At the Fogg Through Feb. 25
IN 1848 THREE MEN claimed that they would revolutionize what other activists of the era had completely ignored--the field of English painting. Their rallying cry was "death to slosh," a pun on the name of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the founder of the most prestigious art school in England, the Royal Academy. The battle against its sterile and rule-ridden art had begun, they proclaimed. The youthful and enthusiastic threesome--Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Millais, and William Hunt--soon attracted the amazed attention of staid Victorians. For the public, they merely signed their paintings and publications with the mysterious initials PRB; in private, they called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood.
These men did not dislike Raphael or other high Renaissance masters; however, they felt that this man's art had given rise to too many second-rate imitators in the Royal Academy. Whereas the academy painters slavishly copied casts of ancient sculpture according to the Renaissance code of proportion and perspective, the pre-Raphaelites wanted to study nature. For this reason they called for a return to art before Raphael--an art that they believed had not yet been frozen by rules and formulas but was forthright in representing the natural world.
Fidelity to nature was not something new, but no one really expected the extent of the early Pre-Raphaelites' imitating nature. Their subject matter was drawn from the Bible, Greek mythology, and, true to their medieval inclinations, Arthurian legend. Stylistically some of the human figures might look like Botticelli angels or Cranach diptychs. Yet the landscape was always painstakingly drawn from real life. They used magnifying glasses to paint weeds properly; they waited patiently year after year for the return of the apple blossoms to complete a single canvas; they would spend nights painting by a small candle in order to capture the exact effect of moonlight on a certain flower.
ALTHOUGH REALISM of this sort constitutes a major portion of pre-Raphaelite art, there are only a few examples in the current exhibition organized by a Fine Arts graduate student, Beth Mandelbaum. For "Triumph of the Innocents" William Hunt travelled to Palestine to find precisely the right road for his representation of the flight from Egypt. Yet, ironically, for all the cherubic children and floating bubbles that accompany the Christ child, in this particular painting the meticulously executed landscape is barely visible. Grenville Winthrop, who donated this pre-Raphaelite collection to the Fogg in 1943, showed a marked preference for the work of Rossetti and his close friend Burne-Jones. And these paintings are primarily paintings of beautiful, highly seductive women.
Rossetti represents a second, later trend in pre-Raphaelite painting--a withdrawal from the natural world into the realms of the imagination. An inept draftsman, Rossetti was baffled by perspective and uninterested in the details of landscape. He was a poet and perhaps did not have the patience to learn much of the technique of painting. His paint surfaces lack in technical virtuosity, but this is over-shadowed by the haunting mysticism of his women. They are undoubtedly the best known of all pre-Raphaelite works.
For Rossetti saw women, particularly beautiful women, as the saviors of mankind--a conception derived from Dante. He envisioned heaven as a place peopled with the souls of lovers embracing, with a single woman, similar to Dante's Beatrice, waiting to guide him. However, according to Pre-Raphaelite principles, it was necessary for Rossetti to square this vision of a women with the likeness of a living person. He found his answer in the person of Elizabeth Siddal, who was eventually to become his wife. Pictured in "Beata Beatrix" with the figures of Dante and Love behind her, Elizabeth Siddal eventually proved a less than ideal Madonna. Jealous of his work and diverting him from it by continual illness, she committed suicide after two years of marriage. Another woman soon replaced her; Rossetti became fascinated with Janie Morris, the wife of William Morris. Involved in a triangle, Rossetti understandably found her at times a heavenly apparition, as in the "Blessed Damozel," and at times a temptress, as in "Pandora" opening her box of evils.
Burne-Jones was also drawn into Rossetti's world of enchantment. When he painted women, he was preoccupied with the image of the femme fatale, the woman triumphing over men. In the "Depth of the Sea" a mermaid, smiling strangely, clasps the body of a dead mariner and pulls him down to the sea floor. However, Burne-Jones's subject matter expands beyond Rossetti's obsession with women. During a time of intense popular interest in the legend of King Arthur, Burne-Jones spent many hours drawing the head of Sir Galahad. And particularly knowledgeable in Greek mythology, he undertook to illustrate the story of Cupid and Psyche for William Morris. It was from Burne-Jones that the French symbolists (shown in the last room of the exhibition) and particularly Gustave Moreau, took their inspiration.
THE PRE-RAPHAELITES bequeathed little of artistic importance to the generations that followed them. Stylistically their flatness of design and elaboration of detail verged on the decorative and gave impetus to Beardsley and Art Nouveau. Yet what they were doing was in no way as radical or influential as what their contemporaries across the Channel, the Impressionists, were doing. If the pre-Raphaelites contributed anything to the mainstream of modern art, it was an attitude. They were the first to rebel against the heavily sentimentalized genre scenes of the academy schools. Compared to these soap operas in paint, the Pre-Raphaelites looked for an art that was more serious and more personal. And perhaps even more important, their close associations with the poets of their time, particularly Tennyson and Swinburne, created a new alliance between poets and painters that lasted for the next half century.