John Ruskins Rocks
John Ruskins Rocks

There are at least two ways to look at the mid-19th century group of British artists called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: as upstarts riding a wave of revolutionary ideas and new ways of seeing…or as sentimental fuddy duddies swimming against the tide. The National Gallery of Art’s “The Pre-Raphaelite Lens” exhibition endorses the former view, but it doesn’t entirely rule out the latter.

Here, curator Diane Waggoner reveals that painters like John Everett Millais, Gabriel Rossetti, and William Holman Hunt were, as no generation before them could have been, dependent on photographic images. But while they championed intense photographic observation, they also set their cultural clocks back a few centuries, declaring that Western artistic tradition from 1500 on had been a mistake. Accordingly, they favored some pretty musty old tropes—like medieval costumes, Arthurian legends, and laborious, quasi-Gothic renderings of ornamental patterns and surfaces.

Years later, the Pre-Raphaelite movement began to look like a dead end. But by placing PRB painting firmly in the context of work by like-minded photographers like Roger Fenton, Julia Cameron, and Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll), Waggoner gives this movement an unexpectedly contemporary gloss. These artists mined history, communicated with viewers via allegory, and experimented with new media—all hallmarks of art that’s being made right now.

But this show is really about the formative decades of British photography, and the way practitioners, critics, and artists in other disciplines struggled with what the heck to do with it. The 100 or so photos and 20 paintings on view demonstrate how photographic studies of nature during this time began to dictate the look of landscape paintings.

The show also revises the Pre-Raphaelite canon somewhat, emphasizing less acknowledged artists like Lady Clementina Hawarden, an isolated amateur who posed her adolescent daughters in the sun-drenched interiors of her home to create photos she called “life-studies.” Hawarden died in her 40s, and only exhibited her work in public twice; here, her charming, eccentric images get their due.

There are five sections in “The Pre-Raphaelite Lens,” each treating different subject matter, but, really, the show breaks down into two types of work: landscapes and figure studies. Both reflect to some extent the tensions photographers felt working within an orthodoxy that had quickly emerged—in which clarity of detail was not just desirable, but the primary concern of any serious photographer, trumping atmosphere, narrative, or any aesthetic effects borrowed from painting or illustration.

Once Victorians discovered the undreamed-of precision available in early daguerreotypes, they apparently developed an insatiable appetite for it. Photographs could enumerate details that would be tedious if not impossible for a painter to render by hand; this was considered by many to be their primary virtue.

In this frenzy for detail, some of the landscape photos here seem to have discarded any concern for pictorial composition whatsoever. Henry White’s “Ferns and Brambles” (1856) is a flat and entirely frontal study of a tangle of leaves. There is no sky, no horizon, and no background—just a field of texture and shadow that fills all but the bottom inch or so of the image. It tells us much about what information photographs can register when taken skillfully, but abandons any attempt to create a layered pictorial space. Similar studies of nature by Francis Bedford and William James Stillman keep the lens trained down, the subject fully in the lower two-thirds of the format, and the sky or background minimized.

Although this general flattening of space might seem purely like the province of photographic exercises, it soon shows up in landscape paintings. William Holman Hunt’s “The Haunted Manor” (1849–53), is mostly a close up of dark green grasses, leaves, and water splashing over slate or bricks. The manor is off in the distance, strictly an afterthought. In John William Inchbold’s “Mid-Spring” (c. 1856), aside from a few glossy, energetic, impastoed strokes indicating green leaves, there is a uniformity of detail in this crowded woodland scene that, as with White’s photo, tends to turn the piece into an all-over sea of marks. Black branches, deep green leaves, and blue flowers jostle with one another from top to bottom. Unlike later Impressionist painters who tended to emphasize complementary color relationships and overall effects of light and contrast, Inchbold keeps his colors almost uniformly cool, relying on small incremental passages of line and shadow.

Critic and artist John Ruskin was a major voice in support of the Pre-Raphaelites and their mania for minute observations. What Ruskin valued most in art was a love of nature as it really appears, unembellished by conceits of ideal beauty or conventional picture-making. Despite Ruskin’s distaste for technology, he was fascinated by daguerreotypes—they seemed to dispell stereotypical treatments of natural beauty. Like Hunt and Inchbold, Ruskin made drawings that appeared very much like photographs; his sketch of Fribourg, Switzerland, from 1859 is nearly an exact copy of a daguerreotype taken a few years prior.

What Ruskin seems to have missed is that photography merely discarded one set of conventions and replaced it with another: from this emphasis on close-ups, to odd cropping and composing, to the disappearance of background and sky, formulas took shape that were not necessarily better, but merely different.

Ruskin was emphatic that photographs were a means to an end. Imagine his frustration with photographers like Julia Cameron—who shot romantic portraits that often were essentially large, blurry heads viewed through gauzy layers of atmosphere. Cameron saw photography as a new playground for expression of emotional states and evoking poetic narratives from Shakespeare to Tennyson; accordingly, she gave her models costumes and props and typically shot them framed by foliage and enfolded by darkness.

A flow of ideas and information circulated among Cameron and her peers. This was not photography as quasi-scientific recording; this was an intuitive grasping for ways that photography could behave—and matter—like other more established disciplines. Despite the fact that Ruskin disapproved of both costumed tomfoolery and stage-y visual effects, both of these traveled through the PRB circle, notably in Cameron’s photography and Gabriel Rosetti’s painting. In the battle between steely-eyed realism and poetic flourish, the poetry largely won out.

Ultimately, “The Pre-Raphaelite Lens” shows how an incestuous group of artists wrestled with a massive upheaval in the business of image-making, and how they tried to solidify their place in the future of art by reaching into the past. This enthusiastic adoption of new techniques via new technology, paired with a search for old, honorable themes and some sort of gravitas, can begin to seem like not just a mismatch but a real failure of nerve—which is why Pre-Raphaelitism is so often thought of as that funny little cul de sac in the history of modernism. Still, what makes Waggoner’s exploration of this work so compelling is the human factor—the way artists freely riffed on one another’s discoveries and experimented at all levels, from enthusiastic photo amateurs to career portrait painters.

“The Pre-Raphaelite Lens” reveals an odd period in art history to be a little odder than we thought, and every bit as messy as the present moment.