In the mid-19th century, the emerging discipline of photography shared an intimate relationship with a radical yet backward-looking movement called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. “The Pre-Raphaelite Lens,” at the National Gallery of Art, reveals connections between photographers trying to elevate their new discipline and painters struggling to escape the long history of their own. When the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood formed in 1848, its members rejected academic teachings that took painters away from the direct experience of nature. But its members were also determined to represent only honorable subjects, and were smitten with medievalism. In other words: While this circle of youngish Brits created one of the first avante-garde movements in art, they were also a little old-fashioned, maybe even a little corny. A Pre-Raphaelite painter typically stitched together minute observations made at different times into one busy, disjointed canvas. Precision and detail mattered most—features that early daguerréotypes suddenly offered at low cost, appearing like nothing less than magic. Rather than resist the new wave, many Pre-Raphaelites practiced photography, and used daguerréotypes as models for rendering faces in their paintings. The NGA show reveals not only how photography shook the notion of realism in painting, but also how Pre-Raphaelite themes crept into the work of early photographers searching for high-art validation. The show pairs photographers like Lewis Carroll, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Roger Fenton with painters like John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
THE EXHIBITION IS ON VIEW 10 A.M. TO 5 P.M. MONDAY TO SATURDAY AND 11 A.M. TO 6 P.M. SUNDAY, FROM OCT. 31 TO JAN. 30 AT THE NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, 4TH STREET AND CONSTITUTION AVENUE NW. FREE. (202) 737-4215.