Tag Archives: renaissance

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:

Artist Movements on the Art Story Website:

A BBC Drama series on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, “Desperate Romantics”

An Extraordinary Collection: The Pre-Raphaelite Paintingsof Mexican Billionaire Juan Antonio Pérez Simón

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

In 1946, a five-year-old Spanish kid moved to Mexico. He didn’t come from money, but Juan Antonio Pérez Simón would end up with quite a lot of it. His dad had a middle-class job in the beverage business, and Juan Antonio taught himself finance, starting his career in accounting. As a young man, his path crossed that of Carlos Slim Helú, whose business talents eventually made him the richest man in Mexico, and at times, the richest man in the world.

When they were both 25, Pérez Simón joined Slim as a partner in starting the investment banking company Inversora Bursátil. By the time they were 35, Slim had started the Carso group (“Car” for “Carlos,” “So” for his wife “Soumaya”); Pérez Simón held a 30% minority stake, but through Carso, he would become head of the interests and entities we foreigners call “Telmex” (Teléfonos de México), thus joining the global business class of Mexico and getting really, really rich.

And what did he do with his money? He bought art. He was a collector from his early teens; he and his wife, according to one assessment of the collection, could only afford reproductions and “cheap Mexican landscape paintings” when they started out. Current assessments reveal that Pérez Simón owns important, some very well-known, paintings from the 14th century on, although he finds “modern” (i.e., past maybe 1970) art of little interest – too devoid of emotions, too intellectual.

His collection contains any number of notable paintings, including paintings we might consider classically modern (e.g., American Abstract Expressionism). Among the works that arrived in New York City for a 2018 exhibition at Di Donna Galleries, “A Passion for Collecting: Modern Works from the Pérez Simón Collection,” were two he purchased from Christie’s in New York at the equivalent of a fire sale during the 2008 financial meltdown. Of course, for Pérez Simón, “fire sale” means $1,142,500 for Magritte’s Exercices Spirituels and $962,500 for Joan Miro’s Femmes devant la lune.

Less attention is usually paid to Pérez Simón’s collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, except when, in 2014, he sent 52 Victorian-era paintings to Europe. The exhibition started in Paris, went to Rome, then Madrid, and finally England to be exhibited in the London house of Frederic, Lord Leighton, now the Leighton House Museum.

A Victorian Obsession: The Pérez Simón Collection,included five of Leighton’s own works, four of them painted at the Leighton House studio. Named head of the Royal Academy in 1878, Leighton was a social and political success; he was the only artist ever elevated to the House of Lords – unfortunately, he died at home the afternoon of the next day.

Lord Leighton knew and entertained most of the Pre-Raphaelites and the closely allied Victorian classicist painters; his own work falls more on the classicist side. The exhibit was most lauded for its unique combination of Leighton House – a monument to the wealth, status, and eccentric tastes of a successful Victorian artist – with the sensuous, romanticized paintings, which on closer examination, often showed a dark underbelly. One of the most famous paintings of the era, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadena’s The Roses of Heliogabulus, was painted in 1888, when Victorians saw themselves as heirs to the Roman Empire (remember “The sun never sets on the British Empire”?). The painting shows Emperor Heliogabulus (218-22 CE) indulging in his usual debauchery, amidst a deliciously pink shower of rose petals (history says Heliogabulus used cherry blossoms). Only thing is, the rose petals are smothering the guests, every last one of them, to death. Word has it that the painting, the last as you wended your way through Leighton House, was surrounded by the “scent of seven of the world’s most exquisite roses.”

That was enough to set off reviewer Waldemar Januszczak, who blogged that “Droopy damsels in distress take centre stage in A Victorian Expression.” Pointing out that Leighton was only a year older than Manet, who was busy founding French impressionism, Januszczak condemns Leighton and his contemporaries for engaging in “demented escapism.”

While he makes fun of the Mexican billionaire for collecting this particular movement in art, Januszczak makes no mention of the extraordinary breadth of the Pérez Simón collection as a whole.

We all know Carlos Slim is just as dedicated as his longtime friend Pérez Simón in collecting art – don’t worry, they apparently confer in advance so they avoid bidding against each other.