Review of Modern Painters, Old Masters: The Art of Imitation from the Pre-Raphaelites to the First World War by Elizabeth Prettejohn
The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, Yale University Press £45
This is a fascinating study which examines in considerable detail the many influences which inhabit the works of the Pre-Raphaelites and those that followed them within the English art canon. The Pre- Raphaelites occupy a peculiar position within our art tradition. Enormously popular in this country, within the wider context of European and world art they are generally viewed as an interesting but ultimately minor movement. Artists who are highly regarded in England —Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Millais, for example— are mere footnotes within the European context. Although they were near- contemporaries of the Impressionists, who are almost universally acknowledged as having changed forever the artistic landscape in Europe, it is almost exclusively in England that the Pre-Raphaelites are recognised as significant innovators. Yet even this comment is problematic, for unlike the Impressionists, who are seen as forward-looking and keen to use their art to portray modern life, the Pre-Raphaelites looked back to what they thought was a more honest form of painting, and tried to harness that style to make overtly moral statements about the world that they saw around them.
It is a common misapprehension, when considering emerging art movements of the past, that the most revolutionary and seemingly ground-breaking — think Impressionism or Abstract Expressionism — are complete fractures from what had gone before. In fact the opposite is often true. What at first seems like a bolt from the blue, a simultaneous explosion of artistic change, is often the result of a close examination of past art, representative of a rejection of some principles, but also of an acceptance of others. So it was with the Pre-Raphaelites and those that followed them: this book examines very clearly those principles and artistic conventions that they either rejected, or, by imitation, accepted.
One famous example illustrated here is well known, but worth repeating. Manet’s Olympia, painted in 1863, has long been regarded as a ground-breaking image of modernity. The provocative nude, quite obviously a courtesan, shocked contemporary France, yet it was based upon a work by Titian of 1538: Venus of Urbino. Manet had taken a Renaissance image and moulded it into something which was searingly modern and loaded with contemporary meaning, but which also acknowledged a shared artistic heritage. Put simply, without the influence of the earlier work, Manet could not have produced Olympia.
This is the central idea which runs throughout the book: no work of art is created in a vacuum. We often assume that the Pre-Raphaelites deliberately turned their backs on the art that immediately preceded them, and looked back to the religious art of the Renaissance for a model for their own work. The truth is much more complicated, however, and Prettejohn explains in considerable detail why there is no simplistic explanation which can adequately illuminate how the Pre-Raphaelites approached their work. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the second chapter of the book, where she explores the complex issues surrounding the depiction of mirrors in nineteenth-century painting.
Prettejohn begins by describing how the arrival of the Arnolfini Portraitat the newly opened National Gallery in 1842 caused an immediate sensation. Almost unknown before its purchase that year, it soon became the most popular work in the gallery, and its influence in the early Pre-Raphaelite works is immediately obvious. Coincidentally, there is currently a marvellous exhibition on at the National Gallery which explores the influence of this painting on the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and while Prettejohn restricts herself to analysing the significance of the image of the mirror, many of her analytical findings are echoed within that exhibition.
Of course, the image of the mirror, as with doorways and windows, has been used by artists to convey subtle —and sometimes not so subtle meanings— for centuries. The mirror reflects back to the viewer what the figures in the picture see, providing a double image: we observe both the scene that the artist has constructed and the artist at work, and in some cases, as with the van Eyck, a figure that we can identify as ourselves. The mirror allows us to enter the world in which the art work was created, extending the meaning of the painting from the subject depicted to include its construction, the artist, and the studio in which he works. Other famous examples of this technique include Velázquez’s Las Meninas, which not only depicts the artist at work on the royal portrait, but also shows us the Infanta’s parents reflected back in a mirror. Indeed, later in this chapter Prettejohn tantalisingly suggests a connection between this work, van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites, for it is now accepted that the Arnolfini Portrait was in Philip II’s collection when Velázquez painted Las Meninas, so that it is quite possible that the mirror in that portrait was suggested by familiarity with the earlier work of van Eyck. Prettejohn clearly demonstrates that the mirror within the Arnolfini Portrait, and indeed the whole work itself, has influenced many artists, from the Pre-Raphaelites to some in the twentieth century. She notes several examples of works containing convex mirrors, such as a Holman Hunt drawing of 1850, and a Millais study for Marianain which the van Eyck influence is clear. In fact, it is so clear that Prettejohn argues not just for deliberate ‘borrowings’ from van Eyck but also clear references to the earlier artist. It is at this point that the text becomes particularly fascinating, as it draws upon an aspect of van Eyck’s work which tends to be overlooked within our own time.
As already stated, the Arnolfini Portraitwas purchased and put on display in 1842. From the very start it was admired for its painterly qualities, for the manner in which the artist has dealt with what was believed to have been a marriage ceremony, and for the delicate and intricate brushwork. All of this leads us, and those contemporaries from 1842 onwards, to see the mirror as central to the structure of the painting and to our understanding of the work. However, Prettejohn develops consideration of the influence of van Eyck upon the Pre-Raphaelites even further when she reminds us that not only was this work highly regarded, what it represented gave it additional importance.
In the early Renaissance the most common medium for painting was egg tempera. Artists usually mixed their own colours, but then needed a liquid base to allow them to paint on wood or canvas. Egg tempera was the favoured vehicle, for it allowed the colours to retain their brightness: its downside was that it had to be used straight away, for it dried quickly. Since Vasari had made the claim in his Lives of the Artists(1550), in the nineteenth century van Eyck and his brother were universally believed to have ‘invented’ oil painting. The mixing of pigments with oil not only allowed artists to gradually build up layers of colour and thereby add luminosity, it permitted them to work slowly, which, in turn, encouraged the kind of fine detail that we see in the Arnolfini Portrait. Although Vasari’s claim is now widely disputed, when the Pre-Raphaelites discovered the portrait it was still generally believed that van Eyck was the first painter to use oils.
Therefore, when Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Millais referenced van Eyck they were not simply paying homage to his subject matter, but to the very birth of the medium of oil painting itself. By paying the same attention to detail, within a similar contextual framework of religious and secular life, nineteenth century painters were, on their own terms, returning to what they believed to have been the very beginning of oil painting. The early Pre-Raphaelites thought that they were engaged in a process to re- invigorate the art form by rejecting the mannerisms of previous centuries: what better way to achieve this than by reviving the forms and techniques of the first painter to use oils?
Finally in this section, as if to prove that van Eyck’s influence went beyond these painters, a remarkable self-portrait by Mark Gertler is reproduced and fully explained, and the details reveal a fascinating story. Self-portraits occupy a special position within art history, for inherent in the subject is a contradiction which is both inevitable and ultimately unresolvable. The artist selects the subject matter (himself) and the form (oil paint), but then, through stylistic mannerisms, shows us how he wishes to be seen, rather than his true self. This need not be particularly favourable, but it is always the result of deliberate, conscious decisions. The Gertler self-portrait reveals almost nothing of the artist, as he can only be seen as a reflection in a convex mirror, but the painting is essentially a lesson in art history. It starts with the van Eyck mirror, journeys to Parmigianino’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, copies the flat Japanese print from Manet’s Zola and Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait With a Bandaged Ear, and finally ends with Cezanne’s apples. Painted when he was just twenty-six, thus work represents Gertler, not simply as a competent artist who can master any style, but as one who is more than aware of the tradition in which he follows.
The following chapter expands the scope of influence and imitation into more interesting, yet unfamiliar territory. Much early Pre-Raphaelite painting has religious or semi-religious themes, yet the artists themselves were not regular churchgoers. It has already been suggested that this represents an attempt by them to return to the ‘innocence’ of the first oil painters, artists who were steeped in the religious (Catholic) conventions of their time, and who therefore used recognisably devotive motifs even in works of a secular nature. Many of the paintings which influenced these young artists of the early 1850s were altarpieces, and Prettejohn notes how, in many of their paintings, the more usual rectangular canvas format has been replaced by curved arches, a clear imitation of an altarpiece’s form. Indeed, this went so far as Rossetti’s commission for Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff, which borrows the triptych format and religious content. Prettejohn notes that this work has been largely ignored in the literature on Pre-Raphaelite art, which is true, but she also demonstrates that the content of the altarpiece was entirely consistent with the artist’s radical intentions. Rossetti conflates the Nativity with the Adoration of the Magi, reducing the number of shepherds and kings to one each. The shepherd is offered the hand of the Christ-child to kiss, while the king kneels at the baby’s feet, thus reversing the usual social order. The explanation given here is that this may represent a deliberate attempt to both secularise the subject and adapt it to the socio-political situation in contemporary South Wales. There is a strong argument for this, reinforcing the view that these artists were returning to the techniques and forms of the earliest oil painters, not just to imitate them, but to channel their forms —as a reference point for artistic innocence and purity— into art relevant to their contemporary world.
In the succeeding chapters Prettejohn moves through the later years of the nineteenth century with consummate ease, drawing out the many influences and imitations that she recognises within the paintings of the period. Indeed, it is a remarkable aspect of this book that paintings which for many of us appear to be ground-breaking, seemingly revolutionary at the time of their production, should in fact be so deeply rooted in the art of the past. The concluding chapter, in many ways the most difficult and challenging, represents the summation of the argument that courses through the book: namely, that it was the collaboration of artists, art historians, and the curators of the newly established museums that created the environment which permitted the then-modern artists to exploit the art of the past and reference freely what they found there.
This is a finely written book, full of the kind of detail which would warrant further study. The final discussion on the nature of beauty is particularly fascinating, since this was especially important to the aesthetic movement which closed the nineteenth century and which can be said to have died with the trial of Oscar Wilde. Prettejohn rightly warns us against idealising the conditions under which works that we regard as beautiful were created. Although we can admire the art of the past and see great beauty in it, we must be wary of viewing it as the product of a more contented or balanced society. For example, that the inequalities or brutality of sixteenth century Venice are nowhere to be seen in the works attributed to Giorgione does not mean that they did not exist, rather that the artist chose not to paint them.
Unusually, the book ends with an item of some beauty itself, a quotation from Walter Pater, the great writer on aestheticism. It also makes a fine conclusion to this article: “...the essence of humanism is..... That nothing which has ever interested living men or women can wholly lose its vitality - no language they have spoken, nor oracle beside which they have hushed their voices, no dream which has once been entertained by human minds, nothing about which they have ever been passionate, or expended time and zeal.” --Paul Flux