Ford Madox Brown (1821 - 1893)
Ford Madox Brown, one of whose distinctions is to have had as a pupil Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was never a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but he was so much in sympathy with them and his art was so akin to their own that he has become identified with that phase of painting.
Madox Brown was six years the senior of Holman Hunt, and was born in Calais, France, at a time when David and the Classicists had imposed a new artistic ideal on France. From childhood, in fact, he was conversant with continental art movements - as the majority of English painters were not - and after studying at Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp, he worked for three years in Paris. His desire then was to become a painter of large historical pictures, and in 1844 he went to England to compete for a commission to decorate Westminster Hall.
Failing in this, he proceeded to Rome and became acquainted with two curious German painters named Cornelius and Overbeck. Leading semi-monastic lives and deliberately cultivating the devotional frame of mind of the Italian masters who preceded Raphael, they are credited with being the first "Pre-Raphaelites."
Looking at it as they did, Madox Brown perceived that nature was far brighter than it appeared to be in the pictures of his British contemporaries. Since the time of Reynolds, Sir George Beaumont's dictum that a good picture must be a brown picture had been the general opinion, and no English figure painters made any serious stand against it till Ford Madox Brown and the Pre-Raphaelites began to exhibit.
The explanation of this brown-picture cult is simple. Painters had observed that the pictures by the old masters, such as Rembrandt, Titian and Tintoretto, were usually brown in tone, but this brownness was often due, not only to the pigments originally used by the masters, but also to the grime of centuries, to the "tone of time." Seeking to be praised as "old masters" in their own time, painters used artificial means to make their pictures look brown and give them a Rembrandtesque shadow. Madox Brown reversed the practice by painting his pictures on a white ground, and immediately his color became brighter and truer to Nature.
One of his most important works - certainly his most important religious picture - was begun late in 1851 and occupied a good part of the following year. It is his "Christ Washing Peter's Feet." Frederick Shields tells of attending an exhibition of paintings, including many works of the Pre-Raphaelites at Manchester, England, in 1857, when "hung at the very roof was a picture of such power that, slighted as it had been by the judges and unobserved by the general public, it held me riveted - large and simple in the composition of its masses as Giotto - brilliant and forcible, yet true and refined in its color and lighting, and wonderful in its grasp of human character and passion. . . . Permanently confirmed was my first impression that, among all the English pictures of sacred subjects there, it alone was worthy to rank with the great Italians."
Apart from the intrinsic merit of the picture in question, it is of historic interest in that it contains portraits of several members of the Pre-Raphaelites circle. The head of Christ is declared to be a literal transcript of F. G. Stephens. Of the Apostles, omitting Judas, the first on the left is William M. Rossetti, brother of Dante Gabriel Rossetti; the second, Holman Hunt; the fourth, Holman Hunt, Sr.; the fifth, C. B. Cayley; the sixth, Dante Gabriel Rossetti; and the seventh is believed to be Christina Rossetti, as St. John.