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“[M]any jewels set in dirt”: Christology, Pictures from Italy, and Pre-Raphaelite Art

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This essay examines Dickens's growing interest in art beginning around 1844, an interest, it argues, that was informed largely by his Italian sojourn (July 1844 to June 1845). The trip provided Dickens the experience, insight, context, and critical eye by which to appraise art. Pictures from Italy, along with letters written during Dickens's Italian journey, reveals expansive, insightful, and sustained reflections on art. It also offers an important window into Dickens's anti-Roman Catholic bigotry, fetishized in his attitude to Italy. Using John Everett Millais's Christ in the House of His Parents (1850), Dickens's review of it in Household Words (15 June 1850), and working backwards historically to Pictures from Italy (1846), this paper argues that Dickens's early views of the Pre-Raphaelites manifest a hostility to their Christology, exacerbated if not formed altogether in Italy. In Millais, it is not the picture of labor, the entire family involved in work, which troubled Dickens. What bothered him was the disorder and chaos of the place, the ordinariness or plainness of the representation, and the physical deformity of the figures. That the Holy Family would be depicted as working class was also disquieting. The essay contextualizes the Millais painting with John Rogers Herbert's The Youth of Our Lord (1847) and Holman Hunt's The Shadow of Death (1870–73) to show that all three paintings represent not only a radical shift in the tradition in art (realism and naturalism) but a shift also in the Christology.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: June 1, 2010

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  • Founded in 1970, the centennial anniversary of Dickens's death, DSA has been published since 1980 by AMS Press in cooperation with the Ph.D. program in English of the City University of New York and in association with the Graduate Center, CUNY and Queens College, CUNY. Besides presenting articles exploring the wide range of Dickens''s interests and talents, DSA also includes essays on other mid- and late- nineteenth-century authors and on the history and aesthetics of the period's fiction. In addition, each volume contains a substantial review article examining a prior year's scholarship on Dickens, and DSA occasionally publishes surveys of work on other Victorian writers, as well as review essays considering specialized studies of subjects in Victorian fiction. The editors seek to offer essays of "the most diverse kinds," those employing innovative as well as traditional approaches.
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