Incurably Romantic | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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Incurably Romantic

For much of the 20th century, Britain's Pre-Raphaelite were dismissed as overly sentimental. A new exhibition shows why they're back in favor

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The sultry figure combs her golden hair and gazes at a mirror; her dressing gown has slipped off one shoulder. In a sonnet inscribed on the painting's elaborate gold frame, the artist, a London poet and painter named Dante Gabriel Rossetti, identified his subject as Lilith, Adam's first wife—"the witch he loved before the gift of Eve."

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Adding a hint of menace, Rossetti garnished the scene with poisonous foxglove and an opium poppy (whose narcotic, it was widely known, had killed his own wife a few years before). Rossetti filled the background of the picture with sprays of white roses. With characteristic thoroughness, he had procured a huge basket of fresh-cut roses from which to work. And not just any roses, but those gathered from the personal garden of England's most influential art critic, John Ruskin. If you could curry favor with the critics by painting their flowers, why not, Rossetti must have thought.

Lady Lilith is the centerpiece of an exhibition called "Waking Dreams: The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites from the Delaware Art Museum." (Rossetti and his fellow Pre-Raphaelite painters adopted the cryptic label in the late 1840s to signify their belief that art history had taken a wrong turn with Raphael during the Renaissance.) Widely if not universally praised in its time, disdained as mawkish and heavy-handed throughout much of the 20th century, the Pre-Raphaelites' emotionally charged art is today enjoying a renaissance of its own.

The "Waking Dreams" title alludes to the otherworldliness of these paintings: the artists depicted ethereal, often imaginary figures from legends and myths with the exactitude and finish of commissioned portraits, invariably using true-to-life props and live models. The latter figured prominently, as it happened, in the turbulent, sometimes scandalous romantic lives that many of these painters led, in defiance of Victorian propriety.

The current exhibition draws from the extensive collection of Pre-Raphaelite art amassed by Delaware textile manufacturer Samuel Bancroft Jr. (1840-1915) that his heirs bequeathed to the Delaware museum in 1935. Organized and circulated by Art Services International (a nonprofit institution based in Alexandria, Virginia, that arranges fine art touring exhibitions), the show includes some 130 oil paintings, drawings and watercolors, as well as woodcuts, jewelry, ceramics, stained glass and furniture. On view at the St. Louis Art Museum (February 18-April 29), after a two-year cross-country itinerary, the exhibition will conclude its tour at the San Diego Museum of Art (May 19-July 29).

In the latter half of the 19th century, the term "Pre-Raphaelite" became something of a catchall for a loosely affiliated group of English artists with often disparate styles. "What binds the early work with the later material," says British art historian and biographer Jan Marsh, "is the poetic subject matter, the rather dreamy mythological sources, as well as the use of color and lush decorative detail—the sense of unheard music in the paintings."

The movement arose in 1848, a year of revolutions across Europe, when a small band of young, middle-class artists in London began plotting to overthrow the staid English art world. Led by the charismatic Rossetti, the more technically polished John Everett Millais, and William Holman Hunt, at 21 the oldest of the three, the young artists formed a secretive, tightknit circle, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood—hence the initials "P.R.B." inscribed on some of their early canvases—which held monthly meetings and compiled lists of likes and dislikes. Chief among the latter, aside from Raphael, Titian and their High Renaissance ilk, was the late Sir Joshua Reynolds (or "Sir Sloshua," as Millais and Hunt dubbed him for what they saw as his sketchy brushwork). Reynolds, the first president of the Royal Academy, had promulgated rules for painting based on conventions from neo-Classical and late Renaissance art: subjects should be edifying, colors subdued, compositions either pyramidal or S-shaped, with an emphasis on the use of chiaroscuro, and so on. To the Pre-Raphaelites, this was intolerable. Reynolds and the academy, they felt, had idealized beauty—and a mannered, old masters style of beauty at that—at the expense of truth.

Truth was to be found in medieval or "primitive" art, a notion they based in large part on a few engravings they'd seen of early Italian frescoes. To achieve it, the young artists pored over early literature—the Bible, Chaucer, the tales of King Arthur—and the poetry of John Keats and Alfred Tennyson. They painstakingly portrayed fair damsels and brave knights. Under their influence, pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron enlisted two individuals to pose for her dressed up as Lancelot and Guinevere.

One of the more dramatic paintings in the exhibition depicts an athletic Romeo (above) stepping onto a rope ladder from Juliet's balcony while continuing to nuzzle her neck. The work was done on commission by Ford Madox Brown, a slow-working perfectionist slightly older than his fellow Pre-Raphaelites. In it, Brown indulged his taste for exactitude, from the leaded-glass windowpanes of Juliet's bedchamber to the laces on Romeo's tunic. (For his Romeo model, Brown chose, yes, John Ruskin's personal secretary, Charles Augustus Howell.) The ladder and other details were so realistic, one critic noted, that it "hinders instead of assisting our imagination."

In his Modern Painters (1843), Ruskin had charged artists to "go to Nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly...rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing." The Pre-Raphaelites took this as their credo. To them, nature was precisely what they saw in front of them—after a bit of stage management, perhaps. For one painting, Rossetti borrowed a silver wash basin from the wealthy patron who had commissioned the work; when Rossetti told the patron he would have preferred a gold one, the man suggested the artist just pretend it was gold. Retrieving his wash basin later, the patron discovered to his distress that the artist had, in fact, had it gilded.

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