« PreviousContinue »
VERY great man is in a very true sense the interpreter
Each famous Englishman that we study ought to bring us nearer to the sympathetic understanding of England. Gladstone, Ruskin, Livingstone, Browning, express each in his own way some phase of the racial genius and character whereby England has become great. And now we are to study the interpretation of modern English ideals and thought, not in poetry, statemanship, or action, but in painting. Let us take in our hands, then, a copy of one of the works of Edward Burne-Joncs,-"The Star of Bethlehem," "The Golden Stairs," "The Annunciation," or some other, and looking at it let us see what ideals and purposes went to the making of it.
Early in that year of great things, 1848, two young English painters, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt-aged respectively eighteen and twenty years
*This is the fourth in a series of studies of famous Englishmen, which will appear in THE CHAUTAUQUAN during the months from December to May: Charles Darwin, by Prof. John M. Coulter (December); John Burns, by Mr. John Graham Brooks (January); Dean Stanley, by Bishop Williams of Michigan, February; Sir Edward Burne-Jones, the painter, by Prof. Cecil F. Lavell; Dr. Jowett, the famous Greek scholar, by Prof. Paul Shorey; William E. Gladstone, by Mr. John Graham Brooks.
-began the famous movement to which they gave the name “Pre-Raphaelite.” It rested on principles that were at the same time rebellious and constructive. In so far as it was a revolt, its protest was very like that of Petrarch against the worship of Aristotle five hundred years before,-a protest against making the genius of a great man a chain wherewith to bind his successors, so that the form and method survived, while the meaning and the life were forgotten. It was heresy in Petrarch's day to think other than as Aristotle thought. It was heresy in the early part of the nineteenth century to paint except according to the principles and methods of Raphael, codified and expounded by Sir Joshua Reynolds. So the word “Pre-Raphaelite” as Millais and Hunt used it, meant simply according to the principles in vogue not neccessarily before Raphael, but before Raphaelitism, the blind obedient following of Raphael, came to be be the accepted standard of good painting. “Your father and I," said Hunt to Millais' son and biographer, "determined to adopt a style of absolute independence as to art dogma and conventions; this we called Pre-Raphaelitism." Not Raphael, not Correggio, but the theory that art must forever follow the lines marked out by Raphael and Correggio, was condemned by the young reformers. “The first principle of Pre-Raphaelitism," says Hunt in his own account of the movement, "was to eschew all that was conventional in contemporary art.” And with this rebellion against convention was associated the implied constructive principle of return to nature. “The Pre-Raphaelites,” said Millais to his son, "had but one idea—to present on canvas what they saw in nature.”
Not that this gospel was wholly new, or the art that preceded it wholly conventional. Reynolds's own fame rests not on his artificial imitations, but on his portraits and his charming studies of children. There he is genuine, doing work that is absolutely his own. The portrait studies, too, of Romney and Gainsborough are as immortal as those of Reynolds; and Wilson, Gainsborough and Crome had founded a school for landscape that culminated gloriously in Constable and Turner before ever Millais and Hunt were born. In the field of genre, too, in genuine and artistic pictures of humble life, there was the brilliant and unhappy Morland; and George Frederick Watts—whom the severest critic could hardly call conventional—was already exhibiting in the Royal Academy when Millais was a boy of ten. Then there was Ford Madox Brown, too, the warm friend of the Pre-Raphaelites, the first teacher of Rossetti, so closely associated with the young friends of the Brotherhood that he is often quite wrongly called a Pre-Raphaelite himself. So the high resolves of the enthusiastic trio—for Rossetti had been early associated with Millais and Hunt-were neither new nor revolutionary. They simply show a determination on the part of the painters to obey the spirit of life and nature which had been increasingly animating the best spirits of Europe during the last fifty years, and to paint with absolute sincerity and reverence that which their eyes saw or their minds conceived.
In proportion then as this determination was carried out with real genius would it react on the work and spirit of the age, and nobly did the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood fulfil its mission. To portrait painting they could add little or nothing to the achievements of Gainsborough or Watts. In landscape they could scarcely contribute anything fundamental to the generation that had known Constable and Turner and had seen the burst of genius across the channel which we associate with the names of Rousseau, Millet, Troyon and Corot. But in the interpretation of the human soul in its exalted moods, in the expression of the poetry of life, in the perception of the beauty and the surpassing interest of a direct, sympathetic gaze at God's works ("paint any one and count it crime to let a truth slip"), the PreRaphaelites had a field that had not been touched with sincerity and enthusiasm for generations, and into this field they threw themselves with a vigor and a directness of purpose that shook the whole of British art. At first all the art critics of England poured harshest condemnation on the youthful heretics. They were abandoning beauty, it was said, in abandoning the standard of the sixteenth century Italians. But the truth was that men's standard of beauty was changing. Their eyes no longer saw the same things. The world of Johnson and Burke had become the world of Carlyle and Ruskin. A new breadth of sympathy, a new enthusiasm for human impulses, a new conception of liberty, a new desire to penetrate and understand the infinite depths and heights in life, a new passion and a new romance had entered into the world, and the eyes of Rossetti and Holman Hunt saw visions in man and nature of which good Sir Joshua had never dreamed.
Millais, Hunt, and Rossetti—these were the first PreRaphaelites, each bound by his vow to paint life as he saw it. But fidelity to the vow meant an inevitable parting of the ways. Of the three, Millais was the unquestioned chief in execution. He could work both more rapidly and more accurately than the others, and in time became a painter whom Ruskin could compare to Titian himself. But the analogy has a truth beyond the question of skill as a painter. There was little of the mystic about Titian,-infinitely less than in some of the humbler painters of Florence. And there was little of the mystic in Millais. Full of poetry as are some of his pictures, it is poetry of the Tennyson type rather than of the type of Shelley, Wordsworth, or Browning. Indeed, this is an injustice to Tennyson. Nature to Millais was not so much a world of infinite mystery and wonder as a world of never ending eternal beauty and interest. Every dainty floweret in the background of "Ophelia" is a jewel which the painter saw in the living, radiant, ever-glorious garment of God. And every line of his men and women has the vitality and the immediate appeal of humanity, living and moving and genuine. Millais was a great painter, whose eye and hand are not easily matched in modern art. Yet in one point his less brilliantcompanion, Holman Hunt, went beyond him. For to him, no