The Pre-Raphaelites: Ravishing Beauty or Romantic Nonsense?

Eve’s Favorite Painting thread has inspired me to ask for help on an art-appreciation deficit I’ve got: while I think many Pre-Raphaelite paintings look beautiful at first glance, they often end up annoying me. Here’s my issue: the pale, langorous babes often depicted look like they live in some romanticized world where everything is hazy, they are waited on by servants and they never arise from their fainting couches.

As evidence, I present Millais’ Ophelia and The Bequiling of Merlin by Burne-Jones, both of which were chosen as favorite paintings in the other thread. (It is absolutely not my intent to pick on anyone–I’m using these as examples of the best Pre-Raphaelite pictures so I can avoid the charge of selecting only inferior examples of the genre.)

Assume my ignorance (none of the art history classes I took in college covered P-R, I’ve never read a book specifically about it and I can’t think of any important P-R painting I’ve actually seen in person–perhaps a lot of the major artists are concentrated in a couple of museums?), and help me appreciate what’s goin’ on with P-R, beyond the fetching draped gowns and the unreality.

Check out Ford Madox Brown’s Work. Nuthin’ but hard labor, sweat, and toil in THAT baby!

Most of the paintings designated “Pre-Raphaelite” don’t really LOOK like each other…there’s no common denominator, stylistically. The original members of the PR Brotherhood shot off in all different directions…some did religious scenes, some illustrated scenes from Shakespeare and Tennyson, some did allegories, others stuck to straight portraiture. Many used the vibrant palette we associate with the Movement, others kept to grimmer, more drab shades.

I never studied the PRs in college…they were definitely on the outs in academia in the late 70s-early 80s, dismissed as mere Victoriana. My focus was on Symbolist and Decadent literature, so I dabbled in bit in the art movements of the same era, most of which thought of the PRs as spiritual forefathers.

I love the stuff, most of it. I suppose it boils down to a matter of taste. If you like Naturalism, you won’t hang Dante Gabriel Rossetti repros on your wall. Me, I like reading Browning AND Eliot.

I love the pre-R’s.

Remember, it wasn’t only a fashionable movement in painting, but also sculpture, furniture and home design (the William Morris crowd), “aesthetic” clothing (long and flowing, no corsets). It was a whole silly, pretentious and delightful “back to the Renaissance!” phase, that pretty much burned out by the 1890s.

Well, Uke, I guess we’re just gonna have a short quiet chat about this one.

I’m really at sea. Since we don’t seem to have a common style, why do these guys get grouped together? A bit of web reading indicates that they were reacting against the “formality and excess” of Raphael and the art that followed, that they wanted to return to the innocence and simplicity of medieval art. On the other hand, they wanted to be very “naturalistic,” and painted from life (the poor girl who posed for Ophelia apparently had to float in a bathtub for days).

This seems all wrong to me. First, medieval art was far from simple or innocent. Maybe Giotto had some of these elements, but they surely wouldn’t be so dumb as to look to only one artist but say they were looking back to an entire age, right? And the primitive elements of medieval art (I’m thinking of the church carvings) are nothing like what the PR did. What I like most about Millais (and it shows in Ophelia) is that he is not looking back at all–he’s practically impressionistic. How Ophelia can be called simple and innocent is beyond me–it’s even formal in some respects. Is the subject matter the key? That she’s romantic, not staid? Is it that the painting has some kind of subversive message that rejects heroic ideas? Well, that’s kinda funny too since many of the PR works superficially at least show heroic scenes of chivalry and mythology.

The “leading” PR don’t look like they belong together; but they do seem to go with Waterhouse, Flandrin and Wyeth, other artists mentioned in the favorites thread.

Hi Eve. You snuck in before I posted.

I agree that the highly stylized look of the gowns is more of a connection with the arts and crafts movement than what appear to be their stated objectives, which include simplicity. I like most the gowns for the gowns sake and the colors for the colors sake and the impressionistic effect Millais got. The usefulness and patterns of A and C I love. Do they mean usefulness when they say simplicity?

I have mixed feelings about these guys. Millais can be ok, but Henry Holman Hunt make me want to spoon my eyes out-- his style makes me wretch, and the moral undertones are heavy-handed and, well, Victorian. We just had to discuss "the Hireling Shepherd’ in class and the style. . . oh, don’t get me started.
I focus on northern Renaissance things, and the PRB ‘revivalist’ take on that style makes me despair. Rosetti, for example, is just cheesy.
Ok, I feel better now. I don’t mean for this to be a “denigrate the taste of others” post, but I’ve needed to say this for a couple of weeks.

There’s a truly fascinating book called Idols of Perversity all about the depiction of women in 19th century art. The author–whose name I forget–ties in the P-Rs and other artists with literary and sociological views on women during the 19th century. It’s really intriguing stuff. I definitely recommend it.

I like the P-Rs myself, but I’ve never had any formal training in art.

Anyone who disses John Waterhouse will die!