Book Review : Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites

Art historian and Museum Bookstore friend, Nigel Ip has reviewed the National Gallery's exhibition catalogue, Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites (by Alison Smith, with Caroline Bugler, Susan Foister and Anna Koopstra). The book accompanies the National Gallery's show which runs from 2 October 2017 to 2 April 2018. Read Nigel's thoughts below.

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In line with some of the National Gallery’s shorter exhibition catalogues, Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites works exceptionally well as an independent publication on the power of Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434) to inspire the art of the Pre-Raphaelites and their circle. The exhibition is the result of a collaboration between the National Gallery and Tate Britain, one of the major repositories of Pre-Raphaelite art in the UK. The catalogue reflects this and is neatly divided into three brief contextual essays written by curators and contributors, and one longer thematic essay by Alison Smith.

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Susan Foister begins with an analysis of the Arnolfini Portrait and its various interpretations. Fundamentally, it is believed to depict the merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his second(?) wife. In the famous convex mirror are reflected some witnesses, possibly the artist himself. A lengthy description draws attention to the exceptional amount of detail employed by the artist as well as his manipulation of oil paint. Van Eyck is often erroneously attributed as the inventor of oil painting, a belief that was invented by Giorgio Vasari and propagated by Karel van Mander. When the National Gallery acquired the painting in 1842, it was their only exemplary example of early Netherlandish oil painting from this period, ‘a perfect document’ in Foister’s words. This helped to perpetuate Vasari’s statement throughout the nineteenth century.

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The story continues with Anna Koopstra’s essay illustrating the acquisition process and its subsequent publicity. Victorian Britain was then living through a period of technological advancement. Most relevant to this discussion is the rise of the popular press and the separate inventions of photography in 1839 by Henry Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre. Public exhibitions of art were also coming into fashion, such as the 1841 Old Master exhibition at the British Institution in London where the Arnolfini Portrait made its first public appearance. The art critic George Darley wrote in The Athenaeum on 3 July 1841 that it was ‘by John Van Eyck […] a great name, and something more – a true one, and something better still, a great reality’, praising the painting’s condition as ‘apparently everlasting’.

A year after its acquisition, its image began to spread via the medium of print. The Illustrated London News published a wood engraving of the picture in April 1843 with text promoting his invention of oil painting, using quotations from Vasari and the art historian Luigi Lanzi. Felix Summerly’s Handbook for the National Gallery in the same year also featured a woodcut by John Linnell, catalogued as the 186th work in the Gallery’s collection. Koopstra continues by demonstrating how van Eyck’s painting was compared to the photographic medium with its sitters posed statically as if sitting for a time-consuming daguerreotype. This meticulous attention to detail would later find affinity with the aims of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

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In the last of the short essays, Caroline Bugler introduces us to the Brotherhood itself, founded in 1848 by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. They were soon joined by William Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, the sculptor Thomas Woolner, and the movement’s chronicler and art critic Frederic George Stephens, thus forming the seven original members. In the immediate years that followed their formation, they signed their works with the initials ‘P. R. B.’; Rossetti’s The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848-49) was the first to do this. As Bugler correctly states, the Brotherhood published no formal manifesto. William Michael later wrote of the Brotherhood’s aims – ‘the bond of union among the Members’ – in his family memoir, published in 1895:

‘1, To have genuine ideas to express; 2, to study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them; 3, to sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote; and 4, and most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.’

Whilst no mention has been made of The Germ, a short-lived periodical in 1850 (cut at four issues) intended to give a voice to Pre-Raphaelite ideals and aesthetics via prose, poetry, and prints, the essay provides a decent overview of the visual language of the movement. However, it must be noted that there isn’t a distinctly ‘Pre-Raphaelite style’, something which Bugler has not made clear. Instead their pictures are characterised by a set of common features and how true they are to the aims of the Brotherhood.

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Works from the first phase of Pre-Raphaelitism depicted ‘serious’ subjects: religion; medieval legends; themes from Dante, Shakespeare, Keats, Alfred Tennyson; and scenes from contemporary social life dealing with problematic issues such as poverty and prostitution. They had an obsessive tendency for rendering details appropriate to their subjects, striving ‘to depict physiognomy, costume and surroundings as accurately as possible.’ This ‘truth to Nature’ component was antecedent to the idealising High Renaissance values upheld by the Royal Academy. One particular work, Millais’ Christ in the House of His Parents (The Carpenter’s Shop) (1849-50), was heavily criticised by Charles Dickens in 1850:

‘[…] You behold the interior of a carpenter’s shop. In the foreground of that carpenter’s shop is 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, and to be holding it up for the contemplation of a kneeling woman, so horrible in her ugliness, that (supposing it were possible for any human creature to exist for a moment with that dislocated throat) she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest ginshop in England…Wherever it is possible to express ugliness of feature, limb, or attitude, you have it expressed.’

Thankfully for the group, the critic John Ruskin was also a ‘truth to Nature’ advocate and willingly supported them, attracting numerous patrons. They gained artistic followers and the movement flourished for a while. This did not last for long and the Brotherhood slowly disbanded, its members pursuing their own individual interests. William Holman Hunt tried to stay true to the aims of the Brotherhood whilst Millais’ success led him to create sentimental pictures, effectively becoming a sell-out.

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti was one of the first to abandon the movement in its initial form, ceasing to contribute to their annual exhibitions shortly after 1850. He eventually started making sensuous pictures of his female models and muses (Jane Burden, Fanny Cornforth, Alexa Wilding, etc.), thus initiating the second phase of Pre-Raphaelitism, with Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris joining him from the latter half of the 1850s. This branch of Pre-Raphaelitism, ‘characterised by a dreamier, more introspective mood, and a distance from morally improving subject matter’, sowed the seeds for the Aesthetic movement spearheaded by figures like Frederic, Lord Leighton and Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

At last, flittering from one mirror to another, Alison Smith enlightens the reader with the exciting wonders to be found in the reflected worlds of Victorian paintings. Fascinated by van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, the convex mirror began to infiltrate the real and imaginary interiors of Victorian homes, some even owned by Rossetti and William Orpen. In The Awakening Conscience (1853), Holman Hunt used the mirror as a moralising device, whereas the mirror in Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott served as a literal view of the world for the female protagonist imprisoned in her tower. An entire section in Smith’s essay is dedicated to this poem, with the full text included elsewhere in the catalogue.

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The distorted reflections of such mirrors were the perfect places to create realities outside of the pictorial space, imbuing the pictures with a sense of psychologically depth, as in Burne-Jones portrait of his daughter Margaret Burne-Jones (1885-86). A curious aspect of Smith’s essay is the transmission of the Arnolfini Portrait’s extension of space to illustrate the mirror’s role in modern domestic portraiture in such works as Orpen’s The Mirror (1900), using John Phillip’s 1862 partial copy of Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656) as an intermediary link. The connection is clear but readers may find its inclusion rather an odd choice.

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The superficial emulation of the van Eyckian mirror certainly leads to the perception of the Pre-Raphaelites as unimaginative imitators. However, such practices also served as a creative response to the art of the past. In doing so, they embraced van Eyck’s use of closely-cropped compositions to bring the viewers closer to the characters whilst also littering the scenes with items of symbolic and narrative importance, as in the case of Millais’ Mariana (1851). Most importantly of all, to compete with the intensity of colours found in the Arnolfini Portrait, they developed a parallel painting technique to the one van Eyck had previously used. A white ground was first used to prepare the painting surface, upon which the design would be drawn. Using a copal-based medium for binding their pigments, they could give their colours a glossy glaze, producing an effect close to stained glass. When painting, these transparent layers of paint would be built up to exploit the brightness of the preceding layers, aided by the reflective surface of the white ground, eventually creating pictures which are exceptionally vibrant. Smith attributes this to an awareness of Charles Eastlake’s Materials for a History of Oil Painting, published in 1847.

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The exhibition catalogue does not have catalogue entries as such. Instead, there is a ‘Picture Notes’ section providing brief commentaries about some of the objects, followed by a list of exhibited works. The illustrations are weaved throughout the essays where appropriate. At the end of the book, short biographies of the key exhibited artists serve as a convenient reference for readers interested in their social lives and backgrounds.

Reflections is a wonderful little book addressing a core aspect of Pre-Raphaelitism’s artistic influences, of which early Italian artists like Benozzo Gozzoli and Sandro Botticelli also played a major role. Although it is significantly less extensive than other books on this matter, notably Jenny Graham’s Inventing Van Eyck and Elizabeth Prettejohn’s recent Modern Painters, Old Masters, the brevity and forthright nature of the essays makes for light, informative reading that compliments the existing literature. It succeeds in appealing to the public’s taste for accessible introductions to art history but since much of the material is familiar to specialists of Victorian art, it cannot be regarded as anything more than a reiteration of existing research. Nevertheless, it is a very enjoyable read and highly recommended for those interested in the Pre-Raphaelites and the reception of Jan van Eyck.

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Our thanks to Yale for providing a review copy of this book. To order a copy of Reflections, please see the link below.


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