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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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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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