The Pre-Raphaelites, who shocked Victorian England with their art style and lifestyle, have their first major exhibit ever in the United States, "Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848-1900", at Washington's National Gallery of Art.
The stunning free exhibit, with more than 130 works, and its exquisite companion display, "Pre-Raphaelites and the Book", simply must be seen now through May 19.
The Pre-Raphaelites continue to "perplex, provoke, and delight more than a century and a half after their contentious debut," says Alison Smith, Lead Curator, Nineteenth Century British Art, at Tate Britain, which organized the exhibition in collaboration with the National Gallery.
The Pre-Raphaelites formed Britain's first avant-garde art movement. In 1848 London, three painters, John Everett Millais, just 19 years old; Dante Gabriel Rossetti, age 20; and William Holman Hunt, 21, exhibited brazenly unconventional works signed only "PRB", Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood lasted just five years, but Pre-Raphaelite artists Ford Madox Brown, and the movement's second generation, led by Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, continued Britain's first modern art movement for the next half-century. It led to the Aesthetic Movement and the Arts and Crafts Movement.
"Their biography can overwhelm their paintings," one of the exhibit's curators, Tim Barringer, told me. "We tried very carefully to present this as an art movement and not as biography."
But what biography:
The love triangle between Millais and Effie Gray Ruskin, neglected wife of all-powerful art critic John Ruskin whom she divorced to marry Millais in 1855, is soon to be a major motion picture. "Effie", played by Dakota Fanning (!), is by screenwriter and Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson.
Rossetti eventually married his muse and lover Elizabeth Siddall, who died at age 32 in 1862 from a possibly intended overdose of laudanum, liquid opium, which they both used.
"Rossetti threw his poems into her coffin, and years later had it dug up to retrieve them," continued Barringer, Yale University's Paul Mellon Professor of the History of Art and Director of Graduate Studies.
Rossetti's poetry and painting were criticized increasingly as morally decadent. One critic ignited a public flap when he denounced Rossetti's circle as "The Fleshly School".
Then there were Rossetti and Jane Burden and William Morris and...
But back to their art instead of biography...
The three leaders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had studied at the Royal Academy of Art, founded by Sir Joshua Reynolds. They reviled Reynolds, calling him "Sir Sloshua", and became the "otherhood."
They rejected the academy's teaching that Italian artist Raphael (1483-1520) was the ideal. Instead, they were inspired by medieval and early Renaissance art.
The Pre-Raphaelites used sharp lines, vivid luscious colors, and portrayed Biblical figures as ordinary people.
The most controversial of all the PRB works was Millais' "Christ in the House of His Parents (The Carpenter's Shop)". Millais depicted the Holy Family as working-class people, down to dirty fingernails.
Charles Dickens wrote that its Virgin Mary appeared "... horrible in her ugliness ... a Monster in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest ginshop in England."
One painter termed such religious treatments "pictorial blasphemy" that should cause "loathing and disgust".
(Ironically, Millais, the youngest radical of the PRB became PRA, President of the Royal Academy, shortly before his death in 1896.)
But some critics, led by Ruskin, championed the controversial works.
Ruskin termed Hunt's almost iridescent, some might say psychedelic, representation of Christ in "The Light of the World" -- "one of the very noblest works of sacred art of this, or any other age." It became one of the most important and widely reproduced religious images of the 19th century.
And critic R.A.M. Stevenson, a cousin of Robert Lewis Stevenson, proclaimed that "the whole history of modern painting begins with "The Pretty Baa-Lambs" by Ford Madox Brown. "Corot, Manet...all the Impressionists, never did anything but imitate that picture."
That sun-drenched work, featuring Brown's future wife Emma and their five-month-old baby, was the first Pre-Raphaelite painting created outdoors -- more than a decade before the Impressionists established en plein air (outdoor) painting, noted co-curator Jason Rosenfeld, Marymount Manhattan College's Distinguished Chair and Professor of Art History.
Brown's "Work", which took 15 years of work to complete, represents the Pre-Raphaelites' "obsession with labor as salvation", explained Barringer. Among the painting's numerous figures is philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle who, like Brown, believed in the "perennial nobleness, and even sacredness" of work, jarring Victorian social hierarchies.
"Work" is filled with symbols, down to the dogs, and some humor: "The Jack Russell terrier is a working dog. Another is a bourgeois dog messing up the sand. And a useless hunting dog, like an aristocrat -- I rest my case," said Barringer.
Another radical aspect of the Pre-Raphaelites was their later representation of female beauty and eroticism.
One of the "most shocking", according to Alison Smith, is William Holman Hunt's "Il Dolce far Niente" (It's sweet to do nothing). The sensuous reclining woman was initially Annie Miller, but after she dumped Hunt, he "scratched out her face", and years later filled it in with the face of his fiancée, Smith noted.
Another highly erotic work is Rossetti's "Bocca Baciata", (A Kissed Mouth, based on Boccaccio's "Decameron") which offended many contemporaries including Hunt. He detected in it "gross sensuality of a revolting kind, peculiar to foreign prints", a reference to pornography.
Burne-Jones' opulent, decadently sensuous "Laus Veneris" (the worship of Venus), is one of the most daring and powerful Pre-Raphaelite works.
Venus, in a fiery orange robe and wild auburn locks is clearly "Feeling my love in all her limbs and hair...", as Tannhäuser says in Algernon Swinburne's poem "Laus Veneris".
The controversial poem and painting are based on the legend of Tannhäuser, a knight consumed by passion after encountering the goddess of love. (Richard Wagner's "Tannhäuser" was so controversial that it received catcalls and whistles at the Paris Opera in 1861, and the composer withdrew it.)
The painting's sumptuous tapestries, draperies, costumes, and furniture resemble designs Burne-Jones produced for the decorative arts firm Morris & Co. William Morris had begun the firm with partners Burne-Jones, Rossetti, and Brown in 1861.
One of the few surviving pieces of furniture from Morris and Burne-Jones, "The Arming of a Knight" chair, is in the extensive show, as are two tapestries designed by Morris and Burne-Jones, from their series based on the Arthurian legend of the Holy Grail. The extraordinarily multi-talented Morris spent 516 hours weaving part of the tapestry himself.
All these luscious works whet the appetite. To sate it, visit the museum's Café Britannia for signature British dishes like "bubble and squeak" and "cherry sherry trifle". The menu was created by Cathal Armstrong, chef-owner of Restaurant Eve in Old Town, Alexandria, and one of "Food & Wine" Magazine's 50 Hall of Fame Best New Chefs.
As William Morris said, "Love is Enough". And you will probably love these Pre-Raphaelite exhibits.
For more info: "Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848-1900" and "Pre-Raphaelites and the Book", National Gallery of Art, www.nga.gov, on the National Mall at Constitution Avenue and 6th Street, Washington, D.C. Free admission. Feb. 17 through May 19. Catalogue "Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design". A smaller version of the exhibit travels to Moscow and Tokyo.