Cosa Nostra

Four Rossettis: A Victorian Biography

by Stanley Weintraub
Weybright and Talley, 303 pp., $15.00

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Dante Gabriel Rossetti; drawing by David Levine

Pre-Raphaelitism, as a principle, was precociously brooded in 1847, by Holman Hunt, aged twenty, and John Millais, aged eighteen, with some not entirely convinced help from Dante Gabriel Rossetti, aged nineteen. Then a year later the Pre-Raphaelite group or movement was hatched. Hunt says that he and Millais, his pupil, were resolved “to turn more and more devotedly to Nature as the one means of purifying modern art.” They found an inadequacy of nature in Raphael, or at any rate too little of the truth of nature in the subsequent strains of art by those who blindly insisted on the supremacy of Raphael. Hunt was also to write that he and Millais used to stand in front of the Raphael cartoons (then at Hampton Court) and judge them fearlessly, also that they condemned Raphael’s Transfiguration (which they had never seen) “for its grandiose disregard of the simplicity of truth, the pompous posturing of the Apostles, and the unspiritual attitudinising of the Saviour.”

In their final estimation The Transfiguration “was a signal step in the decadence of Italian art.”

“When we had advanced this opinion to other students [at the Royal Academy schools], they as a reductio ad absurdum had said, ‘Then you are Pre-Raphaelite.’ Referring to this as we worked side by side, Millais and I laughingly agreed that the designation must be accepted.”

So the celebrated, all too celebrated, label was fashioned, first applied, and accepted not too seriously.

In 1846 when these young men came together with their imprecise aims of renewing or revitalizing English art, Holman Hunt considered that their inspiration, their determination to work, in their way, from nature, would best be described by this word “Pre-Raphaelite.” Rossetti wasn’t so sure. His preferred term was “Early Christian,” but Hunt argued that “Early Christian” would link them with the German Nazarenes, in whose pictures the natural was absent. They accepted, all the same, Rossetti’s other suggestion that they should be brothers in their new art, in short that they should be “P.R.B.,” each a Pre-Raphaelite Brother in a Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of which knowledge should be withheld from the public. The trio now enlarged their Brotherhood, enrolling other sympathizers; and in that kinship Millais and Hunt worked on new pictures which they signed “J.E. Millais P.R.B.” and “William Holman Hunt P.R.B.” (the pictures were Millais’s Lorenzo and Isabella, from Keats’s poem “Isabella and the Pot of Basil,” and Hunt’s Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice for the Death of his Young Brother, Slain in a Skirmish between the Colonna and the Orsini Factions, from a popular novel by Bulwer-Lytton).

These two canvases were hung in the summer exhibition of the Royal Academy in 1849; and no doubt they would have added the secret conspiratorial letters, the monogram of their revolution, to later pictures had the meaning of P.R.B. not been disclosed by a Scottish journalist with…

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