Radically Traditional

The Pre-Raphaelites shocked Victorians by embracing the past

March 14, 2013

Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais’ “Ophelia” was painted from real life — sort of.

It wasn’t exactly difficult to shake the foundations of the Victorian art world. Using a particularly bright blue might get you branded a revolutionary.

British painters John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt — at ages 19, 20 and 22, respectively — turned their backs on the tropes and styles of their era and founded the oh-so-shocking-in-its-time Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848.

Inspired by works produced before the time of Renaissance master Raphael (whom Victorians revered), Pre-Raphaelite art was simultaneously backward-looking and forward-thinking. The National Gallery of Art’s exhibit “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848–1900” features 130 paintings, sculptures and drawings created by the PRB and its followers.

The artists emulated conventions of 15th-century works, including vivid colors and distorted perspectives. Yet they often gave modern twists to religious or literary subjects by presenting them in unexpected ways or with symbolic moral judgments attached.

In a reaction to the new enthusiasm for science and the introduction of photography, Pre-Raphaelites’ portrayals of individuals and settings were as authentic and detailed as possible. Millais’ 1849-50 “Christ in the House of His Parents,” for instance, was so realistic in portraying the Holy Family’s working-class status that it drew harsh criticism. Charles Dickens called the painting’s Mary “horrible in her ugliness.”

Such strong reactions were just what the Pre-Raphaelites were after. They could not, however, have anticipated their movement’s effect on later artists. They have been credited with helping to inspire art trends including the late-19th-century movement of British aestheticism (beauty for beauty’s sake) and bohemian fashions of the 1960s and ’70s.

Most people today are familiar with the Pre-Raphaelite style, even if they’ve never heard the name, says Diane Waggoner, the National Gallery of Art’s associate curator of photographs. Many well-known pieces feature figures interacting in fantastical outdoor settings or castlelike interiors; clear-eyed, voluptuous women with long, messy tresses were also popular subjects of portraits.

“These images get reproduced today in calendars and postcards,” Waggoner says. “I’ve heard many people walk into the exhibit and say, ‘It’s great to see so many familiar faces here.’ ”

Selected Works


Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Bocca Baciata” may have alluded to its subject’s romantic entanglements.

“Bocca Baciata” (1859) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti This arresting portrait of model Fanny Cornforth is notable for its similarities to 16th-century Venetian portraits, which also featured women painted from the torso up, against shallow backdrops. The title means “kissed mouth,” an intriguing phrase considering that both Rossetti and the original purchaser, George Price Boyce, may have been Cornforth’s lovers.

“Ophelia” (1851-52) by John Everett Millais This famous work (which depicts Hamlet’s drowning lover Ophelia from Shakespeare’s play), was modeled on real life. Millais first painted a riverside in Surrey, England, leaving an empty space in the middle of the canvas. He then returned to his London studio to fill in the blank, posing model Elizabeth Siddal in a bathtub and painting her.


“The Blind Girl,” by John Everett Millais, depicts a hyperrealistic scene.

“The Blind Girl” (1854-56) by John Everett Millais The girl in the shawl can’t see the double rainbow behind her, and that’s part of the point of this hyperrealistic work. “The Pre-Raphaelites were very attuned to trying to capture the effects of weather,” Waggoner says. “Millais is capturing the way the light looks at that particular moment in time. The irony is that the blind girl can’t appreciate that.”

National Gallery of Art, 4th Street and Constitution Avenue NW; free, through May 19; 202-737-4215. (Archives)
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