Victorian Radicals: From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts & Crafts Movement on view at the San Antonio Museum of Art highlights three generations of British artists from 1840 to 1910, with 60 paintings, 21 drawings, and 70 works of decorative arts, all of which are drawn from the collections of the City of Birmingham, England.
Top billing is given to the Pre-Raphaelites, who rebelled against the strictures of academic art — and its idol, the High Renaissance Italian painter Raphael — in favor of devout, moralizing, and highly detailed work inspired by the medieval and early Renaissance periods. Despite their archaizing sympathies, the Pre-Raphaelites employed newly developed paints and photographic effects to create incredibly detailed paintings with preternatural clarity that established a new and influential artistic current. (The aesthetic they developed was, in turn, an enormous influence on British photography.) These stand in stark contrast to the interesting and widely varied academic paintings and the largely uninspired mechanically produced decorative art works presented at the beginning of the exhibition. The Pre-Raphaelites and their fellow travelers are given pride of place in the exhibition’s center. In the last gallery, it is clear that the spark that had animated the early rebel painters had largely expired, resulting in stiff, lamentably drab paintings. The decorative arts, however, blossomed in the hands of the Arts & Crafts Movement. This review follows the layout of the exhibition.
The Academic Tradition
Inspired during a visit with novelist Sir Walter Scott, Edwin Henry Landseer’s The Hunting of Chevy Chase (1825-26) (and yes, this is the title of the painting and not a Saturday Night Live skit) shows animals in Rubensian fury, in contrast to Landseer’s later paintings of lugubrious, anthropomorphic animals, such as droopy faced, big-eyed dogs. (The painter even had a dog breed named after him.) Landseer’s commercially successful renderings of monarchical elk, rutting bucks, etc., even garnered the attention of French Realist Gustave Courbet, whose own animal pictures found elite patrons (though Napoleon III reportedly showed his distaste for one of Courbet’s big-bottomed female nudes by whacking it with his riding crop).
Landseer prepared for Chevy Chase, his first important history painting, by visiting the future Baron Ashburton, where he copied Peter Paul Ruben’s Wolf and Fox Hunt (c. 1616). Both the Rubens original and Landseer’s copy are now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Landseer took the bugler directly from the Flemish master. He reversed Ruben’s rearing white steed (and reversed its tone as well). Landseer’s red-garbed figure on the left also echoes Ruben’s red figure (the enormous Rubens painting was cropped on the left — likely to make it more saleable). Landseer, who was not adept at putting his human figures in motion, also preferred idealized figures. The protagonists in his Chevy Chase painting have exchanged some of Rubens’ earthiness for a measure of Antony Van Dyck’s glamour and physical beauty. Van Dyck, of course, was the ultimate flatterer of British aristocrats.
William Etty’s painting also reveals a fealty to artists other than Raphael. He was partial to the great Venetian colorists, and a hulking Michelangeloesque figure inhabits the right foreground. Etty’s jarring juxtapositions of scale, his strange foreshortenings, and his unique stylizations would have been anathema to the more exclusionary and pedantic French academicians. Its unfinished state further heightens the differences between the two schools.
By contrast, we can look at Oréades, one of the last confections proffered by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (Salon of 1902), the quintessentially saccharine French academician, whose work French avant-garde artists continued to react against well into the 20th century. Seldom has animalistic male desire been writ so large as in this painting, and perhaps never before in a copious flying formation that coalesces into a cornucopia. When it comes to academically rendered naked female flesh, Bouguereau’s oeuvre is the ultimate horn of plenty. For French academicians, myth and history were often pretexts for cheesecake. Pre-Raphaelite artists were more puritanical in their painting (though not so much in their private lives), often not baring an ankle, much less a porcelain bosom.
Returning to the exhibition, Samuel Colman was a devout painter who created large-scale millennial/Biblical visions of deliverance and doom. He was an idiosyncratic, visionary Romantic, and, like William Mallord Turner, was inimitable.
The academic tradition is further represented by a David Cox landscape that is boring, even in comparison to a middling French example. Landscape was reshaped by the Pre-Raphaelites. The other academic representative is a depiction of medieval chivalry by Charles Lock Eastlake, which, curiously, is the only painting in the group with even a whiff of Raphael, the group’s titular boogey-man. The Royal Academy of Art was more open than its French counterpart. This should not be surprising, since Benjamin West, a self-taught American, served as its second president. Its founding president, Sir Joshua Reynolds, was derided by the Pre-Raphaelites as “Sir Sloshua.” And while Reynolds was the ultimate fluffmeister, the Pre-Raphaelites should at least have been grateful for their training, since they were perhaps the first group of young British artists with the drawing skills necessary to form a significant movement.
A carpet by John Crossley & Sons, c. 1851, lies in the foreground of this photograph. Crossley & Sons employed steam powered looms, which enabled the company to become the world’s largest carpet manufacturer by 1862. This is precisely the kind of mass-produced object that the Pre-Raphaelites (and the critics allied with them) hated. The celery vase/comport (1846) by Belmont Glassworks is another example of technology-driven innovation: steam-driven wheels enabled deeper and more elaborate cutting than was previously feasible (celery was a celebrity vegetable, honored with crystal display vases). Replicas or recreations of precious vessels could now be produced relatively cheaply, by electroplating mold-formed objects. Rebel artists and critics regarded such objects as soulless entities.
Britain was the first nation to industrialize, and the Pre-Raphaelite and the Arts and Crafts movements were reactions against capitalism, industrialization, and the changes they wrought. The most relevant theorist for these movements is the Christian socialist polymath John Ruskin, who valorized manual labor. As the bicentennial of his birth is being celebrated this year, his legacy is being reassessed, with the BBC querying whether he is “the most important man of the last 200 years.” The New York Times takes the other extreme, stating “hardly anyone today remembers” him for his writings. Ruskin’s writings were among the foundational sources of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and he became their champion when they were savagely attacked.
The Pre-Raphaelite Group began in 1848, a year in which revolution rocked the continent, and the publication year of Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto. Though it was initially short-lived as a full-fledged formal entity, it cast a long artistic shadow.
If one wishes to start an oppositional movement, it always helps to have a famous and crankily intemperate antagonist. In this instance, Charles Dickens truly rose to the occasion. In his “Old Lamps for New Ones” published June 15, 1850, Dickens prefaces his attack on the Pre-Raphaelites and Millais’ Christ in the House of His Parents by saying that artists who exhibited in the Royal Academy’s annual exhibitions (Etty, Eastlake, and Landseer are among those he mentions) “would have been renowned as great masters in any age or country.” He entreats his readers to dispense with “all religious aspirations, all elevating thoughts; all tender, awful, sorrowful, ennobling, sacred, graceful, or beautiful associations” in order to plunge into the “lowest depths of what is mean, odious, repulsive, and revolting.”
Dickens describes Millais’ Christ as “a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering red-headed boy in a bed-gown; who appears to have received a poke in the hand from the stick of another boy with whom he has been playing in an adjacent gutter.” Dickens describes Mary as “so horrible in her ugliness, that… she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin-shop in England.” He adds: “Wherever it is possible to express ugliness of feature, limb, or attitude, you have it expressed. Such men as the carpenters might be undressed in any hospital where dirty drunkards, in a high state of varicose veins are received.” Dickens is appalled at the group’s attempts “to render reverence and homage to the faith in which we live and die!”
Another review published in June of 1850 decried Millais’ utilization of “the most ill-adapted models… without in the least degree endeavouring to idealize.” He particularly objected to the “studious vulgarity of portraying the youthful Saviour as a red-headed Jew boy, and the sublime personage of the virgin [as] a sore-heeled, ugly, every-day sempstress” (seamstress).
Conventional taste demanded more elevated, more idealized, and downright pretty Anglo-Saxon-looking depictions of holy figures. (Heaven forbid that the Semitic savior actually look Semitic.) Ruskin had called for realism, but for the group’s critics, this was too much realism, or the wrong kind of realism in the wrong place. Of course, from our perspective, the faces in this picture seem idealized in comparison to those of some of Millais’ contemporaries, such as the French peasant painter Jean-François Millet. In the same vein, one might recall that the Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio was castigated for painting peasant pilgrims with dirty feet in the presence of the Virgin Mary. (Had he painted them dirty footed in the gutter in a genre scene, that presumably would have been appropriate.) Ruskin defended Millais in 1850, and when group members were attacked in 1851 in The Times for their “monkish follies,” Ruskin again came to their defense, saying they could potentially lay the “foundations of a school of art nobler than has been seen for three hundred years.” Dickens clearly had no monopoly on bombast.
For both Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites, the appreciation and the depiction of nature were acts laden with religious significance. The catalogue notes that Millais’ Blind Girl fuses several group preoccupations: “it is, at once, a study of modern life, a landscape, a religious painting, and a celebration of the iridescence of natural colors.” It is also a painting about class disparities. Allusions are made to the senses of sound, smell, and touch, though the catalogue concludes that the painting is a “hymn to sight itself — bringing with it a revelation of the divine.” While the landscape was painted in Sussex in 1854, the figures were modeled by working-class girls in Perth, Scotland in 1856. Their worn, patched, and ragged clothes are literally foregrounded.
Ford Madox Brown’s Pretty Baa-Lambs was the first Pre-Raphaelite painting in which the figures and the landscape were painted outside. The landscape combined two locations in order to omit modern buildings.
The artist painted his wife and daughter in 18th-century finery: precious, embroidered, and quilted fabrics, such as those painted by the brotherhood’s British bête noire, Sir Sloshua.
In this detail, one can see individually rendered blades of grass, and — most astonishingly — a veritable portrait of a leaping lamb in mid-flight. Note also the flying bird beneath that lamb.
At this juncture, it’s useful to compare and contrast Pre-Raphaelite realism with French Impressionist realism. The former sought clarity and detail — the antithesis of Sir Sloshua’s style. Impressionism was part of a rejection of time-honored French academic practices that valorized high finish. It was conditioned by the tradition of plein-air sketching in the Roman ruins and Campagna, and the practices of the Barbizon School. Impressionism became a religion of the retinal, an attempt to record precisely what the eye registered, including, as in this painting, astonishing stripes of color that formed waves, the vibrating reflections of boats as they bobbed to-and-fro on this water, bodies blurred and sometimes virtually dissolved by humidity, and backgrounds flattened by haze. Techniques were developed to create the illusion of instantaneousness, the fixing of the fleeting and the ephemeral. As Picasso mockingly put it, Impressionism was also painting dependent upon the weather.
Many years passed before Brown could bring his fantasy of a summer’s day in the country to fruition. It was completed long after the grass and wild flowers had withered, during which time the land in the background had yielded multiple crops. The leaping lambs had returned to earth, and had possibly created lambs of their own, or had possibly gone to slaughter. Monet of course painted much faster than Brown, but he was not a camera. Nor could he still the vibrating blue, white, and olive waves, in order to pose them for his brush. While Brown emphasized stasis and clarity (leaping lambs excepted), Monet emphasized the blurring flux of motion and atmosphere.
Henry Wallis’s strange rendering of twilight effects in The Stone Breaker is not very successful artistically, but his remarkable subject matter is worthy of note. This isn’t a slumbering stonebreaker exhausted by his labor. He is a dead stonebreaker. His legs are awkwardly splayed in death, and his pick lies on a pile of broken stones before him. Rather strangely, they glisten like gems. He is likely in a state of rigor mortis, frozen in the position he had assumed while working in the hot sun. A curious ermine approaches his right leg.
This painting is a commentary on the cruelty of The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which required relief-seekers to live in workhouses. The law was clear in its intentions: “conditions in workhouses were to be made very harsh to discourage people from wanting to receive help.” Thomas Atwood, a member of the House of Commons, objected that workhouses would become “prisons [for] the purpose of terrifying applicants from seeking relief.” It is under these cruel conditions that an impoverished, desperate man could be compelled to work himself to death. The workhouses were so straight-out-of-Dickens that a description of one by Dickens is excerpted in the link above. Fred Copeman, later a Communist Party official and subsequently a Labour Party official, recalls that life in the workhouse he grew up in “was a continuous repetition of work, sleep and funerals. I could never make out why so many people had to die.” It was death by design.
At nearly the same moment as Wallis’ Stone Breaker, John Brett, another Pre-Raphaelite affiliated painter, was making an antithetical painting that we can describe as a Hallmark card version (or, if we presume Brett’s fair lad is about to expire, a Life of Brian whistle-while-you-work, happy-unto-death version). It looks like an endless summer, but instead of riding a California wave on a surfboard, the young scout is atop a wave of rocks that he is compelled to smash into bitty pieces. Ruskin was very favorably impressed by its accurate topography (Box Hill in Surrey) and flora when he saw it at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1858: “This after Lewis’s is simply the most perfect piece of painting with respect to touch, in the Academy this year; in some points of precision it goes beyond anything the Pre-Raphaelites have done yet. I know of no such thistledown, no such chalk hills and elm trees, no such natural pieces of far away cloud in any of their works.”
In very different ways, both Wallis and Brett aestheticize the phenomenon of stone breaking. Wallis sets his dead worker in a twilight landscape (making it the Jules Breton of British stone breakers). Brett’s setting, with its playful pup, would be appropriate for a picnic. Courbet, on the other hand, painted actual stonebreakers that he had encountered on a road and invited back to his studio. Courbet pointedly makes his version about work. Hierarchies of painting are violated. Courbet refuses to show faces, though the scale of the figures is large (approximately life size), as in a history painting. It is a portrait of punishing labor, not a portrait of specific people. They are anonymous smashers of stone and luggers of heavy loads, rendered in rough form by palette knife and thick brush. Courbet explained in a letter that the ragged young man carrying rocks will become the 70-year old man, who hammers on one knee.
The exhibition also features a small version of Wallis’ Chatterton, likely a sketch for the large painting in the Tate that was much praised by Ruskin in 1856. No one loves their dead poets and playwrights quite like the Brits, whether they are scrivners of their own era, like Byron, or forgers of earlier ones, like Chatterton. As the catalogue notes, his death in his garret above a bawdy house might have been accidental (“mixing medical treatments for venereal disease with recreational opiates”) rather than suicidal.
Section highlights include: an oil study for a stained glass window by Edward Burne-Jones; two religious paintings by Arthur Hughes; Hughes’ The Long Engagement; one of Rossetti’s many versions of Beata Beatrix (this one finished by Brown); and the last of Rossetti’s eight versions of Proserpine.
Burne-Jones’ second version of his Pygmalion series (illustrated above), unlike the first series (collection of Lloyd Weber), is rendered in washed-out colors, giving it the atmosphere of a waking dream. The exhibition also includes a particularly beautiful drawing of Burne-Jones’ model and sometime lover, Maria Zambaco, who sports a gloriously Botticellian tangle of hair.
Arts And Crafts Section
William Morris wallpaper sets the mood for the Arts and Crafts section, and it includes some of his magnificent fabric samples, such as Honeysuckle (1874), visible in the center of the above photo.
A gallery alcove features stained-glass windows in dimmed light. In Florence Jane Camm’s window (above), Beatrice (in white) ignores the smitten poet Dante.
Camm eschews the through-the-glass-darkly tradition of stained glass for bright pictorial effects that are more akin to Pre-Raphaelite painting.
Eclecticism reigns in the Arts and Crafts section, which features everything from enamel on copper portraits to a beautifully embroidered bedcover. William Frend De Morgan, who rediscovered how to make luster glazes, is represented in the exhibition with a wide variety of techniques and styles. This Peacock vase was inspired by his study of Iznik and Syrian pottery.
The Martin brothers were quintessential Arts and Crafts potters, and their work deeply influenced the studio pottery movement. Walter threw this pot and Robert Wallace decorated it with incised lines, a mottled blue background, and creatures with great psychological presence.
Most of the paintings in the last gallery are small, stiff, unambitious, and not very accomplished. I address two exceptions here. John Dickson Batten’s Beauty, upon beholding her Beast in a cloistered garden, looks like a late Victorian drama queen feigning a headache while she tries to look sexy in her tight-fitting robe. My sympathies are with the Beast, a sloth-like creature with simian hands. Though well-rendered, this is a ridiculous painting — and perhaps for that reason, it speaks directly to our age: this scenario is played out by countless internet daters when they meet in person for the first time.
Sidney Harold Meteyard’s Hope Comforting Love in Bondage is a final gasp of the rarified air breathed by the finest Pre-Raphaelite painters. Meteyard’s figure of Love is a very mature cupid, who apparently wounded himself with a love arrow, but evidently missed the mark on his inamorata. He is bound by swaths of cloth, and by rose vines that are braided into his wings. They appear more aesthetic and kinky than efficacious. The cloths that bind Love are symbolic: he is literally cloaked in restraint. Otherwise, he would slip out of them, undo the thorn-laden vines from his wings, and flay away, presumably causing more mischief with his bow and arrows. But these thorns would shred his wings if he tried to flap them in their current state. Poison’s lyric, “Every rose has its thorn,” is a very Victorian sentiment: it conveys the concept that pleasure and pain are intertwined. The figure of Hope doesn’t seem to offer much hope or anything else. Is she being respectfully solemn, or does she realize that any such offer would be false? The atmosphere is claustrophobic, dominated by Love’s disabled wings. The painting is pervaded by helplessness, impotence, and fatal ennui. Thus it serves as a fitting terminal image for the exhibition, and for the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic in painting. Its flying days are over.
“Victorian Radicals: From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts & Crafts Movement” is a traveling exhibition organized by the American Federation of Arts and the Birmingham Museums Trust. It is at the San Antonio Museum of Art through January 5, 2020.
Ruben C. Cordova is an art historian and curator. His current exhibition is “The Day of the Dead in Art” at Centro de Artes (the former Museo Alameda in San Antonio). This revisionist exhibition argues that many of the popularly held beliefs pertaining to Day of the Dead are erroneous.