In 1849, Dante Gabriel Rossetti showed his very first oil painting during the first exhibition season after the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, alongside Millais’ Isabella and William Holman Hunt’s Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice for the Death of His Young Brother. While the group was short lived and never formed an official mission statement, “the combination of inexperience, collaborativeness, and sheer impact that distinguished the first years of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is worth remarking, then, as an exceptional event in the history of art. Prettejohn 17)
The men succeeded in endeavors of poetry and writing as well as painting, and formed a collaborativeness in not solely the development of the group, but also they arts in which they participated. There are different accounts of Pre-Raphaelite beginnings, many of which exaggerated by William Holman Hunt, however, there is truth in Rossetti’s introduction of Hunt to Ford Maddox Brown, and his instigation to expand the group. Their work initially was deemed primitive’, being a swerve away from historical progress and cultural development of the modernized world.
Prettejohn explains this as being a willfully naive way of seeing with sharp perceptions and lack of order and refinement. (33) As far as the focus of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is concerned, Hunt stressed the importance of peer-group emulsion, with members coaching and influencing each other’s work as well as modeling in paintings. The modeling concept was important to the P. R. B. because of the urgency to remain true to nature. All first works exhibited “contained at least one significant figure modeled on a friend or relation. 42)
The men felt by painting actual, live human beings that the images in the painting would more realistically reflect true nature as it is. In Millais’s Isabella, F. G. Stephens sat for the brother holding the glass on the left, Walter Deverell was the figure behind him, and Rossetti modeled for the man who was drinking. They rejected the academy concept of drawing from greek and roman ideals, instead looking to how the human figure actually contorts. The awkward angles of Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini! reflect the stark difference from the traditional academic style painting.
Truth in nature can also be aptly seen in Millais’ Ophelia, through the accuracy of the reeds and water grasses. While the painting could have included all perfectly growing reeds and still depicted them as people would understand what they were, Millais went one step further showing the reeds as if it were “a literal encounter between the artist who made the representation and this clump of reeds. ” (166) Prettejohn also points out that in the world of the Pre-Raphaelites, individual things are allowed to have maximum character.
It was the influence of Ruskin on the Pre-Raphaelites which set off the true to nature spark. His readings emphasized the importance of being faithful to detail as a way of seeing. Therefore, the P. R. B. worked on sharper focus, with a close-up view forcing overwhelming concentration and edging away from traditional academic styles which emphasized hierarchal composition. Other changes from the academic included more dramatic force in the imagery and theme as well as extreme simplification of facial features.
Millais’ Christ in the House of His Parents represents the more formal reminiscence of early Italian art: there are measured intervals between the figures. However, the details are relentless down to the wood shavings and dirty fingernails, which characteristically resembles a typical van Eyck, who also found interest in depicting the most minute details. While this is evident, “Hunt, in particular later repudiated the notion that the movement aimed at any kind of revival’ of early Renaissance styles. 19)
The Pre-Raphaelites were experimenting in 1848 with drawing style, with great changes from the accomplished shading and chiaroscuro techniques to a more angled and jerky line formation. The lines became more fine and brushes smaller. The paint was kept thin and liquid which allowed the white ground to shine through the translucent paint layers. There was an attempt to return to the methods of old oil painters, but using more widely available and recent materials.
Other key factors in the importance of Pre-Raphaelite painting was the emphasis on painting literary themes, involving romance, and developing psychological and social tension. Millais’ Isabella casts off the influence of William Etty, as well as the traditional composition, lighting, and detail of Victorian standards. The original story of Isabella becomes much more tense, with the scene laid out off balance and the grim expressions of the characters. The organization has changed from light and shadow to blocks of light and color.
Previously, Millais’ work had been quite different, for example his piece, Cymon and Iphigenia, which was more curvilinear and graceful. Now Millais took more extreme care with details demanding attention, and a setting which hails from that period in Italy. The subject matter had become ambitious, and while very literary, it bordered on the highest level of academy rankings, history painting. They were not painting domestic genre scenes, but much more complex subjects which became what was considered an attack from above against the Victorian artistic establishment.
The Pre-Raphaelites were concerned with issues of modern life. Hunt’s An Awakening Conscience signifies a girl realizing she does not want to be in that situation, hence taking on the theme of the fallen woman, and prostitution. To sum up the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, from an assigned reading by Alison Smith, “In elevating color as a sensual element in painting these painters risked affronting those who associated color with what was disparaged as passionate, fleshy, and feminine in art – a lack of control and emotional excess in contrast to the disciplined rigor of sound draughtsmanship. 35)
The group focused on more significant subjects such as medieval tales, poetry, and religion, while emphasizing color and psychological stresses. The group individualized as they aged, with Rossetti concentrating more on mystical themes and individuality, and Hunt working towards realism, but with moralistic and modern themes. Ruskin had explained that symbolism is in the details and not randomly placed, the composition guides the eye to these details, therefore the spiritual principals are explained. The Pre-Raphaelites, influenced greatly by Ruskin, very much encompassed these themes in their work.
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