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Back to the Future

The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites

by Elizabeth Prettejohn
Princeton University Press,304 pp., $49.50

Elizabeth Prettejohn’s study of Pre-Raphaelitism is both heroic and outlandish, but then so was her subject. Prettejohn, who teaches at the University of Plymouth and has written on Sargent and Leighton and worked on exhibitions at the Tate Gallery and the Royal Academy, believes this movement is a triumphant affair that offers something to celebrate no matter what element of it you turn to. More than that, she sees these nineteenth-century London painters, whose hyperrealist images and pictures of pensive young women in historical settings have for decades constituted the essence of un-modernity, as nothing but modern artists. In their work, she believes, we can find ideas and techniques that run “parallel” to approaches held in later decades by the Impressionists, the Fauves, the German Expressionists, the Cubists, the Surrealists, the American postwar painters—by all the traditionally admired schools of progressive thinking right up to the present. Prettejohn is so head over heels in love with the idea of her artists as brilliant avant-gardists that her book, which happens to be lavishly illustrated with reproductions that are very true to the original works, comes across as a fantasy. It has the same boyishly all-or-nothing, irony-free fervor that fueled, and ultimately limited, the Pre-Raphaelites.

On some level, though, Prettejohn is on target. Important works by the leading Pre-Raphaelite painters, whether Dante Gabriel Rossetti or John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt or Ford Madox Brown, are scarce in this country, so Americans can hardly realize that their art really does bear a resemblance to the many radical movements she refers to. In English art history, the only group remotely comparable to them are the Vorticists, but the earlier artists had a far more lasting presence than Wyndham Lewis’s version of Futurism. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, as they first called themselves, espoused a complete overhaul of the art of their day, and they opposed it with a program of specific changes. And long after their initial thrust had spent itself, the very term “Pre-Raphaelite” retained its potency. It drew into its orbit at different times Charles Dickens (who was famously derisive), John Ruskin (whose thinking somewhat coincided with that of the painters), and William Morris (who grafted P-R ideas onto social thought and interior decoration). A painting school with ties to literature and eventually to design, Pre-Raphaelitism represented in some way the shadow culture of Victoria’s reign. It was alive and in the process of transforming itself throughout much of her long era.

And at its deepest, Pre-Raphaelitism added a new formal and psychological note to the ever-evolving story of realistic painting. It’s in certain Pre-Raphaelite pictures that we seem to get our first glimpse of how life had become pressurized with the Industrial Revolution. We’re given to see, too, how excursions to the countryside or to the shore, far from affording a pure, romantic solace, were beginning to present their own form of loneliness and emptiness. Courbet, the preeminent contemporary of the English painters, was catching new rhythms of the time himself, but he never touched these notes. Yet images of contemporary life form only an aspect of Pre-Raphaelitism. Most Pre-Raphaelite pictures are rethinkings of the biblical, medieval, or Renaissance costume dramas that academic painters of the time were routinely doing, and the P-R versions, which go off in so many disparate ways, call forth an ambivalent response at best; and as its original impulse was quickly lost, the art became purely illustrational. For all the movement’s lengthy and diverse roots in English culture, it’s a disjointed, even flimsy affair.

Pre-Raphaelitism also happens to be two different kinds of work that have long been confusingly linked. (The situation is a little as if Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art were considered more or less the same movement and it was called Abstract Expressionism.) The first wave, taking off in the late 1840s, is by far the more daring and novel. It stemmed from a desire to change the direction of English art on the part of three young painters, aged nineteen to twenty-one when they joined forces, who had studied together at the Royal Academy Schools: Rossetti, who appears to have been the instigator for many of the group’s activities; Millais, who had the greatest natural facility of any Pre-Raphaelite; and Hunt, a bluff character and born-again evangelical who made many of the art’s stranger pictures. Brown, the last major figure associated with the movement at the time—there would be numerous followers—was older than the others. Already formed as an artist when the younger men created their “brotherhood,” he wound up making the strongest Pre-Raphaelite works.

The artists believed that English painting had long been lifeless and rule-bound, and they were right. It tended to present a stage-set world, populated by nonentities, that was above all formally harmonious, its shadowy zones carefully balanced against its tepidly glowing ones. The young revolutionaries believed (with some justification) that the rot had set in with the later work of Raphael, and that art could be revived with a return to the stiffer, unbrushy, shadowless painting, showing figures who weren’t always perfectly balanced, that existed before the High Renaissance master. Rossetti and his friends weren’t alone in wanting to move art backward; there had been a similar quest by young German painters, and Early Renaissance painting was being discovered by many at the time, including London’s National Gallery, which had recently acquired Jan van Eyck’s then no doubt odd-looking Early Renaissance masterpiece, the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait.

Intensely detailed, highly focused paintings existed before the Pre-Raphaelites arrived on the scene, of course, and some painters continue to delineate with a pinpoint accuracy. Yet the English pictures had a strident, operatic intensity all their own. Tired of the generic and bloodless faces in academic art, the painters used their friends and families as models, accentuating their more particularized features and coming up with some flamboyantly contorted poses. Brown’s insistence on showing people in their almost painful plainness, often with mouths naturalistically open a bit, is striking to this day. He seems to be showing teeth for the first time in European painting, and the sight of his beaver-like Victorians continues to take some getting used to.

The Pre-Raphaelites were determined, too, to get every part of a picture, whether the foreground, the middle range, or even the far distance, in the same state of sharp focus. To do this they worked outdoors, directly before the stream or tree that was part of the given image. It was an unorthodox practice at the time, and they were able to do so, Prettejohn points out, because of the then new, collapsible metal tubes of color, which could easily be transported. It was their desire to be as razor-sharp as possible in recording what they saw that led Ruskin, then writing about Turner and preoccupied with the moral rightness of fidelity to the natural world, to defend them hotly in the press, becoming a kind of “brother” himself.

To give their pictures a uniform brightness, another academic no-no, the Pre-Raphaelites painted on a brilliant white ground, and applied the oil thinly, with little brushes, as if it were watercolor. The effect, which we can still sense, is almost as if a light has been turned on behind the given P-R painting. And their color had a strange forcefulness. As Prettejohn notes, the Pre-Raphaelites were among the earliest artists to take advantage of the colors that advances in chemistry and industry were making available for the first time—and Hunt, along with followers such as Arthur Hughes and Henry Wallis, went to town with eye-popping purples, greens, yellows, and reds. There are sour-sharp colors in Pre-Raphaelite painting that seemingly appear in the art of no other era.

The first results of these disparate tacks were some bizarrely striking works. Looking at Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents, for instance, one of the earliest P-R pictures, we know exactly why it caused a stink in the press and vexed contemporary viewers. The tension in it comes from the way highly distinct individuals of the painter’s day are made to inhabit the clothes and spirit of a religious scene, with all of it encased in a voluptuously satiny, ultra-crisp style. We can feel superior to those critics who railed about the homeliness of this or that figure’s body, but details such as Joseph’s reddened workman’s hands, or his whitened arms, make the picture unexpectedly touching and still experimental in spirit.

The Pre-Raphaelites also created, in those first few years, a wonderful body of drawings. Their whole enterprise got underway when Millais showed his friends some engravings of Italian Early Renaissance paintings. Inspired, many of the P-Rs made their own versions of these somewhat stiff outline works, and a number can take a place among the most distinctive English drawings ever. Tending to contrast lots of empty white space and smudgy, dark parts, and showing figures as angular, mousey, and doll-like, yet also full of a tense power, the Pre-Raphaelite sheets resemble, if anything, the drawings of the Polish writer Bruno Schulz and, too, Balthus’s best such work, his illustrations for Wuthering Heights. Successfully conveying furtive or odd encounters, Pre-Raphaelite drawings are the aspect of the movement that would, I think, most quickly engage a young artist today.

And the single commanding painter associated with Pre-Raphaelitism is Ford Madox Brown. In his earlier and later years he was absorbed by colossally complicated historical works that have not survived well; yet when, in the 1850s, he was touched by Pre-Raphaelite ideas, he was the strong man of English painting. He brought the movement down to earth. More than any of his colleagues Brown understood the possibilities of contemporary life and its stresses as a subject for painting. In pictures such as The Last of England (see illustration on page nine), where a biting, angry resignation pervades this scene of forced emigration, or Work, which gives the subject of a street excavation the note of a John Gay opera, or the unfinished Take Your Son, Sir!, a startlingly ambiguous image of a woman holding out a child to his father, or An English Autumn Afternoon, where our young couple are enjoying a pretty day in the country, but we’re able to read this Hampstead scene, with London in the distance, as an accurate picture of incipient suburbanization, Brown made a bracing catalog of the inequalities, strengths, disillusionments, and blandishments of his time. His mixed feelings remain tangible today.

There’s a new consciousness at work in Brown’s pictures. He made his backgrounds so clear they spookily interlock with the foregrounds, while his handful of small landscapes offer yet another pleasure. Possessing arrays of color that no English landscapist before the Pre-Raphaelites would have thought to use, he showed haying at dusk, a family by the shore, a corn- field in bright light. No matter what the time of day, the moon is always visible in these pictures, and Brown is often in them, too, as a kind of tourist. He subtly changed landscape from being about how we lose ourselves in nature to how we visit it at this or that particular time.

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