Edward Burne Jones, Millais and Rossetti to name but a few. The Pre Raphaelite artists formed a loose artistic circle and in 1848 they banded together under the name PRB or the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They were driven by a desire to portray nature in minute and realistic detail and in incorporating medieval and Renaissance ideals in their work. The movement coincided with the reign of Queen Victoria who ruled from 1837-1901 and their paintings were exceptionally bold in both style and conception; overturning much of the artistic values and concepts of the time. Moreover these painters lived in a fast moving and modern world where industrialism, capitalism and the ethic of work teemed together to create an energy in their work that was palpable.
The exhibition aptly begins with a beautiful and evocative portrayal of the Mary Virgin,”The girlhood of Mary Virgin” painted by Dante Rossetti (1828-1882). We learn that this painting was the first Pre-Raphaelite painting to appear in public. Its style is a mixture of early Renaissance originating from Northern Europe and Italy. It is a painting that molds together the modern realism that was such a marked characteristic of the Brotherhood with the bright colours so characteristic of the movement. Teeming with this are flattened forms and unidealized faces. Rossetti managed to be both historical and contemporary in his approach, adopting the freshness of early Renaissance art to create a modern ideal. We see in William Shakespeare Burton’s painting of “A wounded Soldier” how the morbid subject of death is rendered both solemn and immensely beautiful. The white face of the dead cavalier in contrast to his colourful and rich clothing holds our attention. Set in a woodland scene – one of the favourite landscapes for Pre Raphaelite painting – the story unfolds in all the minute detail of the painting ; playing cards allude to a gambling dispute turned violent, a spectral black figure looks on whilst holding a large bible. We see how the two main figures form an image of the pieta or dead body of Christ cradled by Mary. The Pre-Raphaelites chose subjects from the writings of Shakespeare, medieval tales and the bible; and at all times emphasised realism, accuracy and bold colours.
John Everett Millais portrait of “Marianna”. This exceptionally evocative and stunning portrayal of a woman in a deep blue velvet dress is one of the most well known and popular paintings of the time. A lady stretches in a natural but eroticised pose after embroidering. It is a leap from the traditional idealised female form in western art. Little details like a mouse in the foreground and the rich stain glass windows all combine together to create a work of art that is both modern and classical, rich and solemn. An absolute favourite of mine is the landcape portrait by William Hunt, “Our English coasts”. Partly inspired by the writings of John Ruskin the Pre Raphaelite artists successfully developed their own method of transcribing the natural world in oil paint. We see how Hunt uses vivid colours and minute detail in his bucolic scene of sheep on a hill. The scene was set at Fairlight near Hastings and is a view of Coverhurst Bay near lover’s seat. There is also a hint of religion in the detail of the sheep that left untended will stray from the path of righteousness. So lifelike and vivid is the picture that you could almost be on the hill with them. Likewise Millais’ portrayal of “Ophelia”attests to realism and to a minute observation of the natural world. Driven mad with love we see Ophelia lying dead surrounded by water, plants and trees. Millais’ pursuit of artistic truth and his concern with absolute accuracy is astounding. The painting is suffuced with luminosity, precision and colour. Here again we see how the Pre-Raphaelites liked to get out of the studio and into the natural world to paint their subject matters.
The exhibition includes some of the decorative art and design that permeated the movement as well as painting. This includes examples of everyday life such as tapestries, a four poster bed and stain glass windows. Of course no exhibition of Pre Raphalite art could be complete without the famous portraits of their women as muses and models and there is a whole selection devoted solely to this section of their art. In the 1850’s and 1860s paintings were about the creation of perfect beauty. Rossetti’s “The Blue Bower”depicts a stunning woman in a beautiful coat. The contrast of the deep greens and blues in the coat and her shocking red hair make her come alive in front of us. There is a celebration of the senses in these paintings where music, smell and painting harks back to sixteenth century Venetian art. Several of Rosseti’s portraits are on display as are works by artists such as Millais and Edward Burne Jones.
The exhibition provides a complex and comprehensive depiction of Victorian Pre Raphaelite art. In many ways some of the lesser known artists dectract from the masterpieces and there is a sense that the exhibition is a little cluttered. It also seems odd that the section of Beauty is so far at the end of the exhibition as if those paintings are less important.However what comes across is a resounding portrayal of an important historical movement; with all its main players. The Pre-Raphaelites brought with them a new beauty and intensity of vision to British art and pioneered a style and philosophy that is both cultural and beautiful to behold.
The exhibition should not be missed, by Larissa Woolf, Arts Editor, www.VisitMuseums.com Recommended Hotel booking partner for your visit to London