I. Typology and Ruskin's Theories of Symbolism Realism

In encountering the many appearances of typology in the visual arts of the period, the student of Victorian culture confronts three questions. First, how does Victorian art use typological symbolism? Second, what is the nature of visual uses of typology -- or, put differently, what is the nature of typological images that appear in the visual arts? Third, what particular relation exists between visual and verbal applications of typology? Before attempting to answer these last two questions, which lead us into problems of aesthetics and semiotics, I should like to examine some of the important ways in which typology influenced Victorian art and art theory.

Probably the single most interesting influence of typology upon the art of the period appears in the way it provided the basis for theories of symbolic realism. Ruskin, Hunt, Millais, and many artists in the Pre-Raphaelite circle advocated realistic technique, not because they were interested in painterly realism for its own sake, but because they wished to have the artist, particularly the beginning artist, move beyond conventional modes of representation and thus discover new sources of beauty and truth [See my "Ruskin and Harding on Nature's Infinite Variety." Building upon the work of Maclise, Mulready, Dyce, and others, the young Pre-Raphaelites rather quickly created a fashion for what has come to be termed "hard-edge realism." Although an emphasis upon preserving the details of visual fact certainly informed the congeries of attitudes which constitute the "program" of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, it was only a single factor in the young painters" testing of received academic conventions. The members of the Brotherhood also concerned themselves with reanimating painterly iconography and symbolic conventions, since they accepted that a pure realism, such as that practiced in France, produced an unimaginative, materialistic, ultimately demoralizing art. As Hunt emphasized in a letter of August 10, 1970 to the painter-poet William Bell Scott, the reason for "the dead-alive poetry and art of the day" lay in "the totally material nature of the views cultivated in modern schools[.] Trying to limit speculation within the bounds of sense only must produce poor sculpture, feeble painting, dilettante poetry" (Quoted in Scott, Autobiographical Notes, ed. W. Minto, London, 1892, II, 95). Therefore, drawing upon the work of Hogarth, Northern Renaissance masters, and contemporary writers, such as Dickens and Tennyson, the young men and their associates sought to find means of endowing visual images with imaginative and moral power.

The chief inspiration for such attempts, according to Hunt, came from John Ruskin. After a fellow student had given Hunt the second volume of Modern Painters (1846), under the very mistaken belief that its author had converted to Roman Catholicism, the young painter found himself deeply moved by Ruskin's high conceptions of the art, but one passage in particular, to which he recurs several times in his autobiography, provided him with a specific artistic program. While explaining the penetrative imagination of the great artist, Ruskin drew upon Tintoretto's painting of The Annunciation in the Scuola di San Rocco, Venice, for an example which turned out to have far greater effect upon himself and his contemporaries than he could ever have expected.

The critic first explains that the painting represents the Virgin sitting beneath a ruined palace vestibule. "The spectator turns away at first, revolted, from the central object of the picture forced painfully and coarsely forward, a mass of shattered brickwork, with the plaster mildewed away from it, and the mortar mouldering from its seams." Explanations for such coarse realism exist, say Ruskin, in the fact that Tintoretto, who draws upon the conditions of contemporary Venice, is trying to suggest Joseph's occupation as well. But as the spectator examines this image of earthly desolation, he realizes suddenly that these realistically presented visual facts bear far more important significance. In fact, the entire composition of the picture leads the viewer's eye to "an object at the top of the brickwork, a white stone, four square, the corner-stone of the old edifice the base of its supporting column." This cornerstone, a visuai allusion to Psalms 118, is a type, and when the spectator recognizes its meaning, he finds himself released into a world of Christian meanings: "The ruined house is the Jewish dispensation, that obscurely arising in the dawning of the sky is the Christian; but the corner-stone of the old building remains, though the builders" tools lie idle beside it, and the stone which the builders refused is become the Headstone of the Corner" (4.264 5). That passage from Psalms 118 about the cornerstone refused by the builders is a commonplace prophetical type of Christ, and, as Ruskin has demonstrated Tintoretto has employed it in a most traditional way to reinforce the central meaning of the annunciation theme.

William Holman Hunt, who found himself extremely excited by the artistic possibilities of such symbolism, immediately visited John Everett Millais, to whom he explained how Ruskin made the great Venetian seem a "sublime Hogarth" — a painter, that is, who created works rich in meaning but not dependent, as were Hogarth's, upon satire for their prime impetus. The intrinsic capacity of the typological image to combine realistic detail and complex spiritual reference offered the young artists a means of solving some of the problems they had encountered when they turned to a realistic style of painting. As long as they chose subjects that permitted either orthodox or extended applications of such symbolism, they could demonstrate that their abandoning received pictorial conventions propounded by the Academy schools and periodical critics led to a richer humanistic art — and not one that had its ideal in technological processes for reproducing images, such as the daguerreotype. Such a claim does not, of course, deny that the Pre-Raphaelites may have either used photographic processes or been influenced by them in various ways. (Aaron Scharf's Art and Photography [1974] contains some interesting speculations on this subject.) At the same time, these self-proclaimed "art revolutionaries" could use types to create both new iconographies and new subjects for high art.


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Print version published 1980; web version 1998