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Henry James and British Aestheticism

From: The Henry James Review
Volume 20, Number 3, Fall 1999
pp. 265-274 | 10.1353/hjr.1999.0023

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The Henry James Review 20.3 (1999) 265-274

Henry James's published appraisals of the work of the English Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones mark a period in his professional and personal development and set the stage for his future relations with the aesthetic movement. In 1875, James had gently disparaged "erudite painting" and remarked of Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Frederic Leighton: "These gentlemen's pictures always seem as if, to be complete, they needed to have a learned sonnet, of an explanatory sort, affixed to the frame" (AD 69). Calling the trio "exquisite," James insinuated that the artists' penchant for highly finished canvases, fanciful subjects, and poetry was informed by personal effeteness and foppishness. James fashioned a trope of artistic inversion in his 1875 review by harping on the natural order of discrete aesthetic leanings corrupted by the unnatural combinations, pictorial writing and erudite painting, and exemplified by his perception that "Mr. Burne-Jones paints, we may almost say, with a pen." Following the 1877 inaugural exhibition of the Grosvenor Gallery, founded by Sir Coutts Lindsay expressly to provide a forum for experimental artists who had been denied or who had refused exhibition space in the conservative Royal Academy, Burne-Jones became a leading figure among English artists. If critical acclaim far exceeded censure on this auspicious occasion, Burne-Jones's triumph nevertheless raised the hackles of critics who had formerly complained about his arcane subjects and the want of manliness in his principal figures. The London Times called his paintings "freaks of eccentricity" and "the strange unwholesome fruits of hopeless wanderings in the mazes of mysticism and medievalism" (Wildman and Christian 213).

Instead of joining this Tory chorus in his "The Picture Season in London" (1877), James performed a stunning about-face. He dissociated himself from his 1875 complaints about the painter's over-refinement and rhetorically projected this narrow-minded caviling with inventive genius on to other critical consciences:

"It is not painting," I hear them say, "and it has nothing to do with painting. It is literature, erudition, edification; it is a superior education, a reminiscence of Oxford, a luxury of culture. Painting is a direct rendering of something seen in the world we live in and look at, we love and admire, and in that sense there is no painting here." (AD 258)

Indeed, it was generally perceived that Burne-Jones's canvases owed more to the higher culture than to nature, an unpardonable sin in the age of John Ruskin, the doyen of art connoisseurs, who had admonished artists to return to nature "rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing." Paradoxically, Ruskin's tenets were being used by critics to deflate the burgeoning reputation of one of his favorite painters. Ruskin had championed the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1851: "The Pre-Raphaelites imitate no pictures. They paint from nature" (20 n. 1); however, by the mid-1850s, he had grown disenchanted with the lurid and sensual subject matter of Rossetti and his acolytes in spite of their meticulous attention to naturalistic detail. Alarmed by the "stiffness and quaintness and intensity" attending the Pre-Raphaelites' flirtation with medievalism, Ruskin prescribed a return to grace and repose for Burne-Jones, facilitated by two tours of duty in Italy copying cinquecento Venetian paintings, one at his own side in 1862 (Wildman and Christian 78).

James's aesthetic convictions were certainly shaped by Ruskin, to whom he had been introduced by Charles Eliot Norton, a staunch advocate of Ruskinism, in 1869. Ruskin's influence on James may be gauged from a handful of commentaries, "The Bethnal Green Museum" (1873) and "The Duke of Montpensier's Pictures at the Boston Athenaeum" (1874), where the public exhibition of privately held masterworks and the rise of the public art museum were greeted as a windfall for public culture. Yet, even as a novice critic, James advocated an idiosyncratic aesthetic program that side-stepped Ruskin's mandates for selection, idealization, and representation of subjects, which had placed special emphasis on "looking" and moral uplift. Praising the Frenchman Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps in 1873, James elaborated an aesthetic credo that harmonized realism and abstraction: "There are things, and there...


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