Young, ambitious, and idealistic, the seven artists who formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood aimed at nothing less than a revolution. They indicted the Royal Academy of Art (England’s dominant authority of artistic training and taste) for being repetitive and formulaic. To create their own style they embraced the art of the past. The leaders of the group—William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and John Everett Millais—argued that early European art represented greater representational truth, originality, and beauty than did the late Renaissance masterpieces that were celebrated by the Royal Academy. With the support of John Ruskin, one of the most influential art critics of the time, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) became the most radical contemporary art movement of the Victorian period.
The Pre-Raphaelites lived in a period of intense change. At their founding in 1848, England was a global superpower. Queen Victoria was 29 years old and had been on the throne for 11 years (she would reign for another 53 years). Revolution and unrest were sweeping Europe, and in England the working class demonstrated for political reform. More broadly, over the course of their careers, members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood witnessed both the promise and the perils of industrialized society.
In response to their increasingly modernizing world—and to counter what they viewed as the erosion of timeless ideals, such as truth and beauty, in art by the followers of Raphael (the “Raphaelites”)—the PRB studied art from the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. This exhibition juxtaposes for the first time works of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood with those by old masters such as Jan van Eyck and Sandro Botticelli. Viewers can trace the lessons the Brotherhood learned from their predecessors, from painting techniques to the use of symbolism.
Go to Nature in all singleness of heart . . . rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing: believing all things to be right and good, and rejoicing always in the truth.
John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti met as students of the Royal Academy Schools. Their first meeting as core founding members of the Pre-Raphaelites was held in September 1848 at 83 Gower Street, the home of Millais’s parents. At the time, they ranged in age from nineteen to twenty-one. The additional founding members included: Frederic George Stephens, James Collinson, Thomas Woolner, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s brother, William Michael Rossetti.
To rage against the tyranny of academic refinement, the PRB proposed to follow John Ruskin’s call to go to nature and rejoice in its truth. Hunt later recounted that “the first principle of Pre-Raphaelitism was to eschew all that was conventional in contemporary art.” Rossetti’s brother William, also a founding member, summarized their artistic intent as follows:
A Manifesto in Action
The PRB’s application of their youthful ideals resulted in compositions such as Millais’s Mariana. The artist constructed a veritable world of details and textures, clearly demonstrating his skill as a painter, yet that was not his sole intent. Such exacting detail showed his ability to “study nature attentively” and to create a work that compelled the same of his viewer. Throughout the composition, Millais has left provocative visual puzzles for the viewer.
Inspired by Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem Mariana, which was based on a character in Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure, this work was exhibited by Millais at the Royal Academy in 1851, just one year after Tennyson became poet laureate. When it was first displayed, the work was accompanied by the following stanza:
She only said, “my life is dreary, he cometh not,” she said. She said, “I am aweary, aweary, I would that I were dead!”
Questioning the Academy
The revolutionary aspects of Mariana can easily escape the attention of the twenty-first century viewer. However, when compared with paintings in the period’s reigning style, the contrast is striking. The work of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first president of the Royal Academy, still defined its teaching philosophy although he had been dead for more than half a century.
In Anne, Viscountess Townsend, Later Marchioness Townshend, on view in the British gallery at the Legion of Honor, you can see why members of the PRB sarcastically referred to the artist as “Sir Sloshua.” To their eyes the brushstrokes lacked precision and the color palette was muted. The initial critical attacks against the PRB conformed to the prevailing tastes of the time and reprimanded the young collective for being too truthful in their choice of angular figures and their minute, naturalistic, details.
Although John Ruskin found the name of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to be “unfortunate and somewhat ludicrous,” he championed their efforts to break from the academy and provided the PRB with connections to collectors over their careers. In an early article he stated, “They know little of ancient paintings who suppose the works of these young artists to resemble them.” In short, viewers who saw the PRB as copying the old masters did not look close enough.
William Holman Hunt’s portrait of Henry Wentworth Monk exemplifies Ruskin’s critique. The artist’s exacting details and nuanced handling of light create the illusion of the past. However, Hunt has juxtaposed a volume of the New Testament with a copy of the London Times, emphatically placing the portrait within the Victorian era.
Artists were prepared to adopt the role of pupils—pupils, moreover, to masters whose authority was as yet unproven, artists of the past who had not yet entered a canon still in the process of formation.
Individually distinct, the styles of the PRB artists share numerous traits, which they learned through their close study of the old masters such as Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, and Sandro Botticelli. Every member of the group rejected painting with bright highlights and deep shadows, a technique called chiaroscuro. They also painted on a white underlayer, which enhanced their palette of brilliant, jewel-toned colors. This style contrasted with sfumato, painting in gradually shifting tones to create hazy, soft outlines, a technique prominent among late Italian Renaissance masters and sanctioned by Reynolds.
Tracing the connections between the old masters and the PRB rebels, we discover art history as a developing discipline in the nineteenth century. During the Victorian era, connoisseurs and scholars were actively assembling the world-famous collections we know today. The most significant acquisition of this kind for the PRB was the 1842 purchase by the National Gallery of the Arnolfini Portrait by the Netherlandish artist Jan van Eyck.
The angular postures, bright jewel-toned colors, and highly symbolic interior of the Arnolfini Portrait riveted the PRB artists, as there were few paintings like it on public view. The painting remains so treasured today that it never leaves the National Gallery in London. Northern art (from the Netherlands and Germany) served as a near revelation to English audiences. Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert, was one of the most proactive private collectors and promoters of this art in Britain, even helping to organize and supply loans for local exhibitions. Notably, in 1857, he supported an exhibition held in Manchester entitled “Art Treasures,” where the organizers compared early Northern art with early Italian art, installing examples from each school on opposite walls.
When the PRB formed, none of its founding members had yet traveled abroad. Rossetti and Hunt took their first study trip in 1849 to Paris and Bruges, where they made many discoveries of Northern art. The Brotherhood also amassed their knowledge of old masters by visiting the National Gallery, the British Museum, and private collections, including that of John Ruskin. Reflecting the nascent art market for Northern and early Italian art, some of the artists even collected their own works. Most notably, Rossetti purchased—for only 20 pounds—Botticelli’s Portrait of a Lady Known as Smeralda Bandinelli, which he closely studied and used for inspiration for his own allegorical portraits.
In fact they ought not to be compared to any Italians; since the Italians aimed at beauty . . . at grace and dignity—of all which our Pre-Raphaelites have no notion.
Given the expense of international travel and the limited opportunities in London to view firsthand the art that inspired them, the Brotherhood took advantage of high-quality reproductions and early photographs of rare artworks. Copies of such paintings as Botticelli’s Primavera and The Birth of Venus served as source material. The burgeoning interest in replica prints led to the founding of groups such as the Arundel Society, created the same year as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and dedicated to the publication of reproductions to promote knowledge of early European art.
What did the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood learn from the different periods they studied?
The PRB’s passion for the medieval period was fueled by Ruskin’s writings. He envisioned the Middle Ages as a time when art and life were interconnected, when craftsmen worked together to create art that conveyed truthful ideals, at once personally meaningful and socially beneficial. He believed returning to these principles was the only escape from brute capitalism and the toll it took on Britain’s social, cultural, spiritual, and environmental life.
Northern Renaissance Art
(Netherlandish and German)
In the work of Northern Renaissance artists, the Brotherhood admired the luminosity and durability of their oil technique as well as their incandescent colors, exacting detail, and the symbolic depiction of everyday objects. Van Eyck provided the greatest source of inspiration.
Early Italian Art
Early Italian artists such as Fra Angelico and Sandro Botticelli captivated the PRB with the sincerity of their painting style. They especially admired Botticelli for his close observation of nature. He also combined sacred and secular imagery, creating compositions that conveyed a sense of both pleasure and melancholy.
The Time of Raphael
In naming themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the young collective intended to reject not Raphael himself but rather the formulaic results of his many assistants and followers, the “Raphaelites.” According to the PRB these artists slavishly followed rules that resulted in contorted compositions that lacked originality.
High and Late Italian Renaissance Art
Although they scorned Raphael’s followers, later in their careers the PRB did study artists after Raphael whom they deemed to be fully original. Rossetti’s later works are heavily indebted to Venetian artists such as Titian, Paolo Veronese, and Palma Vecchio. Compositions by these painters share sumptuous textures, graceful bodies, and a scale of nearly life size.
The Pre-Raphaelite Women
From the outset, women surrounded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and actively participated in shaping the movement. However, women living in this period were constrained by the Victorian social norms. The talents of female artists featured in this exhibition, such as Elizabeth “Lizzie” Siddal and Evelyn De Morgan, were historically undervalued in contrast to those of their male counterparts. Early in their careers, artists of the PRB generally relied on family members to serve as models, such as Rossetti’s two sisters, Christina and Maria Francesca Rossetti. By 1852 Millais, Hunt, and Rossetti were working with models from lower- to working-class backgrounds. In many cases only fragmentary evidence remains to provide general outlines of these women’s lives.
At the heart of the project outlined by the PRB lies a central question: how do artists study the art of the past to revitalize the art of the present? In the Victorian era, the tradition of copying masterpieces was a tried-and-true teaching technique. What made the Pre-Raphaelites revolutionary was their focus on old masters who had largely been overlooked by the art establishment. Their ambition also differentiated their approach. They aspired to be adept translators and not rote copyists, borrowing their predecessors’ styles to create modern works. Having translated Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s La vita nuova into English, Rossetti was well acquainted with the elusive challenge of preserving the beauty of verse within a new context. Of the process, he wrote:
"[The translator’s path] is like that of Aladdin through the enchanted vaults: many are the precious fruits and flowers which he must pass by unheeded in search for the lamp alone; happy if at last, when brought to light, it does not prove that his old lamp has been exchanged for a new one—glittering indeed to the eye, but scarcely of the same virtue nor with the same genius at its summons." —Dante Gabriel Rossetti, artist, 1861
To achieve the translation that they aspired to, Rossetti and other PRB artists did not slavishly replicate key parts of a single composition but rather assembled different elements to create their own original works. In Love and the Maiden, painted in 1877, Stanhope (who owned a villa outside Florence) boldly displays the lessons he learned through his exacting studies of Botticelli’s masterpieces, including The Birth of Venus and Primavera. The postures of the figures, the painstaking attention to nature, and allusions to ancient mythology create a strong link between the two artists. However, Stanhope refused to quote Botticelli exactly. His stylistic interweaving of Botticelli’s elements into his composition encourages the viewer to look more closely at both Stanhope’s work and that of the master he diligently studied.
For many of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood artists and their collectors, paintings alone could not evoke the past they wished to revive. They created domestic worlds infused with medieval-inspired furniture, books, wallpaper, stained-glass windows, and tapestries. At the height of the PRB’s popularity, the demand for domestic goods gave rise to an entire industry headed by William Morris and Edward-Burne Jones, both protégés of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Friends who met in college, Morris and Burne-Jones first collaborated on furniture designs. As their careers progressed, Morris dedicated himself to reviving lost trades. He passionately studied old-master tapestries and taught himself the high-warp technique, the method favored in medieval and Renaissance workshops.
In addition to his other acclaimed artistic pursuits, Burne-Jones studied illuminated manuscripts and French emblem books. Inspired by the latter, he created The Flower Book, which was published by the artist’s wife after his death. This volume included thirty-eight watercolors that evoke traditional floral names in ways that are sometimes recognizable and at other times obscure.
Kehinde Wiley: Empowering the Present
The artistic revolution represented by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood offers a resounding answer to the question, Where and how do artists find inspiration? Contemporary artists similarly wrestle with how, when, and why to engage with the art of the past. The potential impact and power of this debate crystallizes in the work of Kehinde Wiley—whom President Obama selected to paint his official portrait. Wiley translates the poses and settings from old-master paintings to underscore contemporary social issues. In the nineteenth century, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood worked with an art-historical canon that was in flux; this understanding that art history is not fixed invites artists and viewers today to question how and why certain artists are elevated over others.
Generally, I try to create a place of disorientation, as a way to upset the natural balance that the viewer may have when they look at one of my images. What I love in art is that it takes known combinations and reorders them in a way that sheds light on something that they have never seen before or allows to consider the world in a slightly different way.