Oil on canvas, size approximately 38 x 52.5 inches, Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery.
Hunt typically chooses, as in his other pictures, an emotionally charged moment to paint; in Act V, scene iv, of The Two Gentlemen of Verona,Proteus menacingly threatens Silvia when he says, "I'll force thee yield to my desire." Valentine then steps forward at the moment of eminent rape and admonishes his best friend Proteus: "Ruffian, let go that rude uncivil touch; / Thou friend of an ill fashion!" Julia, disguised as a boy, meanwhile leans against a tree and looks on.
Valentine Rescuing Silvia from Proteusis a brilliant example of Pre-Raphaelite technique; pure colors are painted on a wet white base and the details of the scene, done on the grounds of Knole House in Kent, are meticulously executed, down to the individual leaves and blades of grass. This painting, one of Hunt's most significant works, must actually be seen in the Birmingham Gallery if the viewer wants to appreciate its stunning effect.
The attention to detail--what one reviewer disapprovingly called "a singular devotion to the minute accidents of their subjects"--was in fact one element of the style that evoked the contempt of the critics for the "unabated absurdity" of this "class of juvenile artists who style themselves PRB." Silvia, they noted, looked shopworn and jaded, and Julia was portrayed as a "sulking lubberly schoolboy." Hunt was in good company, however, for the critics equally condemned the paintings of Millais, Collins and Brown--his Pre-Raphaelite brothers--that were shown at the Royal Academy Exhibition in 1851.
One critical voice rose above all the others when John Ruskin, noting that the Timesreview had been "scornful as well as severe," in May 1851 wrote his own letter to the Timesin answer to the critics. The thing most despised by them was what he most admired: "finish or detail, and brilliancy of colour" (Ruskin, Art Criticism379). Ruskin admits that Silvia, as she is painted by Hunt, is not a person that Proteus or anyone else might love at first sight, but this deficit is more than compensated for, he says, by the "truth, power, and finish" of details like Julia's sleeve and Valentine's chain mail.
The greatest defect of Valentine Rescuing Silvia from Proteusis the "commonness" of the faces in the four figures, but this, he remarks, is, indeed,
almost the only fault. Further examination of this picture has even raised the estimate I had previously formed of its marvellous truth in detail and splendour in colour; nor is its general conception less deserving of praise: the action of Valentine, his arm thrown round Sylvia, and his hand clasping hers at the same instant as she falls at his feet, is most faithful and beautiful, nor less so the contending of doubt and distress with awakening hope in the half-shadowed, half-sunlit countenance of Julia. Nay, even the momentary struggle of Proteus with Sylvia just past, is indicated by the trodden grass and broken fungi of the foreground. But all this thoughtful conception, and absolutely inimitable execution, fail in making immediate appeal to the feelings, owing to the unfortunate type chosen for the face of Sylvia. Certainly this cannot be she whose lover wasRuskin says in this remarkably prescient review of Hunt, Millais and Brown that he knew none of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood personally, but the great critic saw in these young artists a strength and power which, he concludes, will in time "lay in our England the foundations of a school of art nobler than the world has seen for three hundred years" (378)."As rich in having such a jewel,
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