A Shift Towards Realism: The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

By Randy Jackson

Having a young son at a certain age when the Ninja Turtles were all the rage meant I knew the Ninja Turtles were named after four Italian Renaissance artists (Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael). Raphael (he was the one with the red eye sash) was the biggest of this group of unlikely superheroes. He was a snapping turtle and the leader of these anthropomorphic crime fighting turtles living in the sewers of New York City.

Until recently, beyond the Ninja Turtle character, I was only vaguely aware of the Renaissance artist Raphael’s contribution to the world of art. That changed when I came across a photo of a certain painting, and not even a painting by Raphael himself, but rather a painting by one of a group of painters trying to resist Raphael’s influence in painting some 400 years after Raphael set brush to canvas.

Raphael – Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520) – is widely considered to be the consummate high Renaissance painter. Following the traditions of Greek and Roman art in which artists sought to portray beauty in the ideal human form, Raphael painted humans with grace and dignity and with backgrounds of an idealized and ordered world. His influence endured for centuries and was particularly revered in the Victorian era in England.

By the mid-19th century, though, a group of young, highly talented artists resisted the historical style of painting practiced by Rafael and others. This group became known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The particular painting that caught my roaming attention was one of the Brotherhood’s earlier works portraying sacred subjects in a stark and realistic way. Painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, it was titled Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation). The Annunciation was the announcement by the Angel Gabriel that the Virgin Mary would bear the son of God in her womb.

Normally paintings of the Annunciation are portrayed as glorious events with a winged Angel Gabriel bathed in golden light towering over a pious Mary who is looking demure and apparently calmly accepting this dramatic world-changing event in which she would be a central figure.

In this painting, however, Mary is a scared, uncertain young girl, still in her sleeping clothes, pulling away against the wall of her tiny room while a draped but otherwise naked, all powerful angel tells her of her role as commanded by God.

This painting was like a gut punch to me, so it was of no surprise to learn of the powerful reaction against the painting in Victorian society of the time.

The painting was considered scandalous and morally shocking. The author Charles Dickens wrote scathing criticisms of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, calling them “odious, repulsive, and revolting.” Dickens articulated the concern that an artist’s search for beauty is inspired by an ideal and not found in the raw reproduction of reality.

In fact, this painting of the Annunciation was not the work that drew the most scorn and criticism of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The full weight of condemnation fell upon them with their showing of a painting by John Everett Millais titled Christ in the House of His Parents.

In this painting, a thin timid looking Christ is being comforted after an apparent injury by an old, ordinary looking Mary. A bald, unremarkable Joseph works at his table, while John the Baptist, a half-naked street urchin, appears cowed and subdued with a bowl of baptismal water. This depiction of the sacred family of Jesus with details such as toenails that are broken and dirty shocked Victorian society. It was viewed by many as scandalously sacrilegious. Queen Victoria had this painting brought to her so she could see for herself what all the controversy was about. This left the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood nearly broken by the condemnation.

The challenge by the Brotherhood was to the Renaissance portrait of beauty as an ideal in art. This method of painting was represented by Raphael’s style and artists espoused it centuries. However, the Pre-Raphaelite kerfuffle was not just a reaction against a false ideal of beauty. It needs to be seen in the wider context of the time. Kenneth Clark’s Civilization (a 1969 BBC television series, followed by a history textbook) has a segment/chapter on “The Worship of Nature.” Clark argues that starting in the year 1725, Christianity as a source of creativity markedly declined, especially in England. Over the following hundred years people came to the notion that divinity is expressed in Nature. The artistic shift towards realism portrayed by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was an expression of this shift away from the artistic notions of the ideal and towards nature as it actually is.

As radical as these early works of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood seemed to be at the time, they were also understood by some as an expression of the concurrent Naturalism Movement. One such person was the highly influential artist, philosopher, patron, and social thinker John Ruskin. Ruskin became a principal defender of the Pre-Raphaelites against their critics. He encouraged all artists to “go to Nature in all singleness of heart rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.” Nature, according to Ruskin, should be reflected in art in a realistic way, not an idealized version. What’s more, Ruskin believed truth is reflected in realism.

Ruskin’s view and influence won the day and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood went on to achieve outstanding success in their lifetimes. They became significant contributors to the evolution of art in the western world. The Brotherhood quickly moved beyond the paintings of sacred subjects discussed here. The majority of their subsequent paintings portrayed the stark reality of many aspects of everyday life in the Victorian era; we should note that Charles Dickens, shocked as he might have been by the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, addressed shocking Victorian social conditions throughout his novels.

Much more information is readily available on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including:

A BBC Documentary on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FkWONORqHZw

Artist Movements on the Art Story Website:
https://www.theartstory.org/movement/pre-raphaelites/artworks/

A BBC Drama series on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, “Desperate Romantics”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sAiv1_qZ2Cw

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