John Brett's 1858 landscape Val d'Aosta is a work of shocking realism and incredibly fine detail. The painting invites close scrutiny; one would almost need a magnifying glass to give proper attention to the minutiae of the scene. Looking, for example, at the rock formation in the foreground, one notices that each flake of lichen or tiny crevice is carefully colored and shaded to produce an almost photorealistic effect. Even distant trees are painted individually, with elaborately contoured and articulated foliage.

The accurate and vibrant colors used in shadows and highlights (such as bright blue, yellow, and purple) make evident the influence of Ruskinian color theory. Brett's landscape looks like the result of the kind of studied and attentive viewing of nature that Ruskin advocated and practiced. Though it has been described as a "landscape of the most extreme Ruskinian type," (Christopher Wood) the painting was viewed as a failure by Ruskin himself. The writer found the work to be too much like a photograph and lacking in grandeur and artistic expression (Wood).


1. Brett's later landscape scenes, such as Off the Coast, Guernsey (painted in 1868), make use of a much looser style. The artist abandons his minute details and paints with strokes that are rougher but still incredibly evocative of real nature. How much did Ruskin's public dissatisfaction with Val d'Aosta directly influence this shift in style, if at all?

2. Whether or not this painting is a failure as a Ruskinian landscape, does it succeed as a Pre-Raphaelite work? Does it fail completely?

3. What techniques used in the Val d'Aosta survive in Brett's later work?

4. Does Brett's earlier or later style mimic the way the human eye views nature more accurately?

5. Did the rise of photography make the hyperrealism of the Pre-Raphaelites more or less effective? (Perhaps it had no impact.)

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Last modified 12 June 2020