[This essay first appeared in the Spring
1989 issue of
Presenting his final analysis of Pre-Raphaelitism in 1883, Ruskin began his lecture on the "Realistic Schools of Painting," represented by Hunt and Rossetti, by praising the memory of his "much loved friend, Gabriel Rossetti," telling his audience that
Rossetti's great poetical genius justified my claiming for him total, and I believe, earliest, originality in the sternly materialistic, though deeply reverent, veracity, with which alone of all schools of painters, this brotherhood of Englishmen has conceived the circumstances of the life of Christ. [CW 33:370]
Up to this point Ruskin simply reiterates what he had said in the Three Colours but suddenly in the next paragraph he executes a dramatic volte-face by announcing that
To Rossetti, the Old and New Testaments were only the greatest poem he knew; and he painted scenes from them with no more actual belief in their relation to the present life . . . than he gave also the "Morte d'Arthur" and the "Vita Nuova" [CW 33:271)
In a single sentence Ruskin completely demolishes Rossetti's credibility as a sincere artist by claiming that he had not believed in any of the three subject areas — Biblical, Arthurian and Dantean — on which his reputation as an artist had been built, with Ruskin's considerable help. Disillusioned with Rossetti, Ruskin goes on to contrast him with his fellow Pre-Raphaelite "realist" Hunt, arguing that Hunt is "beyond calculation, greater, beyond comparison, happier than Rossetti in . . . sincerity." Besides failing as a sincere realist Ruskin also feels that Rossetti did not become the master of grotesque realism he had promised to in 1856 and that the "imperishable power" exhibited by his "mythic" scenes in 1878 had perished five years later. Thus it is that in Ruskin's second Art of England lecture Burne-Jones takes Rossetti's place alongside Watts as a master of a href="../ruskin/atheories/5.5.html">myth, the aesthetic category which had subsumed the rather unwieldy one of grotesque realism which had formerly accommodated Rossetti and Watts. Ruskin explains that
the realistic school of painting could only develop its complete force in representing persons, and could not happily rest in personifications. Nevertheless, we find one of the artists whose close friendship with Rossetti, and fellowship with . . . the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, having more or less identified with theirs, yet differing from them all diametrically in this, that his essential gift . . . is in personification, and that. . . had both Rossetti and he been set to illustrate the first chapter of Genesis, Rossetti would have painted either Adam or Eve; but Edward Burne-Jones, a Day of Creation. [CW 33:292]
In this graphic fashion Ruskin shows the extent to which he now believed Burne-Jones had transcended his former master, the failed Pre-Raphaelite "realist" Rossetti.
[Readers who wish to examine the context of Ruskin's 1883 lecture in the context of his career might wish to look at the relevant section my book on his aesthetic and critical theories. The introduction to the Hunt-Ruskin correspondence sets both Ruskin's attitudes toward Rossetti and the lecture within the context of his relation to Hunt, the first and last Pre-Raphaelite. GPL]
- Pater's Aesthetic Poet: The Appropriation of Rossetti from Ruskin — Introduction
- Why Pater Wanted to Write about Rossetti in 1883
- Pater's "Dante Gabriel Rossetti" and His Intellectual Relation to Ruskin
- Ruskin's 1883 Lecture on the "Realistic Schools of Painting"
- Walter Pater's "Dante Gabriel Rossetti" versus His "Aesthetic Poetry"
- Pater's Characterization of Rossetti's Poetry
Last modified 2002