The nineteenth century saw great change in painting, and in the role of art critics. Previously the major external influences over painting were patrons and purchasers, and other painters through their guilds and societies. In the nineteenth century, people who were neither professional artists, nor those funding an artist, started to become important determinants of a painter’s career, business, and success.
John Ruskin (1819–1900) was one of the earliest and most influential of this new breed of critic. An early writer, his study of classics at Oxford University was interrupted by illness, and in 1842 he was awarded a ‘double fourth-class’ degree in recognition of his achievements. The following year he published the first volume of his Modern Painters, which was fundamentally an exhaustive defence of the criticism which had been heaped on JMW Turner.
When the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) formed in 1848, although its ideals were largely original, its emphasis on painting only from nature, and depicting nature in ‘true’ detail, were greatly influenced by Ruskin’s writing, although members of the PRB did not meet Ruskin for some time later. By that time, Ruskin had already criticised some of the early Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Ruskin sprung to their defence in 1851, writing to The Times and publishing the pamphlet from which I have quoted previously.
Ruskin then became embroiled in the tumultuous personal lives of the members of the PRB – his own wife divorced him to marry John Millais – and from 1855 wrote an annual review of the key exhibition at the Royal Academy. His opinions expressed in the latter made and destroyed reputations and careers. Although he gave considerable financial and critical support to several members of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, those could be as capricious as his critical opinions.
Ruskin was a keen amateur painter in watercolours, and a fine draftsman, but does not appear to have undertaken any serious painting in oils, nor to have any deep understanding or experience of the practice of oil painting. His watercolours were strongly influenced by Turner, although by and large they appear to follow the precepts which he laid down in his Modern Painters.
Apparently for the first time in the history of art, a single critic who was not an experienced and knowledgeable practitioner in painting, was largely directing an avant garde movement.
At that time, there was considerable experience in the practical issues involved in painting en plein air using oil paints, but most of that had been gained in the warmer and more stable weather of the Roman Campagna. None of the PRB, nor Ruskin, had any experience of that, nor did they seek the advice and guidance of those who did.
Painters who underwent a classical training, such as Frederic, Lord Leighton, and Corot in France, had that experience, although Leighton did not return to Britain until 1859. Leighton continued to paint plein air oil sketches through his career, some of which are now in the Gere Collection at the National Gallery, London. However, as they followed the classical tradition, as had Constable’s, they did not meet Ruskin’s precepts and the PRB’s derived principles for Pre-Raphaelite landscape painting.
Hunt’s Our English Coasts, 1852 remains one of the few Pre-Raphaelite landscapes to have won Ruskin’s sustained praise, and favourable comparison with the latter’s favourite works by Turner.
Thomas Seddon died of dysentery in Cairo late in the year after he painted this landscape of Jerusalem. Although Seddon felt that Ruskin had been particularly pleased with the painting when he saw it in 1855, by 1857 Ruskin was damning it with faint praise, implicitly putting Seddon in the ranks of “the prosaic Pre-Raphaelites”.
John Brett’s Val d’Aosta (1858) was painted in close collaboration with Ruskin, and later Ruskin asked Brett to give him “some lessons in permanent, straight-forward oil painting.” Ruskin’s Academy Notes on the finished painting, when it was exhibited in 1859, begin with enthusiastic praise, before Ruskin starts to find fault:
A notable picture truly; a possession of much within a few feet square. Yet not, in the strong, essential meaning of the word, a noble picture. It has a strange fault, considering the school to which it belongs — it seems to me to be wholly emotionless. I cannot find from it that the painter loved, or feared, anything in all that wonderful piece of the world.
(John Ruskin, Academy Notes, 1859, in Cook ET & Wedderburn A (eds) The Works of John Ruskin, vol 14, pp 234-8.)
When Brett’s extraordinary Florence from Bellosguardo was rejected by the Royal Academy in 1863, John Ruskin was out of the country, and of all Brett’s friends and associates, responded most weakly, urging Brett to make studies in black and white, preferably using pen and ink.
The fundamental problem for the Pre-Raphaelites was the near-impossibility of the task posed by Ruskin, I am sure quite unwittingly. Painting substantial canvases in fine detail en plein air using oil paint is extremely time-consuming. In the more equitable and stable weather of the Mediterranean and Middle East, each painting is likely to take two months or more; in the more changeable climate of the British Isles, even a single summer may be insufficient.
Because of the protracted periods required, the artist cannot capture consistent details. During the course of painting, much of the motif will have changed substantially, and the painting ends up as a composite of appearance over time.
Unless a painter has a generous patron, such investment of time in a single work is also commercially very risky. As each of the Pre-Raphaelite landscape painters discovered, when you can only paint two or three significant works per year, it is very hard to pursue painting as a profession.
It is no small surprise, therefore, that most of those who painted landscapes in Pre-Raphaelite style did so for a short and relatively unproductive period, before moving on to less ambitious work. So by about 1870, after less than 25 years, the Pre-Raphaelite landscape was gone.
Compare this with the Impressionists over in France, who defied critics rather than being directed by them, who built upon established traditions of painting, and who were able to paint many thousands of works, and eventually achieve popularity and financial security.
Pre-Raphaelite landscape painting was bold, innovative, resulted in some paintings of extraordinary beauty and impressive technical achievement, but it was utterly impractical for anyone apart from the obsessive amateur.
Barringer T (2012) Reading the Pre-Raphaelites, revised edn, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 17733 6.
Newall C (2012) Review of Payne (2010), Burlington Mag. 154, July 2012, pp 498-499.
Payne C (2010) John Brett: Pre-Raphaelite Landscape Painter, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 16575 3.
Prettejohn E (2000) The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites, Tate Publishing. ISBN 978 1 854 37726 5.
Staley A (2001) The Pre-Raphaelite Landscape, 2nd edn, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 08408 5.