The English don’t really like art,” a celebrated (English) abstract sculptor told me, some time ago. “We like literature and nature—gardens and landscape. That’s why we admire all those artists who go for walks in the woods and collect rocks or bend down trees or build stone walls. And that’s why we’re so much more interested in art that tells a story than in any other kind.”

I kept thinking about that characterization as I walked through “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848–1900,” at the National Gallery, Washington, D.C., encountering meticulously rendered painting after meticulously rendered painting with complicated moral messages, arcane literary subjects, and glimpses of nature presented with near-scientific accuracy.1 The first major exhibition in the U.S. to be devoted to these enigmatic artists, the show was organized by Tate Britain in collaboration with the National Gallery. To judge from the catalogue, “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design” was even more comprehensive in London, but it’s still a large, ambitious effort in Washington, with about 130 works, including paintings, drawings, sculpture, works on paper, tapestries, furniture and decorative arts, plus the occasional photograph. There’s a lot to look at and, given the emphasis on narrative and messages—not to mention the sometimes overwhelming amount of detail with which these narratives and messages are presented—there’s a lot to decipher. Pre-Raphaelite works demand close attention, reference to their sources, and careful looking—“close reading” in a literal sense—if they are to yield their full intentions, so the viewer must be equipped with both stamina and willingness to put in the time. For those who like that sort of thing, as they say, this is the sort of thing they like, and based on the responses of my fellow critics at the press preview, they like it a lot. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that while I found the exhibition to be extremely informative, it failed to make me a convert to the Pre-Raphaelite cause.)

The show does a fine job of tracking the formation and the main concerns of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

The show does a fine job of tracking the formation and the main concerns of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood—PRB, as they inscribed their pictures—beginning with its foundation in 1848, when a group of very young painters banded together to declare their opposition to the pictorial norms that dominated English art at the time. The leading members of the original group, handsomely represented near the beginning of the installation in a wall of sensitive portrait and self-portrait drawings, were John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Holman Hunt (twenty-one, twenty, and nineteen, respectively), along with their slightly older friend Ford Madox Brown (twenty-seven). Brown never formally joined the PRB but acted as a kind of mentor to his colleagues, since he shared many of their aspirations. Those aspirations, according to a catalogue essay by two of the exhibition’s three curators, Tim Barringer of Yale University and Jason Rosenfeld of Marymount Manhattan College—Alison Smith of Tate Britain is the third—could be described as “innovative stylistic choices and reformist aesthetic, social, political, and religious thinking.” The Brotherhood, the curators tell us, not only wanted to transform British painting through their near-obsessive attention to the particulars of the visible world, but also “intended to sow the seeds of widespread reform of society through advanced art and design.” (It’s useful to remember that Victorians, especially middleclass urban Victorians, were enthusiastic formers of associations and societies of all kinds and, probably because of the appalling conditions in their cities, equally enthusiastic, high-minded social reformers.) The Brotherhood’s desire for aesthetic change led them to base everything in their paintings on scrupulous observation of the real thing. Landscape settings were painted on the spot, with figures fitted in from models posed in the studio; furnishings of interiors, tools, and other accoutrements were carefully studied and described. Whether that transformed British painting, as the PRB hoped it would, is still moot, pace Stanley Spencer and Lucian Freud at their most concentrated. As to the second and more ambitious of their intentions, while it’s hard to assign “widespread reform of society” to the Brotherhood’s efforts, there’s little doubt that the burgeoning British Aesthetic movement of the 1860s and the widespread Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century have their origins in Pre-Raphaelitism. (Although the Brotherhood might not have approved, so does the young Oscar Wilde’s early, flamboyant persona—the one parodied by Gilbert and Sullivan as the poet Bunthorne in Patience—and his espousal of the credo of art for art’s sake.) An even more direct manifestation was the circle of still younger painters, plus one poet and designer, who formed around Rossetti in the 1850s. The painters included Edward Burne-Jones and his less familiar colleagues Elizabeth Siddall and Simeon Solomon. The poet-designer? William Morris. While he may not have managed to stem the rising tide of mass-produced, bourgeois Victorian furniture that threatened to inundate British homes, Morris’s ravishing textiles and wallpapers, ingenious furniture, tiles, and gorgeously produced books, all of which have close connections with the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic, provided an enduring alternative. (See Liberty of London fabrics and carefully selected items in most British museum stores.)

Even in its somewhat abridged American version, the exhibition includes some of the best known, textbook examples of the Pre-Raphaelites’ efforts, organized more or less chronologically, but mainly thematically according to such categories as History, Salvation, Nature, Beauty, and Mythologies. Elegantly installed in ways that evoke the period, the exhibition ranges from works made during the first years of the Brotherhood’s existence, such as Millais’s relentlessly specific Christ in the House of His Parents (The Carpenter’s Shop) (1849–50, Tate), to late embodiments, such as Hunt’s feverish, Technicolor extravaganza, The Lady of Shalott (ca. 1888–1905, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT). The former, described as “the most controversial picture in the early years of the Brotherhood,” largely because of Millais’s refusal to idealize his subjects, presents a group of thin, anxious-looking characters in a shallow, box-like space, rather like a stage-set. On one side, we see into a deeper space with stored lumber while, on the other, a tightly pressed “audience” of interested sheep peers over a wattle fence, through an open doorway. Millais seems to have aimed at the kind of disguised symbolism common in Netherlandish Renaissance painting, in a rather pedestrian interpretation. Jesus has punctured his hand on a nail in a door that Joseph is building. A drop from the wound falls on his foot. Mary kneels to comfort him. (So far we get it.) A slightly older child carries a bowl of water to wash the wound—John the Baptist. There’s a pigeon standing in for the dove of the Holy Spirit and the sheep, of course, are the faithful. All this and a floor littered with shavings, tools hung on the wall, sharply defined edges, textures, and minutiae throughout, with some of the intense color of quattrocento predella panels.

Did his standards still prevail in the mid-nineteenth century?

At its first showing, Millais’s painting was derided for what was viewed as the impropriety of showing the Holy Family as working-class types, and unlovely working-class types at that. A real carpenter apparently posed for the lean, sinewy Joseph, Millais is said to have spent the night in a carpenter’s shop, soaking up the atmosphere, and the sheep were based on heads from a local butcher. That this desire for fidelity to real experience could be problematic makes sense only if we take as our standard of excellence “the Grand Manner,” as advocated by Sir Joshua Reynolds in his addresses to the graduating students of the Royal Academy of Art. Nothing, Sir Joshua advised, should be specific, irregular, or individual—neither fabrics, the style of clothing, nor the figures themselves; instead everything was to be generalized in pursuit of the ideal. Nature’s imperfections were to be corrected by her perfections, in the way that Raphael was said to have combined the best attributes of many different women to create an ideally beautiful Madonna. But Sir Joshua delivered his last Discourse on Art to the Academy in 1791. Did his standards still prevail in the mid-nineteenth century? I haven’t spent enough time in the historical sections of Tate Britain and there aren’t enough works in the “pre-Pre-Raphaelite” section of the Washington installation to permit an informed opinion. Yet, at just about the same time that Christ in the House of his Parents was exhibited, across the Channel, Gustave Courbet insisted that his only teacher was nature, and he had the inhabitants of his home town of Ornans pose for his enormous scene of a village funeral. In light of this, it’s hard to understand why Millais’s far less radical picture should have provoked such opprobrium—not that Courbet’s work was universally admired.

That the PRB might occasionally stretch their definition of working from strict observation is suggested by Hunt’s The Lady of Shalott, painted more than four decades after Christ in the House of His Parents. Like most of the works in the exhibition, The Lady of Shalott is based on a literary theme, specifically, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem about the cursed Arthurian maiden condemned to spend her days alone, in a tower, weaving tapestries of scenes she may view only in a mirror—that is, until Sir Lancelot rides by and she cannot resist looking at the real thing. Then, Tennyson tells us,

Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
     The Lady of Shalott.

Hunt portrays this moment as kaleidoscopic, chromatic chaos. The Lady, a characteristic Pre-Raphaelite straight-nosed, heavy-jawed beauty wearing a fantastic multi-hued garment that may owe something to the “Venetian Renaissance” designs of Mariano Fortuny, stands in the ruins of her fraying tapestry, tangled in its threads, vast amounts of hair swirling. The space is fragmented by a reflected view, patterns, images, decorations, flying doves, the elaborate legs of the strange circular weaving frame, and an even stranger multi-spouted samovar-thing that stands, improbably, within the circle of the tapestry frame.

The Lady’s wooden pattens seem oddly familiar.

The Lady’s wooden pattens seem oddly familiar. Then we remember the clogs in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434), a painting acquired with much fanfare by the National Gallery, London, in 1842. With its suave surface, its wealth of sumptuous textures, its radiant color, and its almost invisible detail—such as the figures reflected in the mirror and the scenes from the life of Christ in the mirror frame’s rondels—the much admired Arnolfini Portrait became a kind of touchstone for the Pre-Raphaelites. All those pouting maidens, heads bent under the weight of their masses of hair, may have their origins in Botticelli, there may be echoes of Fra Angelico in the limpid color and crisply delineated shapes, but the ferocious attention to minutiae, the jewel-like color, and the desire to fill every inch of space may be traced to Van Eyck’s mesmerizing portrait.

Sharing the far end of the Pre-Raphaelite spectrum with The Lady of Shalott are a trio of large panels, The Rock of Doom, The Doom Fulfilled, and The Baleful Head (1885–87, Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart)—the ominous titles are typical—commissioned from Burne-Jones by the young, rising, conservative politico Arthur Balfour for his London drawing room. The series, based on the Perseus myth as retold in an epic poem by William Morris, remained incomplete, but Burne-Jones clearly had a fine time with the works he finished, playing an elongated, nude Andromeda, seen both fore and aft, chained to her rock, against waves cribbed from Botticelli, rocks from Gentile Bellini, and, in the most memorable painting—a rear view—against a tubular, coiled sea monster and a struggling Perseus in armor as sleek as the monster’s rubbery loops.

A few photographs enrich the mix, including some of Julia Margaret Cameron’s intense “portraits” of women dressed as characters from literature. (A friend of Rossetti’s, Cameron sent him prints of her photographs, including one of those on display in Washington, images whose close-up, tightly framed compositions may have influenced the painter’s own close-up, tightly framed compositions, such as the exhibition’s equivocal Monna Vanna [1866, Tate], a half-length, self-absorbed, pseudo-Renaissance fashion plate.) Additionally, there are excellent examples of Morris and his cohorts’ expansion of the purview of “advanced art and design” into tapestries, fabric, furniture, wallpaper, stained glass, and lavishly designed, richly illustrated, beautifully produced books.

But the exhibition’s strength is its selection of works emblematic of the Brotherhood, such as Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience (1853–54, Tate)—a young kept woman, in a modish, rather vulgar interior, wearing what may be a peignoir, rises from the lap of her fashionably dressed lover, as she realizes the error of her ways. In Washington, Hunt’s The Light of the World (1851–52, Keble College, Oxford)—Christ, illuminated by a lantern, slightly backlit by a halo, knocking at a door—is hung as a pendant, at right angles to the scene of penitence, promising salvation. There’s Rossetti’s, early, narrow, compressed version of the Annunciation, in which a vertical, levitating, wingless angel offers a stem of lilies to an apprehensive blond teenager who shrinks back to the corner of her bed. The protagonists’ white garments, the white bedclothes, and the white stucco walls are nicely orchestrated, punctuated with surprising geometric shapes of red, blue, and paler blue. (Given the cold opulence of Rossetti’s later “Venetian” female portraits, such as Monna Vanna, this early work seems positively austere.) There’s Millais’s Mariana (1850–51, Tate)—a full-length “portrait” of a character in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure originally drawn from Tennyson , stretching after hours of dreary embroidery, exasperated by the feckless behavior of her fidanzato. Millais’s Ophelia (1851–52, Tate) floats in a fantastic gown amid fanatically precise botanical specimens. And much more.

An impressive number of the Brotherhood’s early works on view in Washington, including Millais’s Mariana, his painting of Noah’s daughters-in-law comforting an exhausted dove who returned to the ark with an olive sprig, and Hunt’s staging of a pivotal scene from Two Gentlemen of Verona, were discussed and defended by John Ruskin, the most celebrated art critic in Britain, in a series of letters to The Times of London written between 1851 and 1853. Ruskin shared many of the initially hostile responses to the Brotherhood’s work, especially the widespread dislike of the class and appearance of their chosen models, who were generally found to be “low” and unbeautiful. But he was quick to praise the young artists’ ambition and accomplishment, and to defend them from charges of inaccuracy, bad drawing, or copying from photographs. “Pre-Raphaelitism has but one principle,” Ruskin wrote, “that of absolute, uncompromising truth in all that it does, obtained by working everything, down to the most minute detail, from nature, and from nature only.” Ruskin’s championing the group signaled an important change in the reputation of the PRB, but the fact that their initial reception was less than enthusiastic, however, brings us to what may be the most vexing aspect of the show.

The curators stress that we should think of the Pre-Raphaelites as vanguard artists who challenged the norms of their day.

The curators stress that we should think of the Pre-Raphaelites as vanguard artists who challenged the norms of their day. Witness the outcry when the works were first shown, they remind us, about unappetizing models, garish color, lack of idealizing, and all the rest of it. The movement, we are told, was triggered by modernity, in an effort to return to fundamental truths during a time of industrialization, mass production, and fast developing technology that included both trains and photography. Yet does this really make Pre-Raphaelitism vanguard? The Brotherhood’s response to modernity—apart from their gleeful adoption of the most intense new colors available, the equivalent of the bright, newly developed synthetic textile dyes recently developed for commercial use—was to look to the past both for subject matter and for stylistic and aesthetic values. Scenes and characters from Shakespeare, Dante, and Arthurian legend abound, along with obscure moments from history and, from time to time, religious themes, which were sometimes suspected of being dangerously (regressively) “papist.” The Brotherhood were rarely “painters of modern life” except for works such as The Awakening Conscience; even portraits done from life, as the installation’s “Beauty” section reveals, seem to have been aestheticized and medievalized. Sometimes accused of working from photographs, the PRB appear to have issued a deliberate challenge to the medium by loading their paintings with more detail than the eye or even the camera could see.

The cumulative effect is to make it very difficult to think of the PRB as a vanguard movement, especially when, to eyes educated by modernism, their work appears to be irreducibly Victorian and, for the most part, literal and illustrational, wholly dependent upon the generating text for full effect. But the curators argue that the paintings were conceived not as illustrations but as imaginative improvisations on their sources, offering as proof Tennyson’s initial dislike of The Lady of Shalott because of the “addition” of tangling threads and flying hair. I remain unconvinced. Yet the idea explains why the Pre-Raphaelites are the focus of attention now, when art history is dominated by deep mistrust of works of art that are unsupported by verbal explication. Interestingly, a few paintings hint at an alternative approach. The light-washed, post-rainstorm farm meadow that forms the background of Millais’s The Blind Girl (1854–56, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery)—a painting discussed by Ruskin—marvelously evokes a specific moment in purely visual terms. Here, the green-gold light and dark sky are far more compelling than the nominal subject, a young, blind street musician who shelters a younger child gazing at a magnificent double rainbow. Also suggestive is Brown’s painting of a blond mother, in eighteenth-century costume, showing her tow-haired infant daughter a meadow full of what the title calls “baa-lambs.” Clearly painting en plein air, the picture is an investigation of how things—including figures—are revealed by light. If only the Brotherhood had realized that this alone could be enough to justify a painting.


  1.   “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848–1900” opened at the National Gallery, Washington, D.C. on February 17 and remains on view through May 19, 2013.

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