ArtSmart Roundtable: The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

Monday, September 3rd, 2012. Filed under: Art ArtSmart Roundtable Europe

The Lady of Shalott (1888) by J.W. Waterhouse is a Victorian allegory of repression, desire and punishment. Tate Collection.

The former gallery guide in me couldn’t resist a regular appointment to chat about art so I’ve joined the ArtSmart Roundtable, a group of travel bloggers with a contagious passion for art. On the first Monday of every month, each member of the Roundtable publishes a piece on a chosen topic. This month’s topic is Art Movements. Be sure to scroll down for links to other Roundtable members’ blogs and unique perspectives.

And now, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. You know these paintings; their jewel tones and romantic subject matter have made them popular images on many a greeting card and poster. In person, their brilliant colour and truth to nature seduces. I fell in love with the Pre-Raphaelites on my first visit to the Tate Britain, treasurehouse of British art, now and forever my favorite museum in London. Opening at Tate Britain this month, a new show titled Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde features 150 works by these radical 19th-century British artists, focusing on the ideas and politics behind the work as well as the movement’s pioneering women artists.

Ophelia (1851-2) by Millais. Tate Collection. For subject matter, Pre-Raphaelites often drew on Romantic poetry, Arthurian legend, medieval culture and Shakespeare.

On my first visit to London, I stayed (and always since stay) in Tavistock Square, Bloomsbury, just steps from Gower Street where three young, rebellious art students founded The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848.  William Holman Hunt (age 21), John Everett Millais (19) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (20) were ambitious, irreverent and disgusted with the ‘muddy’ art and rote techniques of  the art establishment. The PRB defined themselves as a reform movement, named it and published a periodical to promote their ideas.

The name rose from their desire to return to what they considered the ‘purity’ of art before Raphael (1483-1520), rejecting the classical poses, idealized human forms and elegant compositions of the High Renaissance and what the PRB felt was its corrupting influence on the academic teaching of art. They especially despised the work of ‘Sir Sloshua’ Reynolds, founder of the English Royal Academy of Arts, and those who perpetuated his tradition.

The Pre-Raphaelites admired the fine detail, intense colours and compositions of Quattrocento Italian and Flemish Art. They developed a new technique of painting in thin glazes over a wet white ground. Eliminating use of bitumen (a common darkening agent) resulted in brilliant colours and startling clarity. Also opposite to convention, they painted the backgrounds first from nature in obsessive detail and sharp focus (then added the figures), creating an overall ‘high definition’ effect most viewers found jarring. Critic John Ruskin, and other artists, approved, however, and the PRB soon had a sea of acolytes and associates.

Christ in the House of His Parents (1849-50) by Millais. Tate Collection. The unidealized models were considered ugly, even sacriligious, especially for religious subjects.

The PRB’s personal lives were as controversial as their work. Romantic dalliances with (and sexual usage of) women of lower social class were always commonplace but the Pre-Raphaelites shattered social convention by marrying them. The status of most of these relationships, though, was ‘it’s complicated’. Romantic triangles and obsessions were mirrored in their paintings, most notably Rossetti’s Proserpine (1874). It’s hard to believe but the subject matter was suggested by Rossetti’s friend William Morris, husband of model Jane Morris whose own life mirrored that of the goddess trapped in gloomy Hades. The Morris marriage was unhappy and Jane had an intimate relationship with Rossetti which lasted for decades.

Proserpine (1874) by Rossetti. Tate Collection. Pre-Raphaelite paintings tended to have psychological content rather than nudity.

‘Stunners’ Jane Morris, Fanny Cornforth and Elizabeth Siddal were supermodels of the day, known by name then and now with many blogs devoted to their fascinating lives. Lizzie Siddal, model, addict, poet and wife of Rossetti, was also a noted painter. Indeed, the Pre-Raphaelites’ challenging of Victorian society‘s sexual double standard and gender roles allowed women to not only work as models but encouraged them to become artists in their own right.

The Pre-Raphaelite movement intentionally broke down distinctions between media, fine art and craft. Featured in the new Tate show is William Morris, leader of the related Arts and Crafts Movement, successful designer and political activist. Morris’s vision of a classless, productive society in which beauty was accessible to all fed revolutionary spirit everywhere, especially Russia, and his thoughts on nature were the seeds of our concern today with protecting the environment.

Pre-Raphaelite ideas were as important as their work. Beauty and ornamentation were a way to promote craftsmanship and protest industrialization. And as Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theories changed the way Victorians viewed the world, Pre-Raphaelites sought to reconnect the spiritual and natural realms.

With the William Morris Gallery undergoing a recent renovation, new books and movies being released, interest in the Pre-Raphaelites and their circle is at an all-time high. Beyond their artistic achievements and intriguing personal lives, I believe their appeal lies in one emotion I sense at the heart of nearly every Pre-Raphaelite work: longing or yearning. Yearning for love, the past, for a more just and beautiful world, is something we can all identify with.


For links to the rest of the ArtSmart Roundtable, scroll below!

Monna Vanna (1866) by Rossetti. Tate Collection. The Pre-Raphaelite look means loose, sensual masses of hair.

The Rosebud Garden of Girls (1868), albumen print by Julia Margaret Cameron, illustrates a line from a Tennyson poem. Getty Museum.

The ArtSmart Roundtable:

Erin Halvey on Roman Sculpture:

Jeff Titelius on the Early Renaissance:


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