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THE ART OF THE PRE-RAPHAELITES

Through July 29, 2007 at the San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego

by Jeanne Willette




Dante Gabriel Rossetti, "Lady
Lilith
," oil on canvas, 1866-1868.










Ford Maddox Brown, "Romeo and
Juliet
," oil on canvas, in
original frame, 1869-1870.









Frederick Sandys, "Mary Magda-
lene," oil on wood, c. 1859.

Traditional art history, famously Franco-philic, judged Pre-Raphaelite art guilty of excessive narration, overly tight technique, and--most damningly--being not French but English. Shoved off the road heading toward Modernism, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) long remained the province of eccentric or nationalistic specialists. This summer, the collection of late nineteenth century PRB enthusiast Samuel Bancroft allows us to see Victorian painting outside of London and to re-evaluate the English connection to the avant-garde. In 1848, three young men, William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and John Millais resolved to restore art to its medieval purpose, instructing a public in need of guidance through a meticulous marriage of craft and beauty in art. Reacting against Raphael’s classicism, they named themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

In contrast to the muted hues and pretentious classicism of Academic art, the Brotherhood celebrated absolute fidelity to nature, with vivid colors and microscopic details, putting their paintings in the service of the “truth.”  Witness the shimmer of thin red stripes in Millais’ small painting of The Highland Lassie (1854), probably executed with a tiny watercolor brush.  Hunt’s medievalist Isabella and the Pot of Basil (1867-68) is a dazzling demonstration of the artist’s ability to paint plants, tapestry, inlaid wood, sheer fabric, metal and mother-of-pearl surfaces.  The artists designed their own frames to intensify the hand-made look of the art.  The exhibition has many fine examples of frames with carved graphic designs, such as the one surrounding Ford Maddox Brown’s The Dream of Sardanapalus (1871).  The PRB medieval regression horrified the Royal Academy, but, after enduring withering critical scorn--so intense that Rossetti could not paint for years--the group found its champion in John Ruskin, the Clement Greenberg of his day. The unrelenting support of Ruskin and the approval of Prince Albert brought public favor, recognition from the Academy, countless followers, and a new tradition in Britain that lasted for the rest of the century.

Examining urban life decades before the French, the Brotherhood could be frankly political, forcing their public to consider the consequences of poverty in London. A modern “morality tale,” Rossetti’s Found (1853), unfinished after a decade of work, is the story of the “fallen woman.” A brother has found his shamed and pregnant sister adrift in London and rescues her from the brink of destruction, if not disgrace. The artists could also indulge in escapism, retreating into Victorian poetry and fairy tales to get away from the Hell delineated in Doré’s 1872 illustrations of London. An Old Testament dream of temptation, Rossetti’s Lady Lilith (1866-73) is the epitome of the “Pre-Raphaelite Beauty,” a fantasy of golden hair and pale skin.  Originally home-social, the PRB attracted many women artists whose work is present in the exhibition as a nice counter-balance to mostly males’ “waking dreams” of female passivity.

On a road trip from Delaware, the Bancroft collection consists of paintings, prints, crafts, and jewelry, only some of which came to San Diego. For the sake of precision it must be pointed out that “Pre-Raphaelite” should not be an umbrella term. Many of the artists were actually followers of William Morris or were independent Victorian artists. One of the most impressive pieces is a large painting by a disciple of Morris, Edward Burne-Jones. The Council Chamber (1872-92), a painting of knights in an enchanted sleep, was part of a thirty-year project on the Briar Rose story, upon which Sleeping Beauty is based. The Pre-Raphaelite tradition was Janus-faced, longing for a past found only in poetry, while producing an encyclopedic portrait of a middle class society inventing itself.

The collection of Pre-Raphaelitism assembled by Samuel Bancroft may be “the finest in America,” but it is an uneven one. Even as selective as this show is, it is composed of both glorious and indifferent examples of PRB art, lesser lights, as well as some unexpected discoveries, such as the suburb prints of Frederick Sandys and his lovely painting, Mary Magdalene (1859). What condemned Victorian painting in the eyes of many critics even in its heyday was the love of entertaining stories and unabashed beauty, leading to the Aesthetic Movement. Albert Moore’s tiny and beautifully framed The Green Butterfly (1879-81) is an excellent example of Victorian decorative art. It is those very attributes of aestheticism and craft that bring the public to Pre-Raphaelite art.  A guilty pleasure perhaps--but when well done, an endless delight.