Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Pre-Raphaelite Germ

In the mid-1800's a group of artists and poets, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and J.E. Millais, founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) with their initial publication, The Germ. The groundbreaking periodical only survived for four spectacular issues between January and April of 1850. However, its influence on the art and literary community in England as well as the Continent was striking. This seminal vehicle for a new interpretation and expression of art in literature and the applied-arts displayed the poetry of William Michael and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Thomas Woolner, James Collinson, and Christina Rossetti, as well as essays by Ford Madox Brown, Coventry Patmore, and others.

The periodical, subtitled, Thoughts Towards Nature in Art and Literature, was an attempt to marry art, in the form of book illustration, and poetry. William Michael Rossetti, in an introduction to a 1901 facsimile edition put it this way:

…it was [The Germ] intended to enunciate the principles of those who, in the true spirit of Art, enforce a rigid adherence to the simplicity of Nature either in Art or Poetry, and consequently regardless whether emanating from practical Artists, or from those who have studied nature in the Artist's School.

W.M. Rossetti, further explained that the depiction of nature in and through art was to be their “paramount storehouse of materials for objects to be represented.” The artists and poets of the PRB studied nature, the representation of it in ideas, and the delineation of nature as seen through allegories and symbols.

Woodcut illustration by Edward Burne-Jones for the renowned 1896 edition of Chaucer's Tales. Burne-Jones, though not an "official" member of the PRB, was one of many artists of the period who associated with the Pre-Raphaelites and illustrated the books and poetry of the PRB. Burne-Jones contributed hundreds of woodcut illustrations in this tour-de-force. First editions of the work sell for over $100,000 on the auction block.

PRB artists and poets wanted to free themselves from the restrictions and mechanizations of the incipient Industrial Revolution as well as norms in art that became part of the institutionalized and commercialized "industry" of art. Their poetry was filled with rich imagery and symbolism. Rarely did a poem provide a contemporary context or a narrator, but rather aimed to address universal ideas, images and feelings. The Pre-Raphaelites drew heavily on the lore of mythology and the historical-literary archive of such classics as King Arthur, Norse and Greek Legends, Medieval culture, as well as romantic characters and poems in literature (Ophelia, Persephone, Eve of St. Agnes) They painted vividly colored pastoral and metaphorical paintings often illustrating a classical poem or legend. The Pre-Raphaelite poets formed their own distinctive voice, calling for a return to a more simplistic, contemplative life.

Probably Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s most famous book illlustration, “The Maids of Elfin-mere,” is a hauntingly beautiful etching of three young women with their arms outstretched. It appeared in the 1855 edition of The Music Master by William Allingham. DGR was very upset with the woodcut when he saw the first proofs, feeling it had inadequately expressed his line. He only begrudgingly let it be published. Many of the Pre-Raphaelites pursued the non-lucrative avenue of producing woodcut illustrations for the poetry books of the period. Most prolific of those artists were the celebrated William Holman Hunt and J.E. Millais, both founding members of the PRB. As well, these two, along with D.G. Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown and Edward Burne-Jones avidly painted full-size oils with vivid colors and graphic representation. The best known and acclaimed of all the poets in the group was indisputably Dante Rossetti. His poems are often very long and heady, but a careful reading will review a genius in his verse. Here is a shorter poem which uncommonly (for DGR) speaks of peace in his world of torment, high stress, and eventual drug addiction.

Lost on Both Sides, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

As when two men have loved a woman well,
Each hating each, through Love's and Death's deceit;
Since not for either this stark marriage-sheet
And the long pauses of this wedding bell;
Yet o'er her grave the night and day dispel
At last their feud forlorn, with cold and heat;
Nor other than dear friends to death may fleet
The two lives left that most of her can tell:
So separate hopes, which in a soul had wooed
The one same Peace, strove with each other long,
And Peace before their faces perished since:
So through that soul, in restless brotherhood,
They roam together now, and wind among
Its bye-streets, knocking at the dusty inns.

Christina Rossetti, Dante's and William's sister, was an extremely gifted poet. Unlike the long, enigmatic and cerebral poems of Dante, Christina's voice was soft, sensitive, and full of the pathos and conflict that she experienced in her close association with the PRB. CR had a very vibrant faith in God which came out in her poetry in a marvelous free and moving counterpoint, unlike some of the more overtly "religious" poetry of the period. The following poem, entitled Aloof, is a masterpiece of poetic ambivalence with a strong assertive current of honesty saturating every line:

The irresponsive silence of the land,
The irresponsive sounding of the sea,
Speak both one message of one sense to me:--
Aloof, aloof, we stand aloof, so stand
Thou too aloof, bound with the flawless band
Of inner solitude; we bind not thee;
But who from thy self-chain shall set thee free?
What heart shall touch thy heart? What hand thy hand?
And I am sometimes proud and sometimes meek,
And sometimes I remember days of old
When fellowship seem'd not so far to seek,
And all the world and I seem'd much less cold,
And at the rainbow's foot lay surely gold,
And hope felt strong, and life itself not weak.

The opening number of The Germ begins with a stunning, lengthy poem by Thomas Woolner, one of the four founding members of the PRB. It is illustrated with a stunning woodcut etching by William Holman Hunt, another founding member. It is a split illustration, with the upper panel showing a lady picking flowers near a river with her lover pulling her back. The lower panel shows the lover collapsed on his lover's grave, with a procession of nuns passing behind him. Here are the first two stanzas of the poem:

My Beautiful Lady, by Thomas Woolner (first two stanzas)

I love my lady; she is very fair;
Her brow is white, and bound by simple hair;
Her spirit sits aloof, and high,
Altho' it looks thro' her soft eye
Sweetly and tenderly.

As a young forest, when the wind drives thro',
My life is stirred when she breaks on my view.
Altho' her beauty has such power,
Her soul is like the simple flower
Trembling beneath a shower.

It’s difficult to place The Pre-Raphaelites in the order and scale of art movements throughout history. Some decry their idealized representation of the human figure as evidenced in many of Rossetti’s over-romanticized paintings. Others have criticized their narrow and focused view. Most, however, agree that these kinds of narrow assessments sadly misrepresent the effect and value of their art. It was, first and foremost, a reactionary, if not revolutionary movement by a few very gifted artists who wanted to exercise their individuality in an area where that kind of action was vehemently opposed by the institutions in place. Putting it simply, William Rossetti captured the early motives of the founders in this way:

The Preraphaelite Brotherhood entertained a deep respect and a sincere affection for the works of some of the artists who had preceded Raphael; and they thought that they should more or less be following the lead of those artists if they themselves were to develop their own individuality, disregarding school-rules. This was the sum and substance of their “Preraphaelitism."

One of 38 full-color illustration by Edward Burne-Jones for The Flower Book, London, 1905


  1. Good post, Ed...these artists are among my favorites.

  2. Great Article Ed.

    Long live the brotherhood

  3. a slice of art history bigger than most of the accumilitive art the world has seen. This era is so powerfull with what art should be that most experienced (accomplished) artist fail to recognise its significance and the direction that art itself lives !!!


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