“We begin, in all probability, by telling the youth of fifteen or sixteen, that Nature is full of faults, and that he is to improve her; but that Raphael is perfection, and that the more he copies Raphael the better; that after much copying of Raphael, he is to try what he can do himself in a Raphaelesque, but yet highly original manner: that is to say he is to try to do something very clever, all out of his own head, but yet this clever something is to be properly subjected to Raphaelesque rules…This I say is the kind of teaching which the Royal Academy lecturing, press criticisms, public enthusiasms, and not least by solid weight of gold, we give to our young men. And we wonder we have no painters.”
"Raphael had neither religion nor originality enough to trace the spirit of poetry and the spirit of philosophy to the inspiration of the true God, as well as that of theology, but that, on the contrary, he elevated the creations of fancy on the one wall, to the same rank as the objects of faith upon the other; that in deliberate balanced opposition to the Rock of Mount Zion, he reared the rock of Parnassus, and the rock of the Acropolis; that, among the masters of poetry we find him enthroning Petrarch and Pindar, but not Isaiah nor David, and for lords over the domain of philosophy we find the masters of the School of Athens, but neither of those greater masters by the last of whom that school was rebuked- those who received their wisdom from heaven itself, in the vision of Gideon and the lightning of Damascus.”
This is Ruskin on Raphael, first in a defense of the Pre-Raphaelites, and next in a lecture called “Pre-Raphaelitism”, given at Edinburgh University in 1853. So Raphael, says our John, not only elevates art above nature, he commits the Renaissance sin of elevating art above religion, which is to say, he places Man at or above the level of God. That about wraps it up for Raphael, if you're John Ruskin. Ruskin leapt into the Art Wars in Victorian England, on the side of the realists, the naturalists, the Pre-Raphaelites. They had a point, I think, about subject matter and mannerism, though they seem to have also ended up focusing on mythological/historical/literary subjects and painting in a highly artificial manner. So who knows what was going on. And while I must say that Raphael is not my favorite painter, I quite like a number of his works (the portrait of Castiglione in the Louvre is a masterpiece, as are many of Raphael's portraits). And while I like a number of the Pre-Raphaelite works I've seen, I would rather look at Raphael.
Nonetheless, or perhaps because of all this cunundra, Mighty Reader and I went to an exhibit of Pre-Raphaelite works at the Seattle Art Museum last night. There was a Ruskin watercolor! I've never seen a Ruskin with my own eyes. I must say he was probably a better draughtsman than he was a painter, though this painting is not as blurry as my photo makes it appear. I was doubtless trembling with the excitement of seeing something Ruskin had touched.
The details are quite clear when you see them closely. The buildings on the lake shore are delicate and finely rendered:
The biggest influence Pre-Raphaelite work has had on me is my love for the graphic arts and especially the style of illustration that came out of the period. Here is an edition of Chaucer, with a gorgeous design and illustrations that remind me of every book I loved as a child:
I do not remember who the artist is. The image below is a detail from a large painting of a market square where a variety of tradespeople were preparing for the work day. Thomas Carlyle is painted off to the side, chatting no doubt about society with another philosopher, whose name I forget because I had never heard of him. Anyway, the forget-me-nots were lovely.
I leave you with a modern work hanging in the same gallery, a piece of anonymous post-Pre-Raphaelism:
The Victorian Art Wars and the rising ideas of naturalism versus artistic beauty dovetail nicely into the Zola essays I'm currently reading. Perhaps I'll write about those essays in the near future. Zola was not the clearest thinker, I am discovering.