The reputation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood has sometimes suffered for its ability to create beautiful surfaces. The paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite artists are replete with lush colors, velvet and gilded textures, flowing locks and tresses. (Nobody in a Pre-Raphaelite painting just has hair.) Seen too often in medium-quality reproductions, though, their work can appear merely pretty rather than gorgeous.
This exhibition makes a strong case that the Pre-Raphaelites offered much more than a lot of pretty faces. The paintings are organized mostly thematically, with hints toward chronological ordering as well. Each room is crammed full of gorgeous stuff. It’s impossible to stare long enough at Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Lady Lilith, combing out her Milton hair over her alabaster breast. She’s as bewitching now as she was then, with the ultra-recognizable Rossetti cupid’s-bow lips, hooded eyes, and big stubborn chin. She’s in an exhibit room called “Beauty,” whose walls have been painted a deep peacock-blue to set off the gold-framed portraits most strikingly. But many of the paintings elsewhere in the exhibit could have been put in that room as well.
The Pre-Raphaelites attempted to craft a unified sensibility at once modern and medieval. Unlike devotees of the overlapping Aesthetic and Decadent movements, who, in some ways, were the Brotherhood’s heirs, the Pre-Raphaelites were aggressively English and Protestant. Shakespeare, Keats, Chaucer, and Wycliffe all get heroic treatments here. And the exhibit highlights the artists’ religious sensibilities—in fact, one room is dedicated to portrayals of “Salvation,” but religious themes weave throughout the show—and religious paintings show some of the best examples of the Pre-Raphaelite method.
This method was controversial at the time because it seemed to emphasize the human qualities of Jesus and the saints at the expense of transcendence. Ford Madox Brown’s huge Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet originally showed a Christ naked to the waist, but public outcry prompted him to paint in a loosely draped shirt. John Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents drew controversy (Charles Dickens loathed it) because it seemed to portray the Holy Family as just another carpenter and his clan: ordinary people doing ordinary things.
And Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini!—his Annunciation—is still shocking today: Mary, a scrawny girl cornered against the wall in a thin nightgown, stares blankly at the angel, who lifts a hand to bless or maybe just to calm her. This is no royal queen of Heaven. The look on her face is the look of a teenager watching the second line darken on her pregnancy test: What does this mean? What on earth do I do now? She’s sallow and almost vampirized, and clearly shaken. This is the moment before she says yes.
The fear in the eyes of Rossetti’s Virgin has Scripture to back it up. The angel has to tell Mary not to be afraid—which probably means that she was. The painting incorporates all of the traditional symbolism of the Annunciation: the lilies, painted on a red cloth hanging by Mary’s bed; the dove, suspended in the air as if waiting for her answer; the blue of her robe, here as a cloth screen behind the bed. But Rossetti suggests through the look on Mary’s face that her “yes” came only after confusion and fearful questioning.
This sense that even the saints’ psychology was tense and conflicted appears in many of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings, and it’s one of their most compelling features. The disciples watching Jesus wash Peter’s feet make it clear that they have no idea what’s going on: Peter looks confused, ashamed, almost angry, while the others gawk or even clutch their heads with their hands. Only Jesus himself seems assured and peaceful. Similarly, in Christ in the House of His Parents, the child Jesus has hurt himself, and he holds up a wounded hand for his father to treat. Mary kneels beside him, while a young John the Baptist brings his cousin a basin of water in which to wash the wound. John’s expression is fearful; Jesus, again, is serene. He looks just like a little kid, his eyes turned trustingly toward his mother, but he’s not afraid or upset.
These paintings are filled with the kind of religious symbolism and foreshadowing that can be defended theologically. The scenes don’t make sense if you don’t know where the story ends up, if Jesus isn’t the Son of God. Despite the fears of the Victorian audience, the immanence of these portrayals never crowds out the transcendence. The psychology is subtle, but the paintings never reduce faith to mere psychology.
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.