Jewel tones and drapery.

Flora, by Evelyn De Morgan

After showing for three months at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, the exhibition “Truth and Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters” closed just a few days ago. My friend Lorica and I managed to squeeze in a trip to “The City” in time to see it.

I didn’t read up on the subject beforehand, of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as a group of young enthusiasts named themselves in 1848, and what their concerns were. Lorica gave me some background on the drive down, and there was a lot of help to be had by reading the descriptions of each piece of art. One phrase that I read more than once was jewel tones. This term echoed in my mind as I walked through the exhibit and provided one idea to help me see a little better.

My knowledge being so sketchy, I can’t teach you about the movement, but there are good online sources of information, like The Art Story‘s page. What I will do here is try to share a few points and paintings that made the most impression on me.

And I have found quotes from these artists to let their own words speak as well.

From the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood site:

…the young artists studied early Italian frescoes and marveled at the difference between them and the current norms in the art world.  They believed that for the art world to be revived, it needed to return to the time before Raphael, and thus, the name Pre-Raphaelite was born.  In the midst of the Industrial Revolution and scientific discovery, these artists looked backward and created works that celebrated a distinct Medieval aesthetic.

The Brotherhood’s early doctrines were expressed in four declarations:

  • To have genuine ideas to express;
  • To study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them;
  • To sympathize with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parodying and learned by rote;
  • And, most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.

The Pre-Raphaelites created art that is known for its colorful brilliance. They achieved this by painting white backgrounds that they would later paint over in thin layers of oil paint. Their work was meticulous and their subject matter drew inspiration from myths, legends, Shakespeare, Keats, and lovely long haired damsels that we now equate with Victorian beauty.

All great art is the work of the whole living creature, body and soul, and chiefly of the soul.
— John Ruskin

The Ransom, by Millais
Flora, by Burne-Jones
La Pia de Tolomei, by Rossetti
Burne-Jones and Morris

William Holman Hunt founded the Brotherhood along with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais. John Ruskin became their champion for a time, and when William Morris founded his decorative arts firm in 1861 he made partners of Edward Burne-Jones, Rossetti, and several other artists, to “undertake carving, stained glass, metal-work, paper-hangings, chintzes (printed fabrics), and carpets.”

I’ve found it a pleasant use of time to go to the Wikipedia sites for each individual artist who is associated with this movement, to learn more about them and their interrelationships, their wives who were often their models, and their love triangles.

Bocca Bacia, by Rossetti
Isabella, by Millais

I had in the past become interested in John Ruskin from reading Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel, and I enjoy William Morris every day as I eat my breakfast and dinner on placemats of his enduring design. (But the picture below is of a special party.)

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.
–William Morris

The Wikipedia article on Rossetti quotes John Ruskin:  Every Pre-Raphaelite landscape background is painted to the last touch, in the open air, from the thing itself. Every Pre-Raphaelite figure, however studied in expression, is a true portrait of some living person.

Giotto Painting the Portrait of Dante, by Rossetti
Detail of De Morgan’s Flora

Paint the leaves as they grow! If you can paint one leaf, you can paint the world.
– John Ruskin

The Light of the World, by William Holman Hunt

From Wikipedia: The Light of the World is an allegorical painting by the English Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt representing the figure of Jesus preparing to knock on an overgrown and long-unopened door, illustrating Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me”. According to Hunt: “I painted the picture with what I thought, unworthy though I was, to be by Divine command, and not simply as a good Subject.”

The more materialistic science becomes, the more angels shall I paint.
Their wings are my protest in favor of the immortality of the soul.
— Edward Burne-Jones

Colorful brilliance… saturated color… details, textures, women as muses, nature, light.

And clothing! I do often think of this, how much painting of clothing artists have done, and the Pre-Raphaelites were certainly good at it. My appreciation for the beauty of the garments and the way the fabrics drape on the wearers’ bodies was enhanced just today when I was reading/listening to Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. He speculates that some artists commonly have the ability to see into the is-ness of things such as he only experienced while experimenting with mescaline. Under the influence of the drug he saw the folds of his trousers as he had never noticed them before, and that leads him to muse on the art of drapery:

Artists, it is obvious, have always loved drapery for its own sake – or, rather, for their own. When you paint or carve drapery, you are painting or carving forms which, for all practical purposes, are non-representational-the kind of unconditioned forms on which artists even in the most naturalistic tradition like to let themselves go. In the average Madonna or Apostle the strictly human, fully representational element accounts for about ten per cent of the whole. All the rest consists of many colored variations on the inexhaustible theme of crumpled wool or linen. And these non-representational nine-tenths of a Madonna or an Apostle may be just as important qualitatively as they are in quantity. Very often they set the tone of the whole work of art, they state the key in which the theme is being rendered, they express the mood, the temperament, the attitude to life of the artist….

Not an inch of smooth surface here, not a moment of peace or confidence, only a silken wilderness of countless tiny pleats and wrinkles, with an incessant modulation – inner uncertainty rendered with the perfect assurance of a master hand – of tone into tone, of one indeterminate color into another. In life, man proposes, God disposes. In the plastic arts the proposing is done by the subject matter; that which disposes is ultimately the artist’s temperament, proximately (at least in portraiture, history and genre) the carved or painted drapery.


Truly, the beauty of the clothing in the paintings I have posted is art for art’s sake. De Morgan’s Flora’s dress at the top of the page is a “silken wilderness” of folds, so luxurious and lovely. Even in The Ransom, I am quite taken with the texture of the man’s leggings and the way his trousers have been pressed into creases.

We did not talk about our next activity as being any kind of logical continuance from the museum, but I think it was. As on our previous trip together to the big city, Lorica had business at Britex Fabrics, the kind of store people drive a hundred miles to shop at. You can get just about any textile you need there, in the color you want. The staff really know things and come alongside.

While Lorica was discussing her needs with the salesperson, I watched a smiling black man on one of those ladders, in the green area, trying to help a woman far below, who called up to him, “How about that jewel-toned one?” He laughed and said, “I don’t have any green jewels in my collection, so I don’t know what you mean!”

Lorica was looking for fabric for several projects, wool, silk, and cotton. She plans to make two blouses to wear with a skirt she will sew from a flowered “cotton satin” I brought from India.

She chose the green and the blue.

I saw this piece of linen unrolled from its bolt for display, and think of it as jewel-toned!

In the evening, back at home again, I was reading a magazine while eating dinner on my (blue, this time) William Morris placemats. There in the Bon Appétit restaurant issue was an eatery with William Morris wallpaper.

The past is not dead, it is living in us,
and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make.
— William Morris

15 thoughts on “Jewel tones and drapery.

  1. Your post is a jewel in itself. Thank you for sharing your jaunt to the city and so much of what you saw and how it makes you think and feel. I especially love the carpet of flowers. I enjoyed the William Morris prints that are in the James House. Britex…I worked there one summer. I didn’t have to climb the ladders. See all the little memories you poked in me!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, what an interesting and lovely post! Such beautiful paintings and tapestries!

    I especially enjoyed the bit about the painting “The Light of the World,” by William Holman Hunt.

    I’ve always liked the quote by William Morris. “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

    Enjoy the rest of your week. Thanks for sharing your city adventure.


    Liked by 1 person

  3. You are so in-sync with the Pre-Raphaelites that it surprises me that you didn’t know them. Besides, you always know my things. I’m sure you must have seen their pictures and liked them.

    Rossetti, in his love for beauty, painted Giotto much handsomer than he should be. From Julia Cartwright:

    When Dante visited Padua, in 1306, he found his friend Giotto living there with his wife, Madonna Ciutà, and his young family, and was honorably entertained by the painter in his own house. The poet often watched Giotto at work, with his children, who were “as ill-favored as himself,” playing around, and wondered how it was that the creations of his brain were so much fairer than his own offspring.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Janet, thank you very much for the added interesting details about Giotto and Dante! I loved that painting because of the appreciation and camaraderie, if you will, across the centuries. You are no doubt right that I have “learned” things about the Pre-Raphaelites from your blog, but evidently I didn’t give any of it enough of my attention to stick.


    2. Poor Giotto! I rather wonder if Dante didn’t put too much emphasis on beauty – I’m thinking of his obsession with Beatrice, when he had a wife at home. 🙂 But maybe I’m overreacting…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Such a good post, Gretchen! So much to say. First, I never saw a photo of William Morris! Not what I would have expected, (but that’s meaningless, anyway). I love the Pre-Raphaelites’ work, and the first image you put up exemplifies that: the beautiful woman, flowing hair, lovely gown, leaves and vines and flowers, or books – they’re often reading!

    In the Giotto/Dante painting by Rossetti the faces almost all look similar, and they also look like the woman in the one by Edward Burne-Jones – her face is often in his work, and Rossetti’s, as in La Pia de Tolomei – perhaps she was their muse. When you say “Pre-Raphaelite”, I think of her face. A few years ago I saw that face in a stained glass window in a Hartford church, but couldn’t see anything on their website about the windows or who designed them.

    I had no idea that Holman Hunt felt compelled to paint Light of the World! A nice thought. I love your placemats, and they seem to fit so well with your table and teacups. xo

    Liked by 1 person

  5. That was wonderfully informative! I actually had no clue where the term pre-Raphaelites came from!! I am a big fan of William Morris but I didn’t really know the others you mentioned though I loved the art work. I loved the look of that material shop- sooooooooo big, so many bolts of material!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kezzie, I neglected to say that the collection of fabrics extends upward three stories. Well, one floor is mostly notions… Until recently Britex was in the “old building” using four floors. Now they have about the same amount of space but more light.


  6. I always think of the Pre-Raphaelites in connection with literature, because Rossetti was also a gifted poet, as was his sister, Christina. To me, the group’s such dedicated views and goals permeated their art and their literature – it is all of a piece. The model that Rosetti used so often, the women with the bold facial features and the long, crinkly black hair (I think she was Morris’s wife?) represents the group, for me. She’s fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is really fascinating. I enjoyed the comments too. It will take me a while to absorb everything, but I definitely plan to take the time to try. Great material for thoughts and learning. Thank you, Gretchen.


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