The Passionate Hues of Romance
WHAT determined, die-hard romancers those English 19th-century artists, the Pre-Raphaelites and their friends, were. And how - in their art at least - they kept young love burning! Ford Madox Brown (a friend of the Pre-Raphaelites) was 46 and had been happily married for well over a decade by 1867, yet, as is clear from this richly colored, impassioned watercolor of ``Romeo and Juliet,'' painted that year, he could still vividly summon up all the ardor and anguish of youthful romance.
This evocation of Shakespeare's famous balcony scene, in richly opaque watercolor - gold and rose and Venetian red - is far more than an illustration to a text. It's also more than a recreation in painter's terms of a theatrical scene. It aims at authenticity of place and costume, but also at empathy, at an identification of the viewer with the subject.
The attempt to achieve historical and topographical accuracy were characteristics Brown shared with the Pre-Raphaelites, William Holman Hunt, Dante Rossetti, and John Everett Millais, but by this date they had moved on somewhat from the strict, rather primitive rigors of their initial Pre-Raphaelitism, which included a determination to make paintings which had the clarity and purity of art before Raphael.
These young artists had believed that Raphael, and centuries of academic, ever more dogmatic art - teaching theoretically based on Raphael - had debased art. The slightly older history painter Brown encouraged their ideas, and was in turn influenced by them. He strongly admired the simple directness, the lack of virtuosity, of pre-Raphael Italian artists like Giotto, Masaccio, and Fra Angelico. Furthermore he had seen their works in Italy, which the others had not.
The English Pre-Raphaelites were inventive and peculiar in their stylistic and technical ways of achieving their primitivism, and the results were scorned viciously by the art establishment. Brown, though not officially a Pre-Raphaelite, adopted their bright color and initially went even further than they did in the determination with which they painted an outdoor scene with figures entirely outdoors, trying to achieve an exact representation of fierce summer sunlight or bitter winter cold.
Brown was as painstakingly literal in his approach to the visible world as they were, and he was often more modern in subject matter and social awareness than they were. You can't imagine Hunt or Rossetti devoting a major painting to the ``navvy'' - the common building laborer - as Brown did in his ``Work.'' There was an anti-romantic streak in Brown's makeup as well as a romantic one, and his lack of concession to the facile or the too-smooth brought him even more critical brickbats than the Pre-Raphaelites themselves received. Even the critic John Ruskin, who was the first to praise them in the face of general mockery, never really supported Brown.
In Brown's work after the 1850s - the period when he had been closest to Pre-Raphaelitism - a softening and mellowing took place. He also retreated from the modern subject. ``Romeo and Juliet'' isn't ``pre-Raphael'' in any sense: It is much closer to the painterly, color-rich art of such post-Raphael Venetian painters of the late Renaissance as Veronese or Titian. His ``Romeo and Juliet'' inherits some of the qualities of both these artists. The Romantic painter Delacroix would surely have approved the surge of feeling expressed through gesture and drapery, the no-holds-barred impulsiveness of the two figures, the instillation into a scene from literature of an immediate urgency. Brown went straight to the heart of the lover's emotions, forced to part as dawn came:
... Look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east.
Night's candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.
I must be gone and live, or stay and die.
Like many ambitious British painters of the 18th and 19th centuries, Brown not only read Shakespeare avidly, he made paintings from the plays and he thought of them not only as poetry and drama, but as history. History painting was considered the highest form of high art.
But his history paintings are never merely set-pieces for exhibition. There is something almost autobiographical about many of them. The figures are frequently portraits of close friends or relations - as was the case with the Pre-Raphaelites.
His wife Emma's much-studied features, rather innocent and often wearing a patiently forebearing expression probably caused by long sessions sitting still in all kinds of uncomfortable weather, from snow to heat waves, appear frequently in Brown's paintings and drawings, and she is the Juliet here.
Like Juliet she had fallen in love - with Brown - as a young girl. According to her grandson, Ford M. Hueffer, first biographer of Brown, she was only 15. Brown was about 27. They met (wrote Hueffer) when Brown was painting a portrait of Shakespeare, and was in Stratford for research. Emma was a farmer's daughter. They ``eloped.'' Her mother was opposed to the match, probably because of Brown's profession, and the disrepute into which a girl fell if she modeled for an artist. The early stages of their love seem to have been marked by long periods of living separately.
It probably isn't absurd therefore to see Brown's ``Romeo and Juliet'' as a kind of metaphor for his earlier love for a young girl made difficult by society and circumstance. If Emma is Juliet, then in his fantasy, Romeo was doubtless himself.
Hueffer observed that Brown ``entirely identified himself with the hero of [a] picture, and seemed to become for the time a grim mystic, a passionate lover, or an abstracted scientist.'' And he also pointed out that his grandfather ``had, throughout his life, very much of the `little child' in his composition. His attitude toward life was as sincere, as naive, as direct, and not infrequently as embarrassingly penetrating, as any child's.'' His ``Romeo and Juliet,'' though showing little of the specifically Pre-Raphaelite naiveness of style, still has a vigorous element of a child's wonder and frankness about it.
Brown himself put it succinctly when he wrote to the Manchester collector who had commissioned the watercolor. He said simply: ``You must expect a scene of passion.'' That's what it is. And it's more than a pale echo of Shakespeare's passionate, evocative poetry.