EXHIBITIONS | Advancing Truth in Nature

The exhibition “Pre-Raphaelites and Their Followers: British and American Drawings from The Huntington’s Collections” traces the mid-19th century artistic movement known as Pre-Raphaelitism, which was, at first, a concerted effort by a small group of British artists to return to what they saw as a purer approach to art, before the academic model separated fine art from craft in the high Renaissance.

Later, in the United States, the movement took hold in a community of landscape painters, geologists, and architects who were inspired not so much by British Pre-Raphaelite paintings themselves—for few were exhibited in the United States before the 20th century—but by the British critic John Ruskin’s enthusiasm for the Pre-Raphaelites’ commitment to art derived only from nature, unadulterated by academic classicism. The American Pre-Raphaelites, known as the Society for the Advancement of Truth in Art (1863–65), did not differentiate between artistic and scientific vision. They sought to humbly study and honestly represent the natural world through landscape and still life.

Working almost entirely in landscape his whole career, Aaron Draper Shattuck has now become a nearly forgotten American Pre-Raphaelite artist. Though he was not a member of the Society for the Advancement of Truth in Art, he was certainly a follower. Shattuck’s works are primarily meticulous, votive studies of the Androscoggin River Valley in Maine and New Hampshire.

Indeed, his post-1850 drawing On the Androscoggin, which is now on display in the exhibition, seems today ironic, since within Shattuck’s lifetime, the waterway would become one of the most polluted rivers in the nation. The environmental impact of its dioxin contamination prompted, among other measures, the Superfund and Clean Water Acts of the 1970s.

Yet, to view Shattuck’s drawing as a nostalgic depiction of a once pure river by an artist who believed his work to be a moral, ethical, and sacred celebration of nature loses scope of a larger narrative. The American Pre-Raphaelite movement paired readily with the New England Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Both movements’ convictions helped, with the writings of John Ruskin, to lay the philosophical foundations of the environmental movement—the same movement that effectively returned to and repaired the Androscoggin River nearly a century later.

Caption: Andrew Draper Shattuck (American, 1832-1928), On the Androscoggin, graphite heightened with white on paper, purchased with funds from the Virginia Steele Scott Foundation, 90.36, copyright Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *