As is the case for much of the 19th century’s best art and architecture, the works of the Pre-Raphaelites can seem to be motivated by a desire for rigid adherence to a particular tradition. That Pre-Raphaelite respect for tradition in no way impaired originality is amply proven in this new book, published to accompany the first major exhibition to place Pre-Raphaelite works alongside those old masters which most inspired their creators. Such comparisons show that to understand Pre-Raphaelitism as an attempted return to the styles of late medieval and early Renaissance Italy is more a distortion than a simplification.
One of the first important points made in Truth and Beauty is that “Pre-Raphaelite” was itself a term of provocation rather than of precision. From the moment of its founding, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had a high (though not uncritical) opinion of Raphael’s own work. Chronologically “post-Raphael” artists, including Titian and Tintoretto, were also admired. Those condemned as corruptive were the immediate followers of Raphael – the “Raphaelites” – whose artistic idealisations “accentuated his poses into postures … caricatured the turns of his heads and the lines of his limbs, so that figures were drawn into patterns”.
But the primary target of Pre-Raphaelite criticism was Sir Joshua Reynolds’s belief that such idealisation constituted a standard of artistic perfection. A return to art as a representation of the world’s beauty as it really exists – joined to rejection of attempts to make art improve upon the beauty of the real world – was the Pre-Raphaelites’ goal. A straightforward return to styles pre-dating Raphael was never intended.
In addition to a return to what they called “nature”, the Pre-Raphaelites also wished to restore the “manifest emotional sincerity … grace, decorative charm … patient and loving but not mechanical labour” which they saw in the art of earlier ages. But, provided these qualities could be attained, there was no insistence on either particular styles or particular techniques. Edward Southall was prominent in the revival of tempera paintings but his works could never be confused with those of the old masters. The strong similarity between the aesthetic of Julia Margaret Cameron and that of Giotto is one of the more uniquely interesting comparisons in Truth and Beauty, yet Cameron was a photographer. Dante Gabriel Rossetti was strongly influenced by Correggio and Veronese, John Everett Millais by the Baroque. True as it is that the founding Pre-Raphaelites became more receptive to later artists as they themselves matured, such receptivity was more a development of their earlier principles than a reversal of them.
Also outside of Pre-Raphaelite intentions was an attempt to base their aesthetic primarily on the old masters of Italy. Art from Germany and the Netherlands was at least a comparably important inspiration, and some of the strongest early criticism of the Pre-Raphaelites based itself upon their departure from Italian exemplars. By placing Pre-Raphaelite works beside those of the old masters, Truth and Beauty is able to show how some of the former followed German and Netherlandish models as closely as Italian ones.
Unfortunately however, and despite the fact that the exhibition would have been an ideal context for such analysis, Truth and Beauty does not give sustained attention to the ways in which a variety of influences can be seen converging in those works most demonstrative of uniquely Pre-Raphaelite styles. The book largely limits itself to identifying the older artistic traditions which influenced the Pre-Raphaelite movement as a whole.
Attention is, however, drawn to the impact which Christianity and medieval Christian civilisation had on the Pre-Raphaelites’ broader beliefs. For the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to rank Christ as the greatest of those whom it designated as “immortals” might seem, at best, a pretentious form of respect, but reservations of such a nature should not be equated with doubts as to sincerity of intention. It was an age in which many had a high regard for Christ and Christianity without being committed Christians. The Oxford Movement was among the forms of Christianity to which the Pre-Raphaelites were particularly favourable. This is unsurprising, given the movement’s preference for the Gothic revival in architecture and for liturgical practices based on those of the Middle Ages instead of the 17th century Baroque High Anglicanism, exemplified by Charles I and Archbishop William Laud.
Among the influences of medieval Christendom on the Pre-Raphaelites, emphasis is placed on Rossetti’s love for Dante and the ways in which William Morris was influenced by the chivalric revival. Although Pre-Raphaelitism was not, of course, a religious movement, Truth and Beauty shows that its ideals pre-supposed Christian culture and elements of Christian ethics.
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