Published in Art Quarterly, 2017
“Great artists steal”, said Picasso, and he would know, being one of the most celebrated plunderers of other people’s ideas in modern art. (The quote may not even be originally his). Less discussed is the role of artistic theft – or, rather, imitation and reference – in earlier generations of artists. In Elizabeth Prettejohn’s remarkable book, the author makes the case for nineteenth-century British artists, especially the Pre-Raphaelites, as innovators in this regard. Yet she argues that their approach was of a different sort to the adversarial attitude of Francis Bacon to Velázquez, say, or Picasso to Rembrandt. Rather, in Prettejohn’s lucid explanation, artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt preferred what she calls ‘generous imitation’. Tracing the passage of visual ideas from the Renaissance to the Victorian, Prettejohn constructs a compelling case for the value of this conversation between the old and the new. A single object in a historic work of art – that famous convex mirror in Jan van Eyck’s ‘Arnolfini Portrait’, for instance – turns up, transformed, in a dizzying array of later paintings, providing a visual solution for the problem of painted space. So, too, do compositional ideas from paintings by Lorenzo Monaco, Giovanni Bellini and Sandro Botticelli. The old master becomes an unwitting teacher of, even collaborator with, the artists of the modern era.
The parallel story of the book is the rise of public museums, especially the National Gallery, which opened in 1824. No longer obliged to travel long distances to see the work of masters they revered, young artists in London could study the original first-hand. This is where Prettejohn’s argument gathers steam. Rather than consciously pitting themselves against established greats of the past, the Pre-Raphaelites and others explored the works of artists that were then rather obscure, including now-celebrated names such as Piero della Francesca, Andrea Mantegna and even van Eyck. Because they had at that point failed to ossify into familiarity – they weren’t ‘old masters’ yet – these artists retained their enigmatic quality, and thereby granted freedom to artists in search of inspiration. By investigating these then-underrated paintings through imitation and allusion, Victorian artists were instrumental in the expansion of the western artistic canon, plucking great artists from obscurity and asserting their quality in the process. If, as Michel Foucault argued (semi-approvingly quoted here) modern painting is an art of the museum age, the Pre-Raphaelites may well be its first flowering. For Prettejohn, though, their paintings do more: they help us to see the art of the past. (Literally, in some cases: late 19th century acquisitions of Spanish paintings by the National Gallery seem to have been influenced in part by the important influence of Goya, Velázquez and others on the contemporary art of the time). It’s a curious case of history running backwards. While scholars could construct academic arguments in favour of these lost greats, Victorian paintings were the argument. Theirs was an art history written in paint.