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Experiment in Meaning: The Pre-Raphaelite Movement By Donguri7 March 24, 2010

In the mid-19th century a small brotherhood of young artists came together to challenge the canon of art which had predominated Europe since the Renaissance. Drawing from careful observations of Nature, romantic poetry, and an idealized vision of all things medieval they left a brief, yet passionate, impression on the art world. Can idealism change the status quo? These artists attempted to answer that question.


In 1848, an auspicious year charged with revolutionary fervor in Europe, a group of young painters laid down a new doctrine of artistic expression. They were William Holdman Hunt, John Everett Millias and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens and Thomas Woolner. They chose to call their new movement the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as homage to the style of art before the influence of Raphael. They felt his ground-breaking composition style developed into a stifling canon the art world was subjected to at the expense of beauty and expression. Their basic early doctrine was as follows: 1. To have genuine ideas to express 2. To study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them 3. To sympathize with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parodying and learned by rote 4. To produce thoroughly good pictures and statues. For subject matter, the PRB turned away from what had become an oppressive and increasingly mindless adherence to classical mythology. Instead, their paintings often illustrate a line of romantic poetry. “The Lady of Shalott” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson was a perennial favorite. Also included were a scene from Shakespeare, an episode (actual or Apocryphal) from the New Testament, or a pivotal moment in the life of a saint; all of which they felt to be more genuine and more imbued with fresh meaning than recycled classical mythology.  They were fascinated by the medieval, just as artists today are fascinated by the Victorians and, through their works, strove back to that time period as an ideal; embellishing the past into a perfected vision. Here we see William Holman Hunt’s “The Lady of Shalott”, 1889-1892, oil on canvas, which illustrates a single line of the poem “The Lady of Shalott” , by Alfred, Lord Tennyson: “She left the web, she left the loom…” Note how there is painstaking attention to the Lady’s extravagant Byzantian surroundings.  This line is the height of dramatic tension in the poem, and Hunt has chosen to accentuate this by her wild hair and expression.


In “Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus” , 1851, oil on canvas, Hunt has chosen a rustic scene from Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona in which the dignity and virtue of the heroine are preserved through heroic effort.  He has carefully observed each leaf and the scene is bathed in natural, realistic sunlight.

Hunt is probably best known for “The Light of the World”, 1851-1853, oil on canvas, an illustration of the New Testament verse "While I am in the world, I am the Light of the world." John 9:5.  Again, he utilizes a careful and detailed observation of the natural world and then strives to set the figure, richly attired, into a complex and symbolic setting.


Hunt did not feel limited to recorded history or actual Bible verses to express his faith.  “A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids”, 1850, oil on canvas, is a piece of historical fiction.  It is composed almost like a scene from a play; the crude hut missing a fourth wall and the perspective of the floor tilting forward to allow the viewer to see into a complicated and dynamic arrangement of robes, shoes and feet.

They devoted themselves to direct observation in nature and in the studio.  For the painting of “Ophelia” by John Everett Millias, 1851-1852, oil on canvas, the model was posed in a bathtub in the studio that was kept warm by lamps placed under the tub. However, she unfortunately fell ill and subsequently died from the experience.


The works they produced are almost jewel-like that glow with brilliant colors such as in Millias’ “Ferdinand Lured by Ariel”, 1849-1850, oil on canvas.

Their art was painstakingly exact and polished, looking like a medieval stained glass window or a religious icon.  “Mariana in the Moated Grange” by Millias, 1850-1851, oil on canvas, particularly embraces rich the jewel tones, precisely observed textures and warm golden surroundings that characterize the PreRaphaelites.


The women they painted are idealized; upheld as visions of holiness or embodiments of deep sincere emotion.  Gabriel Rossetti embraced this aspect of the PRB aesthetic more than the others.  Obsessively at times, he used the same models, the same poems and the same symbolism to capture his vision of pure womanhood in paint.

Clockwise from the upper left, “Proserpine”, 1881-1882, oil on canvas; “The Holy Grail”, oil on canvas; “My Lady Greensleeves”, 1863, oil on canvas by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.


Like all art movements, the PBR had its failings, and its strong detractors.  Most of the art world found the works to be an abomination, a retrogression from the progress made in painting since the Renaissance.  Indeed, the paintings tend to have an over-labored look, reflecting the hours, if not days, the artists of the PRB were known to devote to a single aspect of a work.  Occasionally, basic mistakes in anatomy or perspective could sneak into the paintings, giving the viewer a dizzy feeling.  This is evident in “The Renunciation of Queen Elizabeth of Hungary” by James Collinson, 1848-1850, oil on canvas. It is nearly as mysterious as a medieval altar piece with its diagonal row of kneeling patrons, strong warm colors, and low, awkward perspective. Almost like a Victorian swoon, they can also be overwhelmingly dramatic, sickeningly sweet or self-righteously moral. We are left with a subtle legacy from the Pre-Raphaelites. Although their doctrine and particular style was never embraced en masse, whispers of their influence can be felt.  John William Waterhouse, possibly best known for his rendition of “The Lady of Shallott”, 1888, oil on canvas, is often considered the last of the PRB, even though he began his painting career 30 years after its founders.  In his work there is a meeting ground between the Pre-Raphaelites and the status quo - the colors are vivid yet realistic, the space is rendered three-


dimensionally and the scene is dramatic yet not ridiculously so.  His “Tristan and Isolde with the Potion,” oil on canvas, uses Pre-Raphaelite principles, but only to a degree.  He allows for a full spectrum of color in this work, not limiting his focus to one strong and vivid hue.  Waterhouse also allows his figures to stand apart from their surroundings, rather than merging their complexity into a single intricate background. One could also argue that the Art Nouveau Movement is the grandchild of the PRB; adopting their formula of striking, idealized womanhood set in a jewel-like space and their reverence for the natural world. By developing, and subsequently reaching for, their own ideal the PreRaphaelite Brotherhood challenged the foundations of art even before the Impressionists and left a legacy of devotion, idealism and commitment to beauty.

Bibliography “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood”. Wikipedia. Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PreRaphaelite_Brotherhood March 20, 2010 “William Holman Hunt”. Wikipedia. Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ William_Holman_Hunt March 22, 2010 “John Everett Millais”. Wikipedia. Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ John_Everett_Millais March 22, 2010 “Dante Gabriel Rossetti”. Wikipedia. Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Dante_Gabriel_Rossetti March 22, 2010 Painting Credits


Hunt, William Holman. “The Lady of Shalott”, 1889-1892, oil on canvas, Manchester City Art Galleries (Manchester, United Kingdom). Available at: http:// www.artrenewal.org/pages/artwork.php?artworkid=5539&size=large Hunt, William Holman. “Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus”, 1851, oil on canvas, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery. (Birmingham, United Kingdom) Available at: http://www.artrenewal.org/pages/artwork.php?artworkid=11336&size=large Hunt, William Holman. “The Light of the World”, 1851-1853, oil on canvas, Keble College (Oxford, United Kingdom). Available at: http://www.artrenewal.org/pages/ artwork.php?artworkid=10994&size=large Hunt, William Holman, “A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids”, 1850, oil on canvas. Available at: http:// www.artrenewal.org/pages/artwork.php?artworkid=5532&size=large Millais, John Everett, “Ophelia”, 1851-1852, oil on canvas, Tate Gallery (London, United Kingdom). Available at: http://www.artrenewal.org/pages/artwork.php? artworkid=688&size=large Millais, John Everett, “Ferdinand Lured by Ariel”, 1849-1850, oil on canvas, Private collection. Available at: http://www.artrenewal.org/pages/artwork.php? artworkid=656&size=large Millais, John Everett, “Mariana in the Moated Grange”, 1850-1851, oil on canvas, Tate Gallery (London, United Kingdom). Available at: http://www.artrenewal.org/pages/ artwork.php?artworkid=650&size=large Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, “Proserpine”, 1881-1882, oil on canvas, Private collection. Available at: http://www.artrenewal.org/pages/artwork.php?artworkid=11213&size=large Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, “The Holy Grail”, oil on canvas. Available at: http:// www.artrenewal.org/pages/artwork.php?artworkid=27257&size=large Rossettie, Dante Gabriel, “My Lady Greensleeves”, 1863, oil on canvas, Private collection. Available at: http://www.artrenewal.org/pages/artwork.php? artworkid=27243&size=large Collinson, James, “The Renunciation of Queen Elizabeth of Hungary”, 1848-1850, oil on canvas, Johannesburg Art Gallery (Johannesburg, South Africa). Available at: http:// www.artrenewal.org/pages/artwork.php?artworkid=4478&size=large


Waterhouse, John William, “The Lady of Shalott”, 1888, oil on canvas, Tate Gallery (London, United Kingdom). Available at: http://www.artrenewal.org/pages/artwork.php? artworkid=770&size=large Waterhouse, John William, “Tristan and Isolde with the Potion”, oil on canvas, Collection of Fred and Sherry Ross (New Jersey, United States). Available at: http:// www.artrenewal.org/pages/artwork.php?artworkid=9996&size=large


Experiment in Meaning: The Pre-Raphaelite Movement