John Everett Millais, Ophelia
John Everett Millais, Ophelia

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

It is difficult to think of the Pre-Raphaelites’ work as anything other than decorative and pretty, let alone avant-garde. Google it and you’ll come up with Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s bored pale-faced ladies or John Everett Millais’ “Ophelia.” But the exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, organized by London’s Tate Britain museum, offers the kind of context that might help viewers appreciate the 19th-century movement, considered radical in its day, as something more meaningful than decor.

The scene began taking shape in 1848, when artist academies were less than a century old, London’s National Gallery had yet to celebrate its 25th anniversary, and photography had been around for a decade. The Industrial Revolution had dramatically transformed the region, and people concerned about its effects romanticized a better time: the Middle Ages.

At the time of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s founding, the Royal Academy of Art required its students to make copies of old master paintings. The High Renaissance master Raphael was considered the pinnacle painter, and the academy wanted to produce an army of Raphaels, or Raphaelites. Millais, Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and their peers rejected that idea, seeking inspiration elsewhere. They found it in Jan van Eyck’s 1434 painting “The Arnolfini Portrait.” Created 75 years before Raphael’s “The School of Athens,” van Eyck’s piece was considered primitive. But the Pre-Raphaelites were so inspired by van Eyck and other “primitive” realists, the group claimed the name the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and set out on a quest for an old-but-new realism.

Unlike contemporary French and American realists, whose works usually depicted everyday life, the Pre-Raphaelites favored brilliantly hued, allegorical depictions of Victorian virtue. The results sometimes came across as, well, preachy. Take Rossetti’s “Found” (1859) and Hunt’s “The Awakening Conscience” (1853-54), which both explore prostitution: “Found” depicts a woman resisting a man who tries to rescue her from the sex trade; in the latter, a woman rises from her lover’s lap, awakening to the light of salvation.

Their sanctimony notwithstanding, the execution of pictorial space is astounding. Hunt, and many of the others on view, captures ornament and design with striking detail. Florence Claxton’s “The Choice of Paris: An Idyll,” which has all of the odd proportion and forced perspective of early 14th century works by Simone Martini or Pietro Lorenzetti, might be the only exception. Some works almost feel Baroque, like Millais’ painting, “Mariana,” which depicts a woman stretching her back above her work table, situated near a window. (It raises the question of how familiar he may have been with Johannes Vermeer’s 17th-century depictions of domestic workers near windows.)

Regardless of its inconsistencies, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a true movement with common interests, unlike, say, Pop Artists, who get lumped together in art history surveys more out of formal convenience than any real ideology. The PRB often incorporated themes and passages from Chaucer, Dante, Tennyson, and Shakespeare into its works (a theme explored in the National Gallery’s companion exhibit, “Pre-Raphaelites and the Book”). In that sense, they could be compared to illustrators—but not mere toothless decorators.