Victorian Art & Design
Charles Dickens's Second Attack on the Pre-Raphaelites in 1851

In his letter to The Times in May 1851, Dickens describes his reaction to the Pre-Raphaelite works in the 1851 Royal Academy. He mentions paintings by Millais, Holman Hunt, Madox Brown and Collins, A class of juvenile artists who style themselves P.R.B. The numbers next to each painting refer to the R.A. catalogue.
On the P.R. pictures in the R.A. Summer Exhibition, The Times, 7 May 1851
We cannot censure at present as amply or as strongly as we desire to do, that strange disorder of the mind or the eyes which continues to rage with unabated absurdity among a class of juvenile artists who style themselves P.R.B., which, being interpreted, means Pre-Raphael-brethren.  Their faith seems to consist in an absolute contempt for perspective and the known laws of light and shade, an aversion to beauty in every shape, and a singular devotion to the minute accidents of their subjects, including, or rather seeking out, every excess of sharpness and deformity.  Mr.Millais, Mr. Hunt, Mr. Collins - and in some degree - Mr. Brown, [ Madox Brown] the author of a huge picture of Chaucer, have undertaken to reform the art on these principles. ...  

In the North Room will be found, too, Mr. Millais' picture of 'The Woodman's Daughter', from some verses by Mr Coventry Patmore, and as the same remarks will apply to the pictures of the same artist, 'The Return of the Dove to the Ark' (651), and Tennyson's 'Mariana' (561), as well as to similar works by Mr. Collins, as 'Convent Thoughts' (493), and to Mr. Hunt's 'Valentine receiving Proteus' (59), [Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus] we shall venture to express our opinion on them all in this place.  These young artists have unfortunately become notorious by addicting themselves to an antiquated style and an affected simplicity in Painting, which is to genuine art what the medieval ballads and designs in Punch are to Chaucer and Giotto.

With the utmost readiness to humour even the caprices of Art when they bear the stamp of originality and genius, we can extend no toleration to a mere servile imitation of the cramped style, false perspective, and crude colour of remote antiquity.  We do not want to see what Fuseli termed drapery 'snapped instead of folded', faces bloated into apoplexy or extenuated to skeletons, colour borrowed from the jars in a druggist's shop, and expression forced into caricature. 

 It is said that the gentlemen have the power to do better things, and we are referred in proof of their handicraft to the mistaken skill with which they have transferred to canvas the hay which lined the lofts in Noah's Ark, [Millais' 'The Return of the Dove to the Ark'], the brown leaves of the coppice where Sylvia strayed, [ Hunt's 'Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus', from Shakespeare's play 'Two Gentlemen of Verona'] and the prim vegetables of a monastic garden, [ Charles Collins' 'Convent Thoughts'].  But we must doubt a capacity of which we have seen so little proof, and if any such capacity did ever exist in them, we fear that it has already been overlaid by mannerism and conceit.  To become great in art, it has been said that a painter must become as a little child, though not childish, but the authors of these offensive and absurd productions have continued to combine puerility or infancy of their art with the uppishness and self-sufficiency of a different period of life.  ... 

This letter from Dickens to The Times of 7 May 1850 resulted in  John Ruskin's letter to The Times defending the Pre-Raphaelites, Ruskin said that it was ridiculous to say that the Pre-Raphaelites could not draw well when Millais had won so many medals for drawing. Ruskin said, Pre-Raphaelitism has but one principle, that of absolute, uncompromising truth ..down to the most minute detail, from nature.

The Pre-Raphaelites in 1852                The Pre-Raphaelites in 1850

The Pre-Raphaelites in 1851                 Pre-Raphaelite Quiz