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Catalog Review: American Pre-Raphaelites

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Catalog Review: American Pre-Raphaelites

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Catalog Review: American Pre-Raphaelites

Today the National Gallery in Washington opens the exhibition "American Pre-Raphaelites: Radical Realists."

Catalog Review: American Pre-Raphaelites
John William Hill, Bird's Nest and Dog Roses, 1867
watercolor, gouache, and graphite
The exhibit examines a group of American artists that were inspired by the English critic John Ruskin. Ruskin advocated that young artists should go to Nature ‘rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.’ 

Catalog Review: American Pre-Raphaelites
Thomas Charles Farrer, Mount Tom, 1865, oil on canvas,
The show includes more than 90 works of art, including oil paintings, watercolors, and drawings, some never before exhibited. One of the American leaders of the movement was English expatriate Thomas Charles Farrer, who was instrumental in spreading Ruskin's philosophy of close observation of nature.

Oddly enough, the curators left out Asher B. Durand from the selection of exhibited artists. He was a central figure in advocating truth-to-nature philosophies and practices, at least as much as Ruskin was. Although Durand didn't mention Ruskin by name in his Letters on Landscape Painting, he exemplified many of Ruskin's philosophies in his careful studies of trees and landscapes, and he gave Ruskin's ideas his own American slant. Durand exhibited these studies to a rising generation of landscape painters at the National Academy of Design in New York, where he was president from 1845-1861. Contrary to the impression left by the catalog essay, which quotes critics accusing Durand of belonging to a "past age and a dead system," in fact he remained an influential advocate of close observation, celebrated and beloved by younger artists until his death in 1886.

Catalog Review: American Pre-Raphaelites
Henry Roderick Newman, Study of Elms, 1866, watercolor, 17 x 19 in.
The catalog begins with seven essays examining roots of the truth-to-nature philosophies, the role of photography in their work, their interest in still life painting, and the iconography of American Pre-Raphaelites.

Catalog Review: American Pre-Raphaelites
Charles Herbert Moore, Hudson River, Above Catskill
One of the authors devotes twenty pages to the idea that some of the landscape paintings contain veiled references to the Civil War, Abolitionism, and other hidden political agendas. For example, the boat pulled up on shore in Charles Herbert Moore's painting Hudson River, Above Catskill is described as a "wrecked or stranded boat emblematic of a foundered ship of state and the associated fears for and even a loss of faith in the American corporate enterprise during and following the Civil War."

While some artists were certainly painting landscapes with political overtones during this period, I'm a bit skeptical of some of these interpretations. In the case of the Moore landscape above, maybe the boat was there because someone just beached his rowboat above the high tide line (the Hudson River above Catskill is tidal).

Catalog Review: American Pre-Raphaelites
William Trost Richards Corner of the Woods,
1864, graphite, 23 x 17.5 in.
I wish the catalog's editors had devoted less page space to political theories (why not publish those online?) and instead tell the factual and humorous stories of the artists. What logistical challenges did they face, and what practical methods did they use? There are a lot of vivid, first-hand accounts in letters and journals to draw upon. I also wish the editors would consult practicing painters and conservators to give themselves more of a grounding in the concerns the actual artists faced.

Or better yet, cut back on the text and devote more pages to reproductions of artwork.

Catalog Review: American Pre-Raphaelites
John William Hill, Apple Blossoms, watercolor, 1874, 9 x 15.5 in.
Despite those quibbles, the 312-page catalog is worth the cost ($65 list, $42 on Amazon) for the 210 color illustrations. There are high quality reproductions of all the works in the show, plus several closeups.

Catalog Review: American Pre-Raphaelites
Fidelia Bridges, Study of Ferns, oil on board, 10 x 12 in.
Catalog Review: American Pre-RaphaelitesI was especially impressed with the 11 works by William Trost Richards and the six samples by Fidelia Bridges. The back of the book includes an exhibition checklist, a timeline, artist biographies, notes, and index.
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Catalog: The American Pre-Raphaelites: Radical Realists on Amazon
Exhibition: American Pre-Raphaelites: Radical Realists will be up through July 21, 2019.


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1 Comments on Gurney Journey: Catalog Review: American Pre-Raphaelites

  • D.K. Vosburgh
    on April 15, 2019 | 17:19 D.K. Vosburghsaid :
    "I'm with you, James. Presumably they felt that in order to justify the "Radical" in the exhibition's title they had to pad the catalog out with a load of art-historiography. Incidentally, far from appearing "wrecked or stranded", that little skiff in the Moore painting looks all ship-shape and Bristol fashion to me."
Catalog Review: American Pre-Raphaelites

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