Exhibition Review: Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848–1900

In a survey of art history, little attention is given to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  Generally, the majority of the nineteenth century is passed over in favor of discussing the Baroque and Rococo of the seventeenth century or the avant-garde of the twentieth century.  The Pre-Raphaelites are a casualty of this oversight with more attention given to the later Arts & Crafts or Aesthetic movements.  The present exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. takes steps to present this oft-overlooked movement.  Running from February 17 through May 19th and previously on display at the Tate in London, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848–1900 exhibit gives an interesting perspective to Victorian society and culture.  While the majority of the paintings on display show men and women in Medieval garb, the subject matter and the manner of presentation aid in the understanding of Victorian societal tensions and anxieties.

Founded in September 1848, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood saw that art (and in many ways, culture) had taken a wrong turn and had pinpointed the source to the extravagances of the Renaissance and later eras.  With a focus on a return to the idealized past of Medieval Britain, the group of artists, both male and female, drew inspiration from nature, historical, fantastic, and contemporary literature and art as well as social issues which caught their attention including prostitution and poverty.

Ferdinand Lured by Ariel

Ferdinand Lured by Ariel is a painting by John Everett Millais. Ariel’s cloak is covered in “vegetable bats,” which are mythical creatures.

The exhibition was divided into a variety of themes or groupings including portraiture, history painting, literature, “salvation,” nature, beauty, and a room with decorative arts generally considered Arts & Crafts.  Some of the divisions proved more successful than others.  The group which they describe as history paintings did not stand out, perhaps because many of the examples were pulled for use in the later “salvation” section.  Another odd choice was in the third gallery.  Literature should have been one of the strongest sections because of the Pre-Raphaelite preoccupation with a variety of poets and prose writers both contemporary and historical. Instead, next to the initial text stating the theme of the room, they have Florence Claxton’s The Choice of Paris: An Idyll which they described as a painting in a medieval style which criticizes the Pre-Raphaelite movement perhaps for its superficial preoccupation with red-haired beauties.  It is an interesting piece to include, but it leaves many unanswered questions.  What is the artist’s relationship to the Pre-Raphaelites?  Why is she critical of the movement?  Was this criticism common?

These questions bring up one of the overall weaknesses of the exhibition; while there is a great deal of information about the Pre-Raphaelites, there is a dearth of information about how the Pre-Raphaelites were received by their society or their interactions with the larger art scene.  Though there was some discussion of the influence of photography which must they say was an obvious but often unacknowledged source of inspiration, there were very few parallels drawn between the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s world of medieval maidens and “vegetable bats,” and the industrialized and increasingly fast-paced Victorian world that raged outside of their small studios.

Perhaps the answer to all this is that the Victorian aspects of society show most clearly by what the artists choose not to depict.  First, the clothing depicted in Pre-Raphaelite paintings is meant to look as medieval as possible and, in doing so, moves the wearer far away from Victorian ideals of beauty and shape.  While the medieval maidens are tall and thin, the desirable body shape of the Victorian era was closer to plump with soft rounded features.  The clothing silhouette had a similar dichotomy with the medieval dresses hanging from the shoulders in an uninterrupted line until they pooled on the floor.  There is no evidence of any of the host of undergarments which would have been expected on a woman of the 1850s or 1860s.  The artists depict the women in their paintings free from binding corsets, complicated crinoline cages or piles of petticoats.  Instead, they seem to slink along in an uninterrupted natural frame, covered in dresses which appear more along the lines of a night

A photograph taken by Julia Margaret Cameron, a female artist in the Pre-Raphaelite circle.

A photograph taken by Julia Margaret Cameron, a female artist in the Pre-Raphaelite circle.

gown than the complicated bodice-skirt combinations of the mid-nineteenth century.  But again we come to another flaw of the exhibit, there is no direct discussion of costume.  It would have been most helpful in looking at the photographs included in the Beauty section which have many contemporary female models posing as historical or literary characters.  Even though they represent a historical person, there would have been scandal at their level of undress by Victorian standards and rather than depicting models for hire, these women are often the wives of their fellow artists.  Julia Margaret Cameron’s albumen prints including Mariana are chief examples of women wearing imagined garments from the past which fit more into the ideas of what the Pre-Raphaelites believe they should have been wearing rather than what these medieval women would have actually worn.  In gazing at the images, though, I wondered at the public reaction to these women and whether they drew public ire for their loose clothing and corset-less fashions.

In considering the paintings shown in the Salvation section, it seems that the Pre-Raphaelites shared in the Victorian preoccupation with fallen women, prostitution, and female sexuality in general.  The section begins with William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening of Conscience in which a fallen woman, realizing that she has made the wrong decision, sits up to leave her lover.  The woman has the loose garments and loose hair of the other historic subjects but because she is in an obviously contemporary setting, she represents a woman of loose morals who has taken up as a well-to-do man’s mistress.  There is even a Bohemian aspect to her clothes added by the paisley shawl tied loosely at her hips which evokes the harem scenes so popular in the nineteenth century.  The theme of the fallen women continues with Rossetti’s Found from 1859.  Unlike, The Awakening of Conscience it is not clear when the events shown take place.  The male wears a long tunic which hangs loose which one would assume is a medieval style rather than a

The Awakening Conscience (1853) by English artist William Holman Hunt.

The Awakening Conscience (1853) by English artist William Holman Hunt.

contemporary one, yet the woman, a prostitute who has fallen to the ground, appears to be wearing a popular nineteenth-century calico and a bonnet that has fallen backwards to show her hair.  Adjacent to Found is yet another image dealing with the topic of female morality.  John Roddam Spencer Stanhope’s Thoughts of the Past from 1858 to 1859 illustrates a young woman, but the pictorial clues including a pile of coins, a man’s glove and cane, and the lack of a wedding ring indicate that this woman is a prostitute rather than a young bride.

In addition to fallen women, the Pre-Raphaelites are also critical of the social ill of poverty, but the paintings displayed do not create a cohesive picture of their beliefs.  While The Stonebreaker shows a poor man who has succumbed to exhaustion after being sentenced to backbreaking labor in exchange for food and board, Ford Maddox Brown’s Work seems to echo the philosopher Thomas Carlyle’s quote that, “There is a perennial nobleness, and even sacredness, in work.”  While they show the effects of poverty, Brown seems to indorse the very industrialist concept of personal salvation through hard work with the logical offshoot that those who are not doing well must not be working hard enough.


Ford Maddox Brown’s Work (1852–1865), commissioned by Thomas Plint.

Though the artists see themselves as moving away from the vulgarity of contemporary society, they are themselves products of it.  They have internalized the societal concerns of Victorian England with a preoccupation with morality with women’s sexuality a central focus.  Though they reject the industrialized production of items, they apparently endorse the capitalist concept of hard work leading to worldly and heavenly success.  Stylistically, the vibrant colors and jumbled scenes, the use of scientific perspective and ornate gilt frames, all read as very Victorian to twenty-first-century eyes.

Though there were portions of the exhibition which could have been executed better, in general, it was a polished presentation full of masterpieces great and small.  For example, the use of the original frames, many of which were made by or under the direction of the artist was an added treat, but contribute to the gesamtkunstwerk of the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic.  The exhibition was particularly effective in choosing pieces that included illustrations of decorative arts including furniture, stained glass, metalwork, embroidery, and other textiles.  The inclusion of actual decorative arts in the final room was an interesting choice which completed the transition from the initial Pre-Raphaelites to William Morris and the English Arts & Crafts.  Interestingly, though the Pre-Raphaelites embraced the sometimes gaudy colors of Middle Ages art, Morris seems to have taken a step back in reverting to a more muted color palette particularly with the tapestries which are modeled as how we see tapestries today (muted with colors degraded by centuries of light and elements) rather than how they were when they were made (bright, with a vast range of colors).  It would have been nice from them to acknowledge that shift in aesthetic.

Overall, the exhibit was a delight to the eyes and included a great variety of artists and artworks that had, until now, not been seen together in the United States.

The exhibition will be open from February 17 through May 19, 2013 at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

About Rebecca McCormick
Rebecca H. McCormick is working on her MA in History of Decorative Arts. She is a Collector’s Series Auction cataloger at Quinn’s Auction Galleries. She has worked at the Texas Historical Commission and The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. She received her BA in History and Art History from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. She lives in Vienna, Virginia with her husband and their two cats.

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