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
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.
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.
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.
Paint the leaves as they grow! If you can paint one leaf, you can paint the world.
– John Ruskin
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….
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.
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!”
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.
and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make.
— William Morris