The dream of returning to an earlier, more perfect time is deeply ingrained in human nature. It makes itself felt in much of our popular fiction, films, and music, in our all-too-frequent preference for political leaders who offer the values of an earlier generation, and in dozens of other places where nostalgia is permitted to becloud our historical or personal memory of how things actually were.
This dream has often reared its head in art -- witness the various clusters of artists throughout art history devoted to the furtherance of "older" styles and artistic values. But nowhere has it been more clearly manifest than in the 19th-century English Pre-Raphaelite movement, in the paintings, drawings, illustrations, and crafts of William Holman Hunt, John Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, to name only its most famous members.
The Pre-Raphaelites, disgusted by what they considered the frivolity and technical carelessness in the art of their day, wanted painting to return to the "purity" of nature and to the simplicity of style practiced by the "primitive" masters of the Italian 15th century. To do so they turned to the example and work of Ford Madox Brown, an English painter who had evolved such a style some years before. And Brown, although he never actually joined the movement, transmitted to it much of what was to become its technical approach to painting.
Brown is an intriguing art-historical figure, a prolific and restless soul who was as much interested in designing furniture, stained glass, and tiles (as well as highly decorative and patterned murals) as in producing his generally well received paintings of historical and contemporary themes.
But of all his paintings, none did as much for his career (or for his place in art history) as "The Last of England," which was tremendously popular in the English-speaking world during the latter half of the 19th century. Its subject -- a small group of emigrants watching the English coastline as it receded during the first moments of their overseas trip to a new home -- was one with which large sections of the population could identify. And its touch of pathos, as well as its extraordinary attention to detail, was perfectly suited to the Victorian sensibility of its time.
It's an odd and in some ways a disturbing painting, for it seems so absolutely frozen in time. No flies held in amber ever looked more static and bloodless than these human beings caught on the razor's edge between their past and their future. There is an uncanny stillness about this picture which results partly from the way the man and the woman interlock to form a rounded shape that echoes the perfect circle of the painting itself, and partly from the way every detail is painted as though it were as important as every other detail -- even as important as the entire composition.
There is no movement, no imprecision or imperfection, in this work, nothing to indicate that this couple, gazing so sadly at the homeland they possibly will never see again, are real people.What we see instead are two lead actors (and a few supporting characters in the background) in a tableau designed to present a mood, to trigger a wistful, nostalgic, and beautifully sentimental reaction in us, a reaction that will cause us to meditate and to muse on life's painful moments of separation -- and on life's challenges and hopes within and for an unknown future.
This painting, in short, is an icon, not an icon in the traditional religious sense, but an icon of mood, of sensibility, of enlightened self-interest. We are to look at it and empathize with the young couple, even perhaps shed a few tears for them, and then go on about our business refreshed and invigorated by the nobility of our sentiments -- and by our great good fortune at not being in their shoes.
That is apparently how Brown's fellow Victorians reacted to this picture, and how we can still react to it today if we are so inclined. But for us there is an added dimension of meaning to this work, one that Brown could not have foreseen when he painted it, and which he would have been most unwilling to accept at the time of his death in 1893. For this painting also represents the art-historical moment when nostalgia for the past and tension for the present and future joined forces for a brief momen and then went their separate ways. This was the moment of both the most slavish dependency on the past and the most fertile plantings for the future.
At roughly the same time that "The Last of England" was painted, Boudin, Manet, and Renoir were planting the seeds of what was to become Impressionism. And a decade or two later, while Rossetti and Millais continued their excursions deeper and deeper into what-had-been, Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Cezanne, Van Gogh , were blasting their way into what was to come.
Seen from our vantage point, then, this painting represents even more of a sense of change and loss than Brown could have anticipated, for it represents not only the personal realities of the young couple embarking upon a new life, but also the larger realities of a society gradually becoming aware of the fact that a way of life and a perception of art were also drawing to a close, and that new ideas and new dimensions of meaning were soon to come into dramatic f ocus.