The critical reception of pre-raphaelite

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A Master’s Thesis

Presented to

The School of Graduate Studies
Department of English
Indiana State University
Terre Haute, Indiana


In Partial Fulfillment
of the Requirements for the
Master of Arts Degree


Thomas J. Tobin
May 1996


The thesis of Thomas J. Tobin, Contribution to the School of Graduate Studies, Indiana State University, Series I, Number 1879, under the title The Critical Reception of Pre-Raphaelite Painting and Poetry: 1850-1900 is approved as counting toward the completion of the Master of Arts Degree in the amount of six semester hours of graduate credit.

______________ _______________________________________

Date Committee Chairperson


Committee Member


Committee Member

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Date For the School of Graduate Studies


I wish to thank the members of my thesis committee for all of their guidance throughout the process of compiling my research--Dr. Matthew Brennan for his keen editorial eye, Dr. Devoney Looser for her ability to suggest sources which otherwise would have escaped my buried-in-the-nineteenth-century notice, and Dr. Renée Ramsey for her experience with the technicalities of art-criticism publishing. Thanks also go to Dr. Kenneth Sroka of Canisius College, both for his marvelous slides and his hints on how to navigate in Victorian magazines without the aid of indices.

This project could not have come to fruition without the assistance of Mary Ann Chasko, whose knowledge of British Culture during the 1800s was invaluable as a touchstone against which to sound ideas; and Dr. Harriet McNeal, whose extensive art-historical knowledge of the Quattrocento and Cinquecento proved essential to an understanding of the inspiration for Pre-Raphaelite painting techniques.

I am also indebted to the assistance of Dr. Nancy Armstrong of Brown University, who was generous enough to allow me the use of the introduction to her as-yet-unpublished book Things Seen and Unseen, without which a great part of the theory behind this thesis would be incomplete.


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . iii
LIST OF PLATES . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . vii
1. INTRODUCTION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
The Pre-Raphaelites as Painters and Poets . . 4
The Theory of Visuality . . . . . . . . . . . 5
From Visibility to Visuality: 1850-1900 . . 6
Introduction of the Paintings . . . . . . . . 9
Introduction of the Poems . . . . . . . . . . 10

ON BY PHOTOGRAPHY . . . . . . . . . . . . 12

Visuality, Painting, and Poetry . . . . . . . 13
Subjects Within and Without Their World . . 15
Application of Visuality to Other Areas . . . 16
Do Trends in Criticism of Pre-Raphaelite

Painting and Poetry Confirm the Shift? 18

Formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood . 22
John Ruskin’s Modern Painters . . . . . . . . 23
The Influence of Robert Browning . . . . . . 25
Mediævalist Pre-Raphaelite Painting . . . . . 27
The Girlhood of Mary Virgin . . . . . . . . 29
The Eve of Saint Agnes . . . . . . . . . . 32
The Lady of Shalott . . . . . . . . . . . . 34
Chapter Page
La Belle Dame Sans Merci . . . . . . . . . 35
Didactic Pre-Raphaelite Painting . . . . . . 37
The Awakening Conscience . . . . . . . . . 39
The Vale of Rest . . . . . . . . . . . . . 42
Work . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 45
Beata Beatrix . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 48

PAINTING . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 53

Early Criticism Focuses on Technique . . . . 53
Later Criticism Focuses on Didactic Message . 56


Formation of the Pre-Raphaelite “School” . . 60
Didactic Pre-Raphaelite Poetry . . . . . . . 62
“Uphill” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 63
“Jenny” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 65
“The Day is Coming” . . . . . . . . . . . . 67
“The Commonweal: A Song for Unionists” . . 68
Mediævalist Pre-Raphaelite Poetry . . . . . . 69
“The Defense of Guenevere” . . . . . . . . 70
Atalanta in Calydon . . . . . . . . . . . . 73
“A Royal Princess” . . . . . . . . . . . . 74
“Sister Helen” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 75

POETRY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 78

Early Criticism Focuses on Didactic Message . 78
Later Criticism Focuses on Technique . . . . 81
Chapter Page
7. CONCLUSION . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 85
Theory of Visuality as Applicable . . . . . . 86
Call for Further Research . . . . . . . . . . 88
END NOTES . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 90
PLATES . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 98
WORKS CITED . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 110
WORKS CONSULTED . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 117


Plate Page
1 Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The Girlhood of Mary

Virgin . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 98
2 Photographic Study for The Girlhood of Mary

Virgin . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 99
3 John Everett Millais. The Eve of Saint Agnes . 100
4 William Holman Hunt. The Lady of Shalott . . . 101
5 John William Waterhouse. La Belle Dame Sans

Merci . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 102
6 Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Beata Beatrix . . . . . 103
7 John Everett Millais. The Vale of Rest . . . . 104
8 William Holman Hunt. The Awakening Conscience . 105
9 Ford Madox Brown. Work . . . . . . . . . . . . 106
10 Caricatures of Convent Thoughts and Mariana . . 107
11 John Everett Millais. Sir Isumbras at the Ford 108
12 Frederick Sandys. A Nightmare . . . . . . . . . 109

Chapter 1

It is usually the Victorian poets, such as Alfred Lord Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, and Robert Browning, who get most of the credit from critics today for changing the social climate in England from one of hyper-conservative religion and sexuality during the early 1800s to the more “free-thinking” fin de siécle climate of the 1890s. While their writings obviously acted as major forces of social reformation, another equally powerful element helped to bring about such change. This is the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), as both painters and poets. Contrary to this spirit of social reform, the Pre-Raphaelites--most notably Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and Ford Madox Brown--are usually described, both by contemporary and modern-day critics, as artists whose works reverted to mediæval subjects and ideals. The Pre-Raphaelites’ aim of social reform was further hampered by the attitudes of the critics of the day, who criticized the social agenda of the PRB’s early poetry, yet commented on only the technical aspects of their early paintings, even when both poem and canvas had the same subject, the same message. This dualistic attitude carries over into some modern criticism of the PRB, as well.

Cecil Lang’s introduction to The Pre-Raphaelites and Their Circle (1968) contains a wealth of information about the paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais. Curiously, this book is an anthology and critique of their poetry, not their paintings. The skeptic may argue that some discussion of Pre-Raphaelite painting must occur to introduce the term “Pre-Raphaelite poetry,” because the very term “Pre-Raphaelite” has associations with painting and not with poetry. I point to Lang’s twenty-two pages dealing with painting and to the two pages that deal with poetry to suggest the importance Lang places on Pre-Raphaelite painting.

As I have mentioned, the early paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were hailed--or panned--during the latter half of the nineteenth century as a revival of a spirit of mediævalism, and Lang’s introduction clearly points this out. When Lang turns his discussion to the literary accomplishments of the Pre-Raphaelites, however, he praises their frankness and willingness to test the boundaries of what was then considered good taste in the areas of sexuality and religion. As writers, according to Lang, the Pre-Raphaelites desired to inform and influence their society about the controversial issues of sexuality and personal spirituality (xi ff.).

Since Lang’s volume deals primarily with the Pre-Raphaelites as poets, he may not be faulted for presenting his study of their influence on Victorian society from a literary point of view. The first part of his introduction, however, raises the same questions that I have posed about the reviews from nineteenth-century critics: why do poetry and painting receive different types of criticism? Were Pre-Raphaelite paintings and poems even meant to have the same kinds of effects, or were their aims different?

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, in a letter to his friend William Allingham in 1854, said that “[i]f any man has any poetry in him, he should paint, for it has all been said and written, and they have scarcely begun to paint it” (74). If indeed Pre-Raphaelite painting and poetry had the same goals, as this passage suggests, then why were the two media originally received by the Victorian critical press in such different ways?

To return briefly to Lang, his introduction serves as an echo of critical views near the middle of the 1800s: poetry was a much greater influence than painting on the attitudes of the public toward sexual mores and religious views. He claims that impetus for social change came from poets--such as Rossetti, William Morris, and Algernon Charles Swinburne--not from painters (xix). The contemporary critic John Ruskin’s early writings also espouse this view, saying that paintings were to be admired for their beauty while poems were to be analyzed for their didactic content (Modern Painters 87).

Even a hasty reading of today’s major critics who deal with the Victorians--among them Northrop Frye and Timothy Hilton--suggests that only writers, essayists, and poets made up the vanguard of social reformers in Victorian England. This theory ignores the effect of painters upon society. If literature were indeed the sole agent of social change in Victorian England, the Pre-Raphaelites would be agents of progressive change only in their capacities as writers, and agents of regressive reminiscing in their capacities as painters.
The Pre-Raphaelites as Painters and Poets

In its coverage of the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, the Illustrated London News of May 17 praises Ford Madox Brown’s painting Chaucer at the Court of Edward III because of its excellence of technique, saying that he “has really represented a scene of great interest much as it probably occurred, and in the sense of style of an artist thoroughly alive to the importance of his subject” (416). The News also congratulates Madox Brown on having “no Pre-Raphaelite nonsense” (416) in this composition. Nowhere does the review mention Madox Brown’s didactic agenda in his painting; Brown’s message is secondary to his painting technique.

This situation had reversed itself by the late 1800s, however. Instead of their paintings, the Pre-Raphaelites found their poetry being criticized for matters of technique. The sort of criticism that earlier had been directed at painting was now aimed at poetry, and vice versa. Robert Buchanan says in “The Fleshly School of Poetry” (1872) that if Dante Gabriel Rossetti is to be counted at all among the masters--as Buchanan calls Tennyson and Browning--it is not for his poetry, about whose technique Buchanan wonders that “no one accused Mr. Rossetti of naughtiness” (36), and which has “a most affected choice of Latin diction” (39). Rossetti’s paintings fare little better by Buchanan, but they are discussed as to their effects; they give a “sense of weary, wasting, yet exquisite sensuality; nothing virile, nothing tender, nothing completely sane” (34). By alluding to the sense which is evoked by the paintings, Buchanan focuses his criticism on the didactic elements present in Rossetti’s paintings.
The Theory of Visuality

Why did the critical receptions given to Pre-Raphaelite poetry and painting change places between the 1850s and the fin de siècle? I think that at least part of the answer to this question lies in what Nancy Armstrong has termed the advent of “visuality,” as opposed to “visibility,” in nineteenth-century Britain. Visuality, as defined by Armstrong, is a way of thinking about a composition--whether it be a painting, poem, or other “text”--from a detached point of view. The viewer or reader is not considered part of the thing being viewed. In “City Things: Photography and the Urbanization Process,” Armstrong posits that the discovery of relatively inexpensive photogravure processes in the early nineteenth century led ultimately to a subtle shift in England from a literature-centered culture--in which primacy is given to the written word for information--to an icon-centered one--which depended more greatly on visual detail for meaning (16). Armstrong does not go so far as to say that the introduction of cheaper methods of producing photographs diminished the popularity of either painting or poetry, but her work does suggest that the English of the 1890s were far more likely to accept a painting as socially meaningful than were the English of the 1850s. Foucault defines this shift in Discipline and Punish, saying that “[v]isibility is a trap” (200) into which we are apt to fall; only a more detached viewpoint which views both the written word and the pictorial image as iconographic--visuality--can give a good perspective from which to comment and criticize.1 This helps to explain the way in which the PRB’s paintings and poems received different kinds of criticism at different times during the century.

From Visibility to Visuality: 1850-1900

If this shift from visibility to visuality is indeed applicable in areas outside photography--if it is a useful tool for understanding the way British culture re-defined itself during the 1800s--then it could help to explain why, by 1872, Robert Buchanan denounces the symbolic sexuality in Rossetti’s paintings, but conversely takes great exception to Rossetti’s “ill-constructed” verses. Because of the shift in episteme between 1850 and 1900, I propose, Buchanan misses the didactic aspect in Rossetti’s poetry in 1872, but does not miss it in his paintings.

To get a sense of what led to this change in critical viewpoints, I will first examine the epistemic shift from visibility to visuality, in Armstrong’s terms. She argues, briefly, that subjects are within their environments--like pedestrians noting details of a street scene of which they are parts--until the camera introduces a new type of point of view in 1844. The camera forces subjects to adopt a “distance,” to step back and view things from a detached viewpoint--like postcard shots of an entire city, taken from the hills outside town.2 This shift from subject-in-narrative to detached observer--visibility to visuality--also manifests itself in the collective case of the Pre-Raphaelites, if we look at them as both painters and poets.

As already mentioned, changes in British social attitudes toward such topics as sexual expression, religion, and the spiritual nature of labor have been credited by many present-day scholars, such as Lane, to poets such as Browning, Tennyson, and Arnold. These changes were also credited to the Pre-Raphaelites in their roles as poets, but only a few PRB contributions in painting were so praised, and then only toward the end of the century.3 My research indicates that the Pre-Raphaelites were not merely the “quaint mediævalists” that critics such as Lionel Stevenson still often term them today (45). The Pre-Raphaelites, as poets as well as painters, were also a very powerful didactic force, helping to bring about social change with both the pen and the brush, although nineteenth-centruy critics could not simultaneously see both painting and poetry as meaning-giving modes of discourse. This was so because visibility, in force until the middle of the century, emphasized the written word as most capable of didacticism. Visuality, which developed as the century progressed, gave more credence to the visual image as didactic.

To substantiate my argument, I have decided to examine eight Pre-Raphaelite paintings and contemporary reactions to them. At first glance, these paintings seem to fall evenly into two categories: “quaint mediævalist” pictures, which take their subject matter and painting techniques from the Middle Ages and the Italian Quattrocento; and less-recognized didactic paintings, whose social messages supersede the artists’ pride in technical mastery.

These polar categories--mediævalist and didactic--are artificial ones that I have imposed upon the paintings and poems I shall discuss. I do not claim that any of the works to which I shall make reference are either completely mediæval or completely didactic. Indeed, the Pre-Raphaelites themselves thought of their works as, ideally, combinations of these two elements (W. Rossetti, PRB Journal 3-6). I have chosen to separate the works into these two categories because contemporary critical writings seem to make fairly consistent use of them. By using these categories myself, I can most clearly illustrate the shift in critical attitudes toward Pre-Raphaelite works. An odd effect of this division is that some of the later paintings I have identified as exemplary of mediævalism were seen by contemporary critics as didactic works, just as some later poems I term didactic were criticized for their mediæval technique.

I do not view this dichotomy as a problem, for if the shift from visibility to visuality is a gradual progression and not a sudden change, then there ought to be cases that fall between my admittedly static categories. With this scheme in mind, I have chosen eight paintings and eight poems to represent the works of the Pre-Raphaelites between roughly 1850 and 1900.
Introduction of the Paintings

The first four paintings I have chosen uphold the Pre-Raphaelite image of mediæval chivalry, as in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Girlhood of Mary Virgin. The remaining four represent the more progressively liberal “other half” of the Pre-Raphaelites’ work, as William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience illustrates. Reviews of earlier paintings in both of these groups focus on the mediæval mind-set and painting technique of the painters, and only later in the century does criticism discuss the element of expected social change seen in these compositions. Such a shift exemplifies Armstrong’s theory of the shift from visibility to visuality. This shift in the contemporary reviews also supports my claim about the dual nature of Pre-Raphaelite art, and leads me to believe that the arguments of critics such as Christopher Wood, who see the Pre-Raphaelites as engaged in regressive reminiscing (Olympian Dreamers ix), are not wrong, but merely incomplete.

Introduction of the Poems

From this ground of the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites’ paintings, I will turn to eight poems, two from each of the major Pre-Raphaelite writers: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his sister Christina, William Morris, and Algernon Charles Swinburne. The trend in the criticism that deals with the poetry of the Pre-Raphaelites is almost exactly the opposite of that generated by their paintings. I will give some examples of such criticism, which show that the poetry written by the Pre-Raphaelites can also be divided, albeit artificially, into mediæval-themed and social-reform-minded works. In this criticism, early Pre-Raphaelite poems, again in both groups, are analyzed for their didacticism, while later poems receive commentary based on their meter, archaism, and technique--a second instance of support for my theory that the shift from visibility to visuality involved a decreasing tendency to credit verbal description--poetry, in this case--with didactic power.

To conclude my argument, I will examine briefly the comments of Claude Phillips, an art critic of the 1890s; and a letter from Max Beerbohm, another noted turn-of-the-century critic. These critics realize that for a work to be Pre-Raphaelite in nature, it must contain elements of the visible and the visual, illustrating one of the main tenets of Pre-Raphaelitism: the Horatian principle of ut pictura poesis, that painting and poetry are sister arts.4 If the canvases and pages of the Pre-Raphaelites were intended to inform each other, my application of the shift toward visuality to the PRB uncovers the reason for the disparity between the criticism of Pre-Raphaelite painting and poetry between the 1850s and 1900.

Chapter 2



Jonathan Crary, in his book Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, stresses that the advent of photography brought with it a change in the process by which people understood the world around them. He uses the similarity between the eye and artificial visual recording instruments--in this case, the telescope, microscope, and camera--to illustrate this change:
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that relationship had been essentially metaphoric: the eye and the camera obscura or the eye and the telescope or microscope were allied by a conceptual similarity, in which the authority of an ideal eye remained unchallenged. (129)

In other words, Crary argues that before the invention of photography around 1844--when Henry Fox Talbot published The Pencil of Nature (qtd. in Armstrong, “City Things” 33)--things seen through the camera obscura, or the telescope or microscope, were understood to be representations of, interpretations of, what really was there.5 The camera obscura, for instance, worked in much the same way as the eye. Both have analogous structures; light enters a small aperture and strikes a wall at the back of the eye/box, creating an image which can then be interpreted.

Crary then contrasts this viewpoint to that which arises after the invention of the camera. The camera obscura, telescope, and microscope merely resemble the eye in their workings. The camera, however, becomes a complement to the eye, augmenting its capacity to record and digest visual data:
Beginning in the nineteenth century, the relationship between eye and optical apparatus becomes one of metonymy: both are now contiguous instruments on the same plane of operation, with varying capabilities and features. The limits and deficiencies of one will be complemented by the capacities of the other and vice versa. (129)

After this section, Crary explains that a shift occurs in the manner in which the eye/object relationship is perceived (130-1).

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