Bold authenticity toward the end of an era
Ford Madox Brown's paintings have the conscious awkwardness -- and potent directness -- of a painter conscientiously determined to look at the world not only with unblinking realism, but as though seeing it for the first time. His eyes -- rather than tradition or some academic formula -- dictated as far as possible the way he represented his subject as a picture. "Absolutely without regard to the art of any other period or country, I have tried to render this scene as it would appear." In this large (and somewhat self-deceptive) aim for "The Last of england" Brown went further than his Pre-Raphaelite friends in their attempts to capture the spirit of painting before the Renaissance -- its clarity and accumulative details, its freedom from the conventions of receding perspective, and its almost naive literalism.
There was a tendency in Pre- Raphaelitism to imitate an old style. Brown also painted some historical pictures, but in his most original paintings he gave meticulous attention to the modern suburban landscape (prompting Ruskin to ask why he had chosen such an "ugly" subject) or to social issues of serious concern to the mid-Victorians -- illegitimacy, work, or emigration. What makes his treatment of these subjects much more moving to 20th-century eyes than works by other Victorian artists is that he tried to present facts rather than tell stories. He avoided the anecdotal, and the melodramatic was kept under control. He also avoided the temptation to prettify and sentimentalize. Instead of moralizing, his pictures are confrontations. The observer is literally challenged by vividly depicted experience rather than troubled, or amused, by obvious preaching. To Brown, accuracy was tantamount to truthfulness. This is central to another aspect of his art: light.
The French Impressionists were not the only 19th-century artists who tried to paint the elusive effects of changing light and weather. The English Pre-Raphaelites made novel and sometimes harsh studies of light. They frequently painted out-of-doors. Ford Madox Brown, though never a member of the "Brotherhood," was closely associated with its members, and his art shared some of their aims while retaining its independence. He carried this interest in light further than most of them.
He once wrote approvingly of the artist who "paints from the love of mere look of things" (as opposed to the artist "whose mind was always on the stretch for the moral"). The appearance of the middle- class couple in "The Last of England," tragically leaving their home country, was of crucial importance to the picture, and light, above all, determined their appearance. "To insure," he wrote later, "the peculiar look of light all round,m which objects have on a dull day at sea, it was painted for the most part in the open air on dull days and when the flesh was being painted, on cold days." The figures are himself and his wife, Emma, who sat for him in "themost inhuman weather" -- even when snow was on the ground. He seems to have stopped at little for the sake of authenticity.
"The Last of England" is a very persuasive image, and its fierce emotion is not diminished by Brown's exhaustive attention to detail. It is, in fact, a rare example of painstaking realism subserving the expressiveness of a work of art. Even particulars that seem eccentric because of their realism, such as the wife's scarf paralyzed by the wind, the forlorn cabbages hanging from the rope in front of the couple, and even the hand of the baby otherwise entirely concealed in its mother's shawl, all add to the basic feeling of unnatural misfortune (not to mention the crammed, meticulously forcused array of passengers in the background).
Brown painted two versions of this picture; this is the second. It differs from the first only in the material of the mother's shawl. The oval shape, described by the artist as representing the "circle of love," encloses the couple, making the viewer intensify his sympathy for them as they cling together in isolation: they might almost be the only people on the boat. "Pathos" is the word Brown attached to his picture. It isn't easy to find a more apt one.