1848. Uprisings were happening all across Europe. In Victorian England, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed. It’s self-proclaimed purpose was to reintroduce the lofty principles of the art of the Italian Renaissance as practiced prior to Raphael and those inspired by him. This high-minded group consisted of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and William Holman Hunt, a trio held together by idealism and enthusiasm. A group of young free thinkers like this was bound for scandal and controversy just on account, earning public ire, contempt, and criticism in their wakes. This, in turn, meant that other artists would join their ranks over the course of the next 60 years, among them Edward Burne-Jones, John William Waterhouse, and William Morris.
To fully understand and appreciate a group like this and what they achieved, one needs only to consider the stereotypical gloom of Victorian England. That era is also known as the Gothic revival era, or simply the “Gothic era.” Most think of it as being dark and gloomy, made so by the fog and the coal soot and the Industrial Revolution. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Gothic era is so named for its literary astuteness and admiration for Medieval romance (especially Arthurian), and we have the Pre-Raphaelites to thank for that. These painters turned to heroic literature and the “innocence” of the Renaissance both liven up and brighten up the otherwise “bland and repetitive” complacency that was the Victorian art scene. It would be easy to compare and contrast the Pre-Raphaelites with the French Impressionists of the same era, which I tend to do.
I’ve had this coffee table book in my library for about 20 years now, from the midst of my college days as an art student. I dig it out every so often because the enthusiast in me finds a never-ending font of inspiration in work of this caliber, and the medievalist in me awakens to the ideals of an heroic age of knights and ladies that never was but should have been. The book is an easy read, and for those with an appreciation of such masterworks, it’s easy on the eyes as well, every page adorned with lush color.
What always leaves me wanting is that my favorite artist of this era, Edmund Blair Leighton, is not featured in this book at all. Then again, it seems very little is known about him or his work beyond what’s listed in his obituary, and much of his work appears right at the end of this era. Regardless, it was through him that I found these other painters, so I owe that debt of gratitude and call it out here. To no surprise to anyone, I keep a print of “The Accolade” on the wall in my library.
This book can still be readily found online, in bookstores, and sometimes even in museum gift shops. For those interested in art, perhaps don’t know where to begin, and would love a foot in the door on this select group of painters, Hardin’s book fits the bill. It’s an excellent means to contextualize these great works with their creators and their time and place.