The Pre-Raphaelites

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Were the likes of Rossetti, Holman Hunt, and Millais truly concerned with the art of the “quattro centro”, that is, the 1400’s or was the Brotherhood a mere pretext to attract attention? Andrea Rose writes.

The group (Dante Rossetti, John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt) met one evening at Millais’s home at 83 Gower Street to look through a folio volume of engravings by Carlo Lasinio illustrating the frescoes in the Campo Santo, at Pisa by Benozzo Gozzoli. They were ravished by the formal quality of the prints – the incisive outlines of circumscribing flat unshaded areas, the lack of conventional Renaissance perspective. They felt these qualities represented an antidote to all that was dismal and overblown in contemporary academic practice.

Above is an extract from Andrea Rose’s book The Pre-Raphaelites describing how the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood came about. As one can see there was little soul searching amongst the group of young men. From what was in all sense and purposes an informal discussion on the merits of the Frescoes in the Campo Santo came the bold declaration that the artists of the quattro centro reigned supreme. Filled with enthusiasm and purpose from this meeting and in part to gain credibility the artists then proceeded to authenticate the term Pre-Raphaelite. It wouldn’t be long, however, before the group disbanded and the artists’ went their separate ways. Dante Rossetti, whom most commentators regard as the chief architect of the group, consequently denied that he was ever a member. Rossetti’s denial and the parting of the artists stemmed in part from the paralysis that sets in when boundaries are marked through the use of labels and titles. It is important to keep in mind that critics and commentators coined labels such as Impressionism or Expressionism and not the artists involved. It is this constant shifting platforms by the artists that leads me to believe that their ideas and theories were a pretext for achieving publicity and eventually success, as opposed to some heartfelt allegiance to the artists of the Quattro centro.

If we glean reviews and critiques of the Brethren, we gain some insight into how successful they were in attracting publicity. In her book The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites, Elizabeth Prettejohn writes: “In the Free and Royal Academy exhibitions of 1849 taken together, some 1,900 works were on view; even very thorough reviews covered a small fraction of them and most space was devoted to well known artists. For three of the brothers to receive conspicuous notice in more than one periodical shows that the pictures made an unusually powerful impact.

In 1850 John Everett Millais’s Christ in the House of his Parents (Tate Gallery, London) received a scathing reception as John Nichol points out: “Mr Millais’ principal picture is to speak plainly, revolting!” wrote the Times critic of the 1850 exhibition. ” The attempt to associate the Holy Family with the meanest details of a carpenter’s shop with no conceivable omission of misery, dirt, of even disease, all finished with the same loathsome minuteness, is disgusting”.In the light of this last review one would have thought that the PRB would have failed in their endeavour to become successful artists but the opposite did, in fact, occur. In trying to understand why they became successful we need to look no further that the foremost art critic of the nineteenth century, John Ruskin.

Ruskin had the power to make or break an artist’s career. His book Modern Painters goes to great lengths in detailing what attributes a work has to have before it can be deemed art. Central to his writings on art was the idea that the artist had to be “true to nature”. In a series of lectures Ruskin articulates what he holds dear in art by declaring “Every Pre-Raphaelite background is painted to the last touch, in the open air, from the thing itself. Every Pre-Raphaelite figure, however studied in expression is a true portrait of some living person. Every minute accessory is painted in the same manner.” The following extract by Ford Maddox Brown referring to his painting Pretty Baa-lambsinforms us of the lengths the Brotherhood went to in order to achieve this goal.

“The Baa-lamb’s picture was painted almost entirely in sunlight which twice gave me a fever while painting. I used to take the lay figure out every morning and bring it in if it rained, my painting room being on the level with the Garden. Emma (his wife) sat for the lady and Kate (his daughter) for the child. The lambs and sheep used to be brought every morning from Clapham Common in a truck. One of them ate up all the flowers one morning in the Garden, and they used to behave very ill. ”

By utilising the theories of Ruskin in their works they found a patron who could influence their success. By appealing to Ruskin’s vanity, the Brotherhood achieved his patronage. As stated previously the underlying feature to Ruskin’s theories on art was “true to nature.” The PRB took this literally and painted in the open air. However, this wasn’t without its hazards, as Millais describes:

” I sit tailor fashion”, he wrote,” under an umbrella throwing a shadow scarcely larger than a halfpenny for eleven hours, with a child’s mug within easy reach to satisfy my thirst from the running stream beside me…and also in danger of being blown by the wind into the water, and becoming intimate with the feelings of Ophelia when that lady sank to a muddy death.”

Andrea Rose writes: “His model for Ophelia was Elizabeth Siddal, who also suffered fleshly mortifications when she sat for the picture. The picture was completed in London during the following winter and Miss Siddal had to lie in a bath of water, heated by oil lamps from below. The cold she caught as a result brought a complaint against the artist from Miss Siddal’s father with the threat of action of £50 damages.”

As we can see the PRB went to great lengths for their art. Another feature of the Brethren’s art has to do with credibility. In their earlier works they mirrored the processes of the artists of the ‘quatro centro’. They applied a white ground to their supports and drew an outline of the composition. The purpose of the white ground was to heighten the intensity of the colours to achieve a jewel like effect. This can be seen in paintings such as John Everett Millais’s Ophelia 1852 (Tate Gallery, London) and William Holman Hunt’s The Hireling Shepherd. 1851 (City Art Gallery, Manchester). They applied the paint directly onto the canvas with small brush-strokes. This method and use of colours was in marked contrast to those advocated by the Academy which favoured the ‘muted’ painting, i.e., one that employed a kind of light and shade known as chiaroscuro, with lots of attention paid to spatial and colour perspective. The Academy was considered the leading authority on art at the time and influenced the degree of success an artist could achieve.

As we can see the methods of the PRB were very time consuming and labour intensive, but it did achieve Ruskin’s support. He championed the artists and brought them critical acclaim and hence valuable publicity. So, did the artists apply Ruskin’s theories to their work just to gain success? We will never know for sure but the lengths the artists went to in following his writings on art suggest a possibility. Ruskin, I believe, found some useful candidates to promote his own take on art so his status as the leading art critic would remain intact. Once success was achieved, the Brotherhood disintegrated and went their separate ways with only Holman Hunt remaining true to the original ideals. Millais was seduced by the Academy and become a typical academician. Rossetti started to paint with large sweeping brushstrokes and with large expanses of pastels – gone were the jewel-like pictures! Therefore it is my belief that the PRB was a pretext to gain success as opposed to some devotion to the artists of the quattro centro.

Books to Read

John Ruskin by Joan Evans, Jonathan Cape, London, 1954.

The Pre-Raphaelites by Timothy Hilton, Thames and Hudson World of Art, London, 1970.

The Pre-Raphaelites by John Nicholl, Studio Vista Limited, London, 1970.

The Pre-Raphaelites by Andrea Rose, Phaidon Press Limited, Oxford, 1981.

The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites by Elizabeth Prettejohn, Tate Gallery Publishing Limited, London, 2000.

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