This spring, the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. is presenting the first major U.S. exhibition devoted to one of history’s more overlooked art movements, the Pre-Raphaelites of Victorian Britain. Two decades before the celebrated French Impressionists, seven young Englishmen caused a major controversy in Great Britain with their paintings, poems and essays. In the process, they became the first avant-garde rebels of Western art.
Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848–1900 at the National Gallery tells the story of a singularly unusual group of visionaries. They dreamed of reaching a better future by reviving the values of the past, especially of the Middle Ages.
The three founding Pre-Raphaelites – John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt – chose the peculiar name for their group because they associated the great Renaissance painter Raphael (1483-1520) with the dead-hand of the Royal Academy of Art. Millais, Rossetti and Hunt, idealistic art students in 1848, watched as political revolutions swept across the continent of Europe. They dreamed of a revolution too, but an aesthetic one inspiring a more equitable society for Britain.
In September 1848, Millais, Rossetti and Holman Hunt founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood or PRB, as they began to sign their paintings. In place of slavish devotion to the Old Masters, the PRB conceived a bold vision. As in Millais’ 1856 work, The Blind Girl, they planned to open the minds, hearts and senses of the people of their time to a world of beauty.
Millais, Rossetti and Holman Hunt were soon joined by Rossetti’s brother William, Thomas Woolner, James Collinson and Frederic George Stephens to form the “Brotherhood.” Ford Maddox Brown (1821-1893), an already established painter, proved a ready ally. Later in the decade of the 1850’s, two young Oxford students, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, took-up the Pre-Raphaelite cause.
In keeping with the Victorian work ethic, the Pre-Raphaelites all produced impressive bodies of work, in art or literature. The dashing, handsome, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who set the tone for the whole group, was a skillful artist and poet. Brandishing the paint brush and the pen like a knight-errant’s sword, the Pre-Raphaelites confronted the cultural philistines of Victorian Britain in a battle for the soul of the nation.
Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848–1900 at the National Gallery is as complete an experience of this uniquely British phenomenon as one could imagine. An amazing number of the major Pre-Raphaelite paintings are on view. This is worthy of note because very few American museums hold significant examples of art by the Pre-Raphaelites, the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington, being a rare exception. The 130 paintings, sculptures, photographs, designs for decorative art objects and hand-crafted examples of furniture are for the most part on loan from the Tate Gallery in London and other British museums.
The Pre-Raphaelites shared several treasured ideals, but their painting styles varied greatly. The two transcendent themes, especially in their early work, were “truth to nature” and the power of religious faith. They aimed to depict the natural world with great fidelity, while evoking spiritual values as medieval artists had done.
Soon after establishing the PRB, John Everett Millais (1829-1896) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1829-1882) each painted a major religious work. Christ in the House of His Parents by Millais and Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini! shared the New Testament as their source and both received savage reviews in the contemporary press.
Millais’ work is characterized by an extreme naturalism, right down to the realistic wood shavings on the carpenter’s shop floor. But the young Jesus holds out his hand, bleeding from a a splinter, while above his head we can see a tool rack, with pliers, hammer and saw. All these will be used later in his crucifixion on Calvary, where his tender hands will be pierced with iron nails.
Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini! depicts the announcement by the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she will be the mother of the Messiah. “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord,” Mary replies. Fittingly, Rossetti evoked a sense of wonder and faith, the state of Mary’s mood and mind. Yet, here too, religious symbolism is very pronounced. The lily, the dove, the golden halos all testify to this major event in Christian salvation history.
Critics were appalled. Charles Dickens denounced Christ in the House of His Parents as “mean, odious, revolting and repulsive.” Many people in Britain were disconcerted by the unaccustomed depiction of Jesus, Mary and other sacred figures in such realistic fashion.
But what really struck a nerve in Britain, a nation that was still devoutly Protestant, was the use of religious symbolism. Both Millais and Rossetti hearkened back to forms of medieval art, which had been profoundly rooted in symbolism. The Protestant Reformation of the 1500’s totally rejected this pictorial expression of faith. Instead, Protestant theology placed an emphasis on Bible reading and study as the true paths to salvation.
Beginning in 1833, a group of Anglican clergymen based at Oxford University created an uproar by proposing changes in the Church of England’s form of worship. They pressed for church reforms to be based on pre-Reformation ideals. By painting works that seemed to align with this Oxford Movement, Millais and Rossetti linked their art to religious disputes that still rankled in many minds.
William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), with his painting of Christ as the redeemer of humankind, succeeded in silencing the critics with a religious work that eventually gained world-wide acclaim. In some ways, Hunt’s The Light of the World, painted over the course of five years, 1851-1856, is the most representative painting of the nineteenth century. Few works capture the Victorian era’s search for faith amid a landscape littered by doubt like The Light of the World.
Hunt was such a devotee of “truth to nature” that he spent long periods in the Holy Land studying land forms and light conditions for his Bible-inspired paintings. In The Light of the World, he used his acute powers of observation to depict a tangled, weed-choked English garden in which a night-time traveler stands before a closed, uninviting door. The traveler is, of course, Christ. The over-grown garden and barred door are symbols for a sinful soul, the beaming lantern for the light of faith. This display of unmistakable religious symbolism succeeded. Countless prints of The Light of the World were hung in family homes throughout Britain and all over the world. Hunt later repainted a larger version which now is displayed in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
“Truth to nature” also presented problems to the Pre-Raphaelites when they sought to faithfully depict their natural surroundings. British artists from the late 18th century had displayed inspired skill in the field of landscape painting. But the Pre-Raphaelites lived in an era when sprawling, polluted cities threatened to blight the English countryside. A painting by Ford Maddox Brown highlighted this disturbing trend.
Brown painted An English Autumn Afternoon, Hampstead – Scenery in 1853 in an unusual, oval format. This suited what is in fact a very unconventional depiction of the English countryside. Brown chose a setting close at hand rather than an idyllic, picturesque location. He stressed the familiar over the “sublime.” Asked why he chose to depict this scene of Hampstead, located close to London, he replied, “because it lay out of a back window.”
With this painting, Brown might well have launched a new chapter in British landscape painting. An English Autumn Afternoon offered a new departure point, the evocation of the beauty in our own back yard.
But if you look closely at Brown’s painting, you will notice roofs and church spires beginning to loom in the distance over the shrinking green space of Hampstead Heath. While Brown painted this picture, a vigorous campaign was mounted to save Hampstead Heath from being carved-up into suburban housing plots. Conservation won in Hampstead but elsewhere the festering growth of London, “the Great Wen,” engulfed the surrounding countryside, thereby depriving Brown and other painters of artistic inspiration.
The Pre-Raphaelites’ idealism frequently drew them into controversies not of their making. But the PRB members were exceptionally resourceful in their search for new subject matter. The poetry of Dante was a special source of insight to his namesake, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose family had fled to England to escape political repression in Italy. Other sources of inspiration were the poetry of Romantic poets like John Keats, the reawakening of interest in the Arthurian legends sparked by Alfred Tennyson’s verse epic Idylls of the King and the plays of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare’s greatest play provided the imagery for one of the first PRB paintings to gain critical approval. Millais’ unforgettable depiction of Hamlet’s doomed lover, Ophelia, was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1852 to wide acclaim. It was his personal “breakthrough” work and had the same effect for the PRB as a group. People took notice of them seriously. The PRB techniques of painting out-of- doors, priming their canvas with white paint and using vibrant colors to dazzling effect now won critical and popular approval.
Ophelia was a highly significant painting on emotional, indeed psychological, levels, as well. It quickly entered into the myth-history of Victorian Britain. The model for Ophelia was Elizabeth “Lizzie” Siddal (1829-1862), fated to be the tragic muse for the Pre-Raphaelite movement.
Lizzie Siddal spent long hours soaking in a bath tub in Millais’s studio so that he could realistically capture the effect of the gown of a drowned woman, billowing in the current of the stream into which she had plunged to her death. Millais jury-rigged lamps beneath the tub to keep the water warm. One day the lamps went out, unnoticed by Millais, and Lizzie caught a severe cold. Millais obligingly paid the doctor’s bill and Lizzie recovered, only to succumb to the fatal attraction of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
It is easy to demonize Rossetti for the ensuing tragedy. He certainly had many attractive qualities, including generosity to other struggling artists when he achieved some financial security later in life. Rossetti, despite his Italian ancestry, was an English eccentric at heart. His lodgings were overrun by exotic pets, raccoons, kangaroos and, most famously, wombats. But Rossetti had no idea how to feed or care for his animal companions and most soon died. The same was to happen to Lizzie Siddal.
The young men of the PRB were infatuated with an ideal of feminine beauty or “stunners” as they called the young women who matched their conceptions. Lizzie Siddal was the perfect model of a “stunner.” Pale-skinned, slender, with reddish blond hair and sensitive eyes, she caused Rossetti to swoon. Lizzie also possessed real talent and aspirations as an artist and poet. These attributes too appealed strongly to Rossetti and the rest of the Pre-Raphaelites. Everyone, Lizzie most of all, expected an early marriage and a creative partnership such as Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning had achieved.
Instead, other pale-skinned, slender young women with reddish blond hair showed-up in Rossetti’s studio.
For a young woman from a poor family like Lizzie Siddal, the constant appearance of such rivals was an intolerable strain. Her art and health declined and she became addicted to an opiate substance called laudanum. Rossetti eventually married her in 1860, but when she delivered a still-born infant, Lizzie’s health collapsed. She died of an overdose of laudanum on February 10, 1862. Her role as the model for Millais’ Ophelia had been eerily fulfilled.
Rossetti was shattered and spent years working on the Pre-Raphaelite painting par excellence. Beata Beatrix, finally completed in 1870, depicts Lizzie as the dying Beatrice Portinari, whom the Italian poet Dante had loved to the point of distraction during the thirteenth century. Rossetti’s painting was intended as a heart-felt tribute. But it was a work of unconscious cruelty. Even in death, Lizzie Siddal was denied her own individuality.
Ultimately, this male fantasy world generated a very unhealthy atmosphere in the Pre-Raphaelite circle. Instead of painting people, the Pre-Raphaelites increasingly evoked a contrived female archetype.
This is particularly apparent in the work of Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898). His medieval-themed Laus Veneris was painted over five years, 1873-1878. It is based on a poem of that title by the flamboyant Algernon Charles Swinburne, boon companion to Rossetti in his later years. It is a tale of a crusading knight who falls in love with the Goddess Venus. This leads in due course to agony and death.
Laus Veneris is a weird and disturbing work, partly auto-biographical. Burne-Jones began painting it as he emerged from an affair with Marie Zambaco, a “stunner” from the circle of Greek nationals living in London. The emotional malaise exuded by the painting is indicative of the torment suffered by Burne-Jones, not to mention his devoted wife, Georgiana, one of the real-life heroines of the Pre-Raphaelite saga.
Laus Veneris also points to the direction that Pre-Raphaelite art was taking after 1870. The “brotherhood” of the PRB had long-since dissolved. Christian symbolism was increasingly replaced by courtly-love and other Arthurian ideals, ever more remote from the realities of nineteenth century life. Style had triumphed over substance.
The man who led Pre-Raphaelite art out of this dead-end was an unlikely hero: William Morris (1834-1896). A mediocre painter himself, Morris was a brilliant publicist. He also had a “head” for business, if unconventional methods. In 1861, he founded a firm to produce decorative arts based on Pre-Raphaelite themes. His partners were Rossetti, Brown, and Burne-Jones, not a very inspiring board of directors. With the firm floundering and his own capital draining away, Morris bought out the others and reorganized it under his sole direction in 1875.
Morris chose his moment well. The decade of the 1870’s was the high noon of the Gothic Revival and Morris & Co. became a big, marketing success. Morris hired skilled craftsman to produce works based on the designs of Burne-Jones and other contributing artists. Their handiwork was sold to churches and wealthy private collectors: stained glass, tapestries, wall-paper, hand-produced furniture, carpets, folding screens and embroidery, all exuding the Victorian interpretation of the Middle Ages.
Morris, a committed Socialist, hoped that Morris & Co. would be able to provide quality objects of beauty to the working class. He also hoped to inspire a new economic structure very different from the soulless industrialism of the late nineteenth century. He was no more successful with these initiatives than Millais, Hunt and Rossetti had been in promoting Christian ideals with their early PRB paintings.
Morris did succeed, indirectly, because the success of Morris & Co. influenced the glorious Arts and Crafts Movement that spread throughout the world, including the United States, in the decades before World War I. The Pre-Raphaelite vision, however, quickly faded during the early decades of the twentieth century. Rossetti’s Blessed Damozel had little place in the era of the Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
Then, at some point during the 1960’s, a change occurred in the appreciation of the Pre-Raphaelites. The daring, young men – and women – of the PRB seemed relevant once more. Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose grandmother refused to allow “Victorian junk” in her home, started to amass his great collection of Pre-Raphaelite art. Others followed suit. Today the few Pre-Raphaelite paintings not in museum collections command huge prices when they come up for auction.
More to the point, this reappraisal of the Pre-Raphaelites has secured their return to a prominent place in the history of Western art. Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848–1900 at the National Gallery is a testament to the vision and endeavors of the PRB, however strange and arcane these may appear to our jaded, post-modern eyes.
Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848–1900 appears at the National Gallery of Art, 4th and Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20565, February 17–May 19, 2013