' [A Review of] "The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites," by Elizabeth Prettejohn

This review is reproduced here by kind permission of the online inter-disciplinary journal Cercles, where it was first published. The original text has been reformatted and illustrated for the Victorian Web by Jacqueline Banerjee, who has also added captions and links, and incorporated the endnotes into "Note," "Related Material" and "References" at the end. Click on the images for larger pictures and full bibliographic and other information.

The author of The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites, Elizabeth Prettejohn, is now a well-known authority on nineteenth-century British art. She has contributed to a number of exhibition catalogues and written, edited or co-edited several books on the subject since she submitted her thesis on Images of the past in Victorian painting, 1855-1871 (see note and references below). No doubt some readers of this review will remember the fine symposium on "Millais, Hunt and Modern Life" held at the Tate Gallery in November 2007 in connection with the major exhibition devoted to Millais — and no doubt these readers will remember Professor Prettejohn's active participation in it. Those who missed the first edition of The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites when it first appeared in 2000 will therefore expect expert treatment of the subject in the latest paperback reissue of the book, and they will not be disappointed.

The first quality that strikes us when reading the text (in spite of the large size, we have no mere "coffee-table book," with an indigent commentary, here) is its accessibility to the layman. Many books on the history of art are written — and published — today with the idea that it is only by resorting to abstruse "post-structuralist" notions and arcane "semiological" jargon that the scholarly nature of the undertaking will get recognition. Commendably, Professor Prettejohn must have drawn the conclusion from her experience with her Bristol University students — even advanced students — that clarity of exposition is the first quality of academic lecturing and writing. Her monograph is remarkable for its exemplary "readability," in spite of the complex questions discussed. The structure of the argument is also perfectly clear. She begins — classically — by exploring in what way the Pre-Raphaelites were different from their contemporaries. Equally classically, this exploration begins with an essential reminder of the origin of the expression ("the art of the period before Raphael and the High Renaissance — roughly, before the year 1500" [18]), which leads her to situate them in the long tradition of the European "primitives":

As in the case of Gauguin's exploration of Breton naïve art or Picasso's use of African masks, Pre-Raphaelite primitivism need not be seen as an antiquarian or historicist "revival", nor as a reactionary reversion to the styles of the past. Instead it brought the primitive into shocking friction with the illusionistic sophistication and technical refinement ordinarily expected of painting in the modernised and industrialised world of Victorian England. [19]

From this, she moves logically to an illuminating discussion of what distinguished the Pre-Raphaelites from both the British painters of their time and the "avant-garde" of the Continent, notably the French Impressionists. She first discusses painters like Edwin Landseer (1802-1873, Royal Academician from 1831) and Charles Robert Leslie (1794-1859, Royal Academician from 1826) — some of their most famous works being illustrated — to show how the Pre-Raphaelites, who added "P.R.B." (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) to their signatures turned the tables on those who added "R.A." (for Royal Academy [of Arts] or Royal Academician), at the same time drawing attention to what also made them different from their French near-contemporaries:

The revolt of the young Pre-Raphaelites against the Victorian artistic establishment is singular in the history of modern art in that it was an attack from above. Art historians have tended to equate artistic avant-gardism, instead, with attack from below — in particular, with French artistic projects that opposed traditional "High Art" by adopting modern-life subjects. The French Impressionists, for instance, rejected the Salon categories of history and mythological painting in favour of the "low" categories of landscape and contemporary genre. Art historians have often attached political significance to this choice of "low" pictorial categories. Avant-garde painters are seen to express radical political views not only by choosing episodes from the everyday lives of ordinary people as fit subjects for painting, but by opposing the "aristocratic" traditions of the French Academy. [37]

Left: Sir Edwin Landseer's . Right: Rossetti's The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (exhibited 1849).

Now, in earlier descriptions of the Pre-Raphaelites' themes of predilections, she had pointed out that a painting like Dante Gabriel Rossetti's The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (exhibited 1849) belonged to the highest-ranking category in the hierarchy established by Reynolds, the Founding President of the British Royal Academy of Arts in 1768 — "Sir Sloshua" for the Pre-Raphaelites: that of religious subjects. In other words, as a definite form of "High Art," such a subject did not seem to challenge existing values. But Elizabeth Prettejohn explains that the contradiction is only apparent, because the situation was not comparable in Britain and France:

Thus the selection of elevated subjects, in historical settings, may seem to disqualify the Pre-Raphaelites from "avant-garde" status, on the terms ordinarily applied to French painting. But the English art world was very different from that of France. For the young Pre-Raphaelites, the "establishment," represented by successful Royal Academicians such as Landseer and Leslie, meant commercial success through the representation of pleasant, anecdotal subjects suited to the domestic environment of the prosperous middle classes. The Pre-Raphaelites offered an implicit critique of their elders by adopting more serious and elevated subjects than Landseer's dogs and Leslie's humorous scenes from literature. This, too, can be seen as advocating a political role for art. [...] In a general sense, though, Pre-Raphaelite practice is built on the assumption that art should deal with serious issues, whether they are political, social, moral, or religious, not trivialities to amuse the leisure hours of the middle classes. [37]

The apparent contradiction goes even further, because it also affects technique — but again it, too, can be explained by the national context, which forced the Pre-Raphaelites' to adopt their trademark painstaking rendering of detail:

The styles of French avant-garde artists have seemed defiantly oppositional. The free brushwork of avant-garde styles such as Impressionism obviously reject the tight handling and smooth surface polish that marked French "academic" styles from Ingres to Bouguereau. By contrast the meticulous finish of Pre-Raphaelite painting may appear more conservative. But again the circumstances were very different in England. For the Pre-Raphaelites the imperative was to eliminate any expedients that smacked of hasty production to satisfy the voracious, high-capitalist market of mid-Victorian England. Their own methods verged on economic irrationality: months of hard labour were required to cover a canvas with minute Pre-Raphaelite brushstrokes. Pre-Raphaelite handling, like Pre-Raphaelite subject matter, was therefore very different from the kinds of French painting we are accustomed to associate with the idea of the avant-garde. But the Pre-Raphaelites were no less radical than the French painters in their opposition to the dominant modes of painting in their own art world. [38]

Seen out of context, the movement started by those who chose to call themselves Pre-Raphaelites around 1848-49 can lead to all sorts of misinterpretations, but all this contextualisation is of course very convincing — and arguably the rest of the book is devoted to a masterly amplification of this central idea that they were radicals in their own art world, which leaves open the question whether or not they can be seen as a form of avant-garde. Elizabeth Prettejohn clearly rejects Clement Greenberg's relegation of the Pre-Raphaelites "to the ranks of the nineteenth-century 'academic' or traditionalist painters" (64), and she gives a substantial list of arguments — what she calls their "avant-garde credentials" (65) — in favour of attributing that label to the Brotherhood, leaving the reader to form an opinion. All she suggests is that, to use a colloquial expression, at least the Pre-Raphaelites should be "given a chance":

The contention of this book is that Pre-Raphaelite art can help us to expand the stories we tell about modern art, if we take it as seriously as we do the familiar monuments of the modernist mainstream. [...] [W]e may take it seriously even according to the formal criteria more usually applied to modern art in the French tradition. [131]

This very welcome freedom left to the reader after he has been given the best elements of evidence and speculation available is found again in her excellent discussion of the apocryphal Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, notably in the section entitled "Elizabeth Siddall's Art: Two Interpretations". Elizabeth Siddall died in 1862, and therefore disappeared very early from the Pre-Raphaelite scene, but the movement of course continued for much longer, which leads to the vexed question of dating its demise.

Chapter 3, on "Pre-Raphaelitism" precisely begins with an examination of the numerous factors which may point to an answer, an impossible task which, Prettejohn argues, is often shirked by art historians. The difficulty lies in the names which one includes in the later developments of "Pre-Raphaelitism". As she puts it, "there is no consensus about what belongs under that label" (88). For instance, she recalls that Stanley Spencer has been "linked to Pre-Raphaelitism" (88). This would be taking things to extremes, since even though he was born in the nineteenth century (1891 to be exact), he died in 1959. Her own very useful Chronology (six pages on two columns) runs from 1848 to "only" 1877, the entry for that year dwelling on Burne-Jones as the hinge between the undisputed first phase of the movement and its more diversified later evolution:

1877. First exhibition of the Grosvenor Gallery, where Burne-Jones's works make a powerful impact; critics see him as the leader of a new school among Grosvenor exhibitors, seen by some as a descendent of the P.R.B. and including Crane, Stanhope, Evelyn Pickering (later De Morgan), John Melhuish Strudwick and others. [291]

Sir John Everett Millais' The North-West Passage (1874).

In fact, even in the section entitled "The 'Second Phase': Burne-Jones and Morris", she remains within the 1852-1869 time span, and in that on "Later Careers of the Brothers," which immediately follows, most of the works discussed and illustrated were exhibited before 1877 — with two contrasting exceptions, however. Whereas William Holman Hunt continued in the painstaking "tradition" of precision, Millais turned to quicker means of producing his paintings in the 1880s and 1890s (One can also note that his The North-West Passage of 1874 — a far cry from his early production — in fact figured in the recent Tate Exhibition on "Art and the Sublime") — but Prettejohn is not really convinced by the usual "commercial" explanations, and she has a lot to say in favour of the older Millais:

If we owe our love of early Italian painting, from Giotto to Botticelli, at least partly to the P.R.B., we owe our appreciation for Reynolds and Gainsborough, Georgian furniture and porcelain partly to the revival that began in the 1860s. Millais was perhaps the key figure in this revival [...]. [115-116]

Part II of the book, devoted to "Studies in Pre-Raphaelitism," begins with a chapter on Technique opening on a fascinating refutation of Stephen Spender's contention in 1945(9) that "the inspiration of Pre-Raphaelitism was verbal, literary, poetic, rather than of painting" (135). On the contrary, the author replies, the Pre-Raphaelites were in fact very much concerned with visual effect — but not in the hallowed tradition:

Older systems of pictorial organisation, such as those of Sir Joshua Reynolds's Discourses to the Students of the Royal Academy, delivered between 1769 and 1790 and still respected in the 1840s, depended on the hierarchical subordination of the less important to the more important elements of a composition. However, Pre-Raphaelite techniques did not prejudge which elements were more and which elements were less important; they did not presuppose a hierarchy. Instead of first establishing the general character of the whole, as Reynolds recommended, and then working down to particulars, Pre-Raphaelite techniques started with particulars and allowed the whole to emerge as a consequence. [136]

This complete break with the traditional procedure of composition was (still is) both off-putting to some viewers and one of their marks of modernity:

This reversal of priorities makes the pictures difficult to comprehend at a glance. The pictures do not guide the spectator's attention to principal features, but seem to demand energetic attentiveness to a bewildering quantity and variety of visual stimuli. The effect can still be experienced as disconcerting or stressful. But it cannot be dismissed as eccentric or wilful. The ramifications of the change in priorities are profound — it encourages a novel way of looking at the world in which traditional ordering systems are nowhere taken for granted, but always called into question. [136]

A wide range of paintings and drawings (most of them illustrated, sometimes with large-size details) is examined and discussed in the light of this, with special emphasis on the Pre-Raphaelites' peculiar use of colour, and their non-Reynoldsian tonal balance between the bright areas and the shadows, with Prettejohn concluding that

Viewers may still find their visual intensity shocking or overpowering in contrast to the more restful pictures of the old-master tradition. In 1945, Spender could not accept maximum visibility as a coherent aesthetic for painting. But there is a compelling logic to the Pre-Raphaelite procedures. They empower us to see more than we expect: more colour, more detail, more light. They never relieve us from the intense effort to see as much as possible, or even more. This may be disconcerting or even frightening. But it may also be exhilarating. [163]

Left to right: (a) Sir John Everett Millais' Portrait of John Ruskin (1853-1854). (b) Jane Morris in Medieval costume, drawn by William Morris (c. 1861). (c) William Holman Hunt's The Lady of Shallot (c.1886-1905).

Chapter 5 explores Pre-Raphaelite landscape in the light of Barthes' reflections on the photographic picture and Ruskin's first volume of Modern Painters (1843), with a masterly discussion of Millais' Portrait of John Ruskin (1853-1854), whose background, it will be remembered, was provided by a waterfall. Probably for reasons of balance in the length of the chapters, Chapter 5 also includes an insightful examination of the peculiarities in the Pre-Raphaelites' choice of models — the extreme examples being those of Elizabeth Rossetti née Siddall (1829-1862) and Jane Morris née Burden (1839-1914) — though one would have expected to find it in the next chapter, on "Gender and Sexuality."

The exploration of that theme logically starts with the "historic" essay of 1984, "Patriarchal Power and the Pre-Raphaelites".(11) But Prettejohn reminds us that the "patriarchal power" denounced in the review article was not that of the Pre-Raphaelites or even their Victorian contemporaries — it was that of the 1980s. She also usefully reminds us that "Angels in the House" is the title of an 1854-1863 poem by a Pre-Raphaelite associate, Coventry Patmore, and she starts from there to comment on the duality "Madonna or Magdalen, virgin or whore, wife or witch" (208), literally illustrating her analysis by offering and discussing the archetypal contrast, Clara von Bork and Sidonia von Bork by Burne-Jones (1860). Prettejohn proposes a twenty-first century reading "against the grain," arguing that this may not be one "that Burne-Jones 'intended,' or that Victorian art critics would have countenanced" (211) — but we should be allowed to see the duality of the two pictures in a light which does not necessarily lead to a misogynistic interpretation. Again, she asks all the right questions in her commentary of the "riddle" (215) behind Take Your Son, Sir! by Ford Maddox Brown (1851-1857), an unfinished canvas which is "a far cry from traditional images that present a mother and child, or the Virgin and Child" (215). The most difficult riddle is of course that of the Lady of Shalott — already "inexplicit" (224) in Tennyson's poem (1832, revised 1842), but with all sorts of complex overt or covert allusions to her sexuality in the many pictorial interpretations offered by the Pre-Raphaelites, which seem to contradict their own initial agenda:

We are accustomed to thinking of Pre-Raphaelite art as one that leaves no detail unclear, yet despite the vividness of her various incarnations the Lady remains radically indeterminate. She may be a sexualised woman; she may be the victim of patriarchal oppression; she may be an allegory for the artist; she may be a fairy or prophet. At the end of the twentieth century, though, we may perhaps rejoice that the Lady has eluded the attempts of patriarchal societies, either hers or ours, to fix her meaning. [231]

Sir John Everett Millais' The Vale of Rest (1858).

The final chapter, on "Contexts for Pre-Raphaelitism" starts on a similar ambiguity: what are we to make of Ford Maddox Brown's Work (1852-1865), since critics have offered interpretations which are poles apart, from a glorification of the classless unity of Victorian society to a denunciation of its class divisions? Likewise, the obvious religious dimension of many Pre-Raphaelite themes — and the not-so-obvious one of many others — pose many problems of interpretation in the disunited world of British Christianity in the mid-nineteenth century: to the Roman Catholic organisational revival (the hierarchy of priests was re-introduced in 1850), which was widely perceived as a foreign menace, one could add the extreme denominational fragmentation of British Protestantism. "Pre-Raphaelite pictures have been linked to all of these religious positions", Prettejohn reminds us (243), before concluding that by the end the 1850s two tendencies could now be seen to be emerging: a sort of abstract spirituality not related to any particular creed and a continued adherence to strict "historic" forms of religion. Yet interpretative lines often remained blurred — with Millais' The Vale of Rest (1858) providing "no intelligible narrative" (250).

The study of these "Contexts" ends on an unusual reference to "Scientific and Technological Contexts", which the author very convincingly justifies:

Despite the vast literature on Pre-Raphaelite art, relatively little attention has yet been devoted to one of its most important contemporary contexts, the burgeoning Victorian interest in the sciences. Geology and botany are obvious concerns in Pre-Raphaelite paintings, as are psychology, anatomy and physiology. [...] The sciences therefore promise to be one of the most fruitful areas of future research into the contexts for Pre-Raphaelite art. [251, 257]

The Epilogue concludes that we in the twenty-first century must forget "the aesthetic prejudices of the twentieth" and recognise the value of "another of the greatest artistic achievements of modernity, the art of the Pre-Raphaelites" (262). Who would object after reading so many excellent commentaries and demonstrations and seeing so many magnificent large-size reproductions in full colour of the individual works discussed?

The book also offers a comprehensive Glossary of Names, with their relevance for the movement, and its very helpful Annotated Bibliography should be required reading for any student undertaking research in the field, or simply for the interested amateur who wants to learn more about these fascinating characters and their equally fascinating works. This reissue will no doubt be followed by many more updated editions, and there is no question that The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites will remain the standard work on the Brotherhood for many years to come. Unreservedly recommended.


Some notable works by Prettejohn: Rossetti and his Circle (London: Tate Gallery Publishing, 1997); After the Pre-Raphaelites: Art and Aestheticism in Victorian England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999); Dante Gabriel Rossetti (London: Thames & Hudson, 2003); Art for Art's Sake: Aestheticism in Victorian Painting (New Haven: Yale University Press for The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2007).

Related Material


The book under review: Prettejohn, Elizabeth. The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites. Revised paperback reissue. London: Tate Publishing, 2010. 304 pages. £19.99. ISBN-13: 978-1854377265.

Barthes, Roland. La chambre claire : Note sur la photographie. Paris : Gallimard, 1980 (Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill & Wang, 1981 / London: Cape, 1982.

Cherry, Deborah & Griselda Pollock. "Patriarchal Power and the Pre-Raphaelites." Art History 7-4 (December 1984): 480-495 (a review of the Tate Exhibition of that year).

Greenberg, Clement. "The New Laocoön," Partisan Review 7 (1940): 296-310.

Prettejohn, Elizabeth. Images of the past in Victorian painting, 1855-1871. University of London (Courtauld Institute of Art), 1991 (v-782 leaves + 1 microfilm [267 frames]).

Spender, Stephen. "The Pre-Raphaelite Literary Painters." New Writing and Daylight. Ed. John Lehmann. London: Hogarth Press. 6 (1945): 123-151. 146.

Last modified 24 January 2014