[An abstract of a presentation delivered at the July 1995 Symposium in Sante Fe, New Mexico, on the occasion of the world premiere of David Lang and Manuela Holterhof's opera about Ruskin, Modern Painters.]

Two groups of Modern Painters mattered most to Ruskin: the landscape artists, above all J.M.W. Turner; and the Pre-Raphaelites. His long, intense engagement with Turner's art taught Ruskin how to use his own passionate pleasure in looking, drawing, and describing what he saw. Through his study of Turner's work, Ruskin became a critic. From the Pre-Raphaelites he sought something different: fellowship and help. Help in teaching others to see and, no less important, in imagining and realizing a society in which art would have a central role. Ruskin tried without success to participate in the brief but attractive cameraderie of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but what he saw as the social experiment of Pre-Raphaelitism had much to teach him and us, even — or perhaps especially — in its failures.

What was this Pre-Raphaelite world which Ruskin found so suggestive and attractive? The PRB often drew each other; it may be taken as one indication of their unusual sociability. "Taking portraits" of one another was a favorite activity when they got together in the evenings, and the exchange of those portrait sketches served as a visible token of their shared lives as both friends and fellow artists. While self-portraits were a common way to practice and save models' fees among beginning artists, PRB portrait-taking and giving — like their frequent use of one another to sit for the subject pictures they exhibited — points to something else as well. Most Victorian artists, unlike their continental counterparts, worked in isolation once their student days were over. There was no apprentice system, in which an aspiring artist continued to work with others in the studio of a master. Moreover, the British art scene, with almost no public commissions, meant that artists needed to stand out in crowded exhibitions to sell their pictures. This put a high price on originality. There was not much incentive to discuss techniques or ideas for subjects with one's competitors. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood — and here the last term is significant — set itself against the practices of the Victorian art world in the character of their relations with one another, as much as in the substance of their art. They worked in each others' studios, met often, formally and informally, to share both techniques and ideas, brainstormed jointly for subjects, painted together on expeditions out of London, and founded a journal, The Germ. The Brotherhood included friends who were critics and poets — and to more closely tie the group together, the artists tried writing while the critics and poets took lessons in drawing. They liked each other. The records of their years together are contained in the PRB journal kept by William Michael Rossetti, and in the letters, verse-letters, cartoons, and portraits exchanged within the circle. These testify to the high spirits and warm relations that briefly bound the PRB together.

The group Ruskin might like to have joined was already dissolving under the pressure of demands and rewards for individuation, however, though Ruskin did not perceive it. It is also true that some of the difficulties he encountered as he sought a place on the margins of the Pre-Raphaelites arose from his personal idiosyncracies and failings. Ruskin was egotistical, shy but arrogant, sexually and socially timid, and inordinately gifted. He was passionate and eloquent about art, the value of life, the blight of alienated labor. He was also older, richer, and more influential than the young artists with whom he wished to associate.

Yet setting his experiences alongside those of another kind of fringe Pre-Raphaelite — women toward whom Ruskin, like the Brothers, behaved in highly contradictory fashion — surprisingly reveals certain parallels in their positions. On the one hand, in their culturally-reinforced blindness to what women might want, Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites were truly brothers. On the other, like Ruskin, Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal also participated in complicated but limited ways in Pre-Raphaelite patterns of creative work. The efforts of both the critic and the women to live the vision of shared work and play that Pre-Raphaelitism promised produced tensions and exposed contradictions in the Pre-Raphaelite experiement that neither they nor the PRB were prepared to face.


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