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Tony Grist

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The Pre-Raphaelites: A Short History [Jun. 25th, 2009|09:47 am]
Tony Grist
Pre-Raphaelitism began as one thing and ended as something completely different. In its first incarnation the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of three, highly talented, young artists- Millais, Rossetti, Holman Hunt- with a camp-following of mentors, well-wishers, hangers-on,  relatives and girlfriends- who rejected the art of the academy (which they believed to be derived from Raphael) and looked for inspiration to the art of the late Middle Ages (about which they actually knew very little.) The work they produced- over a short period in the 1850s-  is characterised by bright, jewel-like colours, unfinching realism and the minute rendering of detail. The realism of these early works- most notably of Millais's grubby, near-photorealist Christ in the House of His Parents- shocked the critics. Their work was branded ugly and immoral.  

The Brotherhood soon drifted apart- for all sorts of reasons. Brotherhoods do. The only one of the original three to keep on painting in the style they'd worked out together was Hunt. But Hunt was a loner- and leadership of the continuing movement- insofar as it was a movement, insofar as it was continuing- fell onto the shoulders of the intensely charismatic Rossetti.

He had always been a reluctant realist. Where Millais and Hunt had happily painted scenes from "modern life", Rossetti attempted only one- the stilted morality picture "Found" and abandoned it half-finished. His heart was wholly in the middle-ages.  It wasn't just the art he loved, it was the ethos- as filtered through the romanticism of Scott, Keats, Tennyson- and his most characteristic, early Pre-Raphaelite works are highly scrubbed, visionary water-colours of scenes from Dante and the Arthurian cycle. He gathered disciples (and lovers).- he was the sort of man who did- and these disciples- including men of considerable talent like William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones- created the school (very loose, anyone who was into damozels could join) of second-generation Pre-Raphaelitism. Where the first generation were all about style; the second generation were all about content. The first generation were realists, the second (and third and fourth) were mystics, symbolists, late romantics. With Morris- arguably the greatest of them all- medievalism turned political- and fed into guild socialism and the arts and crafts movement.

There is really nothing to connect the hard bright realism of early Millais with the swoony artifice of late Burne-Jones except the shadow of Rossetti. Pre-Raphaelitism is really two, quite distinct things: a short-lived, revolutionary art-movement of the 1850s- and an aesthetic mood that brooded over the second half of the 19th century and persisted well into the 20th.  The fact that they've got muddled up together is an accident- an accident of leadership- in effect,  an accident of personality.

File:Millais-christ-in-the-house-of-his-parents.jpg
Millais: Christ in the House of his Parents

File:Rossetti georg sabra.jpg
Rossetti: The Wedding of St. George

File:The Garden Court Buscot Park.jpg
Burne-Jones: The Garden Court
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Comments:
From: (Anonymous)
2009-06-25 10:57 am (UTC)
I love Burne-Jones the most, all those identical droopy maidens, and will try to catch that Waterhouse exhibition at the RA.

You MUST have been to the Lady Lever gallery on the Wirral? Stuffed full of pre-Raphs, a good day out. The Birmingham art gallery has quiter a few but mostly Ford Madox Brown who I like less.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2009-06-25 11:04 am (UTC)
I haven't been to the Lady Lever gallery. For us Mancunians the Wirrall is enemy territory- populated by hostile Scousers.

I've decided I like Brown a lot. The more I find out about him, the more extraordinary I think he is.
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[User Picture]From: veronica_milvus
2009-06-25 12:20 pm (UTC)
A fig for your prejudices! You could be in and out of Port Sunlight before the Scousers even notice!

Really, it is highly recommended.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2009-06-25 01:38 pm (UTC)
I'll put it on my list of things to do. :)
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[User Picture]From: craftyailz
2009-06-25 11:11 am (UTC)
I love the first and last of these. The Wedding of St. George - he looks like he's got a Willm. Morris tile for an earring. You should put up photos of our pre-Raphaelites
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2009-06-25 01:40 pm (UTC)
I like early Rossetti- very intense. I see what you mean about the earring.
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[User Picture]From: lblanchard
2009-06-25 12:27 pm (UTC)
I think Burne-Jones looks a good bit like the later Rossetti -- when he developed the obsession about painting Jane Morris. I confess to a great liking for his swoony artifice, so savagely parodied, along with the work of William Morris, in Beardsley's illustrations for Malory's Morte d'Arthur.

There's a fine range of Burne-Jones' stained glass in Gloucester Cathedral/Abbey. I came upon it quite by accident about ten years ago.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2009-06-25 01:56 pm (UTC)
I admire Burne-Jones. He's very distinctive. If it's swoony artifice you're after, he's definitely the best.

He did a lot of stained glass. So did Morris. I don't believe either of them was a Christian.
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[User Picture]From: dadi
2009-06-25 03:05 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this wonderful entry!!!
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2009-06-25 03:38 pm (UTC)
I'm so pleased you enjoyed it.
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From: mamadar
2009-06-25 03:06 pm (UTC)
I confess I love all the PRs, despite their screwy attitudes toward women. *g*
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2009-06-25 03:41 pm (UTC)
I've had a rocky, lifelong relationship with them. There are times I love them, and times I hate them. I can never quite forgive Millais for not fulfilling his early promise.
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[User Picture]From: internet_sampo
2009-06-25 05:48 pm (UTC)
My lab at school is covered in pre-raf post cards. I'm never there; it's for the benefit of my students.

Are you aware of this lj group? strange_tears
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2009-06-25 06:28 pm (UTC)
I don't suppose I'll ever love the PRs as much as I did when I was sixteen.

Thanks for the link to Strange Tears. I'd not come across them before.
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[User Picture]From: bigherman
2009-06-26 05:42 am (UTC)
Ahh... the second generation produced some of my favorite works... I love rich colors, tiny details, and mysticism/fantasy/romanticism. It was terribly exciting to read about your post on the BBC series, but apparently, I can't watch it because I'm in America. V. saddening.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2009-06-26 09:16 am (UTC)
It's annoying you can't watch the BBC i-player in the States. I guess it's a commercial thing- and they're hoping they'll be able to sell you their programmes. Over here, of course, there's a license fee levied on TV sets- which goes to fund the BBC- and this means that we've already paid for everything they put out.
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