In the late summer or fall of 1848, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Holman Hunt met to discuss their common interest in art. They had already begun this dialogue as students at the Royal Academy, and as members of a sketching circle, the Cyclographic Club. Nineteen year old Millais was by far the most accomplished, having entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1840, at the age of eleven. There he earned a string of prestigious prizes. Rossetti, a year older than Millais, but lacking his precocious talent, was still developing technique. His commitment to a career in the arts was often distracted by a calling to poetry. Nevertheless he studied painting first at Sass’s Academy, then at the Royal Academy, before dropping out in March of 1848, to join the atelier of Ford Madox Brown. Holman Hunt was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools in 1844 on his third attempt. There he befriended Millais and with him shared certain frustrations with the way painting was taught.
Millais and Hunt believed that English art as practiced under the auspices of the Academy was too often lax in detail, removed from nature, and clichéd in theme and composition. This they attributed to the rigid Neoclassicism of the curriculum. The Academy’s late founder, Sir Joshua Reynolds had, according to Hunt, “thought it expedient to take the Italian School at its proudest climax as a starting-point for English art.” Hunt believed that this focus deprived young artists of “the training that led to the making of Michelangelo.” Instead of learning to draw precisely from nature, students learned to repeat certain formulas and compositions.
The method of instruction practiced at the Academy came from the Mannerists of the Italian High Renaissance who learned by copying Raphael and, in turn, systematized Raphael’s intensely personal style into a school of art. Even in nineteenth century England, Raphael’s dramatic poses, dynamism, elongated and simplified forms, and distorted perspective were standards of narrative painting. Millais and Hunt believed this method to be entirely artificial, producing inferior copies of copies, deprived of the genius that had animated the original.
Hunt was quick to emphasize that “Pre-Raphaelitism is not Pre-Raphaelism.” The genius of Raphael himself was not in question. Nor, for that matter, was the genius of Reynolds, who had been the preeminent portrait painter of his day. Reynolds is often remembered as a bête noir of the Pre-Raphaelites, but their objection was more to his pedagogy than his art. “The rules…which he loved so much to lay down were no fetters to him,” Hunt wrote, “because he rose superior to them when his unbounded love of human nature was appealed to.” What they rejected was the notion that the genius of an artist or an art form could be broken down into certain axioms or stereotypes and thus learned by rote. Hunt’s criticism of Reynolds and the Royal Academy was that the “independent genius of the first President could not be transmitted, but his binding rules were handed on.”
Neoclassicism had been the universal language of high art in Europe since the Renaissance. With its simplicity, grandeur, and strict geometry, it had supplanted the more personal, decorative, variegated art of the Middle Ages. Medieval art had possessed its own universal language, Gothic, but it also accommodated the vernacular. High art and low art were woven together with golden threads of sanctity, earthiness, Christian piety, color, abundance, light and darkness, strangeness, whimsy, mystery, transcendence. The rational, top-down, organizing principle of Classicism, for all its beauty and orthodoxy, rarely acknowledged the vernacular or the local, or touched the roots of a culture. The English gardens and terraced houses of the Georgian period are two fine examples of Neoclassical vernacular.
Writing at the end of the nineteenth century, the French art critic Robert de la Sizeranne observed that, “Until 1848, one could admire art in England, but would not be surprised by it. Reynolds and Gainsborough were great masters, but they were eighteenth-century painters rather than eighteenth-century English painters. It was their models, their ladies and young girls, rather than brushwork, which gave an English character to their creations.” In looking back to an earlier art form it is clear that the Pre-Raphaelites were seeking a technique and aesthetic that would give expression to the English imagination. Hunt was unequivocal in later life, writing, “every student of art in past was loyal to his own nationality, and that in these days men of British blood, whether of insular birth or of the homes beyond the seas, should not subject themselves to the influence of masters alien to the sentiments and principles of the great English poets and thinkers.” It was Rossetti more than either of the other founders of the Pre-Raphaelite movement who advanced Medievalism as a vehicle for spiritual, local, and personal revelation.
In 1847 Holman Hunt had his painting, The Eve of St Agnes accepted by the jury for the Royal Academy Exhibition. At the show, Rossetti approached him, as Hunt later recalled, “repeating with emphasis his praise, and loudly declaring that my picture . . . was the best in the collection. Probably the fact that the subject was taken from Keats made him the more unrestrained, for I think no one had ever before painted any subject from this still little-known poet.” Hunt invited Rossetti to his studio where Hunt showed him his latest paintings and drawings. “I rejoiced to display [them] before a man of his poetic instincts,” Hunt wrote, “and it was pleasant to hear him repeat my propositions and theories in his own richer phrase.” He showed Rossetti a painting inspired by Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Rienzi in which Hunt was “putting in practice the principle of rejection of conventional dogma, and pursuing that of direct application to Nature for each feature.”
The seeds of the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic were thus established before the three artists decided to form a group. To their first meeting they invited the writer William Michael Rossetti, Dante’s younger brother, who was to be the chronicler and organizer of the group; Thomas Woolner, a sculptor; and the painters James Collinson and Frederic G. Stephens. It is unknown if the seven young men attempted to establish a credo or manifesto at their first meeting. They did produce a broad statement of principles:
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-parading and learned by rote.
4: And most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.
This rather vague manifesto suggests that at the beginning the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood lacked a uniform direction. The members had diverse approaches to art, varying depths of familiarity with art history, and unequal technical skills. They all, as William Rossetti noted, “belonged to the middle or lower-middle class of society.” None of them with the exception of William and Dante Rossetti had the kind of liberal education which included the study of Latin and Greek. During their monthly meetings, which were held with some regularity from late 1848 to the middle of 1850, they discussed their opinions on art with as much clarity as could be expected from individuals who were then just beginning to frame the general outlines of their practices. The most voluble of the three principle members, and the most adept at formulating his ideas, was Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He had, so his brother recalled, “an abundance of ideas, pictorial and also literary, and was fuller of ‘notions’ than” Millais or Hunt, with a “turn for proselytizing and ‘pronunciamentos.’” He was the most defiant of the group, according to William, and, with a kind of adolescent verve, he held “art-sympathies highly developed in one direction, and unduly or even ignorantly restricted in others.”
At the first meeting of the Brotherhood, Millais exhibited a book of engravings that he kept in his studio. It contained poorly drawn reproductions of the frescoes at the Campo Santo in Pisa. Despite their limitations the engravings allowed the young artists to acquire some knowledge of fourteenth century Italian painting. This they supplemented with trips to the National Gallery, to view its collection of thirteenth and fourteenth century paintings, and no doubt by reading Anna Brownell Jameson’s Memoirs of the Early Italian Painters, recently published in 1845.
Another volume that Millais shared with his colleagues was perhaps even more important to their project. This was a book of engravings by Joseph Ritter von Führich, illustrating the dramatic poem, Life and Death of Saint Genevieve, by the German Romantic poet, Ludwig Tieck. The Medieval style and themes would have stirred the interest of all who attended the meeting. Von Führich was a member of a group of German painters who styled themselves, the Brotherhood of St Luke. They were known also as the Nazarenes. They established themselves in Rome in 1810, where, dressed in biblical costume, the “brothers” lived communally in an abandoned monastery. Like the nascent Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood they abandoned Neoclassicism for the spiritual values and aesthetics of the Late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance. Although the Pre-Raphaelites did not formally pattern themselves after the Nazarenes, the influence of the latter on the former is visible in early Pre-Raphaelite drawings. Examples of this influence can be seen in Millais’s Two Lovers by a Rose Bush, and Rossetti’s drawing, The First Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice.
The three principle members of the newly formed Brotherhood began to prepare works for exhibition in 1849, Millais and Hunt at the Royal Academy, Rossetti at the Free Exhibition. Rossetti chose as his subject The Girlhood of Mary the Virgin. None of the young artists had sufficient funds to hire models at this point so Rossetti turned to his mother, Frances, and sister, Christina, to sit for St Anne and the Virgin, respectively. They modeled for him periodically at Holman Hunt’s studio, which Rossetti shared. This working arrangement was fruitful, though it necessitated some measure of compromise. Hunt liked people around and Rossetti preferred solitude. Both profited from discussions on art and pursued their goals independently.
For his piece, Hunt completed the scene from Bulwer-Lytton that he had earlier previewed for Rossetti, titled, Rienzi vowing to obtain justice for the death of his young brother, slain in a skirmish between the Colonna and the Orsini factions. Hunt’s composition followed a tradition of heroic battlefield death scenes established in the eighteenth century by Benjamin West in his Death of General Wolfe.
Millais was the second of the group to try his hand at illustrating a scene from the poetry of John Keats. His painting, Lorenzo and Isabella, was an adaptation of Keats’s poem Isabella, or the Pot of Basil, itself an adaptation of a story from Boccaccio’s Decameron. Both poems concern a young woman from a wealthy family, Isabella, who falls in love with one of her brothers’ retainers, Lorenzo. Her brothers, who plan to marry her to a rich man, learn of the romance. They lure the hapless Lorenzo to an out-of-the-way place, and there, murder him. Lorenzo appears to Isabella in a dream and leads her to his body. She digs it up and cuts off the head, which she plants in a pot of basil. Watered by her tears, the plant thrives. Her brothers grow suspicious and steal the pot, only to discover the rotting head of their victim. Horrified by what they have done the brothers leave Florence in self-imposed exile. Isabella, having lost both her lover and the solace of the pot of basil, descends into madness and dies.
For his painting, Millais chose to depict the moment that the brothers become aware of the romance. The scene is set around a table, at which Isabella, her brothers, and their guests are dining. Lorenzo is seated beside Isabella. He offers her a blood orange, cut in half, as if to foreshadow his own severed head, while the brothers watch from across the table. There are two focal points in the composition. The first is the young couple: Lorenzo, bowing to offer his plate, regarding his lover with gentle, even reverential, concern, but also conspiracy, and the hardness of resolve; Isabella, accepting the orange, but looking down, aware of the danger, resisting the urge to acknowledge him, her body tense with the effort of self-denial. The other focal point is one of her brothers, seated in the foreground, across from them. He is an extraordinary, brutish character, leaning forward to kick a dog who cowers in Isabella’s lap. In an outstretched hand he cracks a nut with a levered nutcracker.
Curator Carol Jacobi, in a 2012 essay on the painting, draws attention to a shadow cast on the table by the brother’s arm. It appears to rise diagonally from his groin in the place of a phallus. Jacobi connects this to the “salt cellar spilling its contents,” which, together with the “shadow and groin,” she describes as “an unambiguous equivalent for ejaculation.” Millais has created a sort of moral manifesto, contrasting these two models of manhood: the chaste, modest, chivalrous Lorenzo with the vulgar, murderous, and sexually incontinent brother.
All three paintings revealed a Medieval influence, whether in subject matter (Hunt’s Rienzi), style (Rossetti’s Virgin), or both (Millais’s Isabella). Rossetti in particular captured elements reminiscent of an altarpiece in his domestic scene. Despite the ambiguousness of their initial statement, the clear meaning of the Brotherhood’s name was reflected in each contribution.
The initials P.R.B. appended to the signatures of Millais, Hunt, and Rossetti, apparently went unnoticed on the paintings they exhibited at the Royal Academy and elsewhere in 1849. This was not the case the following year when they caught the attention of Charles Dickens. The meaning of the enigmatic letters had been revealed to the public before the opening of the Royal Academy show. On May 4, 1850 a columnist, who was not an art critic, wrote in The Illustrated London News, that for those confused by the letters P.R.B., the secret was that they stood for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of “ingenious gentlemen who profess themselves practitioners of Early Christian Art.” Dickens wrote a scathing critique of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings for his journal, Household Words. In the edition of June 15, 1850, Dickens began his review of the annual Royal Academy show with a warning: “You will have the goodness to discharge from your minds all Post-Raphael ideas, all religious aspirations, all elevating thoughts, all tender, awful, sorrowful, ennobling, sacred, graceful, or beautiful associations, and to prepare yourselves…for the lowest depths of what is mean, odious, repulsive, and revolting.”
The target of this criticism was a painting by Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents. As the title suggests, the work depicts a scene from the boyhood of Jesus. The setting is Saint Joseph’s workshop, which Millais based on a real carpenter’s shop on Oxford Street in London. The composition is rich in Christian symbolism. Jesus has cut His hand on a nail. Blood runs from the center of His palm to the foot beneath it, prefiguring the wounds of the crucifixion. The Virgin Mary kneels before Him, as though at the foot of the cross. A young John the Baptist brings water to clean the wound, foreshadowing his baptism of Christ. A white dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit, watches from a ladder in the background. A triangle on the wall above Christ’s head suggests the Trinity. Outside a flock of sheep is gathered, anticipating His mission as shepherd of men.
If Dickens saw any of this he did not recognize it. He accused Millais of portraying the savior as “a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy,” and the Virgin Mary as a “Monster” who would stand out “in her ugliness” from the company of “the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest ginshop in England.” Sweeping the rest of the company into his critique, he wrote, “Wherever it is possible to express ugliness of feature, limb, or attitude, you have it expressed.”
When we look at the painting today we see none of the depravity that Dickens portrays. The religious subject is treated with reverence. The figures are rendered with great tenderness. The naturalism, though striking, was hardly novel, having a precedence going back to Caravaggio. What could possibly have elicited such contempt?
Dickens was clearly reacting to something other than the technical merits of the painting when he wrote his review. We do not have to search far to learn what that was: Dickens found the notion of a backward-looking art movement plainly shocking. He compared the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to a hypothetical “Pre-Newtonian Brotherhood” for those who objected to being bound by the laws of gravity, a “Pre-Galileo Brotherhood” for those who “refuse[d] to perform any annual revolution round the Sun,” a “Pre-Gower and Pre-Chaucer Brotherhood” for those who would revive the old idiosyncratic English spellings, or a “Pre-Laurentians Brotherhood” for those who would abolish printed books in favor of painstakingly copied manuscripts.
The progressive outlook which dominated liberal thought in the Victorian period, as it does today, held that the arrow of time moves only and ever forward toward a distant perfection of human society. The suggestion that we might restore modes of life from the past threatened the idealism that underpinned so many of the endeavors of nineteenth-century modernity. A progressive like Dickens would have understood the conservative implications of Pre-Raphaelitism perhaps better than the young artists themselves.
Holman Hunt’s contribution to the Royal Academy exhibition was intended as a companion piece to Millais’s, and was, in composition, even more ambitious. The subject, and title, was, A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids. In the foreground Hunt depicted the interior of a simple wooden fisherman’s shed on a riverbank, where the titular missionary has collapsed into the arms of the mother of the family, while the men guard the door, and the children succor him. In the background, seen in part through the windows at the top of the hut, a mob of pagans, commanded by a Druid priest, chase down a second missionary to his inevitable martyrdom. Although the scene has its own dramatic narrative and tension, Hunt’s composition suggests an episode from the Gospels: the Deposition of Christ, when the Savior’s body was lowered from the cross. Here the postures of the missionary and the woman holding him from behind clearly evoke the Pietà, the traditional artistic representation of Mary cradling the body of Jesus. On the wall above them is a red cross roughly drawn by the persecuted Christians for their worship. One of the daughters removes a thorn from the missionary’s robe, representing the crown of thorns, while another prepares to bathe his face with sponge and water.
Exhibited together, the relationship between Hunt’s painting, and Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents, would have been readily apparent. Both works depicted a primitive Christianity. Both employed traditional, iconographic details. In portraying scenes from Christian history before and after the crucifixion, both placed Christ’s passion at the center of the narrative. Hunt judged his painting to be among the best of his own work. Appraising it more than two decades later, he wrote to Edward Lear, “sometimes when I look at the Early Xtians I feel rather ashamed that I have got no further than later years have brought me, but the truth is that at twenty—health, enthusiasm and yet unpunished confidence in oneself carries a man very near his ultimate length of tether.”
Both Hunt and Rossetti had benefitted in their education from a trip to the Continent in the fall of 1849. They visited France and Belgium. In Paris they toured the large public galleries, studying canvases by Titian, da Vinci, Veronese, and van Dyck. At the Louvre they were awestruck by The Coronation of the Virgin by Fra Angelico, which was, according to Hunt, “of peerless grace and sweetness in the eyes of us both.” In Antwerp they admired the paintings of the Early Netherlandish artists, Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling, as well as those of Rubens and van Dyck. They were prepared for their encounter with the brilliant, detailed works of the Early Netherlandish painters, having already studied van Eyck’s 1434 work, Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife, at the National Gallery. It was the graphic quality, almost brittle composition, and absence of free, painterly brush strokes in the paintings by van Eyck and his followers that became the goal of Hunt and Rossetti for their own works.
Of all the paintings exhibited by members of the Brotherhood in 1850, the most influential on the development of Pre-Raphaelite style and technique, was Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini (The Annunciation), shown at the National Institution, formerly the Free Exhibition. The painting had begun with a preliminary sketch in late November of 1849. This process was recorded by Rossetti’s brother William in his journal. He described the work-in-progress as depicting the Virgin in bed, “without any bedclothes on, an arrangement which may be justified in consideration of the hot climate, and the Angel Gabriel is to be presenting a lily to her.” The painting was to be almost entirely white, with contained uses of one color at a time: a red embroidery in the foreground, a blue curtain in the background, yellow halos, a window opened on a blue sky.
In mid-December, Rossetti began to paint the Virgin’s head, using his sister Christina as a model, and later in the month drew the head of the Angel, with his brother William modeling. By mid-January he was busy working on the drapery and in early-February had moved on to the red cloth embroidery in the foreground. On March 29, William recorded that his brother had painted the feet and arm of the Angel from a model, had another, Miss Love, sit for the Virgin’s hair, and a third to finish the Angel’s head. The execution was a protracted process as Rossetti, now working in the studio of Ford Madox Brown, struggled to achieve the level of technical mastery possessed by his colleagues. The finished product was a painting of exceptional tenderness and beauty, in some ways less mature that Hunt’s or Millais’s work, but in others, particularly the figure of the Virgin, entirely developed.
With this painting Rossetti introduced what would become a signature Pre-Raphaelite technique. Whereas most artists prepared their canvases with a coat of neutral, solid color, called a toned ground, Rossetti painted his canvas bright white. As one modern curator writes, “The particularly luminous white ground…made the pure colors brushed over it seem illuminated.” Beginning in 1850 both Millais and Hunt adopted this practice, amplifying the effect by using a wet white ground. Millais used the technique to depict sunlight on faces in his painting, The Woodsman’s Daughter, completed the following year. Its application can be seen to great advantage in Hunt’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, titled, Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus, also completed in 1851. In this painting particularly, Hunt achieved what has been described as “an almost preternatural luminosity.”
Experimentation with color had been an ongoing interest of all three artists. Hunt recalled a visit to the Royal Academy by the painter Claude Lorraine Nursey during one of Hunt’s first terms there. Nursey had given a lecture and then stayed to watch the students work. At the time Hunt was copying Sir David Wilkie’s painting, The Blind Fiddler. Nursey had once been a pupil of Wilkie and explained the latter’s practice of applying all his paint, whether for a section of a painting or an entire work, in one sitting. In this way he never painted over dried paint, as most artists did, which tended to dull the colors. For Hunt this had been a revelation. “I tried the method,” he wrote, “and I now looked at all paintings with the question whether they had been so executed. I began to trace the purity of work in the quattrocentists to the drilling of undeviating manipulation with which fresco-painting had furnished them, and I tried to put aside the loose, irresponsible handling to which I had been trained, and which was nearly universal at the time, and to adopt the practice which excused no false touch.” Hunt seems to have arrived at the technique that he used in Valentine Rescuing Sylvia by combining the innovations of Rossetti and Wilkie. By painting on a wet white ground he was able to achieve more luminous colors even than Rossetti had, but only because he had rigorously adopted Wilkie’s constraints. As Hunt observed, “Painting of this kind cannot be retouched except with an entire loss of luminosity.”
Millais had been experimenting with similar methods around this same time. Hunt remembered both Millais and himself arriving at the use of a wet white ground independent of one another. This would seem to suggest that the various influences that informed the technique were being discussed among the members of the Brotherhood during their meetings leading up to the various individual applications. Once it had been perfected, Millais proposed that they should keep the process “as a precious secret” amongst themselves, which they did. When Millais and Hunt revealed the secret to Ford Madox Brown, years later, Brown recognized it as a technique of the late-Medieval and early-Renaissance fresco painters. According to Hunt, Brown “enlarged on the mystery as nothing less than the secret of the old masters, who thus secured the transparency and solidity…valued so much in fresco, the wet white half dry forming an equivalent to the moist intonaco grounds upon which the master had to do his painting of that day while the surface was still humid.”
The subject matter of the Pre-Raphaelite pictures varied from artist to artist but clear commonalities were visible by the time they had submitted their works for exhibition in 1851. In addition to shared techniques, the artists shared a preference, though not exclusive, for Biblical and Medieval themes over Classical and mythological, for character and mise-en-scène over landscape, and for bright color over the popular preference for smoky browns. Within this broad consensus was a great range of influences. Rossetti was particularly fascinated with Dante and Medieval devotional art; Holman Hunt with Biblical themes; Millais was more or less encyclopaedic in his references, sometimes turning to Shakespeare, at other times contemporary daily life, the Bible, English history, or contemporary Regency and Victorian poetry.
Millais produced three pictures for the Royal Academy show in 1851: Mariana, The Return of the Dove to the Arc, and The Woodsman’s Daughter. The first was taken from a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. In Millais’s rendering, the character of Mariana looks plaintively out of large Gothic windows. She has been rejected as a bride because of the loss of her dowry in a shipwreck. The caption to the picture is from Tennyson’s 1830 poem:
She only said, ‘My life is dreary, / He cometh not,’ she said; / She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary, / I would that I were dead!’
Tennyson was a particular favorite of the Pre-Raphaelites. Undoubtedly the finest English poet of his generation, Tennyson had been appointed Poet Laureate in 1850, with the support of Prince Albert, an early admirer. The same year Tennyson published “In Memoriam,” a tribute to his late friend Arthur Henry Hallam. The work was a sensation. William Rossetti, as a reviewer for The Spectator, received an advance copy. Upon reading it he rushed home and passed the book to his brother. Although it was after midnight Dante read the entire poem aloud. Thereafter the Pre-Raphaelites hung on Tennyson’s every word, illustrating many of his works, most notably episodes from his Arthurian cycle, Idylls of the King.
All three of Millais’s pictures in the Royal Academy show of 1851 were accomplished with deftness of drawing, flatness of surface, and minimal use of modeling in the three dimensional forms. The same may be said of Holman Hunt’s submission, Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus. Hunt drew his subject from the climax of Two Gentlemen of Verona. In Shakespeare’s early comedy, Valentine and Proteus both love Silvia, though her heart belongs to Valentine. After rescuing her from outlaws, Proteus threatens to rape Silvia, if she will not consent to love him. Valentine intervenes. Proteus repents and gives his love to Julia who has disguised herself as his page boy.
Reviewing Hunt’s adaptation for The Spectator, the Rossetti brothers were, of course, effusive, calling it, “the finest we have seen from its painter.” Dante drew the reader’s attention to the two female figures. Silvia, he wrote, “nestles to her strong knight, rescued and secure; while poor Julia leans, sick to swooning, against a tree, and tries with a trembling hand to draw the ring from her finger. Both these figures are truly creations, for the very reason that they are appropriate individualities, and not self-seeking idealisms.” William used much of the column to rebuke the hanging committee of the Royal Academy for its poor job in highlighting such an important work.
The paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites and their associates at the Royal Academy show of 1851 received largely negative reviews. The critic of The Times condemned them for “the puerility or infancy of their art,” their “monkish style” and “monkish follies.” A “morbid infatuation” with ancient art, had, he wrote, caused them to sacrifice “truth, beauty, and genuine feeling to mere eccentricity.” Clearly Charles Dickens had set the tone and terms of public debate in his review of the previous year. Detractors of the new movement shared a common rhetoric and a few common points of opposition.
The seemingly impenetrable wall of critical resistance to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood would soon break, however, with the emergence of an extraordinary ally. John Ruskin was a formidable art critic whose opinions held great weight among both scholars and collectors. The first two volumes of his monumental work, Modern Painters, had been published between 1843 and 1846. In them, Ruskin laid the philosophical groundwork for an art closer to nature. He idealized late-Medieval and Renaissance art in terms of the convergence of truth, beauty, and religion. Ruskin argued that the job of the artist was to convey “truth to nature,” by which he meant “moral as well as material truth.” By this measure he judged the contemporary landscape painter J.M.W. Turner to be the greatest artist who ever worked in that field, elevating him above the Old Masters of the Baroque period. He was deeply critical of the contemporary historical painters who, he wrote, were “permitted to pander more fatally every year to the vicious English taste, which can enjoy nothing but what is theatrical, entirely unchastised, nay, encouraged and lauded by the very men who endeavor to hamper our great landscape painters with rules derived from consecrated blunders.” Here was the very language that the young Pre-Raphaelites were using to articulate their dissatisfaction with the prevailing wisdom of the Academy. If anyone could understand the aims of the Brotherhood, they had to hope it would be Ruskin. Indeed, his defense, when it came, was swift, authoritative, and generous.
On May 13, 1851, The Times published a signed letter from Ruskin expressing “regret” that the “tone” of the paper’s critique of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings had been “scornful as well as severe.” He wrote that the “labour bestowed on those works, and their fidelity to a certain order of truth (labour and fidelity which are altogether indisputable) ought at once to have placed them above the level of mere contempt.” He insisted that the young artists were “at a turning point, from which they may either sink into nothingness or rise to very real greatness.” On May 30, Ruskin followed up with a second letter, in which he concluded that the Pre-Raphaelites, “may, as they gain experience, lay in our land the foundations of a school of art nobler than has been seen for three hundred years.” With these words the fortunes of the members of the Brotherhood changed forever.
The Pre-Raphaelites were emerging as integral drivers of the Medieval artistic revival that would come to define the Victorian age, largely thanks to the advocacy of two men: Ruskin and His Royal Highness Prince Albert.
The same year that Ruskin penned his defense of the Pre-Raphaelites he published the first volume in his monumental study of Venetian Gothic architecture, The Stones of Venice. Here he began to lay out a philosophy of Gothicism over and against the prevailing Classicism. In subsequent volumes he would elaborate on this philosophy, defining six characteristic elements of Gothic design: savageness, changefulness, naturalism, grotesqueness, rigidity, and redundance. Ruskin wrote with irresistible enthusiasm, praising Gothic ornament for its “prickly independence, and frosty fortitude, jutting into crockets, and freezing into pinnacles; here starting up into a monster, there germinating into a blossom; anon knitting itself into a branch, alternately thorny, bossy, and bristly, or writhed into every form of nervous entanglement; but even when most graceful, never for an instant languid, always quickset; erring, if at all, ever on the side of brusquerie.” This was not the language of archeology. Ruskin was not describing relics or museum pieces. In his poetic prose he conjured a vital, living, irrepressible, even inevitable art form.
No one did more to midwife that art form than Prince Albert. When he married Queen Victoria in 1840 the young German prince became an influential patron and advocate for the arts in Britain. One of his first official duties was to lead the Royal Commission tasked with designing the interior of the new Houses of Parliament. He brought to this appointment a vision entirely sympathetic with the Gothic Berry-Pugin architecture. The Prince possessed an informed taste for Medieval and Medieval-revival aesthetics. He collected everything from Tuscan trecento primitives to contemporary German romantic painters. Under his guidance, Clare Willsdon writes, “the wall-painting, sculpture, and stained glass used as a matter of course by the medieval builders” were adopted for the new building. Prince Albert advised the artist William Dyce to draw from Arthurian legend for the murals of the Queen’s Robing Room.
To a certain extent the Prince became involved in arts and culture because he lacked a formal outlet for his talents. Parliament had been opposed to granting any political power to a foreign prince. Not only was he denied the title of King Consort, he was also denied peerage and military rank. Although in time he did take on responsibility for the affairs of state, it is a credit to his genius that, for most of his short career, he had a greater influence on British culture than any other man of his age, despite having little practical power.
Beginning in 1850, the Prince, together with members of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, organized what would be the first World’s Fair. The Great Exhibition, as it was known, opened in 1851 in the Kensington district of London, housed within a custom-built “Crystal Palace” of cast-iron, steel, and glass, large enough to enclose full-grown trees. The exhibition showcased rich displays of traditional culture and ultra-modern technology side by side. Visitors encountered the Koh-i-Noor diamond from India and the Daria-i-Noor from Persia; a stuffed elephant bedecked in the livery and howdah of an Indian rajah; porcelain, tapestries, and silk from France; decorative arts, furs, sledges, and Cossack armor from Russia; an Egyptian Court with towering statues and pillars, mummies, and antiquities. At the same time they could marvel at Stevenson’s hydraulic press, adding machines, a state-of-the-art printing press, folding pianos, carriages, and velocipedes.
To represent Britain in this grand evocation of the Victorian future, Prince Albert invited A.W.N. Pugin to create a Medieval Court. Pugin had previously collaborated with Sir Charles Berry on the Gothic Revival design of the new Houses of Parliament. He was now in the last year of his life. This would be his swan song, what Paul Atterbury called, “his final consuming project.” Pugin designed stained glass, furniture, sculpture, and textiles in the Gothic Revival style. He had these fabricated by the various firms of craftsmen with whom he had long collaborated, in what Jeffrey Auerbach describes as a “preview of the team-oriented craftsmanship that would characterize William Morris’s Arts and Crafts productions.” The effect, in the words of one art historian, was “to create a phantasmagoric realm for spectators.”
As the Pre-Raphaelites became part of a broader Medieval revival the Brotherhood itself became somewhat redundant to their needs. The last public exhibition of their works as a group occurred in 1852. Two of Millais’s pictures hung in the Royal Academy Exhibition that year: A Huguenot and Ophelia. The former depicts a young couple in France meeting in a garden during the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre, when Roman Catholics killed tens of the thousands of Protestant Huguenots, over several weeks in 1572. The girl is pleading with her Protestant beau to wear an armband signifying he is a Roman Catholic so that he can escape the slaughter. While he holds her, gazing tenderly into her worried eyes, he gently removes the armband that she has tied around him, choosing martyrdom over even pretended apostasy. Millais had initially sketched this scene as a simple meeting of lovers in a brick-walled garden but on the advice of Holman Hunt he added the historic context, which he took from Mayerbeer’s opera Les Hugenots.
The wonderful, meticulously rendered flowers and foliage in the garden are typical of the kind of botanical illustration that was immensely popular, particularly among watercolorists, in the Victorian era. The most famous of these was Marian North whose skill at rendering flowers was honoured with the opening of a gallery in Kew Gardens permanently dedicated to her works in 1882. Millais’s passion for setting his subject in rich, verdant, floral surroundings is nowhere more apparent than in his Ophelia.
Drawn from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the tragic story of Ophelia was ideally tailored to fit Victorian and specifically Pre-Raphaelite sensibility. Spurned by Prince Hamlet, she has fallen into a river, while picking flowers, and as she floats away, temporarily buoyed by the air trapped in her clothing, she sings. But as her clothes become saturated, the weight of the water pulls “the poor wretch from her melodious lay” down to a muddy death. In his depiction of the scene, Millais painted flowers mentioned by Shakespeare floating downriver with Ophelia, but he added a red poppy as a symbol of sleep and death. Millais based his gorgeously overgrown riverbank on the Hogsmill River in Surrey where he painted for several hours a day, six days a week, for five months to capture the background. In the end he had to work inside a kind of duck blind to protect himself from the cold weather.
Millais finished the painting over the winter at his studio on Gower Street in London. He based the figure of Ophelia on the newly discovered model Elizabeth Siddal, who would go on to sit for, and later marry Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She would also become an artist in her own right. Ophelia remains one of the most iconic of all the Pre-Raphaelite paintings. It hangs today in the Tate Britain in London and must be seen in person to be fully appreciated. Even the most detailed reproduction does not convey the awesome effect of glittering light captured by Millais, in particular where the lace of Ophelia’s dress floats on the surface of the water.
Holman Hunt’s painting for the 1852 exhibition was The Hireling Shepherd. Its subject was the neglect of duty, in this case by the titular shepherd, who ignores his flock to woo a pretty red-haired maid, showing her a death’s head hawkmoth. Hunt meant to symbolize the retreat of churchmen into theological debate while their flocks were led astray for lack of moral guidance. The title is a reference to the Biblical allegory of the Good Shepherd. Hunt achieved considerable success with this painting as it was awarded a prize when exhibited at Birmingham in 1853 and sold to a collector for 120 pounds. Hunt later observed that with Millais’ picture of the Hugenots also winning a prize at an exhibition in Liverpool, “the double success of our School . . . [indicated that] the recognition of our claims was thus proved to be growing.”
After the amicable dissolution of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the three artists who had been the primary force behind it, continued to discuss art with each other and to explore common aesthetics, but they pursued their careers separately. They began to inspire a number of other artists. These included Edward Burne-Jones, Arthur Hughes, William Morris, the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, Frederick Leighton, Frank Dicksee, Frederick Sandys, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Simeon Solomon, and John William Waterhouse, among others.
The Pre-Raphaelite conquest of the Victorian and Edwardian art world was eventually formalized with honors. Millais and Burne-Jones were given baronetcies; Leighton was given a barony; Holman Hunt received the Order of Merit as a personal gift from King Edward VII; Dicksee and Alma-Tadema were knighted.
In fact, there had long been affection for the Pre-Raphaelites at the palace. In the midst of the early controversy surrounding Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents, Queen Victoria had arranged for the painting to be shown privately for her at Windsor Castle. This was unprecedented. “I hope that it will not have any bad effects upon the Queen’s mind,” Millais joked nervously to Hunt. Gordon Fleming in his biography of Millais suggests that it did not. The following year Prince Albert gave a speech to the Royal Academy in which he reminded the members of their obligation to encourage developing artists in terms unmistakably similar to Ruskin’s defense of Millais.
A more private, but in its own way equally momentous, embrace of the Pre-Raphaelites came earlier, in 1855. In January of that year, Millais and Charles Dickens met for the first time at a dinner party given by their mutual friend, Wilkie Collins. After dinner they had a long conversation. The following day, Dickens wrote Millais a letter, and sent it, along with an article from Household Words, about the London fire brigade, which was the subject of Millais’s work-in-progress, The Rescue. The letter read:
If you have in your mind any previous association with the pages in which [the article] appears (very likely you have none) it may be a rather disagreeable one. In that case I hope a word, frankly said, may make it pleasanter. Objecting very strongly to what I believed to be an unworthy use of your great powers, I once expressed the objection in this same journal. My opinion on that point is not in the least changed, but it has never dashed my admiration of your progress in what I suppose are higher and better things. In short, you have given me such great reasons (in your works) to separate you from uncongenial association, that I wish to give you in return one little reason for doing the like by me.
Millais accepted the olive branch. Thereafter they became true friends. When Dickens died in 1870 it was Millais who was summoned to his death bed to draw the final portrait of the great author.
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One thought on “The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood”
Lovely insightful article.