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,…

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