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“The first role of art is to express truth or to beautify something useful”.Ruskin
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© Parkstone Press International, New York, USA
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1848: Founding of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in Great Britain by three students of the Royal Academy: William Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. According to Millais, the Brotherhood has one aim: “The depiction of nature on canvas.”
1849: First exhibition at the Royal Academy. The displayed works were signed with P. R. B. (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood), a monogram unknown to the public. The exhibition is received favourably.
4 May 1850: The meaning of the three enigmatic letters P. R. B. is revealed in an article in the Illustrated London News.
1850: Hunt, Millais, and Rossetti found the journal The Germ, in which they divulge the theories of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. From the first issue, they are confronted with embittered critique. The movement is defended by author and critic John Ruskin. Only four issues of the journal are printed. Rossetti leaves the group.
1851: As part of the Exhibition of 1851, Millais displays Mariana, Hunt Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus. The Pre-Raphaelites receive even more criticism for their technique. Millais completes one of his most famous works: Ophelia.
1852: Last exhibition year before the disbandment of the group. Millais displays The Huguenot and Ophelia, Hunt The Scapegoat. Their works are received with success. Contemporary and literary subjects take the place of medieval themes previously found in Pre-Raphaelite paintings.
1853: Millais is named Member of the Royal Academy. The group separates, and Rossetti writes to his sister: “So now the whole of the Round Table is dissolved.” The second Pre-Raphaelite generation is represented by the works of Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris.
1854: William Hunt travels to Palestine.
1855: At the World Exhibition in Paris, the Pre-Raphaelites are at the peak of their success.
1856: Rossetti, who has not exhibited anything since 1850, presents at an exclusive Pre-Raphaelite exhibition, where he is greeted with enthusiastic applause. He displays the watercolour Dante’s Dream, which remains one of his most significant works.
1860: The influence of Pre-Raphaelites, which extends to the end of the 19th century, is seen in the works of certain painters such as William Dyce, Augustus Egg, and William Powell Frith, as well as for photographers Julia Margaret Cameron or Roger Fenton.
1882: Death of Rossetti. His work and that of his fellow painters are representative of Pre-Raphaelites and will continue to be a source of inspiration for future artists for a long time, especially for Aubrey Beardsley.
End of the 19th century: The Pre-Raphaelite movement gradually fades. Its influence on Art Nouveau and Symbolism is substantial.
English Art in 1844
Until 1848, one could admire art in England, but would not be surprised by it. Reynolds and Gainsborough were great masters, but they were 18th-century painters rather than 18th-century English painters. It was their models, their ladies and young girls, rather than their brushwork, which gave an English character to their creations. Their aesthetic was similar to that of the rest of Europe at that time. Walking through the halls of London museums, one could see different paintings, but no difference in manner of the painting and drawing, or even in the conception or composition of a subject.
Chaucer at the Court of Edward III
Ford Madox Brown, 1847–1851
Oil on canvas, 372 × 296 cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
Only the landscape painters, led by Turner and Constable, sounded a new and powerful note at the beginning of the century. But one of them remained the only individual of his species, imitated as infrequently in his own country as elsewhere, while the work of the other was so rapidly imitated and developed by the French that he had the glory of creating a new movement in Europe rather than the good chance of providing his native country with a national art. As for the others, they painted, with more or less skill, in the same way as artists of other nationalities.
The Eve of St Agnes
William Holman Hunt, 1848
Oil on canvas, 77.4 × 113 cm
Guildhall Art Gallery, Corporation of London, London
Their dogs, horses, village politicians, which formed little kitchen, interior, and genre scenes were only interesting for a minute, and even then the artists did not handle them as well as the Dutch. Weak, muddy colours layered over bitumen, false and lacking in vitality, with shadows too dark and highlights too intense. Soft, hesitating outlines that were vague and generalising. And as the date of 1850 approached, Constable’s words of 1821 resonated, “In thirty years English art will have ceased to exist.”
The Girlhood of Mary Virgin
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1848–1849
Oil on canvas, 83.2 × 65.4 cm
Tate Britain, London
And yet, if we look closely, two characteristics were there, lying dormant. First, the intellectuality of the subject. The English had always chosen scenes that were interesting, even a bit complicated, where the mind had as much to experience as the eye, where curiosity was stimulated, the memory put into play, and laughter or tears provoked by a silent story. It was rapidly becoming an established idea (visible in Hogarth) that the paintbrush was made for writing, storytelling, and teaching, not simply for showing. However, prior to 1850 it merely spoke of the pettiness of daily life; it expressed faults, errors or rigid conventional feelings; it sought to portray a code of good behaviour.
The Renunciation of St Elizabeth of Hungary
James Collinson, c. 1848–1850
Oil on canvas, 120 × 182 cm
Johannesburg Art Gallery, Johannesburg
It played the same role as the books of images that were given to children to show them the outcomes of laziness, lying, and greed. The other quality was intensity of expression. Anyone who has seen Landseer’s dogs, or even a few of those animal studies in English illustrated newspapers where the habitus corporis is followed so closely, the expression so well-studied, the look of the animal so intelligent and so different depending on whether it is waiting, feeling fear or desire, questioning its master, or thinking, can easily understand what is meant by “intensity of expression”.