Painting for Reputation: The Pre-Raphaelites, John Ruskin, and the Victorian Press

By Williams, Leslie | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Painting for Reputation: The Pre-Raphaelites, John Ruskin, and the Victorian Press


Williams, Leslie, Nineteenth-Century Prose


The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were severely criticized by reviewers for the minute surfaces of their paintings. While "finish" was an admired trait in genre painting in Victorian times, the PRB took realism to a level of almost migraine intensity. And, while other contemporary painters composed their canvases with areas of greater and lesser interest, the PRB painted the entire surface with the same level of detailed visuality. The result was a democratization of the overall surface of PRB Paintings, a leveling effect to which the contemporary press strongly objected.

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When the pre-eminent art critic John Ruskin intervened behalf of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood by writing to The Times on 9 May 1851, the myth of the Pre-Raphaelites as persecuted rebel artists was born. (1) However, The Hines' negative criticism of the young painters and Ruskin's defense were published two and a half years after the founding of the PRB. A careful examination of the initial critical reactions to their paintings suggests a more complicated role of the press in evaluating the very diverse styles exhibited by members of the group. Over time, the factional nature of the British press produced a variety of viewpoints concerning the founding and recruited artists of the group. In carefully reading the criticism of the period, a case can be made that so long as the critics dealt with the craftsmanship aspects of the PRB's work and, invariably, condescended to the youth of the PRB, reviews were positive. When the content of the paintings seemed to the critics to suggest a Tractarian religious bias, the press split into supporters and attackers. Furthermore, the stylistic clarity characteristic of the PRB, and especially of John Everett Millais' painting, provided a source of critical annoyance. The equalizing intensity with which each part of the canvas was treated made it difficult to determine dominant and subordinate areas in the carefully wrought surfaces of the PRB paintings.

Proper, praise-worthy painting for mid-century critics was meant to express a culture-based differentiation between the more important and less important areas of a canvas. Dominant/subordinate relationships were central to Victorian Britain from the nursery to the battlefield. And in conventional painting, the artist guided the viewer's attention to the more important aspects of a painting whether the content was landscape, literary, or portrait. Interestingly, the Pre-Raphaelites' detailed rendering of visual experience relaxed and loosened as the artists found their places in the hierarchical society that was Victorian Britain.

The trained painters in the group were John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and James Collinson. These men had attended the Royal Academy school and expected to earn their livelihoods as artists. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a late-comer to art, began painting under the tutelage of Holman Hunt. The writers of the group, Frederick Stephens and William Rossetti, did not exhibit, and Thomas Woolsey was a sculptor.

Millais and Collinson both exhibited their student work in the annual spring Royal Academy exhibition of 1847, a year before the founding of the PRB. Millais' work, The Last Inca, was a standard historical thriller. The Athenaeum and the Literary Gazette had praised Collinson's The Charity Boy's Debut as a genre painting in the style of Sir David Wilkie and worthy to be in the same room as the work of Thomas Webster, an enormously successful childhood genre painter and doyen of the Cranbrook school) Collinson's 1848 scene of childish courtship and jealousy, The Rivals, which he submitted for the Royal Academy exhibition, was less elaborate. Collinson produced a well-polished, highly finished work with a recognizable sentiment, well within the boundaries of mid-century British taste. His small genre piece showed "two boys, one of whom offers an apple to a little girl, which the other objects to her receiving. …

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