Dinah Roe / Visual Culture

Pre-Raphaelite Haters Then and Now

Why do the Pre-Raphaelites, perhaps more than any other art movement, provoke such strong reactions?

Pre-Raphaelite Haters Then and Now If the Pre-Raphaelites were still around today, they would no doubt be thrilled to find that they are still causing a stir. A quick peek at the comments inspired by the recent Observer online article about the upcoming Tate Pre-Raphaelite Exhibition reveals that viewers are as divided as ever about the significance of Pre-Raphaelitism.

The debate the young upstart Brothers intentionally started about contemporary art in 1848 still rages today. Then as now, while some people enjoy the unsettling beauty of the bright Pre-Raphaelite colour palette, others are put off by the movement’s eroticised depiction of women and heavy-handed symbolism. Still more are unhappy with them for not being French Impressionists.

It should not be forgotten that painting was only one aspect of the group’s aesthetic agenda, which extended into literature, design, photography and even home decor. Forerunners of Aestheticism, they believed in the powerful interaction of the physical world and the human imagination. The Pre-Raphaelites were certainly a group whose ambition sometimes outran their talent, but as Robert Browning (a friend and mentor to the movement) reminds us in his poem about a painter, Andrea Del Sarto: ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp / Or what’s a heaven for?’ Pre-Raphaelitism has always been as much defined by its haters as by its fans. Both are equally responsible for the Pre-Raphaelites’ fame. As the reviews of the Tate exhibition come out later this month, I predict that those who attack it will echo their Victorian forebears. These critics reacted with horror at the 1850 exhibitions of PRB paintings at the Royal Academy and the Free Exhibition. Significant paintings were: Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini; Hunt’s A Converted British Family;  Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents, and Deverell’s Twelfth Night:

[On Ecce Ancilla Domini] An unintelligent imitation of the mere technicalities of old Art–golden glories, fanciful scribblings on the frames, and other infantine absurdities–constitutes all its claim. (Athenaeum)

Can [Deverell] paint by the light of common sense as well as he can in the style nonsensical? for if he can, he might be a powerful painter: as it is, he is little more than a powerful practical joker, a self-burlesquer. (Spectator)

Sydney Smith said that Quakers would, if they could, have clothed all creation in grey. The ‘P.R.B.’ would be bolder still, for they would beat it out flat, and make men and women like artfully-shaped and coloured pancakes. (Illustrated London News)

‘monstrously perverse’ (Spectator)

The attempt to associate the Holy Family with the meanest details of a carpenter’s shop, with no conceivable omission of misery, of dirt, and even disease, all finished with the same loathsome minuteness, is disgusting…’ (The Times)

Though interesting to the eye of medicine, to the non-professional beholder they are unpleasant–not to say, revolting. (Punch)

they dream of material beauty, but they never get beyond the study of the skeleton. (Art Journal)

prepare yourselves, as befits such a subject Pre-Raphaelly considered for the lowest depths of what is mean, odious, repulsive, and revolting. (Charles Dickens, Household Words)

… the mountbank [sic] proceedings of a small number of artists who, stimulated by their own conceit, and by the applause of a few foolish persons, are endeavouring to set up a school of their own. We allude, [sic] to the pre-Raphaelites.
(Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine)

We have lingered too long over this frantic trash. (Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine)

Since Pre-Raphaelitism’s debut, its criticism has been marked by contradictions so extreme that it is difficult to believe critics are discussing the same movement. The movement is at once childish and pornographically adult; radical and conservative; respectful towards women and scornful of them. The Tate’s 1984 major Pre-Raphaelite show was reviewed in the New Statesman as ‘Mrs. Thatcher’s Neo-Victorian Age’ while the Sunday Telegraph was disgusted by its bohemianism and ‘druggy’ muses.

Where nineteenth-century critics initially attacked the movement for its realism, twentieth and twenty-first century haters dislike its symbolism and fantasy. But the notion that it is childish, vulgar and repulsive persists:

Columnist Joe Queenan, for instance, writes: ‘I know of no Pre-Raphaelite paintings that are not vulgar and stupid; they make Boucler and Fragonard look like gritty urban realists. They are easily the worst painters that ever lived.’

The Observer’s Laura Cumming, sounding not unlike a Spectator critic of 1850, is repulsed by Christ’s ‘alarming varicose veins’ in Holman Hunt’s The Shadow of Death and by Rossetti’s ‘monstrous regiment of women: one after the other, all the same, including the so-called portraits, with their square jaws and centre partings, their swollen necks and blood-leeching lips.’

Andrew Marr blames Rossetti for the ‘luxurious Classical fantasies and dreamy Arthurian nonsense’ that led the Pre-Raphaelites into a ‘dead end’, essentially holding Rossetti responsible for not being Cézanne: ‘British nineteenth-century painting never had a Cézanne to connect it to the following century. I suppose if it was Rossetti to blame, then as the son of an immigrant Italian, he at least ensured that Raphael had the last laugh.’

Germaine Greer also blames the Pre-Raphaelites for not being French: ‘while France was experiencing the dazzle of the impressionists, Britons were happy to applaud and reward the false sentiment, fancy dress and finicking pseudo-realism of a dreary horde of pre-Raphaelites.’ Surprisingly perhaps, it is Germaine Greer who sounds the most ‘Victorian’ in her dismissal of Pre-Raphaelitism: ‘The PRB led its followers into a welter of truly bad art: stultified, inauthentic, meretricious and vulgar.’

In the slew of reviews which is sure to follow the Tate’s exhibition, it will be entertaining to see how many of these objections resurface. I have always wondered why Pre-Raphaelitism inspires such vehement reactions. What do you think? Do you love or hate Pre-Raphaelitism? Why or why not? ■

This article was initially published on Dinah’s blog Pre-Raphaelites in the City.
Dinah Roe is the editor of Christina Rossetti: Selected Poems (Penguin) and The Pre-Raphaelites: From Rossetti to Ruskin (Penguin). Follow her on Twitter @preraphsrule.
Image shows museum staff in the Pre-Raphaelite room of the Delaware Art Museum, 1938.
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