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John Everett Millais, Ophelia (1851-2). By Permission of the Tate Britain, London.
Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde
at Tate Britain, London

By Anna Leung

to see clearly is poetry, prophesy and religion all in one’” Ruskin
‘True work is Worship.’  Carlyle

Despite the passing of the years, which generally makes even the most recalcitrant of art movements more or less acceptable, the Pre-Raphaelites remain strangely compelling. Given the unrelenting details of their picture making this is not surprising, demanding as it does of the viewer a protracted interrogation of each canvas. This we are no longer used to doing. However their fixation on honest labour, resulting in hours spent confronting a particular landscape in all weathers, is itself Victorian as are the moral earnestness, the emphasis on contemporary social and religious issues, and the demand for quasi scientific observation which characterised the early phase of the movement. The second phase, inaugurated by William Morris and Burne-Jones with Rossetti as principle mentor, turned this focus away from its initial reference to the natural world towards an internal world, a tendency that reaches its apogee with William Morris’s attempt to transform society through design and Burne-Jones’s dreamscapes. Moral earnestness is not commonly associated with the avant-garde. But in both phases of the movement aimed to give art a social function, a use that could be understood not only by the literati but by the general public as well. 

Initially this was to be achieved by investing art with a new seriousness and attempting to communicate to a wider audience through a new pictorial language divested of all the stylised cobwebs and the mere prettiness of academic art as fostered by their pet hate figure Joshua Reynolds, a.k.a. Sir Sloshua (slosh standing for bad art). Fired in their first meetings by the engravings of frescoes by Gozzoli the brotherhood resolved that the way forward was to emulate the clarity of the pre-renaissance Italian artists whose paintings up till that time were dismissed as crude and immature. Henceforth this ‘archaic’ or ‘primitivist’ stratagem was to become a foremost trope for ambitious contenders for avant-garde status giving rise to Fauvism and Cubism in France and to Die Brücke in Germany. Each group sought a return to first principles that flouted academic conventions in order to create not only a new language of painting but, in the latter case, a whole new way of living. For the Brotherhood art and politics were intimately intertwined, in some instances featuring a magnetic positive in others a magnetic negative with regard to social issues. Rossetti was the pivotal figure in both phases, so much so that despite his virtual disengagement from social issues and his lack of technical skills it is more often than not his images of eroticised women that erroneously occupy the public imagination when it comes to defining the Pre-Raphaelite Movement. 


Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Beloved (The Bride) (1865-6). Permission of Tate Britain.

The leading members of the movement were John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt. All students at the Royal Academy School, they convened as a secret brotherhood in September 1848, a year of intense revolutionary fervour across Europe. Revolutionary activism in England was restricted to the Chartist movement, whose huge demonstration petitioning parliament for the vote was witnessed by Hunt and Millais, but significantly from a safe distance. The monastic model was inspired by the German Brotherhood of Saint Luke, a group of artists who were known as the Nazarenes and were the first artists to draw attention to Italian and Nordic artists who predated the renaissance (Giotto, Cimabue, Memling and Van Eyck). That the PRB actually had much contact with such painting, except in the form of secondary reproductions, is in doubt but their aim was not to imitate the look of pre-renaissance art but to initiate a shift in attitudes based on the earlier artists’ attention to everyday details, for this was to be a new form of realism ‘obtained’ according to Ruskin ‘in working everything down to the most minute detail from nature, and from nature only.’ 

Consequently what differentiated this from other forms of realism, consider Courbet, was precisely its insistence on the minutest attention given not only to natural but also to common day contemporary details. This revealed a Protestant sensibility that brought together a social conscience and a search for spiritual truth while significantly not rejecting the past as the French were to do. Historical events were used to cast light on contemporary social issues. Thus the first phase of Pre-Raphaelitism tended to concentrate on historical and biblical narratives that portrayed protagonists in as historically accurate costumes and contexts as possible. But what made this orientation specifically Protestant was its egalitarian dimension in terms of technique. By dispensing with Reynolds’s hierarchical composition and the academy’s emphasis on abstract generalities in favour of a truth that included all particulars Pre-Raphaelitism implicitly dispensed with the notion of the self and the cult of the romantic genius thereby reducing to a minimum the subjectivity of the observer. Consequently, they privileged detail over the overall design. The way the whole canvas was made up of a multitude of individual observations created a flattening effect, which meant that landscape, for instance, had no middle ground since the background was as distinct as the foreground. The artist was transformed into a human eye recording reality much like the lens of the camera--it was during this period that the daguerreotype and the calotype were producing a new vision. It is important to recognise, however, that the PRB were not trying to imitate the photographic image, which, unlike their own hard- edged hyperrealism modelled on pre-renaissance images, displayed areas of soft focus and of course could not compete in terms of colour. Moreover, photography was still taking painting as its model – see Julia Margaret Cameron in relation to the Aesthetic Movement.

Edward Burne-Jones, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (1884). Permission Tate Britain.

Colour undoubtedly plays a major role in the movement, its importance pertaining not only to aesthetic, but to political matters. Colour stood for all that was denied by the utilitarian society that tended to view it as a superficial quality. It was also associated with the uneducated taste of children and primitive or uncultured peoples. The use of bright colours at a time when new chemical pigments, such as a range of purples (Arthur Hughes’s signature colour), chromium and cobalt yellows and emerald green were being introduced to the market in portable tubes may well have struck first time viewers as painfully strident and even transgressive. Millais’s The Blind Girl, for instance, was described as painted with ‘sweetmeat rainbows of lollypop colours.’ The adoption of a white ground and the building up of a paint surface through countless small brushstrokes, painting wet into wet, all intensified the translucent effects of colour, making it seem vulgar to their contemporaries. Fellow artists were not exempt.  Ford Maddox Brown complained of a green ‘unripe enough to cause indigestion’ in one of Millais’s landscapes. His own use of rose madder for the ribbon in Last of England might have received a similar reproof. For it remained separate and no effort was made to subordinate it to the overall composition; in fact, quite the reverse.

Central to an understanding of the early or first phase of the Pre-R is this conviction that painting is able to present a truthful vision. This belief was based on Ruskin’s notion of the innocence of the eye unmediated by the conventions of seeing. Painting then was credited with a revelatory and in some cases a corrective power that it was the artist’s duty to communicate to the public. Thus scientific observation was complimented by a trenchant belief in the social function of art. The Pre-R’s paradoxical extolling of the anonymity of the mediaeval artist/artisan makes perfect sense when viewed in this context. Defending the mediaeval artisan was a way of speaking up for the dignity of labour and the common man while at the same time denouncing ossified academic conventions. The idealisation of the mediaeval period championed by Pugin and Ruskin at a time when Carlyle too had fulminated against what he called ‘the Mechanical Age and its instrumental values’ was an indirect way of withstanding the assault of modernity and defending art from marginalisation in Victorian society on one hand and asserting its independence from instrumental values, where everything was subject to commodification, on the other. Art took on the role of the great resister with the artist adopting an ethical stance as a conduit of truth - a very avant-garde position. Ironically when the Pre-Raphaelites began to sell their work it was to the captains of industry that they sold them. Perhaps they more than any other segment of society recognised that they needed a form of escapism which itself was fast becoming absorbed by the capitalist cash nexus.

Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Astarte Syriaca (1877). Manchester City Galleries.

But initially escapism was far from the brotherhood’s minds. Ruskin’s ideas were translated into a quest to create a visual language able to register the most pressing issues of contemporary society through a literalist account of physical reality. This examination of the impact of modernity on social life constitutes the subject matter of Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience with its kitsch setting of a fallen woman and its pendant The Light of the World; Millais’s Isabella, which indirectly alludes to the class struggle and his demystifying Christ in the House of his Parents; Ford Maddox Brown’s epic Work, an allegory about the organisation of labour that juxtaposes the different kinds of labour including that of the mind in the figure of Carlyle to the right; and The Last of England which illustrates how poverty was forcing families to emigrate and English Autumn Afternoon, 1852-3. Even Rossetti attempted to take on the contemporary problem of prostitution in his unfinished Found.  Most pictures were met with a mixture of praise and blame but Millais’s Christ in the House of his Parents, 1849-50, inspired as abusive criticism as any avant-garde art work. It was described in pathological terms, regarded as bordering on the blasphemous, its style scorned as grotesque and caricatural and taken as a representative of a new revolutionary movement that imperilled Britain’s cultural heritage. Dickens penned the most vicious assault on the painting describing Millais’s depiction of Christ as ‘a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering red-headed boy disguised in a bed gown’ and Mary as ‘a monster in the vilest cabaret in France, or in the lowest gin shop in England.’ Contrast this abusive response with Millais’s and Hunt’s reception in the Paris salon of 1855 where they were feted for their originality in terms of subject matter and method. 

There was, however, some substance to this criticism for one of the main tenets of the new aesthetic was an emphasis on expression and character at the expense of beauty and on capturing a vernacular of gesture to represent transitory emotions. If we contrast Millais’s depiction of the Holy Family with Herbert’s in his painting The Youth of Our Lord the difference is obvious. The figures in the latter have little in common with Millais’s, whose Saint Joseph is not idealised but has the distinct physiognomy of a particular individual – in all likelihood one of the group or one of their friends – while Mary has a distinctively Flemish look. In addition Millais, rather than using traditional signifiers such as haloes, makes use of typological signifiers, everyday objects invested with an added symbolic meaning, e.g. the three nails and the pliers on the work surface that prefigure Christ’s death on the cross, the dove on the ladder, and the sheep staring rather fixedly in from outside the carpenter’s workshop. 


Dante Gabriel Rosetti, The Blue Bower (1865). The Trustees of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham.

Religious themes presented the movement with some of their main artistic challenges forcing them to engage with the problem of relating the seen and the unseen, the empirical and the spiritual and the supernatural and the natural. Over and above this was the difficulty of giving such matters a convincing visual representation in an age that was both imbued with a positivistic spirit demanding empirical evidence and increasingly beset by doubt. The difficulties were enormous. Millais for instance stopped painting religious themes with the breakup of the Brotherhood in 1851 and went on to become an associate of the RA, while Rossetti no longer exhibited publically but began to work privately for a small circle of patrons confining his work to watercolour. Hunt was left to carry out the Brotherhood’s original goals and became known as ‘the Painter of Christ’. Driven by his evangelical aim to create an image of Christ that would appeal to an art-less public and elicit a response in all classes The Light of the World, 1851-53, depicts the potentially transformational impact of Christ’s knock on the door of the slumbering human soul. The Awakening Conscience, 1853-4, can be viewed as a pendant showing this moment of awakening with the young girl’s realisation of her loss of innocence. However, despite winning widespread popular esteem and recouping his efforts financially through one-man shows, engravings and pamphlets, its reception was not entirely favourable. Ruskin for instance had strong reservations pointing out that Hunt’s drive for veracity had blunted his aesthetic sensibility while others described the figure of Christ as having a fairy tale rather than a numinous character. The challenge of re-imagining Christ as a historical figure motivated Hunt’s journey to the Holy Land and resulted in The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, 1854-60, which depicts the moment Jesus becomes aware of his divine mission and represents the confrontation between the old (the blind rabbis) and the new (Christ), and The Scapegoat, both of which depend on ethnographical research that reflects the Victorian need for authentic empirical facts rather than a more imaginative approach. An interesting contrast to Hunt’s solutions can be found in Dyce’s Man of Sorrows, 1860, which defies attempts to historically locate Christ’s forty days in the wilderness by showing him meditating in what most commentators recognised as the Scottish Highlands. Dyce thus juxtaposed the traditional timeless image of Christ with a contemporary and yet timeless landscape to suggest Christ’s continuous presence in the modern world and demanding of his audience a leap of faith.

The second phase of the Pre-Raphaelites prefigures deeper post Darwinian changes in society.  The unmediated authority of the eye began to be doubted and the notion of the innocent eye was superseded by an emphasis on an interpretative relationship between eye and brain. Subjectivity constituted the problematic area between the material and the invisible world, the intractability between objective and subjective, empirical and spiritual aspects of reality coming to represent one of the main characteristics of the movement as its earlier optimistic and socially orientated stage came to be marked by an interiorisation of its vision that prefigured the Aesthetic Movement. Even early on rifts had been detected within the brotherhood as two contrasting attitudes within British art begin to be voiced: one that championed the social function of art and its edifying effect on the population as a whole, and another that supported the view that art was autonomous and was to be judged not by ethical or moral effects but according to its own internal laws that exemplified the growing Aesthetic Movement.  The Blind Girl by Millais prefigures this rift with its emphasis not only on the visual but also on the sense of touch (the course material of her skirt and the butterfly on her shawl) and on other senses such as hearing, etc. Moreover despite the poignancy of the subject matter this is no longer the sole focus of the picture.  Millais isolates the two girls and places them in a landscape that is no longer sacramental, touching on a loss of faith that beset Victorian society with the blind girl unable to see the rainbow that once stood for God’s covenant. 

John Everett Millais, Autumn Leaves, (1855-6). Manchester City Galleries.

One year later Millais painted Autumn Leaves, which was reported to be ‘a picture full of beauty and without a subject.’ The brush stroke no longer achieves transparency but draws attention to itself. Painting rather than looking outside itself for confirmation looks inwards to its own materiality and begins to create a strong boundary between itself and a hostile outside world. Notably painters begin to look to Venetian art and the renaissance for inspiration. It is from this time that Rossetti returns to oil painting and begins to concentrate on paintings of mysterious, moody, self-absorbed women such as Bocca BaciataI, 1859, and Lady Lilith, 1868-73, who gazes with total fascination at her own image in the mirror, and is in Swinburne’s words ‘satiate with its own beauty.’ Turned in upon themselves they symbolise an artificial and poetic world that has sacrificed the need to communicate the truth of the external world. In its place Rossetti presents us with a plethora of sensuous riches that belong to the painterly surface; Eve and Mary turned into Venus. This has the paradoxical result that even the most apolitical of paintings becomes implicitly political. For his paintings offer the viewer a sensuous but essentially nostalgic experience whose aesthetic values are implicitly in opposition to a utilitarian society.

The second phase of Pre-Raphaelitism came about through the meeting of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones in1853. Both were Oxford undergraduates who like their PRB predecessors felt frustrated by their studies and uninspired by their teachers. Having graduated they gave up their plans to enter the church and taking advantage of the manuscripts of the Bodleian library immersed themselves in mediaeval stories and the reading of Ruskin. It was a year later that they learnt about the PRB and began to consciously model themselves on them by dedicating their lives to art--Morris to architecture and design, Burne-Jones to painting. In 1861 Morris established a decorative arts collective known as The Firm in which Burne-Jones and other artists who were members of the second Brotherhood collaborated in the making of stained glass, textiles, tapestries and furniture for domestic and ecclesiastic interiors. 1875 saw its total reorganisation with Morris as sole director and 1891 the establishment of the Kelmscott Press that focused on the production of hand-printed books. Morris’s aims were twofold: to create an alternative to the tawdry mass production of goods brought about by the industrial revolution and to restore to the craftsman his dignity of labour. His mediaevalism was, as it had been for the first brotherhood, an implicit criticism of Victorian society and its deplorable conditions of labour – the latter was always a source of great concern for Morris who, convinced that design alone could not bring about a more egalitarian society, eventually devoted much of his time to the cause of socialism. The idealisation of the mediaeval period characterises both stages of the Pre-Raphaelite movement but what differentiates the two brotherhoods is that whereas the first Pre-Raphaelites attached great importance to scrupulous detail in their representation of the outside world, with Morris and Burne-Jones the use of intricate patterning creates an inner world closer to that of myth or fairytales that in some way counters the sense of biological instability that haunted the later Victorian mind. There is something claustrophobic about the work of Burne-Jones and his concern for the beautiful seems to camouflage a profound anxiety, the Briar Rose Series, 1870-84, evoking a death-like stasis in its slumbering protagonists caught up in the coils of the wild rose trees. Painting for Burne-Jones was essentially the making of a beautiful decorative surface on which characters who are often taken over with lassitude figure as elements in an elaborate pattern that promises a moment of aesthetic release. 


Edward Burne-Jones, Laus Veneris (1873-8). Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Holman Hunt’s last painting The Lady of Shalott,1886-1905, on the other hand could be taken to demonstrate the re-emergence of the self. Unlike Waterhouse’s version his Lady of Shalott is curvaceous and robust. Hunt was at this time penning his auto-biography that includes a revised account of the history of the Pre-Raphaelites and declares himself the sole true representative of the Brotherhood while accusing Rossetti, by this time  assumed to be the leader of the group, of defecting to the Aesthetic camp; in Hunt’s words ‘leaving stoicism for Epicureanism.’ For Hunt, the Lady of Shalott represents the soul but also the artist whose mirror stands for ‘her own inspired mind’  Tempted to quit the realm of art she looks out on to the external world, espies Sir Lancelot and thereby shatters the mirror and forfeits her work and her artistic life. Everything begins to unravel revealing the instability of reality and representation.  Hunt had just completed The Triumph of the Innocents before starting on the Lady of Shalott. This extraordinary painting is closer to the world of Burne-Jones in its melding of reality and dream but unlike Burne-Jones demonstrates the impossibility of holding them together.

Pre-Raphaelitism it must be admitted is a confusing movement, notably because it contains within itself two diametrically different if not opposing groups. This current exhibition, the latest in a long line of exhibitions devoted to the Pre-Raphaelites (the most recent, in 2004, concentrated on landscape and optics) argues that the movement represents a Victorian avant-garde that predates the French Impressionists. This is by no means a new argument. Seeming to corroborate this view is the acclaim that the English section of the Paris Salon of 1855 was given for its daring formal invention and the originality of its subject matter. Why then did we eventually lose out to the French? I am thinking hard and find it difficult to come to a definite conclusion. There is our Protestant ethic and the way Impressionism was successful in depicting not only the modern appearance of things, people and places but the actual experience of modernity and the sense of change on which it was based through an innovative mode of handling the medium to create a certain surface interest. Our attitude to the Pre-Raphaelites has in addition a lot to do with a specifically English history of art history and the supremacy of a certain version of modernism inherited from the Bloomsbury Group and subsequently taken up by Clement Greenberg, whose views I respect to a certain degree. This account, which accepted abstraction as modernism’s teleological goal, is now often declared outmoded. We are told we live in a post modernist world where narrative and realism are no longer ostracised. And yet I have some difficulties in accepting Pre-Raphaelitism as modern. That they were avant-garde is easier to accept; the Arts and Crafts movement gave rise to numerous artistic progeny, notably the Bauhaus; the Aesthetic Movement was based on a formalist aesthetic that eventually gave rise to abstraction, while Symbolism is the antecedent of Surrealism. So, yes to the question the curators have set us,a but still with quite a number of reservations.

© Anna Leung November 2012


Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-retired from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking occasional informal groups to current art exhibitions. 

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde was at the Tate Britain, London, from 12 September 2012 - 13 January 2013.

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