One of my favorite artistic group of artists were the PreRaphaelite Brotherhood. This group included painters like Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Ford Madox Brown, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, William Holman Hunt, Lord Frederic Leighton, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Sir John Everett Millais. It is called Pre-Raphaelite because they imitated artwork done in the Medieval through Renaissance style before Raphael. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website on the Brotherhood, it was “an art characterized by minute description of detail, a luminous palette of bright colors that recalls the tempera paint used by medieval artists, and subject matter of a noble, religious, or moralizing nature. In mid-nineteenth-century England, a period marked by political upheaval, mass industrialization, and social ills, the Brotherhood at its inception strove to transmit a message of artistic renewal and moral reform by imbuing their art with seriousness, sincerity, and truth to nature.” One of the offshoots of the Brotherhood was the partnership formed by Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. According to previous Met website, “As their works became more decorative, the Pre-Raphaelites were increasingly interested in the decorative arts. In 1861, Burne-Jones and Rossetti joined Morris’ new design firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. (reorganized as Morris & Co. in 1875), producing murals, stained glass, furniture, textiles, jewelry, and wall coverings inspired by botanical motifs.” I have always enjoyed medieval and renaissance art, so I was naturally drawn to these artworks as well. I saw my first exhibit of Pre-Raphaelite artists in London at Tate Britain (which happens to have the largest collection of this period of artwork in the world) when I was 15 and I fell in love with Rosetti’s work in particular. I ended up using his work for an art history paper I wrote during my undergraduate career.
The Brotherhood frequently used the same model in their works. One of the most famous was Elizabeth or Lizzie Siddal. She is the most famous for her portrayal of the dying Ophelia from Hamlet in Sir John Edward Millias’ painting Ophelia. She mostly posed for Dante Gabriel Rossetti though, and later married him. For more information on their marriage, check out this post. Lizzie was basically the face of the Pre-Raphaelite’s idea of beauty. Lizzie was a bit of an artist/poet herself and at one point Rossetti became her mentor. Beata Beatrix Rossetti painted in memory of Lizzie, who died of a laudanum overdose (which she was addicted to). In the painting, he compares himself to the poet Dante, who is grieving over the loss of his unrequited love Beatrice, the same way that Rossetti was grieving over Lizzie. A dove is shown handing Beatrice/Lizzie poppies, which was where laudanum comes from. The overall painting has a very dreamy quality to it.
Beata Beatrix, 1864-70
Jane Burden Morris, wife of artist William Morris, was another that was frequently used. Rossetti also loved to use her and featured her prominently in his work. He actually lived with Jane and William at one point, while Jane and Rossetti carried on their affair. I actually prefer her paintings to Lizzie Siddal, but this is just my opinion. He glamorizes her in his paintings, but I think she is still a pretty woman anyways. Here is a photo of the actual Mrs Morris. I have always loved the Proserpine painting, one of his most recognizable works. Proserpine is the Roman equivalent of Persephone and her mother Ceres is Demeter. She is stolen by Hades and must spend 1/2 the year in the underworld with him, and 1/2 on the Earth with her mother. Jane, as Prosperpina, is shown holding the pomegranate from which she ate the six seeds. The open fruit always looked so sensual to me, as did his interpretation of Jane.
The story of Saint George was a popular one amongst the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The following painting was done in 1857, and he used Jane Morris for his model, but he also did another version later on in 1862 with Lizzie Siddal as his muse (finished days before she overdosed and subsequently died). He also designed a set of stained glass windows on the subject of St George, which were created by the Morris firm. A lot of Rossetti’s paintings are Renaissance-looking, but this one is purely Medieval. In the scene, St George has killed the dragon (whose head rests in the foreground) and is embracing Princess Sabra, whose hand he has won for defeating said dragon. She is giving him a lock of her hair. According to the Tate Museum’s page on the painting, “St George’s distracted gaze hint at Rossetti’s dilemma of being involved with Elizabeth Siddall but feeling a strong attraction for Jane.”
The Wedding of St George and Princess Sabra, 1857