"You behold a carpenters shop. In the foreground is a hideous, wry-necked blubbering-red headed boy … a kneeling woman, so horrible in her ugliness that she would stand out from the rest of the company as a monster in the vilest cabaret in France or the lowest gin-shop in England.” Is this what you would expect from the heralded social critic, creator of Tiny Tim, Charles Dickens after gazing upon John Everett Millais’ painting "Christ in the House of His Parents?"
Yet, this was not an uncommon reaction to work of the Secret Seven, the brotherhood who initially signed their paintings with a cryptic PRB. If you would like to know more about the work of these handsome (well, they were) misunderstood young men, it’s well worth a wander into San Francisco’s Legion of Honor this summer to see Truth and Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters. In this case, pay no attention to Charles Dickens, feast on the images below, and listen to Melissa Buron, Director of the Art Division at the Fine Arts Museums, who will help us relish and recognize a pre-Raphaelite when we see one. ––Gwynned Vitello
Gwynned Vitello: You say that explaining a pre-Raphaelite is complicated and confusing?
Melissa Buron: These young Englishmen who founded the group originally, these seven students, were 19 to 21 years old. They wanted to do something that was completely rebellious and radical, so the most obvious way was to ask, “What are the rules and how do we break them?” At the time, the Royal Academy suggested that the art of the High Renaissance was exemplified by Raphael, that he was the epitome of beauty and grace, and that is what artists should strive to emulate, that this was the kind of peak, and that all artists afterwards should look to Raphael as the greatest formation of beauty. So these young artists say, “Well, we don't really have a problem with Raphael, but it’s his mechanistic followers who really start to mess things up.”
Bring such young students, they hadn’t been exposed to much art beyond the Royal Academy.
You have to think about what art they had been exposed to, and the National Gallery was still forming. They still hadn’t seen a lot of art, and travel was not easy to do in the 19th century. None had been outside of the country, not even to Italy. A major acquisition critically impacted their formation of a visual style early in their careers, and that was the 1842 acquisition of Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini painting which is now one of the most famous paintings in the Gallery. They had never seen anything like this, and it was a complete shock in terms of what was impactful. They were struck by the very brilliant jewel tone colors, as well as the angular postures which are very solidly in the moment. There is drama and symbolism so that everything has a meaning beyond what you are looking at.
John Everett Millais
This is a very personal project for you, isn’t it?
Very. I was interested in Victorian paintings and have been studying them for over a decade. I wrote my master’s thesis on the second generation pre- Raphaelite painter John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, whose large painting Love and the Maiden is in our permanent collection. The origin of the project, for me, was having thought about our Stanhope over these past ten years and trying to talk about the Old Masters’ relationship with the pre-Raphaelites and their relationship with the past. It was a Eureka moment when I realized this exhibit could achieve the objective of bringing not just the Old Masters, but great 19th century paintings to San Francisco.
The cover images for the catalog, the Rossetti Lady Lilith and Botticelli Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci are stunning choices, and then, with some well-chosen words, you help us see the relationship.
This is a challenging process because, in like three sentences under 100 words, you are trying to explain a Renaissance artist, its importance and the history of art, and what the 19th century was about. Also, technique is a big part of the story. I think about how explicit to get when pointing out where the dialogues are, and when do you kind of just step back and let the works of art tell the stories themselves. The most gripping part, I hope, is that for anyone who has thought, “Oh, Victorian means boring, stodgy stuff, “ this was radical, contemporary art in the 19th century.”
John Roddam Spencer Stanhope
So much that it shocked Charles Dickens!
He was incensed. They were young, they were trying to be radical, even though they were looking to the past. It is not a linear story!
It was their concept of beauty too.
Yes, and the concept of reacting to industrialization in a world that was rapidly changing and modernizing. I think it’s symbolic in a culture where changes are happening quickly, and we, too, see that, in Etsy or Slow Food, a kind of return to craftsmanship, simpler homemade artistry. There’s this slowing down when life speeds up, and you kind of counterbalance. For the pre-Raphaelites in the Industrial age with the world quickly modernizing, they declared that art had gone so far up the spectrum of truthfulness and beauty, how do we get back to a place more simple and authentic? Those are loaded words, but it is kind of subjective as to what beauty is what truth is, what is simple and authentic.
William Holman Hunt
Some thought their beauty was ugly.
To them, it was an expression of the modulated or unadulterated. They were just trying to present the body as it is, and yes, there might be dirt underneath the fingernails. So if you’re presenting the Holy Family in a carpenter shop, you’re not going to be in a clean, pristine, un-dusty environment. It’s going to have some character. They wanted to respond to a call. John Ruskin, who was still pretty young at the time, had written a volume called Modern Painters, a kind of guidebook, that “artists should go to nature and all should sit in the park … rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, scorning nothing.” So what the pre-Raphaelite took from this was that you paint every blade of grass, you get the colors right for the flowers. You are painting all of what’s in nature, and sometimes that isn’t what is idealized, but it was they thought to be more truthful.
And they painted on a white background.
They painted on a white background in order to make those jewel tones brighter. It was all part of their complex agenda. I mean, was nature so hyper-realistically colored? No, not necessarily, but it’s this melting pot of ideas they were sourcing from because, frankly, they hadn’t had enough experience. They’re trying it all out, trying to see what works.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
All going on as they are signing their works PRB (pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.)
Yes, there was this mystery behind what was PRB. 1848 was the year of revolution throughout Europe. There was none in England, but there were demonstrations, people protesting for voting rights. There was a lot of social inequality, a big gap between the people working in factories, the haves, and have-nots. This is the year that the Communist Manifesto was written, so this idea of a secret subterfuge of artists comes when there is sensitivity to secret societies. However, they soon come forward with who they are, their manifesto, and they share that in a magazine called The Germ (as in planting a seed to germinate.)
That seems very modern.
Think about the context in which they were creating, which was so different. The access to colored images, or even real works of art, was so much more limited. Travel was so much more difficult. But on the other hand, you have this huge output of critical material written about art, art exhibitions, and art education. So when an art critic like John Ruskin steps in, he is hugely influential. They’re getting this bad press, and he steps in and says, Whoa, hold on! These guys are really up to something, and it’s really cool, and radical, so you need to pay attention.” They were a very literate group with so many influences. They read Shakespeare, Dante, a lot of Chaucer and contemporary poetry like Keats, so you can appreciate them on a surface level for the beauty, but often there is a complex story.
In which women played a role.
Dante Rossetti fell in love with a milliner’s assistant named Elisabeth Siddal, and though she became his muse and model, she was an artist in her own right. John Roddam Spencer Stanhope taught his niece Evelyn De Morgan to paint, and she is represented in the exhibition. In fact, though there wasn’t an official pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, I’ve included seven women artists who were in the circle as part of the exhibition, as well as the self-trained photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.
Based on principles that were defiantly non-dogmatic and emphasizing personal responsibility, they were bound to splinter off, right?
They’re a group for about five years and then they break up the band, although they each return throughout their careers to some of the ideas they were playing within their earliest moments. They each have their personas. I like to think of them like Beatles. Who would each be?
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Truth and Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters opens June 30 and shows through September 30, 2018, at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. In addition to paintings, look for tapestries textiles, furniture, and especially the stained glass restored by Oakland’s own NZILANI.