John Brett found his artistic voice in painting landscape; though he began his career by painting portraits, he wrote after observing the work of landscape painter John William Inchbold in 1856, "'I there and then saw that I had never painted in my life, but only fooled and slopped, and thence forward in a reasonable way to paint all I could see'" (Wood 64). For years afterward, Brett's style became intensely Pre-Raphaelite, and he developed a close relationship with John Ruskin. However, he soon fell out of favor with the critic; Ruskin "criticized what he saw as a decline in Brett's art" (Wood 87) and said of one of his works "it is Mirror's work, not Man's" (Treuherz 78).
In the latter half of his career, Brett took to painting seascapes off the British Isles, one of which is Off the Coast, Guernsey. The picture shows the junction of earth and sea in undimmed, even tones (a distinctly Pre-Raphaelite use of color) and in meticulous detail, though as one's eyes move back in the landscape they find that the brushstrokes that create the clouds and sky become increasingly unrestrained. These wispy clouds partially obscure the image of the distant lighthouse, the sole suggestion of human presence in the painting. In the foreground, the brilliant turquoise of the sea shifts its coloring to a delicate green and laps gently at a set of low, craggy rocks and faintly red sand.
1. In spite of Ruskin's increasing criticism, Brett was the only Pre-Raphaelite painter besides Millais elected as an Associate of the Royal Academy. What do you suppose the Royal Academy would have liked about this painting? What might Ruskin have had to say about both the painting itself and the Academy's reaction to it?
2. The critic Mike Hickox notes in his lecture "Science and Religion in the Pre-Raphaelite Work of John Brett" that Brett was not only interested in the hard science of the times, but was also a deeply religious man as well. Do you see either juxtaposition or an amalgamation of science and religion in Off the Coast, Guernsey? Why is the lighthouse obscured by clouds? Might it say anything about man's relationship with God or his place in the universe?
3. How does Brett's seascape here compare to landscape paintings by other Pre-Raphaelites? What are some similarities and differences between his work and, say, a landscape of William Holman Hunt's or Ford Madox Brown's? Do you find the emotional impact of the paintings by these artists is different from that of Brett's?
- Elements of Science and Religion in John Brett's Landscape Paintings: Rocks on the Foreshore
- Hidden Meaning in the Rocks
Wood, Christopher. The Pre-Raphaelites. London: Seven Dials, Cassell & Co, 1981.
Treuherz, Julian. Pre-Raphaelite Paintings. London: Lund Humphries Publishers Ltd., 1980.
Last modified 16 September 2004