The Poetry of Drawing: Pre-Raphaelite designs, studies & watercolours
at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until 4 September 2011
Pollinated with the spirit of the Renaissance, spring-like, fresh and full of individual passion and wonder, the Pre Raphaelites went back to a state of painting when the Renaissance was in its stride if not its prime. Rather than seeing painting as a continuous development up to their own day, they went back to an approach and a world view at a point when art knew where it was going, striving toward a most sublime peak, a peak attained perhaps twice in western human history. The Pre Raphaelites took as their teachers and masters those of Titian’s, Michelangelo’s and Raphael’s and via intelligent imitation that went beyond mere copying they progressed, very roughly speaking, through the styles of the Italian Renaissance, and at times managed to break free of their teachers’ styles. They even wrote poems too. One can see something of this progression in the quite broad and thorough collection of their drawings and watercolors currently on display in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, most of which come from the Tate and the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
The examples from around 1848, the year of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood’s foundation show gothic angular forms and at the extreme end line drawings of almost pure outline and no tonal range beyond the variations in the density of background detail. In their paintings one can see a love for Fra Angelico’s cheekbones with strong pink highlights against green shadows, and bright, clear out-standing colors for their subjects’ clothes. But later modernity and politics infiltrated into their works. In 1853, Christina Rossetti, the poet sister of Dante Gariel, wrote
So rivers merge in the perpetual sea,
So luscious fruit must fall when ever ripe,
And so the consummated P.R.B.
The Pre Raphaelites’ drawing technique was very advanced and the Brotherhood took care to foster their drawing skills throughout their career. They seldom resorted to adding white highlights, there can be a remarkable economy of strokes in many drawings and in others photographic detail and shading. Even if the Pre Raphaelites did not end up at the heights near Titian or Giorgione or Michelangelo, their pictures do have their own quality, very different from those Masters of the Cinquecento.
William Blake though he died within a couple of years of the birth of the Brotherhood’s founders, was in a way a nascent Pre Raphaelite. He certainly followed his own path all his life as a poet-artist, but also he saw his watercolors as a restoration of the ancient form of fresco painting from the Quattrocento and earlier, and eschewed oil paint completely (see Blake’s 1809 Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures reproduced in Seen in My Visions, Martin Myrone, ed., Tate publishing). Blake also sought to reclaim form by reconnecting painting to drawing and emphasizing outline. As part of this clarity of form and outline was clear coloring and one recalls when looking at Pre Raphaelite paintings Blake’s bright reds, oranges, pink-oranges, clear blues and purples and the shallow perspective on human faces. Blake almost always drew his subjects from poems, often his own, but also Milton’s, Chaucer’s and the Old Testament, as the Pre Raphaelites would after him, though drawing from near contemporary poets too, as English Romantic poetry got into full swing after Blake. At their best, the Pre Raphaelites’ successfully married their Romantic and their Renaissance spirits unselfconsciously, even if some of their later paintings seem uncomfortable in their eclecticism. Though perhaps neither Blake nor the Pre Raphaelites ever attained the heights they were after — of course they never claimed they had or necessarily would — one feels they did come close at times and they were nearly always original and faithful to their own visions.
The Pre Raphaelite’s paintings are ripe, intense, naked, sanguine, dripping with life, sometimes unbearably so, and not just because of their realism. At their best they manage to have these qualities with subtle expressions on their figures. The artists show an endearing vulnerability, innocence even naïvety, unreservedly and honestly wearing their hearts on their sleeves in painting their visions plainly without evasion, in analogy to the plain language of the best English poems of the time. One can see how draughtsmanship was especially important to the Pre Raphaelites from their paintings alone since, like Blake, their paintings were at the same time drawings. Outline is so important because the Pre Raphaelites loved to tell a story with their works, often they come across as snapshots containing a bustle of all the little objects, symbols and clues from the painting’s figure’s life for the viewer to piece the protagonist’s memory back together. In the most successful works, these objects seem to land naturally within the frame and the paintings manage to go beyond mere illustration, though sometimes the subject would seem to be better suited to a poem, novel or even a movie, especially the more didactic and political subjects.
In the drawings, the figures under study don’t have to compete with the myriad of details in the multitude of planes which would be added later to the finished oil painting. Millais’s drawing of Mariana for the painting after the Tennyson poem, breathes and sighs with life without any clutter about her. The Pre Raphaelites’ drawings in this way allow more ambiguity, giving up some control to spontaneity and at the same time the figures in the drawing — studies of nature included — seem less moody. For example, John Roddam Spencer’s study of the “fallen woman” for Thoughts of the Past still has some youth trying to peer out from her face, her eyes are not fixed so close to the viewer and she seems not so obviously downtrodden, dejected and vulnerable as her counterpart in the painting though she is no less pathetic. In the drawing, the neck of her dress is open and most of her leg shows through a slit in her skirt, even though Spencer draws only the shadow in the hollow of the nape of her knee; these draughtsmen are capable of a wonderful economy of line and stroke (also in the way white is rarely added on for the highlights) which is not so easy to appreciate from the detailed technique of their paintings. In the finished paintings when much of the ambiguity disappears in this way the lesson can become quite obvious and heavy, our personal experience of the picture washed away.
Millais’s Andrea Ferrara – The Armory, drawn as a teenager, is a very neat study of the supremacy of outline, with not a single line or stroke that doesn’t correspond to the envelope of a physical object. He allowed himself more shading in later drawings, but this drawing has a youthful spirit — the figures’ self-possession and proud carriages, the detail in secondary figures and background objects shows a spirit of the Renaissance, and a very conscious young talent. Millais’s Lovers by a Rosebush on the other hand is a little bit Byzantine in the form of the figures, long noses and linear upright carriages, even obliquely approaching Giotto in the tactile connection between the two lovers’ hands, showing elementally how Millais made his paintings so easy for the viewer to enter. Rossetti’s drawing, especially his the The Raven – Angel Footfalls, from these early days of the Brotherhood show more shadow and less fear of smudge.
In the exhibit is also a somewhat unusual Pre Raphaelite nude study: Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Mary for Ecce Ancilla Domini!. The Pre Raphaelite painters often leave themselves more naked than many artists’ nudes, as the figures are expressions of images in their own innermost minds, especially in this Rossetti’s early masterpiece. Blake himself had to give up drawing from nature because his modern post-fall contemporary human beings didn’t hold themselves in the same way as the ancient people of his visions. The Pre Raphaelites’ peculiar female ideal, though she varied between the different painters, reminds me of August Renoir (who overlapped with the PRB’s original members). Their ideal was completely different from Renoir’s in form, but she was to be just as strong an idée fixe for that Impressionist master of the human form.
This ideal woman was perhaps less tangible than would be suggested by her seemingly sure and clear image in the PRB paintings. In this exhibit are several early drawings of a favorite model Elizabeth Siddal, who soon after herself joined the Pre Raphaelite Sisterhood and married Rossetti, like Renoir who also was to marry one of his models. Millais’s study of her for Ophelia is photographic in detail — in the name of realism he even made her pose in a bath. Her finished face in a later study and the finished oil becomes more watery, sinking farther into the water’s surface, her refracted features allowing Millais to take more liberties with her features by selective exaggeration. In William Holman Hunt’s study of Siddal for Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus Siddal-Sylvia’s face has been rubbed out, and though she is recognizable in the painting, her huge eyes are partly lidded and her characteristic chin is made unclear from the angle. Siddal is different yet, boyish though self-possessed, in Deverell’s study of her as Viola for his Twelfth Night, and she is almost unrecognizably mannish in the finished painting. Unfortunately there is only one sketch of Siddal by her husband to be, in the watercolor Rosso Vestita, where she is dressed as a Renaissance principessa, in a red dress which doesn’t quite suit her. A late portrait of Dante Rossetti’s of his sister Christina is very honest — full of pathos and brotherly love. His late watercolors of Jane Morris (née Burden), for Mnemosyne for example, suggest he had come across a woman’s face close to his artistic ideal, or at least which fascinated him, and like a portrait these pictures put themselves forward in the way the face stands out so severely, but on the other hand they have a certain artificiality. This face is perhaps as much an emanation from his private vision as it is an object of reality.
The Pre Raphaelites’ watercolors are interesting in their own right as the original medium of the painter long before Raphael, at least according to William Blake. Blake’s criticism of oil paint and call for a return to fresco was certainly unfair to Titian, but imagine if Blake and the Pre Raphaelites had their way and covered England’s churches and public buildings in paintings like Oxford Union Hall’s. But nature in Britain will never share her throne. Critic and friend of the Pre Raphaelites John Ruskin’s call for a return to nature and for the need of an artist to have a genuine eye for nature is eloquently put in his watercolors in the exhibit. Cascade de la Folie, Chamonix is a scene of the Alps without severity or majesty, but in which the atmosphere presses down on the mountains — these are Mary Shelley’s Alps — is an interesting study in shades of gray-green, here on the edge very slightly bluish, here purplish. Another Ruskin watercolor is a loving study of ivy — the quintessential Pre Raphaelite plant: the vine that would be a tree — is hyper-realistic, and would be a naturalist picture but for the fuzzy play of orange in the background.
The Pre Raphaelites used many other media, as shown clearly in the exhibit. The curators have just enough but not too much explanation of history on the gallery walls, allowing mainly the breadth of the selection itself to describe the artists’ varied activities. There are examples of Pre Raphaelite prints and illustrations for the Bible and Tennyson and their own journal The Germ. The Tennyson illustrations, here for The Lady of Shallot, show how the Pre Raphaelites were usually most successful when they took their subject obliquely, or a depiction tangential to the chosen story or poem rather than an illustration of a climactic or post-climactic scene or the whole story in one go. I prefer my poems as just the words (unless the illustration is embedded as in Blake’s poems) but the prints after Rossetti’s and Holman Hunt’s drawings have atmosphere which complements the poem and gives adequate space to Tennyson’s vivid imagery.
Also the exhibit has some of William Morris’s (of Morris & co.) furniture designs and fabric prints and Pre Raphaelite stained glass designs. Alongside Burne-Jones’s design for the Good Shepherd window, is one of the final windows copied from his drawing. The stray lamb, full of character, is slung across the shepherd’s shoulders and chews an ivy leaf from his master’s crown as he is brought home to his more docile and obedient siblings, one nibbling grass the other baa-ing a greeting with teeth out. The colors of the glass, purples and very bright greens as well as the traditional deep blues and reds, do justice to the Pre Raphaelite palate.
Finally, the studies of Ford Maddox Brown’s for his Geoffrey Chaucer Reading the ‘Legend of Custance’ to Edward III and his court, at the Palace of Sheen, on the Anniversary of the Black Prince’s Forty-Fifth Birthday, a well-loved painting in the AGNSW’s permanent collection, are fascinating for all the details they reveal in the painting, which is a bit hard to scrutinize and gather as a whole for want of distance in the Old Galleries and light reflections, even if Sydney-siders can enjoy it at leisure. There is a drawing of a jester’s cap with fake chicken head (which didn’t make it into the painting), the study of the Black Prince’s torso and doublet is skillful and full of character and a final watercolor study of the top terrace of the painting, showing Chaucer and Edward III, describe how Brown developed his characters’ individuality. These characters were painted from friends working as models — with Dante Rossetti himself posing as Chaucer —, which explains why the characters look so familiar and well-understood. Brown’s characters became Chaucer characters themselves, lost as they listen to tales about themselves.