WASHINGTON — Just in time for the spring influx of school trips and Easter vacations, the National Gallery of Art in Washington is hosting two exhibits about the Pre-Raphaelites painters of 19th century England.
In its only U.S. venue, “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design” has some 130 paintings, statues and photographs culled from collections including Britain’s Tate museum, the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and others across Europe.
Another smaller exhibit, “Pre-Raphaelites and the Book,” is separately housed at the National Gallery. Both shows will be on display until May 19.
In September 1848, three artists in England created the “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood” — Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais — a small group that ultimately grew to seven.
They had a “commitment to fundamental change,” art historians Tim Barringer of Yale and Jason Rosenfeld of Merrymount Manhattan College write in the exhibition’s book. They wanted to break with the conventional styles of the Royal Academy established in 1768 by Sir Joshua Reynolds.
“They believed that art had become decadent, and rejected their teacher’s belief that the Italian artist Raphael represented the high point of aesthetic achievement,” said Diane Waggoner, associate curator of the National Gallery. “Instead they looked to earlier art from before the time of Raphael — or ‘pre-Raphael’ — whose bright colors, flat surfaces, and sincerity they admired.”
1848 was a tumultuous year in Great Britain and across Europe. Protests broke out. The working class demanded political reforms and the overthrow of long-established governments. This was the Victorian era of science, industrial production and empire building.
The Pre-Raphaelites’ work of “rebellion, scientific precision, beauty and imagination-created art,” said Earl A. “Rusty” Powell, director of the National Gallery, “shocked 19th century Britain.”
By applying technology, such the new aniline dyes painted on a “brilliant white background” in their paintings, they painted “radical and dangerous” art, said Barringer.
The young painters, between 18 and 22, looked “to history and to literature for inspiration,” taken from the writings of Dante, Shakespeare and the Bible.
Everything in Pre-Raphaelite paintings had a meaning, especially the Christian references. William Holman Hunt’s “The Light of the World” where Christ carries a lantern and knocks on the door was infused with meaning according to Hunt himself. In his 1865 exhibit, he wrote, “Physical light represented spiritual light a neglected orchard, the uncared for riches of God’s garden.” Later, as an engraving, it spread all over the world.
The artists also “dedicated untold hours of labor to the precise rendering of landscapes,” says Waggoner.
In the 1850s, a second generation grew up that included designer William Morris, painter Edward Burne-Jones and Rossetti’s mistress (and later wife), model Elizabeth Siddal. Rossetti went on to create oil paintings that were a "celebration of beauty as an end in itself," said Barringer and Rosenfeld; most of the paintings were of women. Morris built Morris and Co., which manufactured textiles and wallpaper and still exists.
The National Gallery of Art also has a special “Garden Café Britannica,” serving English specialities, including sherry trifle, English pea salad and Cornish pasties (beef pies).