The Pre-raphaelite Brotherhood, Especially Dante Gabriel Rossetti, With Reminiscences.
( Originally Published 1909 )
It is comparatively easy for anyone now to trace the rise and development of the Pre- Raphaelite Brotherhood of England. There are scores of books, and articles in magazines, devoted to it. Only three members of the original group survive—the veteran painter, Holman Hunt, and William Rossetti, the brother of the artist-poet, being the most important.
I think it may be of use to you if I outline the main features of the movement. I believe that a succinct, and very important record of it will yet be given to the world in the light of all that it has led to. But what I have now to do to the art students in Chicago is to unfold its characteristics in the briefest manner possible. It was a reaction, a protest, and a new tendency. There was rebellion in its earlier efforts, which were so ignorantly dealt with by those critics whose judgments were enslaved by tradition and conventionality. A most important point to be noted, however, is this. It was not only an artistic but a literary revolt, and a poetical renaissance. It was a new way of looking at, of appraising and reproducing both Man and Nature, which found a simultaneous expression in all the departments or sub-sections of the Beautiful; in Poetry, Music, Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, and Decorative Handicraft.
Many have asked a question which it is difficult to answer, Who was the founder of the Brotherhood ? Had it a single originator ? or did several co-operate in starting it ? I think that the latter of the two suggestions is the correct one. No one has written of it better, or so well as, Ruskin in his essay on Pre-Raphaelitism, first published in 1851, eight years after the first volume of Modern Painters came out; and from it I shall give you a brief quotation.
He refers to the "instinct which was urging every painter in Europe at the same moment to his true duty—the faithful representation of all objects of historical interest, or of natural beauty, existent at the period; representation such as might at once aid the advance of the sciences, and keep a faithful record of every monument of past ages, which was likely to be swept away in the approaching eras of revolutionary change." * * * He goes on to say: "Know once for all that a poet on canvas is exactly the same species of creature as a poet in song, and nearly every error in our methods of teaching [Art] will be done away with. For who among us now thinks of bringing men up to be poets ? of producing poets by any kind of general recipe or method of cultivation ? * * * But it being required to pro-duce a poet on canvas, what is our way of setting to work ? We begin, in all probability, by telling the youth of fifteen or sixteen, that Nature is full of faults, and that he is to improve her; but that Raphael is perfection, and that the more he copies Raphael the better; that after much copying of Raphael, he is to try what he can do himself in 'a Raphaelesque, but yet original manner; that is to say to try to do something very clever, all out of his own head, but yet this clever something is to be properly subjected to Raphaelesque rules, is to have a principal light occupying one-seventh of its space, and a principal shadow occupying one-third of the same; that no two people's heads in the picture are to be turned the same way, and that all the personages represented are to possess ideal beauty of the highest order, which ideal beauty consists partly in a Greek outline of nose, partly in proportions expressible in decimal fractions between the lips and chin; but mostly in that degree of improve-ment which the youth of sixteen is to bestow upon God's work in general. This I say is the kind of teaching which through various channels, Royal Academy lecturings, press criticisms, public enthusiasm, and not least by solid weight of gold, we give to our young men. And, we wonder we have no painters!"
Then follows a magnificent comparison of the work of two of the landscape painters of England. He supposes them "both free in the same field in a mountain valley. One sees everything, small and large, with about the same clearness; mountains and grasshoppers alike; the leaves on the branches, the veins on the pebbles, the bubbles in the stream; but he can remember nothing and invent nothing. Patiently he sets himself to his mighty task; abandoning at once all thought of seizing transient effects, or giving general impression of that which his eyes present to him in microscopical dissection, he chooses some small portion out of the infinite scene, and calculates with courage the number of weeks which must elapse before he can do justice to the intensity of his perceptions, or the fulness of matter in his subject.
"Meantime the other has been watching the change of the clouds, and the march of the light along the mountain sides; he beholds the entire scene in broad soft masses of true gradation, and the very feebleness of his sight is in some sort an advantage to him, in making him more sensible of the aerial mystery of distance, and hiding from him the multitudes of circumstances which it would have been impossible for him to represent. But there is not one change in the casting of the jagged shadows along the hollows of the hills, but it is fixed on his mind forever; not a flake of spray has broken from the sea of cloud about their bases, but he has watched it as it melts away, and could recall it to its lost place in heaven by the slightest effort of his thought. Not only so, but thousands and thousands of such images, of older scenes, remain congre-gated in his mind, each mingling in new associations with those now visibly passing before him, and these again confused with other images of his own ceaseless, sleepless imagination, flashing by in sudden troops. Fancy how his paper will be covered with stray symbols and blots, and undecipherable shorthand; as for his sitting down to "draw from Nature," there was not one of the things which he wished to represent that stayed for so much as five seconds together, but none of them escaped for all that. They are sealed up in that strange storehouse of his; he may take one of them out, perhaps, this day twenty years, and paint it in his dark room, far away. * * * Grant to the first considerable inventive power, with exquisite sense of colour; and give to the second, in addition to all his other faculties, the eye of an eagle; and the first is John Everett Millais, the second Joseph William Turner."
Farther on in the same essay we read: "To-wards the close of last century among the various drawings executed according to the quiet manner of the time, in greyish blue, with brown fore-grounds, some began to be noticed as exhibiting rather more than ordinary diligence and delicacy, signed W. Turner. * * * Gradually and cautiously the blues became mingled with delicate green, and then with gold; the browns in the foreground became first more positive, and then were slightly mingled with other local colours; while the touch, which had at first been heavy and broken, like that of the ordinary drawing masters of the time, grew more and more refined and expressive until it lost itself in a method of execution often too delicate for the eye to follow, rendering, with a precision before unexampled, both the texture and the form of every object. The style may be considered as perfectly formed about the year i800, and it remained unchanged for twenty years.
"During that period the painter had attempted, and with more or less success had rendered, every order of landscape subject, but always on the same principle, subduing the colours of Nature into a harmony of which the key-notes are greyish green and brown; pure blue, and delicate golden yellow being admitted in small quantity as the lowest and highest limits of shade and light; and bright local colours in extremely small quantity in figures and other minor accessories.
"Pictures executed on such a system are not, properly speaking, works in colour at all; they are studies of light and shade, in which both the shade and the distance are rendered in the general hue which best expresses their warmth and solidity. This advantage may just as well be taken as not, in studies of light and shadow to be executed by the hand; but the use of two, three, or four colors, always in the same relations and places, does not in the least constitute the work a study of colour, any more than the brown engravings of the Liber Studiorum; nor would the idea of colour be in general more present to the artist's mind when he was at work on one of these drawings, than when he was using pure brown in the mezzotint engraving. But the idea of space, warmth, and freshness being not successfully expressible in a single tint, and perfectly expressible by the admission of three or four, he allows himself that advantage when it is possible, without in the least embarrassing him-self with the actual colour of the objects to be represented. A stone in the foreground might in Nature have been cold grey, but it will be drawn nevertheless, of a rich brown, because it is in the foreground; a hill in the distance might in Nature be purple with heath, or golden with furze, but it will be drawn, nevertheless, of a cool grey, because it is in the distance.
"This at least was the general theory, carried out with great severity in many both of the drawings and pictures executed by him during the period; in others more or less modified by the cautious introduction of colour, as the painter felt his liberty increasing; for the system was evidently never considered as final, or as anything more than a means of progress; the conventional easily manageable colour was visibly adopted, only that his mind might be at perfect liberty to address itself to the acquirement of the first and most necessary knowledge in all Art, that of form. But as form, in landscape, implies vast bulk and space, the use of the tints which enabled him best to express them was actually auxiliary to the mere drawing; and therefore not only permissible, but even necessary; while more brilliant and varied tints were never indulged in, except when they might be introduced without the slightest danger of diverting his mind from his principal object.***
"The system of his colour being thus simplified, he could address all the strength of his mind to the accumulation of facts of form; his choice of subject and methods of treatment are therefore as various as his colour is simple. No subject was too low or too high for him. * * *
"What general feeling, it may be asked in-credulously, can forward all this ? This—the greatest of all feelings—an utter forgetfulness of self. Throughout the whole period with which we are at present concerned he appears a man of sympathy absolutely infinite, or sympathy so all-embracing that I know nothing but that of Shakespeare comparable with it. * * * This is the root of his greatness, and it follows that this sympathy must give him a subtle power of expression, even of the character of mere material things, such as no other painter ever possessed."
Ruskin then notes what he calls "one other characteristic of Turner's mind at this period, viz., its reverence for talent in others" and his consequent modesty. "The chief characteristic of the works of Turner's second period," he says, were "a new energy inherent in the mind of the painter, diminishing the repose and exalting the force and fire of his conceptions, and the presence of colour, as at least an essential, and often a principal, element of design." "I have no doubt that the immediate reasons of this change was the impression made upon him by the colours of the continental skies * * * . Every subject was thenceforward primarily conceived in colour."
Ruskin enlarges on Turner's marvellous memory, both as to form and colour, its unerring reports of past occurrences and experience; his being able to compose some of his greatest pictures from memory, without a single glance at Nature. But he also points out that towards the close of the second, which was the central period of his labour, "trusting for ten or twelve years almost entirely to memory, while living mostly in Lon-don, he became conventional, and between 1830 and 1840 painted many pictures altogether unworthy of him. But he was not thus to close his career. In the summer of 1840 or 1841, he undertook another journey into Switzerland. It was at least forty years since he had first seen the Alps, and the perfect repose of his youth returned to his mind; all conventionality being done away with by the impression he received from the Alps after his long separation from them." * * * He adds that his work done then and in following years "bears the same relation to those of the rest of his life that the colours of sunset do to those of the day; and will be recognized as the noblest landscapes ever yet conceived by human intellect."
When Dante Gabriel Rossetti, uneasy because of the delay that occurred before he could be admitted into the painting-school of the Royal Academy, wrote, in the year 1848, to Ford Maddox Brown to know if he could be received as a student of his, the first step in the formation of the Brotherhood was taken. Rossetti had apparently been impressed by the cartoons which Maddox Brown had exhibited at Westminster Hall four years previously, and by others of his works, which seemed to him more original than those of the teachers under whom he would have to study at the Academy. Maddox Brown was only a few years older than his correspondent. He had attained to no distinction as yet, and remained outside the circle of art-success all his life. He was surprised at the novel request, and the story is current that he fancied he was being made the subject of a practical joke; and that, when he went to the house of his correspondent, he provided himself with a strong stick, which he might use for defence if assaulted unawares. Rossetti was received as a pupil, and became a life-long friend. But before that memorable meeting he had got to know another youth, William Holman Hunt; and they together soon became acquainted with a third, John Everett Millais. These three young men were the original members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Others soon gathered round this nucleus. As Wordsworth and Coleridge, the founders of the earlier but somewhat parallel movement in Poetry and Letters, had associates and comates — many of whom were ignorant of the source of that "stream of tendency" which bore them all onwards — many in the new art-world of England were influenced by the same tide; although they did not enter into, or were not enrolled within, the brotherhood.
That brotherhood was moulded to a very large extent by the time in which it arose. Its characteristics were partly due to the fortunate decay of the old system by which artists had pupils in a school which carried on, and carried out, their work; the master forming the style of his pupils. It was not, however, by these temporary masters that such men as Hunt and Millais were influenced, but by the young enthusiasts who studied with them. On the whole we must regard Holman Hunt as the leader of the School, although not its founder. As already said, there was in one sense no particular founder; but upon this point you should consult the two gossipy but fascinating volumes by Holman Hunt, in which you will find numerous side-lights as to the nature of the brotherhood, as well as an authentic story of its origin. It is also worthy of note that this fraternity was not a syndicate, or academic union. Being a brotherhood it was of necessity a transient bond of union, and sympathetic fellowship. Those who are curious in the search for parallels may find a resemblance to it in the delightful University brotherhoods established at Oxford and Cambridge in England ; such as that remarkable club nick-named "Old Mortality" at Oxford, of which your new English Ambassador at Washington, Mr. Bryce, was one of the original members, along with the poet Swinburne, and others ; and that goodly fellow-ship of "The Apostles" at the sister University at Cambridge, which has been quite recently described in an admirable volume by Mrs. Brook-field. It included Tennyson, and his friend Arthur Hallam (of In Memoriam), Monckton Milnes, afterwards Lord Houghton the friend and biographer of Keats, Frederick Denison Maurice, and many another celebrity. But I go further back for the best parallel to the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood by a process of elective affinity. It is to the wondrous friend-ship of Wordsworth and Coleridge, and to their superlative work—wholly ignored at the time by the accredited critics of the hour — which dated from the publication of Lyrical Ballads in 1798, and gave rise to one of the most remarkable changes as well as revivals in English Literature since its commencement. It is in that monumental, and as yet unexhausted, literary revival that we find the great predecessor of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in English Art. But it had also an artistic prototype in the. French literary movement inaugurated by Sainte-Beuve and his friends, in their admiration for Victor Hugo and others. A group of young enthusiasts, scarcely out of their teens, their intuitions of the ideal transcending all past achievement, but with a sure sense of coming leadership, progress and achievement, made this Brotherhood one of the noblest ever formed. It was an association based on common aims and aspirations, on a return to Nature and a loyal following of her, escaping from the bondage of convention, and reproducing the actual world, adding the new hints it contained of the ideal.
Will you also note this fact that, while the Brotherhood was composed of a remarkable group of men, the way in which they set about their work, and the manner in which the conviction of their artistic mission awoke in them, was still more remarkable.
Ford Maddox Brown wrote much in his diary as to this. Eg., "4th September, 1847, glancing over the pages of Sir James Mackintosh's History of England I came upon a passage `it is scarcely to be wondered at that English at this period should have become the judicial language of the century, ennobled as it had been by the genius of Chaucer', this at once fixed me. I immediately saw a vision of Chaucer, reading his poems to knights and ladies fair, to the King and Court, amid air and sunshine." He at first thought of calling his picture The Seeds of the English Language; and, afterwards, The Seeds and Fruits of the English Language. As an artist who then, and afterwards, experienced many of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," it is interesting to record what he wrote of it in that year. "Very likely it may only add one more to the kicks I have received from Fortune." But "of one thing she cannot rob me, the pleasure I have already extracted — distilled I may say from the work itself. Warned by experience, I have learned not to trust only to hope for my reward, nor consider my toil as a sacrifice ; but to value the pleasure, the pleasure I daily 'receive from working out a subject after my own heart, a love-offering of my never fruitless past.
Again he wrote "27th December. Thought of a subject as I went along, Wickliff reading his translation of the Bible to John of Gaunt, Chaucer and Gower present." In 1854 he wrote in his journal: "I began the background for Work" — one of his greatest pictures — "in the streets of Hampstead, painting them all day for two months, having spent much time in inventing an apparatus." Of his "Last of England" — another characteristic subject, because of the pathos and intense humanity displayed in the farewell given to their old home by voyagers to an unknown world — he writes, "This work, rep-resenting an outdoor scene, without sunlight, I painted chiefly out of doors, when the snow was lying on the ground."
To show the influence of literary criticism, or rather of literary appraisal, on the development of the work of the Brotherhood with which I am dealing, I turn to Ruskin first of all, and instaromnium, because of his unrivalled insight into the mannerisms, the triviality, the dreary common-place, and the dead traditions of the past. It is a noteworthy fact that the first volume of Mod-ern Painters — the chief epoch-making book in the annals of Art — was lent: to Holman Hunt as a boy, and by him handed on to others, and that its influence over the Brotherhood was supreme. Its fundamental plea "for Truth to Nature" which alone could lead to new departures of any value, its protest against conventionalism, unreality, pretence, and sham of every kind, did more than any picture did, at the outset of the movement, to hasten that return to Nature, which was its watchword.
There have been many movements in literary and philosophical, as well as artistic work which may be described as "returns to Nature." But perhaps the greatest, because the most explicitly formulated, was that of Ruskin. I used to hear him talk of it with Carlyle at Cheyne Row more than thirty years ago; and I have tried to re-produce their conversation in part. It would at times meander through meadows of pleasantry, then burst into torrents of invective in such sentences as these:
"Nature, Nature," said Carlyle, "I want to get to Nature."
"What do you mean by Nature ?" replied Ruskin. "I want to get back to it as I saw it in my boyhood, when I was taught by my father and mother," said Carlyle. "What kind of a sight was that," replied Ruskin, "if you didn't see that Nature reveals the supernatural; as the whole history of Christendom has been disclosing a divine within the human, as its inmost pulse." "Ah, well, ah, well," said Carlyle, "perhaps you are right. I do not know; for, as one of our poets has said, `all my mind is troubled with a doubt.' " " But," said Ruskin, "what is to to be the end and outcome of all our present turmoil ?" "I don't know," said Carlyle; "no man knows. But I am sure of this, the real will survive." "Yes," said Ruskin, "but in what form and of what kind ? The real has many aspects, and many counterfeits." "Well, well," said Carlyle, "we must wait, and I am sure that the best of everything in this world will live, even if some of our wisdom grows out of the root of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil."
But for the work and influence of this brother-hood England would not have known many an-other artist who was taught by it, and yet did not belong to it by any outward tie of affinity, above all, Frederick Walker.
But note this, that the Society — which was never broken up, but which (like all societies subsequent) dissolved by necessity — was the parent of many artistic tendencies. Millais broke away into a magnificent idealised neorealism; Rossetti on the other side into a still more magnificent realistic neo-idealism. Of still living members of the Brotherhood I do not speak; although in the one who remains pre-eminent there is much of both of these tendencies wondrously united, in his last reproduction of an early effort, which will probably go down to posterity, as his greatest work. I refer to Holman Hunt's Lady of Shallott.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a means to an end; not a stepping-stone across a stream ; but one in the sense in which Tennyson wrote, that;
Men may rise on stepping-stones
Rossetti, Woolner, Maddox Brown, Millais, subsequently left it, on the ground that, having assimilated its best, they had outgrown it, and were able to go on to other things ; some more slowly, others more swiftly; but it remained to all of them a landmark, as it had been a rallying point to them as youthful enthusiasts and devotees. They soon saw the inadequacy of the term which had been taken to describe their brotherhood, but it was not discarded, or disowned.
The wistful retrospective gaze of the founders, who saw in those early painters who preceded Raphael the everlasting merits of sincerity, of truthfulness, and a face-to-face vision of Nature, as well as a direct and generally true reproduction of what they saw, was an unspeakable gain to the art of England, to the century in which they lived, and which they adorned. When the leaders outgrew their early cult, without feeling its poverty or ignoring its trammels, the average public mind was enabled to rise above contemporary hindrance, and to see visions of a higher ideality than the nation had previously known.