pre-Raphaelite in the modern sense ; it did not eschew the conventional in contemporary art; there was nothing in it indicative of a child-like reversion from existing schools to nature herself.
Let us leave Madox Brown for a time and turn to Holman Hunt, who was his junior by seven years, having been born, the son of a London warehouseman, in 1827. The story has often been told how, against his father’s wish, he persisted in his determination to become a painter. Then, at a third attempt, at the age of seventeen, he was admitted as a probationer in the Royal Academy Schools.
A clue to much that is distinctive in his art, and in his theories of art, is to be found in the fact that, until quite recently, he has always had unusually keen eyesight. On one occasion he astonished a friend in Jerusalem by proving to him that he could see the satellites of Jupiter with the naked eye. The friend doubted his statement that he could thus see them; so, after he had noted down their positions on a piece of paper, they went to the house of another friend who had a telescope; and the moons were found to be exactly in the positions in which he had noted them. He has seen the world as perhaps few other artists have seen it, in minute detail ; and it has always, he has said, been a pleasure to him to represent it as he has seen it. I have already quoted a critic who spoke of his near-sighted inquisitiveness. He says himself that on one occasion Madox Brown indulged in “playful irony upon what he termed my ‘microscopic detail.’” Was it any more playful irony than Hunt’s description of Brown’s work as grimly grotesque ? Probably he was not aware how exceptional his eyesight was I have heard him say that he did not know if it were exceptional and he would not know, therefore, that he represented things quite otherwise than they would look to the majority of people.
Knowing of this physical peculiarity, we can understand his saying of himself as a student that ” without any idea of ‘ forming a school’ but for his own development alone, he began to study with exceptional care and frankness those features of nature which were generally slurred over as unworthy attention; and for this purpose he found most timely encouragement in the enthusiastic outburst of Ruskin’s appeal to nature in all vital qualities of art criticism as expressed by him in ‘ Modern Painters.’” Were the details slurred over, or were they simply not seen by painters who had not his “microscopic eye”? None of us knows exactly how others see the world. Has Holman Hunt’s whole practice and theory of art been adapted only for the needs of himself and a few other exceptional people ? Certainly many people, the present writer and every one with whom he has discussed the matter included, do not see things as it is evident from his paintings Mr. Hunt has seen them.
Whether or not we attribute Holman Hunt’s theory of the relation of art to nature to his exceptional eyesight, or merely think that his keen vision led to an extreme application of an independently adopted theory, the theory and the keen vision together, by occasioning an unusual interest in minute detail, have resulted in his paintings, less, perhaps, than those of almost any other artist, making allowance for the stereoscopic action of our eyesight. We have two eyes; we see from two distinct though not widely separate points of view. Upon anything at which we particularly wish to look the eyes focus themselves so that we get only one picture of it. Of all other things not in the sanie plane we get two pictures, or, we may say, a blurred picture. Holman Hunt has painted his pictures as if we could see all objects, both near and distant, with equal and remarkable clearness at any given moment. Hence the unreally hard look of his work that is so often commented upon.
It will be found by experiment that this hardness is greatly diminished if the pictures be looked at with one eye only. This holds good for any representation on a flat surface of objects at different distances from the eye. Instinctively, when looking with both eyes, we expect the blurring of all objects except those on the same plane as the one at which we are particularly looking ; and we miss this effect in a picture in which all objects are distinctly painted. Using one eye only, we instinctively do not expect this effect, do not miss it in the picture ; and differences of size and tone then convey to us a much stronger impression of varying distance. If such pictures of Holman Hunt’s as Rienzi, May Morning, and Magdalen Tower be looked at with both eyes, the sky, painted as it is seen when the eyes are focussed upon it, looks hard, and but little if at all beyond buildings, trees, or figures. Use one eye only, and it at once gets away far beyond them, So in his water-colour drawings of the Holy Land, the confusion of planes disappears entirely if they are looked at with only one eye. The opposite of all this is true. If we look at actual objects with only one eye, there is at once a confusion of planes ; we miss the stereoscopic in plain English, ” solid-looking ” effect, to which. we are accustomed.
The hard effect of Mr. Holman Hunt’s pictures has often been attributed to his painting with equal definition the objects in every part of them. In looking at actual, objects we do not see clearly those to right and left of, and above and below, the one upon which our eyes are fixed. But this is at least almost equally true, as experiment can at once show, with regard to the objects in even a small picture or photograph held comparatively close to the eyes. It is the equal clearness of objects on different planes, not of those on the same plane, which, with the elaboration of detail due to his extraordinary clearness of vision, produces in his pictures an effect such as we never see in looking at things themselves.
What are we to say about this ? First, that if the conveying of information about objects as they are were the end of painting, Mr. Holman Hunt’s pictures would have to take their place in the very front rank of art. In the works of no other painter can we learn so much about what is represented in them. It is really quite interesting to examine his pictures closely, bit by bit; and it is difficult to see why we should not have this pleasure, if it be obtained at the sacrifice of nothing else. But truth of appearance is sacrificed ? Then we get one kind of truth from Mr. Holman Hunt, and can look to other painters for other kinds. Is there not sacrifice of beauty ? Not necessarily. A stained-glass window, containing representations of figures and landscape, takes no note of stereoscopic vision, of planes and values, and yet may be exquisitely beautiful. So with Mr. Holman Hunt’s pictures : they may be beautiful in design and colour ; they may be even more beautiful than those that seek to represent the mere appearance of things more accurately than he does. The questions we have been discussing are, in fact, scientific, not aesthetic.
The reader may, however, be of those who do feel the Pre-Raphaelite leader’s pictures to be wanting in beauty ; and it may be that such feeling is not always though assuredly it often is–due to pre-occupation with beauty of one kind. We shall, perhaps, find the explanation in Mr. Hunt’s theory of the relation of art to nature. We have seen him approving of Ruskin’s ” appeal to nature in all vital questions of art criticism.” He says that he himself was an earnest young student “who, already feeling his way as a practical painter, was led by circumstances to study in exceptional degree the works of the greatest old masters, and he perceived that in every school progress ended when the pupils derived their manner through dogmas evolved from artists’ systems rather than from principles of design taught by nature herself. He determined, therefore, for his own part, to disregard all the arbitrary rules in vogue in existing schools, and to seek his own road in art by that patient study of nature on which the great masters had founded their sweetness and strength of style.” How he set himself to work out this theory we may learn from a statement of his own regarding his picture The Hireling Shepherd. In a letter to the present writer, he said : ” My first object as an artist was to paint, not Dresden china bergers, but a real shepherd, and a real shepherdess, and a landscape in full sunlight, with all the colour of luscious summer, without the faintest fear of any landscape painters who had rendered nature before.”
There are probably few people sufficiently interested in the subject to give it serious thought who do not think that this picture would have been more beautiful had Mr. Holman Hunt paid more regard to precedent. Nature may teach design, but she only carries the teaching part way; the pupil must go to a finishing school perhaps he had better have other teachers as well as nature all the time if his education is to be complete. And if and when Mr. Holman Hunt’s pictures are wanting in beauty, it is chiefly because he has trusted too much to nature as a teacher of design. Not that he could wholly escape from precedent. His art is better than his creed. In this very picture it is where he abandons his creed that design enters, as in the determination of the positions of the sheep and of the trees so as to form lines that will lead up to the figures and harmonise with their bounding lines. If and when Mr. Holman Hunt’s pictures fail in beauty, it is because more or less of the recorded fact escapes from his design : the picture is not an aesthetic whole. To adapt what the curate said about his egg, the picture is only good in parts. This is especially true with regard to colour; there is often much beautiful harmonising of colour as well as loveliness of individual tints ; but often no colour-scheme runs through the whole picture. He says of Millais and himself : “We distinctly enforced our aesthetic aims in the themes we treated, selecting beautiful objects for fastidious discrimination in their portrayal.” We may accept this statement and yet see that such a course would not necessarily result in the production of a beautiful work of art. The various beautiful objects must not only be fastidiously portrayed, they must be brought into beautiful relation with each other, and to this end they must be carefully selected; and even then the individual character of some of them may have to be modified if the total result is to be beautiful.
Again, Mr. Hunt says : ” Pre-Raphaelitism in its purity was the frank worship of nature, kept in check by selection and directed by the spirit of imaginative purpose.” Yes ; but the question has still to be asked, In what proportion were these elements mixed ? There have been many schools of art, by no means Pre-Raphaelite, in Mr. Hunt’s use of the term, to which this definition would apply. Mr. Hunt mixed the elements to his own liking. He seems to have got Millais to like the same mixture, though Millais’ taste changed before very long. Dante Rossetti, the third working member of the Brotherhood, adopted different proportions from the first. Madox Brown, whom we have left for a time, had his own prescription for a while, tried Holman Hunt’s afterwards, and then varied it again. Mr. Hunt says in his book : ” It is stultifying in writing a history of Pre-Raphaelitism to be compelled to avow that our impulsively-formed Brotherhood was a tragic failure almost from the beginning, and that we became the victims of the indiscretions of our allies.” The members of the Brotherhood were Holman Hunt, Millais, Dante Rossetti, James Collinson, F. G. Stephens these five were painters ; Thomas Woolner, a sculptor, and William Michael Rossetti, a writer. When Mr. Hunt says ” we ” he means Millais and himself. Our allies” were the other five. Collinson soon left the Brotherhood ; Stephens did little actual work. The members were never agreed in theory. The very epithet Pre-Raphaelite was a misnomer for the work of Holman Hunt and Millais. Mr. Hunt says that there was nothing antiquarian or quattrocentist about the movement. Why, then, call it Pre-Raphaelite? Raphael and his predecessors certainly never made a sudden breach with precedent and a return to Nature spelt with a capital N. There was something antiquarian and quattrocentist in the work of Madox Brown and Dante Rossetti, and in the theories of Stephens and William Rossetti; and they are certainly more entitled to use the term Pre-Raphaelite than the other two, whose work would have been better described simply as Naturalist. This is not a mere wrangling about terms. These differences are important with reference to the after history of English painting. Each of the parties in the Brotherhood had its allies, and afterwards its followers; and the influence of each persists to the present day. Also, entirely outside the Brotherhood and its circle, there were painters from whom the Pre-Raphaelites themselves might have learned valuable lessons. Of all this hereafter.
It will, perhaps, be well now to say something about Ruskin’s theories of art, which, as we have seen, entirely fell in with those that Holman Hunt was working out for himself, and confirmed him in his determination to adopt them in practice. Nature was in the forefront of all Ruskin had to say about art. His first nom de plume was Kata Phusin, “according to nature.” On the title-page of each volume of Modern Painters are Wordsworth’s lines :
Accuse me not Of arrogance… If, having walked with Nature, And offered, far as frailty would allow, My heart a daily sacrifice to Truth, I now affirm of Nature and of Truth, Whom I have served, that their Divinity Revolts, offended at the ways of men, Philosophers, who, though the human soul Be of a thousand faculties composed, And twice ten thousand interests, do yet prize This soul, and the transcendent universe, No more than as a mirror that reflects To proud Self-love her own intelligence.
It is instructive to note here that Rossetti said of Words-worth that he was too much the high-priest of nature to be her lover. It may also be said that whether or not Nature and Truth have revolted at the ways of men, men have often felt inclined, at least, to revolt against the ways of nature ; and man has only risen above the brute by making all kinds of improvements upon the things with which nature has provided him. Of course, we may say that nature is made better by no means that nature herself does not provide ; only, if we do say this, we must also say that the widest departures from nature, by which art creates a beauty of its own, are themselves natural.
Why did Ruskin. put this quotation from Wordsworth in the forefront of each volume of his great apology for Turner? Because he himself had humbly walked with nature as a geologist and botanist. His earliest writing of any moment was on these subjects; and his interest in art was largely scientific that is to say, he strongly emphasised the importance of fidelity to facts. What was his appeal to nature in all vital questions of art criticism, in which Holman Hunt found such timely encouragement ? We shall find it in the first volume of Modern Painters; and I venture to quote once more an oft-quoted passage. Before doing so, however, let me remind the reader that the first volume of Modern Painters was published in 1843, when the author had only reached the age of twenty-four ; that he was not himself strictly an artist, as, although he was an exquisite draughtsman, he never showed any faculty for design; just as, though he wrote magnificent prose, his verse was never more than respectable. This is the oft-quoted passage :
” From young artists nothing ought to be tolerated but simple bona fide imitation of nature. They have no business to ape the execution of masters; to utter weak and disjointed repetitions of other men’s words, and mimic the gestures of the preacher without understanding his meaning or sharing in his emotions. We do not want their crude ideas of composition, their unformed conceptions of the Beautiful, their unsystematised experiments upon the Sublime. We scorn their velocity, for it is without direction ; we reject their decision, for it is without grounds; we re-probate their choice, for it is without comparison. Their duty is neither to choose, nor compose, nor imagine, nor experimentalise; but to be humble and earnest in following the steps of nature, and tracing the finger of God. No-thing is so bad a symptom in the work of young artists as too much dexterity of handling, for it is a sign that they are satisfied with their work and have tried to do nothing more than they were able to do. Their work should be full of failures, for these are the signs of efforts. They should keep to quiet colours, greys and browns ; and making the early works of Turner their example, as his latest are to be their object of emulation, should go to nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly, having no other thoughts but how best to penetrate her meaning, and remember her instruction rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing; believing all things to be right and good, and rejoicing always in the truth.”
We halt here, but will finish the passage shortly. It will be observed that if the young artist take Ruskin’s advice, he will begin as a mere imitator of nature. That is to say, he will begin by not practising art, for mere imitation is not art. Is it not likely, then, that he will end more or less as he has begun ? Hamerton took Ruskin’s advice and came to the conclusion that it was bad ; that mere imitation of nature was not at all the right way to learn the practice of art. Holman Hunt took the advice ; but his case is not a complete test, for he had already painted pictures in accordance with the accepted theories of design. Still, he probably never afterwards designed so well ; and having adopted a restrained handling, part of Ruskin’s advice, he has retained it, on his own admission, to the end of his career.
But Ruskin’s advice is hardly consistent with itself. The young artist is to go to nature, but, at the same time, he is to make the early works of Turner his example, and use only quiet colours greys and browns. Does nature use only greys and browns ? Holman Hunt did not take this part of the advice. He forthwith tried to adopt nature’s most brilliant colour. Also, from the first, Turner selected, composed, and designed, and did not merely imitate nature. He never lost sight of both art and nature ; and, except in mere studies and sketches, he always translated nature into terms of art. It would be rather odd, if Turner’s latest works were to be the artist’s emulation, for him to begin, as Turner did not begin, with mere imitation of nature, leaving out selection and design, which are of the essence of art, and were never absent in some degree from Turner’s work, and were not the least wonderful things in it when his art had reached maturity.
The reader may be inclined to quote Lady Macbeth, exclaiming, ” Thou’rt mad to say it,” if I suggest that Ruskin did not fully understand Turner, and therefore did not say the last word about him. Not that I am going to try to say it. But on Ruskin’s own high estimate of Turner, not, perhaps, an unduly exalted one, it might well be that even a Ruskin could not fully take his measure, especially as he arrived at his conclusions while yet a mere youth, and with certain rather narrow theories about art as his critical equipment. It is all a question of degree. Did Ruskin rightly assess how much that is beautiful, impressive, and in any other way valuable in Turner’s work was due to nature, and how much of it was due to Turner himself ? Did he sufficiently realise that though Turner indeed walked with nature, he afterwards went into his studio and, in his art, varied nature very much as he pleased ? If this be heresy, it is not uttered for the first time. In A Century of Painters of the English School, Redgrave seems almost to quiver in his contemptuous comment on Ruskin’s statement that Turner was the first and greatest of the Pre-Raphaelites. ” Turner a Pre-Raphaelite ! ” he says ; “Turner who passed his life in studying nature under her varied aspects that his memory of her might be sure ; who left us thousands of his studies, yet repudiated the practice of painting his pictures at all out of doors, and would have laughed at the ‘one principle, the uncompromising truth of working everything from nature and from nature only, painting to the last touch in the open air from the thing itself.’ Turner a Pre-Raphaelite ! he who repudiated topographic imitation when it had served his purpose and made selection of the beautiful and characteristic in nature his principle ; idealizing the commonplace of every-day nature, which the laborious idler, painting from ‘the thing itself,’ can never do ; and adding to it, from the ample stores of his well-filled memory, every evanescent beauty arising from sun and shade, and the thousand changes with which they glorify the common aspect of things ! ” Similarly, Philip Gilbert Hamerton, who, after trial, rejected Ruskin’s advice about learning art from nature, says : ” In the case of Turner, not-withstanding -a profound knowledge of the natural world, there was such a strong art faculty, and such a disposition to refer to preceding art, that he was never enslaved to nature. The mere fact that, having the choice of town or country, he could live in London, is in itself sufficient evidence that his mind had never been overwhelmed by nature to the point of sacrificing its human liberty and individuality.” Hamerton says also that Wordsworth was saved by his interest in humanity from being wholly conquered by natural landscape, but that his emancipation would have been more complete if he had understood the art of painting.
There is no need for me to attempt to decide between these different points of view. I have no desire to give a recipe : so much nature to so much art. I have merely to show that art, in its development during the last fifty years, has refused to be limited to the Pre-Raphaelite recipe as understood by Ruskin and Holman Hunt; at the same time, I am far from saying that their recipe had not its value, only it was not an exclusively valuable one.
I only quoted part of the passage in Modern Painters that contains Ruskin’s advice to young painters. The conclusion of it is as follows :” Then “after going to nature in all singleness of heart, and walking with her laboriously and trustingly” when their memories are stored, and their imaginations fed, and their hands firm, let them take up the scarlet and the gold, give the reins to their fancy, and show us what their heads are made of. We will follow them wherever they choose to lead; we will check at nothing; they are then our masters, and are fit to be so. They have placed themselves above our criticism, and we will listen to their words in all faith and humility; but not unless they themselves have before bowed, in the same submission, to a higher Authority and Master.” If any young painter ever took Ruskin’s advice with regard to fidelity to nature, it was Millais ; yet we shall find hereafter that when, in later years, Millais began to paint in a manner that Ruskin did not like, Ruskin by no means thought him above criticism because of his earlier bowing to a higher Authority and Master. Still, of course, Millais may have become a fallen angel of art; Ruskin said, indeed, that his change was not mere fall, but catastrophe.
We shall have to consider this change in a later chapter. Here, in connexion with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, we are concerned with Millais as, for the time, agreeing in theory and practice with Holman Hunt. They adopted the same principle, painting the landscape and other surroundings of their figures on the spot, with great elaboration of detail, and with little or no allowance for the blurring of objects on other planes than that of the object upon which the eyes were focussed.
The third working member of the Brotherhood was Dante Rossetti, who had Italian blood in his veins, was poet as well as painter, and of whom the last thing that can be said is that he walked humbly with nature. If the success of the Brotherhood depended upon his adopting the methods of Holman Hunt and Millais, there can be no wonder that it was a failure, even a tragic one. He had been a pupil of Madox Brown’s, to whom he had been attracted by the Westminster cartoons, and had been set to paint pickle jars by way of discipline in art. Such humble drudgery as this was not to his liking, and he soon chose another master Holman Hunt who set him to work on the still-life objects in a subject-picture, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin. This picture, Mr. Holman Hunt says, ” was of Overbeck revivalist character, which no superintendence of mine as to the manner of painting could much affect”; and of Rossetti’s next picture, The Annunciation, generally known as Ecce Ancilla Domini, he says that it ” still reflected Brown’s early Christian phase “; and he says generally, ” Rossetti treated the Gospel history simply as a storehouse of interesting situations and beautiful personages for the artist’s pencil, just as the Arthurian legends afterwards were to him, and in due course to his younger proselytes at Oxford.” This is by no means accurate, but it serves to show that there was an initial difference between Holman Hunt and Millais on the one hand and Rossetti on the other as to the relation of art to nature a difference that became greater, not less, as time went on. Holman Hunt dwells upon Rossetti’s entire lack of interest in natural science and theories of evolution, saying, quite truly, that he regarded such questions as foreign to poetry and irrelevant to art ; ” for when men were different from the cultured of mediaeval days they were not poetic in his eyes; they had no right to be different from the people of Dante’s time.” This last passage is not quite fair, and does not come well from a painter most of whose work is marked by a scrupulous avoidance of the difficulties imposed on the artist by the ordinary modern costume of Western Europe.
Before proceeding to see how the Pre-Raphaelites fared when they submitted their pictures to public criticism, we shall do well to consider another question, much debated in these days the place of the subject in painting.
According to one school of criticism the subject should never be of more than secondary interest in a picture. A picture, when first we see it, ought never to suggest the question What is it all about? ” but only the exclamation:
How beautiful it is ! ” Mr. George Moore thinks that art failed in the nineteenth century because the subject was put first and beauty second. He attributes the beginning of this error, which he compares with the potato blight or phylloxera, to the painted domestic dramas of Greuze, and says that for the last hundred years painters seem to have lived in libraries rather than in studios, and that painting has acted as a sort of handmaiden to literature. One picture that he selects to illustrate his contention is Holman Hunt’s The Shadow of Death, which, he says, is barren of artistic interest, but rejoices the heart of middle class England by showing dress, tools, a carpenter’s shop, and landscape, that are either identical with or closely resemble the surroundings of Christ two thousand years ago. It is interesting to note in connexion with what Mr. Moore says about this picture, that Holman Hunt maintained, when defending his purpose of going to the Holy Land, that in pursuing the aim of making more tangible Jesus Christ’s history and teaching he ought not surely to serve art less perfectly. Doubtless Mr. Moore would say that he could not have taken a course more sure to prevent him from serving art at all. We have just quoted Mr. Holman Hunt as saying of Rossetti that he treated the Gospel history simply as a storehouse of interesting situations and beautiful personages for the artist’s pencil. This is an exaggeration ; but Mr. George Moore would have applauded Rossetti had he taken such a position. He says that to Leonardo, Raphael, and Andrea del Sarto, ” Biblical subjects were a mere pretext for representing man in all his attributes ; and when the same subjects were treated by the Venetians they were transformed in a pomp of colour, and by an absence of all true colour and by contempt for history and chronology became epical and fantastical. It is only necessary to examine any one of the works of the great Venetians to see that they bestowed hardly a thought on the subject of their pictures.” This, again, is an exaggeration. And Mr. Moore is not quite consistent, for in another place he says, ” Sentimentality pollutes, the anecdote degrades, wit altogether ruins ; only great thought enters into art “; and he praises Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini because in it, though “it is destitute of all technical accomplishment,” the painter has ” revealed the essence of an intensely human story” ; ” he has looked deep into the legend, and revealed its true and human significance.” Surely this is to give the subject a very high place in art ! And if Mr. Moore be right about this picture, it is clear that Mr. Holman Hunt is wrong in what he says as to Rossetti’s attitude towards the Gospel history.
Mr. Moore says that in the masterpieces of the Dutch painters of the seventeenth century “we find no suspicion of anything that might be called a subject; the absence of subject is even more conspicuous in the Dutchmen than in the Italians.” The Italians would surely have wondered to be told that there was no subject in their paintings; and in Dutch paintings we find subject in plenty, even in the form of anecdote, which, Mr. Moore says, degrades. Jan Steen pictures the visit of a doctor to a young lady who looks as if she had taken a chill after a dance; Gerard Dou and Willem Van Mieris show the chaffering of seller and buyer in poultry shops, and enter with great zest into such subjects as the discussion of the merits and demerits of hares and vegetables; Pieter de Hooch shows a housewife going to the door to look out for her husband, while the maid brings her child after her ; and again, he paints the husband coming along the garden-path, while his wife is scolding the servant-maid because the dinner is not ready. :But why debate the question? As far back as art can be traced, right away to prehistoric bone-scratchings, the subject has taken a prominent place in it.
Mr. George Moore and M. de la Sizeranne both take the same view of the proper place of the subject in art. Only the former blames French art for first giving the subject too much prominence, and the latter blames English art ! The error begins, says the former, with the domestic dramas of Greuze, ” and ever since the subject has taken first place in the art of France, England, and Germany, and in like measure as the subject made itself felt, so did art decline.” M. de la Sizeranne says : ” The anecdotic puzzle of Hogarth on the one hand, the psychological puzzle of Burne-Jones on the other, all English painting oscillates between these two extremes, which meet, however, when it is considered how far apart they are from the normal point of view in which an artistic subject ought to be treated.”
What is the really normal point of view ? Painting is an art in which subjects of many kinds can be adequately treated. Such critics as those who have just been quoted do not deny this. But they say that in a work of art beauty should have the first place and the subject be sub-ordinate to it. They beg the whole question by calling pictures works of art, using art in the purely aesthetic sense of the word. Pictures often are, and often ought to be, more than works of art in this narrow acceptation. A tea-pot may have beauty, it ought certainly to be useful handle in the right place for holding; spout placed so that the tea will come out of it, and not first out of the opening at the top. A tea-pot, if of the very best, is “a work of art,” and something more. A painting, if of the very best most complete kind, will combine aesthetic value with intellectual or emotional value. It is incomplete, in the sense of not doing all that a painting can do, if either the aesthetic appeal or the intellectual or emotional appeal be wanting. A school of art of painting in which the subject is always of less interest than the aesthetic treatment of the subject, is an imperfect school of painting ; and if our two critics be right, the Italian, Dutch, and other earlier schools were imperfect. It has, indeed,, been maintained, and with much reason, that in the Italy of the Renaissance aestheticism was in excess, with evil results for art, literature, and life as a whole. Today it is said, with equal reason, that science is in excess and aestheticism neglected; and not only the walls of the Academy, but the things we make and use are evidence of it. The swing of the pendulum, the action and re-action in all these things, is extremely complex and difficult to follow. See to what different conclusions the two critics just quoted arrive as to one point the origin of what they hold to be the over-prominence of the subject in painting ! English Pre-Raphaelitism, on one side of it, was a protest against a pedantic mimicry of the aesthetic excess of the Italian Renaissance ; and if the protest itself was temporarily excessive, that is only what most protests must be if they are eventually to accomplish their object.
Probably the reader has by this time had enough of this discussion of some of the first principles of art; but unless we have them in mind, when we are looking at pictures or thinking about them, or hearing or reading what other people think about them, mere bewilderment will be the result. Anyhow, we have done with them for the present, and can now turn to more entertaining matter the formation and history of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Holman Hunt and Millais, fellow-students in the Academy Schools, to which the latter, though the younger of the two, had earlier obtained admission, had been working together for some time when Rossetti, in 1847, sought Holman Hunt’s guidance after tiring of his pickle jar work under Madox Brown. They had already determined on a return to nature, and were no longer to be mere imitators of Etty, Dyce, Maclise, or any others of the accredited art leaders of the time. It seemed as if Rossetti would join them in this venture, and with enthusiasm. Probably they were too enthusiastic to give adequate attention to signs that this could never be. The three seemed to be united. Rossetti suggested that others should join them. All the additions to the little company, save one, were proposed by him. All who joined them were to be or to become working artists, and Hunt and Millais expected that they would adopt the methods they themselves had decided to adopt. Thomas Woolner, a sculptor, who held that closer touch with nature was essential to the improvement of the art he practised, was the first addition. William Rossetti, the brother of Dante Rossetti, who thought he might give up an appointment at the Inland Revenue Office and become a painter, and James Collinson, a painter who declared his conversion to the new views, were next introduced by Rossetti. Holman Hunt, in his reminiscences, gives us delightful pictures of his and Millais’ somewhat anxious hope that all this would work out for good. The one addition to the group not introduced by RossettiF. G. Stephens was a friend of Holman Hunt’s, who thought that he would be caught up in the whirl of enthusiasm and become an active artist. Rossetti would have had Madox Brown invited to join them, but Holman Hunt had already formed the opinion, previously mentioned, that the ” grim grotesqueness ” and ” Overbeckian ” character of his work made it undesirable that he, who was also a considerably older man than any of the Brethren, should be of their number,
It was arranged that they should all meet in conference at Millais’ studio. There they discussed the outlines done by Führieh in the Retzsch manner, and then turned to a book of engravings of the frescoes in the Campo Santo at Pisa, which had been lent to Millais ; and, says Mr. Holman Hunt, ” we insisted that the naive traits of frank expression and unaffected grace were what had made Italian art so essentially vigorous and progressive, until the showy followers of Michelangelo had grafted their Dead Sea fruit on to the vital tree just when it was bearing its choicest autumnal ripeness for the reawakened world.” It was the spirit, however, not the form recognised as crude and immature of this earlier art that was to be followed, says Mr. Hunt; who also states that when Rossetti used Madox Brown’s term “Early Christian ” for the new principles of art, he himself insisted that ” Pre-Raphaelite” was more radically exact.
However this may be, they came to call themselves the Pre-Raphaelite. Brotherhood a designation which, as I have already said, suited the art of Rossetti much better than it suited that of Holman Hunt and Millais. According to Mr. William Rossetti, the Brethren were all agreed that to be a Pre-Raphaelite it was necessary” (1) to have genuine ideas to express; (2) to study nature attentively, so as to know how to express them ; (3) to sympathise with what is direct and heartfelt in previous art to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote; and (4) most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.” Close fidelity to nature does not here find a place another evidence of initial differences in the views of the Brethren ; and Mr. William Rossetti states further that Mr. F. G. Stephens is wrong in saying that one of their principles ” was to the effect that when a member found a model whose aspect answered his idea of the subject required, that model should be painted exactly, so to say, hair for hair.”
It is apart from our present purpose to say anything here about The Germ, the short-lived literary organ of the Brotherhood, itself hardly longer-lived. We have only to see what was the actual outcome of the movement in the way of painting ; and in this regard only the work of Holman Hunt, Millais, and Rossetti, among the original members of the Brotherhood, is of any importance.
The Brotherhood was formed towards the end of 1848, and by the early summer of the following year three pictures were ready for exhibition Holman Hunt’s Rienzi Swearing Revenge over his Brother’s Corpse, Millais’ Lorenzo and Isabella, and Rossetti’s The Girlhood of Mary Virgin. After each painter’s signature were placed the letters P.R.B.; but their significance was not understood, and the pictures were well received. In fact, each of them found a purchaser. Holman Hunt and Millais had sent their pictures to the Royal Academy ; Rossetti’s was shown at an independent exhibition in Hyde Park.
The next year 1850 Holman Hunt sent to the Academy A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids; and Millais sent Christ in the House of His Parents and Ferdinand lured by Ariel. Rossetti’s picture this year was the Ecce Ancilla Domini. The meaning of the letters P.R.B. had leaked out ; it was now known that what was strange in the work of the young painters was due, not to immaturity, but to a revolt against the accepted canons of art ; and there was a furious outburst of adverse criticism. The condemnation was practically unanimous. Only the Spectator had a good word to say for the innovators; but, alas! William Rossetti wrote the art critiques for that paper ! Charles Dickens, in Household Words, made a virulent attack on Millais’ Christ in the House of His Parents. ” In the fore-ground of that carpenter’s shop,” he wrote, ” is a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering red-haired boy in a night-gown who appears to have received a poke in the hand from the stick of another boy with whom he has been playing in an adjacent gutter, and to be holding it up for the contemplation of a kneeling woman, so horrible in her ugliness that (sup-posing it were possible for any human creature to exist for a moment with that dislocated throat) she would stand out from the rest of the company as a monster in the vilest cabaret in France or the lowest gin-shop in England.”
This is magnificent, but it is not true. Millais’ mother said it was wicked, and there was much excuse for her so saying. Other critiques were little if any less violently abusive. There is nothing in the picture, as we look at it to-day, to justify the language then used about it. But we must remember that it was a new thing then to be asked to think of the early life and surroundings of Christ as they actually must have been the same as those of any other workman’s child. Even the nerves of Charles Dickens could not stand such a sudden douche of the cold water of fact. Even now it is not possible to regard the picture as a wholly satisfactory treatment of its theme. The boy has slightly hurt his hand caught it on a nail ; and at once there is consternation. His father holds the hand to look at the wound ; his mother goes down on her knees to kiss him. John the Baptist brings water to wash the wound, and has a troubled look out of all proportion to the mischance that has happened. The Spoiled Child would be the most appropriate title for the picture, and we are not helped by having the boy Christ represented in such a light. As a matter of fact, the only title given to the picture by Millais himself was a quotation from the Book of Zecharaiah, ” And one shall say unto Him, What are these wounds in Thine hands ? Then He shall answer, Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends.” The quotation was entirely inappropriate to the picture. The boy Christ has only met with a trivial accident; the wounds mentioned by the prophet were deliberately inflicted upon false teachers. The aim of the picture to suggest that the surroundings of Christ in His early days were quite simple and humble might have been accomplished without anything namby-pamby, and also without the commonplace idea of a trivial hurt being a prophecy of the crucifixion.
Mr. Holman Hunt can hardly have had this picture in mind when he said that Millais and he enforced their aesthetic aims in the themes they treated, ” selecting beautiful objects for fastidious discrimination in their portrayal” ; for although we cannot find in this picture the absolute hideousness that Dickens and his contemporaries found in it, it must be said that there is but little beauty either in the figures or in their surroundings. Realistic truth, not beauty, is the note of the picture. On the whole, we can hardly be surprised, even now, at the violent outburst of censure that greeted this and the other Pre-Raphaelite pictures.
The picture just discussed at length had been commissioned by a dealer, and it was long before he could find a purchaser for it. None of the other pictures was sold. Millais’ Ferdinand lured by Ariel had also been commissioned by a dealer, who, when he had seen it, simply went off his bargain. Millais used to tell a story that showed the straits to which the young painters were now reduced. The hundred guineas promised for this picture had been expended in advance on household necessaries. There had often been talk of adding to a precarious income by taking in lodgers, and his parents now decided that this would have to be done. Millais was in his studio, in a state of utter dejection, when a friend Mr. Frankum brought in Mr. Richard Ellison, a well-known connoisseur. Mr. Frankum could see from Millais’ manner that something had gone wrong, and, on questioning him, was told of the picture-dealer’s refusal of the picture, and the straits to which the family was consequently reduced. Before leaving, Mr. Ellison told Millais that he had written a pamphlet about water-colour painting, and asked if he might give him a copy of it, and write his name in it. Millais assented, out of mere complaisance, and the pamphlet was left, with the expression of a hope that he would look at it, as, in its author’s opinion, he would find in it that which would interest him. Millais relapsed into his depressed mood ; then, looking round, caught sight of the pamphlet and took it up. Two papers fell out of it. One was a note to say that Mr. Ellison wished to become the purchaser of the Ferdinand picture for £150; the other was a cheque for that amount. Millais rushed with the cheque into the room where his father and mother were, waving it in his hand, so elated that they thought he must have gone mad. The first thing that caught his eye was a notice fixed to the window, advertising lodgings. He at once tore this down. The wafers with which it had been fastened to the glass were still sticky, and whenever in after years he recalled the incident, the feeling of stickiness came back to his finger-ends. There is a less complete version of this story in his biography. I repeat it in the form in which an old friend of Millais’ has told me he had it from Millais himself.
Probably the critics hoped that the severe castigation the young revolutionaries had received would induce them to retire from the apparently utterly unequal contest. This, indeed, was what happened in Rossetti’s case. He did not exhibit again. But Holman Hunt and Millais were undismayed. The former sent to the Academy the following year Valentine rescuing Sylvia front Proteus, and the latter, Mariana in the Moated Grange, The Return of the Dove to the Ark, and The Woodman’s Daughter. The attack on these pictures was even more determined than that upon those of the previous year. It was seriously asked that they should be removed from the exhibition. But help was now forth-coming, and of a kind that was sure to be effective. Ruskin contributed to the Times two letters in defence of the pictures that were so vehemently condemned by almost all other critics. This was enough at once to save the revolution from being crushed out. He continued the defence in lectures and articles; and if the young painters did not carry everything before them, they were at least permitted to hold on their way, and reassured art lovers purchased their pictures.
As might be expected, Ruskin’s main line of defence was that the pictures were true to nature. Some of the adverse critics had rashly attacked them as untrue. Ruskin had no difficulty in showing their superiority in this respect to much of the accepted, academic work. It was the imitative ability shown by these works that impressed him. ” I have adduced them only,” he said, ” as examples of the kind of study which I would desire to see substituted for that of our modern schools, and of singular success in certain characters, finish of detail, and brilliancy of colour. What faculties, higher than imitative, may be in these men 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 training so severe.” This is the doctrine of the passage in Modern Painters already quoted, part of which appeared in the preface to the essay, ” Pre-Raphaelitism.,” from which the above quotation is taken.
In the same essay he denied the accusation that the young painters had imitated the errors of early painters. ” A falsehood of this kind,” he said, ” could not have obtained credence anywhere but in England, few English people, comparatively, having ever seen a picture of early Italian masters. If they had they would have known that the Pre-Raphaelite pictures are just as superior to the early Italian in skill of manipulation, power of drawing, and knowledge of effect, as inferior to them in grace of design ; and that, in a word, there is not a shadow of resemblance between the two styles. The Pre-Raphaelites imitate no pictures : they paint from nature only.” On Holman Hunt’s own showing, as we have already seen, this was not true of Rossetti, nor, up to this time, of Madox Brown, of whom, we may note here, Ruskin never had a word to say, good or bad. And it is not possible now to look at the early Pre-Raphaelite work of both Holman Hunt and Millais without suspecting that some of the obvious mannerisms in it were due to their study of the early Italian painters. Ruskin’s admission of the inferiority of their pictures in point of grace of design is important. That grace their works never did come sufficiently to possess ; a fact that goes far to support the contention that minute imitation of nature is by no means the one essential, even if it be an essential, in the early training of an artist.
To the charge that the Pre-Raphaelites had no system of light and shade, Ruskin replied that their system was exactly the same as the Sun’s, ” which is, I believe, likely to outlast that of the Renaissance, however brilliant.” This is a mere identification of art with the imitation of nature, and the defence is only a good one if the identification be accepted.
So far, then, Ruskin praised the Pre-Raphaelites for their truth of imitation, for their faithful record of facts. What further they could do remained to be seen. ” If they adhere to their principles,” he said, ” and paint nature as it is around them, with the help of modern science, with the earnestness of the men of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, they will found a new and noble school in England. If their sympathies with the early artists lead them into mediaevalism or Romanism, they will, of course, come to nothing. But I believe there is no danger of this at least for the strongest of them. There may be some weak ones whom the Tractarian heresies may touch, but, if so, they will drop off like decayed branches from a strong stem. I hope all things from the school.” Earnestness, then, was the one thing in which the Pre-Raphaelites, or at least those of them whom Ruskin at this time held to be really strong, resembled the painters who preceded Raphael ; and their artistic salvation was to be found in the scientific presentment of nature. Meanwhile, Rossetti was painting ; Burne-Jones was to come ; and both of them were to win high praise from Ruskin.
Rossetti’s withdrawal from exhibition in 1851 was the beginning of the end of the Brotherhood, with which alone this chapter is concerned. We shall consider hereafter the later work of the members of the Brotherhood, and follow the course of the Pre-Raphaelite influence in our art. But before leaving the Brotherhood it is important to note that although its working members went to nature, they looked but little for the subjects of their pictures to the life of their own time. In this respect, as we shall find in the next chapter, they differed widely from the painters who led the almost contemporary movement in France. The Pre-Raphaelites painted chiefly subjects from the Bible, from history, from poetry. To a large extent their works were glorified book-illustrations ; and one is puzzled at times to account for their choice of subject, as, for example, in the case of Holman Hunt’s Rienzi vowing Vengeance over his Brother’s Corpse. This seems curious material with which to begin a return to nature ; and here, and in other pictures modern English people, amid obviously modern English landscape, yet dressed in mediaeval costume and supposed to be Italians, bring the whole very near at least to the region of tableau. The actors play their parts with great earnestness, but it is often acting, not life, that faces us, and conviction does not come because the accessories and the surroundings are painted with minute truthfulness. Even the Pre-Raphaelites could not at once escape from the artistic environment amid which they had been brought up. They went to nature, one repeats, but they did not yet go to contemporary life. They were less in touch with it, indeed, than were some of the orthodox painters, who, however treated it too often in a trivial manner. The highest historical painting that which interprets passing events in the light of the centuries was yet to come. And here we shall find that Madox Brown led the way. But it will be instructive, before pursuing further the course of English painting, to consider the French movement to which reference has repeatedly been made.