The Pre-Raphaelites, like the Romantic poets, were all about inner passion. They thought that this had been lost in the faux-Renaissance froth of the Academy and its unfaltering reverence for Raphael. Inner passion, they thought, was bursting from the work of the artists from before Raphael, such as Giotto. In their journal The Germ, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood vowed to express heartfelt emotions, concepts and ideals through the meticulous study of nature, inspired by the painstaking technique of the Flemish Masters.
Part of this revival of Pre-Renaissance art was a fascination with subject matter that deviated from the norms of Classical mythology and standard Biblical or allegorical scenes. Much of this was about a revival of ‘authentic Englishness’. There were paintings showing scenes from the story of King Arthur, Shakespeare’s plays, English history, medieval legends and the poems of the Romantic poets. Their evocations of an unspoilt English countryside and the feudal and faithful society of the medieval past appealed to the Pre-Raphaelite’s longing for a national Golden Age, an alternative to the Greek and Roman Classical past that was so revered by the art of the time.
Like the Pre-Raphaelites, Romantic poets had a love of rich symbolism, lavish detail, sensuousness, mystery, doomed protagonists and fair maidens. One of the best poems to illustrate this is Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott (all poem titles I mention are links to the full poem). Tennyson creates a feast for our imaginations with his evocation of a lush medieval English setting. I have always imagined it as a miniature from a Book of Hours calendar, with the reapers hard at work between the castle and the river. The poem tells the story of a lady who is imprisoned by a mysterious curse inside a tower. She cannot look outside but weaves the world from its reflection in a mirror. When the dashing Sir Lancelot rides by, she cannot help but look out of the window. The curse is unleashed and she sails up the river to her death.
This poem inspired William Waterhouse to create three paintings. The most famous, which you can see at Tate Britain, has the Lady about to ‘loose the chain’.
Waterhouse has tried to capture the moment in the poem when
With a steady stony glance—
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Beholding all his own mischance,
Mute, with a glassy countenance—
She look’d down to Camelot.
Holman Hunt also depicted a scene from the poem in 1886, when the loom is unravelling and its threads tightening around the Lady of Shalott herself (see the Pre-Raphaelite love of symbolism). The framed mirror behind her reveals the figure of Sir Lancelot, contrasting with the figure of Christ on the wall. Hunt (characteristically)interprets the story as a moral choice between Christ and Lancelot.
Another of Tennyson’s great poems, Mariana, also proved inspirational. Derived from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, the poem focusses on the lonely suffering of a woman who is waiting for her lover to return to her. He has rejected her because her dowry was lost in a shipwreck.
John Everett Millais painted this in 1851, the year after Tennyson was made Poet Laureate. Millais re-interprets the poem, however. His sensual and colourful Mariana contrasts with the pallid, wasting-away and suicidal Mariana of the poem.
Keats was another favourite of the Pre Raphaelites. His Isabella appealed especially because it was inspired by a story in Boccaccio’s Decameron, so it has an authentic medieval source. The story is a strange one – the brothers of the eponymous hero Isabella are so angry at her love for their low-status employee Lorenzo that they murder him and bury his body in the woods. Lorenzo appears to Isabella in a dream and tells her what has happened. She digs up his body and because she cannot carry it home, cuts off the head and plants it in a pot of basil.
Millais painted this in 1849 when he was only 19 and it was the first painting to bear the initials PRB (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – although it was speculated that it stood for ‘preferably rich buyers’). It encapsulates the entire narrative in one image using an array of symbolism. The oranges Lorenzo is offering Isabella on the right are blood oranges, a traditional symbol of decapitation. In the background we can see passion flowers – a symbol of the lover’s obsessive passion – and a pot of basil. The evil brother is cracking a nut while aiming a kick at Isabella’s dog, suggesting the violence which he will later enact.
A later painting by William Holman Hunt depicts Isabella having just left her bed, which we can see in the background. Holman Hunt modelled her features off those of his wife Fanny, who tragically died after giving birth to their daughter while he was beginning the painting. Isabella is shown ‘weeping through her hair’ as she does in the poem.
Let’s look at another iconic Keats poem – La Belle Dame Sans Merci. This poem epitomises the Victorian obsession with the femme fatale: a beautiful but dangerous woman who uses her powers of seduction to cause harm. The source of the poem is a medieval romance by French poet Alain Chartier, so once again there was an appeal for the Pre-Raphaelites because of the direct medieval root. The poem is about a hapless knight who is seduced by a mysterious, enchanting woman who lures him to her “Elfin grot”. The Knight has a terrifying dream and awakes “alone and palely loitering” “on the cold hill’s side.”
The most famous image of this poem is by Frank Bernard Dicksee, painted in around 1900. To put this into perspective, this is around 7 years before the birth of Cubism.
Its idyllic rural setting makes it a distinctively English – this could almost be the Lake District. The painting is much more focussed on the fantastical ideal of medieval seducing than the moral warning about the dangers of obsession. There is one small hint of the Knight’s unhappy fate: the blighted leaves that brush his outstretched arm. I find the contrast in textures in this painting interesting – the soft, ephemeral texture of the female clothing contrasting with the sharp edges and hardness of the male. The warmth of the pink is also at odds with the metallic cold of the armour. And yet it is the soft, warm, delicate colour and texture that is placed in the position of dominance and power, clearly indicated by the hierarchy of the composition: her above, him below.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti gives us a rather different interpretation of this scene of obsessive courtship.
Rossetti makes the knight, not the lady, the one responsible for his fate. She is not so much the victor as the Knight’s medium of self-victimisation. He is clearly in the throes of obsession, coiling her hair around his neck. She does not engage with him – she is just the object of his desire. She gazes out at us instead, or is perhaps not looking at anyone at all but is lost in her interior world. Her power seems to be subconscious.
Giotto’s Lamentation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lamentation_of_Christ
Alma Tadema’s Love in Idleness: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/love-in-idleness-1891-lawrence-alma-tadema.html
Waterhouse’s the Lady of Shalott: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/waterhouse-the-lady-of-shalott-n01543
Holman Hunt’s the Lady of Shalott: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/the-lady-of-shalott-205251
Millais’ Mariana: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/millais-mariana-t07553 Millais’
Holman Hunt’s Isabella: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isabella_and_the_Pot_of_Basil
Dicksee’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/la-belle-dame-sans-merci-188451
Rossetti’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dante_Gabriel_Rossetti_-_La_Belle_Dame_sans_Merci