Why these pretty pictures of twigs and boulders were once considered so radical

|    Philip Kennicott   |

IT ISN’T immediately obvious, to contemporary eyes, what made the art of the American Pre-Raphaelites seem so ugly and so radical to 19th-century critics. Their intimately detailed water colours and brightly lit oil paintings seem to depict pretty things, like views of the forest or the garden; landscapes seen from on high or resplendent autumn colours; and attractive people lost in their labours or solitary communion with sadness or memory. If anything, we might say that many of the works on view in the National Gallery’s delightful “The American Pre-Raphaelites: Radical Realists” are a bit sentimental and fussy.

But before you visit this exhibition, spend a little time in another part of the gallery, Room 64, where you’ll see American landscapes made from about 1825 to 1865 – the decades before the emergence of the new American realists. The colours are more burnished and blended, the sense of nature more metaphorical or allegorical, and the light freighted with a significance that transcends any ordinary power of nature. The sun is rarely visible in the Pre-Raphaelites’ work except by implication. It merely does its basic work, illuminating and casting shadows and sometimes, rather like it does in early photographs, washing out the sky and flattening the background. This isn’t poetic light, but merely the light cast by a glowing orb in the sky some 90 million miles from our particular patch of planetary scrub.

The National Gallery has mounted this engaging survey of relatively little-known American artists in honour of the 200th anniversary of John Ruskin’s birth. Ruskin was the great art critic of the Victorian age, an accomplished artist in his own right and a compelling moral figure during an age of rapid industrialization, displacement, environmental destruction and loss of traditional ways of life, including crafts and handiwork. He was a champion of the better-known English Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – they chose the name because they admired the intense colours and complexity of art from before the age of Raphael. But his ideas had transatlantic resonance, and some of the essential figures of the American movement, including Thomas Charles Farrer, were educated in England.

In 1863, Farrer was instrumental in founding an organization with a title that perfectly sums up the ambition and spirited high ideals of the artists involved: The Association for the Advancement of the Cause of Truth in Art. It was created during the Civil War, the greatest moral and political crisis of the new nation, and many of its members were abolitionists. But Ruskin’s moral contribution seems, perhaps, a bit quaint: He inspired in the American artists a commitment to focus on the observed reality of nature, to work out of doors and record things just as they saw them.

Three of Ruskin’s own works are on view, and they suggest two ways of interpreting this “truth to nature” dictum. In his “Fragment of the Alps,” a giant boulder is seen in all its misshapen, heavy grandeur, discoloured and weathered, placed in the centre of the picture, blocking any path through the image, like one of nature’s comic afterthoughts. Whereas “Twig of Peach Bloom” is a small, elegant, finely observed watercolour that feels more like a portrait of a beloved person than a picture of a thing.

John Ruskin’s Fragment of the Alps from around 1854-1856
Thomas C Farrer’s Self-Portrait, Sketching from around 1859
Charles Herbert Moore’s Hudson River, Above Catskill, 1865

The American painters made work in both veins, painting rockfalls, rubble-strewn river beds and the haphazard glacial detritus of the Adirondack and Catskill mountains, along with exquisite depictions of flowers, vines and weeds. A striking image by Charles Herbert Moore shows a natural landing on the Hudson River, covered with small rocks and washed-up river waste, including an animal skull and a small empty boat. Those details, and the painting’s date (1865), have led to the suggestion that it is a response to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, with the boat symbolizing the now rudderless state.

Figure painting was less a preoccupation of the American Pre-Raphaelites than their English brethren (subject of a 2013 National Gallery show), who scandalised conservative art circles by representing religious figures as ordinary mortals and teasing out an alluring sexiness in the everyday world. The American painters were alert to the ideas of Ruskin but less engaged with their English colleagues’ interest in reviving aspects of late-Gothic and early-Renaissance styles of painting. The American artists were responding, rather, to the history they knew, the American painters from before the Civil War, who seemed to the younger artists to have falsified nature, putting it to work in ways that felt too “artsy” or contrived.

In 1865, a sharp-tongued critic called the American Pre-Raphaelites “the Myopian Club,” and encouraged them to put down their magnifying glasses, give up their “microscopic studies of foregrounds” and “try to look at Nature as if she had a beautiful and divine soul.” Nature, of course, has no soul, but it is a good place to go and try to believe that we have one. The courage of these artists was painting nature without imposing our sense of her soul on it.

It was a short-lived movement, and by 1871 Farrer had returned to England. But this exhibition makes a powerful case that their work should be better known and more fully integrated into standard accounts of American art. The challenge to audiences is to see it in context, and search out the connection between the careful observation of nature and the larger message of Ruskin: that greed and ideology and capitalism and thoughtlessness are despoiling our world and all its beauty.

That truth, invested in every fern frond and forest scene, has never been more urgent. – Text and Photos by The Washington Post