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The Redemption of the Pre-Raphaelites

It has a reputation for descending into sentimental kitsch, but a revival proves this 19th century art is anything but.

The top-selling image at the museum bookstore of London’s Tate Britain is of a young woman floating on her back in a quiet river. Heavy-lidded eyes stare emptily upwards, lips are parted in confusion, and her partially submerged arms are open as if in benediction. The slender body is buoyed by her flowing gown, the sparkling embroidery of which is outdone only by an iridescent profusion of nature, with flowers of every color floating in the water and lush green vegetation insistently crowding at her from all sides. This, of course, is Ophelia, driven to madness and then death in Hamlet, as painted by John Everett Millais in the early 1850s.

From the time Millais and a group of like-minded artists—including William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti—formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) in London in 1848, opinion about them has been sharply divided. Why they are loved is obvious. The brilliant colors, sharp realism, romantic themes, and accessible narratives are the stuff that produces blockbuster exhibitions whenever they appear in Britain or America. A current exhibition at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, entitled “Truth and Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters,” will be no exception, if opening weekend crowds were any indication.

As the name “Pre-Raphaelite” indicates, Rossetti, Hunt, Millais, and their confrères rejected the school of painting then dominant. They felt the compositional and stylistic rules laid down by the Royal Academy of Arts in England produced artificiality and staleness and instead found their inspiration by reaching back past Raphael’s successors to the art of medieval Europe. Academy painting in England had become visually muddy, and the PRB was drawn to the sharp lines of medieval paintings and illuminated manuscripts and the rich, bright colors of early Netherlandish masters. They also eschewed the themes from classical Greek and Roman mythology so favored during and after the Renaissance, choosing instead medieval literary themes, whether directly from the original sources or mediated by later English poets, accenting their paintings with heraldic and Christian iconographic symbolism.

An exhibition like the one at the Legion of Honor allows the visitor to glimpse the all-encompassing ambition of the Pre-Raphaelites. In addition to the many paintings, one sees their elaborately illustrated books (including an illuminated edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales), fabrics by William Morris, and stained glass that was specially restored in preparation for this viewing. Some were respected poets in their own right, and as the displayed original copies of their short-lived journal, The Germ, indicate, their original mission included criticism as well as creative work.

One’s skeptical antennae should perk up whenever a museum exhibition is billed as a “dialogue”—that much-abused word. Certainly, old works speak and later artists respond. The problem with calling such displays a dialogue is that all too often there is no evidence that the more modern artists are actually listening to the older ones. And as always, the older work never has a chance to talk back, leaving the final word to the last on the scene. Of late, the Legion of Honor, which has as its primary ambit non-modern European art, has subjected museum-goers to “dialogues” in which post-modern oddities are scattered throughout the halls of the museum’s fine permanent collection. At such moments, one wishes that one really could hear the old works “dialogue” back, just once. These distractions were the brainchildren of director Max Hollein, who was tapped this year to be the new director of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York’s loss is San Francisco’s gain, one supposes, at least as far as such things go.


But let us leave off from old wounds and accentuate the delightful. In this case, “Truth and Beauty” is brilliantly conceived by curator Melissa Buron, who also edited the fine exhibition catalog. It is a worthy project because there is a genuine dialogue to chronicle. Not only were the Pre-Raphaelites deeply influenced by the types of works mixed into this exhibition, they also were avoiding a mere medieval revival. They sought, rather, a contemporary artistic movement influenced by a return to medieval sources for inspiration. The distinction is crucial, and it shows in their work. The Pre-Raphaelites listened, they responded, and then they clearly returned to the old masters to listen yet again. The pairings of older and newer works lucidly demonstrate what is intended, and what is more than that, the mix enhances the experience of viewing both sets of works.

A journey through the PRB’s body of work is likely to elicit the response: “Oh, I’ve seen that before.” Because of their illustrations for well-loved books and because their art is used in textbooks and web pages discussing literature (the Pre-Raphaelites loved to depict scenes from Shakespeare, Dante, Boccaccio, Keats, and Tennyson, among others) these paintings penetrate the popular subconscious of the English-speaking world like few others. As individuals, the artists themselves are not household names in the way that say, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Monet, or Picasso are, and yet in their day, the PRB shrewdly made the most of their talents.

While much of their oeuvre was a conscious reaction against the dehumanizing effects of the Industrial Revolution in England, they were not afraid to use innovative manufacturing and distribution techniques to spread their work through inexpensive prints and book illustrations, with some becoming quite wealthy in the process. They sent their more famous individual paintings on extensive tours where the curious middle classes could pay a modest fee to sit and gaze at these works for a time. William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World, depicting Christ knocking at a closed door, was for some time believed to be the most viewed painting in history, having been seen by an estimated seven million viewers worldwide. Millais was granted a rare hereditary peerage and ended his life as president of the same Royal Academy that he began his career famously rejecting.

An exhibition like this, containing representative works that stretch from the movement’s birth in 1848 to its end at the turn of the 20th century, can give clues to why the Pre-Raphaelites came to be despised when artistic fashions shifted. Pre-Raphaelite art has a reputation for descending into sentimental kitsch and for wallowing in nostalgia for a time that never was. There is furthermore a perception, looking at these paintings in reproduction, of sensuousness bordering on cheap eroticism, reliably clothed as the figures may be. Given the medieval emphasis on restraint of passion, the contradiction can seem at best to be a failure to understand the original medieval sources, whether spiritually or aesthetically, and at worst to border on cruel parody. Viewing the paintings themselves, however, one is humbled and taken aback at how unfair such presuppositions can be. Even in scenes ripe with sexual tension, such as Rossetti’s Paolo and Francesca da Rimini or his Bocca Baciata (Lips That Have Been Kissed), the paintings actually have a surprising emotional restraint.

Some have postulated that the precipitous decline in the reputation of the Pre-Raphaelites was brought about by the brutality of the First World War. No one, according to this line of thought, could experience such devastation and go back to painting romanticized scenes from Shakespeare and Tennyson. This is doubtless at least partly true. The Great War seems to have brought an end to a certain kind of British cultural self-confidence, and in that milieu, it wouldn’t be such a leap to come to believe that an artistic path leading to dissonance and fragmentation (something that had begun on the continent long before the trenches were dug and the mustard gas was released), was the correct and inevitable one after all.


By the time of a Tate retrospective in 1984, Britain’s liberal magazine the New Statesman found political reasons to sniff at the PRB’s resurgent popularity, calling it a baneful byproduct of “Mrs. Thatcher’s Neo-Victorian Age.” Modern curators prefer to try to defang such criticism by emphasizing the rebellious aspects of the movement—hence a more recent Tate exhibition billing them as the “Victorian Avant-Garde.” The transgressive behavior of some—especially Rossetti, who seems to have had problems finding a model whom he didn’t want to turn into a mistress—helpfully lays down some cover fire. You can’t really win today, though: the retroactive reach of #MeToo has caught up with the Pre-Raphaelites, with John William Waterhouse’s rather erotic portrayal of Hylas and the Nymphs removed for a time from its spot in the Manchester Art Gallery, ostensibly to provoke a “conversation” (another much-abused word) about artistic portrayals of women and their bodies.

Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, an avid collector of Pre-Raphaelite art, remarked in a documentary some years ago that for his parents’ generation, there was no better way to reduce a polite English dinner party to sputtering contempt than mentioning these artists—they were ranked with Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals in their perceived lowbrow vulgarity. At the time of the 2012 Tate retrospective, a Guardian reviewer, talking to a collector of Victorian art, one of whose works had been borrowed for the exhibition, poked at the sore spot a bit, pointing out that Victorian art hasn’t always been fashionable. The collector’s response was telling: “Yes. But when people say they hate Victorian art, you have to ask: what is it they’re hating? They’re hating themselves, because they’re hating the stuff of which we’re made. Most middle-class people in Britain still live in Victorian houses. [The Victorians] gave us all sorts of things we take for granted.” Indeed.

One wonders whether the Pre-Raphaelite movement came to be considered vulgar not because of its tendency toward the maudlin, but because it didn’t go where the arc of history supposedly dictates. The Pre-Raphaelites’ real crime may be that they were quintessentially British. Going their own eccentric way, they forged a parallel artistic path that had only a passing relationship to, say, the deliberately brutal realism going on in France.

While Courbet was detailing female pudenda in his The Origin of the World in the 1860s, Hunt was painting one of the more moving works in the San Francisco exhibition, The Birthday, a portrait of his wife in which he lavishes palpable adoration on individual strands of her hair and on details of her dress and shawl. By 1888, Van Gogh and Gauguin were already long past Impressionism and hard at Post-Impressionism, but Pre-Raphaelite art only kept becoming more of what it already was—realistic, symbolic, spiritual, romantic, and medieval, as brilliantly summed up that year in John William Waterhouse’s exquisite The Lady of Shalott, depicting the penultimate scene in Tennyson’s poem in which the lady voyages alone, singing, down the river to Camelot.

The Lady of Shalott, William Holman Hunt

Owing to its place of prominence in the Tate, the Waterhouse image of the Lady of Shalott is the most famous of the many Pre-Raphaelite depictions of that poem. The San Francisco exhibition has, however, what is arguably a more significant Lady of Shalott. This massive canvas by William Holman Hunt is considered the final major Pre-Raphaelite work: a visual recapitulation of the entire movement, with its idealistic realism, its moral typology, and its mix of classical, Arthurian, and Christian iconographic references and symbolism. For keepers of conventional art history timelines, it can be a bit disorienting to learn that it was not completed and put on exhibition until 1905. By then, Picasso was already at work. His first works pointing toward cubism were about to appear, and the near disappearance of representational art itself as a vital artistic tradition was not far behind.

Unlike that of Marx, whose Communist Manifesto also appeared (albeit to scant notice) in 1848, the PRB’s response to the Industrial Revolution was to look back to a time long before the “dark Satanic Mills” came to England. Their consideration of the Middle Ages alerted them to the fact that something was dreadfully wrong, and it seems to have been their belief that bringing truth and beauty into a smoke-laden and dehumanizing world could lead to the radical rediscovery of a more just and communitarian life.

Still, there is something missing with the Pre-Raphaelites. Perhaps they mistook, in part, the accidents of medieval Europe for its substance. Perhaps they were therefore never able to plumb it to depths that a creative, ongoing answer to the rising power of unrestrained capitalism would require. It is hard not to wonder whether there was one last door that they saw but didn’t open—or one that their time and culture prevented them from discerning at all. This possible gateway to a lively counterweight tradition, one embracing the best of Christendom’s past, might have continued to run parallel to a 20th-century history of art in which a dismantling of that past has held sway. Reflecting on their work, there is joy that these few at least tried—but also no small sense of loss for what might have been.

Bradley Anderson writes from San Francisco, California.