The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy
Colin Harrison & Christopher Newall, with essays by Maurizio Isabella & Martin McLaughlin
Oxford & Farnham: Ashmolean Museum in association with Lund Humphries, 2011
Hardcover, 217 pp. ISBN978-1-84822-075-1. £40.00
The Pre-Raphaelite Lens : British Photography and Painting, 1848-1875
With essays by Tim Barringer, Joanne Lukitsh, Jennifer L. Roberts & Britt Salvesen
Washington (DC) & Farnham (UK): National Gallery of Art in association with Lund Humphries, 2010
Hardcover, ix+230 pp. ISBN 978-1-84822-067-6. $65.00 / £40.00
A Guide to Victorian & Edwardian Portraits
Peter Funnell & Jan Marsh
London: National Portrait Gallery, 2011
Paperback, 64 pp. ISBN 978-1-85514-435-4. £7.99
Reviewed by Antoine Capet
Université de Rouen
We read in the standard general book on the subject that
[i]n the first half of the twentieth century Pre-Raphaelite art reached the lowest point in its critical fortunes, when its visual and intellectual complexity seemed a thing of the Victorian past in contrast to the perceived purity and simplicity of “modernism”.(1)
This is definitely no longer the case today, considering the sustained interest in the Pre-Raphaelites, often in the wider context of “Victorian” art. At least two comprehensive international exhibitions have been devoted to the Brotherhood in 2010-2011, with major museums organising special displays of nineteenth-century British art(2) and/or publishing useful catalogues and guidebooks like A Guide to Victorian & Edwardian Portraits, which naturally cover many of its great works.
The Catalogue of the Exhibition on The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy held at the Museo d’Arte della Città di Ravenna from February 28 to June 6 (I Preraffaelliti e il sogno del'400 italiano. Da Beato Angelico a Perugino, da Rossetti a Burne-Jones), and at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, from 16 September to 5 December 2010, contains three most enlightening essays by its international team: “The Pre-Raphaelites and Italian Art before and after Raphael” by Colin Harrison, “The Pre-Raphaelites and Italian Literature” by Martin McLaughlin and “Interlocking Patriotisms: Italy and England in the Long Nineteenth Century” by Maurizio Isabella. In fact, it seems that somehow the latter contribution should have come first, just after the useful Introduction, since it provides much-needed social, political and diplomatic context, explaining why Whig/Liberal and Radical Britons were so enamoured with everything Italian in the mid-nineteenth century.
A close reading of the Bibliography confirms one’s impression that these very important questions had not so far received the critical treatment that they deserve. Apart from a few articles, notably in the Burlington Magazine, the only specific references to the Pre-Raphaelite movement and Italy are to be found in the writings, diaries and correspondence of the Brothers and their friends and associates: it is therefore obvious that these essays are more than welcome. The reader who is interested in the source and context of the 143 works illustrated in full colour (often with additional pictures showing details, occasionally as full-page plates) and (sometimes copiously) discussed will not be disappointed by the quality of the reproductions or the wealth of information provided both in the essays and in the comprehensive captions. Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)—the British-born son of one of the Carbonari who had taken refuge in London, fleeing persecution in Italy—naturally takes pride of place in this narrative, even though he never set foot in the land of his fathers. The (anonymous) Introduction tries to find plausible reasons for this paradox:
Later in life, Rossetti defended his decision not to carry on his father’s commitment to the cause of Italian liberation, by arguing that his only effective contribution was to expand knowledge of Italian literature in Britain. For, in spite of his ancestry, Rossetti always regarded England as home. He made several plans to visit Italy, usually with his brother, William Michael, and his close friend, William Bell Scott, but his state of health and, perhaps a deep-rooted inhibition that the reality might not live up to the expectations of his imagination, always prevented him from setting out .
The paradox is made even more apparent by the fact that the archetypal member of the Royal Academy—against which the Brotherhood rebelled—and his almost exact contemporary, Frederic Leighton (1830-1896) had studied in Florence and Rome. As Harrison appropriately points out, Leighton was the first to remind people of this: “for a long time I treated none but subjects from the Italian Middle Ages—going to history, Dante, Bocaccio, and preferring in Shakespeare the Italian plays” .
Whether or not this was a snide remark directed at his Pre-Raphaelite rivals, Leighton was of course mentioning three of the great sources of inspiration for them. Again, Dante Gabriel Rossetti had a central role in that he offered comprehensive translations—fine ones, it seems, notably of the Via nuova—of Italian poets to those who unlike himself could not understand the original, sometimes obscure, text. It is therefore not surprising that Rossetti (he decided to put Dante first before his surname, contrary to the order on his birth certificate, to pay tribute to the great poet) figures prominently in the section entitled “Themes from Italian History and Literature”—often with superb drawings and watercolours which are hard to find in other books. This is followed by “Ruskin in Italy”, “Ruskin’s Disciples in Italy” and “Other Pre-Raphaelite Travellers in Italy”—the three sections giving occasion to get acquainted with works or artists’ names which are not widely publicised.
John Ruskin (1819-1900) of course needs no introduction, but the full extent of his considerable oeuvre can only been known to specialists, notably the curators of the Ashmolean Museum, which holds (in its Ruskin School Collection) many of works featured. The section begins with words which concisely put these works in context:
Ruskin loved Italy—her people, her landscape, her history, and her buildings. He was an habitual traveller in all parts of Europe as well as within the British Isles, but it was Italy that gave him the greatest delight and feeling of expectation. […] His awareness of Italy was both imaginative and visceral, coloured by works of art which evoked the country but also with a close familiarity with her towns and countryside .
It is well known that at least one of Ruskin’s “disciples” (to take up the vocabulary of the relevant section)—Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898)—went to Italy in 1859 and 1862 as a sort of sub-contractor, Ruskin taking charge of the expenses with Burne-Jones providing specified copies of paintings and frescoes. Many of the resulting works are now in the Ruskin School Collection, and some are reproduced here. The same type of tacit contract was also in operation with John Wharlton Burney (1828-1882), and two views, of Florence (1866) and Verona (1869), precede charcoal copies of a sculpted moulding and a fresco by another “sub-contractor”, Arthur Burgess (1843-1886). The American expatriate Henry Roderick Newman (1843-1917), who finally settled in Florence, sold many of his works to Ruskin without apparently becoming entirely dependent on his largesse—though the five superb watercolours of Florence and Lucca edifices shown and discussed were bought by him, directly or indirectly (for the Guild of St George Collection over which he presided). Frank Randal (c.1858-1910), for his part, was entirely dependent on commissions for Ruskin via that Guild, and the Catalogue has an excellent sampling of his work, with two incredibly detailed copies of mosaics in Ravenna (1884), two watercolours of churches (Ravenna 1885 and Bergamo 1885) and the only two surviving landscapes produced for the Guild (1885). John Brett (1831-1902)—probably best known for his Stonebreaker (1857-58)—is an ambivalent “disciple” in that he soon fell out with Ruskin (though not Ruskin’s father, who bought his The Ponte Vecchio, Florence of 1862, featured in the section, together with other little-known works).
The introductory text to next section, on “Other Pre-Raphaelite Travellers in Italy”, insists once more on the complexity of the motivations of these “travellers”—the best example being that of William Holman Hunt (1827-1910):
Even Holman Hunt, whose glorification of Italian nationalism, Rienzi, was one of the first Pre-Raphaelite paintings to be exhibited, was much more interested in finding suitably authentic backgrounds to his biblical and religious paintings in the Holy Land and the Near East. Indeed, his first visit to Italy, in the winter of 1866-67, came about only because he was unable to reach the Holy Land owing to an outbreak of cholera .
The section contains works which are not often shown or reproduced by William Holman Hunt, his pupil Edward Lear (1812-1888), who settled at San Remo in 1871, John William Inchbold (1830-1888), who spent the years 1862-64 in Venice—and above all by William Bell Scott (1811-1890) and Walter Crane (1845-1915), the former offering two oils (both 1873) and the latter two watercolours (1872 & 1873) of the tombs of Keats (d. 1821) and Shelley (d. 1822) in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. Naturally, the excellent accompanying text does not fail to dwell on the continuity between the Romantics, the Pre-Raphaelites (including their friends and pupils) and Oscar Wilde, who spoke in 1877 of the site of Keats’s tomb as “the holiest place in Rome” .
The story does not stop here: in the next section, on “Giovanni Costa and the Etruscans—Painters of the Italian Landscape”, we find one more watercolour of Keats’s Grave in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome (mid-1870s), this time by George Howard, 9th Earl of Carlisle (1843-1911), who had commissioned the two works from Crane. The connection between Howard, Giovanni Costa (1826-1903), the Pre-Raphaelites and the “Etruscans” is both simple and complicated. The convergence of two strands discussed in the first chapters of the books—admiration for an “imagined” Italy as an artistic paradise and support for the cause of Italian national liberation—led to wide support of Costa in London, notably on the part of wealthy patrons like Howard. At the same time that Leighton (present in the section with four oils of Italian scenes not commonly shown elsewhere), a good friend of Costa, whom he had met in Italy, started a collection of his works, a group of Costa’s admirers (including Howard) founded the informal group, the Etruscans, in Rome in the winter of 1883-1884. Hence the justification given in the introduction to the section:
Although the paintings of Costa and the Etruscans are not conventionally regarded as being Pre-Raphaelite, the links between these artists and the Pre-Raphaelites in the broader sense are close. In London, Costa met and exhibited with several painters of the second generation of the Pre-Raphaelites, notably Burne-Jones. Moreover, Costa’s art was to some degree moulded by his contact with British art and patronage, while at the same time he was a vital formative influence upon the work of a rising generation of English artists .
The section naturally has a wide selection of works by Costa and Howard, but it also includes—and this is undoubtedly one of the great attractions of the book—artists whose names are not familiar, even among the educated public: George Heming Mason (1818-1972), Matthew Ridley Corbet (1850-1902), William Blake Richmond (1842-1921).(3)
In contrast, the next section, on “Aestheticism—The Inspiration of the Renaissance”, concentrates almost exclusively on D.G. Rossetti and Burne-Jones—the only exception being The Painter’s Pleasaunce (1861) by Simeon Salomon (1840-1905). Rossetti played, we are told, a central role in the evolution of Pre-Raphaelitism:
Rossetti’s painting Bocca Baciata of 1859 (now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), which took its inspiration from a line in Boccacio—“the mouth that has been kissed loses not its freshness”—marks the arrival in English art of a distinctive languorous and voluptuous quality, in place of the earnestness and ingenuousness that had characterised the art of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood .
Meanwhile, for Burne-Jones, “his disciple in the late 1850s”, “the impact of sixteenth-century Venetian painting was overwhelming”. Moreover Burne-Jones’s increasing admiration for Michelangelo after his visit to Rome in 1871 led to a rift with Ruskin. The context of this evolution towards aestheticism is excellently explained in the introduction to the section:
In the same period, Algernon Charles Swinburne and Walter Pater wrote about Italian sixteenth-century art in ways that inspired a generation and led British culture to find weird and alarming beauties and strange associations in the art of Titian, Leonardo, and Michelangelo. Swinburne’s advocacy of the sixteenth century was a spur to painters such as Burne-Jones and Simeon Salomon, while Walter Pater’s prose, notably his description of the Mona Lisa in The Renaissance (1873), served as a plea that individuals should respond intensely to beauty, and that works of art should only be judged for their aesthetic merit and without consideration of their supposed moral character .
The section includes Rossetti’s final version of Beata Beatrix (1880), with a full account of the different stages in its composition—but above all it has several rarely reproduced portraits of Jane Burden, who married William Morris in 1859 and soon became Rossetti’s muse and perhaps later his lover. Technically, she was only the model in scenes inspired from Dante and the most striking is a picture in coloured chalk bequeathed by her daughter, May Morris, to the Ashmolean Museum, Perlascura (1871). The title (“dark pearl” in Italian) was derived from the Vita nuova.
For his part, Burne-Jones entirely dominates the last section, devoted to “Burne-Jones’s Designs for the American Church in Rome”—a project which occupied his last seventeen years and only saw completion after his death. The curators and editors are deservedly proud to show these ten superb designs for mosaics (plus two full-page details) for the first time. It is perhaps fitting that a book on The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy should end with him, since as Harrison convincingly puts it:
It was Burne-Jones who was the only artist who took full advantage of the inspiration of Italian art, in addition to combining the two strains of the original Brotherhood, as exemplified by Ruskin and Rossetti. His formative years were influenced equally by both .
* * *
The reader will obviously not be surprised to find much the same dramatis personae in The Pre-Raphaelite Lens : British Photography and Painting, 1848-1875, the Catalogue of the Exhibition of the same name organised by the National Gallery of Art, Washington (from 31 October 2010 to 30 January 2011)(4) in association with the Musée d’Orsay, Paris (Une ballade d'amour et de mort : Photographie préraphaélite en Grande-Bretagne, 1848-1875, from 6 March to 29 May 2011).(5) Indeed, the frontispice and title page are splendid full-page details of portraits of Jane Morris née Burden: a photograph by John Robert Parsons (1865) and The Blue Silk Dress, an oil on canvas—naturally by D.G. Rossetti (1868). In their Foreword, the directors of the two galleries explain the leading thread of the exhibition:
In their quest to represent the visible world, the Pre-Raphaelites developed a bold new realist language—one not only informed by the art preceding Raphael, but also borrowing from the formal and thematic innovations of photography. The intense focus and all-over detail of Pre-Raphaelite paintings as well as their abrupt cropping, lack of modulation between forms, and use of planar recession all emerged in the wake of photography’s example. The Pre-Raphaelites ultimately aimed to surpass photographers in their realist ambitions through the use of vibrant, evocative colour and by inscribing in the images the considerable time and painstaking labour required to create them. At the same time photographers were determined to secure for their medium the status of fine art [vii].
This two-way movement is perhaps most clearly documented in Joanne Lukitsh’s “case study”, “ ‘Like a Lionardo’: Exchanges between Julia Margaret Cameron and the Rossetti Brothers”. Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) became acquainted with the two brothers around 1857. For reasons which have never been established, all three took an interest in photography in the mid-1860s, and while Cameron admired Dante Gabriel’s drawings and paintings, both he and William Michael came to admire her as a practitioner of this new artistic technique—the essay indeed includes a fine photograph of William Michael Rossetti by her exhibited in 1865 and he reciprocated by talking of her “pictorial photography” in a glowing 1867 review which also argued that with her, one saw “the assimilating of works of photography to works of art” . In 1865, Dante Gabriel Rossetti was concurrently commissioning John Robert Parsons for the famous series of photographs of Jane Morris, taken in his own garden, and under his supervision. In fact, in her essay , “From the Life: Portraiture in the 1860s”, Diane Waggoner argues that “Rossetti staged the photographs”, “while Parsons served as camera operator” , with the sitter an active actress as well as a passive model:
Rossetti and Morris experimented extensively during the portrait session with Parsons. They altered her hair so that it appeared sleek in some photographs and wild and frizzy in others. […] Her contemplative, almost blank, expression—which makes no attempt to achieve the animation praised by photography critics—focuses even greater attention on her physical stance. Morris assumed poses that were unusual in the history of visual representation—sinuous, sometimes twisted, seated positions which exposed her long, curved neck, bent at graceful yet remarkable angles .
Naturally, the question arises whether D.G. Rossetti definitively embraced photography as a new art, cognate to his own. It seems in fact that his enthusiasm for Julia Margaret Cameron’s work—and beyond that his taste for the new medium—was short lived. His last letter to her was sent in July 1869, containing the severe judgement, “photography is not always a trustworthy reporter even in your hands as regards facts” . Even more striking, W.M. Rossetti’s contacts with her ceased after 1867. We sense that Joanne Lukitsh’s “case study” unfortunately suggests that the two-way relationship between the gifted photographer and the two Rossettis did not turn out to be on equal terms. The Pre-Raphaelites claimed to be adepts of innovation and open to all forms of human expression—D.G. Rossetti perhaps even more so than his Brothers—but the story of this particular relationship would tend to show that they did not go so far as to revise their own conception of the hierarchical order of the forms of artistic expression to welcome photography as an equal medium.
The same ambiguity seems also present in the sustained exchanges between Julia Margaret Cameron and George Frederic Watts (1817-1904)—admittedly not a formal member of the Brotherhood, but a close associate, who gave a fine portrait of Dante Gabriel Rossetti around 1871. Diane Waggoner speaks of “cross-pollination”—most evident in their portraits of Ellen Terry, the sitter for Watts’s Choosing (1864), which incidentally provides the cover image for A Guide to Victorian & Edwardian Portraits discussed below. Yet we sense once more that it was unequal give-and-take: the extracts from their correspondence suggests that Watts was the senior partner as a recognised painter and therefore fully-fledged artist who arrogated to himself the right to criticise Cameron’s photographs, even if in a friendly way. Paternalism is the word that springs to mind when reading Diane Waggoner’s description of their complex artistic relationship.
The photographers’ “inferiority complex”, as we now perceive it, was naturally due to the fact that, as latecomers, they had to establish their medium on a par with existing artistic forms of expression. Diane Waggoner concisely sums up their recognition of the problem and their ambition to overcome it in her introductory chapter: “From its origins in the 1840s, photography’s disciplinary standing as either art or science was in contention. Yet photographers strongly believed in the medium’s expressive possibilities and fought to confirm its place among the fine arts” . Naturally, she does not fail to quote William Bell Scott, “the only Pre-Raphaelite artist who explicitly connected Pre-Raphaelitism and photography”, in a passage which indeed gives them this much-wanted recognition: “Every movement has its genesis, as every flower its seed; the seed of the flower of Pre-Raphaelism [sic] was photography” .
Interestingly, Tim Barringer uses the same quote in his chapter on John Ruskin, Photography, and Early Pre-Raphaelite Painting, with his own commentary:
To the Pre-Raphaelites, photography was more than a mere gadget that accidentally allowed for the sharp representation of detail. The painter William Bell Scott, himself a fine exponent of the style, explained … the medium’s symbolic, as well as practical, significance. […] Photography informed Pre-Raphaelite practice, stimulating the rebirth of history painting in a distinctive modern form. Crucially, Scott—unlike Ruskin himself—was able to find in the new medium those Ruskinian characteristics of “seriousness and honesty of motive” [27-28].
Barringer’s chapter excellently documents the complex three-cornered relationship between Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites and the early photographers. It is well known that Ruskin collected daguerreotypes of Switzerland, Italy and France—notably of their monuments and their architectural details. On his trips, he had servants who carried the heavy camera and accessories of the time. Yet this was a purely utilitarian use of the medium: photography was an aid, not an end in itself—the ultimate intention was to help him with his drawings and paintings, because here was the only real art. As he put it in The Stones of Venice, “a photograph is not a work of art” . The exhibition showed one of the daguerreotypes taken in Fribourg and the resulting watercolour side by side—with striking effect. But, Barringer reminds us, Ruskin was not alone in using photography when it suited him: there is also the case of Ford Madox Brown for his major painting, Work (1852-1865). As it was impractical to get Carlyle to pose in the studio, Brown commissioned a photograph of him (appropriately reproduced in the book) in the exact position which he was to have in the finished picture, and Barringer makes much of this:
[T]his painting—the most fully elaborated and perhaps the most modern of all Pre-Raphaelite paintings of modern life—embraces photography both as practice and metaphor. It is a painting about work that was rooted in the traditions of history painting. Brown acknowledged photography as a vital component of contemporary art making and contemporary life, a new way of looking that symbolized and embodied modernity .
Interestingly the younger generation in the extended Pre-Raphaelite family was not always convinced, and Barringer gives a hopelessly dismissive judgement—in the Ruskinian “tradition”—by Burne-Jones on the status of photography:
I suppose that by the time the “photographic artist” can give us all the colours as correctly as the shapes, people will begin to find out that the realism they talk about isn’t art at all but science; interesting no doubt as a scientific achievement but nothing more. Someone will have succeeded in making a reflection in a looking glass permanent under certain conditions. What has that to do with art? 
Without referring specifically to Ruskin or Burne-Jones, Britt Salvesen, in her concluding chapter on Narrative in Victorian Art—which accords a wide place to photography, notably that of Oscar Gustave Reijlander—makes the point that “the core value of Victorian realism was truthfulness” —but she qualifies this immediately in a note which could equally well apply to the painting-versus-photography debate:
It was by no means universally accepted that art could attain truthfulness. An opposing, utilitarian philosophy held that imaginative activity was a distraction from economic or evangelical pursuits and that “all poetry is misrepresentation” [189, N.4]
Beyond any notion of a hierarchy, Jennifer L. Roberts convincingly reconciles early photography and Pre-Raphaelite painting around the central element of sunlight in her chapter on Sunlight and the Decomposition of Landscape:
By harnessing the sunlight, Pre-Raphaelite painters and their counterparts in photography did not simply produce brighter and more enchanted versions of traditional landscape views. Instead, they introduced radical shifts in standard nineteenth-century compositional strategies for landscape and questioned the social and political ideologies that those strategies supported .
Most readers will agree that this encapsulates the dominant impression derived from this magnificently documented and profusely illustrated Catalogue.
* * *
Once again, one will not be surprised to find many of the same reproductions in A Guide to Victorian & Edwardian Portraits—including the photograph of the Rossetti Family by Charles Ludwige Dodgson (as he is called in The Pre-Raphaelite Lens) or Lewis Carroll (as he is called in the Guide). The advantage goes to the National Portrait Gallery booklet, with a larger, sharper image. On the other hand, the Guide cannot compete with The Pre-Raphaelite Lens for Watts’s Choosing—even though it provides the Guide with its cover picture, as we saw. The reason is simple: sheer size. The large size of The Pre-Raphaelite Lens obviously gives it a definite edge over the Guide when it comes to full-page images.
Still, the format of the Guide, with each image (mostly paintings and photographs) accompanied by a very informative concise text, and its affordability and portability (it could easily be taken and consulted during a visit to the National Portrait Gallery) make it a very useful book to have for anyone interested in the period. The portraits are not organised by sitters or authors, but by themes (as they largely are in the Gallery itself)—the first section being devoted to Art. Its only full-page portrait is the familiar one of William Morris by Watts (1870), but we also have Millais’ Euphemia Chalmers (“Effie”) Gray, Mrs John Ruskin, later Lady Millais (“The Foxglove”, 1853). Other sections deal with Science & Industry (with an 1864 photograph of William Henry Fox Talbot (1819-1894), the pioneer photographer); Music & Theatre (Sir Arthur Sullivan [of Gilbert & Sullivan fame], 1888 by Millais); Literature (Tennyson and Carlyle photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1865 & 1867); Public Life & Empire (Henry Fawcett and Dame Millicent Garett Fawcett (1872) by Ford Madox Brown and William Ewart Gladstone (1879), again by Millais, who is by far the artist with the largest number of portraits in the booklet. Ideally, one should read The Pre-Raphaelite Lens before looking at the photographs (and perhaps even the paintings) in the Guide since The Pre-Raphaelite Lens gives a lot of very useful background information on the sitters and portraitists which the smaller Guide cannot obviously provide. In a way, therefore the two are complementary—with The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy as a further source of information on the fascinating Brotherhood. As an added bonus, all three books are free of the fashionable jargon which art historians sometimes feel compelled to use nowadays and they are a pleasure to read.
(4) Many of the works shown in the Catalogue also benefited from fine large-size full-colour reproductions in that of a previous (1997) National Gallery of Art Exhibition. The Victorians : British Painting, 1837-1901. Edited by Malcolm Warner. Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1996, 155 pp. ISBN 0-8109-6342-6. One should also mention the Catalogue of the major 2004 Exhibition (Tate Britain, 12 February-3 May 2004 / Altes Nationalgalerie, Berlin, 12 June-19 September 2004 / Fundacio´ “La Caixa”, Madrid, 6 October 2004- 9 January 2005): Pre-Raphaelite Vision : Truth To Nature. Edited by Allen Staley & Christopher Newall. London: Tate Publishing, 2004.
(5) There was no translation of the English-language Catalogue as such, but a well-know French art collectors’ magazine published a special issue, with a translation of the Diane Waggoner texts and an article on the French version of the Exhibition by Françoise Heilbrun, a Curator at the Musée d’Orsay: L'Estampille/L'Objet d'art thématique. Hors série n°1 : Une ballade d'amour et de mort : Photographie préraphaélite en Grande-Bretagne, 1848-1875, 2011. 64 pp. €9,50 (The back cover has a magnificent full-page image of The Blue Silk Dress).
Cercles © 2011