Did the Pre-Raphaelites Suffer from “Blurred Vision?”

This morning I came across a less-than-enthused review of “The Pre-Raphaelite Lens” in the Washington Post. In the article, Andy Grundberg criticized what he termed the “blurred vision” of the Pre-Raphaelites. And while Grundberg retained some admiration for the work done by Pre-Raphaelite landscape artists, he condemned the Brotherhood with broad strokes, arguing that “its members claimed to be interested in realism and truth” but were “far more taken with notions of fiction and theatricality.”

Grundberg was a photography critic for the New York Times for many years, so it’s not surprising that he prefers the Pre-Raphaelites landscapes and photography to their paintings. But his criticism of the PRB is pretty standard. Many modern viewers can appreciate the work of artists like John William Inchbold (whose photograph-quality painting of Anstey’s Cove is pictured here), and even Ford Maddox Brown, but remain perplexed by the romanticism of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones.

I was particularly struck by Grundberg’s backhanded compliment that Julia Margaret Cameron and Henry Peach Robinson had “managed against odds to transcend their subjects’ goofy origins in Arthurian legend.” So now it’s “goofy” to be inspired by myths and legend? Greek myth has inspired countless artists and is (quite rightly) not regarded as a “goofy” source of inspiration. Why should ancient British myths be seen differently?

Mythology is such a rich source of inspiration for artists, and it saddens me to see it dismissed off-hand. Many members of the PRB were actually very interested in a “modern” approach to art and design. They recognized that British art had become mired in convention and instead attempted to use the classics as a foundation to build from that would allow them break free from traditions that had become oppressive to artists. Even William Morris, whose passion for the middle ages is well-known, was not attempting to imitate medieval design, but to use it as a source of inspiration to create a better future.

Apparently, people today are confused that a a group that claimed to be visionary would lean so heavily on mythology and the classics for inspiration. Contemporary artists and (and their adoring critics) have the hubris to claim that they have re-invented the wheel, or are totally unencumbered by the influence of others from the past (the Young British Artists come to mind). And while this unfettered arrogance is intriguing, and can sometimes produce fascinating work, it also runs the risk of alienating the public with its hollow promise of unbridled innovation. A connection to the past and an understanding of our collective unconscious is not “goofy” – it’s a fundamental part of the creative process.

Happy Holidays!

Here’s a truly “Pre-Raphaelite” painting for you all! This Nativity scene was painted by Conrad von Soest in 1403. Von Soest, who was born in 1370 in Dortmund, was considered one of the greatest artists in Westphalia. He introduced the “International Courtly Style” of art to Northern Germany, and influenced Northern European art throughout the 15th century.

This image captured my eye because of its domesticity! For one thing, it was the first time I’d seen a nativity scene that featured Joseph cooking for his new family! Mary and Jesus look so tender as well (get a closer look at the expressions on their faces, and you’ll know what I mean!).

Perhaps it’s because this is my first Christmas with a little baby of my own, but this year I wanted to see rather more familial tenderness and a bit less distanced adoration among the Holy Family. No doubt Charles Dickens (who considered Milais’ “Christ in the House of His Parents” sacrilegious for its frank portrayal of Christ’s family) wouldn’t have been very impressed with von Soest’s more familial portrayal of the Nativity scene, but I’m sure the Pre-Raphaelites would have loved it!

On a side note, I find the ahistorical touches, such as the medieval clothing and any number of details in the painting, rather charming. Besides, I sometimes wonder if medieval artists were just trying to make historical paintings approachable for their audience. Perhaps by giving historical figures contemporary clothing and accoutrements, von Soest was ensuring that his audience would spend less time wondering why Mary and Joseph were wearing funny clothes! (what modern child didn’t grow up asking their parents why Joseph ran around in a skirt and sandals all the time – I know I did!).

Happy Holidays to all, and much prosperity and happiness in the New Year!

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Old English Christmas Carol

Merry Christmas to all! When I was a child this was probably my favourite Christmas Carol. Long before I saw my first Disney movie, I was fascinated by the idea of talking animals, so the idea that animals could speak on Christmas Eve was particularly attractive to me. I still remember it from a little cassette tape and book of Christmas Carols that I carried around with me for MONTHS leading up to Christmas. The tape was played so much that it always warbled during this song (and during my other favourites, the “Wassailing Song,” “Good King Wenceslas” and “The Holy and the Ivy”. I guess even then I had a thing for Old English Carols!

The Friendly Beasts
Jesus, our brother, kind and good,
Was humbly born in a stable rude;
And the friendly beasts around Him stood.
Jesus, our brother, kind and good.

“I,” said the Donkey, shaggy and brown,
“I carried His mother up hill and down;
I carried His mother to Bethlehem town.”
“I,” said the Donkey, shaggy and brown.

“I,” said the Cow, all white and red,
“I gave Him my manger for His bed;
I gave Him my hay to pillow His head.”
“I,” said the Cow, all white and red.

“I,” said the Sheep, with the curly horn,
“I gave Him my wool for His blanket warm;
He wore my coat on Christmas morn.”
“I,” said the Sheep, with the curly horn.

“I,” said the Dove, from the rafters high,
“I cooed Him to sleep that He should not cry;
We cooed Him to sleep, my mate and I.”
“I,” said the Dove, from the rafters high.

Thus every beast by some glad spell,
In the stable dark was glad to tell
Of the gift he gave Emmanuel,
The gift he gave Emmanuel.

Image courtesy of the Tate Gallery. It’s “The Adoration” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and was painted between 1858 and 1864. I had actually never seen this painting before today! I just love the strong Medieval quality that it has. I’m so glad I found it!

La Vie en Rose: The Middle Ages through Rose-Coloured Glasses

Nostalgia always brings with it a certain amount of selective memory. We idealise the past because we remember the best and forget the rest. But is this really such a bad thing? The 19th century medieval popularised by William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites was based in the firm belief that the people of the Middle Ages had closer contact with organic elements and were thus more aware of their connection with nature and with each other. William Morris’ novel News from Nowhere–(which I highly recommend, by the way)–presents a Utopian vision of the future that clearly is meant to be a recreation of an idealised medieval past.

The Nostalgic Middle Ages:

Of course, medieval revival is fairly easy to criticise from a historical viewpoint. Morris, like his Pre-Raphaelite friends, had a habit of focusing on the positive, and carefully avoiding things like war, feudalism, disease and famine that were such problems throughout the Middle Ages (plus, many of their notions of the Middle Ages were completely inaccurate).

Morris believed capitalism was to blame for modernity’s rift with nature, and that our goods-focused society created artificial needs that enslaved mankind in an endless cycle of consumption and debt (no doubt today’s current market crisis would have reinforced this belief!). And while the Middle Ages were not perfect, that doesn’t mean that we can’t embrace what they seem to have done right. Or, perhaps we might finally acknowledge the fact that our imagined concept of the Middle Ages is actually far superior to the way things actually were! I actually think fantasy makes a much better template for the future than any reality, past or present. This is probably because I’m a historian, so I know just how much of a failure most societies have been!

The real Middle Ages?

I’m curious to see whether the current economic upheaval will cause people to re-evaluate the Middle Ages and look to them for inspiration. I’ve noticed that some aspects of medieval culture, like the barter system, as the New York Times reports, are actually becoming much more widely adopted (it is expected that barter will account for $3 billion in trade in the US this year).

It will be interesting to see what develops!

Images courtesy Wikimedia. Top: Lamia (1905) by John William Waterhouse; Middle: A monk-cellarer tasting wine from a barrel whilst filling a jug. From Li Livres dou Santé by Aldobrandino of Siena – France, late 13th century.

Tennyson and the Allure of the Medieval

Lord Alfred Tennyson composed some of the most famous lines in English poetry. Although he succeeded Wordsworth as Poet Laureate, his work has never gained the respect lavished on his predecessor, but his lonstanding popularity is unquestionable. I remember professors in University laughed at the idea of studying Tennyson. He was viewed as something of a literary joke, akin to Thomas Kinkade in the art world.

Tennyson’s poetry had the ability of giving life to old narratives, particularly when it came to Arthurian literature. The Pre Raphaelites, who were drawn to this subject matter, often relied more heavily on Tennyson’s interpretation of Medieval texts than they did on the original source material. This is particularly evident in “Mariana,” “The Lady of Shallot,” “Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere” and “Morte D’Arthur”–all of which were painted by Pre-Raphaelite artists.

Since I didn’t post a copy of Tennyson’s lovely poem, Mariana, the other day, I thought this would be an appropriate time to do so!


WITH blackest moss the flower-plots
Were thickly crusted, one and all:
The rusted nails fell from the knots
That held the pear to the gable-wall.
The broken sheds look’d sad and strange: 5
Unlifted was the clinking latch;
Weeded and worn the ancient thatch
Upon the lonely moated grange.
She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said; 10
She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!’

Her tears fell with the dews at even;
Her tears fell ere the dews were dried;
She could not look on the sweet heaven, 15
Either at morn or eventide.
After the flitting of the bats,
When thickest dark did trance the sky,
She drew her casement-curtain by,
And glanced athwart the glooming flats. 20
She only said, ‘The night is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!’

Upon the middle of the night, 25
Waking she heard the night-fowl crow:
The cock sung out an hour ere light:
From the dark fen the oxen’s low
Came to her: without hope of change,
In sleep she seem’d to walk forlorn, 30
Till cold winds woke the gray-eyed morn
About the lonely moated grange.
She only said, ‘The day is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary, 35
I would that I were dead!’

About a stone-cast from the wall
A sluice with blacken’d waters slept,
And o’er it many, round and small,
The cluster’d marish-mosses crept. 40
Hard by a poplar shook alway,
All silver-green with gnarlèd bark:
For leagues no other tree did mark
The level waste, the rounding gray.
She only said, ‘My life is dreary, 45
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!’

And ever when the moon was low,
And the shrill winds were up and away, 50
In the white curtain, to and fro,
She saw the gusty shadow sway.
But when the moon was very low,
And wild winds bound within their cell,
The shadow of the poplar fell 55
Upon her bed, across her brow.
She only said, ‘The night is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!’ 60

All day within the dreamy house,
The doors upon their hinges creak’d;
The blue fly sung in the pane; the mouse
Behind the mouldering wainscot shriek’d,
Or from the crevice peer’d about. 65
Old faces glimmer’d thro’ the doors,
Old footsteps trod the upper floors,
Old voices call’d her from without.
She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said; 70
She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,’
I would that I were dead!’

The sparrow’s chirrup on the roof,
The slow clock ticking, and the sound
Which to the wooing wind aloof 75
The poplar made, did all confound
Her sense; but most she loathed the hour
When the thick-moted sunbeam lay
Athwart the chambers, and the day
Was sloping toward his western bower. 80
Then, said she, ‘I am very dreary,
He will not come,’ she said;
She wept, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
O God, that I were dead!’