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Sensual Christianity

The Pre-Raphaelites get the show, and showcase, they deserve.

Apr 15, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 29 • By EVE TUSHNET
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Other aspects of the Pre-Raphaelites’ ideas get displayed here: We get William Morris’s chapbook of “Chants for Socialists” and a room dedicated to the workshop he ran in which many of his fellow artists designed furniture and textiles in an attempt to bring a medievalizing ideal of craftsmanship into the industrial age. There are several paintings based on moral issues, such as the reward due to labor. There is Henry Wallis’s portrait The Stonebreaker, in which an exhausted man collapses against a lush hillside by a lake in the early evening hour when the sun glitters on the water. The contrast between the man’s slumping posture and the natural beauty all around him makes the out-of-Eden point sharp and clear. The boxy gray planes of his clothes suggest early-20th-century portraits of alienated labor and mass men, like the work of C. R. W. Nevinson.

The exhibit gives a strong sense of the “brotherhood” aspect of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. We get several small portraits they did of one another; the repetition of the same faces portraying different literary, religious, or mythological characters suggests a tightly knit circle of friends. But the show only hints at placing these artists in a broader historical context—although it’s not hard to see the foreshadowing of later movements. The weird, volatile mix of sensuality, socialism, and Christianity looks a lot like Oscar Wilde. The insistent humanizing of biblical figures certainly feels very modern, although the Pre-Raphaelites’ religious work takes angels and prophecies as seriously as it does human emotions and daily labor.

The Pre-Raphaelites can still make the breath catch in the throat. There’s at least one huge, overwhelming showstopper in every room of the exhibition. But the National Gallery also shows off the thoughtfulness and insight of the movement: The Brotherhood was more than a collection of contradictory impulses, a reactionary progressivism covered up with gilt and kisses. The Pre-Raphaelites can make one muse as well as swoon.

Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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