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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 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.

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