Apollo - March 2011
feature Pre-Raphaelite drawing
1 The First Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice or Dante Drawing the Angel, 1849 Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–82) Pen and brown ink on card, 40332cm © Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery 2 Garden Scene, 1849
John Everett Millais (1829–96) Pen and black ink on paper 28320.5cm Private collection the Academy from 1805 to 1807, John Opie, went much further than Joshua Reynolds in defining the role of drawing both in the academic syllabus and for the understanding of the pictorial arts. In his published lectures, he insisted upon the efficacy of anatomical study which must not be allowed to take over the study of art and must always be accompanied by an understanding of proportion nurtured by a study of the antique. Opie posed his readers a question: ‘If you ask them [the academies], “What is the first requisite in a painter?” will they not say, Drawing? “What the second?” Drawing. “What the third?” Drawing. They tell you, indeed, to acquire colouring, chiaroscuro, and composition, if you can; but they insist on your becoming draftsmen.’2
Drawing was central to the development of Pre-Raphaelite art, too, because, apart from the personal and poetic potential it held for them, making a drawing was cheaper than producing a painting and provided a quick and easy way of presenting a compositional idea. This had already been the case for the Cyclographic Society, formed in 1848, of which Rossetti, Millais and William Holman Hunt (1827–1910) were members before they departed to form their own society. One of the surviving documents from the Cyclographic Society is a sheet of criticisms of Rossetti’s outline for Goethe’s Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles in Church (1848). All the members of the society thought the work successful, for the most part, although they all criticised – in the manner of the society – various elements in the composition. Holman Hunt, however, observed in his opening comment: ‘This design is in such perfect feeling as to give me a far higher idea of Goethe than I have before obtained either from a translation, or the artificial illustrations of Retsch [sic].’3 Here we can detect a sense that art needed reform, even where it had been reformed and purified already in the comparatively recent designs of Retzsch.
The choice of outline drawing has further significance. The outline style raised issues about the relationship of the illustration to the text and also of the fragmentary or partial nature of drawing that made it suggestive for poetic ideas. This was not simply the ‘outline’ recommended as a process in the development of drawing skills at the Royal Academy schools, but a self-sufficient illustrative mode. Certainly, in acting as a way of synthesising the linear austerity of Neo-Classicism with the more emotionally charged art of the Romantic period, the outline style gave rise to a hybrid art that could be found within the covers of a book rather than on the walls of a gallery.
The two outline works by Rossetti and Millais suggested different approaches to
drawing practice and made me think further about the many issues around the subject of drawing in the work of the Pre-Raphaelites and, more generally, in the art of 19th-century Britain. In Dante Drawing an Angel, for example, Rossetti illustrated the autobiography of his poet hero, Dante Alighieri (c. 1265–1321). The result defied the methods of the Royal Academy where conventionality, ideality and a generalised High Art aesthetic were the order of the day. Rossetti was drawing out of himself, from his own imagination, inspired by and responding to Dante. The Millais drawing, however, appears to allegorise the ‘truth-tonature’ agenda of the Pre-Raphaelites, championed later by Ruskin and advanced in several of his books, particularly Modern
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