Thursday, September 18, 2008

What Makes a Pre-Raphaelite?

rose John William Waterhouse
The term Pre-Raphaelite is thrown around pretty loosely on this website. I liberally refer to Edward Burne-Jones and John William Waterhouse as Pre-Raphaelite artists, although I know perfectly well that they were not "officially" members of the brotherhood. For example, while many (including myself) would recognize Edward Burne Jones as a Pre-Raphaelite, his only connection to the movement was through Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and he was never a member of the original Brotherhood (neither, of course, was William Morris)(Barringer, 14).

This got me to thinking. What makes art Pre-Raphaelite? Why do I tend to associate some artists with the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and not others? In my own mind, Pre-Raphaelite art is closely connected to its 19th century British context, and so I tend to look for those qualities in any bit of fashion or art that I label "Pre-Raphaelite." I also think a certain dedication to accurate representation of life (realism) is another important defining characteristic of Pre-Raphalitism, though close examination of the art of the original Pre-Raphaelites' reveals that they wasn't always as keen on portraying "reality" as they were in finding beauty (this is particularly true of Rossetti, of course).

Pre-Raphaelites also had a very particular idea of beauty and nature that I think is common to most of the works I would consider "Pre-Raphaelite." I suppose most people would call this romanticism. The Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic values nature (or rather, an idealised form of nature), and generally opposes industrialisation and modernisation as encroachment onto nature's turf. This is particularly evident in William Morris' work and writing, but it can also be found in Rossetti's idealisation of untamed feminine beauty and Ruskin's fondness for the unspoilt landscapes of England and Scotland.

Finally, I would have to say historicism is probably the defining characteristic of Pre-Raphaelite art, and it connects closely to all the other attributes I've mentioned. It was certainly important to the original PRB--they even went so far as to name their movement "Pre-Raphaelite" in honour of a supposedly superior distant artistic past! And while it may seem quaint to modern viewers to see the obviously anachronistic characters that fill Pre-Raphaelite art, the Pre-Raphaelites felt that they were celebrating a mythical, mystical golden age.

What is Pre-Raphaelitism to you? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Source consulted: Tim Barringer. The Pre-Raphaelites. London: Everyman Art Library, 1998.
Image: "The Soul of the Rose" John William Waterhouse, 1908. "And the soul of the rose went into my blood"(from Tennyson's 'Maud').


Pamela Terry and Edward said...

The term has always meant, to me, a celebration of the beauty to be found in nature. An elevation and idealization of that beauty that leads to a deeper respect of the natural world. To me, at least.

Margaret said...

Well put, Pamela. I agree.

willow said...

In my mind, the artwork is beautiful, romantic, medieval, and usually bright colored paintings. The literature and poetry would also be included in those thoughts...without the bright colors. :)

A World Away said...

I find the images to be romantic, reminding one of an idealised world view. I feel that these images take me away & are very peaceful. Now I have used the word 'feeling' it tells me that they engender an emotion. They also seem very Arthurian in nature.
Who are the "official" PRB?

acornmoon said...

I always think of them as a group of painters who painted every single blade of grass!

Anonymous said...

A UK group who revered an idealised Medieval lifestyle. They felt the change of industrialisation was doing nothing to elevate mankind but instead turning men into part of the machinery ruled by the clock. I think they wanted to portray an alternative which might help elevate mankind. Maybe they tried to teach about God through the symbolism of their paintings much as the early church had used art on the walls of churches to tell the Bible stories.

Sorry Margaret I've rattled on. In short a group of men who were at odds with the times they were born in and sought an alternative.

Margaret said...

--I love the single blade of grass comment, acornmoon ;) So true!
--I also really like your definition, Melanie!

José Ricardo Costa said...

I Just want to send you my congratulations from Portugal. Your blog is really nice and trough it is possible to get valuable informations about the wide Pre-Raphaelite world.


Judy said...

Excellent topic...Pre-Raphaelite has become a very slippery term since its origins which is to say that even the founding members wandered from the tents stated by William Michael Rossett in the the Germ:

"To have genuine ideas to express.
To study Nature attentively so as to know how best to express them. .
To sympathize with what is direct and heartfelt in previous art to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote.
To produce thoroughly good pictures and statues."(HOW IDEALISTIC THEY SOUNDED)

Later, as it gathered other adherents, as you have said, Margaret, it encompassed a dreamy romanticism that was an escape from the reality of the Victorian world.This dream-like quality would lead it towards the Symbolism of the late 19th Century. On the other hand, its "blade of grass" tendency would lead it towards 19th C. Realism.

Like many other things Pre-Raphaelitism is often in the eye of the beholder.

Amanda said...

Oh I have to agree with some of the comments that I imagine that Pre-Raphaelites celebrated beauty, nature and evoke romantic sentiments. I also think they idealized beauty. I think maybe at the time they were living in, there were many industrial changes going on and this was an escape to a time when there were beautiful damsels, gallent knights...

I guess that's what I imagine.

Margaret said...

Ah, so true, Amanda!

Päivi said...

I like a lot Pre Raphaelite Art. Historicism is typical for them although they always partly depict themes from everyday life or realistic ones too. There is something romantic, sensuos and etheric in the way they depicted beautiful things, women and nature. Older and truer Pre Raphaelites were more sinister. I agree a lot what You think.