Hunt's greatest difficulty, as he was the first to recognize, was that older forms of symbolism and the conceptions of art which had generated them had become outmoded and dead. They were merely another set of conventions which had to be replaced if he were to create a living art. Victorian writings on both art and literature demonstrate that the basic attitudes necessary to a living allegorical art had long vanished, for the changing attitudes toward external reality which led to the rise of realism destroyed the relevance of symbolism for most critics and painters. Once men began to accept that reality, the Real, inhered in the visible, the here and now, older notions that some higher realm possessed a greater reality quickly lost force and eventually all but vanished. Equally important, English romantic criticism of the arts and literature regarded allegory as an intellectualized, artificial, unimaginative form of thought, something destructive of great poetry and great painting. (For a discussion of Victorian attitudes towards literary allegory, see Landow, Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin, 321-29.) Thus, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Babbington Macaulay, and Matthew Arnold all agreed that, whereas a symbol is a product of the imagination, allegory arises in the intellect and leads to an artificial, unimaginative poetry.
Contemporary writers on the arts generally took a similar position, attacking Victorian attempts at pictorial allegory as artificial, ineffective, and incomprehensible. The Art-Journal, for example, almost always derided any attempt to employ allegory or symbolism — it didn't distinguish between the two — and one rare exception occurred when its foreign contributor defended Wilhelm Schadow's The Fount of Life against the harsh reception it had met in Germany. Claiming that "Art as well as Language, cannot exist without symbolical and allegorical forms,' this isolated defender of the allegorical went on to inquire, "if the metaphors in language, taken from reality (for example, "The Fount of Life") are agreeable and intelligible to hear, why should they not be seen?" (10 , 199). To this ingenuous defense one might make the obvious reply that, first of all, whereas a dead metaphor in language becomes merely an unnoticed word or phrase, in painting it becomes all too obvious an encumbrance. Secondly, such figures have a different status and effect in the two arts, for although we can pass over such figures in a paragraph, if perhaps not in a poem, we are forced to look at them by the visual art: when the painter visualizes them for us, he forces them upon us.
William Michael Rossetti might almost have been replying to this writer in his essay on "The Externals of Sacred Art,' in which he contended that the character of the age is foreign to symbolism:
The motto of the practical man, "Facts and Figures," may be made to serve his turn for pictures as for blue-books; but he is as far from understanding the "figures" to mean a figurative rendering in the one as figures of speech in the other. Indeed, we may put it to the suffrage of most readers whether they are not themselves cold to typical art of the present day, and whether they know, unless as exceptional cases, any persons who are the reverse. [The Crayon, 5 (1858), 334]
According to Rossetti, nineteenth-century coolness to pictorial symbolism arose both from the "hastiness" and impatience of the age, and from the fact that "typical art, in its present decadence, had ceased to form any broadly considered and recognizable system." This decline of traditional iconographies, he adds, is itself a result of Protestantism, which "has broken from tradition, and asserts the individual." Protestantism's emphasis upon "the right of private judgment" makes any art that employs its own symbols inaccessible to most of its public. The conclusion for W. M. Rossetti, if not for Hunt, is clear: "The artist, who works with the aim of impressing the mass of his contemporaries . . . will find his wisdom to leave the type, and hold to the direct fact." The art appropriate to the nineteenth century, art appropriate to those who read parliamentary blue-books, must be realistic or naturalistic; and for him "Naturalism, in connection with sacred art, of course, implies and prescribes a prevalence of direct or narrative over typical representations" (333-34). Here as in most of his other critical writings, W. M. Rossetti opposes symbolic and realistic painting, believing the two are intrinsically incapable of being combined. For example, when writing about Stanhope's Flight into Egypt in the 1862 Fraser's Magazine, he commented that the painter's technique allowed him to create a "religious art from a symbolic or typical point of view, yet not divorced from true natural perception" ("The Royal Academy Exhibition," 66 , 69.) The implication is clear that for this critic symbolic painting is generally divorced from the capacity to paint the world accurately and with feeling. Using Ruskin's categories from the third volume of Modern Painters, one might say that for Rossetti allegorical art when sincere is almost necessarily the creation of Purist painters, whose love of spiritual truth leads them to avert their eyes from this world. Ruskin, of course, does not make this assumption, since he argues that great allegorical art is still possible in the nineteenth century. The critic, who transfered the attitudes associated with typology to literary and pictorial allegory, was one of the few Victorian critics who believed that allegory was an effective, imaginative mode. Those like Robert St. John Tyrwhitt who agreed with Ruskin tended to be admitted disciples, explicitly popularizing his ideas of art. But for William Michael Rossetti — as for those hostile to the Pre-Raphaelites — allegorical art stands opposed to realism.
When F. G. Stephens, another member of the original Brotherhood, discussed the nature of theme and subject in painting, he similarly expressed his dislike of allegorical art. According to him, the lowest form of didactic painting employs "allegories, which are but abstract representations of feeling and principles, not of facts." Almost echoing his close friend Hunt, he adds:
These matters have been long ago worn out, for all will agree that a very vapid idea of charity is raised in the mind on looking at Sir Joshua Reynolds" symbolic figure of that virtue in the window of New College Chapel, Oxford, even although in this instance he has made an indirect appeal to the feeling of maternity, by showing the figure with children in her arms.
His apparent ignorance of the traditional iconography of charity indicates how dead pictorial allegory had become for many Victorians, but even when he understood an emblem he found it ineffective. "Whoever hoped more fervently,' he asks, "for seeing a damsel in white robes, directing her eyes upwards, and leaning upon an anchor?" Quoting Browning's "Fra Lippo Lippi,' Stephens concludes that, "if a symbol be sufficient to suggest the laws and promises of Christianity, the Cross itself is the best and most perfect; "two sticks nailed crosswise" are enough; but this will not be Art" (The Idea of a Picture," The Crayon 5 (1858), 63-4, 65).
One of the most significant, because most extreme, statements of the faults of allegory in painting appeared in the 1856 Crayon, the American art periodical to which Stephens, Rossetti, and Tupper contributed regularly. The anonymous essayist found Thomas Cole's The Voyage of Life deeply flawed in its basic conception, because it confused, he felt, the natures of poetry and painting. According to this writer, any
allegorist conceives certain general truths, which he undertakes to express figuratively by particular circumstances or facts, producing a continued metaphor - a poem, in brief, of greater or lesser excellence, according to its grandeur, the significance of its imagery, and, in general, to those qualities which distinguish poetry.
The problem with such allegorical art is that it confuses visual and verbal means of communicating ideas - a position with which Ruskin would have completely disagreed — and thus creates a bastard art. "In one case we have a symbolic expression of abstract truths — in the other, a simple and loving representation of the beauty of Nature,' and combine these two ends however we may, "we still have a work subject to two diverse examinations." One result of such an artistic procedure which confuses the excellences of literary and painterly arts is that the visual element becomes subservient to the element of meaning. In thus dissolving one of the traditional points at which critics long allied the sister arts, this author emphasizes in a very modern manner the specific nature of each art:
The office of painting is with the visible world, or the ideal, in some kind; and, although it may have a certain value as a means of expressing ideas of great moral or theological importance, it seems clear to us that there is a degradation of the Art involved in making it the servant either of ethics or theology, because it stands, by right, supreme in its own sphere.>
Another equally modern argument against incorporating ethical, religious, or other serious ideas in art is that, in times of change, any referentiality may soon become obsolete. For as "Allegory in Art" points out, "if a painter has bound himself to the service of dogmas or beliefs, he has given his labor to what the next generation may prove to be an error, or a delusion" (The Crayon 3 , 114). Therefore, for any art to survive in a time of flux - and the writer seems to believe that all times he can envisage are such periods of change - it must rely upon aesthetic qualities alone. It is worthwhile quoting these words from the Crayon at length, if only because they so well convey attitudes towards art which have become dominant in the twentieth century, attitudes which make Hunt's attempt at a synthesis of realism and symbolism seem even more foreign and hard to understand. His Pre-Raphaelite brethren, W. M. Rossetti and F. G. Stephens, did not so strikingly anticipate twentieth-century assumptions about the nature and purpose of art, and their criticism of allegory is merely that it is intrinsically opposed to realism, something which Hunt himself would not accept.
The Thorny and the Flowery Path. Thomas Unwins. 1853. Wood engraving. From Illustrated London News, 22 (7 May 1853), 349.
One only has to look at contemporary English attempts to paint allegorical subjects to see why Hunt, his friends, and the conservative critics all found it so vapid and ineffective. T. Uwins's The Thorny and the Flowery Path , exhibited the same year as Hunt's Our English Coasts, 1852 , exemplifies one kind of unsuccessful pictorial allegory. At the center of the canvas stands a young man of distinctly Byronic cast gazing with obvious interest at the "flowery path,' which the painter has chosen to represent as a grape arbor beneath which are maidens and musicians - the embodiments of wine, women, and song. A tonsured friar attempts without apparent success to gain the youth's attention in order, one assumes, to lead him to the monastery on the left. At the monk's side are found a skull and rosary, the lumber of countless religious pictures, which serve his meditations upon the transience of life and the inevitability of death. This picture fails largely because, however well it might have been painted - I have seen it only in a contemporary reproduction - it possesses neither an integrated nor even an appropriate symbolism. The scene is set in what purports to be a realistic picture space, but it must be taken as some sort of vision, unless we hold that one is likely to encounter a monk or St. Jerome conveniently meditating in a contemporary meadow. Equally important, the artist's choice of a monk, which strikes one as a singularly inappropriate representation of the spiritual life for a Protestant audience, makes the young man's attraction to the supposedly sinful life all too understandable.
The Coming of the Messiah and the Destruction of Babylon by Samuel Coleman. c. 1820s. Oil on canvas, 54 x 75 in. Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.
A generation earlier Samuel Coleman had attempted a far more ambitious, if no less ineffective allegorical art in The Coming of the Messiah and the Destruction of Babylon . This elaborate Danby-esque biblical subject, which the Bristol artist painted sometime in the 1820s, exemplifies an approach to a dramatic allegorical art far different from that chosen by Hunt in most of his symbolic works. Whereas Hunt sought to join realism and symbolism, using an historical event as a point of departure, Coleman created a purely visionary art. His method was to render literally the words of biblical prophecy as visual images, most of which do not interact narratively with each other. Drawing upon Isaiah and other scriptural texts, Coleman divided his picture into two zones. The foreground and part of the middleground depict the coming of the Messiah according to Isaiah. Thus, in the immediate foreground we come upon a figure reading a book, possibly the prophet himself, while to his left we find spread upon the grass the swords beaten into ploughshares of Isaiah 2.4. Directly behind the seated figure is a dramatically gesturing figure in a white robe upon which is a blood spattered cross; to his left is a representation of the Good Shepherd and his flock; farther back on this side of the picture is a man pointing to a cross apparently in the pose of John the Baptist; and on a hill yet still farther back we catch sight of the brazen serpent on the cross from Exodus, which is a standard prefiguration of Christ. Thus, the painter has chosen to assemble a series of images symbolizing the Messiah, and because they are merely symbols with no narrative interaction they create the static effect of one of Ripa's emblems.
For his compositional scheme Coleman seems to have drawn on Claude and Wilson seen through the eyes of John Martin and Francis Danby. As we move between the framing trees into the picture, we encounter an allegorical representation of Babylon, one of whose towers a tiny angel is pulling down. Lightning bolts flash, not from the heavens to the city, but between it and the brazen serpent. Figures tumble off parapets, a ship sinks in a body of water which appears, not very logically, before the city, and a bizarre company of soldiers in busbies march up a bridge to the city, followed by a man who holds a bishop's crozier and a book. It is not completely clear that these figures are marching into the city, for they may be Coleman's illustration of those who "are gone away backward" (Isaiah 1.4). Whatever the precise source of each element in the design, its program is obvious enough - we look through the various representations of the Saviour to the destruction of God's enemies, so that we perceive juxtaposed images of divine mercy and wrath, man saved and man damned. The painter's method was to conflate a group of images which translate the language of biblical prophecy, and in his transformation of linguistic into visual imagery Coleman thus resembles Bosch and Bruegel. He sadly lacks both their quality and quantity, for he has neither the pictorial wit nor the sheer abundance of imagery which fills their works. Another problem with Coleman is that the Wilsonian landscape tradition within which he was working demands several dominant visual emphases, but his iconography interferes with such a pictorial scheme. Thus, while he doesn't crowd his canvas with events and imagery like the great Northern masters of such visionary art, he yet includes too much to make his painting work successfully in the idiom he has chosen. Perhaps most important, his approach creates a severe disjunction between the visual and iconographic elements, for his Wilsonian trees command our attention far more than some of the spiritually significant details of his picture. In short, Coleman not only failed to reconcile realistic technique with his symbolic intentions, but he also failed to create a visionary art. Such an approach to religious symbolism clearly had little to offer Hunt, who of course was unlikely ever to have seen The Coming of the Messiah and the Destruction of Babylon. Nonetheless it is worth while to examine Coleman's painting because it so obviously exemplifies the problems of nineteenth-century pictorial allegory. If, like Hunt, one could not employ traditional iconographic attributes, such as the banner of resurrection, then one had to seek new means of employing religious and other symbolism. But Coleman's almost random placement of biblical imagery within a landscape would not serve either.
Created 2001; last modified 27 October 2020