Many gallery-goers will know the work of the Pre-Raphaelites without necessarily knowing much more about the movement. Key examples of the style include the serenely beautiful painting of a drowned Ophelia by John Everett Millais, the heavy-featured women of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s oils, and towards the end of the movement, the textiles and wallpaper designs by William Morris. Whilst the group’s preoccupations with naturalistic painting and the natural world are widely known, Tate’s new exhibition presents a more about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (the PRB) and how their perceptions and visions both accorded and conflicted with Victorian values and life.
Central to the PRB was the rejection of contemporary and fashionable trends during the mid to late 1800s. Pre-Raphaelite painters wanted to make a return to those preoccupations of artists before the great Renaissance artist Raphael (1483-1520) had come to prominence and set a style that was to last several centuries. In the midst of great industrial growth and modernisation, the PRB attempted to make a departure from traditional Victorian painting and create a movement that would have both an artistic and social impact.
Popular subjects for Pre-Raphaelite painting included scenes and characters from literature, and the artists were inspired by Shakespeare and Dante, among others. Religion also remained a key theme, but the PRB sought to portray biblical stories and episodes in a realist style, that was perceived to be unflattering and harsh: this was an obvious departure from idealised holy figures painted by their contemporaries. Away from painting, the exhibition also includes examples of how a movement which originated in art spread to home furnishings and textiles, in the work of William Morris and designer Samuel Burne-Jones.
Personally, I agree with critics of the movement and find the PRB’s quest to reject traditional styles of painting an idealised vision in itself. The artists’ decisive choice to brand themselves as a ‘brotherhood’ with similar values and visions undoubtedly produced many a beautiful and naturalistic painting, but I dislike the figures, the settings, and the PRB style. However, I would encourage fans or otherwise to take a trip to this exhibition and explore the movement through several decades and see its impact on Victorian society.