I have been revisiting 19th century British paintings since I read about Museo Thyssen’s latest exhibition, Alma-Tadema and Victorian Painting. The collection examines the chronological period from 1860 with the dissolution of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to the World War I and includes pieces by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Frederick Leighton, Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Albert J. Moore and John William Waterhouse. It will be open to the public until October 5th.
The Pre-Raphaelite movement was born in 1848 when seven artists (William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens and Thomas Woolner) based in London reunited to create a secret society that would offer its on view on painting as opposed to the contemporary academic standards. As Jennifer Meagher from the MET Museum points out, “the works of the Pre-Raphaelites met with critical opposition to their pietism, archaizing compositions, intensely sharp focus—which, with an absence of shadows, flattened the depicted forms—and the stark coloration they achieved by painting on a wet white ground”. They were inspired by the uncomplicateed depiction of nature present in pre-Renassaince Italian painting.
The group left place for the birth of the Aestethic Movement, inspired by the Greco-Roman classical culture and the stories of King Arthur. Some of the Pre-Raphaelite artists evolved towards this path too, such as Dante Gabriel Rosetti. Their values shifted to the portrayal of beauty for its own sake. This is the period showcased in the Thyssen exhibition: “All these artists shared a celebration of female beauty, depicting it according to classical canons. Women became the preeminent figures in these paintings. Depicted as contemplative, amorous, day‐dreaming, bountiful, lascivious or wicked, they are transformed into heroines of antiquity or the Middle Ages. This cult of the woman moved towards the dreamlike nature and magic of the Symbolist movement that was currently emerging in Europe. Natural settings or grandiose palaces became the backdrops for scenes that largely evoke imaginary settings”, explains Thyssen Museum.
Their influence in fashion is remarkable. Valentino chose the Pre-Raphaelite theme as one of their main inspirations for the latest Haute Couture show presented this week. Oscar de la Renta has used Pre-Raphaelite references several times, and Alexander McQueen used to introduce subtle touches of this meaningful period. There is no season in which a hairstylist doesn’t bring the 19th beauty back with a cascade of red hair. There are endless editorials featuring redhead models surrounded by nature, with languid poses and semi-absent attitude. Karen Elson, Lily Cole, Christina Hendricks, young Kate Winslet, Florence Welch and Jessica Chastain are today’s Pre-Raphaelite reincarnates.
Ophelia, John Everett Millais
The Lady of Shallott, John William Waterhouse
Influence in fashion and pop culture
Jessica Chastain in Vogue US by Annie Leibovitz. Recreation of Leighton’s painting. You can see the full editorial here.
Oscar de la Renta