Friday 8 March 2013


Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, at Tate Britain.

This exhibition presents the Pre-Raphaelites as an avant-garde movement, a group with a self-conscious, radical project of overturning artistic orthodoxies.

The movement coincided almost exactly with the long reign of Queen Victoria and was founded in 1848, a year of revolution across Europe where steamships plied the globe, railway networks linked expanding cities, science challenged traditional beliefs and photography offered new ways of seeing.

Their leading members were John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt. They believed that art had become decadent, and rejected their teacher's, Ford Madox Brown's, belief that the Italian artist Raphael represented the pinnacle of aesthetic achievement. They looked at earlier art whose bright colours, flat surfaces and truth to nature they admired.

John Brett, Christina Rossetti, 1857

They adopted the freshness of early-Renaissandce art by using sharp outlines and bright colours but their work is more modern.

Arthur Hughes, ‘April Love’ 1855-6
 Arthur Hughes, April Love, 1855-56
Sir John Everett Millais, Bt, ‘Mariana’ 1851
John Everett Millais, Mariana, 1850-51

Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall, Lady Clara, 1854-57

In the mid-1850s Elizabeth Siddall used watercolour to create intensely coloured, intricate compositions loosely rooted in the tradition of mediaeval illumination and explored themes of chivalric love.

The Lady Of Shalott (1853)

Elizabeth Eleanor Siddall, The Lady of Shallott, 1853
William Morris, ‘La Belle Iseult’ 1858
William Morris, La Belle Iseult, 1857-58


John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52
Rosa Brett, The Artist's Garden, 1859-60
The Pre-Raphaelite responses to nature constitute a dramatically original aspect of the movement in terms of both artistic theory and style.  Their paintings reveal that they absorbed photography's precision of focus, flattening of forms, composition and radical cropping of the visual field.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Beata Beatrix’ c.1864-70
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, 1864-70
Rossetti draws a parallel in this picture between the Italian poet Dante's despair at the death of his beloved wife Beatrice and his own grief at the death of his wife Elizabeth Siddall. This picture is a portrait of Elizabeth Siddall as Beatrice who is posed in an atttitude of ecstasy. The picture has a hazy, transcendental quality giving the sensation of a dream or vision.

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Around 1860 the Pre-Raphaelites began to turn away from a realist engagement with nature, society and religion to explore purely aesthetic possibilities of picture-making. Beauty came to be valued more highly than truth as Pre-Raphaelitism slowly metamorphosed into the Aesthetic movement.

Portrait painting of a young woman playing a musical instrument on a table
Rossetti, The Blue Bower, 1865
 Edward Burke-Jones, Maria Zambaco, 1870

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lady Lillith, 1866-68

Photograph - Mariana

Julia Cameron, Marianna, 1874-75

Julia Cameron, Hypatie, 1867

Photograph of the scholar Hypatia, mathematician and astrologer, who became head of the Platonist school in Alexandria. She was tortured and murdered by a Christian mob.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, A Vision of Fiammetta, 1878

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Bt, ‘The Golden Stairs’ 1880

Edward Burne-Jones, The Golden Stairs, 1880

This painting is an example of Burne-Jones' interest in mood rather than telling a story. He deliberately made his paintings enigmatic and the meaning of this painting has provoked much debate. One view is that the eighteen women are spirits in an enchanted dream. The painting might on the other hand,  be purely decorative.

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I personally do not see the Raphaelites as an avant garde movement - the true rebellion was happening across the Channel where the Impressionists, the real avant garde, created a new method, a new attitude, a new way of seeing, paving the way for a new art and in the process revolutionised art. The Pre-Raphaelites were a cloistered group of artists, painting in the classical mould, yearning for an Arthurian myth that never existed.

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