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Pre-Raphaelites: The Revolutionary Brotherhood: Return to the Middle Age

Exhibition: Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites


Date: Until April 2, 2018


Venue: National Gallery London


Chaucer at the Court of Edward III. Ford Madox Brown , 1847-1851
Oil on canvas, 372 x 296 cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales , Sydney


English Art in 1844


Until 1848, one could admire art in England, but would not be surprised by it. Reynolds and Gainsborough were great masters, but they were 18th-century painters rather than 18th-century English painters. It was their models, their ladies and young girls, rather than their brushwork, which gave an English character to their creations. Their aesthetic was similar to that of the rest of Europe at that time. Walking through the halls of London museums, one could see different paintings, but no difference in manner of the painting and drawing, or even in the conception or composition of a subject.


The Eve of St Agnes. William Holman Hunt , 1848. Oil on canvas, 77.4 x 113 cm
Guildhall Art Gallery , Corporation of London, London


Only the landscape painters, led by Turner and Constable, sounded a new and powerful note at the beginning of the century. But one of them remained the only individual of his species, imitated as infrequently in his own country as elsewhere, while the work of the other was so rapidly imitated and developed by the French that he had the glory of creating a new movement in Europe rather than the good chance of providing his native country with a national art.


As for the others, they painted, with more or less skill, in the same way as artists of other nationalities. Their dogs, horses, village politicians, which formed little kitchen, interior, and genre scenes were only interesting for a minute, and even then the artists did not handle them as well as the Dutch. Weak, muddy colours layered over bitumen, false and lacking in vitality, with shadows too dark and highlights too intense. Soft, hesitating outlines that were vague and generalising. And as the date of 1850 approached, Constable’s words of 1821 resonated, “In thirty years English art will have ceased to exist.”


The Girlhood of Mary Virgin. Dante Gabriel Rossetti , 1848-1849
Oil on canvas, 83.2 x 65.4 cm. Tate Britain , London


And yet, if we look closely, two characteristics were there, lying dormant. First, the intellectuality of the subject. The English had always chosen scenes that were interesting, even a bit complicated, where the mind had as much to experience as the eye, where curiosity was stimulated, the memory put into play, and laughter or tears provoked by a silent story. It was rapidly becoming an established idea (visible in Hogarth) that the paintbrush was made for writing, storytelling, and teaching, not simply for showing.


However, prior to 1850 it merely spoke of the pettiness of daily life; it expressed faults, errors or rigid conventional feelings; it sought to portray a code of good behaviour. It played the same role as the books of images that were given to children to show them the outcomes of laziness, lying, and greed. The other quality was intensity of expression. Anyone who has seen Landseer’s dogs, or even a few of those animal studies in Englishillustrated newspapers where the habitus corporis is followed so closely, the expression so wellstudied, can easily understand what is meant by “intensity of expression”.


The Renunciation of St Elizabeth of Hungary. James Collinson , c. 1848-1850
Oil on canvas, 120 x 182 cm. Johannesburg Art Gallery , Johannesburg


But in the same way that intellectuality was only present before 1850 in subjects that were not worth the effort, intensity of expression was only persistently sought and successfully attained in the representation of animal figures. Most human figures had a banal attitude, showing neither expressiveness nor accuracy, nor picturesque precision, and were placed on backgrounds imagined in the studio. They were prepared using academic formulas, according to general principles that were excellent in themselves, but poorly understood and lazily applied.


Rienzi vowing to obtain justice for the death of his young brother, slain in a skirmish between the Colonna and the Orsini factions. William Holman Hunt , 1849. Private collection


Such was English art until Ford Madox Brown came back from Antwerp and Paris, bringing an aesthetic revolution along with him. That is not to say that all the trends that have emerged and all the individuality that has developed since that time originated from this one artist, or that at the moment of his arrival, none of his compatriots were feeling or dreaming the same things that he was. But one must consider that in 1844, when William the Conqueror was exhibited for the first time, no trace of these new things had yet appeared. Rossetti was sixteen years old, Hunt seventeen, Millais fifteen, Watts twenty-six, Leighton fourteen, and Burne-Jones eleven, and consequently not one of these future masters had finished his training.


Christ in the House of his Parents (“The Carpenter’s Shop”). John Everett Millais , 1849-1850. Oil on canvas, 86.4 x 139.7 cm. Tate Britain , London


If one considers that the style of composition, outline, and painting ushered in by Madox Brown can be found fifty years after his first works in the paintings of Burne-Jones, having also appeared in those of Burne-Jones’ master Rossetti, one must acknowledge that the exhibitor of 1844 played the decisive role of sower, whereas others only tilled the soil in preparation or harvested once the crop had arrived.


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