The Highest Form of Flattery

Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, UK

Ford Maddox Brown: The Last of England, 1852–1855

Imitation has long had a bad rap, especially among spokesmen for modern art. “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal”: T. S. Eliot’s often-cited dictum on the subject doesn’t pretend that poets get nothing from their predecessors, but it certainly implies that owning up to the debt is a sign of inferiority. The aggression implicit in the theft is presumably justified by the results—the mature poet takes what he likes and makes it his, by which point its origins matter less than what he has done with it. (The masculine pronoun here is deliberate.) There is something weakly concessive, on the other hand, about imitation, an apparent acknowledgment that the earlier poet has aesthetic priority too. Eliot stops short of saying, with Ralph Waldo Emerson, that “imitation is suicide,” but he makes it hard to imagine that any artist, particularly in a post-Romantic age, would call attention to the practice. Why risk being classified as a mere imitator?

In a new book entitled, with quiet provocation, Modern Painters, Old Masters: The Art of Imitation from the Pre-Raphaelites to the First World War, Elizabeth Prettejohn sets out to answer this question, even as she argues for a more expansive understanding of what counts as “modern art.” Though Prettejohn writes about painting, not poetry, she draws freely on theories of literary allusion in order to make her case. According to Harold Bloom in The Anxiety of Influence (1973), “strong poets…wrestle with their strong precursors, even to the death,” and one of their principal strategies is “misprision”—Bloom’s term for the process by which the later poet misreads, consciously or not, the work of his predecessor in order to clear space for his own. While Bloom does allow in passing for a less antagonistic form of influence, such relations, in his account, remain a sign of inferiority: “Where generosity is involved, the poets influenced are minor or weaker; the more generosity, and the more mutual it is, the poorer the poets involved.” Prettejohn, who openly acknowledges Bloom’s influence, nonetheless swerves from her precursor in a way that even he might grudgingly admire: adopting his language while rejecting his premise, she chooses to make “generous imitation” both the subject of her work and the grounds for reevaluating the history of modern painting.

That reevaluation entails departing from the standard version, which typically traces its origins to nineteenth-century Paris. Whether they begin with Manet and the Impressionists or prefer to start with Cézanne—as did an influential book of my childhood, Herbert Read’s Concise History of Modern Painting (1953)—most accounts of the subject have comparatively little time for the British before the mid-twentieth century. The literary or anecdotal character of much Victorian painting proves difficult to assimilate to a story destined to end in pure abstraction, and the backward look of the Pre-Raphaelites in particular only compounds the problem. But Prettejohn, who began her distinguished career with a study of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his circle, is engaged in telling a different story—one that not only takes fuller account of Victorian Britain but that understands modern art itself as being in continual dialogue with the past. 

According to Prettejohn, Victorian painters couldn’t fight to the death with their “major” precursors, as Bloom would have it, because they hadn’t yet decided who their precursors were. While the usual story assumes a fixed canon from which nineteenth-century artists radically departed, the painters in her book discovered their predecessors in the course of discovering themselves. What makes them modern is not just their own work but their establishment of the aesthetic preferences many of us now take for granted. In Prettejohn’s striking list: “Botticelli, Giorgione, Leonardo, Piero della Francesca, Van Eyck, Velázquez, Vermeer: these are among the artists who became masters when they were adopted by nineteenth-century pupils.”

The National Gallery, London

Jan van Eyck: Arnolfini Portrait, 1434

Central to this process of discovery and imitation was the advent of the modern museum. Though Prettejohn perhaps exaggerates the absence of an established canon at the time—the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood took its name, after all, from a collective decision to break with the conventional wisdom about the supremacy of Raphael—she is surely right to emphasize the importance of the new National Gallery, founded in 1824. Even in its early days, when the collection was comparatively small, the museum would have presented contemporary artists with a dizzying array of possibilities, an effect no doubt intensified by the practice of crowding the walls in the hanging style favored for much of the century. (The blank walls and eye-level arrangements to which we’ve become accustomed not only make it easier to organize an exhibit chronologically but also help to isolate and focus attention on solitary “masterpieces.”) Prettejohn suggests that the Victorians’ lack of an atelier system prompted them to approach earlier artists as imaginary mentors rather than oppressive forebears, but she might also have remarked that the relative weakness of the Royal Academy by comparison to the French Académie likewise encouraged a tendency to view the past with curiosity rather than resistance: as in the political realm, the British simply had less reason for the kinds of artistic revolt so often celebrated in accounts of developments across the Channel.


National Gallery, London

Jan van Eyck: Arnolfini Portrait (detail), 1434

Among the works that evidently caught artists’ eyes was a small picture by Jan van Eyck now generally known as the Arnolfini Portrait (1434), which arrived at the museum in 1842. Despite widespread uncertainty as to exactly who or what it represented, this wonderfully preserved panel from the man credited by Giorgio Vasari with the invention of oil painting quickly became a model for the Pre-Raphaelites’ own investment in detailed illusion-making. Van Eyck had painted a bourgeois couple in their domestic interior, entirely unlike the sacred subjects of early Italian art, so it might seem an improbable progenitor of a school famously devoted to allegory and the mythical. But what fascinated the Pre-Raphaelites was not the subject matter but the precision by which the Flemish artist rendered the details of the visible world and the jewel-like clarity with which he handled his medium—so different from the loose brushwork of the immediate ancestor they ironically dubbed “Sir Sloshua” Reynolds. Dante Gabriel Rossetti taught himself to paint, Prettejohn suggests, “not by following the precepts of his teachers at the Royal Academy, but rather by trying to imitate, as closely as possible, the working method of Van Eyck so far as it was then understood.”

Tate, London

Edward Burne-Jones: Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor, 1862

A number of other artists over the next half-century obsessively reworked van Eyck’s convex mirror in particular, as if looking in its reflective surface for the secrets of their predecessor’s art. The mirror with its small roundels figures prominently in an 1850 drawing by William Holman Hunt for The Lady of Shalott—the mirror was changed to a window in the final painting—and in several versions of Edward Burne-Jones’s Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor (1861–1862); shorn of its roundels, it hovers “like an over-scale halo” in Burne-Jones’s portrait of his daughter Margaret (1885), or merges with another more bulbous mirror, from a fifteenth-century manuscript of the Roman de la Rose in the British Museum, to reappear on a side wall in a painting called The Wizard (circa 1891–1898).

As late as 1918, Mark Gertler continued to play with the motif in his Still-Life with Self-portrait, the deliberate archaism of the reference (ordinary household mirrors had long been flat) making clear that the artist, like his predecessors, was less interested in reproducing the objects of his own world than in exploring the problems of representation Van Eyck’s example had raised: the effects of light, the relations between two dimensions and three, and—most fundamentally—the practice of imitating nature by imitating art.

Bridgeman Images/Leeds Art Gallery

Mark Gertler: Still Life with Self-Portrait, 1918

Not all such imitations were inspired by the museum, though Prettejohn has related stories to tell about how the Pre-Raphaelites designed what she aptly terms “altarpieces for an age of doubt” in response to several more orthodox versions acquired by the National Gallery in the 1840s, their shaped canvases and elaborately inscribed frames at once looking back to Renaissance precursors and anticipating the experiments of James McNeill Whistler and others. Nineteenth-century artists traveled too, of course, and it is not always easy to decide just where and when a formative viewing took place. If the circular shape and figural arrangements of Ford Madox Brown’s The Last of England (1852–1855) are indebted to an encounter with Botticelli’s Madonna of the Magnificat (circa 1481–1485) during an early visit to Florence, for example, then Brown’s familiar image of reluctant emigration would constitute one of the first significant responses to Botticelli’s work in the nineteenth century, well in advance of Walter Pater’s influential essay on the artist nearly two decades later.

Fine Art Images/Alinari Archives, Firenze/Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Sandro Botticelli: Madonna of the Magnificat, 1481–1485

The connection is admittedly speculative, since Botticelli’s was far from the only Renaissance tondo that might have inspired the unusual shape of Brown’s canvas, but Prettejohn is less interested in establishing priority in such matters than in demonstrating how painterly experimentation and revisionist art history went hand-in-hand over the course of the century. Whoever came first, there is no question that artists like Rossetti and Burne-Jones responded powerfully to Botticelli’s example. The shared debt is evident in Rossetti’s excitement when he spotted Burne-Jones’s Phyllis and Demophoön “just about as plain as a pikestaff” in the right-hand corner of Botticelli’s Primavera, which he saw for the first time when someone sent him a photograph in 1879. For Rossetti, who had produced multiple variations on a Botticelli portrait he had purchased more than a decade earlier, it scarcely seems to have mattered whether Burne-Jones was imitating the fifteenth-century artist or vice-versa. Like the National Gallery’s apparent reversal of priority when it gave a Velázquez acquired in 1882 the Whistlerian title of Philip IV of Spain in Brown and Silver, Rossetti’s remark encourages the viewer, as Prettejohn writes, “to see, and think about, the earlier painting as if it reflected the concerns of the later one.”


Birmingham Museums Trust

Edward Burne-Jones: Phyllis and Demophoön, 1870

Modern Painters, Old Masters argues persuasively that artists have succeeded in reimagining earlier work without engaging in aggressive competition—the kind that Édouard Manet, for example, appears to have relished when he transformed the softly modeled nude in Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) into the flat planes of a defiantly naked Olympia (1863). Manet’s picture may continue to look modern to us, while Phyllis and Demophoön, say, does not, but Prettejohn suggests that nineteenth-century painters had more than one way of overturning established hierarchies. If Manet, Cézanne, and the rest taught their contemporaries to look anew at the world around them, the Pre-Raphaelites did something analogous for the past—teaching people to see beauty in works that had hitherto appeared merely old and strange. The assumption that the present is always superior to what has come before, Prettejohn shrewdly notes, is also a form of blindness.

Like the nineteenth century, our own moment is one at which the expansion of museums and new technologies for the dissemination of images have combined to make the history of art-making open to view as never before. Prettejohn wisely avoids the vexed question of postmodernism, but her elegant book reminds us that pastiche and ironic “appropriation” are not the only possible responses to that experience.

Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Sandro Botticelli: La Primavera, circa 1481

Modern Painters, Old Masters: The Art of Imitation from the Pre-Raphaelites to the First World War by Elizabeth Prettejohn is published by Yale University Press.

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