Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant Garde
This exhibition presents the Pre-Raphaelites as an avant-garde movement, a group with a self-conscious, radical project of overturning artistic orthodoxies. Boldly original in style and conception, the Pre-Raphaelites made a profound contribution to the history of modern art.
The movement coincided almost exactly with the long reign of Queen Victoria (ruled 1837–1901). The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) was founded in 1848, a year of revolution across Europe, in a recognisably modern world. Steamships plied the globe. Railway networks linked expanding cities. Science challenged traditional beliefs. Photography offered new ways of seeing. Pre-Raphaelite art distilled the energy of the world’s first industrial society into striking new forms.
The leading members of the PRB were the young painters John Everett Millais,Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt. Their older friend and mentor Ford Madox Brown never formally joined the group.
They believed that art had become decadent, and rejected their teachers’ belief that the Italian artist Raphael (1483–1520) represented the pinnacle of aesthetic achievement. They looked to earlier art whose bright colours, flat surfaces and truth to nature they admired.
But rather than imitate the early masters, they espoused a rule-breaking originality. Whether painting subjects from Shakespeare, the Bible, landscapes of the Alps or the view from a window, the Pre-Raphaelites brought a new beauty and intensity of vision to British art.
Origins and Manifesto
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in September 1848 at a turbulent time when ruptures in the new industrial society became visible. Hunt and Millais witnessed a Chartist demonstration in that year.
Many Victorians felt that in the machine age, beauty and spirituality had been lost. Gothic Revival architects like Augustus Pugin turned back to medieval styles. The German Nazarene painters rejected modernity and adopted historical styles of painting and of dress. John Ruskin described in The Stones of Venice the ‘freedom’ of medieval times in contrast to the ‘slavery’ of the modern factory. The invention of photography in 1839 profoundly changed the way people perceived the world. All these influenced the young Pre-Raphaelites.
At first, they formed a tight-knit, conspiratorial group, refusing to explain the initials PRB on their canvases. Their early works caused critical protest. The sharp outlines and bright colours derived from the early Italian paintings at the National Gallery. The PRB published a journal, The Germ, which acted as a manifesto, planting the seeds of artistic revolution.
The Pre-Raphaelites managed to be both historical and contemporary in their approach. They adopted the freshness of early-Renaissance art, but their work is essentially modern.
Dramatic narratives from the Bible, classical mythology, literature or world history had dominated European art since the establishment of artistic academies in the seventeenth century. The Pre-Raphaelites developed modern forms of this genre in painting and sculpture by using a realist style, emphasising accuracy of dress and accoutrements in subjects from the writings of Shakespeare and Dante Alighieri, original stories and medieval tales. They rejected narratives of military heroism or idealised Greco-Roman scenes inhabited by languid nudes. They also abandoned classical history and its attendant ideas of exemplary virtue, military might and monarchical achievement, focusing instead on intimate relationships that stood for broader currents of human experience. The results defied convention, provoked critics and entranced audiences, while appealing to new industrial and commercial patrons in the Victorian era.
In the mid-1850s, Rossetti, who had abandoned making exhibition pictures in oils, and Elizabeth Siddall used watercolour to create intensely coloured, intricate compositions loosely rooted in the tradition of medieval illumination and exploring themes of chivalric love. By the end of the decade, Rossetti’s younger followersEdward Burne-Jones and William Morris would begin their transformation of Victorian design, making furniture, textiles, stained glass and wallpaper in broadly similar schemes, often employing medieval subjects.
Pre-Raphaelite responses to nature constitute a dramatically original aspect of the movement in terms of both artistic theory and style. Partly inspired by the writings of John Ruskin, the artists successfully developed their own novel and precise method of transcribing the natural world in oil paint, based on close looking and sustained engagement with the motif.
Vivid natural imagery appears in Pre-Raphaelite subjects from Shakespeare, and in imagined scenes of the past reconfigured in the present. Other works placed unfamiliar aspects of contemporary labour in landscape settings and engaged with modernity as represented in the increasingly compromised natural environment around London.
The Pre-Raphaelite process of intense looking resulted in a new, distinctively modern, style. Critics claimed that these highly detailed paintings were copied from photographs. In fact, the artists rarely used photography, but their paintings nevertheless reveal that they absorbed photography’s precision of focus, flattening of forms, composition and radical cropping of the visual field.
Pre-Raphaelite landscape paintings engage with developments in the natural sciences, geology, botany, meteorology and even astronomy. Debates about evolution and the history of the earth raged in the years before and after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). The Pre-Raphaelites were acutely aware that the claims of science and religion were increasingly at odds.
Religion was a powerful, though controversial and increasingly contested, presence in Victorian culture. Scientific enquiry, sectarian division and social unrest were eroding the power of the established church. The PRB sought to make the moral and humane teachings of the Bible relevant in order to emphasise suffering and compassion in this world rather than redemption in the next. This room juxtaposes Pre-Raphaelite religious paintings and scenes from modern life: both are preoccupied with morality and salvation. Rejecting traditional religious imagery, the Pre-Raphaelites painted scenes from the Bible with unprecedented realism. Millais made studies for Christ in the House of his Parents in a real carpenter’s shop, and painted the Holy Family as everyday figures rather than ideal types. This shocked viewers such as Charles Dickens, who found Millais’s Virgin Mary to be ‘horrible in her ugliness’. Hunt was so committed to truthful representation that he made the arduous voyage to the Holy Land, where he could paint the actual settings of biblical events.
Religious and moral thinking permeated everyday life. Ford Madox Brown’s social tableau, Work, celebrates the ‘nobleness and even sacredness’ of labour, suggesting salvation for the heroic manual workers rather than the idle rich. Pre-Raphaelite representations of women both encompassed and challenged Victorian ideals. In Hunt’s Awakening Conscience, a ‘kept woman’ realises the error of her ways, perhaps as a result of religious feelings, while The Children’s Holiday presents an idyll of middle-class domesticity
Around 1860, the Pre-Raphaelites began to turn away from a realist engagement with nature, society and religion to explore the purely aesthetic possibilities of picture-making. Beauty came to be valued more highly than truth, as Pre-Raphaelitism slowly metamorphosed into the Aesthetic movement.
In 1855 Millais started creating compositions ‘full of beauty and without subject’, such as Autumn Leaves. But Rossetti was the dominant force in the era of ‘art for art’s sake’ after 1860. After his return to oil painting in 1859 his work became more sensuous in both style and subject. Rejecting sharp outlines and pure colours, he adopted the rich impasto and saturated hues of Venetian art from after the time of Raphael.
The female face and body became the most important subjects for Pre-Raphaelite art. As Rossetti’s principal model of the early 1860s, Fanny Cornforthmay be considered a collaborator in producing some of his most ambitious works, a role Jane Morris later assumed.
Photography came to be valued more for its creative potential than its accuracy of representation. Julia Margaret Cameron expanded the expressive range of the camera, creating a distinctive Aestheticist photography whose roots lay in Pre-Raphaelite painting
Inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites and the medieval past, William Morrisestablished the decorative artists’ collective Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. in 1861. Rossetti, Brown, Webb and Burne-Jones were partners in this enterprise. In 1875 Morris reorganised the company under his sole direction as Morris & Co. The Firm produced tiles, furniture, embroidery, stained-glass, printed and woven textiles, carpets and tapestry for both ecclesiastical and domestic interiors, examples of which are included in this room. In 1891 Morris founded the Kelmscott Press for the production of high quality hand-printed books. Burne-Jones was the Firm’s primary figure designer and Morris the principal pattern designer. Those employed in the crafting of objects included Morris’s wife Jane and their daughter May, who was appointed Head of the Embroidery section in 1885.
Morris often revived older forms of production in protest against the cheap, mass-produced goods made possible by the industrial revolution. His first-hand experience with manufacture and production led him to embrace politics as integral to an aesthetic and creative life. In the 1880s he became a socialist, advocating that not only must the designer understand the medium and be true to its materials, but also derive pleasure from the labour involved in producing objects, as he believed had been the case in the medieval period.
In its later phase Pre-Raphaelitism developed along two fronts which can broadly be termed the realist, and the poetic or proto-Symbolist. The former was represented by Hunt, Millais and Brown, who all adhered to the founding principles of the movement, rejecting academic conventions of history painting in favour of an uncompromising naturalism, although now on a grand scale. The large canvases exhibited here demonstrate their interest in myth and the unconscious.
The ‘poetic’ strand is exemplified in the work of Rossetti and Burne-Jones where attention is focused on the human figure frozen in a drama. Both artists developed a visual language around the symbols in their compositions which do not cohere to form an overriding narrative or moral message, but communicate in more ambiguous terms, anticipating the art of the European Symbolist movement. Burne-Jones’s work could be seen as the culmination of Pre-Raphaelitism with its emphasis on draughtsmanship and refined execution. However, in rejecting the modern external world in favour of idealised visions of the past, his art marked a radical new departure in offering an imaginary alternative to the rampant materialism of Victorian Britain.