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The “Weird” Case of Pre-Raphaelites

This brief artistic reality is still rather mysterious and ambiguous for its incredible variety of styles, issues, and themes proposed by its members.

The Beloved, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1865-6, o/c, Tate Britain, London

2 minutes

 

In 1848, a group of British painters founded the artistic movement known as Pre-Raphaelitism. This quite peculiar name referred to the main aim of the Pre-Raphaelites, who fought against the academic style of painting and attempted to investigate the arts before Raphael’s advent. The Renaissance artist was considered the main cause for the established way of painting in the academy.

 

Obviously, those artists were quite bohemian, trying to be as rebel as much as possible in the contradictory Victorian Age. In general, they tried to create an alternative focus, visually and thematically, focusing on literary representations of Dante and Shakespeare with a touch of a lavish style. Indeed, in some of their works, golden backgrounds, symbolic details, and ornamental elements were the norm.

 

However, what is really curious about this late nineteenth century British movement is the difficulty in finding a precise, common idea in their art and projects. If members of many artistic groups between the nineteenth and twentieth century shared the same ideas in terms of style, themes, and ideals, scholars  agree that the only shared ideas between the Pre-Raphaelites was that they wanted to fight the current academic model and often had an ornamental way of painting. Most scholars even have difficulty quantifying how many members this movement had. Some names come up quite often, like Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and William Hunt, and seven artists are now known as the official members of this confraternity. However, the debate is still open regarding the role of other Victorian age painters in this new group.

 

Ophelia - Millais

John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851, o/c, Tate Britain. Courtesy of the museum. Above: The Beloved, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1865-6, o/c, Tate Britain, London. Courtesy of the Museum.

 

Why do scholars have such problems with the Pre-Raphaelites? Well, on one hand, all the members of the confraternity interpreted the concept of going back to the past and of being rebellious in different ways. For instance, Millais focused on Shakespearian representation, like in his famous Ophelia (1853), whilst Hunt was more a landscape painter, and Rossetti is known for his female portraits and Biblical themes.

 

On the other hand, Pre-Raphaelites, although wanting to fight against the models of Victorian society,  were particularly patriotic in many of their works – which would range from the most known medium, painting, to literature. This contradictory approach made them figures interpreted as both rebels and institutionalized. Even during the Victorian age itself, people switched their opinions about them throughout the decades.

 

Although Rossetti and the others tried so hard to be alternative, they were not considered as such after 1851, whereupon came a year of positive comments by the art historian John Ruskin. Moreover, their experience did not last many years and the group dissolved officially in 1853.

 

 

William Holman Hunt, Strayed Sheep, 1852, o/c, Tate Britain, London

William Holman Hunt, Strayed Sheep, 1852, o/c, Tate Britain, London. Courtesy of the museum.

 

The Pre-Raphaelite confraternity is the one I like to call “the weird case.” This brief artistic reality is still rather mysterious and ambiguous for its incredible variety of styles, issues, and themes proposed by its members. Moreover, their historical context in the contradictory Victorian age, which appeared perfect but maintained big social issues hidden underneath the façade, made them rebels yet, at the same time, the most fitting symbols of that period.

 

Will scholars find a common path in the Pre-Raphaelite experience? Did the group lack a strong and fixed code in terms of style and topics? These issues are still open and probably only Millais, Hunt, Rossetti, and the others knew the truth. However, art history is fascinating because of these discussions.

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