Why we can’t have enough of those beautiful Victorians?

Pre-Raphaelites Legacy: British Art and Design, Metropolitan Museum (New York), May 20-October 26, 2014

by Jai Imbrey, PhD.

Those wistful gazes and fiery locks, those petulant maidens in their rose gardens … no wonder we often see Pre-Raphaelite art as a guilty pleasure. In this day of post-modernism’s anti-aesthetic, it is hard to admit our attraction to its voluptuous beauty. The Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition “The Pre-Raphaelite Legacy: British Art and Design” plays on our yearning for the chivalry of a distant age, unabashedly appealing to a generation hooked on Game of Thrones. It makes us long for beautifully crafted objects of lasting value in familiar settings. At the same time, this intimate show reveals just how much the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was prepared to flaunt convention and refine the role of the artist. It invites parallels with the contemporary conception of the artist as transcending genres and erasing the boundaries between painting, sculpture, furniture, music and the printed word.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) and Henry Treffry Dunn (1838-1899): Lady Lilith, 1867. Watercolor and gouache on paper, 20 3/16 x 17 5/16 in. (51.3 x 44 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) and Henry Treffry Dunn (1838-1899): Lady Lilith, 1867. Watercolor and gouache on paper, 20 3/16 x 17 5/16 in. (51.3 x 44 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Housed within the Lehman wing, the exhibition makes you feel as if you have just walked into a London mansion such as the Leighton House in Holland Park. The domestic setting creates an immersive experience, allowing you to almost touch the fine paintings and furnishings that were such an integral part of this movement. Setting the tone, Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s Lady Lilith, (ca. 1868) draws all eyes with the magnetism of a celebrity sitting incognito in a boutique hotel. She has the familiar flawless skin and tumbling russet hair idealized in todays countless photoshopped magazine covers. Yet this Lilith prefigures Eve as Adam’s first wife, an ancient Talmudic woman associated with the primal danger of female beauty. Lilith’s closely cropped body seems to pour out of the canvas while her gaze remains self-absorbed and aloof. Her cruel red lips suggest a Victorian dominatrix.

Philip Webb (1831–1915): Cabinet (The Backgammon Players), Painted by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898). Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., 1861. Painted pine, oil paint on leather, brass, copper. H. 73 in. (185.4 cm), W. 45 in. (114.3 cm), D. 21 in. (53.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Philip Webb (1831–1915): Cabinet (The Backgammon Players), Painted by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898). Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., 1861. Painted pine, oil paint on leather, brass, copper. H. 73 in. (185.4 cm), W. 45 in. (114.3 cm), D. 21 in. (53.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The poet and critic Algernon Charles Swindburne called her, a “serene and sublime sorceress,” with “no life but the body.”[1] Like many of his fellow Victorians, he obsessed over women as either lily white virgins or bold temptresses. Here, Rosetti contrasts her alabaster skin with the blood red of her rose and ribbon. In testament to the Pre-Raphaelite belief in the synthesis of the arts, he also warns of Lilith’s fatal allure in his sonnet Body’s Beauty. Further alarm bells sound when you consider that Lilith was based on Rossetti’s mistress, Fanny Cornforth, who was also his ‘housekeeper’ after his wife’s death. Later, he repainted her face in the image of the model Alice Wilding, possibly at the suggestion of his young patron, the shipping magnate Fredrick Richard Leyland. Today, it is difficult to see Rossetti and his cohorts as rebels. Yet, early critics declared their work “abhorrent” and the “ product of a diseased imagination.”[2] When the Pre-Raphaelites were formed in 1848, they strongly rejected the classical British academic tradition as rigid and vacuous. Focusing instead on Medieval and Renaissance traditions prior to the 16th century, they emphasized brilliant color as well as detail and line over chiaroscuro and classical models/modeling. Founded by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Rossetti, the brotherhood soon attracted the Oxford theology students Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. The group worked with a number of distinctive models such as Elizabeth Sidall, Fanny Cornforth and Maria Zambaco. Whether as muses or wives, fellow artists and poets, these striking women with their wide-set light eyes and chiseled full lips fueled the groups’ notoriety.

In the Lehman’s handsome salon, it is hard to apprehend the ugliness of the new Victorian industrial age, full of soot, clanking noise and mass-produced goods. Smog – known as the London Particular- was often so great that you could barely see a few feet ahead. Rejecting the unchecked expansion of manufacturing, the Pre-Raphaelites favored hand-crafted artifacts that reflected centuries of tradition. Their new found pleasure in artistry recalls our own age’s fascination with street art, vintage clothes, hand-made crafts and even micro-breweries, manned not by poor immigrants but by Ivy-League graduates.

The Met’s show features the ultimate in hand-made collaborative design in the form of a Philip Webb and Edward Burne-Jones cabinet made of painted leather and wood with brass and copper fittings. On the doors, a man and woman leisurely play backgammon in a style akin to Renaissance painted marriage chests, known as cassone. In addition to furniture, Morris’s company sold in its elegant Oxford street store, “work of genuine and beautiful character,” including exquisite textiles, carpets, wall-papers, stained glass and ceramics.[3] Morris, its savvy owner and director, sympathized with socialist reforms favoring the poor. Ironically such an expensive piece of hand-made furniture would have only been accessible to the most wealthy. Like Rosetti, Morris wrote poetry and collected books and rare manuscripts. At the end of his life he founded Kelmscott Press Books, notable for its extraordinary engraved bindings which can be seen in the show.

Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898): The Love Song, 1868–77. Oil on canvas, 45 x 61 3/8 in. (114.3 x 155.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898): The Love Song, 1868–77. Oil on canvas, 45 x 61 3/8 in. (114.3 x 155.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The exhibition’s great masterpiece, known as Le Chant d’Amour by Edward Burne-Jones, with its languid figures in medieval costume, may appear staged and overly saccharine to the modern eye. Even back in 1877, the London Times poured scorn upon the painting, calling it “the strange and unwholesome fruits of hopeless wanderings in the mazes of mysticism and medievalism.” Fortunately for the Metropolitan, art critic Roger Fry, who also acted as curator from 1904-1910, championed this work. Taking almost ten years to complete (1868-1877), it depicts a lovelorn knight resting on a parapet while he contemplates an innocent maiden playing an organ as Cupid pumps the bellows. Set in a Venetian-style landscape inspired by Giorgione, Burne-Jones captured a mood of wistful reverie. The parapet lends a story-book quality that sets the tale at a remove. Known for his vivid palette and the precision of his brushstrokes, Burne-Jones had once declared, “I love to treat my pictures as a goldsmith does his jewels.”[4]

The painting was inspired by a Breton love song, (Helas, je sais un chant d’amour) composed by the artist while listening to his gifted wife Giorgiana play the piano. The critic Walter Pater, who admired the Pre-Raphaelites, wrote that “All art constantly aspires to the condition of music”. [5] With his emphasis on mood and atmosphere, Burne-Jones may well have aspired to elevate his art to the level of music, which was seen as the most abstract, formal and pure of the creative expressions.

While the show is tiny, it draws from over 11 departments, marking an important interdisciplinary trend in recent exhibitions. This form of curating exploits the museum’s own stellar collection while bringing new meaning and context to its pieces. It comes in the wake of the great joint exhibition, Pre-Raphaelites and the Victorian Avant-Guard at the Tate and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Yet through its intelligent curating by Constance McPhee and Alison Hokanson, it manages, in one quick stroke, to lift the lid on a beautiful lost world and whet our appetite for binge viewing.


[1] Rosetti, William Michael and Algernon Swinburne. Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition 1898, quoted by Prettejohn, Elizabeth, Rossetti and his Circle, London and Princeton, 1997, p. 30.

[2] Harry Quilter, a critic for the Times, wrote scathing reviews, see, Quilter, Harry, Preferences in Art, Life and Literature. London, 1892, 6; ibid., Art Journal, 1864, p. 170.

[3] Rossetti, William Michael, Ruskin: /Rossetti:Preraphaelism : Papers 1854 to 1862, London, 1899, pp. 268-70.

[4] De Lisle, 1904, pp. 170-171

[5] Pater, Walter. The School of Giorgione, in Lawrence Evans, Ed. The Renaissance, Chicago, 1978, p. 139.

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