Charles Dick­ens called the Pre-Raphaelite Brother­hood’s art, “Mean, odi­ous, re­pul­sive, and re­volt­ing”

The Vic­to­rian move­ment that changed art

ImagineFX - - Contents -

ohn Everett Mil­lais had made a makeshift hut to shel­ter from the wind and rain. The English win­ter of 1851 was re­li­ably bleak, but his hay-cov­ered con­struc­tion – un­com­fort­able with barely enough room for him and his large can­vas – meant Mil­lais could sketch and paint a stretch of Hogsmill River in Sur­rey from Mon­day to Satur­day, for five months straight. This was the per­fect nat­u­ral set­ting for his paint­ing Ophelia. He was go­ing to stay in his den, with pen­cils and oils, un­til he had cap­tured it per­fectly.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brother­hood (PRB) wanted to de­pict na­ture as it was, in blos­som and de­cay. Se­cretly es­tab­lished in 1848 by Mil­lais, Wil­liam Hol­man Hunt and Dante Gabriel Ros­setti, the Brother­hood was op­posed to an art es­tab­lish­ment that slav­ishly copied the tech­niques of Raphael and the High Re­nais­sance, who held that na­ture was im­prov­able. Like the Im­pres­sion­ists af­ter them, the PRB loved to paint out­doors. Un­like the French move­ment, they wanted to paint na­ture just as it was.

Young and ide­al­is­tic, the PRB chan­nelled the re­bel­lious spirit of the age of rev­o­lu­tions. In the same year Karl Marx pub­lished his Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo, Hunt, Ros­setti and Mil­lais nailed their core val­ues to the door for all to see.

They be­lieved art should ex­press ideas that take their cue from na­ture, re­flect­ing what is heart­felt to the artist, un­con­cerned with the norm, but con­sumed with the in­di­vid­ual’s idea of beauty. The artists were 21, 20 and 19 years old, re­spec­tively.

Change from within

Al­though Mil­lais’ de­pic­tion of Shake­speare’s tragic char­ac­ter Ophelia is the most fa­mous paint­ing by the found­ing three, it wasn’t the first. He had started work on Is­abella in 1848 (above). It’s a man­i­festo in oils, rich in colour and de­tail in its collection of ev­ery­day faces. Com­po­si­tion­ally in­spired in part by Lorenzo Monaco’s San Benedetto Al­tar­piece, and tak­ing its story from the work of 14th century writer Gio­vanni Boc­cac­cio, via poet John Keats, it was called the most won­der­ful paint­ing by any­one un­der 20 – ad­mit­tedly by fel­low PreRaphaelite Wil­liam Hol­man Hunt.

Hunt was Mil­lais’s com­pan­ion on that Sur­rey trip. He had painted The Hireling Shepherd that fea­tured a lo­cal coun­try girl who he con­vinced to model for him back in his city stu­dio. The two artists had met in the Royal Academy School in their teens, and by March 1848 Hunt was shar­ing a Lon­don stu­dio with Ros­setti, who was both a pain­ter and a poet. Ea­ger for their thoughts to take root in the pub­lic’s con­scious­ness, the three friends started The Germ in 1850, a pe­ri­od­i­cal of polemic, po­etry and il­lus­tra­tion that ran for a bright but brief four is­sues.

The most ro­man­ti­cised of the three, Ros­setti was the main force be­hind The Germ, along with his edi­tor and poet brother Wil­liam. Af­ter a trip with Hunt to Paris and Flan­ders in 1849 where he soaked in the re­gion’s me­dieval art, he painted Ecce An­cilla Domini! (left). Back in Bri­tain the crit­ics trashed it, and while he con­tin­ued paint­ing he rarely ex­hib­ited in pub­lic again.

what the dick­ens?

The Pre-Raphaelite Brother­hood had plenty of crit­ics, and they weren’t just stuffy Vic­to­rian art di­nosaurs with lazy pre­con­cep­tions. They also in­cluded a

The Times then put the boot in by claim­ing the three artists were not only “monk­ish” but also un-English

lit­er­ary ge­nius. The same year that The Germ came out, Charles Dick­ens called the Brother­hood’s art, “Mean, odi­ous, re­pul­sive, and re­volt­ing.” The fol­low­ing year The Times put the boot in by claim­ing the three were not only “monk­ish” but also un-English. Pas­sion­ate as they were, the PRB needed a cham­pion.

En­ter John Ruskin, an art critic who had pre­vi­ously de­clared the ge­nius of Wil­liam Turner to a non­plussed English art world. In the Brother­hood Ruskin saw a no­ble vi­sion that matched his own: he had writ­ten in his book Mod­ern Painters that artists should, “go to na­ture in all sin­gle­ness of heart… hav­ing no other thoughts but how best to pen­e­trate her mean­ing, and re­mem­ber her in­struc­tion; re­ject­ing noth­ing, se­lect­ing noth­ing, and scorn­ing noth­ing… re­joic­ing al­ways in the truth.”

Al­though the Pre-Raphaelite Brother­hood ranks swelled early on to in­clude sculp­tors and writ­ers, by 1854 the core three were part­ing ways. Mil­lais be­came an es­tab­lish­ment pain­ter, cap­tur­ing prime min­is­ters and no­table char­ac­ters of the day. Ros­setti veered to­wards a more ro­man­tic, mys­ti­cal style, and be­came as­so­ci­ated with a younger gen­er­a­tion of painters in­clud­ing Ed­ward Burne-Jones and Wil­liam Mor­ris.

It was Hunt who most ar­dently stuck to the Brother­hood’s prin­ci­ples. He had moved to Egypt for two years in 1854, yet his as­so­ci­a­tion with the PRB re­mained and in­spired artists to paint in their style well into the 1860s. By this time it wasn’t just the ap­peal of na­ture that at­tracted artists to the move­ment. There was some­thing ob­ses­sive about the way the

Is­abella (1849) The first paint­ing to bear the Brother­hood’s ini­tials, as painted by a 19-year-old Mil­lais.

Ecc e An­cilla Domini! (1850) An early of­fer­ing from Ros­setti re­ceived harsh crit­i­cism from people hes­i­tant to em­brace the ‘me­dieval­ism’ of the PRB.

Beata Beatrix (1870) Be­gun just af­ter his wife’s death,

Ros­setti com­pleted this ode to Lizzie Sid­dal sev­eral years later.

The Hireling Shepherd (1851) On the same coun­try­side trip that pro­duced Ophelia, Hunt cre­ated this early paint­ing.

Proser­pine (1874)

Ros­setti painted Jane Mor­ris as the em­press of Hades sev­eral times. This

is the sev­enth of eight oil ver­sions.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.