On Saturday, I stopped by to view the new exhibit, "Pre-Raphaelites and Their Followers: British and American Drawings from The Huntington's Collections," which opened that same day and will run through Sept. 26, 2011.
The exhibit takes a look at a 19th-century British movement inspired by Italian and Flemish art of the 15th century—a movement that sparked a trans-Atlantic conversation and had at its heart the desire to reform art through emphasizing careful observation of the world around us.
Nearly 40 objects are on display in the Chandler wing of the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art, showcasing the work of artists who were members or followers of the British Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood or its American counterpart, The Society for the Advancement of Truth in Art—artists such as William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, William Trost Richards and John Henry Hill.
The objects include drawings, sketches, paintings and watercolors. Also featured are two exceedingly rare pamphlets, which are first issues of two different journals: one published by the British group, the other by the American.
The British journal, entitled The Germ (alluding to the beginning or seed of a new thought), lasted for four issues, while the American one, The New Path, published 24 issues from 1863-1865—the latter years of the American Civil War. Both journals sought to express, in art and writing, the philosophies of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. The editions on display serve to represent the artistic conversation that was taking place on two continents.
The exhibit is a not-to-be-missed opportunity for people to encounter Pre-Raphaelite works that they ordinarily wouldn't see (due to the fragile nature of media and paper, many of the works are rarely displayed), "and likewise this American material, which is pretty obscure," said Matthew Fisk, Research Fellow at The Huntington and guest co-curator of the exhibit with Melinda McCurdy, Associate Curator of European Art. "A lot of people might not know this stuff, and [there are] these rare pamphlets to tie it all together. It's a pretty remarkable and unique exhibition."
It is particularly interesting to note the difference in subject matter between the British and the American Pre-Raphaelite artworks on display. The American pieces are mostly landscapes, whereas the British works depict medieval and narrative scenes as well.
Fisk explained, "America didn't have the kind of legacy that the Royal Academy had in England. It didn't have… the ancient history, the medieval history… in America it was more about a clean slate."
He later added that "America was a younger nation with a fresher, newer intellectual culture--you could even say that in the nineteenth century this intellectual culture was more focused on the natural environment (e.g. Transcendentalism) than an ancient historical legacy, as in Britain."
Judging from the introductory essay on the cover page of The New Path, the Americans saw this lack of history as a benefit. The author cites the "almost inestimable advantage of having no past, no masters and no schools," along with a public audience that, according to the article, had very little preconceived ideas or prejudices about what art was supposed to be about.
The American artists thus headed out into nature in search of the truth to be found there—and some even made their way to California, as John Henry Hill's Domes of Yosemite (on view) attests.
"The landscape artists, they would paint and draw these landscapes in the most specific and minute detail possible," said Fisk."That activity of going out and observing this and recording it and drawing it as true to nature as possible, not only was this important intellectually, it had this sacred, kind of votive aspect to it as well."
Though the British and American artists may have been drawing on different historical legacies for subject matter, both groups had in common their devotion to art's sacred purpose of closely observing the natural world.
Both also were connected by the prominent art and literary critic John Ruskin. The British Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood influenced his art and criticism, and he became an enthusiastic supporter of the movement. His writings also helped spread Pre-Raphaelitism to America.
One of his own drawings (he was also an accomplished draftsman) is included in the exhibit, as is an illustration by Esther Francis "Francesca" Alexander, a young woman whose art he championed by publishing all of her illustrated works between 1883 and 1889. The illustration on display was a piece he purchased directly from her and kept with him until his death in 1900.
Another close friend of Ruskin's was Henry Roderick Newman, whose watercolor and gouache painting of Florence, Duomo from the Mozzi Garden exhibits a strong clarity of both small and large, and near and far, objects within the frame—again, emphasizing the importance of clear vision of all that is in the world.
If you follow the exhibit around the room clockwise, the last painting on the wall near the entrance perfectly reflects this goal of the Pre-Raphaelites. It's a watercolor landscape in a circular format by John Henry Hill, called River Scene (ca. 1880). The placard suggests that the shape of the painting is likely a deliberate choice by Hill, symbolizing the lens of a camera or of a human eye. It's a form that calls to mind as well the last lines of a poem that appear on the cover page of The Germ:
Ask: "Is this truth?" For is it still to tell
That, be the theme a point or the whole earth,
Truth is a circle, perfect, great or small?