Ah yes. The year 1848. A time of unrest, of a growing gap between the rich and the poor. A time of many revolutionary groups throughout Europe declaring their fed-upness (that’s not a word) with the status quo, attempting to overthrow the previous political establishment. A revolutionary spirit was haunting the continent – mainly in France and Germany – but also England, where the Chartists marched in unity.
While writers such as Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Dickens were happily writing away about the depressing state of affairs, the world of the visual arts remained largely silent. That is, until Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt, among others, founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – the PRB – in September 1848.
It was the perfect time for the PRB to emerge as a new, triumphant school of art. The Industrial Revolution was raging on, confronting the state with political issues. Technological progress provided new and exciting possibilities for all (or at least for the rich). Scientific discoveries renewed religious tensions.
However, despite this being the perfect time for the PRB to establish themselves on the political scene, they had no clear agenda of their own. They were merely infused with a revolutionary spirit – and the desire to reject the tired academic traditions of the Royal Academy of Arts.
And indeed: we can see, quite clearly, that their style was rather different when compared with pre-1848 art. Rather than the ‘Raphaelite’ focus on creating beautiful and idealised paintings, the PRB attempted to depict portrayals of the real, with all its flaws. Strangely, by being quite hyper-realistic, the paintings often seem too colourful, too vibrant, too perfect in their attention to detail, so that they appear more like caricatures of realism.
They often contain a tension between the real and the symbolic, history and the present. Personally, I often find them quite funny to look at – as much as I enjoy them. The PRB’s themes range from religious to social subject matters, demonstrating a wide interest – but also their lack of focus. But it won’t do to discuss art in the abstract – so it’s time to discuss them in the particular! I’m just providing some of my impressions of the paintings. This is by no means an exhaustive or conclusive essay, and it serves mainly to introduce you to the delights of Pre-Raphaelite art.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti – Ecce Ancilla Domini!* (The Annunciation)
This is one of my favourite PRB paintings. Why, you ask? Why not, I reply! How can you not like it? It depicts the scene of the ‘annunciation’, that is, when the archangel Gabriel visits Mary to tell her that the Holy Spirit has impregnated her with the son of God.
And dear Rossetti gives us the usual symbolism you’d expect from such a painting: the dove in the background represents the presence of the holy spirit, the blue cloth symbolises the colour of the Virgin Mary, and the redness of the… I have no idea what it is in the foreground foreshadows the death of Christ on the cross.
But it all comes with a severe plot twist: it’s an uncomfortable scene. Despite both having halos, Mary looks less than pleased to welcome Gabriel to her home. Who would blame her? He just told her that she’s pregnant – and, being a virgin (THE virgin), she probably didn’t think too much of that. Not to mention the awkwardness of the conversation she would have to have with Joseph…
So rather than looking as serene, calm and holy as she usually does, this young virgin is staring somewhat perplexed at Gabriel. Or rather, towards the location where she would anticipate his naughty bits. Perhaps this, too, isn’t particularly surprising, considering our very human-looking Gabriel (who doesn’t have any wings!) is wearing absolutely nothing beneath his white piece of cloth. On top of that, he’s young. Sexy. Muscular. Does it make it even more uncomfortable that the model for Mary was Rossetti’s sister, Christine? The sexual tension is as hot as Gabriel’s flaming feet!
The painting clearly depicts the growing awareness of religious tensions at that time. These aren’t idealised versions of the characters present at the Annunciation – these are real humans (or… one real human and one ‘real angel’?) in what would have been an uncomfortable situation… perhaps this is why the PRB was often considered blasphemous?
John Everett Millais – Mariana
While this, at first glance, might appear to be a young woman suffering from an early onset of rheumatism, it actually depicts a scene from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Mariana is rejected by her fiancé when her dowry is lost, and in this scene, she is waiting for her lover to return – but to no avail. It is also, partly, based on Lord Alfred Tennyson’s ‘Mariana in the Moated Grange’, which is based on the same play (and which is also one of my all-time favourite poems!).
Whereas The Annunciation is quite sparse with details and colours, this one is abundant with them. I find the details quite breath-taking: the perfect depiction of the vibrant colours in Mariana’s velvet dress, the shades in the background, the coat of arms in the window…
If you compare the poem with the painting, you will notice that Millais has included some gorgeous details. In the bottom-right hand corner, there is the mouse (referred to in the final stanza of Tennyson’s poem), and the passing of time is evoked through the progress Mariana has made while weaving the cloth and by her stretching herself – as though she’s been sitting for hours.
Another wonderful detail is Mariana glancing at the left window – where an angel is depicted lifting his hand, as though to calm her in her grief (although I would argue that she looks more as though she’s slightly annoyed than in deep melancholy). Furthermore, the leaves covering the floor and the table might signify the gradual way in which nature is taking over, leaving no room for the very human world of a love-affair.
Despite the insane attention to detail and the colourful vividness of the picture, I would not subscribe to the view that it is as accomplished as Rossetti’s picture – not that ranking the pictures is necessary at all. I think it is a wonderful adaptation of a play and a poem, but I’m not sure the emotion – the tragic loss of a lover – comes through on its own, without knowledge of the source material. In Millais’ favour, if the painting was based more on the play, the emotional abyss she finds herself in is not quite as clear-cut as in the poem.
William Holman Hunt – The Awakening Conscience
The final picture I want to share with you today is Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience. This painting is, again, in the more humorous corner of Pre-Raphaelite art. Also, again, the attention to detail is astounding.
This time, the artist presents us not with a scene from religion or literature, but quite a common one from every-day life (or, at least, the every-day life of a certain class of people…). The man in the chair is a random rich bloke sitting with his mistress, the woman, for a leisure-laden afternoon. After some flirting, groping and what-not in the chair, the mistress receives a realisation – an awakening – and stares out of the window (which you can see reflected in the mirror in the background).
So while it is not religious in tone, it does provide us with a moment of transcendence, of realising the ‘error of one’s ways’. That the woman is indeed a mistress is made evident by her lower-class clothing against the elaborate – and partly embroidered – decoration of the room, and because she doesn’t have a wedding ring.
My favourite part of the picture is probably the cat beneath the coffee table on the left. Mirroring the glance of her master, she, too, is looking at the mistress in her moment of awakening. And, if you look closely, you can see a bird at the cat’s paw – so this scene is, in a sense, replicating the central theme of the painting.
The most striking feature is probably the mirror’s reflection, through which we can see that the prostitute is staring outside. Against the stuffy, dimly lit room, the light from the sun and the natural world ‘awaken’ the mistress in such a manner that she gets up an realises what must be done. We can make out a tree in the reflection, and another building behind that.
Like The Annunciation, I think this picture is both very well done and rather beautiful to look at.
If you’re living in London, the go-to place to indulge in the delights of Pre-Raphaelite art is, without a doubt, the Tate Britain in Pimlico. The gallery contains a large range of British art from the sixteenth century to the present day and is most certainly worth a visit or three.
If you enjoyed this post or disagree with some of my impressions, please feel free to leave a comment below. Otherwise, please share it on social media by clicking one of the tender buttons below!
*Behold the handmaiden of the Lord!