As background reading see the Pre-Raphaelite magazine -The Germ particularly George Tupper’s ‘The Subject in Art’ and Rossetti’s ‘Hand and Soul’.
The Gaze and Perception
The model during the Enlightenment was a simple relationship between the world ‘out there’ which enters my eye, this is called the ‘camera obscura’ model. It places the viewer in a central, focused, knowing and privileged position. It is a confident model of certainty where we know our place in the world and the world is out there to be examined and known. This model is associated with scientific analysis and perspective, invented by Brunelleschi in 1413 and codified by Alberti in 1435. It could be asked why perspective had not been invented until then, even the Romans do not appear to have invented it. It could be seen as the new confident, or even arrogant, view of the world of the Renaissance.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that we all see the same thing differently because we all come to it with different feelings. This was the start of the subjective model of seeing the world. It was further developed by Kant who in 1787 wrote that ‘our representation of things, as they are given, does not conform to these things as they are in themselves, but that these objects as appearances conform to our mode of representation.’
As Cezanne said ‘art is apperception’, you always misrepresent the world. See Wikipedia on apperception.
Kant defines transcendental apperception as “the original and transcendental condition…a transcendental ground of the unity of consciousness in the synthesis of the manifold of all our intuitions…a ground without which it would be impossible to think any object for our intuitions”. Transcendental apperception is distinguished from empirical apperception, which is simply inner sense and in which “no fixed and abiding self…[is present] in [the] flux of inner appearances”.
Goethe wrote his Theory of Colours in 1810 where he analysed the anomalies of vision such as after images. Schopenhauer wrote ‘Sight and Colour’ in 1815 on the subjectivity of vision. Thomas Carlyle wrote ‘Spiritual Optics’ in 1852.
The PRB can be seen as the inheritors of Romanticism as they are interested in the nature of looking. Blake wrote of Newton, in 1795 the derogatory comment about the ‘single vision of Newton’s sleep’ and ‘as the eye such the object’.
Keats was interested in synaesthesia, ‘The silver, snarling trumpets’, Eve of St. Agnes. The term is applied in literature to the description of one kind of sensation in terms of another. Synaesthesia (also spelled synesthesia); from the Greek (syn-) union, and (aesthesis) sensation; is the neurological mixing of the senses. A synaesthete may, for example, hear colours, see sounds, and taste tactile sensations. Although this may happen in a person who has autism, it is by no means exclusive to autists. Synaesthesia is a common effect of some hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD or mescaline. The term is also used by art historians to refer to paintings that visually evoke various senses, for example, perfumed flowers, musical instruments or later the works of Whistler to which he gave musical names such as ‘Symphony in White’.
In Rossetti’s Ecce, Ancilla, Domini (literally ‘behold the handmaid of the Lord’, latter renamed to The Annunciation to prevent catholic Papist associations) of 1849-50 we have a flattened claustrophobic space. Although Rossetti never learnt perspective as he found it boring we must assume that the flattened space is intentional rather than a result of incompetence. It could be argued that the blue out of the window gives a sense of aerial perspective but in fact the blue and the blue of the curtain increases the claustrophobia by bringing the background foreword. The Virgin looks slightly dazed as if she is in shock,
she has no choice and may be contemplating the consequences. The figures are tall and distorted in a Mannerist style and the picture has a tomb-like quality.
The Pre-Raphaelites explored different poses to explore different emotional states. The red may symbolize the passion of Christ. We know from Hunt’s autobiography that Rossetti sat for days and nights in front of this painting trying to get it right. The Virgin Mary is unusually shown facing us and crouched on a bed. The painting divides into two halves vertically and the division is pierced by the dove (representing the Holy Spirit) and the lily stem which points to Mary’s womb. There is an underlying almost sexual tension to the painting resulting from the standing figure wearing a smock open all the way up the side and burning perhaps with passion while towering over an innocent young girl cowering on a bed wearing only a thin nightdress. Although the lily being held by Gabriel is a symbol of innocent it is prodded towards Mary like a surgical instrument. We see the lily again in the embroidery which Mary is embroidering in Rossetti’s earlier painting Girlhood of Mary Virgin:
Rossetti wrote a poem entitled Mary’s Girlhood (1848) that provides a literary accompaniment. Mary is shown in a family group with her mother St. Anne and her father St Joachim outside pruning a vine.
The lily on the table is being held by an angel and the painting is full of symbolism. The lily for purity, the dove for the Holy Spirit, the vine for Christian truth, the rose for the Virgin, the lamp for piety, the gold of the book for charity, the green for hope. In the window the crossed canes prefigure the Crucifixion and the palms represent martyrdom. Mary is shown as an artist copying from nature and so representing God’s work. The technique is precise, linear using thin paints (in fact he used oils painted on with small watercolour brushes). The realism of the representation of the room and the vines is contrasted with the flattened perspective, the angel and the haloes.
Another PRB painting that combines realism with imagination is by Millais:
Millais’s Ferdinand Lured by Ariel, 1849, shows an interest in the spiritual as well as the scientific. The picture has the same claustrophobic feel as The Annunciation. Does this show a Romantic interest in subjective vision or an interest in scientific factual looking? The plants are painted with a scientific attention to detail, each species can be recognised. However, the image is a fantasy based on a story with a fairy and elves.
In other Pre-Raphaelite pictures, like The Eve of St. Agnes, we have a story, in that case based on a Keats poem, but painted in a factual way in so far as the people in it are Hunt’s friends drawn from life rather than idealised figures based on models.