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1852 Pre-Raphaelite Plein-Air

This was the first Royal Academy Exhibition after the death of J.M.W. Turner on 19 December 1851, a fact noted in some of the reviews.1 It was the first, too, after the publication in August 1851 of John Ruskin’s pamphlet “Pre-Raphaelitism”, the only sustained attempt of the period to measure the younger painter’s fidelity to nature against Turner’s. In the “Preface”, Ruskin quoted his own instruction to young artists from the first volume of Modern Painters (1843): “They should go to nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly … rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.”2 That idea had been reiterated in the Pre-Raphaelite magazine, The Germ: “nay, let me set you in the actual place, let the water damp your feet.”3 From the start, the Pre-Raphaelites had taken such injunctions to mean not merely sketching outdoors, but setting up the actual canvas—the one destined for the walls of the Academy—before the scene to be painted, and their letters and diaries recount hilarious anecdotes about the hardships endured in the process, from flies and midges to nosy passers-by and foul weather.4 It was not until the Exhibition of 1852, however, that the practice of outdoor painting reached its definitive form in closely related paintings of considerable scale and ambition by two Pre-Raphaelite Brothers, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, and their friend, Ford Madox Brown.

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It requires an effort of the imagination to recapture the shock-effect that the vivid greens and sunlight effects of these paintings had on observers accustomed to the muted tones and blended colours that were not just practised as a matter of studio convention, but actively recommended by teachers and painting manuals as desirable for harmony and consistency. The critics of 1852 tended either to hate or to love the Pre-Raphaelite pictures, although the balance was perhaps shifting slightly away from the extreme negativity of the previous couple of years. For critics in both camps, however, the landscape portions of the Pre-Raphaelite pictures appeared abruptly different from the pictures around them, not just in minuteness of detail (a theme familiar from previous exhibitions), but particularly in brilliance of colour and light, which, as The Athenaeum put it with reference to Millais’ contribution, A Huguenot, “will be best felt by the killing effect which this picture produces on some of its unfortunate neighbours.”5

If the Pre-Raphaelite pictures looked different, that was with good reason: they were made in an altogether different way. In June 1851, Millais and (five days later) Hunt bought identical canvases, measuring 44 x 30 inches, from the artists’ supplier Roberson, who prepared them with a special, pure white priming.6 The two artists then decamped to rural Surrey, where each chose a specific location: Millais on the bank of the Hogsmill River; Hunt in a field looking north towards Ewell Court Farm.7 There they remained until the end of October, working eleven-hour days to transcribe, with nearly fanatical exactitude, the specifics of the selected site onto the prepared canvas.8 This was a collegial project, discussed after every day’s labour between the artists, and frequently with other members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle who kept in close touch. In a reversal of normal conventions, Hunt and Millais completed the landscape backgrounds first, reserving a bare white patch for the figures to be added later, in their London studios over the winter. By the time the Academy opened in May, the Surrey landscapes had metamorphosed into narrative subjects of disturbing import: Shakespeare’s Ophelia at the moment of suicide (Fig. 1) and The Hireling Shepherd, a shepherd and shepherdess making love while their flocks go astray (Fig. 2). Meanwhile Ford Madox Brown, whose diary shows that he was keeping tabs on the activities of his Pre-Raphaelite friends, went one step further, to pose the figures, too, outdoors in the sunlit landscape and paint them directly into his eighteenth-century costume-piece, The Pretty Baa-Lambs.9

The first Impressionist group exhibition was still twenty-two years in the future, and the Pre-Raphaelites must be given credit for pioneering the practice that would become so important in the mythology of modern art: that of painting exhibition pictures—not just sketches—out of doors. The procedures developed by the French artists in the 1860s and 1870s for painting en plein air were closer to traditional practices of sketching from nature and aimed at capturing fleeting or transient effects. The Pre-Raphaelite practice was, to borrow Ruskin’s words, both more laborious and more trusting: not only did they take infinite pains to recreate the natural scene in its every detail, bathed in its own light and colour, but they also had utter confidence that the resulting landscape would be capable of communicating profound or lasting truths about human life and the natural world. This project coalesced in the long summer travails at Ewell in 1851, which not suprisingly were never repeated with quite the same intensity.10 Although the individual artists continued to develop their open-air practices in a variety of directions, it was at the Academy in 1852 that audiences had the most powerful experience of what one critic called “the wilfulness of taking Nature as she is”.11

  1. The Athenaeum 1280, 8 May 1852, 519; [William Michael Rossetti, published anonymously], The Spectator 1244, 1 May 1852, 422; The Times, 1 May 1852, 8.↩︎

  2. “Pre-Raphaelitism” (1851), reprinted in E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (eds), The Works of John Ruskin, 39 vols (London: George Allen, 1903–12), Vol. 12 (1904), 339.↩︎

  3. “Laura Savage” [pen-name for F.G. Stephens], “Modern Giants” (May 1850), reprinted in Andrea Rose (ed.), The Germ: The Literary Magazine of the Pre-Raphaelites (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1992), 173.↩︎

  4. In relation to the paintings of 1852, see John Guille Millais, The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais, 2 vols (London: Methuen, 1899), Vol. 1, 115–144; William Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 2 vols (New York: Macmillan, 1905–1906), Vol. 1, 262–270. In his autobiography, Hunt claimed to have devised the programme for painting outdoors in 1848, but this should be taken with a pinch of salt; see Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Vol. 1, 91.↩︎

  5. The Athenaeum 1282, 22 May 1852, 581.↩︎

  6. For a fuller account of the technical aspects of both paintings, see Joyce H. Townsend, Jacqueline Ridge, and Stephen Hackney, Pre-Raphaelite Painting Techniques: 1848–1856 (London: Tate Publishing, 2004), 57–58, 61, and 134–142.↩︎

  7. Alison Smith, catalogue entry on Ophelia, in Jason Rosenfeld and Alison Smith, Millais, exhibition catalogue (London: Tate Publishing, 2007), 68; Judith Bronkhurst, William Holman Hunt: A Catalogue Raisonné, 2 vols (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), Vol. 1, 147.↩︎

  8. For further details on this painting campaign, see Allen Staley, The Pre-Raphaelite Landscape, 2nd edn (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 26–33.↩︎

  9. The Diary of Ford Madox Brown, Virginia Surtees (ed.) (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981), 74–82; Mary Bennett, Ford Madox Brown: A Catalogue Raisonné, 2 vols (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), Vol. 1, 121–123.↩︎

  10. A wider range of Pre-Raphaelite landscapes of 1852, together with critical responses, is covered in Jason Rosenfeld, “Absent of Reference: New Languages of Nature in the Critical Responses to Pre-Raphaelite Landscapes”, in Michaela Giebelhausen and Tim Barringer (eds), Writing the Pre-Raphaelites: Text, Context, Subtext (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 151–170.↩︎

  11. “Art and the Royal Academy”, Fraser’s Magazine 46 (August 1852): 234 (of Millais’ Ophelia).↩︎

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