Religious and Cultural Challenges from Early Pre-Raphaelite Paintings



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Religious and Cultural Challenges from Early Pre-Raphaelite Paintings
Thomas J. Tobin
Religious feeling was one of the strongest issues dividing England during the nineteenth century, with the majority Anglican Church split into High-, Low-, and Broad-church factions, and Roman Catholicism staking an ever-wider claim on the country it had “lost” back when Henry VIII cut ties with Rome. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was seen by many critics as too popish. Reviewers accused early Pre-Raphaelite treatment, handling, and iconography of Mariolatry; even the eminent critic John Ruskin, in his defense of two Pre-Raphaelite paintings in a 13 May 1851 letter to the London Times, makes it clear that his support is for the artists, but not for their apparent religious leanings:

Let me state, in the first place, that I have no acquaintance with any of these artists, and very imperfect sympathy with them. No one who has met with any of my writings will suspect me of daring to encourage them in their Romanist and Tractarian tendencies. I am glad to see that Mr. Millais’s lady in blue is heartily tired of her painted window and idolatrous toilet-table, and I have no particular respect for Mr. Collins’s lady in white, because her sympathies are limited by a dead wall, or divided between some gold fish and a tadpole (the latter Mr. Collins may, perhaps, permit me to suggest, en passant, as he is already half a frog, is rather too small for his age). (8–9)

Ruskin reads into John Everett Millais’s Mariana not the doubt of a pious Catholic woman, as suggested by the crucifix and candles on the “idolatrous” side table, but a Protestant turning away from them; likewise, Ruskin sees in Charles Allston Collins’s Convent Thoughts a picture of sadness: the nun locked away behind the cloister walls, left there to contemplate banalities. These attitudes represent the views of many social critics of the day, who saw in Romanism the general feeling that Roman Catholic doctrine and practice were valid forms of worship, and that Tractarianism, also known as the Oxford Movement, whose adherents attempted to reconcile high-church Anglican and Roman Catholic doctrines, presented popish dogmatic enemies to reason and pure faith.

Another division in Victorian society was that of class, and Pre-Raphaelitism challenged class boundaries and definitions as much as it pushed against the religious issues of the day. William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience (1854) depicts a louche young man of the middle class reclining in a parlor chair before a piano, with a young prostitute rising suddenly from his lap, caught in the moment of realizing the wickedness of her profession. Critics had a very difficult time with the subject. The Athenaeum critic, on 6 May 1854, suggests that

Innocent and unenlightened spectators suppose it to represent a quarrel between a brother and sister: it literally represents the momentary remorse of a kept mistress, whose thoughts of lost virtue, guilt, father, mother, and home have been roused by a chance strain of music. (562)

This is the strongest language about the picture in any of the periodical press, but the article lacks any mention of the class inequality inherent in the painting. For such a review, we must turn to William Michael Rossetti, writing in the Spectator for 2 June 1855 about John Barwell’s The London Gazette, 1854 (1855):

Præraphaelitism is the generic character of . . . “The London Gazette, 1854,” by Mr. Barwell, [which] is one of what may be classed as the “Sebastopol Pictures” of the year, and (without prejudice to Mr. Cope’s maturer practice be it said) certainly the best of them. The personages are two women of the working class, who have broken off the getting-up of some linen to read the Gazette; in which the younger has found the death (we may suppose) of her lover, and falls forward, crushed in heart, across her companion’s lap. There are seriousness and well-grounded study in the whole presentment; the expression and action are reserved, yet feeling; and, for the rest, witness the good broad style of design in the girl’s arms, and the analogous qualities in the treatment of her drapery. (575)

In characterizing Barwell’s painting as one of the “Sebastopol pictures,” which refers to the effects of the Crimean War upon those left at home, Rossetti signals a concern for the lives of the common soldiery and their lower-class families; he also locates emotions and tropes such as heroism, pathos, and bathos in the lower classes, at a time when such traits were generally held to be the province of noblemen (see especially Benjamin West’s painting of The Death of Wolfe). Likewise, we see a concern with the working classes in John Lucas Tupper’s second article on “The Subject in Art” in the Pre-Raphaelites’ own short-lived magazine The Germ:

And why not teach us to help what the laws cannot help?—why teach us to hate a Nero or an Appius, and not an underselling oppressor of workmen and betrayer of women and children? Why to love a Ladie in bower, and not a wife's fireside? Why paint or poetically depict the horrible race of Ogres and Giants, and not show Giant Despair dressed in that modern habit he walks the streets in? (121)

This didactic tendency toward using art as a means to arouse social consciousness and lead to social change—art and literature serving as a moral barometer for society—leads to a discussion of the function and nature of art, a topic which was already hotly debated by the time Pre-Raphaelitism came on the Victorian art and literary scene.

The thinking on the nature and function of art prevalent during the 1850s held that art was primarily decorative in nature and should follow strictly prescribed formulae in order to arrive at beauty. These formulae were challenged by John Ruskin in Modern Painters (1843–1846), wherein he put forth a competing view of the function of art. The critical press used Ruskin’s ideas as a convenient shorthand to represent the aims of the early Pre-Raphaelite movement, such as this passage from The Builder:

In the close of the first volume of “Modern Painters,” I ventured to give the following advice to the young artists of England:—“They should go to Nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly, having no other thought but how best to penetrate her meaning; rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.” (“Pre-Raphaelitism,” Builder 571)

Ruskin advocated returning to the simplicity and directness of quattrocento Italian art, as suggested in the quotation, which deals with Renaissance art in Venice. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was united in its dissatisfaction with the traditional methods of teaching as practiced at the Royal Academy, taking up Ruskin as their model of progress (or, perhaps, retrogress) against the conservative academic worship of Raphael’s formalized harmony and balance: hence the term “Pre-Raphaelite” to describe their works.

The issues of art theory, class, and religion appear in most of the criticism of Pre-Raphaelitism in varying degrees, and when critics found fault or merit in Pre-Raphaelite works, they did so to the extent that Pre-Raphaelite works challenged the established conventional dogmas. The ideological leanings of individual critics are often implied most strongly in their denunciation or praise of Pre-Raphaelite works, which seem to have acted as lightning rods of scandal and dispute.


Works Cited
“Fine Arts: The Royal Academy.” Athenaeum 1.1384 (6 May 1854): 559–562.

“Pre-Raphaelitism” by John Ruskin. Review. Builder 449 (13 Sep. 1850): 571–572.

Rossetti, William Michael. “Fine Arts: The Royal Academy: Domestic Pictures.” Spectator 28.1405 (2 June 1855): 575.

---. “The Pre-Raphaelite Artists.” Letter to the editor, with editorial response. London Times 20,815 (30 May 1851): 8–9.



Tupper, John Lucas. “The Subject in Art. No. II.” Art and Poetry 1.3 (Mar. 1850): 118–125.


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