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the
Pre-Raphaelite
page

    The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood:  -- 
history, quotations, recommended reading, and commentary.
    Rossetti, Hunt,
Millais, Burne-Jones, Morris and the rest. Dive right in; it's
better than any soap opera.

This page is dedicated to
William Michael Rossetti
(1829 - 1919)
One of the more admirable and decent
persons to grace the pages of history.

Chapter 1: White Paint & Red Hair

Chapter 2: The Circle Widens; Cracks Develop

Chapter 3: The Artist and His Model

Pre-Raphaelite Chatter

DGR, 1847

Chapter One: How It All Began: White Paint and Red Hair

    Keep in mind, they were young. The year was 1848, and the air crackled with revolution: revolution in France, revolution in Italy, revolution in Germany, in Austria, even revolution in London's staid Royal Academy of Art. The latter rebellion focused on the institution's first president, Sir Joshua Reynolds. Sir Joshua had been dead since 1792, but the Academy clung steadfastly to his precepts. A great admirer of the Renaissance master, Raphael, Reynolds had reduced that artist's work to a set of "Rules for painters", so young artists would not have to think at all.
    "All figures in a picture should have their places in a ground-line describing the letter 'S'….The several parts of a composition should be apexed in triangles…. Highest light must be on the principal figure…. One corner always in shade…. " -- what twaddle! (The cynical might suspect Academicians insisted upon brown rather than green as the proper color for grass mainly because it blended better with the patrons' mahogany furniture and best woodwork!)
    The young folk of 1848 were not the first to notice that Art was being ruined by the Rules. John Ruskin, the greatest of all English critics, wrote passionately on the subject in
Modern Painters II (1847):
"We have too much picture-manufacturing, too much making up of  lay figures with a certain quantity of foliage, and a certain quantity of sky and a certain quantity of water, -- a little bit of all that is pretty, a little sun and a little shade, -- a touch of pink, and a touch of blue, --…".
    William Blake, then little read, except by our heroes, offered a scathing critique On the Foundation of the Royal Academy:
"You say their pictures well-painted be,
And yet they are blockheads you all agree:
Thank God! I never was sent to school
To be flogg'd into following the style of a fool.
The errors of a wise man make your rule
Rather than the perfections of a fool."
    Having digested all this, along with some 14th Century engravings they had seen in a book, and Ruskin's commentary upon same, the young rebels developed a theory . Back in the 14th Century (which they knew little about) everyone had been devoted to Truth and Beauty (rather in the Keatsian mode), and had painted what they saw. After Raphael, everyone just copied Raphael. ( "Ah, then," said a friend upon hearing this expostulation, "you are Pre-Raphaelites!")
    Our 
Pre-Raphaelites  soon developed a more encompassing set of principles (though they never quite reached agreement on what they were.) In general, two separate, sometimes conflicting, strains run through their works. An archaic,
medievalizing impulse gives us  small, tightly confined scenes of knights and ladies faire, usually from Tennyson, as richly colored as gemstones and somehow fraught with emotion despite the flat, stiff manner of their depiction.
    Contrast these with meticulously rendered canvasses, every inch of which attests to a hand and eye devoted to "truth to Nature", even unto the tiniest pebble. So what do these artists have in common?
    They shared the same reading list. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, figures prominently in their works, as do Shakespeare, Dante (in the case of Rossetti), the Bible, and John Keats, then little read. Our rebels were intensely literary  young people, principled  in their outlook, and moral in their principles. They liked their pictures to convey that.
    They're outside the mainstream, painting what
they liked, not what the Academy would approve or convention dictated. Their best works speak to us across the years, strong clear voices of honesty and feeling.
    Their canvasses glow with color, the result of painting pure color into a wet white ground. This technique was the one  thing they all had in common, really. That

    It's all been written, but they have only just begun to paint it. The next Keats will be a painter."
-- Dante Gabriel Rossetti
(Self-portrait, 1847.)

the young Millais

"God Almighty has given us green, and you may depend upon it, it's a fine colour."
-- John Everett Millais
(drawing by Holman Hunt)

the young Hunt

"Now what have you done? You've made beings of varied form as you see them in Nature. You've made living persons, not tinted effigies. Oh, that'll never do! It's too revolutionary."
     
-- William Holman Hunt
(self portrait, age 17)

A Reading List

Modern Painters -- John Ruskin
    The preeminent critic of the Nineteenth Century  presents a flowery (if well-organized) treatise on the superiority of J. M. W. Turner to any of the Old Masters, and an inadvertent exposition of the superiority of his own literary descriptions to Nature herself.
    Ruskin was a brilliant man, a primary influence on the Pre-Raphaelites, Hunt in particular, and he's well worth a read today.

La Vita Nuova (The New Life) -- Dante Alighieri
    To understand Rossetti, you must read Dante, particularly this, the story of the poet's great love, Beatrice. Try to find Rossetti's translation of the book, and remember that unlike many scholars of his time, he considered Beatrice a real person, not an allegory.

PreRaphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood -- William Holman Hunt
    Tells all about it; nearing the end of a long life, Hunt provides blow-by-blow descriptions of conversations he and Johnny Millais had fifty years previously. Not an objective view.

Druids Sheltering a Christian Missionary

and a preference for models with red hair. (But we are getting ahead of our story!)
    And, they were a Brotherhood, with a nucleus of three. Oldest, at 21, and the only one among them who truly and consistently embraced Pre-Raphaelite principles, was  William Holman Hunt: impoverished, hard-working, earnest, and with a strong religious bent. The son of a London warehouse manager, Hunt sought from childhood to be an artist. (As a boy employed in the

William Holman Hunt, A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary From Persecution by the Druids. (1850)
    The red-haired girl in the center is Elizabeth Siddal, who would become a central figure in Pre-Raphaelite lore. It is not a good likeness; much to Lizzie's displeasure, Hunt coarsened her features. Apparently, he felt a "barbarian," even a christianized one, should not look overly refined.  The other "Family" members are painted from a band of gypsies Hunt found near London.

Cogden textile works, he drew flies on the window panes with such exactness, his employer tried to brush them away.) Taking Truth to Nature very much to heart, he labored endlessly that every sheep, every shepherd's crook, every blade of grass should be rendered exactly as it was in Nature. This is probably why most of his pictures don't look all that good. When we gaze out upon a pastoral scene, our eyes don't see  individual leaves on the trees, or the separate coloration of every tiny patch of ground. When confronted with this

sort of totally accurate depiction in a painting, we find the result disconcerting - and not always pleasing.
    Easily the most facile painter of the group, John Everett Millais seemed born to Art. Cosseted by his parents, the darling of the Academy, which he had entered at the remarkably early age of eleven,  Millais was an unlikely candidate to lead an insurgent movement.  He came to Ruskin - and Pre-Raphaelitism - through Hunt, his

Lorenzo and Isabella

John Everett Millais, Lorenzo and Isabella.
(1848)
    Wealthy artists hire models. Poor, struggling artists paint their friends and family. This picture is a veritable gallery of Pre-Raphaelite associates. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, at the far end of the table, lifts a glass to his lips. His brother, William, as Lorenzo, offers a plate of blood oranges to Millais' sister-in-law, sitting for Isabella. Pre-Raphaelites Frederick George Stephens (kicking the dog) and Walter Deverell (left, rear) also lent their services, as did Millais' parents.

fellow student at the Academy. The two became fast friends, Hunt, the stronger and more intellectual personality, soon winning Millais over to the rebel cause. For Millais, who had the technical ability to paint anything, in any style, Pre-Raphaelitism  was a phase in his career, an interesting

challenge. Besides, rebellion was fun.
    Dante Gabriel Rossetti was never sure, to the end of his life, how many bones are contained in the human arm. Matters of perspective baffled him. "Truth to Nature" was  beyond his grasp, and didn't interest him anyway. So it won't surprise you when I say he was the only truly great artist of the group. Equally talented as a poet, he crafted poems as gemlike as his watercolors, and painted as evocatively as he wrote. Forever torn between his two demanding arts, he loved and hated both with the passion of his nature.
    Born in London in 1828, Rossetti was the second child and oldest son of an Italian Dante scholar and political refugee.  All four Rossetti children (Maria was born in 1827, William in 1829, and Christina in 1830) shared the family enthusiasm for things literary. (A favorite game involved round-robin sonnet writing.) But Gabriel was to be an Artist -- this the whole family acknowledged.
    Unfortunately, our young Artist had little taste for study. The Academy, with its insistence on thorough training in fundamentals (several years practice in drawing and copying were required before the student was allowed to undertake an original painting) bored him. He wanted to do great things, and he wanted to do them
now. He set out to find a teacher.
    He began by apprenticing himself to Ford Madox Brown, a solidly good painter some seven years his senior. Although known for his anti-Academy views, Brown proved very Academician in one respect: he believed in learning the basics. He set his new pupil to work painting a still life of bottles.
    Rossetti good-naturedly endured this regime for several weeks, then painted in a reclining female, knocked over the bottles, and bade his first mentor a cheery farewell.
    Hunt's picture in the Academy exhibition,
St. Agnes Eve, depicted a scene from Keats. This naturally caught the eye of Rossetti, who approached its creator with much effusive praise. "A few days more," recalled Hunt, "and Rossetti was in my studio."  Under Hunt's  nominal oversight,  Rossetti began his first major work, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin.
    The paths of three young men of like ideals had now converged.

    Watch these pages for Chapter Two:
"The Circle Widens; Cracks Develop." (Coming as soon as I can manage it!)
Comments or etc.? -- blinfool@wyomail.com

Ecce Ancilla Domini!

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation). (1850).
    Rossetti's sister Christina posed for the Virgin. It is a good likeness, except Christina's hair was dark, not auburn.  William Rossetti is the Angel. It is easy to tear apart this picture on technical grounds; Rossetti never  had any mastery of perspective, and the Angel is definitely not quite right around the feet. But to do so  misses the point. There is an emotional honesty  and power here that stays with you. And the eyes of the Virgin are truly haunting.  This is a great work of art, even better when seen in person.

A Note on the Pictures: until I can upgrade my software, I suggest you check out some of the really fine images at Artmagick and a few other sites. (see Links page.)

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