Uncompromising Truth

Editorial Staff Exhibitions

In 1841 the English art critic and social theorist John Ruskin hired a young valet by the name of John Hobbs. For the sake of propriety Ruskin resolved to address Hobbs as “George,” on the principle that a Victorian gentleman, even one with advanced political beliefs, should not have to share his name with a servant. Hobbs’s duties, although initially confined to such routine matters as wardrobe maintenance and appointment scheduling, eventually expanded to include all the physical and technical labor associated with Ruskin’s flourishing hobby of daguerreotype photography, a then-new process that produced shimmering, optically precise images on silvered copperplates treated with blue mercury and other toxic chemicals. During Ruskin’s mountaineering expedition to Switzerland in 1849, it was Hobbs who carried the cumbersome daguerreotype apparatus to the top of the Matterhorn and, at Ruskin’s direction, snapped the first known photograph from that lofty peak.

Contradictory, stubborn, supercilious, and yet one of the most influential and emblematic minds of his era, Ruskin rightly stands at the intellectual nexus of The Pre-Raphaelite Lens: British Photography and Painting, 1848–1875, an exhibition currently at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C., and traveling next year to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. The show offers a judiciously selected overview of Victorian photography, using frequent side-by-side comparisons to emphasize the new art form’s sometimes tortured relationship to the period’s most distinctive and memorable development in English painting, the Pre-Raphaelite movement, for which Ruskin acted as both muse and unofficial spokesperson (see Figs. 8, 9).

In his Modern Painters (1843–1860), a book once considered all but indispensible reading for cultured Britons, Ruskin not only described how the best artists of his day worked but also offered advice on the proper path for their future labors, stressing the importance of exactitude, elevated moral purpose, and fidelity to nature. “Then let the details of the foreground be separately studied,” he decreed. “For the other details, the highest examples of the ideal forms or characters which he requires are to be selected by the artist from his former studies, or fresh studies made expressly for the purpose, leaving as little as possible—nothing, in fact, beyond their connection and arrangement—to mere imagination.”1

William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the other founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood took these exhortations to heart, often working outdoors to study the landscape portions of their compositions and adopting Ruskin’s dictum of “separately studied” details as an aesthetic principle, in part to challenge the Royal Academy’s accepted notions of unified and harmonious scenes. Photography played a role in these innovations. Employing assistants, servants, and in some cases professional photographers to produce studies of discrete compositional fragments—faces, poses, scenery—the Pre-Raphaelites were able to assemble and synthesize sufficient visual material to create large, ambitious works whose unconventional sense of design, intermittently hard-edged naturalism, and brooding air of melancholy, yielded a style subtly different from anything the world had previously known. The best early Pre-Raphaelite painting in the Washington show, Millais’ The Woodman’s Daughter (Fig. 3), provides ample evidence of these trends; it also draws attention to the grand narrative impulse that characterized many, though not all, of the group’s efforts from this period.

At the first public exhibition of the Pre-Raphaelites’ work, in 1849, just a year after a series of violent revolutions had shaken Paris, Vienna, and other European capitals, this seemingly radical mode of picture-making (as well as the group’s collectivist-sounding name and the cryptically sinister initials “P. R. B.” that appeared on all the canvases) prompted cries of outrage from conservative elements in the London art world—an overblown reaction whose attendant publicity left the brothers quite pleased. Decades after the smoke cleared, Bernard Sickert (1862–1932), an English painter some thirty-five years younger than the principal Pre-Raphaelites, assessed their aesthetics in a more level headed manner, perceptively noting that the Brotherhood “considered beauty to be attainable by a conglomeration of things intrinsically beautiful. A poet’s idea is beautiful, a woman is beautiful, mediaeval costume is beautiful, sunshine and spring and roses are beautiful. Put all these beautiful ingredients together and the result must be beautiful.”2

The female form, while not the group’s sole source of subject matter, was seldom very far from the Pre-Raphaelite mind. The Washington show includes a remarkable pairing of Rossetti’s well-known The Blue Silk Dress (Fig. 6), which depicts arts and crafts designer William Morris’s wife, Jane, and several photographs of Jane Morris taken at Rossetti’s behest by the Irish painter and studio photographer John Robert Parsons (Fig. 5). Rossetti refined and adapted aspects of Parsons’s work in creating The Blue Silk Dress—but valuable though the photographs may have been as a visual aid, they also held deep personal significance for Rossetti, as Jane Morris was his secret lover. Despite Victorian moral strictures, romantic entanglements of this type were fairly commonplace in Pre-Raphaelite circles. Ruskin’s wife, Effie (1828–1897), for instance, had their marriage legally annulled in 1854—publicly charging Ruskin with impotency—so that she could take up with Millais, to whom she eventually bore eight children.

Like other loves that dared not speak their name, a painter’s affection for photographs was considered taboo at this time. Ruskin, who had often made drawings after photographs and understood the practical merits of doing so, reacted with blind, fulminating indignation whenever the Pre-Raphaelites were accused of it—though he was well aware that they dabbled in photography just as he did. At a lecture in Edinburgh in 1853, he defied anyone “to produce a Pre-Raphaelite picture, or anything like one, by copying a photograph.” He then proclaimed that “Pre-Raphaelitism has but one principle, that of absolute uncompromising truth in all that it does, obtained by working everything, down to the most minute detail, from nature and from nature only.”3

Perhaps fearing the taint that his earlier enthusiasm for photography could bring to his preferred school of painters, Ruskin now condemned the photographic discipline—with its lenses, cameras, and chemicals—as a fundamentally mechanical and inhuman endeavor. In 1868, when the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, whose moody, ethereal images were already widely exhibited and appreciated as fine art (see Fig. 4), requested that Ruskin sit for a studio portrait, the great man brusquely declined. “Fifteen years ago I knew everything that the photograph could and could not do,” Ruskin informed Cameron. “I have long ceased to take the slightest interest in it, my attention being wholly fixed upon the possibility of wresting luminous decomposition which literally paints with sunlight—no chemist has yet succeeded in doing this.”4

Although a quest for “luminous decomposition” might seem a somewhat romanticized expectation to bring to the study of nature—and therefore alien to the “absolute uncompromising truth” that Ruskin famously championed—it was actually an important element in many artworks that he admired, particularly the landscapes of J. M. W. Turner, his first artistic hero. And yet this peculiar phrase also gives a fair description of the effects obtained by many of the Victorian art photographers whom Ruskin so vehemently disdained. Cameron generally employed gleaming, abundant natural illumination and masterful soft-focus effects to immortalize her languorous models, producing (much as the Pre-Raphaelite painters did) a heady mixture of sentiment, gravitas, and narrative allusion. Similarly, Lady Clementina Hawarden, a woman of wealth and title but no dilettante in the realm of photography, excelled at the use of sensuous lighting—including brilliant sunshine streaming through open windows and blinding reflections produced by a full-length looking glass—to create mysterious and dramatic scenes of young women (principally her own daughters) in attitudes of contemplation or reverie (see Fig. 1).

That such photographs bear the imprint of Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics might seem remarkable if one believed, as Ruskin professed to, that photography was a process with little expressive potential. But in the hands of people like Cameron, Hawarden, and several of their contemporaries, it clearly was an art form—one shaped by the sensibility of individuals who participated actively in the culture of their day. In Cameron’s case, and to a lesser extent in Hawarden’s, there was even an element of self-conscious emulation, a persistent search for painterly effects in order to transcend the supposedly limited and documentary character of photography. Both women were acquainted either with the Pre-Raphaelites or with loosely affiliated followers of the movement, such as the symbolist painter George Frederic Watts (1817–1904), and profited artistically from the association.

Ultimately, all of these figures—the painters, the photographers, and even critics like Ruskin—were attempting, in closely related ways, to portray and understand their era. It is only natural that they adopted, to some degree, a common language of period-appropriate forms and shared a toolbox of period-appropriate ideas. These purposeful high minded aesthetes may, on some level, have been convinced that they sought only truth after nature. But they freighted both of those terms with a subtext of spiritual and cultural yearnings—transcendental urges, moral righteousness, indomitable self-regard—that were irrevocably defined by the historical moment. In 1872, when Cameron photographed her house guests in a costumed tableau vivant of “King Lear Allotting His Kingdom to His Three Daughters,” she may not have succeeded in creating a great or even plausible illustration of Shakespeare, but she did give us an indelible image of Victorians going about the complex business of being themselves (Fig. 7).

The Pre-Raphaelite Lens: British Photography and Painting, 1848–1875 is on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C., until January 30, 2011.

1 John Ruskin, Modern Painters, vol. 1 (1843; New York, 1879), pp. 425–426. 2 Bernhard (Bernard) Sickert, “The Pre-Raphaelite and Impressionist Heresies,” Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, vol. 7, no. 26 (May 1905), p.97. 3 Quoted in Michael Harvey, “Ruskin and Photography,” Oxford Art Journal, vol. 7, no.2 (1985), p. 31. 4 Quoted ibid, p. 32.

JONATHAN LOPEZ is the author of The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren.