Charles Dickens called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s art, “Mean, odious, repulsive, and revolting”
The Victorian movement that changed art
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.
Rossetti painted Jane Morris as the empress of Hades several times. This
is the seventh of eight oil versions.