For those who are in Milan this August, I suggest visiting the remarkable Pre-Raphaelites exhibition held at Palazzo Reale. This artistic movement born in Great Britain 1848 by artists like John Everett Millais, Gabriel Dante Rossetti and John William Waterhouse is very well known for the typical topics of love, desire, nature, myth, history and medieval anecdotes, poetry and beauty as a universal statement of life. There are eighty paintings displayed in the palace's venues that are signed by eighteen Pre-Raphaelites and lent by The Tate Gallery for this special occasion. The fil rouge that connects subjects and themes is curated by Carol Jacobi, the art curator at Tate Britain.
The beginning, ideals, nature and symbolism
The year 1848 signed a revolutionary period in Europe, following the new social work life changed values and rules, so, the Confraternity of Pre-Raphaelites started to represent society with those redefined ideals. To give an idea of this excellent display, let's see the most significant works for each section.
As for the theme concerning the zealous love and desire, that reconnects to the old masters of poetry and writing, Shakespeare in particular, the must-see work of art here is the Ophelia by John Everett Millais, that expound the key-concepts of the art movement that flood into the painting. So, we found the en-plein-air background, to respect the natural criterion of painting and lots of symbolical elements leading back to eternal love, death, youth and devotion values representative of the sixteenth-century epic and chivalric poems.
Going on with the exhibition, other elements are investigated, like psychology, moral and intimacy. One of my favorite paintings representing that, a truly love drama that implicates a sacrifice in the choices of the main character, is Claudio and Isabella story inspired by the episode narrated in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. The anguish in the painting is so strong and tangible, as Isabella must choose whether to sacrifice her virginity or not to lord Angelo in exchange for her brother Claudio's life, here in prison.
Speaking of devotion and sacrifice, I cannot mention to stress the attention to the astonishing painting of St. Agnes by Frank Cadogan Cowper. The legend says Saint Agnes at the age of thirteen decided to vow her devotion to Jesus and to live in chastity, as for her marriage with Christ. When a son of a prefect of Rome had been refused by Agnes, she was withdrawn naked in a brothel and condemned to live her life in that conditions forever. However, due to her piousness, an angel coming from heaven appeared to provide her with a candid and shining garment, while her hair is grown long to shield her body from men attention. Although this help and despite her enormous sacrifice, the virgin was murdered with a stab in the throat. This scene is full of pathos and emotional charge, as well as symbolic and iconographic meaning that clearly emphasise the issue of sacrifice.
In "Take your son, Sir", Ford Madox Brown creates a mystery around his partner's portrait, which will be destined to be unfinished. The interpretation of the scene is ambiguous and undefined: in fact, the viewer is not able to perceive if the mother is sad or happy. On the other side, at first sight, the picture seems to lead back to the traditional iconography of the Madonna and child, but is not, since the modern interior design and because the viewer is appointed itself as a "Sir". The baleful destiny is intrinsic in the painting, that it comes incomplete due to the untimely death of the child.
More love is spread into this art within works by Arthur Hughes with his April love, inspired by Dante's poetry and Tennyson verses, in which he describes the lovers' affair and their meetings in a secret place.
Following the lovers' intimacy, he presents in the Woodman's child the parenthood's love, depicting a baby girl sleeping on her father's jacket and mother's scarf. The scene is so lovely as she is also looked after by a squirrel and a robin.
But love is also drenched in romance, aesthetic, seduction and opulence. These frills will be welcomed in Rossetti and his followers, looking back at Renaissance times and artists such as Titian and Leonardo da Vinci. From this inspiration, during the 1860s, Pre-Raphaelites pictured models with a different light, in order to catch their soul's beauty and considering them like literary characters. In this way, the so renewed vision of woman was created, and the ideal ones portrayed by the confraternity's artists become new fashion icons to look like.
Hence, I have listed my favourite sequence of women portraits as an example of the update feminine ideal.
Aurelia (Fazio's mistress) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, represents a classical pose used by Titian in "Woman with a mirror", 1515, Musée du Louvre, while the context is private and psychologically unreachable.
Beata Beatrix is inspired by Dante Alighieri's poem La Vita Nuova, where the idealised love for Beatrice got stronger by her early death. The artist depicts Dante the poet on the background while staring at the figure of love.
Monna Pomona is a Renaissance beauty who honours the Roman goddess of fruit and orchards and awakens all the senses by the symbolic features of her loose long hair, the taste of the apple, the flowers with their scent, the metal beads and the heaviness of the drapery.
By the 1880s, the large fame gained by Pre-Raphaelites pushed the artists themselves to increase the production and the dimensions of their paintings, looking for inspiration in myths, legends and tales surrounded by love and mystery. The painters focused on the emancipated women that they used to depict as strong and disruptive forces, mysterious characters, goddess, enchantresses and mythical femme-fatales.
An instance of the recovery of myths, larger sizes and love between lovers belonging to two different social classes is the Temple of Love by Edward Burne-Jones. This painting originates after Burne-Jones trip to Italy, the view of Andrea Mantegna's Madonna della Vita at Louvre and William Morris's poem Love is Enough, which tells about a king who left everything for love and it thought, after he found it, to have all although the richness lost. Thus, the king is posing with his soulmates, while surrounded by famous past lovers, including Phyllis and Demophon and Pyramus and Thisbe.
For The Lady of Shalottt John William Waterhouse, one of the most successful painters among the Pre-Raphaelites, got inspiration from Tennyson's poem The lady of Shalott, describing a heroine cursed to die if she stops to embroider the scenes she is viewing in the mirror in her tower. When she sights Lancelot in the mirror, she runs outside hoping to search for Lancelot after freeing a boat. She is now on the way to die, while the wind is blowing her hair and extinguishes her candles. Since the painting is loaded with atmospheric style, the closeness to Impressionism is evident.