Greco's Ghosts

Art. History. Culture.

What is Manifest in the Pre-Raphaelite Manifesto?

The Arts and Craft Movement, the Futurists, the Secessionists; artists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries loved a good manifesto. The obsession with modernity as well as nationalism and other factors contributed to an artistic desire to establish new styles and techniques and create distance between the artist and past genres. Guys met with their fellow art buddies, decided what they thought sucked about art movements widely accepted as great, and wrote manifestos to inform the public why their art was what art should really be. However, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, formed in 1848, had a slightly different idea. Rather than shunning art movements of the past in favor of innovative style, the Pre-Raphaelites decided that the best art was that of the very distant past in the Quattrocento, the time before Raphael and Michelangelo revolutionized art in the Renaissance. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded by English painters James Collinson (1825-81), William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), John Everett Millais (1829-1919), and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82), as well as a sculptor, poet, and art critic. Together, they formed a kind of secret society, for a time only signing their paintings ‘PRB,’ and writing extremely serious policy declaring that art should use brightly saturated colors, profound subjects, and high realism. They believed the academic trend in art was stupid, listless, and pretentious. They called Sir Joshua Reynolds, founder of England’s Royal Academy of Arts, “Sir Sloshua.”

William Holman Hunt (British), The Light of the World, 1853-4, oil on canvas, 125 x 60 cm, Keble College, Oxford.

William Holman Hunt (British), The Light of the World, 1853-4, oil on canvas, 125 x 60 cm, Keble College, Oxford.

Sounds a bit douchey doesn’t it? Don’t get me wrong, I can imagine an afternoon in the Pre-Raphaelites’ salon, enjoying tea and crumpets while discussing the greatness of Botticelli and Masaccio, and how Raphael is definitely not my favorite Ninja Turtle. But I can also see how this could get old pretty fast. The generally elitist attitude of those groups such as the Pre-Raphaelites and Futurists was a bit of a turn-off for some of the rest of the arts community, especially because they felt the need to write manifestos to promote their seemingly douchey ideals. Fellow art critics began calling for PRB members to put another shilling in the douchebag jar, as it were. Many harsh criticisms of the PRB policies (even from the likes of Charles Dickens) came from their defiance of well established artistic styles, those which had been in practice for a century by respected academic authorities. The group ended up disbanding in 1850, after work differences evidently became more serious than their policies. Could they have possibly evolved into hypocrisy, becoming just as pretentious as they accused the Academy?

John Everett Millais (British), Ophelia, 1851-2, Oil on canvas, 76 x 112 cm, Tate Gallery, London.

John Everett Millais (British), Ophelia, 1851-2, Oil on canvas, 76 x 112 cm, Tate Gallery, London.

Before you judge me for judging the Pre-Raphaelites, allow me to offer my props to the Brotherhood. Give them credit, they came at it with confidence. All douchebaggery aside, the PRB had inspired artistic ideas, namely in the wet white technique. This technique was inspired by fresco painting techniques of the Italians, and used to achieve brilliant color effects. Fresco painting involved mixing the pigments with white plaster. The PRB looked to this method and tweaked it, layering multiple coats of white paint onto their canvases and then beginning to paint upon it before the white undercoating was dry. This gave a luminous look to their colors, effectively brightening them much more than the academic techniques of their peers. The PRB also contributed their manifestos, policies, and critiques to a self-published periodical called The Germ. This journal contained Pre-Raphaelite ideas and promoted them. I appreciate this, as I am debatably attempting the same thing as we speak. What’s more, the PRB inspired many followers, and though the founders went their separate ways, the Brotherhood has its place in the history of art as a ballsy group of avant-garde, anti-establishment lovers of brilliant color and profound narrative. Their historical significance was further solidified by the many other inspired artists who perpetuated the Pre-Raphaelite mission through their own versions and interpretations.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (British), La Ghirlandata, 1873, oil on canvas, Guildhall Library and Art Gallery, London.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (British), La Ghirlandata, 1873, oil on canvas, Guildhall Library and Art Gallery, London.

2 comments on “What is Manifest in the Pre-Raphaelite Manifesto?

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