Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art mounts a sweeping exhibition of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood—the first U.S. retrospective of its kind.
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When ruminating on the essential works of the 19th century in his 1969 four-volume tome The Lives of the Painters, John Canaday, a longtime art critic for The New York Times, wrote “the history of the century is not the history of the Academies but of the revolts against them and of the further revolts against preceding revolts.” Though essentially describing the nature of progress in general—not just of culture but of humanity itself—Canaday’s analysis is an apt introduction to the Pre-Raphaelite movement, which he acknowledges as one of the only important 19th-century art movements outside of France. Canaday goes on to call the movement a “curious blend of idealism and absurdity,” which, again, is as apt a description of the PRB as it is of any group of organized youth revolting against the cultural leanings of the status quo as seen by an older authority, particularly in hindsight. But generalities aside, credit must be given where it is due. Before the YBAs, before the Sex Pistols and the Clash, skinheads, rude boys, teddy boys, and boy bands, before the mods, there was the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of British teenage artists and writers who challenged the Victorian art scene and carved out their own aesthetic niche in search of an authentic form of artistic representation.
William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, best friends who met at the Royal Academy, founded the brotherhood in 1848. Soon after, William Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens and Thomas Woolner joined to form a seven-fold “secret” society akin to a holy order of knights. However, throughout the course of the movement’s existence quite a few other artists were associated with it, most notably Ford Madox Brown and Edward Burne-Jones. Due to scandal, disillusion, and perhaps the simple but determined influence of time’s passage, the band broke up around 1850, but not without making an indelible mark that would color the works of British artists for decades and the annals of British art presumably forever.
At the Royal Academy in London, the PRB founders were taught to take the Raphaelesque ideal of the High Renaissance as their standard, a principle that gave them both a difficulty and a name. They found more inspiration in the compositions of quattrocento Italian art and classical, religious and Arthurian motifs. Just as the Renaissance created cultural upheaval through glorifying the Greco-Roman past, so did the PRB strive to distinguish itself from the perceived banality of its peers by looking backwards. Taking art critic John Ruskin as an inspirational figure, the group took the phrase “truth to nature,” which was a favorite of Ruskin’s, as one of its credos. (The PRB would later be defended by Ruskin; however, his relationship with Millais, his early favorite, suffered after the young artist ran off with his wife.) This meant not only often painting en plein air but choosing to depict nature in meticulous and rich detail, which is paradoxical considering that their subject matter was legendary or mythical. Another seemingly paradoxical tenet of the PRB was a devotion to realism; however, they defined it as capturing the individual’s experience in the moment rather than through literalistic depiction. This striving for realism was front and center at the Academy’s 1850 showing of Millais’ Christ in the House of His Parents, a painting that angered both the academy and critics (chief among them Charles Dickens, whose words regarding the painting were in fact uglier than he claimed the painting was) for its rendering of religious figures as too low down on the social scale.
Incidentally, this painting catapulted the Brotherhood out of obscurity, and it’s where the National Gallery in Washington D.C. begins its retrospective, “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848–1900” (through May 19). Oddly, though this subgroup of artists was initially obscure, their style quickly became widely recognizable and remains so today, despite a decades-long period of disfavor in the early 20th century. For the most part, their paintings have been shown very little in museum or gallery settings. In fact, it seems as though their style was kept alive through the illustration of fairy tales. Thus, the National Gallery and London’s Tate Gallery, where the show was presented before coming to America, have compiled an exhibition of historic merit.
“The Pre-Raphaelites are so narrative in what they did,” says Diane Waggoner, a curator of the exhibition and the National Gallery’s associate curator in the department of photographs, “which fell out of favor for awhile in the 20th century. Yet so much about how we understand ourselves and our world is through narrative.” Though narrative qualities are indeed prevalent in the PRB’s paintings, they are also represented in their various publishing projects and volumes of poetry. These ventures were as essential to the movement as their lavish paintings and their literary subject matter, and are therefore represented in the museum by a “brother” exhibition “Pre-Raphaelites and the Book” (also through May 19). Some 35 rare volumes and manuscripts are on view, including copies of the early short-lived PRB periodicals The Germ and The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine. Morris, who founded the Kelmscott Press in 1891, devoted himself to painstakingly creating books, often with wood-engraved illustrations by Burne-Jones, “with the hope,” he said, “of producing some which would have a claim to beauty.” Examples of these books are on view, along with some illuminated manuscripts by Morris, done in medieval style. Poetry by Rossetti, magazine and book illustrations by Millais, and critical pieces by Ruskin can also be seen; they show the PRB as they phase into maturity as artists and writers.
The exhibition also examines the range and growth of the movement by showing photography, sculptural works, and decorative art objects by and relating to the PRB artists. The PRB came to fruition at the same time photography did, and members would have been looking at daguerreotypes since their early teens. Included in the show are haunting and majestic portraits by Julia Margaret Cameron that have what Wagonner describes as a “sculptural quality.” In 1861 Morris spearheaded a design firm with Rossetti, Brown, and Burne-Jones as partners, but became the sole creative force in 1875, creating a wide variety of decorative items, from furniture with medieval accents and stained glass to textile and tapestries. In 1883, he made his famous Strawberry Thief textile design using the laborious ancient indigo-discharge method, which took him some eight years to master. The pattern reproduces thrushes surrounded by richly detailed flowers and strawberry vines, and was said to have been inspired by birds stealing the fruit off the bushes on his Oxfordshire manor. Along with examples of that design, viewers will also be able to admire Morris and Burne-Jones’ narrative tapestries depicting the Arthurian quest for the Holy Grail.
But no PRB show would be complete without Millais’ Ophelia (1851–52), perhaps the most widely recognized and most acclaimed Pre-Raphaelite painting. The National Gallery has installed the painting in such a way that it can be seen through three of the rooms. The product of an obsessive artistic process, Ophelia was painted by Millais in two parts: first, in the banks of Hogsmill River in Ewell where the artist toiled over reproducing the fecund river brush for six months; and second, in his London studio where model Elizabeth Siddal lay clothed in a bathtub for days on end. The result bears many of the elements of the PRB doctrine—a representation of nature that is so precise it seems otherworldly, a narrative theme ripped from classic literature, realism that reads as sincerity, and a commitment to beauty. In Ophelia Millais, as the painter, also plays the role of savior to his doomed damsel. He captures her at a moment of last breath and allows her to remain immortal in a state of restful and beautiful peril. It is a great work of young male romantic fantasy. It is a triumph of lust, a feeling that encapsulates Canaday’s notion of “idealism and absurdity” and one of the eternal motivators of teenage rebellion—whether an organized group of rebelling youth will admit to it or not.