Let’s face it: most of us haven’t got a clue about art. Such a short word, yet so complicated. I’ve been thinking a lot about art lately (though I’m not sure why!) and so I decided to spend some time learning about art. I thought I’d write about what I’ve learned so far. Maybe it will be helpful to you as well! The first thing to know is that art is like history: it’s divided into different “periods.” In the many parts of this series so far I’ve looked at art up through the 19th-Century Realists. Today I’m going to look at a movement that was (and is) one of the most polarizing group of artists that have ever painted!
I’m talking about the Pre-Raphaelites of mid-1800s England. Who were these Pre-Raphaelites and what led them to develop such a radical style of painting?
They were in fact a group of seven students at the Royal Academy of Art in London. They believed (as so many artists had before them) that conventional art had nothing to offer them, that it did nothing to inspire them, and they came to the conclusion that the problem with art was the Renaissance painter Raphael.
Raphael had been long considered to be the greatest artist in history, and his work had influenced art for three hundred years. The name “Pre-Raphaelites” was chosen by these artists because they believed that only by studying art that came BEFORE Raphael could they truly learn about art. They rejected the principles and techniques of Raphael and all those that followed him, and sought for inspiration in the Middle Ages.
Because of this common aversion to Raphael and the search for subject themes in the Middle Ages, it’s obvious that there are many common elements among these Pre-Raphaelite painters. For example, there are biblical stories and medieval myths and legends. They were obsessed with magic, spells and dreams. They journeyed into the world of the unconscious, and examined what it meant to be human.
These seven students formed a secret society while studying at the Royal Academy which they named “The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.” They used the initials PRB to sign their paintings. They maintained a level of secrecy about their membership and their society that angered many of their contemporaries. It didn’t help that many people considered their religious works to be sacreligious. Charles Dickens, for example, found their paintings “mean, odious, repulsive, and revolting.”
The original seven artists didn’t produce many works, and they weren’t active for long (1848-1854 or so), but their painting style influenced many painters after them, especially the Surrealists who would come many years later.
So what are some of the main characteristics of Pre-Raphaelite art? For the founder of the movement, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, it was the search for the ideal woman. She must fit a certain type: a very tall woman depicted in a stiff pose with loose and long flowing red hair in a variety of shades. She has a long, straight nose, a strong jawline, sturdy, long neck and full, almost pouting lips. She has a dreamy, distant look in her eyes. Her face shows a melancholy, yet calm expression with a wistful gaze that makes her look like a lone maiden from a medieval fairy tale.
Their religious works were based on biblical myths. They also used many stories from Shakespeare’s plays and Tennyson’s poems, and of course medieval legends (especially the Arthurian stories).
Let’s look at some of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings. You can decide whether you like it or not!
(The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, by Rossetti. 1848-9, Tate Britain, London. This was the first painting completed by Rossetti, and the first signed with the initials “PRB”.)
(Work, by Ford Maddox Brown, 1852-1865. Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester UK)
(Ophelia, by John Everett Millais, 1852-3. Tate Britain, London)
(Lady Lilith, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1866-68. Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington DE USA)
(Hylas and the Nymphs, by John William Waterhouse, 1896. Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester UK)
(A Dream of the Past: Sir Isumbras at the Ford, by John Everett Millais, 1857. Lady Lever’s Art Gallery, Liverpool UK)
(The Beguiling of Merlin, by Edward Burne-Jones, 1874. Lady Lever’s Art Gallery, Liverpool UK)