Why I Love the Pre-Raphaelite Style

Already used in my Celestial Classics: Proserpina article – Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a founding Pre-Raphaelite’s, Proserpine. An oil-on-canvas version, currently in the Tate Britain. To me one of the best Pre-Raphaelite works. The darkness of the composition, contrasting with the shimmering-green of the velvety dress to create a cascade, a semi-visable waterfall of tears and sorrow. Her red lips, puckered, passionate and matching the fruit, the pomegranate she holds in her hand. To kiss those lips, then, is as natural as to eat fruit. Dark, wavy hair frames a face punctuated with dark eyes. This image screams love unrequited, it screams an absence causing a fondness, she is a figure who begs to be loved having been drawn, idealised, by Hades himself, her husband, as he longs for her in the Summer months when she is absent in his house. (Credit: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Public Domain)

The visual arts are not my forte. I appreciate beauty, sure. Most humans do. We evolved as a very visual species – our acuity of sight is probably our most impressive attribute besides our intelligence and capacity for conscious adaptation. I am sure the sight-impaired need none of my sympathies, but they have them nonetheless, there is much of our world that is designed around this sense, this ability, to see.

I am hoping to get some other people to write about art for me, because it’s an ‘outside’ world. The literary arts, theatre, the performing arts, these are things I have involved myself in, have an interest in and desire to know more about. Static visual arts, paintings, sculptures and the like…It’s not for me.

The thing about art is most of it is, for me, just a picture. Take ‘La Giaconda’, possibly the most famous painting in the world, Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous portrait known most commonly as the Mona Lisa.

I can see it’s a nice painting, sure. But it’s just an image, of a woman. This famous ‘smile’ people talk about, I don’t get it. To me it looks like the awkward face of someone who doesn’t quite know how to pose. I’ve seen the same smile on myself in so many photographs. I don’t get the hype. I’ve seen the real thing, surrounded by a throng of tourists with selfie sticks trying to take a photograph of what is, actually, a tiny little static image of a woman.

‘La Giaconda’ The Mona Lisa, by Da Vinci. Apparently the world’s most famous and best painting. I don’t get it. I’m sure I’ll sound like a philistine but the background is misty and dull, like the kind of thing you’d get from a £2 car-boot sale watercolour, she herself is not ‘beguiling’ to me as she is to so many others. It looks, in fact, like a bland portrait. Some of the work around the sleeves is pretty good! I can say that. (Credit: Leonard Da Vinci, Public Domain)

I feel nothing.

Maybe we’ll take Vermeer, ‘The Girl with the Pearl Earring’ – I can see, clearly, this is a remarkable painting. Bordering on a level of photo-realism unknown for his time and demonstrating just what an amazing talent Vermeer was, but it’s just a portrait of a woman who means nothing to me.

Van Dyke, Picasso, Monet, Manet etc. etc. To me art is not about indulging the senses. Good music is not about what you hear, good paintings and sculptures are not about what you see, good writing is not about what you read – It’s all about what it makes you feel.

Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ – In my estimation a far more ‘beguiling’ portrait than the Mona Lisa, helped by the heavy contrast between this beautiful, pale girl and the black background. But still it’s just a picture of a woman. I dont know her, she doesn’t intrigue me and I don’t feel anything specific besides ‘nice blue bandana’. I can appreciate the technique, which is frankly stunning for its time, bordering on photo-realism, but – I’ve seen photos of people that mean nothing to me, too. (Credit: Johannes Vermeer, Public Domain)

To me, anyway. Art’s a subjective bastard, always.

If you ever visit an art gallery with me you will discover this! It’s less of a cultured visit and more of “listen to an improvised stand-up set about what’s in each painting.” I’m irreverent with it all. It doesn’t matter how many people crowd around to look at the masterpiece. There are few art pieces in the world that make me feel and truly wow me.

I am partial to some Christian iconography, but it’s the symbols, the icons, that I like more than the compositions themselves. The lion and the lamb, the sacred heart, the byzantine gilded halo, it is aspects of the composition I like more than the whole.

The image of the sacred heart, here from a 19th century oil painting from the Portuguese School, is one that I love. The painting itself, eh? But that central image. The ‘Sacred Heart’, studded with a cross, bursting into passionate flames, pierced and bleeding and imprisoned in a crown of thorns – Man that’s legit! That’s symbology! That’s so much meaning wrapped in one neat little package. (Credit: Public Domain)

A couple of Michelangelo’s can stun my heart. Particularly his sculpture is an outstanding study in a Platonic perfection of human form, he creates the most beautiful, lithe, exaggerated men and women – you can feel the polymath radiating out of them, you get a sense of Michelangelo as an anatomist, a proto-Gunther von Hagens, who wants to capture, simultaneously, the natural and unnatural aspects of the body.

Michelangelo’s statue of David is probably his most famous work, but his figures of Day and Night from the Medici Chapel in Florence hit me a lot harder. Almost unnaturally contorted, and yet their bodies flow effortlessly, anatomically, into those positions – there’s a disquiet and discomfort to them both. The more masculine day, turns his back to us, and crosses his legs effeminately whilst the feminine night has strong, muscular thighs and buttocks and breasts that seem almost a hindrance of an addition – Night’s potency held back by her feminity whilst day, desperate for a rest, can get none while the sun shines, perhaps? I don’t know, I’m not an art critic! (Credit: Rufus46 CC-BY-SA 3.0)

But nothing, and I mean nothing in the visual arts makes me feel like a Pre-Raphaelite style.

Flaming June by Frederic Leighton – not a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood but definitely an associate and a producer of some of the finest works in the style including this. Considered Leighton’s Magnum Opus, and it is easy to see why. The Pre-Raphaelites captured that same anatomical feel that Michaelangelo did. Indeed many believe this posed is based upon that of ‘Night’ above. This beautiful figure, feminised and yet androgyne, collapsed and contorted, asleep or dead, a sort of Schrodinger’s-Beauty, who we dare not wake for to disturb such a beautiful slumber would be a crime. Despite the thin veil of sunrise-orange fabric, beautifully painted, the figure is as good as nude. Indeed, the covering gives the figure a far more vulnerable feel than if they were entirely, boldly naked. This makes me feel! (Credit: Frederic Leighton, Public Domain)

The Pre-Raphaelites themselves were a collective of English artists founded in the mid-19th century, established initially by the artists John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt.

It was a loose collective, at best, with many comings and goings and many people borrowing aspects of their style. Rossetti, particularly, being a poet as well as a painter, wanted a visual equivalence to the Romantic movement in poetry at the time, so studies of nature, expression of ideas, focussing on making art to produce feeling rather than simply a learned style and making sure it was ‘good’ were essentially the loose doctrines of the ‘brotherhood’.

John Everett Millais’ Ophelia – Based upon a usually unseen scene in Hamlet. Having been scorned by her love, Hamlet, Ophelia, stricken with grief at the loss of her relationship, returns to nature. Reminiscent of King Lear at the height of his madness. She makes Garlands of flowers and, while climbing a willow the bough breaks and she falls into the river. Undaunted, indeed, lovesick-blind to the dangers, she sings as her once buoyant clothes take in more and more water and she drowns. There is a morbid eroticism in this, and given her ‘arms outstretched’ pose, a touch of blasphemy. She adopts the pose of a martyred saint. The Patron Saint of Unrequited Love. Her eyes, half-shut, staring blankly almost as if at a future she knows doesn’t exist, her mouth gaping in song. If you are attracted to women in any way you want to be the saviour of this drowning maiden, you cry out to be the hero or heroine. If you are human, if you have feelings, you want to help, and to know what hollow heart has made her so empty and sorrowful. You can smell the rising damp from the river, and the waft of pollen in the air from the flowers, and you can feel every bitter moment of this tragedy – desperate to leap into the painting and save this poor woman. (Credit: John Everett Millais, Public Domain)

As a result, though, they were controversial. There was a medieval influence in their compositions, and a focus, a tendency, towards natural portrayals – so there were critics who considered their works ‘ugly’. To an extent, though, I think this was as a result of the way art had been developing.

Much as movie critics today would likely have something to say if more realistic portrayals of human beings started coming out of Hollywood, if our celebrities were not all seemingly beyond-human, almost alien-pretty. Since the renaissance painting had been becoming more and more idealised, even plump, ugly, male aristocrats faces had to be given a measure of gloss and joviality.

One of the most controversial of the Pre-Raphaelite works – John Everett Millais’ Christ in the House of His Parents. Considered blasphemous for it’s simple depiction of the Holy Family, and Charles Dickens remarked that the Mary was ‘ugly’. It’s composition is decidedly medieval, yet incorporating the techniques of perspective that had developed since that time. The Christ himself, this little red-headed boy, already flashing his carpentry wound, a prescience of the stigmata, kisses the cheek of his Holy Mother. There is also a ton of symbolism in the picture. A ladder in the background, reminsicent of Jacob’s ladder to heaven. A flock of sheep just outside the doorway, the Christian-flock in waiting. A figure to the left, seemingly of similar age to the Christ child, looks on humbly, almost ashamed, carrying a bowl of water – he would be identified as John the Baptist. A holy dove roosts upon the ladder, the Holy Spirit itself watching the scene. Right next to the dove is a triangle, the trinity. Any consideration of this piece as ‘ugly’ can only come from people with a rose-tinted view of Christian iconography. (Credit: John Everett Millais, Public Domain)

Pre-Raphaelites did not necessarily follow this. There is a true beauty, and in so many ways an expression of the sorrows of that beauty. Nature creates these accidents, these brief collections of molecules in so many amazing forms and then – what happens? They age, they fall, they die, they rot, they decay. It is a cruelty that I feel when I look at any Pre-Raphaelite composition. Somewhere behind the eyes of every figure is this contemplation. The long hair, ivy-long limbs creeping, or awkwardly bent like branches, these tree-like figures sometimes stood tall and sometimes felled, lips often fresh-blood red – It gets you.

For a lot of these paintings the model was Jane Morris, definitely a non-typical beauty but a beauty regardless and I think this atypicality of the beauty lends the Pre-Raphaelite works a lot of their power.

Rossetti’s chalk-study of Jane Morris for his painting ‘The Water Willow’. I chose to put this study in over the finished oil-on-canvas because of the exceptional work in the eyes. The eyes in Pre-Raphaelite paintings are really alive in a way a lot of other art cannot portray and, I happen to think they are more so in this chalk-study than in the oil painting. The unconvential beauty of Jane Morris is staring straight at us and, with eyes like that, it is easy to see why she became such a muse. At the time this work was done her husband, William Morris, was travelling and she and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were involved in a long, complicated affair. Aspects of that complex passion scream out in this image. (Credit: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Public Domain)

Morris has a remarkable story, too. Born Jane Burden (what a name!) to poor parents in Oxford, her mother was likely an illiterate domestic servant and she almost certainly grew up incredibly poor.

She happened to attend a performance at an Oxford theatre where she was noticed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, who at the time were painting the Oxford Union Murals based mainly upon Arthurian myths. She was asked to model for them, and later modelled for William Morris who would go on to marry her.

Since Morris was a gentleman, Jane Burden was given an education and, seemingly blessed with a keen intelligence, she flourished.

She famously modelled for Rossetti, if you wonder why a lot of his paintings seem to feature women with the same face it’s because he used the same model.

One of Edward Burne-Jones’ designed stained-glass windows. Here showing Saint Cecilia, Patron Saint of Music, playing a small organ. The disctinctive features make it very likely the inspiration or model for this work was Jane Morris. Part of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and the on-going arts-and-crafts movement at the time was a revivification of the older artistic disciplines. Gothic-revival was very big in architecture at the time and so, stained-glass such as this also saw an increase in popularity. There is no denying the beauty of this vibrant, pacific-blue figure, tall and statuesque, yet dreamy-eyed, seemingly sorrowfully, languidly playing the organ. (Credit: Edward Burne-Jones and Morris & Co., Public Domain)

All this drama, all this behind-the-scenes really emanates from every study, every picture, every painting. You can really tell they were trying to capture not merely an image, but a feeling. It worked. At least to me, I get it.

Art, to me, is always about portraying a feeling, regardless of the chosen medium. But to me, with a still image, I find it hard to ‘feel’. Photographs of my own life carry with them connotations, relationships, bonds and ties that will not break until my own heart does. I can look at an image from my own life and remember the smells, the sounds, and the other sights of that day. For me a painting is supposed to invoke the same, and yet seldom do they do that.

Calling to mind the romantic pastoralism of Tess of the d’Urbervilles! The Hireling Shepherd by William Holman Hunt. This painting is definitely horny! It was controversial in its day for that. These two country figures, both flushed-of-cheek, the man leaning, almost lurking-in-plain-sight over a woman. Wildflowers and fruits litter the scene, the bounty of nature evident all around them as these two central figures seem very keen to enjoy the bounty of nature too. The woman perhaps a little coy, the lamb on her lap, draped in the red of her skirt, perhaps calling to mind an innocence about to be lost? Is the lamb of virginity to be sacrificed, spilling blood? Yet the lamb, too, appears to be eating the very fruits of nature. A willing sacrifice, maybe? I can feel the summer air, the passions of a passing summer afternoon in the lea. It’s like this is a photograph from my own life. (Credit: William Holman Hunt, Public Domain)

There are some works, renaissance ones mainly, that can make me feel awe. But that’s a ‘beyond’ kind of feeling, an otherworldly sense. The same kind of feeling I get when I stand at the top of a cliff and gaze down at the rocks and crashing spray below. It is disorienting. Powerful, yes, but beyond human.  

Pre-Raphaelites make me feel alive. They make me feel there. They make me feel as though I can remember the smell of the gardens, the feel of the sun on the back of my neck, the scent of damp, and the feel of a warm, clasping, human embrace.

‘Broken Vows’ by Philip Hermogenes Calderon – I spoke of how the Pre-Raphaelite style so incredibly encapsulates the sorrow of beauty, and what better end, then, than the sorrow of beauty of sorrow? This beautiful girl, broken hearted, almost clawing at the wall behind her, clutching her side as if she can feel the very pain in her heart, has clearly had a love go wrong. On the other side of the fence, another figure, perhaps the lover in question, and a younger figure, perhaps his new paramour, share fruit as if, on the one side of the fence all is decay and on the other all is joy. THe flowers in the foreground are wilted, a symbol of a dying love, and initials carved into the fence speak of a relationship that will forever leave a mark. The only colour on the main figure herself is some red around her neck, as if she feels choked, or would rather cut her own throat than live in this moment. I made mention of my penchant for the decadent in the final part of my Tess analysis and this has hallmarks of Romantic-idealogy-turned-decadent by the harsh reality.
(Credit: The Tate Britain Painted By: Philip Hermogene Calderon – ‘Broken Vows’ – Painted: 1856 Photo © Tate CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported))

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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