Book Review: Truth and Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters

Visual arts blogger and art historian, Nigel Ip reviews the catalogue from the Legion of Honor in San Francisco show, Truth and Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters - a book that speaks truth, oozes beauty and deserves be on everyone’s bookshelf.

Truth and Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters

Since the ground-breaking exhibition The Pre-Raphaelites was held in 1984 at the Tate Gallery in London, a plethora of publications and exhibitions have emerged over the succeeding decades. Yet very few have offered a dedicated study of their relationship with the Old Masters, the very inspiration that encouraged these groups of young British artists to go against the trends and customs worshipped by the Royal Academy of Arts.

Truth and Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters is the first exhibition of its kind to take up the challenge and present this well-known aspect of Pre-Raphaelite scholarship to a broader audience in visual form. The beautifully designed catalogue is a work of art in its own right and was clearly inspired by Kelmscott Press publications, founded by William Morris around 1891. In fact, the catalogue’s texts are printed with a typeface similar to the Golden type used by Morris in his early books, giving it an antiquarian quality that deserves to be treasured and admired for its craftsmanship as much as its intellectual contents.

Following a lengthy introduction of the core themes by the exhibition’s curator Melissa E. Buron, the catalogue is divided into five broad sections with an appendices, notes, and checklist of works at the back. Each thematic section consists of essays by scholars from a variety of disciplines, each led by one long essay on white paper and shorter essays on cream.

There are no catalogue entries. Instead, comparative looking is encouraged by the generous full-page colour illustrations of each object, some in their specially designed frames. The experience is not unlike those of the Pre-Raphaelites, who would have gazed at similar illustrations of Old Master paintings without context or attributions, admiring them principally for their formal qualities, and seeking inspiration by sight alone. Likewise, one of the joys of Pre-Raphaelite paintings is their obsession with close observation and details, a key component of their ‘truth to nature’ approach to art.

Truth and Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters introduction

Buron’s introduction is a typical example of the kind of overviews that this topic usually commands in literature on the Pre-Raphaelites. It offers an introduction to the origins of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) and their aims, before citing notable influences on their works by artists from early Netherlandish, German, and Italian schools. Their seemingly ironic influences from ‘post-Raphaelite’ artists like Titian and Paolo Veronese is also mentioned.

However, it is Buron’s conclusion to her introduction that really shines a different light on how we interpret their engagement with the Old Masters beyond their artworks, one that centralises a ‘longing for a simpler and more authentic or sincere past’ in a rapidly developing world.

A back-to-back reading of the two long essays by Susanna Avery-Quash and Jason Rosenfeld offers a wonderful understanding of the trends in collecting practices in Britain and other parts of Europe, and how the Pre-Raphaelites and their circle unintentionally played a larger role in popularising the works of Quattrocento artists from under-appreciated schools of painting.

Avery-Quash reminds us that early Northern European art had already received a revival of interest among museum directors, especially in Germany, by the time the PRB was formed in 1848. This trend slowly emerged among British collectors, and major events like the Manchester Art Treasures exhibition in 1857 helped to inspire the National Gallery to acquire its own collections of early Netherlandish and German paintings, at the time considered ‘primitive’. The Pre-Raphaelites took advantage of these public opportunities and some even travelled further afield to Paris, Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent, and Bruges. Others acquired their own examples and reproductions of Northern art, such as the prints of Albrecht Dürer, or relied on local collections of drawings, prints, and manuscripts.

Rosenfeld’s essay explores their engagement with early Italian art and reveals the shocking disinterest in Britain for pictures made before the High Renaissance when Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Titian reigned supreme. When the National Gallery finally acquired such works in 1850, the Pre-Raphaelites were enthralled; they had previously only seen such things from black-and-white reproductions, not in the flesh where sumptuous colours radiated against gilt backgrounds. A frequently cited case study is the right wing of Lorenzo Monaco’s San Benedetto Altarpiece, where ‘conspiratorial compositional appropriations’ are consistently expressed in three publicly exhibited works in 1849 by John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Holman Hunt. Their refashioning of Quattrocento forms contributed to a broader acceptance in the public eye of works by early Italian masters.

Breaking the polarising factions of ‘primitives’ versus ‘great painters’ comes the increasing popularity of the ‘rediscovered’ Sandro Botticelli in Victorian Britain. As Jeremy Melius writes in his essay:

‘Botticelli came to hold a temporally ambivalent position within the nineteenth-century view of early modern art. Was he still a primitive, a true “pre-Raphaelite,” belonging to the religious and sentimental refinements of a quaint, unselfconscious, late medieval world? Or should he be seen as belated, already troubled by the complexities of modernity, enigmatic in relation to the clarities from which he came? That Botticelli could be seen to be both made up the essence of special availability – his imitability – for the late Victorians.’

Botticelli and his paintings were an enigma, one that suited the dilemmas of modern life so well with its fusion of old and new. As a result, Botticelli became a kind of artistic metaphor for transience and self-reflection, a perfect site for artistic homage and spiritual dialogue that manifests, in some cases, artworks that offer complex aesthetic experiences such as Rossetti’s La Ghirlandata. For others, like Walter Crane and John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, the rhetoric of purity led to a revival in tempera painting.

A more detailed look at the British Tempera Revival follows this in Abbie N. Sprague’s essay. The do-it-yourself nature of tempera painting aligned perfectly with the values of the Arts and Crafts Movement, who criticised industrial society for creating cheap, ready-made products, forsaking quality, and the pleasures of true craftsmanship. Furthermore, Mary P. Merrifield’s translation of Cennino Cennini’s treatise Il libro dell’arte into English helped introduce the secrets of this medium to a wider audience in 1844. Of course, many tempera revivalists also raised their own chickens to ensure a steady supply of fresh egg yolks.

Meanwhile, the shimmering potential of oil painting remained strong. Nenagh Hathaway’s essay provides a brief understanding of the early Netherlandish oil painting technique, a process that was erroneously said to be invented by Jan van Eyck by the Italian biographer Giorgio Vasari. The Pre-Raphaelites likely learnt about the early Netherlandish methods from Charles Eastlake’s Materials for a History of Oil Painting, published in 1847, which attributed their durability and vibrant colours from the use of a white ground. The PRB followed suit in several of their paintings, one of the best examples being Millais’ Mariana, here compared with van Eyck’s extraordinary Annunciation.

A different perspective on Botticelli and early Italian art can be found in Jonathan K. Nelson’s essay on Algernon Swinburne’s obscure 1868 essay Notes on Designs by the Old Masters in Florence. His texts in general had a profound effect on art criticism at the time, notably influencing Walter Pater’s own essays on Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli. With bountiful quotations from the Notes on Designs, Nelson’s essay is more of an insight into Swinburne’s analytical mindset when approaching the Old Masters and their manifestations in the Pre-Raphaelites.

In the fourth section, the discussion moves on to the influence of Raphael and the post-Raphaelites. Partway through Elizabeth Prettejohn’s essay, she provides a cautionary reminder from Holman Hunt: ‘Pre-Raphaelitism is not Pre-Raphaelism.’ The PRB were never explicitly critical of Raphael’s paintings. In fact, they actively sought inspiration from him, even granting him the rank of a single star in their admired ‘List of Immortals’; Jesus Christ was the only one to receive the maximum rank of four stars.

What the Pre-Raphaelites were really criticising were the followers of Raphael’s graceful style from generation to generation. This championing of the Raphaelite style saw the ultimate fruition in the form of 18th-century Neoclassicism and its academies of art. Raphaelitism became the be-all and end-all of artistic practice and these values were still being upheld in the Royal Academy Schools where they trained. As a result, Pre-Raphaelitism is a rejection of academic authority and an advocate for alternative, perhaps forgotten, influences.

Throughout Prettejohn’s essay she delivers wonderful examples of how the Pre-Raphaelites’ quest for alternatives manifests in their paintings, citing Titian, Veronese, and even the Spanish Diego Velázquez. It is also amusing to be reminded that Sir Joshua Reynolds, the founding president of the Royal Academy and a particular hate-figure for the young PRBs, also looked alternatively to promote Michelangelo and his terribilita, very much the opposite of Raphaelesque grace.

Donato Esposito’s essay on Edward Burne-Jones recounts the artist’s obsession with Italy, who made four seminal visits in 1859, 1862, 1871, and 1873, each with a stop in Florence. Of the Pre-Raphaelites and their circle, Burne-Jones probably received the greatest influence from Italian art. As the essay summarises to great effect, the artist took advantage of the fantastic public and – even greater – private collections of Italian art in Britain, used their print rooms for works on paper, visiting mouth-watering loan exhibitions, and assimilated their diverse contents into his own personal brand of Italianate Pre-Raphaelitism.

On his travels, he copied frescoes and paintings into sketchbooks, sometimes making watercolours for his patron John Ruskin. But his ultimate secret was the amassing of thousands of photographs of Italian paintings, frescoes, and drawings, placed into albums and portfolios, 13 of which survive in the collection of the University College London. Burne-Jones went to great lengths to acquire these photographs, requesting images of ‘wishlist’ items from his itinerant friends. The artist practically lived and breathed Italy from his vicarious engagement with his collection of visual material.

In the end, Burne-Jones’ art had not just a few Italian influences from famous names like Titian, Raphael, and Michelangelo. They had, in the words of one critic from The Times in 1877:

‘…Botticelli, and now Mantegna, with side lights from the Bellini’s and their Venetian and Trevisan contemporaries, or the younger Lippi and Perugino, and kindred Tuscan and Umbrian masters.’

Of course, like other members of the Pre-Raphaelites, Burne-Jones also sought inspiration from Northern art. Rachel Sloan’s essay in an earlier section shows how Dürer’s meticulous prints practically defined the artist’s early drawings with their compression of space, unfathomable penwork, and brilliant details. As his career developed and book projects with William Morris became more frequent, he sought out manuscripts, of which many were available in the British Library and Bodleian Library.

Speaking of manuscripts, it seems appropriate to bring in Bryan C. Keene’s expertise, whose essay explores the popular, but sacrilegious, act of cutting up priceless illuminated manuscripts and the sales of their richly decorated leaves and fragments in the 19th century. It is often easy to forget that many of the Pre-Raphaelites’ supporters and patrons possessed handsome collections of such fragments, sometimes even entire books; the so-called Ruskin Hours is one such example, itself an early 14th-century French book of hours. These fragile objects, once luxurious and highly prized possessions commissioned for important patrons, were equally influential visual sources for the Pre-Raphaelites as paintings, prints, and frescoes by famous artists. From Charles Allston Collins’ early Convent Thoughts to the late publications of the Kelmscott Press, the impact of these miniature marvels deserves more attention in Pre-Raphaelite scholarship.

On a slightly different note, Keene ends his essay with a new attribution for an unpublished single leaf from an antiphonary showing Saint John the Evangelist twice in the act of blessing and distributing the Eucharist (Legion of Honor, San Francisco), here attributed to the Bolognese illuminator called the Maestro del 1328.

With all this talk of Northern and Italian artistic influences, one must also remember the extraordinary effect of medievalism on the later Pre-Raphaelites, whose subject matter often derived from Arthurian legends and the romantic ideals of chivalry. Joanna Banham’s essay is a great look at how these values and sources from the Middle Ages fed into the artfully crafted products of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, from furniture and stained glass to embroideries and tapestries. For Morris and his artist-friends, it was not enough to appropriate the art of the period. They had to embrace their values in daily life and create products which reflected those ideals: ‘art was as much a part of everyday objects as painting.’

Another well-known literary source is Dante Alighieri, whose poems guided the young Rossetti and other PRBs. Cassandra Sciortino’s essay provides a roadmap into the 19th-century revival of interest in the Florentine poet. In art, the discovery in 1840 of a portrait of Dante on a wall of the former Palazzo del Podestà (now the Museo Nazionale del Bargello) in Florence inspired several artists to borrow the same features in strict profile for their own adaptations of Dante’s life. The greatest impact was their attempts to historicise Beatrice, the mythical woman whom Dante passionately admires. Rossetti’s own translation of Dante’s La vita nuova in 1842 certainly helped to encourage this trend.

While Beatrice’s feminine descriptions found parallels with Venetian idealised portraits of women – manifested in Rossetti’s own allegorical portraits and even the self-portraits of his female contemporaries – Dante came to represent social and cultural renewal in Italy after the Risorgimento (Italian unification) and a symbol of national identity, one that struck a chord with revolutionists and reformers in Britain.

Two essays in this catalogue stand out for their exploration of patrons and collectors.

The first is Margaretta S. Frederick’s insightful overview of the collecting practices of William Graham and Frederick Leyland, arguably the two greatest patrons of Pre-Raphaelite art in this period. The essay is a revelation in how dynamic their artist-patron relationships were with artists like Rossetti and Burne-Jones, often actively influencing the appearance of their commissions. For example, it was Graham who suggested the Renaissance idea to include a predella for his commissioned replica of Beata Beatrix, in keeping with the display of his own Italian Renaissance holdings; this decision was repeated for Graham’s The Blessed Damozel and its replica for Leyland.

This practice of coupling Old Master paintings with newly commissioned Pre-Raphaelite ones feeds perfectly into Robyn Asleson’s essay, which reveals how Graham and Leyland’s purchasing model later guided the collecting practices of influential collectors in Britain and America like Joseph Duveen. A fashion for buying early Italian paintings began to emerge and institutions, collectors, even artists, quickly snapped up rarities like Piero della Francesca’s The Nativity. What was once considered ‘primitive’ had been given new lease on life because two collectors saw their potential for artistic dialogue with the art of their present day.

Amazingly, this catalogue also gave some attention to the medium of photography. Julian Cox’s brief essay on the self-taught photographer Julia Margaret Cameron offers a welcome contrast to the bright colours and details of her painterly contemporaries.

In her pursuit of a pictorialist approach to photography – one that valued poetic and artistic expression instead of a tool for literal recordings of daily life – Cameron also looked to the Old Masters for inspiration. Her soft-focus, singular portraits of young women in costume possess the serenity of Guido Reni’s images of women. Her group portraits and tableaux vivants pay homage to altarpieces like Raphael’s Ecstasy of Saint Cecilia or the frescoes of Giotto.

Although not a Pre-Raphaelite per se, Cameron had her own challenge in the realm of photography, at a time when society deemed her images of poor quality and neglecting ‘all that is good in photography’ because they were not tack sharp, detailed, and sometimes ‘[s]mudged, torn, dirty, undefined, and in some cases almost unreadable.’ Through perseverance and eventual success, Cameron practically invented the modern category of fine art photography, elevating the medium’s potential to be recognised as ‘high art’.

Finally, I must give my praise to the eloquence of Elise Effman Clifford’s writing, whose singular essay in the Appendices effortlessly weaves the material construction of John Roddam Spencer Stanhope’s Robins of Modern Times and the later Love and the Maiden with exciting biographical accounts of his life, travels, and circle of friends. Most thrilling of all is the rich material regarding his regular purchases of artists’ materials from Roberson & Co., a favourite among the Pre-Raphaelites. What could have originally been a rather bland technical analysis of both paintings has instead been spun into a cohesive journey into the history of pigments and their innovations in the 19th century, as well as many lovely observations into Stanhope’s creative process.

For this reviewer, Truth and Beauty is a dream come true. It fills a necessary gap in the literature, and it does so gracefully with impeccable scholarship that is easy to read. The catalogue is attractive, well-designed, and reminds me of William Morris’ opening lines in his 1898 essay A Note by William Morris on His Aims in Founding the Kelmscott Press:

‘I began printing books with the hope of producing some which would have a definite claim to beauty, while at the same time they should be easy to read and should not dazzle the eye, or trouble the intellect of the reader by eccentricity of form in the letters.’

This book speaks truth, and it oozes beauty. It deserves be on everyone’s bookshelf.