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The Pre-Raphaelite Lens: British Photography and Painting, 1848–1875, on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, was a concise and handsome exhibition that addressed an ambitious topic: the dynamic interaction between artistic media from the late 1840s until the 1870s. The artistic movement known as Pre-Raphaelitism provided the lens that focused this investigation. Photography was still in its first decade as public knowledge when the young artists who styled themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood met in London in 1848. Nevertheless, as Diane Waggoner, the associate curator in the Department of Photographs and organizing curator of the exhibition, states in the introduction to the catalogue: “Photography’s emphasis on the accurate depiction of details introduced new ways of seeing and representing the world” (3). Pre-Raphaelite artists, including John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who were all represented in the exhibition, resisted the conventions of established artistic practice. As the exhibition demonstrated, photography played a vital, yet often unacknowledged, role in this resistance. The accompanying exhibition catalogue further elucidates this dynamic across a range of essays by scholars of British art and the history of photography: in addition to two essays by Waggoner, it includes contributions from Tim Barringer, Jennifer L. Roberts, Joanne Lukitsh, and Britt Salvesen. The exhibition was primarily a photographic one, focused on what might be termed British “art photography” of the 1850s and 1860s, in order to distinguish it from the more utilitarian and commercial uses of the medium. It boldly combined the one hundred photographs on display with twenty paintings across five galleries that engaged in a dialogue: what did Pre-Raphaelite painters learn about vision and pictorial truth from the photograph? And what did photographers learn about vision and pictorial truth from Pre-Raphaelite painting?
The exhibition explored what could be termed Pre-Raphaelite visuality. Scholars such as Jonathan Crary (for example, Techniques of the Observer, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992) and Hal Foster (Vision and Visuality, New York: New Press, 1988), among others, have used this term to locate vision within history; the observer and her or his mode of vision is always historically constructed. As Nicholas Mirzoeff has pointed out, Thomas Carlyle coined the term “visuality” in 1841 as a response to what he saw as fundamental shifts in modern society, including the advent of photography (Nicholas Mirzoeff, “On Visuality,” The Journal of Visual Culture 5, no.1 (2006): 53–79). The idea of a Pre-Raphaelite visuality shared by painting and photography was implicit in the exhibition, where didactic text was kept to a minimum, but it emerges fully in the catalogue, even though the term itself is not used. Waggoner’s first essay in the catalogue provides a lucid overview and introduction to the themes of the exhibition. William Bell Scott, an associate of the Pre-Raphaelites, reflected upon the relationship between Pre-Raphaelitism and photography in his autobiography from 1892: “Every movement has its genesis, as every flower its seed; the seed of the flower of Pre-Raphaelism [sic] was photography” (as quoted in the catalogue, 6). According to Bell Scott, Pre-Raphaelitism drew its focus from photography with its “seriousness and honesty of motive” informed by “the unerring fatalism of the sun’s action” (as quoted, 6) in the study of nature. As Waggoner points out, Pre-Raphaelite visuality also heeds John Ruskin’s vehement call for “modern painters” to study nature “rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing” (as quoted, 3).
John Everett Millais’s A Huguenot, on Saint Bartholomew’s Day, Refusing to Shield Himself from Danger by Wearing the Roman Catholic Badge (1851–52) beckoned visitors into the exhibition and announced the aspects of Pre-Raphaelitism that were explored in the galleries that followed. The bright, unmodulated tones of the foliage in the foreground suggest Millais’s attentiveness to the sun’s actions and the goal of “truth to nature.” The delicately veined flower petals and lichen-encrusted brick of Millais’s canvas speak to the themes explored in the first two exhibition galleries: “Minute Details” and “Natural Effects.” The catalogue essays by Roberts and Barringer consider, for the most part, these themes. Barringer asserts that, “Ruskin advocated a radical lack of selectiveness” (21) that approximated the logic of the camera: cropping, framing, lighting effects, and even the close-up evident in Ruskin’s own watercolors. Ruskin’s theories, in turn, “profoundly shaped photographic practice” (21). For example, Geoffrey Bevington’s radically cropped albumen print Winter Fronds of the Prickly Fern (1862) revels in the details of the fern leaves in the same way that Ruskin’s own daguerreotype (executed with Frederick Cawley) of Bellinzona, Switzerland, Sheer Rock Face (ca. 1858) ignores the conventions of Alpine scenery in favor of the close-up, the fragment, the detail. Roberts refers to Ruskin’s mode of vision as the “total parcellation of a scene” (61) into individual frames to be reassembled by the artist. The process is allied in her essay to the contemporary discourse of “actinism” (“ray power”) and the notion that the photographer harnesses the rays of the sun in the creation of an image.
Crucially, Bell Scott also recognized another vital aspect of Pre-Raphaelite visuality: “history, genre, medievalism,” all part of the “poetry and literality” of the movement (as quoted, 6). In this respect, Millais’s A Huguenot was an apt introduction to the themes explored in the final three galleries of the exhibition: “Portraits and Studies,” “Poetic Subjects,” and “Romance and Modern Life.” As Britt Salvesen describes in her essay, Millais adapted the subject from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s opera Les Huguenots (1836), itself based upon the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572. Within Pre-Raphaelite visuality, Ruskinian “truth to nature” worked with, rather than against, literary and historical subjects. As Salvesen explains, both were part of the “truthfulness” prized by artists and audiences that nevertheless embraced “romance” and “idealism” (178). The display also dramatizes the shifts in artistic practices that occurred in the 1860s, as Pre-Raphaelitism moved away from “truth to nature” and broadened its frame of reference; Dante Gabriel Rossetti, for example, looked to Venetian Renaissance art for inspiration.
As Joanne Lukitsh discusses in her essay, the 1860s likewise “marked a shift in the artistic discourse on the role and status of the [photographic] medium” (142). What made the photograph a work of art? Lukitsh explores the productive artistic exchange between Julia Margaret Cameron and the Rossetti brothers as each sought to understand the implication of photographic “truth” on artistic practice. The essays by Waggoner, Lukitsh, and Salvesen all note the personal connections between painters and photographers (such as the group brought together by Ellen Terry) as well as what Waggoner terms the “formal correspondences” (95) across painting and photography. As photography entered its third decade, practitioners interrogated the medium itself in their effort to delineate “art photography” from “commercial photography.” In her second essay, Waggoner outlines two different approaches. Cameron pursued “photographic equivalents of painterly effects” (95). Charles Ludwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), on the other hand, prized the “intelligibility and legibility” (101) of the medium. What unites these efforts is the way in which they addressed the medium itself: in Cameron’s study of the young actress Ellen Terry entitled Sadness (1864), the collodion coating pulled away from the glass negative at the bottom of the image highlights her image-making process. Likewise, Dodgson’s John Everett Millais and his Family (1865) encases the family group within a tight frame, delineating the boundary between what is inside the photographic frame and what lies beyond.
While the aesthetics of landscape suggested a shared Pre-Raphaelite visuality in the first part of the exhibition, the relationship between the two arts in the second half seemed more amorphous and yet more literal: Pre-Raphaelites painted themes from Tennyson; photographers recorded vignettes inspired by Tennyson. But in the final room, the shared logic emerged. Photography is unable to escape its indexicality, evident in Cameron’s Three Marys (1864), a Biblical subject that is also a record of three women named Mary. The exhibition concluded with Rossetti’s painting of Jane Morris known as The Blue Silk Dress (1868); it provides the painterly context for John Robert Parsons photographic studies of Morris arranged by Rossetti (1865). While the poses of the photographs suggest “formal correspondences” with the painting, they also bring to mind the myriad other portraits of the same woman by Rossetti, as well as the doubling and trebling of figures in the work of Cameron and Clementina Hawarden. Rossetti’s other paintings of Morris take on the logic of the multiple, like numerous prints from the same photographic negative. The curtain that hangs behind Morris recalls the convention of photographic portraits (see Waggoner, 103), while the Latin inscription at the top of the picture speaks to the growing culture of celebrity enabled by photography: “Famous for her poet husband, and most famous for her face, finally let her be famous for my picture!” As Waggoner notes, Henry James could not decide whether Jane Morris was “an original” or “a copy” (102); her image multiplied, and the multiples seemed more real, more original, than the woman herself.
The exhibition and catalogue constitute an important contribution to the field, while the judicious selection and intimate spaces of the galleries made for a pleasurable viewing experience. The catalogue is a beautiful volume, and the organizers should be commended for reproducing almost all of the illustrations in color. It gives a sumptuous feel to the book, where the rich tonalities sought by Cameron in albumen prints, for example, are reproduced as sensitively as the bright landscapes of John Brett. What felt almost radical about this exhibition was that it asked the viewer to pay close and equal attention to both painting and photography at the same time. Museum visitors are so accustomed to the separation of gallery spaces and curatorial departments according to artistic media that it was almost shocking to see Cameron’s Sadness hanging next to G. F. Watts’s study of the same subject from the same year entitled Choosing (1864). This arrangement asserted that the photographs can hold their own ground among the paintings; in a sense, the exhibition provided a witty and welcome inversion of the usual dynamic between painting and photography.
Assistant Professor, Department of Art, Wake Forest University
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