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.

The Brotherhood began exhibiting in 1849, to many critics' dismissive bafflement. "We cannot censure at present as amply or as strongly as we desire to do, that strange disorder of the mind or the eyes which continues to rage with unabated absurdity among a class of juvenile artists who style themselves P.R.B.," wrote a London Times reviewer after an 1851 exhibit. Ruskin lost no time in firing off a letter to the editor. "There has been nothing in art," he declared, "so earnest and complete as these pictures since the days of Albert Dürer." Reviewers thereafter toned down their criticism, and admirers began speaking up—and buying paintings. In 1854, under Ruskin's prodding, even England's conservative Art Journal conceded that the Pre-Raphaelites had helped rid English painting of "that vice of ‘slap-dash' which some of our painters a few years ago considered excellence."

John Everett Millais, a Ruskin favorite, had been helping support his family by selling his artwork since he was 16. In 1853, Ruskin invited the then 24-year-old artist to accompany him and his young wife on a four-month sojourn in rural Scotland, during which Millais was to paint the critic's portrait. On the trip, Ruskin was often absent, and Millais passed the time painting small studies of Ruskin's wife, Euphemia, or Effie. As Effie modeled, an intimacy developed between the two. She confessed to Millais she was still a "maiden" after five years of marriage. The painter and his subject soon realized they were in love. The following year Effie sued for an annulment on the grounds that Ruskin had failed to consummate their union. In the midst of the ensuing scandal, Ruskin, professing no hard feelings, directed Millais to return to Scotland to resume work on some rocks in his portrait—rocks on which the painter had already labored for more than three months. "He is certainly mad," Millais wrote to Effie's sympathetic mother, "or has a slate loose." About a year later, Effie became Mrs. Millais. The marriage would produce eight children.

With his passion for medieval art and literature and especially for the poetry of Dante, his namesake, Dante Gabriel Rossetti was the inspirational leader of the Pre-Raphaelites. An impulsive, thickset womanizer with penetrating, heavy-lidded eyes and a pouty lower lip, Rossetti was never as skillful a painter as Millais nor as devoted to Ruskin's ideals as some, but his imagination teemed. "I shut myself in with my soul, and the shapes come eddying forth," he once wrote. He often inscribed poetry directly on a picture's frame to heighten the impact of his imagery—in fact, he was better known during his lifetime for his romantic poetry (his sister, Christina Rossetti, was also an acclaimed poet) than his paintings, perhaps because he refused to show them to the public. This was partly on principle, as he despised the Royal Academy, which was England's all-important exhibiting venue, and partly because he was so sensitive to criticism, despite a swaggering self-confidence that some saw as arrogance.

"Rossetti was a devil-may-care character whom you don't expect to find in the rather staid world of 19th-century English painting," says Stephen Wildman, director of England's Ruskin Library and formerly curator at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, a major Pre-Raphaelite repository. "He was a bohemian who courted celebrity." And his social transgressions were the most overt.

As a group, the painters were drawn to working-class women, many of whom were happy to model—unchaperoned—for a shilling an hour. Ford Madox Brown sent his favorite, a working-class teenager named Emma Hill, to a local ladies' seminary to acquire social and domestic graces before finally agreeing to marry her more than two years after she bore their first child. Similarly, William Holman Hunt arranged for reading and comportment lessons for Annie Miller, a voluptuous young woman whom he later described as "using the coarsest and filthiest language" when they first met. Hunt's efforts at playing Pygmalion failed, however, and Miller soon took up with other men, including Rossetti.

But the fairest of them all was Elizabeth Siddal, a pale, long-limbed and utterly self-possessed redhead who worked as a bonnet-shop clerk. Her beauty, combined with an ability to hold a pose for hours, made her a favorite model for several of the Pre-Raphaelites. In 1852, she posed in a bathtub for Millais' masterpiece, Ophelia; the hours in cold water, alas, were followed by a severe cold that lingered for months. Siddal's frail, unconventional looks entranced Rossetti especially, who was soon insisting she pose only for him. He gave her drawing lessons and periodically promised to marry her. After visiting Rossetti's studio in 1854, Ford Madox Brown wrote in his diary that Lizzie, as she was known, looked "thinner & more deathlike & more beautiful & more ragged than ever." During this time, Rossetti put off commissioned work and sketched and painted his "fiancée" obsessively.

Siddal was often sick; she was most likely anorexic. (According to Rossetti's letters, she shunned food for days at a time, typically during periods when he had been neglecting her.) Her condition was worsened by depression and an addiction to laudanum, an opiate. Rossetti, meanwhile, had liaisons with other women, often openly. "I loathe and despise family life," he once told a friend. He and Siddal separated and reunited repeatedly until, in 1860, they were finally married. The birth of a stillborn child the following year may have contributed to the drug overdose that killed her several months later. As she lay in her coffin, a distraught Rossetti placed a notebook of his unpublished poems in her long red hair. Seven years later, deciding he wanted to publish the poems after all, he arranged for her body to be exhumed in order to retrieve the notebook.

"It's one of those things for which posterity has never forgiven him," says biographer Jan Marsh. "Even now, it shocks people." Marsh doesn't believe Rossetti's original gesture was pure show. "He had married Siddal after they had really fallen out of love because he was honoring his original promise to her. I think burying this manuscript book with her had been an expression of genuine grief and regret, because he hadn't managed to save her from her demons." Rossetti wanted to do the right thing. "Most of the time," she says, "he just couldn't bring himself to do it."

The same might be said of Edward Burne-Jones, an early Rossetti acolyte, though their personalities could not have been more different. Part of a second wave of Pre-Raphaelite artists who emerged in the late 1850s, the introverted, romantic Burne-Jones was reportedly prone to fainting. He was fixated on medieval legends. One of his favorite books, and an inspiration for much of his artwork, was Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, a bracing mix of bravery, romance and mysticism.

In 1856, Burne-Jones and fellow Oxford dropout and medievalist William Morris rented rooms together in London's Red Lion Square, which they furnished in their own version of Gothic Revival. With Rossetti's help, Morris, a writer and artist, designed a pair of high-backed chairs and decorated them with scenes of knights and ladies. The sturdy, faux-medieval chairs foreshadowed the handicrafts of England's Arts and Crafts Movement, which Morris—aided by Rossetti and Burne-Jones, among others—helped launch, and would later lead. Burne-Jones' own works were typically intricate fantasies peopled by distant, somewhat androgynous figures.

Burne-Jones' obsession with enchanted lovers was in jarring contrast to his own marriage. His muse-model-lover was not his wife, Georgiana, but a high-strung and ravishingly beautiful sculptress, Maria Zambaco, with whom he carried on a poorly concealed love affair from the late 1860s into the 1870s. Burne-Jones tried, in 1869, to abandon his reserved and uncomplaining wife, but he collapsed in Dover as he and Zambaco prepared to board a steamer for France; on his return, Georgiana stoically nursed him back to health.

Like other Pre-Raphaelites, Burne-Jones painted scenes that mirrored his own troubled life. His renderings of Zambaco—whom he continued to use as a model even after their affair became a semipublic scandal—are among his boldest and most assured paintings. One watercolor shows her in profile, as idealized as a Greek goddess. In the huge oil painting (opposite) for which the watercolor was a study, her unpinned hair has become a tangle of snakes: she is the witch Nimue turning a helpless Merlin, the Arthurian wizard, into a hawthorn tree. At the 1877 opening of London's Grosvenor Gallery, a rival to the Royal Academy, the painting attracted crowds and flattering reviews: one critic hailed Burne-Jones as "a genius, a poet in design and colour, whose like has never been seen before."

For her part, Georgiana turned to her husband's best friend—William Morris—for comfort and support; Morris reciprocated, although their relationship, Stephen Wildman speculates, "was probably never consummated in a sexual way." Morris apparently had plenty of time to devote to the neglected Georgiana because his own wife, Jane, had taken up with the tireless Rossetti.

Jane Morris, like Lizzie Siddal, was a woman whose exotic looks—tall and pale with thick, wavy black hair, high cheekbones and large melancholy eyes—turned heads. The daughter of a stableman, she had modeled as a teenager for both Rossetti and Morris. Rossetti had continued to use her as a model after she married Morris in 1859, at 19. On the first of many full-scale portraits, he wrote in Latin a half-serious, half-boastful inscription: "Jane Morris AD 1868 D. G. Rossetti.... Famous for her poet husband and surpassingly famous for her beauty, now may she be famous for my painting."

By the summer of 1871, Rossetti and Morris' wife were living together openly at Kelmscott Manor, a country house in Oxfordshire. (William had sailed to Iceland that summer to immerse himself in the settings of the Norse myths he loved.) For Rossetti and his "Janey," it was a blissful interlude that couldn't last, given her marital status. Even if one's marriage was a sham, divorce made a woman a social pariah in the Victorian era. In Rossetti's Water Willow (right), Jane holds a willow branch, a symbol of sadness and longing, with Kelmscott in the background.

The Brotherhood had scorned the idealizing tendencies of the Renaissance, but by the 1870s, Rossetti was putting his own unnatural ideal on canvas: femmes fatales, or "stunners," as they were known, with dreamy eyes and luscious lips set off with velvet, jewelry and flowers. "It's the opposite of where the Pre-Raphaelites started," says Margaretta Frederick, curator of the Delaware Art Museum's Bancroft Collection. "Most of his patrons were industrialists from the Midlands with new wealth, as opposed to aristocrats, who were traditionally the people who collected art in England." Many of these industrialists preferred to decorate their homes with pictures of attractive young women rather than stuffy academic art.

Rossetti's late work made him prosperous, but he enjoyed his success only briefly: addicted to chloral hydrate, a popular narcotic, he died at age 53, in 1882. In time, both Millais and Burne-Jones were elected to the Royal Academy—Millais eagerly, Burne-Jones reluctantly. Most of the important Pre-Raphaelites were dead by 1900, though their artistic ideas lived on. "There was a strand in British art you could identify as Pre-Raphaelite that continued well into the 20th century," says Wildman. "It became less fashionable as modernism gathered force, but it never quite died." The artists' evocative imagery, laden with psychosexual overtones, helped pave the way for Symbolism and Surrealism, while the quasi-photographic style of the later Pre-Raphaelites influenced the painterly look and themes of pictorial photography.

"Pre-Raphaelite art went out of favor for quite some time, along with most of Victorian art," says the Delaware Art Museum's Frederick. "It didn't really come back until about the 1960s." Over the past couple of decades, the work has become increasingly popular. Beginning with a major retrospective of Burne-Jones' work at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1998, a string of exhibitions of Pre-Raphaelite art has drawn crowds in both Europe and the United States. At auctions in 2000, a Rossetti chalk drawing of Pandora sold for $3.9 million—five times its high estimate—and a painting by late Pre-Raphaelite artist J. W. Waterhouse fetched nearly $10 million, a record for a Victorian painting. The popularity of Laura Ashley clothing in the 1970s and '80s and, more recently, the hippie-Guinevere fashion designs of Anna Sui and Mary McFadden have been linked to a renewed appreciation for the Pre-Raphaelite look.

Georgiana Burne-Jones, despite the pain her husband's near-abandonment caused her, was able to aptly sum up that appeal: "Think what it is," she once said, "to see a poem lived."

Regular contributor Doug Stewart wrote about painter Amedeo Modigliani for the March 2005 issue of Smithsonian.

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