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Consider two nineteenth-century paintings, made in the same year and same Europe, each alluding to a work by Titian. One is Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863), a picture central to the modernist canon. With simplified brushwork and pared-down tonality, Manet transplants Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) into contemporary Paris. The painting, which ventures a commentary on modern life through its presentation of the Venus as a modern woman, works because of its bold departure from its source. At the same time across the channel, Dante Gabriel Rossetti was painting Fazio’s Mistress (1863), a very different sort of allusion to another work by Titian (Titian’s Mistress, known today as Woman with a Mirror, ca. 1515). Unlike Olympia, Fazio’s Mistress does not take up a combative stance in relation to its source. Instead, Rossetti’s painting seems to draw close to Titian’s Mistress, maintaining its rich tonality and subject matter. Fazio’s Mistress is akin to a translation of the Titian into Rossetti’s voice, preserving the aesthetic character and operating within the same visual world as its precursor. Rossetti is painting like Titian: he positions himself not in defiance of the Italian master, but as his humble pupil.
By modernist standards, of course, Manet’s is the “stronger” painting precisely because it competes with the earlier work. Great art, on this account, overthrows its precursors; innovation is achieved through a sort of patricide, what Harold Bloom described as a fight to the death with one’s predecessors (The Anxiety of Influence, 1973). By contrast, art like Rossetti’s—which approaches the earlier work with generosity and receptivity—is considered “weak” and unoriginal. Effectively, this account excludes half a century of English painting from the history of modern art, for even a cursory glance at the work of canonical Victorian artists like the Pre-Raphaelite Brothers, Edward Burne-Jones, and Frederic Leighton reveals their indebtedness to a range of old masters, from the Flemish Primitives through the painters of the Italian Renaissance and Spanish Golden Age. The seemingly derivative nature of such Victorian art is likely one reason the modernist generation of Roger Fry and Clive Bell regarded it with such distaste. A version of their ideology persists in the lack of serious art historical attention that is paid to art that alludes lovingly to the past. Our discipline still prefers the new and “original” to the old and imitative.
To this Elizabeth Prettejohn’s latest book, Modern Painters, Old Masters, poses a bold challenge. Her striking central claim, radical in its simplicity, is that the sort of “generous” imitation practiced by the Victorians can be a genuine route to originality (15). Through a nuanced close study of a range of Victorian and Edwardian paintings, coupled with the old master works with which they were in dialogue, Prettejohn reveals how the modern English painters of her title—the usual cast of characters, from John Everett Millais to James McNeill Whistler—were in fact at their most original when imitating the works of earlier artists. Prettejohn is sensitive to the gendered implications of the modernist ideology that privileges competition and aggression over collaboration and receptivity. Her prioritizing of “generous” imitation serves not only a scholarly but also a moral and political purpose by demonstrating what is vital about art that embraces more “feminine” traits. Indeed, the reader is left wishing for a greater focus on Victorian women artists; only Evelyn De Morgan is considered, and somewhat cursorily. Nevertheless, when discussing the artists on whom she has built her career, Prettejohn does not disappoint, managing to bring important new insights to works as familiar as Millais’s Mariana (1850–51).
From Sandro Botticelli to Jan van Eyck, from Giorgione to Diego Velázquez, the old masters provided the Victorians with a wellspring of inspiration, prompting them to experiment with a range of alternative painting techniques and formal procedures and to develop new approaches for reflecting on issues of art making, including the nature of representation itself. By paying close attention to what they found compelling in earlier paintings, the later artists—members of what Oscar Wilde termed the “English Renaissance” in 1882—were able to innovatively explore a range of positions in their art, finding their own voices in the process (39). Modern Painters, Old Masters convincingly demonstrates that Victorian art was no less modern for being in dialogue, as opposed to competition, with the past.
The reciprocal nature of such a dialogue between the Victorians and their long-dead precursors is an important part of Prettejohn’s argument. At the same time that the Victorians were discovering themselves through generous imitation, she maintains, they were also discovering for us the earlier painters around whom she structures her book. By the mid-nineteenth century, newly established public collections like the National Gallery had flooded London with earlier European art, and what was considered canonical was in flux. Coupled with England’s lack of an atelier system, this meant that young artists were able to choose more freely whom and what to study, empowered by this flexible canon to approach past art with openness rather than resistance. Previous scholarship has explored the roles of nineteenth-century art history and museum collecting in this revision of the canon, but Prettejohn is original in centering the works of art and practicing artists in her account, while also emphasizing that the revision was a collaborative effort. Modern Painters, Old Masters reveals how, by paying close and reverential attention to their predecessors’ works, Victorian painters showed their audiences why not-yet canonical masters like Leonardo da Vinci were worthy of emulation in the first place. Indeed, the most lasting legacy of the Victorian artists discussed in this book—whose own reputations have suffered a checkered history—is arguably the high esteem in which we hold the masters they imitated.
In her emphasis on the dialogue between artworks, artists, and viewers across the conventional boundaries of time, Prettejohn follows Walter Pater, the Victorian art critic whose quiet but powerful influence can be felt at almost every level of her book. Indeed, Pater’s articulation of a web of contact binding artists, artworks, and audiences in conversation across generations forms the weft of Prettejohn’s own argument. She also follows Pater in refusing to honor a conventional assumption of art history: that the original meaning of a work of art is more important than its later receptions. What that convention treats as a problem—the mystery of what artworks might once have meant to the audiences for whom they were made—Pater transforms into what Prettejohn calls an “aesthetic virtue” (217). He spins his discussions of art into passages that are themselves works of supreme beauty; reveling in the mysteries of his sources, he attributes qualities to them that go beyond what we can know with certainty. Oscar Wilde commented that Pater’s famously effusive interpretation of the Mona Lisa, for instance, makes it “more wonderful to us than it really is, and reveals to us a secret of which, in truth, it knows nothing” (quoted 167). But Wilde, observes Prettejohn, “misses the more radical possibility”: that Pater’s interpretation does “reveal something genuine about the earlier work—a secret that it does know” (167). Prettejohn applies this prism to the Victorian paintings she discusses: beautiful and innovative works that do indeed transcend their sources, but also, through generous and meticulous imitation, stage those sources’ secrets for us.
Such a view inverts standard art historical hierarchies. In the introduction to Modern Painters, Old Masters, Prettejohn points out that art history has yet to develop the same level of theoretical sophistication as literary scholarship in its articulation of the relationships between works of art over time, particularly regarding artworks that allude to earlier ones (4). In its thorough and nuanced consideration of the concepts of generous and competitive imitation, both theoretically and in relation to a range of concrete visual examples, her book certainly raises the bar for critical discussion. Prettejohn successfully demonstrates that visual allusion can be at once a route to innovation—part of the making of a “modern” art—and a reflective exercise, offering genuine insights into the older works, into the process of art making, and into ourselves. And she does so with an elegance worthy of Pater himself.
Modern Painters, Old Masters is bound to become a seminal work in Victorian studies. But any art historian will delight in this book. There is something deeply satisfying, not to mention honorable, about Prettejohn’s commitment to actually looking at the work of art before her—a hallmark of her distinguished career. She compels us to see differently, and shows us how.
The Courtauld Institute of Art