Whether you like 19th century painting or not, it’s hard to ignore the Pre-Raphaelites, and it’s even harder to ignore the powerful beauty of their female models and muses – or “Pre-Raphaelite stunners”, as they were known at the time. The Pre-Raphaelites often have been viewed as sentimental, high-class illustrators, but in the last few years they have come to symbolise a revolution in British art. A new exhibition at Tate Britain, Painting With Light, further establishes their enhanced reputation.
The Pre-Raphaelites represent a major turning point in Victorian culture. Their work shook the establishment. The famous core members were John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Together their aim was to promote art before Raphael. They were fired by revolutionary activity on the continent and were principally influenced by 15th century Italian and Flemish painting. They sought a regeneration of British art, a return to the realism of the medieval period, and a revitalisation of mythic, religious and poetic subjects. Art, they argued, should be naturalistic and artists should study not from antique models and casts, but directly from nature.
Their influence on contemporary photography was far-reaching. While Holman Hunt was popularising oriental motifs, it was their paintings of “stunners” that inspired the dreamy effects in the work of photographers such as Julia Margaret Cameron. Their painstaking depictions of the British fields and hedgerows created a vogue among landscape photographers studying the effects of light in nature.
Subjects were often literary: Tennyson’s Mariana, for example, was a favourite subject for painters and photographers, and Pre-Raphaelite illustrations of Tennyson’s poems inspired a raft of photographic studies that emphasised chiaroscuro and the compressed, shallow spaces found in woodblock prints.
Models and muses
The Pre-Raphaelites were a proud and precocious brotherhood of artists but their success was largely due to a sisterhood of models and muses circulating round one member of the brotherhood in particular, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Rossetti was bohemian and depressive and came from an artistic family. His father was a poet and scholar; his brother, William Michael, was an artist and poet; and his younger sister, Christina, a poet (although she wasn’t permitted to join the Pre-Raphaelite gang, but only contribute to their journal, The Germ). Dante Gabriel Rossetti was obsessed by Dante’s Vita Nuova, which became his main literary source. Inspired by Dante, and passing through heaven and hell many times in his own romantic relationships, Rossetti’s portraits of women emphasise female sensuality and beauty.
This is Lady Lilith, the mythical first wife of Adam before he met Eve, depicted here as luxuriously self-absorbed. In Lady Lilith and the accompanying sonnet, “Body’s Beauty”, Rossetti emphasises the tactile qualities of textiles and flowers. The interior space of the painting is claustrophobic, suggestive of imprisonment and introspection, and the physicality of the model, Fanny Cornforth, with her vibrant red tresses, dominates the picture space.
Rossetti’s favourite model was Elizabeth Siddal, a cutlery-maker’s daughter who was discovered working in a hat shop. In his relationship with Lizzie, as she was known, he maintained a long, close, and ultimately self-conscious identification with Dante’s love for Beatrice. She became his wife in 1860 but died two years later, in February 1862, from a laudanum overdose. It was a monumental blow to Rossetti.
In his poetic painting of Dante’s Beatrice, Beata Beatrix, based on a study of Lizzie and finished from memory, Beatrice is entranced by some other realm just before the moment of her death. Her face is “rapt from heaven to earth”, as Rossetti described it, and into her hand a bird drops a flower. It is a manifestly Symbolist work. The personification of Love, clothed in red on the left of the picture, signifies the mood and feeling of Rossetti, while the figure of Dante in the gloom on the right signifies the darkness and obscurity Beatrice is leaving behind on earth.
The Pre-Raphaelites occupy a significant position in Victorian art and culture. They were revolutionary, looking back to art before Raphael and finding inspiration in the work of Shakespeare and the Romantic poets. They were contemporary, working en plein air and drawing the human figure from life models who often became their mistress-muses. But in their preoccupation with ancient legends, dreamscapes and femmes fatales, they also looked forward to the early 20th century and the innovative and suggestive work of the Symbolists. No longer the fusty Old Guard of British art, the Pre-Raphaelites, as the Tate’s show testifies, are a Victorian avant-garde to reckon with.
Painting with Light: Art and Photography from the Pre-Raphaelites to the modern age is at Tate Britain from May 11 – September 25 2016.