The wistful maidens and valiant knights of Pre-Raphaelite art can strike the modern viewer as sentimental claptrap from the Victorian age. But a new exhibition of this British art at the National Gallery of Art insists that these pedantic, medieval-inspired works represent an avant-garde movement.
The curators want you to believe that the Pre-Raphaelites were revolutionary, right up there with cubists and abstract expressionists.
This argument falls flat, given the art’s revivalist and literary bent. Sure, the Pre-Raphaelites rejected the heroic academic paintings of their day, using lurid colors and hyper-realism to challenge convention.
But in doing so, they looked backward for inspiration, to the “purity” of Italian and Northern European art created before Renaissance artist Raphael.
The young rebels of the group — John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt — banded together in 1848 and called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. These artists and their champion, art critic John Ruskin, believed the Middle Ages represented the beauty, authenticity and spirituality that had been lost in their own industrialized society.
Of the three founders, Millais makes the most convincing argument for Pre-Raphaelitism as fresh and inventive. His early paintings, the most striking in the 130-piece show, are notable for their compositional clarity, luminous colors and crisp details.
The best known of his works depicts Shakespeare’s Ophelia submerged in a stream surrounded by greenery with every leaf painstakingly represented. Millais completed the verdant background first, while standing on a country riverbank, before insisting that his fiancee lie in a bathtub so he could paint the outstretched figure.
The intensity of his vision can assume a hallucinatory quality. “Ferdinand Lured by Ariel,” another early painting based on Shakespeare, combines realism with an imaginary sprite encircled by batlike creatures. No wonder the hippies of the 1960s loved this Victorian art.
In “Christ in the House of His Parents,” Millais pictures the holy family as ordinary working people to challenge traditional religious imagery. The painting outraged critics including Charles Dickens, who dismissed its depiction of the young Jesus as “a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy in a bed gown.”
If the Pre-Raphaelites had a motto, it would be “Every picture tells a story.” The artists created the visual equivalent of passages from the Bible, Dante, Chaucer, Tennyson and other written sources. The purpose of their literary scenes was to impart lessons about nature, labor and societal ills, just as Dickens and other Victorian contemporaries did in novels.
But all this moralizing and medieval nostalgia casts Pre-Raphaelitism as the antithesis of modernism, and many of the later works in this exhibit are truly belabored and ponderous. The exhibit tries hard to enlighten the viewer about the merits of the work through informative wall texts and a thematic organization, grouping works devoted to nature, beauty, salvation and other interests shared by the artists.
One of the show’s achievements is to remind viewers that the Pre-Raphaelites created their art at a time of Darwinian discoveries. These artists were interested in science as much as religion.
They believed God was in the details of nature and painted outdoors a decade before the French Impressionists followed suit. Their landscapes testify to acute powers of observation in depictions of glaciers, hillsides, comets and rainbows. Hunt went so far as to travel to Jerusalem to paint the salt-encrusted beaches of the Dead Sea.
Early photography was another influence on the Pre-Raphaelites, leading to precise, cropped images and flattening of space. The unflinching ability of daguerreotypes to capture the world mirrored Ruskin’s call to represent nature as observed, “rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, scorning nothing.”
The didactic fervor of Pre-Raphaelitism eventually dissipated, and artists such as Millais and Rossetti began producing more sensual and mannered images devoid of allegory. Portraits of long-haired women with pouting lips fill one gallery, and their dark, rich colors hint at post-Raphaelite painters such as Titian.