Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant Garde

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant Garde: Frederick Sandys, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Sir John Everett Millais, Henry Wallis, William Holman-Hunt, Ford Maddox Brown
My love of British Pre-Raphaelite painting goes back to childhood.

I grew up just outside of Wilmington, Delaware, and from an early age my artistic diet was rich in the the glorious storytelling of Howard Pyle and his students, and the dazzling works of the Pre-Raphaelites, both of which are represented by strong collections at the Delaware Art Museum.

I remember being impressed in particular by paintings in the Pre-Raphaelite collection by John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt, with their mesmerizing detail, intense color and preternaturally sharp focus.

it was later, as a teenager who had been exposed to more art at the Philadelphia Art Museum and on school trips to museums in New York, that I became just as interested in work by less well known artists associated with the movement, like Frederick Sandys, Marie Spartelli Stillman, Edward Burne-Jones and Albert Joseph Moore. (I was then, as now, somewhat lukewarm on the work of Dante Gabriel Rosetti, leader of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but not the strongest of the painters in the group.)

The Bancroft Collection of Pre-Raphaelite Art at the Delaware Art Museum is one of the best outside of England, and it was tapped recently for the loan of key works (images above, top two) for a new major exhibition at the Tate Britain titled Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant Garde.

The exhibition contains over 150 works and I believe it is the largest of its kind since a show at the Tate in the 1980’s. Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant Garde just opened on the 12th and will be on display until 13 January 2013.

(For those in the U.S. and Russia, read on — I’m happy to say that a traveling version of the exhibition, at least 130 works, will be crossing the Atlantic for a run at the National Gallery in Washington, DC from February 17 to May 19, 2013. Those in Russia can look for it in Pushkin State Museum in Moscow in Summer 2013.)

The Tate has a small selection of works on their page for the exhibit, supplemented by a Pinterest page and some mentions on a blog, but in general follows the cluelessness that major museums seem to have about using the internet to promote their exhibitions. (Here’s a clue: it’s about the art, i.e. images of what’s in the show!)

As is often the case, newspapers do a better job of showing what’s in the exhibition than the museum itself; there are articles with images on the Guardian (slideshow and audio tour), The Telagraph and Bloomberg. Artist and writer Katherine Tyrell has a review and list of resources relevant to the exhibit on her blog Making a Mark.

You can also take hints from the works shown or mentioned and look them up. Wikipedia has a list of Pre-Raphaelite paintings. I list some additional links to resources on my 2007 post on The Pre-Raphaelites.

The exhibition looks to be a major event, with an extensive overview of this group of painters, highlighted many of their most important and well-known works.

This is despite a theme that reflects the Tate’s wrong-headed attempt to cast the Pre-Raphaelites as somehow precursors to Modernism, when in fact they were deliberate throwbacks and perhaps the last hurrah of artistic traditions that 20th century Modernism would come to revile as ‘false” and “illusionist” in the face of Modernist “truth”.

The weird theme of “Victorian Avant Garde” attempts to tie the Pre-Raphaelites into the lineage of Modernism by painting them as rebels and ahead of their time (and linking their penchant for plein air studies to the Impressionists), but comes off as an attempt to avoid the embarrassment that major art institutions still feel when catering to the public fascination with Victorian art.

It’s made more ridiculous by the way the Pre-raphaelites in particular were despised by the Modernist establishment, not only for their avowed truth to nature (illusion! illusion!), but by their narrative elements (mere illustration!!). Sigh.

Not that I’m saying the Pre-Raphaelites are without their flaws and excesses (they certainly had those, but that’s part of the fun); just that to break the flow of art history and relegate a quarter of a century of art to worthlessness on the basis of some pesudo-intellectual theories by Modernist art critics is what should really be embarrassing — but we apparently haven’t reached that point yet.

Those of us who have always loved Victorian painting, and the Pre-Raphaelites in particular, can take heart that they are at least receiving some light in major shows, under whatever excuse necessary.

[Correction: One of the exhibition’s co-curators has been kind enough to write a comment and correct my premature assumption about the museum’s intentions in the theme of the exhibit (see this post’s comments). I stand corrected and apologize for projecting my predisposed generalities on someone else’s intentions. (I should know better, not that it will likely stop me from doing it again when I get my dander up about the pervasiveness of Modernist influence in the arts, but I really should be more careful.) In this case, it’s nice to know I was wrong.]

(Images above, Frederick Sandys, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Sir John Everett Millais, Henry Wallis, William Holman-Hunt, Ford Maddox Brown)

(For the benefit of those familiar with the Delaware Art Museum’s Pre-Raphaelite collection, I’ll point out the the version of William Holman-Hunt’s Isabella and the Pot of Basil [above, third down] that is in the Tate show is the large one from the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, not the smaller but equally beautiful one from the Bancroft Collection.)

 
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5 Replies to “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant Garde”

  1. Love the Pre Raphaelites. I enjoyed seeing a number of these when I visited the Delaware a couple of years back. It is unfortunate that the art institution still feel the need to engage apologists and spin doctors to justify the display of great art (as in whenever there is a show of Rockwell or American Regionalism). If it is good art and people want to see it, there should be no excuse necessary.

  2. Thank you for your essay on the exhibition. I am one of the co-curators and I can assure you that you are quite amiss in your assumption of our motives for claiming the PRB as the avant-garde. It is not about justifying them, or slotting them into a pre-existing hierarchy but, as the exhibition and accompanying catalogue makes clear, seeing how they sought to radically change English art, we trace their innovations across the entirety of their careers, and suggest how their exceptional works provide a launching pad for further inovation in modern, not modernist, art of the 20th century. This we do, with boldness and no embarassment. I hope you will enjoy the exhibition.
    Sincerely yours,
    Jason Rosenfeld
    Distinguished Chair and Professor of Art History
    Marymount Manhattan College

  3. Thank you for this review. I have been looking forward to this show for some time, and will go see it in November.

    For me also the Pre-raphaelite paintings are a “First Love” from my teenage years – this alone is reason enough to go see them in person. Yet today as a painter I can relate to the ideas of the original brotherhood as well, the way they were looking back into “out-of-fashion” periods in art history for more authentic forms of expression than they found with their contemporaries. Also I find it fascinating how they were wrestling with the challenges of finding a painting technique that could measure up to their ideals.(Reading Joyce Townsends book in combination with seeing some early Millais/Hunt originals was eye opening)

    My reaction to the headline of the exhibition was the same as yours. Avant-garde?! Give me a break!!! Why can beauty never be enough to justify art?

    The Pre-raphaelite collection at the Delaware Museum is a treasure! I once took advantage of a layover at Philadelphia Airport to go there – I had only got 45 minutes but it was so worth it! I will be happy to find some of these paintings in London – like the small, exquisit Sandys in your first picture.

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