The Visual Threshold of British Romanticism
Literary Romanticism's influence on all aspects of culture cannot be underestimated. Its lyrical poetry did not fail to instigate the imaginations of Romantic composers and Romantic artists. Yet each medium took its own course. Literature, unfortunately, faded first, followed by art. The music, however, became immortal. Although lulled into the dimmest corners of society, the spirit of Romanticism paraded on, unnoticed during the reign of Victorianism, until 1848.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood can be called something of a miracle. In the midst of the materialism and neo-classicism of the Victorian Age, three men, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais, declared their dissatisfaction with the low standards of British art and their rebellion against the artistic ideals of the British Royal Academy. In 1848, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood formed. The Royal Academy Schools in England could not accommodate all aspiring artists and thus young artists formed groups and artistic circles to substitute for their lack of official training. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was one of these groups. Rather than paint still-lifes, seascapes, and landscapes, the Pre-Raphaelites chose to continue the work of the German Nazarenes and to paint landscapes un-idealized. Thus they were careful to avoid John Ruskin's description of contemporary art: "cattle-pieces and sea-pieces and fruit-pieces and family-pieces, the eternal brown cows in ditches, and white sails in squalls, and sliced lemons in saucers, and foolish faces in simpers (The PRB par. 5)." Their movement was a "primitivist" movement, as they chose to mirror the art that came before Raphael and the High-Renaissance, before the year 1500. Thus their subjects came from mythology, religion, and poetry (Prettejohn 18).
They had also published a journal, titled The Germ: Thoughts Towards Art and Poetry. The Germ also harbored the poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his sister, Christina Rossetti. Her career as a poet would be propelled through such publicity. It was criticized most by Charles Dickens, but under the support of John Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites were seen in a more favorable light. After their first exhibit in 1849, several other young artists joined the Brotherhood. James Collinson, William Michael Rossetti (Dante's younger brother), Thomas Woolner, and Frederic George Stephens, along with the three founders, were the first seven original members of the brotherhood. After 1850, the three founders of the Brotherhood split to pursue their own interests. However, artists adopting the same forms and styles of the original brotherhood emerged. These included Ford Madox Brown and Arthur Hughes. A second generation of Pre-Raphaelites arose, under the influence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Edward Burne-Jones, Frederic Sandys, William Morris, Simeon Solomon, and Evelyn de Morgan carried on the tradition of Pre-Raphaelite painting. Several artists, Sir Frank Dicksee, John William Waterhouse, and Frederic Leighton painted in the same style but were not specifically connected to the movement.
The first exhibit in 1849 included Rossetti's The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848-9), Millais' Isabella (1848-9), and Hunt's Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice for the Death of his Young Brother (1848-9). Millais, of course, received inspiration from Keats' poem, as Hunt depicted a scene from Edward Bulwer-Lytton's Rienzi. Pre-Raphaelite painting sprouted from Romantic poetry and prose; thus the Pre-Raphaelite style is said to be more literary in nature than visual (Prettejohn 135). Yet the techniques used by the Pre-Raphaelites were quite innovative in themselves. Their use of bright color on white backgrounds gave a unique vividness to their paintings. Also, their desire for extreme detail made their paintings comparable to contemporary color photographs. A Pre-Raphaelite would not hesitate to directly observe a single leaf for the purpose of painting it realistically, nor would the artist dare to ignore the unpleasant blight and mold on a reed. Ruskin's thoughts on such devotion to detail became the creed of the Pre-Raphaelites in his 1851 pamphlet on the subject: "They should go to nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly, having no other thought but how best to penetrate her meaning; rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing (Prettejohn 172)."
Literature's influence on Pre-Raphaelitism is undeniable. Tennyson's doomed fairy, The Lady of Shallot (1832) is a subject of great interest among the Pre-Raphaelites. The most notable being William Holman Hunt's painting The Lady of Shallot (1886-1905) of her entangled in a web of thread as she looks into her mirror and glimpses Lancelot. A preliminary sketch of the work came in 1850. It was the earliest depiction of Tennyson's lady, and it was followed by the sketches of Elizabeth Siddall, Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Paintings of the lady done in Pre-Raphaelite style that are greatly admired today are both of John William Waterhouse's paintings, Sidney Meteyard's painting of the lady "half sick of shadows," and Arthur Hughes' painting of the lady floating down the river in her barge. John Keats' poem, Isabella and the Pot of Basil, is immortalized by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and John William Waterhouse. But perhaps the most widely portrayed product of Romanticism is Keats' La Belle Dame Sans Merci. Sir Frank Dicksee and John William Waterhouse's paintings are the most remarkable. Dicksee's painting reveals the unfortunate knight standing alongside la belle, who is atop his steed. He looks up to her in longing: "I set her on my pacing steed,/And nothing else saw all day long;/For sideways would she lean, and sing/A faery's song" (Artmagick, par. 5). Waterhouse's knight is entangled in la belle's hair. Arthur Hughes' painting, although not quite accurate, shows the knight's vision of the spirits he dreams of: "I saw pale kings, and princes too,/Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;/Who cry'd- "La belle Dame sans meric/Hath thee in thrall (Artmagick par. 10)!" Keats' Lamia is also illustrated by John William Waterhouse. Thus the Romantic poets were immortalized by the Pre-Raphaelites.
Brotherhood and artists who associated themselves with
Pre-Raphaelitism ventured to write their own poetry
as well. The poetry of William Morris, Dante Gabriel
Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, and Elizabeth Eleanor
Siddall contain Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite themes.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and Pre-Raphaelitism
of the 19th and early 20th centuries carried on the
traditions of Romanticism, especially its ability to
incite shock and horror as well as admiration and respect.
Bob Speel. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. 19 Aug 1996. <http://www.speel.demon.co.uk/other/prb.htm>
Prettejohn, Elizabeth. The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.
Keats, John. "La
Belle Dame sans Merci." ArtMagick. ArtMagick.