Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 22, 2011
Christiana Payne John Brett: Pre-Raphaelite Landscape Painter New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. 304 pp.; 120 color ills.; 150 b/w ills. Cloth $90.00 (9780300165753)
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Christiana Payne’s John Brett: Pre-Raphaelite Landscape Painter is part of a broader trend in current scholarship to reevaluate the Pre-Raphaelites. Important texts such as Timothy Barringer’s Reading the Pre-Raphaelites (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999) and Elizabeth Prettejohn’s Art of the Pre-Raphaelites (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000) have focused new attention on the radical nature of the movement and the contested concept of artistic “realism.” In the past decade, major monographic exhibitions of the movement’s founding artists John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as well as a number of specialized scholarly studies, have expanded what Prettejohn calls “the stories of Pre-Raphaelitism” (15). In addition to a detailed discussion of Brett’s career, Payne’s book contains a catalogue raisonné of his paintings compiled by Charles Brett, a descendent of the artist. It is an attractive volume with a large number of color illustrations, many of unfamiliar works in private collections.

Payne’s introduction lays out the terms for her reexamination of Brett’s work, including his interest in science, the mechanics of binocular vision, and religious non-conformism (especially the influence of Baptist ministers on the thinking of the young artist). This biographical approach allows for a full treatment of Brett’s career, the fullest yet, and it is a significant contribution to the field. Yet it is also a limitation, as an interest in sorting through the existing evidence often takes precedence over the discussion of the art. She very briefly outlines an interpretation of landscape aesthetics indebted to the “prospect-refuge” theory of geographer Jay Appleton (see his The Experience of Landscape, New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1975): “as hunters, early humans needed refuges such as areas of woodland, in which they could conceal themselves from their prey, combined with prospects, wide areas of open country in which the animals could be seen and tracked” (as quoted on p. 4). Appleton’s terms pop up at odd moments throughout the book, such as the declaration that The Hedger (1859–60) is “refuge-dominant” (60). The theory is more successfully deployed in a brief discussion of the “wide prospect” that comes to dominate Brett’s work in the 1870s and 1880s. Payne suggests that the expansive vision of these later landscapes might be linked to a broadening view of Britain’s dominions with the expansion of the British Empire.

Each chapter of the book considers a chronological period in Brett’s life and work. For some periods “evidence” is “extremely patchy” (21), but Payne does her best, especially concerning his early years, based on the records that do survive. As Payne reminds readers in the first chapter, Brett was only sixteen years old and living in gentile poverty in Kent in the “revolutionary” year of 1848, when the young artists and writers of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood banded together in London to revitalize artistic practice, inspired by the writings of John Ruskin. The early artistic ambitions and training of Brett seem more academic than Pre-Raphaelite. Brett sought advice in the summer of 1851 from James Duffield Harding, and Payne cites a telling passage from Brett’s notebook, which she describes as “plagiarized” from Harding’s Principles and Practice of Art: “great artists . . . endeavoured to interest the mind, and to excite the feelings—comparing, selecting, and arranging the general characteristics of beauty” (as quoted on p. 14). This use of the term “selecting” is significant here, as Harding’s most famous pupil, Ruskin, urged modern painters to study nature “rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.” In 1855, a financial windfall allowed Brett and his sister, the artist Rosa Brett, to travel to Europe, and Payne suggests a tantalizing scenario: “it is possible” that they went to Paris and saw Gustave Courbet’s Stonebreakers (1849) on display at the artist’s Pavilion de Réalisme and that the painting informed Brett’s own, later treatment of the subject (29).

Brett’s conversion to the Pre-Raphaelite approach happened over the course of 1852; when he visited the Royal Academy exhibition in the summer of 1851, he was impressed with John Frederick Lewis’s The Harem (ca. 1850) and, in an entirely different vein, ideal landscapes. He does not note his response to Millais’s The Woodman’s Daughter (1850–51) or Holman Hunt’s Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus (1851) even though both paintings include meticulously observed landscape settings. By the summer of 1852, though, Brett was reading Ruskin, both the pamphlet Pre-Raphaelitism (1851) and Modern Painters, volume 1 (1843) and volume 2 (1846). As Payne suggests, Ruskin attracted Brett because he seemed to provide the theoretical counterpart to his own interests in religion, science, and the dynamic between “truth” and “ideal” in landscape. It is significant that Brett responded to Ruskin’s writings rather than the works of Pre-Raphaelite painters. In a sense, his “Pre-Raphaelitism” emerges as theoretical rather than practical. And, as Payne points out, most later considerations of his career follow Ruskin’s own response, positive and negative, to Brett’s work.

The writings of Ruskin, as well as science and religion, collide during the creation of the painting that secured Brett’s place as a Pre-Raphaelite, Glacier at Rosenlaui (1856). As Payne notes, Ruskin’s fourth volume of Modern Painters (published in 1856) reiterates the account of creation in Genesis, and “it has generally been assumed” that this account prompted Brett’s trip to Switzerland. Payne notes that Brett also drew from a wide array of sources, including Louis Agassiz’s Etudes sur les Glaciers (1840) and Murray’s Hand-book to Switzerland (1852). By 1858, Brett could boast further Pre-Raphaelite credentials, such as friendship with Ruskin and (probably) a failed romance with Christina Rossetti. His works were included in an important exhibition of British art in America, shown in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston in 1857–58. During this time, Ruskin praised The Stonebreaker (1857–58).

Brett followed the success of The Stonebreaker with Val d’Aosta (1858), “the archetypal Pre-Raphaelite landscape—the painting that for most commentators at the time and since, summed up the merits and shortcomings of the school” (53). Payne notes that most discussions of the painting privilege Ruskin as the creative force behind the work, especially since it is assumed that the critic suggested the subject to the artist. As Payne points out, most scholarly discussions of Brett’s career end at this point, allowing Ruskin to have the last word: “I never saw the mirror so held up to Nature; but it is Mirror’s work, not Man’s” (as quoted in Appendix 1, p. 190). This comment recalls Payne’s earlier discussion of Brett’s interest in vision and the powers of observation necessary, for example, in the studio of astronomy. (Brett even made his own telescopes in his youth, and he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1871). The painter holds up his mirror to nature, just as the mirror in a telescope focuses and gathers light. Yet the condemnation in Ruskin’s words was unmistakable: Brett’s work represented the failure of Pre-Raphaelite landscape painting.

Payne suggests that the nature of human vision continued to guide Brett’s evolution as a landscape painter. By 1865, he was no longer a Pre-Raphaelite socially or even artistically: as Payne describes, his paintings became larger, looser, and eventually they were painted in the studio. His greatest success came with Britannia’s Realm (1880), hung “on the line” at the Royal Academy exhibition that year and purchased for the nation with funds from the Chantrey Bequest. Brett was featured in the Sea Exhibition at the Fine Art Society in the winter of 1881–82, an exhibition redolent with connotations of national identity and, perhaps, the imperial ambitions of a maritime empire.

Brett’s interest in the “effect” of a particular place leads Payne to argue that he was the inheritor of John Constable’s approach to landscape. Brett outlined his scientific approach in a pamphlet that accompanied his exhibition held at the Fine Art Society in 1886 (although readers at the time were more interested in the humor and bile found in the pamphlet): “I exclude the nearest foreground for the reason that in nature our binocular vision plays there an important part in showing the separation of the objects, and for that the painter’s art affords no equivalent” (as quoted on p. 159). The detailed observation advocated by Ruskin remains, but this time it is subject to the “selection” advocated by Harding. Brett later elaborated on his ideas in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1889, in reference to his painting Echoes of a Far-Off Storm (1890): “My picture is not a portrait of a place, but it is of an effect which is constantly to be met with on the coast of Cornwall” (as quoted on p. 168).

John Brett: Pre-Raphaelite Landscape Painter ends with an interesting account of Brett’s picture frames by Lynn Roberts, explaining the artist’s links with the Art Workers’ Guild and his attention to decorative design. This accompanies two useful appendixes (Ruskin’s review of Val d’Aosta from 1859 and Brett’s own “Commentaries” on his art from 1886), as well as a catalogue of the paintings. All future discussions of Brett will rely on this book, which is an important monograph on Victorian art.

Morna O’Neill
Assistant Professor, Department of Art, Wake Forest University

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