Truth & Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters is an escape. In the mausoleum-like lower galleries at the Legion of Honor, there are no windows to remind you of the outside world. There’s also no cell service, so those terrifying push notifications can’t reach you. Absent these external reminders, the galleries and their contents create a sense of timelessness, aided by the fact that they're filled with art spanning nearly eight centuries.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, formed in 1848 by art students at London's Royal Academy (more on that unfortunate naming decision later), pulled unapologetically from the old masters in their quest to express “truth to nature.” This means, among the works spanning centuries, an echoing of style and subject matter blurs the lines between the very old and slightly less old. The paintings, textiles and prints of both the Pre-Raphaelites and the medieval and Renaissance artists they admired are full of vibrant colors, angular poses, dense symbolism and romantic scenes, amounting to six galleries of pure beauty.
But before we get too far into the contents of those galleries: the name. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood formed a full 328 years after the death of the Italian High Renaissance artist Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (a.k.a. Raphael). Though these young art students did admire the work that came before Raphael, their primary stance was against the “Raphaelites,” the followers and imitators of Raphael who (they believed) regurgitated past methods without giving them new energy or significance. Being a Pre-Raphaelite meant returning to the primary source material—the old masters and nature itself.
The Legion of Honor exhibition, curated by the Fine Arts Museums' Director of the Art Division Melissa Buron, focuses on three founding members of the “brotherhood,” William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, tracing their influences and protégées into the 20th century. The group took to heart the words of art critic (and Pre-Raphaelite champion) John Ruskin, to “go to nature in all singleness of heart ... rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing ... and rejoicing always in the truth.”
In early Pre-Raphaelite works, this meant precision. In the 1851 painting Mariana, Millais depicts a character from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, inspired by an Alfred, Lord Tennyson poem. The titular figure stands up from her floral needlework to stretch her back, leaves scattered around her workspace and outside her window. See, Millais seems to say, she too studies nature!
Most of the women in the Pre-Raphaelites’ paintings engage in far less strenuous tasks. Rossetti’s redheads (most modeled after Jane Morris) brush their hair, drape their fingers across stringed instruments, hold pomegranates or branches, or simply fiddle with their jewelry, their milky necks arched and tilted to emphasize strong jawlines.
It’s easy to follow the path of visual influence from portraits by Sandro Botticelli and Paolo Veronese to these women, but to do so within the space of just a few galleries feels luxurious. Not even the Pre-Raphaelites had such ready access to the Renaissance paintings they so admired. In the era of Google image search, we forget about the many translations between painting, print and copy that transpired before artists in England might chance upon an image of an artwork in Italy.
Reproductions fed their practices. At their very first meeting, before any of the Pre-Raphaelites traveled abroad, Millais showed Hunt and Rossetti prints made after the frescoes in the Campo Santo in Pisa. The Arundel Society, founded by Ruskin in 1848, commissioned copies of European masterworks to promote a deeper understanding of art history. And while Edward Burne-Jones, a second-generation Pre-Raphaelite, frequently visited Italy to view Renaissance works firsthand, he also collected photographs of artworks, amassing several hundred prints by the 1870s with the help of traveling friends.
Pulling from the past to make new things in the present is a cycle of inspiration and influence as old as art itself. But what's rare and special about Truth & Beauty is the level of visual indulgence involved. The show invites you to smother your eyeballs in oil and tempera renditions of luscious fabrics, to trace the curve of a neck and bask in the jewel tones of Hunt’s masterpiece show-closer, The Lady of Shalott. In fact, the best way to view the exhibition is to adopt a languid pose of your own (contrapposto if you like), absorb aesthetic lessons so powerful they continue to inform our everyday understandings of beauty, and allow yourself that oh-so-momentary escape.
'Truth & Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters' is on view at the Legion of Honor through Sept. 30, 2018. Details here.