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Realism and romance in a painting's moment

In her book "pre-Raphaelites in Love," Gay Daly describes a significant event in the lives of young painter Edward Burne-Jones and Georgiana Macdonald, a Methodist minister's daughter: "On May 19 [1856], not long after his arrival in [London], he took Georgie to the Royal Academy Exhibition where, standing before Arthur Hughes's 'April Love,' he asked her to marry him."

"April Love" was widely popular as a consummate image, in intense color, of a doubting moment between lovers. All the picture's attention is devoted, with the understanding of observed experience, to the girl's perplexity, the man's anguish being virtually eclipsed.

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The young Hughes invested this picture, and a few others of his early career on which his reputation has since been based, with a meticulous realism and subtle but understated romantic sentiment. Such sentiment had been inspired by his encounter with the work of the older Pre-Raphaelites Millais, Rossetti, and Holman Hunt. Hughes's early paintings are, however, completely individual. It is only later in his long career that the utter freshness of his first vision seems lost.

"April Love" was bought by English poet and artist William Morris. Burne-Jones and Hughes met for the first time when the former delivered Morris's check. John Ruskin, champion of the Pre-Raphaelites, had also been so enamored of "April Love" that he brought his father to the academy to try to make him buy it. The elder Ruskin, though he greatly liked it, did not oblige, so Ruskin tried to persuade a collector, Ellen Heaton (later to become a Hughes patron) to buy it. But she was one of the few not to like "April Love."

Ruskin answered her objections with: "I am SO sorry - but I did like the face in the Hughes picture. What would you have? The girl is just between joy & pain, OF COURSE her face is unintelligible, all a-quiver...." At another time he noted "the sweetness of the tender face, shaken, like a leaf by winds upon its dew, and hesitating back into peace." Inspired - and apt - stuff.

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