Reflections, the current exhibition at the National Gallery refocusses attention on the PRB’s original impulse and choice of name, invoking artists before Raphael, who in the 1840s were commonly designated ‘Italian Primitives’ and not regarded of great worth. Hence much of the contempt heaped on PRB pictures for their glaring faults in composition and treatment, harking back to unsophisticated art of the distant past.. The dividing line between primitive and progressive, or ‘medieval’ and ‘modern’, was fixed at 1500, insofar as picture dates and attributions were identifiable.When I first walked into the NG exhibition, which is curated by Susan Foister and Alison Smith, I thought it was linked to Liz Prettejohn’s latest book Modern Painters, Old Masters -that is, that the latter was ‘the book of the show’. But it is apparently not so, and indeed the book has a far wider field than the exhibition, which is built around the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck. However, or perhaps moreover, the book investigates the relation between the portrait and the artists of the PRB generation in great depth. One citation is Ruskin’s commendation of ‘a small picture on panel, representing two quaintly dressed figures in a dimly lighted room’ - i.e. the Arnolfini Portrait – ‘dependent for its interest little on expression, and less on treatment – but eminently remarkable for reality of substance, vacuity of space, and vigour of quiet colour’.[Quarterly Review March 1847]
Two years later, the first PRB works were ready for exhibition, with their semi-secret initials and unconventional style. Six months after this, DGR and WHH set off for Bruges on their trip to France and Flanders in autumn 1849. Paris was a necessary destination for any British painter, but Bruges and Ghent were obligatory for those who had taken the ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ label for themselves and been criticised for valorising ‘primitive’ modes and works. DGR’s responses to art were often poetic and he duly composed sonnets on their travels. Some of these, including tributes to Memling but not van Eyck, were published in The Germ, the literary manifestation of the PRB, which DGR conceived and wrote for in the final months of 1849.
The second issue contained Hand & Soul, his keynote fiction of a 13th century Italian artist whom he named Chiaro di Messer Bello dell’ Erma and who appears as if a PRB avatar. The tale begins as an art historical account of a very ‘primitive’ Florentine painter, of whom ‘little heed is taken’ and whose work is ‘gone like time gone – a track of dust and dead leaves…’ There follows an imaginative narrative of Chiaro’s quest for fame and fortune amid turbulent times, ending with a Romantic-devotional vision of his own soul in female guise, which he paints. The result is a ‘small picture’ on panel in the Pitti Palace, attributed to ‘autore incerto’ and in modern times hung out of chronology just below a disputed Raphael.
Surely inspired by Ruskin’s praise of the Arnolfini Portrait, together with devotional works by Memling and Van Eyck, Chiaro’s painting represents
‘merely the figure of a woman, clad to the hands and feet with a green and grey raiment, chaste and early in its fashion, but exceedingly simple. She is standing: her hands are held together lightly, and her eyes set earnestly open…. As soon as I saw the figure, it drew an awe on me, like water in shadow….the most absorbing wonder of it was its literality. You knew that figure, when painted, had been seen…’