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The Pre-Raphaelite revolution in English art ended as wallpaper

Posted in Art, Artist, Arts and Crafts, Famous artists, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

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This edited article about the Pre-Raphaelite Movement first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 597 published on 23 June 1973.

W Holman Hunt,  picture, image, illustration

Holman Hunt spent his time painting poor pictures in the Middle East by John Keay

Of the three leaders of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, John Millais was now content to be an orthodox figure of the Art Establishment. The former rebel who had produced such a magnificent painting as Ophelia, was now a respectable artist happy to paint portraits of elegant society ladies. William Holman Hunt had become obsessed by a religious frenzy and had gone to the Middle East where he produced a string of poor paintings; and Dante Gabriel Rossetti had fallen so much in love that he saw little of his friends and, like Millais and Hunt, he veered away from the original Pre-Raphaelite ideals.

Other painters such as Hughes, Brett and Wallis came along and flourished briefly. The movement seemed to be dying in the late 1850s and yet it had some thirty years more to run. This last period was divided into two distinct phases. First, there was the time when most pre-Raphaelite paintings seemed to deal with the nobility of labour, and Ford Madox Brown was the leading exponent of this. His major social painting was simply titled Work. On the right it shows the intellectuals; in the centre are the fine, healthy figures of a group of “navvies,” and on the left is a barefoot beggar. In the background is a full, crowded panoply showing all levels of Victorian life. In Brown’s eyes, all are equally admirable. The workman is just as much of an artist as the artist is so often a workman. It seemed that art had come to the people and only an idealist would consider moving it away again.

After this phase came the final decline towards the decadence of the early twentieth century when the most notable artist of the movement was Edward Burne-Jones. Like William Morris, Burne-Jones was at first greatly influenced by Rossetti who had begun to paint Mediaeval subjects again. The wheel of the Pre-Raphaelite movement had come full circle as the artists turned once again to Medievalism. It was to be the last phase of the movement.

All three artists became deeply involved in the world of medieval romance that has the Arthurian legend as its cornerstone. The lovely Jane Burden, a lady whose beauty typifies the Pre-Raphaelite heroine, married Morris and posed for Queen Guinevere for the painting of the same name (now in the Tate Gallery, London). It was virtually the last painting which Morris produced. He had already begun to realise that his talents lay in the field of design and he went on to become, perhaps, the most famous designer of wall paper and patterns for drapes that England has ever known.

Edward Burne-Jones was the last of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement artists. There are examples of his work in most of the major art galleries in Great Britain. Most of them are superb, heavy pictures, concentrating mainly on medieval and classical subjects, just as the early members of the Pre-Raphaelite movement had. The world of Burne-Jones is one of peace and stillness. Nothing intrudes from the outside world.

One of the greatest admirers of Burne-Jones was the corrupt and decadent Aubrey Beardsley. One can see a sinuous clarity in his work that was one of the hallmarks of Burne-Jones’ work. But Beardsley was a new era.

Rossetti died in 1882, Millais became President of the Royal Academy in 1896 and died in the August of that year; Hunt was hardly ever away from the Holy Land, and Ford Madox Brown had become affluent and spent much of the later part of his career doing twelve enormous paintings for Manchester Town Hall. By 1875, all of them had finished as creative artists.

Times in Art had changed. The changes which the Pre-Raphaelites had themselves brought about, created a climate in which there was no longer a place for the movement. Its survivors, like Burne-Jones and William Morris, were to help foster a new generation of artists who belonged to a new era in Art.

The Pre-Raphaelite paintings were much like the men who produced them – full of love, colour, and both sadness and joy. In terms of world art movements, they may not have been of earth-shattering importance, but they brought art nearer to the people, greatly influenced painting and design in England and, most important of all, they produced some truly beautiful pictures. That in itself is no mean achievement.

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