Continuing the series of posts adapted from lecture notes on the influence of the Italian renaissance on 19th century English art; we now come to an artist who features heavily on this blog. Ladies and gentlemen, Raphael Sanzio meets the Victorians!
Raphael’s status as “the foremost painter (Sir Joshua Reynolds) was never in doubt in the mind’s of the artists and professionals who ran the Royal Academy. Feted for his clarity of thought and precision in execution, Raphael provided the model for students of the academy to emulate. Charles Lock Eastlake, soon to be Director of the National Gallery, built Raphael’s standard of excellence into his art.
When Eastlake became Director in 1855, he lost no time in seeking out Raphael’s art for the museum. He acquired the Virgin, Child and Infant Baptist from Lord Garvagh, which gives the picture its name, the Garvagh Madonna. As Nicholas Penny notes in the catalogue to the 2004 Raphael exhibition in London, the “lucid palette and airy colour” of the Garvagh Madonna would have appealed to Eastlake who styled his art on Raphael.
Eastlake spread his interest in Raphael beyond the NG, out into the realm of public decorations and schemes. When asked to join a team of painters selected to decorate a pavilion ( left) in the grounds of Buckingham Palace, Eastlake opted for “an abstracted Virtue surrounded by Raphaelesque cherubs to quote the words of Mrs Jameson, the English art historian.” For Eastlake, English artists should seek to use the methods of renaissance masters when decorating walls and large surfaces; paintings required a “master mind” with lots of assistants to help in the preparation. In addition to that, Eastlake advised painters embarking on public schemes, like the decoration of the Houses of Parliament, to adopt Raphaelite precedents.
Another painter involved in the Houses of Parliament project, less famous than Eastlake was William Dyce, who might be considered the greatest devotee of Raphael in the 19th century. His Madonnas are Raphael filtered through the simplicity of the Nazarenes, a German community of artists heavily influenced by the young renaissance master. Like Eastlake, Dyce believed firmly that in undertaking large art and design projects, artists should look to Raphael and his school:
“At that period (15th and 16th centuries) the great men whose pre-eminent talents have rendered their names familiar to us, did not disdain to guide spirits of an inferior order, who laboured mechanically at the loom, in the porcelain manufactory, in the workshop or with the needle…they educated a class of workmen in their schools, whose province it was to follow out in detail the designs and ideas of their masters…Thus it was in the school of Raffaele.”
Dyce studied renaissance art in Italy, and numbered among his favourites Gozzoli, Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Pinturicchio, Sebastiano del Piombo, and of course Raphael. He even wrote in 1856 to Eastlake suggesting he buy Raphael’s Agony in the Garden predella from the Colonna Altarpiece, as well as earlier art. In pressing Eastlake to buy what he called “genuine examples”, Dyce was theorising that art had an “adolescent” state, defined by “freshness of thought and invention, a vivacity, a gaiety, a vividness of impression, an innocence, simplicity and truthfulness which belong to first efforts.” Dyce found these qualities in those masters who had preceded Raphael; within this scheme Raphael, of course, would represent full maturity.
So two Victorian artists, and now a critic and amateur artist- what of Ruskin’s attitude to Raphael?
In order to understand that, we need to consider his remarks in a lecture called “Pre-Raphaelitism”, given at Edinburgh University in 1853. In that talk Ruskin describes Raphael’s frescoes in the Stanza della Segnatura, particularly Parnassus and Disputa, embodying Poetry and Religion respectively. In selecting these murals, Ruskin is making the point that Raphael was elevating poetry, in which the pagan god Apollo is featured, to the same level of religious faith represented by the Disputa. In effect, Ruskin is declaring that Raphael is not a true Christian painter because his spirit is too imbued with paganism.
“Raphael had neither religion nor originality enough to trace the spirit of poetry and the spirit of philosophy to the inspiration of the true God, as well as that of theology, but that, on the contrary, he elevated the creations of fancy on the one wall, to the same rank as the objects of faith upon the other [original italics]; that in deliberate balanced opposition to the Rock of Mount Zion, he reared the rock of Parnassus, and the rock of the Acropolis; [a reference to Philosophy in the same room] that, among the masters of poetry we find him enthroning Petrarch and Pindar, but not Isaiah nor David, and for lords over the domain of philosophy we find the masters of the School of Athens, but neither of those greater masters by the last of whom that school was rebuked- those who received their wisdom from heaven itself, in the vision of Gideon and the lightning of Damascus.” Thus Ruskin, in his grave rotund style, damns Raphael.
Ruskin is also saying that Raphael’s works mark the separation between medievalism and modernism; the one concerns itself with the spiritual essence of painting; the other involves technique, skill and a showier, meretricious notion of art. In Ruskin’s words, the “perfection of execution and the beauty of feature which were attained in his works, and in those of his great contemporaries, rendered finish of execution and the beauty of form the chief objects of all artists, and thenceforward execution was looked for rather than thought, and beauty rather than veracity.”
One thing remains unresolved. Did Ruskin know that the face of the young man staring out of the crowded Acropolis was Raphael’s own? This would have confirmed his suspicions that Raphael had forsaken the sweet, pure Madonnas of his early Umbrian period and “defected” to the high pagan classicism of papal Rome. Ruskin could have learnt about Raphael’s presence from Dyce , although the latter seems to have ignored the School of Athens completely, and studied the Disputa instead.
From the Disputa Dyce created art via the purity and simplicity of the Nazarenes that would even meet with Ruskin’s approval. In such designs as Dyce’s The Vision of Sir Galahad and his Company (1847), Raphael is assimilated into a Victorian realm ruled by Christianity, Chivalry and Civic Virtue. He has become domesticated by the Victorians and could not be further removed from the Italian renaissance.