A blog about the famous Victorian poet, designer, and Socialist, William Morris.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Hunting for More Pre-Raphaelite Origins

Young Ruskin loved the 'delicate stamens of the herbage' beside Raphael's St. Catherine

My last post looked at the moment when Hunt and Millais criticized the unnatural, dramatic qualities of Raphael's Transfigurationand were labelled “Pre-Raphaelite” by their fellow-students. So what brought them to look at Raphael's painting with such fresh, critical eyes?

Hunt wants us to believe that he was the main one to come up with it, even before he'd met Rossetti. His book describes (pp 82-91) in great detail how he and Millais had developed new principles of painting while locked in coffee-fuelled debate. But clearly, Hunt's opinions didn't just spring out of his own forehead, or out of a cup of coffee.

First, there is the little matter of the first volume of John Ruskin's Modern Painters, a wildly successful book, which Hunt stayed up through most of the night to read. In it, Ruskin discusses “the ideal landscape of the early religious painters of Italy”, arguing that they have a “… loving fidelity to the thing studied. The foreground plants are usually neither exaggerated nor stiffened; they do not form arches or frames or borders; their grace is unconfined, their simplicity undestroyed.” He goes on to recommend these early artists, including Raphael, as good models. “And on this their peculiar excellence I should the more earnestly insist, because it is of a kind altogether neglected by the English school.”

Similarly, Robert Benjamin Haydon, the history painter who had committed suicide in 1846, and who made it onto Rossetti and Hunt's “List of Immortals” in 1848, also insists on truth to nature. Near the beginning of the first chapter of his “Lectures on Painting and Design”, he quotes Hamlet's advice for theater, that the actor should be careful “that you o'erstep not the modesty of Nature.” He continues, applying this admonition to art students: there is no other way to learn this lesson, he wrote, but “the daily habit of looking Nature resolutely in her sweet eye, shrinking not from her piercing eye, and never neglecting, under any circumstance of perfect practice and long experience, to make his sketch even, without the control of a living and breathing model.”

Hunt and Millais had clearly learned their lesson from these prominent writers, especially Ruskin, and had begun assigning value to paintings based on their “truth to nature”. This does seem to have been their approach to the Transfiguration: one of their complaints was that the possessed boy was unrealistically portrayed. Hunt had gone so far as to read a physician's criticism of the painting, which argued that the boy was overstrained and should not have had his mouth open.

That Hunt and his friends started questioning Raphael's work while under the influence of these "truth to nature" arguments seems likely. But attempting to pin-point some moment when the Pre-Raphaelite brothers turned against Raphael is fruitless. Hunt was quick to point out that he and his friends never stopped admiring Raphael. They wanted only to reject Raphael's feeble imitators, and Raphael's later works:

“Pre-Raphaelitism is not Pre-Raphaelism. Raphael in his prime was an artist of the most independent and daring course as to conventions .... but the prodigality of his productive-ness, and his training of many assistants, compelled him to lay down rules and manners of work; and his followers, even before they were left alone, accentuated his poses into postures .... Whoever were the transgressors, the artists who thus servilely travestied this prince of painters at his prime were Raphaelites …. The name Pre-Raphaelite excludes the influence of such corrupters of perfection, even though Raphael, by reason of some of his works, be in the list, while it accepts that of his more sincere forerunners.”

It seems that many of Hunt's ideas came from Ruskin. Even this argument about the decline of Raphael's later work could have been lifted from the first volume of Modern Painters, where Ruskin wrote about "the precious and pure passages of intense feeling and heavenly light, holy and undefiled" which "sanctify with their shadeless peace the deep and noble conceptions of the early school of Italy,---of Fra Bartolomeo, Perugino, and the early mind of Raffaelle." 

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