When the National Gallery acquired Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434) in 1842, it was the only pristine example of early Netherlandish painting from this period in their collection. Van Eyck had also been erroneously credited as the inventor of oil painting, a sixteenth-century myth invented by Giorgio Vasari in Italy and perpetuated by Karel van Mander in Flanders. This acquisition only consolidated this belief in the nineteenth century. Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites at the National Gallery explores the important formative impact of the Arnolfini Portrait on the visual language of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – founded in 1848 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais – and their followers.
Based on the exhibition alone, it would appear they only took from van Eyck a case of ‘mirror mania’; this is only part of the equation. The theme was indeed important as the reflections of mirrors offered an exciting world beyond the real world of the Victorian interior. They were perfect for optical illusions, fantastical extensions of the visual space, and served as devices from which moral values and messages could be alluded and conveyed. The latter is perfectly in keeping with Pre-Raphaelite values to depict ‘genuine ideas’ and ‘serious’ subject matter (e.g. morally problematic issues in contemporary society), as recorded in 1895 – several decades after the Brotherhood had disbanded – by William Michael Rossetti in his family memoir:
‘1, To have genuine ideas to express; 2, to study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them; 3, to sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote; and 4, and most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.’
Mirrors became a fashionable staple in the modern Victorian home. Rossetti owned 24 mirrors in his Chelsea home at 16 Cheyne Walk, nine of which were convex: one of these is shown next to a circular painting (tondo) of his bedroom by his assistant, Henry Treffry Dunn. In another section of the exhibition, a convex mirror used by William Orpen features alongside two of his paintings – The Mirror (1900) and A Bloomsbury Family (1907) – both of which prominently exploit the mirror’s ability to depict scenes outside the pictorial image.
A section devoted to Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott is probably the strongest part of the exhibition. The Pre-Raphaelites adored medieval subjects and Arthurian tales of chivalry, an interest that was heavily indebted to Tennyson’s early poetry; they even included him in their list of ‘Immortals’ containing artistic and literary heroes whom they admired.
The poem speaks of a Lady who suffers from a mysterious curse, living in an island castle on a river which flows to Camelot. Without ever looking directly out onto the world, she is forced to continually weave images on her loom; she can only observe from a mirror at these ‘shadows of the world’.
No time hath she to sport and play:
A charmed web she weaves always.
A curse is on her, if she stay
Her weaving, either night or day,
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be;
Therefore she weaveth steadily,
Therefore no other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.
Many of the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers depicted the life-threatening moment when the Lady of Shalott glimpses the ‘bold Sir Lancelot’ and brings the curse upon herself by ceasing her weaving and looking out of her window towards Camelot.
She left the web, she left the loom
She made three paces thro’ the room
She saw the water-flower bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look’d down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried
The Lady of Shalott.
Among the representatives is the accompanying wood engraving designed by Holman Hunt for Edward Moxon’s illustrated 1857 edition of Tennyson’s collected Poems (usually known as the Moxon Tennyson) and the artist’s preparatory oil sketch, dated about 1886-1905, for the large oil painting The Lady of Shalott (1905) now in the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, a later reworking of the same design. These are textbook examples of this dramatic moment, showing her textile creations unravelling in front her whilst the magical mirror in the background shows Lancelot riding into the distance.
A less dramatic, even graceful representation of the subject can be seen in Elizabeth Siddall’s pen-and-ink drawing (1853), lent by the Maas Gallery, in which the Lady turns her head away from the loom towards the window. The mirror on the wall cracks and the threads untangle. The motif of the cracked mirror also features in the background of John William Waterhouse’s depiction at Leeds Art Gallery, dated 1894.
Yet by far the most beautiful painting in the exhibition happens to be ‘I am Half-Sick of Shadows, Said the Lady of Shalott’ (1913) by Sidney Meteyard – a member of the Birmingham Group informally associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement – which illustrates a previous moment in the mirror when she sees ‘two young lovers lately wed’. The Lady is dressed in extravagant blue and appears to have fallen asleep. Coloured threads sit in a basket beside her, waiting to be weaved into the tapestry in front of her.
From the exhibition alone, the van Eyckian mirror was clearly an important compositional and narrative device for these artists. However, to educate visitors with a better understanding of the visual language of the Pre-Raphaelites, the exhibition needed to credit their heavy debt to the wider Netherlandish tradition and of early Italian painting (e.g. Giotto, Sandro Botticelli, Benozzo Gozzoli) and their printed reproductions. But in the context of van Eyck alone, I will list three major factors that I felt needed greater emphasis in the exhibition proper; some of these were only mentioned in the short, introductory film on the other side of the room which not all visitors take the time to watch.
Firstly, although mention has been made to some extent on the compositional parallels between the figures in the Arnolfini Portrait and subsequent sitters in Victorian daguerreotypes and Millais’ Mrs James Wyatt Jr and her Daughter Sarah (about 1850), not enough attention is given to the adoption of closely-cropped compositions which emphasised the importance of the figures whilst strengthening the feeling of intimacy, as in Holman Hunt’s Il Dolce Far Niente (1859-66, reworked 1874-75) or William Morris’ La Belle Iseult (1857-58). In fact, the choice of objects in the latter have more in common with the Arnolfini Portrait than one would think, such as the bed, carpet, dog, mirror, slipper, and even oranges! Morris also paid direct homage to van Eyck by adopting, in his textiles, the motto ‘If I Can’, his interpretation of van Eyck’s ‘Als Ich Kan’ (As I Can) as inscribed on the Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?) (1433).
The second is that the Brotherhood had an obsession for representing their subjects and settings in minute, naturalistic detail, a defining characteristic of Netherlandish art in general. This adherence to ‘truth to Nature’ was a defining factor which aligned with John Ruskin’s values on art, the critic who would go on to actively support the Brotherhood and attract numerous patrons to their cause.
The exhibition does indeed mention the significance of painstakingly-rendered details, chosen specifically with the aim of furthering the narrative of each painting. However, no mention has been made of an important element of this obsessive habit: each detail entailed a degree of appropriateness to the subject it illustrates (‘to depict physiognomy, costume and surroundings as accurately as possible’). Millais’ Christ in the House of His Parents (The Carpenter’s Shop) (1849-50) – not included in the exhibition – was given a scathing critique by Charles Dickens for precisely this, choosing to represent Christ as a ‘hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy’ instead of a pure, divine being untainted by earthly circumstances.
Many details in other paintings by the Brotherhood also corresponded closely with their textual sources, such as the depictions of The Lady of Shalott. A belief which also underlined Pre-Raphaelite art is that art and poetry should be didactically intertwined; this is best illustrated by the Brotherhood’s short-lived periodical called The Germ, first published in 1850 and cut after four issues due to unpopularity. Rossetti also made a habit of writing sonnets to accompany his visual creations, as in the case of The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848-49), allowing for multiple reinterpretations of his work.
Finally, a major lesson from van Eyck was the use of a white ground to prepare the painting surface, as seen in Ford Madox Brown’s ‘Take your Son, Sir!’ (begun 1851-52; enlarged and reworked 1856-57). They also used a copal-based medium for binding their pigments, giving their colours a glossy glaze. By applying their paints in successive transparent layers, the colours could be vibrantly enhanced and contrasted by exploiting the reflective white ground beneath. This is why many Pre-Raphaelite paintings like Millais’ Mariana (1851) and Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience (1853) exhibit brilliant, intense colours, lustrous effects similar to stained glass, and sometimes a sense of over-saturation that may appear garish.
From an academic perspective, Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites is not exactly a bad exhibition idea. In fact, it is one of very few exhibitions which solely dedicate themselves to the Pre-Raphaelites’ important engagements with the Old Masters; for this, I must praise the curators. These artistic dialogues were formative in shaping and consolidating their visual language and artistic aims, rebelling against the decadence of High Renaissance art (held in high esteem by the Royal Academy) in search of a purer, meaningful approach to art that dealt with serious contemporary issues. The contemporaneous nature of their chosen themes (e.g. poverty, prostitution) was also a key factor in bridging the art and culture of the past with that of the present.
However, the current exhibition’s obvious obsession with the mirror’s multidimensional uses comes across as tenuous and mildly interesting. I deeply empathise with the curators for choosing this topic to represent this collaboration between the National Gallery and Tate Britain. It was worthwhile endeavour which may have been a hit with the academics, but an unfortunately miss with the critics and audiences.
CLICK HERE to read my review of the accompanying exhibition catalogue.
Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites runs until 2 April 2018 at the National Gallery, London, www.nationalgallery.org.uk.