Modern Painters, Old Masters: The Art of Imitation from the Pre-Raphaelites to the First World War

Research output: Book/ReportBook


This book shows how the appreciation of the art of the past and the creation of new art reinforced one another in Victorian England. From the Pre-Raphaelites, with their enthusiasm for the Early Renaissance, through to the British Impressionists who revered Velázquez, artists were inspired to new creation by studying the art of the past, newly available in the rapidly expanding museums of the day. This book argues that – paradoxically – artists were at their most original when they imitated the Old Masters most faithfully.

On his famous lecture tour of 1882 Oscar Wilde told American audiences about a new artistic movement which had begun with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: ‘I call it our English Renaissance’, he explained, ‘because it is indeed a new birth of the spirit of man, like the great Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth century’. Victorian artists have often been castigated for their dependence on prototypes and precedents from the Old Masters. This book takes its cue instead from Wilde, who saw no inconsistency between the idea of ‘new birth’ and the inspiration of the past. With the formation of the National Gallery in 1824, and the subsequent proliferation of exhibitions, reproductions, and scholarship on the Old Masters, the art of the past became visible and accessible as never before. Yet the history of art did not come ready-made to the Victorians. Such artists as Van Eyck, Bellini, Botticelli, Piero della Francesca, and Velázquez came to the National Gallery with the force of novelty. They were interpreted by the great Victorian critics, curators, and scholars – and importantly, as the book argues, by such artists as Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Leighton, Millais, Rossetti, Waterhouse, and Whistler. These modern painters took their cue from the newly rediscovered Old Masters to produce some of the great masterpieces of the later nineteenth century.

This book derives from a series of The Paul Mellon Lectures, which the author gave at the National Gallery in London at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven.

Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherYale University Press
Number of pages288
ISBN (Print)9780300222753
Publication statusPublished - 2 May 2017

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