From The Velveteen Rabbit to the Pre-Raphaelites

In just a few months I’m heading to England’s beautiful Lake District for a home educator’s conference. Yes, I’ll be staying in Ambleside. I know. I know. What more could a Charlotte Mason mom ask for?! I am getting super excited! To prepare, I’ve been steeping myself in English poetry, reading biographies of Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter, listening to John Ruskin lectures on art and architecture (which, might I add, are so far above what my humble brain can grasp).

John Ruskin was an art critic (and so much more) of the Victorian Era. He wrote on a wide variety of topics, but most homeschoolers who would be familiar with his name have probably stumbled across it in Charlotte Mason’s volumes on education. In the Ruskin lectures I have listened to so far (free as audiobooks on LibriVox, by the way) it’s clear that he prized art that imitates nature truthfully. He opposed the practice of altering things to make them more perfect and rejected artistic attempts to improve on the beauty of nature. To him, the most beautiful art was the truest, realest depictions of nature, just as it is.

So, what does this have to do with anything? Well, bear with me. It’s worth the read…in my opinion, at least. I have a huge collection of 4 X 6 size art prints, and each school term I display two of them in pretty white frames on top of our piano. If I’m lucky enough to have a couple of selections by our artist for that term, then that’s obviously what I put out. This term we are studying the French realist Gustave Courbet, and I knew I didn’t have any Courbet prints. So I figured I’d just thumb through my stack and pick any two that stood out to me. So I brought up all my tiny prints and started going through them, setting aside the ones that “spoke” to me in some way. There was a Reynolds and a Romney, both of little girls, that jumped out at me. I set those aside.

“Age of Innocence” by Sir Joshua Reynolds and “Portrait of Miss Juliana Willoughby” by George Romney

Then I started thinking, maybe I should look for some other French realist painters along the same lines as Courbet. I found a couple, but they really didn’t move me. Then I thought, ‘oh, I’ll just put out some Turner prints to get me ready for this trip to England in April.’ (You see, Turner was John Ruskin’s all-time favourite artist. He described Turner as the artist who could most “stirringly and truthfully measure the moods of Nature.” There you go again…his obsession with truth in art.) But Turner is our painter for next term so I decided to save those for later. Then I wondered if I had any prints from any other favourite artists of Ruskin…any other “Pre-Raphaelites” as I had heard Ruskin’s posse described (although I hadn’t the faintest idea what that actually meant). Yup! There were two paintings by Millais, beautiful portraits of little girls…much like the Reynolds and Romney ones I had set aside earlier…but somehow different!

“Puss in Boots” and “Cherry Ripe” by Sir John Everett Millais

After a bit of reading, it all made sense! Reynolds founded the English Royal Academy of Arts, and Romney also followed his style and ideas. They believed in painting out imperfections and striving for some ideal in their works, after the style of the famous Italian artist Raphael. The Pre-Raphaelites, on the other hand, who followed the ideas of Ruskin, hated that! They thought Raphael had corrupted art, and they were trying to paint in a PRE-Raphael style. They were after (you guessed it) truth in their paintings…representing nature exactly as it is.

Sure enough, when I compared these paintings of the little girls, the difference amazed me! The ones I was first drawn to don’t bring out the spirit or personality of the girls. It’s all so “put on”, so staged and perfect…so “ideal” (in the style of Raphael). But the other two, by Millais, are so natural and true and, in that, even more beautiful!

It really felt, in that moment, that God was giving me an object lesson on the importance of authenticity….like the Velveteen Rabbit in last week’s post. How often we live our lives in the style of those little girls painted by Reynolds and Romney, insecurely hiding behind a comfortable mask and presenting our “ideal” self to the world! Some may have even acquired those masks in their “age of innocence” (as Reynold’s painting is interestingly called) and don’t know how to live any other way. But I’m convinced that God wants us to live like Millais’ little girls, not scared to let what’s on the inside show. Living in truth, the truth of who we are…but, more importantly, the truth of who God is, demonstrates a bravery only possible when we know how deeply He loves us.

How silly we are to think we can improve on God’s workmanship in us. He made us! No, we are not perfect. But we will certainly not make ourselves so just by trying to hide who we really are or “paint out” our imperfections. But you know what’s even more beautiful than “perfect”? True! As in art, so it is in life — more truth means more beauty. Trust that God knows what He is making out of your life…and LET HIM! Hand over that brush to your Creator. He knows the real you! He knows the you He created you to be. And you will be the most beautiful, flaws and all, when you trust yourself to His sovereignty and creativity.

I’ll leave you with this beautiful Sara Teasdale poem to think on…

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