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.
Landscape altogether became a subtle success for Pre-Raphaelitism. As the movement’s spirit took hold, this or that artist tended to use its call for fine detailing for more intimate pictures, and the best are not only landscapes but works that pick up on Brown’s psychological realism. William Dyce’s Pegwell Bay: A Recollection of October 5th, 1858, for example (which Prettejohn omits though it’s in most other accounts), is one of the few English paintings of the time that conveys the actual experience of a Victorian day. This grayed scene, set on a vast, barren, and rocky coast, where a few distant figures are clearly of the same party yet isolated from one another, is like a foretelling of Antonioni’s L’Avventura. And William Inchbold’s A Study in March, a picture of some trees and a hillside with a few sheep in the distance, is about the tension, you might say, of that moment when the barrenness of winter and the warmth of spring are simultaneously in the air.
Yet there are few Pre-Raphaelite pictures that survive Victorian sentimentality, however odd or impressive the painstaking realism. The works Millais did shortly after his painting of Christ, whether The Blind Girl, Autumn Leaves, or the often reproduced Ophelia, where the young woman is drifting downstream amid what appears to be a whole nature conservancy’s worth of flowers and grasses, have been admired. But in these (and his related) pictures, Millais is basically using his suavely precise naturalism to tell a gently sad story, and though his work, as the British art historian Alan Bowness noted, influenced a generation of Victorian artists, his paintings are indistinguishable from those they inspired. A viewer is hardly aware of the crisp technique in all his later work. It’s lost in the unrelieved bittersweetness of the material.
Holman Hunt’s work is also difficult to swallow whole. Whether his subject was a scene from Shakespeare or a popular novel, a biblical story or a “problem picture” taken from London life, even strayed sheep or a lone goat, he was a crusader for moral reform. He wanted to record moral rearmament or to alert people to the need for it. What’s remarkable about his pictures is how often they could be read as messages in code; and the first time you see certain early Hunts, such as The Awakening Conscience, a work of such superfine and brightly lit realism as to make Jan van Eyck look a touch blurry, you may be overwhelmed by the workmanship. Yet Hunt’s paintings, though they have a place in art history, are hard to take seriously. There’s an elemental insensitivity to them. His paintings, as objects, have a glaring, airless note, and his figures generally look as if they’ve stepped out of Madame Tussaud’s.
Nor is Rossetti greatly beckoning. What he took from Pre-Raphaelitism’s precepts was a license to dwell, in his art, entirely in the past; and in the movement’s early years he made lovely small watercolors that show a vaguely troubled but basically cozy medieval realm of maidens, princesses, knights, dragons, banners, and towers, all of it set in beguilingly odd spaces, neither quite indoors nor outdoors, which Rossetti designed so as to have miniature worlds that are equally private and public. He became wedded, though, in a move that lasted for the rest of his life, to a single theme: portraits of dream women with massive lips, overpowering hair, and costumes from some golden past. These paintings have their fans, but their allure is a complete mystery to me.
Rossetti in his person, though, must have been powerful, because, wrapped in his vision of blessed damozels, he engendered Pre-Raphaelitism’s completely different second phase. This less compelling but much more unified endeavor began in the late 1850s (after Millais, Hunt, and Brown had done, or set in motion, all their major works), and it lasted for decades thereafter. Rossetti’s followers on this round were principally William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. They had fallen under his sway while students at Oxford, and were drawn to the older man’s reveries on medieval themes. Morris would channel his feeling for this material into an output that included designs for fabrics, wallpaper, and books, poetry, political writing, and the cult of the handmade, while Burne-Jones, elaborating on Rossetti, made increasingly grand paintings about a medieval fantasyland where the reigning note is sad and forlorn and light tends to be soft and faraway. Pre-Raphaelitism’s first phase was about changing the art of painting. Its second was about a way of life, for which paintings were helpful in setting the mood.
What tied together the two sides of Pre-Raphaelitism, besides Rossetti, was that both, it could be said, represented a quest for purity. Both began as a piece of criticism. Morris, Burne-Jones, and the architects and designers in their wake saw in their vision of a decorous Middle Ages an alternative to the course of nineteenth-century materialism. In painting, though, there’s scant relationship between the two waves. Yet most accounts, Prettejohn’s included, somehow blend the two; and, muddying the waters even more, it’s images connected with this second phase of the movement, whether Rossetti’s big gals or Burne-Jones’s sallow maidens, that spell Pre-Raphaelitism for most people. This happens in part because, though the first phase raises livelier issues, and Brown, in the 1850s, made work of real stature, there exists over it an air of diffusion, of experimentation that barely comes to a point. It also takes some effort to see how paintings based on obscure moments in history, on religious themes, or on images of social problems of the day, to take some of their subjects, are even of the same family—where-as there’s an immediately identifiable core image in the movement’s second stage: women who, whatever their emotional state, possess abundant hair.
Into this jumble of an art movement, Prettejohn arrives with the convic-tion that it’s time Pre-Raphaelitism, in both its phases, be judged not only as a part of the family of modern art (as opposed to a crank outcropping of Victorian society) but as an exemplary modern art movement. She feels it “likely that in the global culture of future generations the antithesis between Pre-Raphaelitism and modernism, taken for granted through much of the twentieth century, will make little sense.” She isn’t alone in her admiration or in seeing this painting as a modern art movement of sorts. Other writers over the years—notably Robert Rosenblum and Allen Staley, among Americans—pointing to Pre-Raphaelitism’s attempt to chuck traditions and begin anew, its often discordant color, and its everything-pushing-at-you-at-once sense of space, have come to same conclusion. But surely no one has been as insistent and many-sided about the issue as Prettejohn. She’s so clear and unequivocal in her belief, and she presents so many examples of her point, that at first you wonder if you ever really knew what this English school of painting was, let alone why the Museum of Modern Art, say, never worked it into its curriculum.
It’s also easy to warm to her desire to rethink received wisdom about what art counts and what doesn’t. But it doesn’t take long before Prettejohn, far from presenting a more forceful Pre-Raphaelitism, makes it more ethereal than ever. In sections on the general history of what she calls the Pre-Raphaelite “project,” and on various themes, such as “Gender and Sexuality,” she finds so many ramifications to aspects of this movement that a reader’s head is set spinning. For her, there was hardly anything the Pre-Raphaelites did, in either of their phases, that isn’t modern (i.e., terrific) or doesn’t have some wider relevance. If the color in their pictures is unusually bright and vivid, that can be aligned with the “taste of children,” which, in turn, is part of the inherently “primitivistic” drive of Pre-Raphaelitism—and aren’t all the classic avant-garde art movements, beginning with the Impressionists, attempts to see experience in more childlike, spontaneous, and primitivistic ways? But then we’re also asked to see an “egalitarian quality” to the pure, unmixed colors the Pre-Raphaelites used and to understand that this represents a “rebellion against an authoritative principle in traditional art theory.”
That these English pictures, in their highly detailed realism, take an unusually long time to be looked at is another quality that aligns them, Prettejohn believes, with modern art. If, on the other hand, in a Hunt painting, the image is of a “fleeting moment,” the response can only be that we are catching the “‘modern’ in Baudelaire’s sense—it cannot persist for more than an instant but must give way to a new moment, still more modern.” When a Brown image is too crowded with people, we can draw only one conclusion: that it gives us “not the measured spaces of an old-fashioned world but the pulsating and congested environment of modernity.” In the landscapes of these artists, the “shifting pace is that of modernity.”
In Prettejohn’s view, the Pre-Raphaelites also turn out to have been art historians in their way. When Millais, in his later years, made versions of eighteenth-century portraiture, the results weren’t, as they might easily be called, pastiches. On the contrary, they represented a “reevaluation” of an earlier art that had been overlooked. “If we owe our love of early Italian painting” in part to the Pre-Raphaelites, she continues, then we “owe our appreciation for Reynolds and Gainsborough, Georgian furniture and porcelain” to, in some ways, Millais. A small problem with all this is that Prettejohn can twist ideas out of shape in order to connect her artists with them. This certainly happens in her attempting to link the painters with Baudelaire’s essay “The Painter of Modern Life.” His larger meaning, his wanting us to recognize the significance of “fugitive” aspects of life and to see in the detached observer of urban pleasures a new kind of hero, surely shares little with the reformist and moralistic spirit of Pre-Raphaelitism.
The more serious issue is that Prettejohn makes it seem as if each characteristic of Pre-Raphaelitism is only of interest to the degree that it can be welcomed into the family of accepted radical artistic values. The result is that everything that’s funky or flavorful about these pictures is dissipated. She’s right to say about a certain Hunt that “the visual intensity of the scene still disturbs.” Yet Prettejohn never goes deeply enough into what’s disturbing about this or any similar picture. She thinks it’s enough to say that if it’s disturbing it must be modern. Nor does she have a conception of modern art that is in any way personal. Modern art for her is the approved, textbook version. It’s basically a huge, faceless, multinational corporation she wants her fledgling P-R industry to be absorbed by.
Prettejohn’s sweeping conviction about the radical nature of Pre-Raphaelitism seems to derive in part from the fact that she is speaking for a recent generation of English scholars who have found in the movement a gold mine of values. As she describes it, the Tate Gallery’s enormous 1984 Pre-Raphaelite exhibition (and its catalogs) was a catalyst for young art historians in that, the most comprehensive account of the movement ever, it barely mentioned any role played by women, whether as artists, models, wives, or lovers. Since that show feminist scholars, determined to rectify the Tate’s view, have unearthed material not only on how women participated in Pre-Raphaelitism but on details that show these artists and their circles to have been unusually sensitive to issues of social inequality and gender—issues that absorb these scholars a great deal. In his 1998 Reading the Pre-Raphaelites, Tim Barringer also draws, as he says, “on a body of recent scholarship, mainly produced by feminist art historians,” and he, too, wants us to see the “intentionally uncomfortable and provocative” nature of these English works.
Prettejohn may not be a feminist, but she writes with a nod to feminist concerns, and it’s possibly those concerns that make her views flattening in the end. She gives a prominent place to the new research on women Pre-Raphaelite painters (the results don’t look as though they will alter the general way the art is thought about). And she says right from the first that “the finest works made by both women and men involved in the Pre-Raphaelite collaboration are among the great works of modern art”—a devious and specious sentence which could only mean that Pre-Raphaelitism was inherently a “collaboration” and that artists and models should be given joint credit for pictures. On the other hand, she writes that the current academic notion that the “life-and-works approach” is a “naive glamorisation of the individual artist at the expense of more urgent issues of social and political concern” is not hers. To a degree, though, it is, because the “individual artist” has been lost in her account. Millais, Hunt, Brown, Rossetti, and their many followers all seem, to the reader, at least, interchangeable.
Whether or not an academic theory had anything to do with it, the whole Pre-Raphaelite enterprise, in Prettejohn’s hands, has become Shakerized. We’re given a collection of anonymous worker-artists who seamlessly blend meaningful social, political, and radical artistic concerns as they create. In a fundamental way, Prettejohn is blind to what Pre-Raphaelite paintings actually show. She doesn’t directly go into the reasons why this art has for so long struck viewers (who aren’t art historians of the period) as more amazing, gauche, or plain unhinged than challenging or invigorating. She never gets near acknowledging that Rossetti, Hunt, and Millais were basically kids when they banded together, and that with each picture that each painter did he was learning as much about himself as a person and an artist as he was advancing a movement.
Wanting to see Pre-Raphaelitism as a unified and self-contained “project,” Prettejohn also ignores connections, there at her doorstep, that might make her artists’ aspirations and achievements more graspable. There’s no mention, for example, of German, Danish, or American painting, some of it even contemporaneous with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, that had almost the same concern with the near, middle, and far part of an image being equally sharp as a pin. Nor is mention made of Richard Dadd, the powerful English artist of fantasy themes who, working at the same time as the Pre-Raphaelites, attempted as fervently to rid painting of gauzy atmospherics. The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke, Dadd’s greatest work, a small but mightily detailed picture showing a diminutive fairy realm waiting breathlessly as a young hero is about to crack open a nut with his axe, was astutely compared by Robert Rosenblum with Brown’s Work, as a kind of cockeyed vision of the nineteenth century’s obsession with sheer fact.
But Dadd’s connections with Pre-Raphaelitism are such that you begin to wonder how valid it is to keep seeing the movement, as Prettejohn and other scholars do, as cordoned off from other English art. Like Hunt, Dadd visited the Holy Land and thought biblical themes appropriate for a modern picture. Like Hunt and Brown, he had a taste for melodramatic eye movements, while he and Brown had a remarkably similar and odd ability to show facial expressions of a peculiar distorted ominousness. Dadd was mentally ill for much of his adult life, which was spent in institutions; but when his small Fairy Feller and Brown’s huge Work are thought of together—two paintings that bombard the eye with a jigsaw-puzzle bitsiness—we lose our sense of who was mad and who sane.
But then Prettejohn hardly seems to see Pre-Raphaelitism as English at all. Stanley Spencer’s voracious, every-twig-on-the-branch realism, for example, is mentioned in relation to the nineteenth-century reformers, but without comment. Yet a case could be made that the Pre-Raphaelite desire to abandon academic rules and restart painting from the beginning is really another way of presenting a perennial theme in English art, one as old as Hogarth, which is to reject internationally accepted modes and base your art exclusively on what you see before your eyes. In our time, the well-known Lucian Freud and the lesser-known John Wonnacott and the late Norman Blamey have done largely that, as did Cedric Morris, Freud’s chief influence, and as did William Nicholson, an early-twentieth-century master who is also unfortunately little known here.
By the same token, the vein of Pre-Raphaelitism that wished to record truthfully the bruises of contemporary life is never seen as part of a long-standing English tradition, either. In the past few decades, the idea of a “School of London,” first broached by R.B. Kitaj in 1976, has taken root. Kitaj’s point was to call attention to the strong painters working in London who, in the face of American abstract art in its many varieties, steadily held to a figurative approach. But from another standpoint, the School of London might be redefined to represent a kind of work that has been made periodically in the city over a much longer time and that has no exact match in American, French, or German art. I have in mind traditionalist but not timid pieces where the figure is of paramount importance and where we can sense a story being told. They’re expressionist works but ones where it’s less the artist’s troubled psyche or a mythic quest that’s on display than the social, class, or sexual abrasions that sometimes seem to have more life in England than they do elsewhere.
If Hogarth began this line of reporting on a beleaguered though still vital populace, it has been visited over the years not merely by Bacon and Freud in their images of London studios as combat zones but by Sickert in his paintings of music halls and Camden Town bed-sitting-rooms, by Gilbert and George in their increasingly impolite panoramas of street existence in the East End, by Beardsley, who cloaked his insights in a hothouse comedy, by Bill Brandt in his photographic embrace of the city’s tensions from Mayfair to Lambeth—and by Ford Madox Brown who, for a number of years anyway, paid more than lip service to the grueling notes of Victorian life. Surely his effort gives Pre-Raphaelitism “modernity” enough.
February 8, 2001