Arthur Hughes, Ophelia, 1852
Art,  English

Brotherhood of Inspiration: Unraveling the Pre-Raphaelite Aesthetics

The text below is the excerpt from the book The Pre-Raphaelites (ISBN: 9781783103270), written by Robert de la Sizeranne, published by Parkstone International.

“Pre-Raphaelitism” is a term that is more mysterious than explicative, and it should be discussed now that the battle has been won, in order to understand what it meant and what happened during the struggle to lead to its acceptance. It was composed of the most diverse and contradictory elements. There was contempt for Raphael, though Hunt, who is not only one of the Pre- Raphaelites, but the Pre-Raphaelite par excellence, tells us in his memoirs that it was the Raphaels in the National Gallery that he admired most in his youth. There was a preference for imitating the thin, hard style of the Primitives, whereas a single glance at the ample bosoms, round shoulders, and sensual mouths of Rosetti’s women evokes all the opulence and splendour of the Renaissance.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Mariana, 1870, The Pre-Raphaelites
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Mariana, 1870. Oil on canvas, 109.8 x 90.5 cm. Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums, Aberdeen.

There was realism, “uncompromising truth”, forbidding the addition of any imaginary element, but it is precisely the imaginary that is striking when one admires some of the school’s works, such as Hunt’s The Light of the World, or Dante’s Dream by Rossetti. Some also saw a transcendent idealism, an offshoot of the great Gothic and religious revival that was called the Oxford Movement, and the Rossettists have been considered unconscious but zealous and faithful collaborators with the Keble, Newman and Pusey.

This may be the case, but it does not advance the definition of Pre-Raphaelitism much, for to characterise a Pre-Raphaelite picture by saying that it was inspired by the Oxford Movement is like trying to explain the mechanism of a lock by describing the political opinions of the locksmith. The connections between the Rossettists and “Puseyism” (an English theological movement also known as Tractarianism or the Oxford Movement) could have been much stronger and a hundred times more obvious without leading Hunt to paint on a white canvas or Millais to forbid bitumen from his preparations.

Edmund Blair Leighton, The Accolade, 1901, The Pre-Raphaelites
Edmund Blair Leighton, The Accolade, 1901. Oil on canvas, 180.9 x 108.5 cm. Private Collection.

A more precise and material definition was needed. So Pre-Raphaelitism was reduced to a few processes, such as the meticulous search for the infinitesimal details that Ruskin desired and the substitution of the living model for the mannequin, with the freedom to choose the model that seemed the most appropriate to convey the idea of the Virgin, Jesus, or a hero, and the obligation, once the model was chosen, to stick to it exactly and to copy it scrupulously, without introducing characteristics of any other figure, nor idealising it according to some memory. But this definition fails completely to include Madox Brown and Rossetti among the Pre-Raphaelites. For Madox Brown never accepted that the artist should avoid fusing several models, and Rossetti, except on two or three occasions, spent his life painting his figures after a mannequin or even after nothing at all, “out of his own consciousness”.

If one explains the Pre-Raphaelites as Meissoniers from across the Channel, entomologists of painting, this characterises the first works of Millais and Hunt fairly well, but completely ignores those of Rossetti. When one is in the Tate Gallery and studies the Beata Beatrix next to paintings by the members of the Academy in 1830, the most striking thing is the absence of detail in the work of the Pre-Raphaelite and its abundance in those by the adversaries of Pre-Raphaelitism. Finally, tired of inventing definitions that all exclude some of the objects to be defined, certain critics elevated themselves to very general reflection, and did something like a village preacher who, having become incoherent in his explanations, decides to start speaking in Latin. “Yes,” cried one of them, “the Pre-Raphaelite movement was more than a revolution in the ideals and methods of painting.

William Holman Hunt, Our English Coasts, 1852, (“Strayed Sheep”) The Pre-Raphaelites
William Holman Hunt, Our English Coasts, 1852 (“Strayed Sheep”), 1852. Oil on canvas, 43.2 x 58.4 cm. Tate Britain, London.

It was a single wave in a great reactionary tide – the ever-rising protest and rebellion of our century against artificial authority, against tradition and convention in every department of life. It broke out, socially, with the French Revolution; it found voice in the poetic impulse which followed it in Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats; it spread from ethics to politics, it touched all morality and all knowledge, and it affected the whole literature of Europe from philosophy to fiction and from the drama to the lyric poem. Schumann and Chopin breathed it into music. Darwin, by reforming the world of science, laid down in the theory of evolution the basis of this new cosmogony…”

Here, one loses one’s footing entirely. A school of art that resembles so many things outside art is not clearly differentiated enough from its rivals that, when it is described, one can recognise a painting that belongs to it. The definition of Pre-Raphaelitism is too narrow if we restrict it to the quest for detail, but becomes too large if we extend it to the conquest of a new philosophy. In one case, Pre-Raphaelitism is not really contained, and in the other, it is contained with too many other things. If one insists on the former, one must admit that the Pre-Raphaelites all broke with their aesthetic conventions to differing degrees, and if one adopts the second, one must conclude that they did not have any specific or marked conventions.

Walter Howell Deverell, Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene III, 1850, The Pre-Raphaelites
Walter Howell Deverell, Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene III, 1850. Oil on canvas, 101.6 x 132.1 cm. Christie’s images, The FORBES Magazine Collection, New York.

But they did. One must remember that this narrow theory of realism was never anything but a training method used by twenty-year-old painters, which they invented to place a necessary tool in their hands, even if they would later abandon it. It was a framework for study, not a plan for execution; a learning manual, not a Bible for an ideal; a path, not a goal…

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