How British Artists Made Precision the Point

Posted November 5, 2010 at 7:01pm

Painters and photographers might seem like natural rivals — one jealous of the other’s technology, the other envious of a rival’s artistic skills — but the National Gallery of Art has found that in 19th-century Britain, they got along quite well.

In the gallery’s newest exhibition, “The Pre-Raphaelite Lens: British Photography and Painting, 1848-1875,” nearly 100 photographs and 20 paintings are mixed and matched to highlight the best of both mediums. The diversity of the exhibit — and in some cases, the impressive similarities between pictures and paintings cleverly presented alongside each other — give visitors a real sense of what it was like to be a British artist 150 years ago.

The term Pre-Raphaelite refers to a group of painters “who wished to return to the purity, sincerity, and clarity of detail found in medieval and early Renaissance art that preceded Raphael,” according to the museum. The most prominent among them were John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and their work is featured in the exhibit. But many of their works look strikingly, well, photographic.

Photography was invented in the late 1830s, and Dianne Waggoner, the exhibit’s curator, said Pre-Raphaelites were sometimes accused of copying from photographs because their work looked so realistic.

The ultimate example comes through two pieces by John Ruskin depicting the city of Fribourg, Switzerland. The first is a daguerreotype, the first kind of photograph, while the second is a watercolor painting of the city that is based on the daguerreotype.

The rest of the exhibition is full of paintings and pictures that share many qualities, even if they don’t have the direct relationship that Ruskin’s two pieces do. For instance, a beautiful painting by John William Inchbold called “Anstey’s Cove” depicts every detail of plants and birds along the waterfront, and that work is surrounded by photographs of soothing natural settings. It is impossible not to notice the connection between the two artistic styles.

“Though they never acknowledged a debt to photography, one Pre-Raphaelite, William Bell Scott, did explicitly connect the movement with it, recalling that, ‘Every movement has its genesis, as every flower its seed. The seed of Pre-Raphaelitism is photography,’” Waggoner said.

Some of the images depict the more common role photography was beginning to play in British art and culture. For instance, in one photo of Rievaulx Abbey, a tripod is clearly visible near the building’s entrance. And in one of the most striking nature shots, John Payne Jennings photographed a giant boulder known as the Dargle Rock — in front of which sits a painter, capturing the same image with a brush and an easel rather than a camera. 

The moral of “The Pre-Raphaelite Lens” is that photographers and painters influenced each other and managed to differentiate their work, even if their subjects were often the same.

“In their shared pursuit of a system of representation that was both accurate and truthful, painters and photographers fundamentally altered the terms of realist representation,” Waggoner said. “While photography changed the visual language of painting, Pre-Raphaelitism encouraged photographers to create artistic portraits and imaginative narrative images, as well as to relish their medium’s ability to render minute detail.”

Joseph Krakora, executive officer for development and external affairs at the National Gallery, praised Waggoner for her work in assembling the exhibition, which includes pieces from almost a dozen collections.

“This exhibition is hers,” he said. “It’s over four years of dedication and making it happen, and when you see it, there’s no question that her passion permeates every part of this exhibition.”

One image Waggoner presented, by artist O.G. Rejlander, encapsulates the way photography and painting blended together in the mid-1850s. In the picture, a baby has a paintbrush in his hand, and his arm is outstretched in an attempt to give the brush to an artist. The photograph is an allegory: The infant represents photography — new, undeveloped and full of potential — and the brush represents a new skill that all artists, especially Pre-Raphaelites, could embrace.

“The Pre-Raphaelite Lens: British Photography and Painting, 1848-1875” will be on display at the National Gallery of Art through Jan. 30.