This is an article in the Magazine of Art of 1901. It has been formatted (with extra paragraph breaks) and illustrated by Jacqueline Banerjee, with thanks to Shirley Nicholson, who first suggested it. Note that apart from the first study, the illustrations in the magazine itself were too dark to be used here. Click on the images for more information about them, and to see larger versions of them.

Decorated initial I

N England, where there is no primitive art, the search of a modern painter for medieval method and the self-inspiration of medieval feeling lead him not only into the past but far a-field; and perhaps a suspicion of something like insincerity attends the English painter who is both foreign and ancient, and thus in two ways alien and strange. An English painter cannot be altogether English unless he study in the late schools and take for his masters those men of the eighteenth century who were the only great men in the art of their own age in Europe, and were English. As the nineteenth century drew towards its midst France was beginning her modern art of landscape, and from the death of Turner onward there is more international exchange, or at any rate the beginning of the modern common understanding to which we are now well used amongst the art students of many nations. With other things that England has borrowed from her neighbours, they have lent her their Middle Ages; for, artistically speaking, we have none of our own. The modern English painter who would paint like Burne-Jones, or even like a "Preraphaelite" of 1850, is obliged to be exceedingly modern in two articles; he must be a restorer, and he must be travelled — a vexatious thing for men who do not profess to love what is of the later age. English art is more naturally mature, late, and devoted to Reynolds, Gainsborough, Constable, and Turner — men of their own day, and that an adult day. But the Continental painter has at least his past on the spot, or across the narrow frontier which hardly changes a language, and across which villagers meet.

In Flanders, in Tuscany, or in Venetia the Middle Ages are a very natural matter to painters [241/42] of a certain mind; nevertheless, it is in England that the most resolute search has been made (and that twice in the course of fifty years) for the recovery of the fresh impulses of the age before Raphael grew up. By the perversity of things the artists of those nations that have Middle Ages are bent rather upon the restoration of the antique, and therefore the making of the classic; for no art can live twice, and the classic had its own place in history.

Mrs. Marianne Stokes is freshly, simply, and directly a Primitive in art and heart. She stands very much alone, her impulse being all her own and purely characteristic. Her originality was certainly not asserted in the form of wilfulness in early youth. She was a docile student. Her career of learning in the schools at Munich was that not only of a pupil but of a disciple. She was devoted to her masters. Chief of these was Lindenschmidt, and the methods of the little Bavarian capital were to her for the first years all-in-all. She had been born — Marianne Preindlsberger — in Southern Austria, and therefore at the gates of that Venetian Italy which might have taught her the Oriental, Lombard, and Roman encounter from which the greatest school of colour in the world took its rise. Munich, needless to say, is not a school of colour. After Munich, Miss Preindlsberger worked in France, coming to Paris at the time when Bastien Lepage and the Realists were doing their best, in the open air, waiting for the incidents and accidents of passing life, for individual character; in that instant and impartial art each thing should have its distinct und several semblance, until the Impressionists, opening more sudden eyes upon nature, bantered the open-air painter with the individuality he recognised in each potato tumbled [242/43] from an open sack. It was hardly possible to be young in France in the day of Bastien Lepage and not to be one of the Realists; not to seek the diffused light of those grey days that make steady out-of-door painting possible; not to eschew vivid and momentary lights; not to take nature and life in the daily act and the familiar aspect. Needless to say, the rule of the Realists was the reign of technique; the study of values became then all-important, and the pure execution that tends to efface itself in the rendering of atmosphere was studied as the consummation of pictorial art, beautiful by truth. Miss Preindlsberger doubtless learnt not a little that helped her to another manner of art, from the fresh, complete, direct, learned grey painting of the Realists.

Neither in Munich nor in France had she had the opportunity of studying in a school of colour; not, however, because the painters with whom she worked were exclusively chiaroscurists, for they were not so; they aimed, as do most of the modern schools, at joining the two great schools of colour and light, but their colour was altogether insufficient. Her first conviction of the greatness of colour was gained when she was ready for it, in the galleries of Italy, and in the study of the primitive painters who seem to look not against the light, so as to see the shadows of a luminous world, but with it, so as to see the colours of an illuminated world. Doubtless Mrs. Stokes would hold most important two passages of her life — the conversion to colour, in the first place; and, in the second place, the abandonment of oil-paint as an encumbering material.

The Parting, 1884. This seems to be the work referred to below by Meyell as "a group of a child and a little calf which was her high water-mark of realism."

Mrs. Stokes had painted, after her German and French training, the Dead Child, a group of a child and a little calf which was her high water-mark of realism, a charming mountain landscape with a Tyrolese girl leading her flock of goats, and several versions of the perpetual subject, the Madonna or Light of Light; these amongst others that were conspicuous for their beauty in the Academy and other London exhibitions. The Annunciation had already much of the primitive feeling. In Angels Entertaining the Holy Child the Virgin was asleep whilst two childish angels in red entertained the waking Child with music. During the time of transition before the Tuscan galleries had completed the change in her method Mrs. Stokes painted The Princess and the Page, Aucassin et Nicolette, Primavera, and a landscape — a wood with a faun or sylvan in his home. These are semi-decorative.

Left: Angels Entertaining the Holy Child, c. 1893. Right: Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, Spinning Wool for the Poor, c. 1895.

The first picture that aimed at both pure decoration and pure spirituality was Saint Elizabeth spinning for the Poor. But Mrs. Stokes found that she could not attain that aim until she should be free of oil-colour. Something, she thought, had been lost in the practice of art by the association of colour with oil. Too thick, too deliberate, too tolerant of handling and re-handling, too indulgent to the à peu prés in execution, whilst it works for realism, oil-painting has separated the art of Europe from simplicity. Material controls the painter so far that the very existence of the spirit of realism has come to pass as a consequence of this imitative and yet hindering medium which encourages and hampers at once. This, at any rate, was the conviction of Mrs. Stokes when, being resolved that the grey colours of French painting should not be the final colours of art, she began to search for a ground and material such as the early painters used when art in Europe was born again. She found these in gesso and tempera, and the technique of [243/44] this painting — the mere material — led to the spirit and the idea. For Mrs. Stokes is evidently not amongst those who stop upon the technique and divide the matter from the form of art, which has never been done in a great school or, indeed, in any school whatever worthy of the name.

The case against oil-painting has been stated in her work on Cennino Cennini by Mrs. Herringham: "It has produced," she says, "many masterpieces, but destroyed monumental painting, not only in developing the taste for petty things, and 'petty methods, but also in rendering the labour so slow and so arduous that in this method a great undertaking scems impracticable." The same writer says of tempera: "If the Middle Ages preferred fresco and tempera – that is size-vehicles — monumental painting proves the justice of the preference; and the work of Cennino establishes victoriously that it was not done through ignorance." Mrs. Stokes studied Cennino Cennini in the course of her researches. She found the gesso ground, and the fresh and single medium, that put her in the place of the painters she best loved. For her the recovery of tempera was no less than the restoration of spirituality and decoration — two things long overpowered by the realism, drama, and complexity of oils.

However it may be for other artists, it is certain that Mrs. Stokes found in gesso and tempera the whole convention, and by concomitance the spirit, that suited her genius. She is by nature and grace a primitive painter in tempera, exquisitely sincere in feeling, mistress of a pure method; her handicraft would be rather encumbered than flattered by the facilities allowed by oils to mend and to add. She is direct, in heart and hand, and possesses the composure and the foresight that this simple and severe art of tempera demands. After three years of the practice she is still making experiments. She believes herself to have attained but the first degrees of an art destined to greatness. Great things and large things are to be looked for as a result of this recovery. Fine and vigorous is the hand, single is the vision, and pure is the intellect that have shown the way to an art about to live again.

Mrs. Stokes is a painter of keen apprehension in simple things. No man or woman beginning the world at the time of the re-arising of art in Europe, when Romance began, could have a fresher spirit than hers, a clearer heart, or sincerer sympathies. It needs her noble simplicity to begin the reaction against modern con tempt for feeling and thought in art. That contempt itself doubtless had its use as a protest against the sentimentality of the middle of the nineteenth century; but if so, its purpose is more than fulfilled, and the correction is becoming tedious. The century has corrected and bantered itself sufficiently. Let the dead bury their dead. We need no longer to hear hard things said about the anecdote and its literary interest; the suburbs [244/46] themselves have long been instructed that the anecdote and the literary interest are all wrong, and no one at Clapham would dare to admire a picture because it tells a story. Let the critic, then, consider his work more than done on this point, and let him allow the twentieth century to give back to painting all visible things, emotion that has expression, and histories that make pictorial signs and bear symbols clear to the eye. Mrs. Stokes has never deprived her pictures of these interests, but has used them sweetly in the scheme of direct and frank decoration. Nay, if the beauty of her composition may be made more intelligible by a legend, the legend is added to the decoration of the frame. No one who has seen the picture which shows the mother's vision of her little daughter in Paradise carrying the vessel full of tears, will wish the legend away; but to the greater number of these paintings on gesso of peasant women and children there is nothing to add: they are simple pictures of the wayside figures of the Dutch or German village, in their own nature and aspect. Their round faces, their capped heads, their starched dresses are painted by her with a peculiarly pure brilliance, a daylight radiance of tone that does not seem to owe its clarity and height to any relative depths or darkness. It is — doubtless thanks to gesso and a simple pictorial vision — a positive brightness like that of a white day when we look with the light and meet no shadows. Mrs. Stokes has compassed this brightness with no small art, finding no slight difficulty in keeping the high tone high enough to look brilliant in London. Painted abroad, pictures in tempera as well as in oils seem to sink in the low light.

On one detail of her later work — the use of positive gold instead of the representation of the effect of gold according to the convention of painting — there must be opposed opinions. Not so in regard to the delicacy, the bloom, the unhindered colour and unhampered tone, the unclogged expression of the work she has done in her own appropriate medium.


Meynell, Alice. "Mrs Adrian Stokes." The Magazine of Art Vol. 25 (1901): 241-46. Internet Archive. Sponsored by the Kahle/Austin Foundation. Web. 24 June 2023.

Created 24 June 2023