Developments in the 19th Century





 




Art Styles in 19th century - Art Map




 




SYMBOLISM

in

Great Britain & United States





(Between Romanticism and Expressionism)


 



 

 

 


C o n t e n t s:
 
The Great Upheaval
France
Great Britain and the United States
Belgium and the Netherlands
German - speaking Countries and Scandinavia
The Slav Countries
The Mediterranean Countries
Post-Symbolism
 


 

 

collections:
Aubrey Beardsley
Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Blaine Mahlon
George Frederick Watts
John White Alexander
Elihu Vedder
Albert Pinkham Ryder
Arthur Bowen Davies
Alphonse Legros
 
 





Great Britain and the United States


 

   




see also:


Pre-Raphaelites



 

 
 
 
 An art with obvious affinities to Symbolism had appeared in England in the 1850s - ten years before the Symbolist phase of Gustave Moreau and thirty years before Moreas' manifesto. The ideological context was, of course, very different. In France, the secular and scientistic overtones of realism found their ideological justification in hostility to the Catholic Church. In England, as we have seen, the influential theoretician John Ruskin  (1819-1900) regarded the imitation of nature as a pious tribute to the Creator. As a painter, Ruskin used a cyanometer to measure the intensity of the sky's blue; the greater the precision with which an artist depicted nature, the more perfect the tribute paid to God.

 
Ruskin concerns us here because he took up the cudgels on behalf of the Pre-Raphaelites, a group of young artists which included John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Both displayed highly precocious talents: Millais was ten when he entered Sass's School (which prepared pupils for the Royal Academy), and was admitted to the Academy at eleven. Rossetti was admitted to Sass's at thirteen, and entered the Academy four years later. The two young men met in 1848 (aged 19 and 20 respectively) through William Holman Hunt, whose Eve of Saint Agnes, based on the poem by Keats, was much admired by Rossetti.

 The three shared an antipathy to the tradition of chiaroscuro and "tobacco juice" hues favoured by the Academy since the days of its first president, Sir
Joshua Reynolds (whom the three young men dubbed "Sir Sloshua"). They announced that, in the interests of naturalism and of truth, they would use only bright colours and unified lighting, turning for inspiration to Italian painters of the centuries before Raphael, in particular to Orcagna and Benozzo Gozzoli. The three of them therefore established the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which eventually came to include four further members. As a token of membership, they pledged to sign their paintings P.R.B. but kept the significance of the acronym to themselves. Enquiries elicited various suggestions such as "Please Ring Bell"; Rossetti's version, as Timothy Hilton notes in his book on the Pre-Raphaelites (London/New York 1970), was "Penis Rather Better".
 
John William Waterhouse

(see collection)
John William Waterhouse
Ophelia
 
 Nothing in their early style connects them with Symbolism. The critics were predictably hostile to their innovations, mounting a vigorous attack. In 1851, at the height of this onslaught, one of the new members appealed to Ruskin, who wrote a letter to the Times on their behalf. "I have no acquaintance with any of these artists and only a very imperfect sympathy with them," he stated. But he went on to commend Charles Allston Collins' painting Convent Thoughts: "I happen to have a special acquaintance with the water plant Alisma Plantago and never saw it so thoroughly or so well drawn."

 Inapposite as
Ruskin's defence seems, it had the desired effect, and the young Pre-Raphaelites wrote to him to express their gratitude. On the day on which he received their letter, Ruskin and his young wife paid an unexpected visit to Millais. Ruskin was ten years older than Millais and began to hope that, under his guidance, the younger artist would become the Turner of his day. The upshot was unexpected: during a holiday together in Scotland Millais painted Ruskin's portrait and Effie Ruskin fell in love with Millais. Two years later she left Ruskin, her marriage was annulled, and she married Millais.

 Of course, realism was not the sole criterion in English art of this period. The public was greatly enamoured of the country's medieval heritage, which had survived better than that of France. It also favoured fairy tales and stories of witchcraft and magic derived from Celtic legends. Germany was the principal foreign influence. Albert, the Prince Consort (1819-1861), was German, and through him the public became acquainted with the German
Nazarene movement, which sought to combine exact observation of nature with a form of romantic archaism.

 The precocious
John Everett Millais (1829-1896) did his best work before he was thirty. At the age of twenty-three he painted his famous Ophelia drifting downstream with her scattered nosegay; four years later, in 1856, he painted Autumn Leaves, an affecting symbolic work in which four young girls are seen burning leaves under a beautiful evening sky. The work is a melancholy momento mori, a very English and very 19th century equivalent to Herrick's celebrated imperative "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may".

 That same year he completed The Blind Girl, in which, with ostentatious virtuosity, he depicted the blind girl surrounded by the beauties of a nature that she cannot see. The following year came a somewhat enigmatic work in Arthurian vein, Sir humbras at the Ford. A grey-haired knight on horseback fords the river; he carries a barefoot girl and boy across the ford with him. The painting became so famous that Sir
John Tenniel parodied it in the figure of the White Knight in Lewis Caroll's Through the Looking Glass. Millais, at the age of twenty-eight, now drops out of our story. Henceforth he devoted himself to portraits and history painting, which earned him fame, wealth and ultimately a knighthood.
John Everett Millais

(see collection)

John Everett Millais
Autumn Leaves.

 
Edward Robert Hughes

(see collection)
Arthur Hughes
April Love
   
     
John Tenniel

(see collection)
John Everett Millais

(see collection)
John Tenniel

(see collection)
John Tenniel
White Knight for Lewis Caroll's
Through the Looking Glass

 
John Everett Millais
Sir humbras at the Ford
1857
 
John Tenniel
White Knight for Lewis Caroll's
Through the Looking Glass

 

 
 

Thomas Cooper Gotch

(see collection)


William Dyce

(see collection)



Thomas Cooper Gotch
The Message




William Dyce
The Choristers - Design
For A Stained Glass Window
In Ely Cathedral

1856

 

   

John Everett Millais

(see collection)
John Everett Millais
Ophelia
1852
 
   

Things went otherwise with his friend Rossetti (1828-1882). The son of an Italian political refugee, he was not only a painter but a poet; he wrote The Blessed Damozel, set by Claude Debussy as the cantata La Demoiselle Elue. His strongest works have intimate connections with his own life and the women in it.

 In 1850, a young member of the Brotherhood accompanied his mother to her milliner. Elizabeth Siddal, the salesgirl, dazzled him. He made friends with her and she soon became the favourite model of the young artists. Two years later,
Rossetti and Elizabeth were living together. In 1855 they were married. There was no happy ending to the story; Rossetti was unfaithful and Elizabeth committed suicide in 1862 by taking an overdose of laudanum.

 
Rossetti was shattered. At the age of thirty-four, he suddenly aged and grew fat. He left the house where Elizabeth had died and moved to Chelsea where he surrounded himself with an exotic menagerie: "owls, rabbits, doormice, wombats, woodchucks, wallabies, a raccoon, parrots, peacocks, lizards, salamanders, a laughing jackass and a Brahmin bull," in Timothy Hilton's inventory.

A year later,
Rossetti painted Beata Beatrix as a last tribute to Elizabeth. The work represents the Beatrice of Rossetti's namesake, Dante, with whom he strongly identified. Beatrice bears the features of Elizabeth Siddal and is shown in a state of ecstatic receptivity at the instant of death. A flame-red bird, the Holy Ghost, swoops down to place a poppy in her hands (the flower is doubtless a symbol of oblivion, but one should also note that laudanum is derived from opium). It is thought that the two figures in the background represent Eros (in red) and Dante (by analogy, Rossetti himself) in darker clothes.
 


Dante Gabriel Rossetti

(see collection)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Beata Beatrix


Photograph of Jane Burden (Morris)
1865


Another woman was soon to enter the artist's life. Five years before Elizabeth's death,
Rossetti and Burne-Jones had been much taken by the sculptural beauty of Jane Burden. They had met her at the theatre in Oxford during the summer of 1857. The purpose of their visit was to fresco the Oxford Union Debating Hall, but they were so ignorant of fresco technique that the works began to fade six months after completion. Jane was immediately recruited as a model and soon after married another member of the Brotherhood, William Morris (1834-1896), who established an influential interior-decorating firm producing wallpaper, curtains, tapestries and furniture.

 Some time after Elizabeth's death, Jane Burden left Morris and went to live with
Rossetti. She was the model for such paintings as Venus Verticordia (1864-1868), La Ghirlandaia (1873) and the impressive Astarte Syriaca (1877). In each of these paintings, Rossetti foregrounds Jane's highly characteristic features, endowing them with a fetishized sensuality of undoubted fascination. In 1872, ten years after Elizabeth's death, Rossetti himself took an overdose of laudanum, but survived.

 
Rossetti was the most "Symbolist" of the Pre-Raphaelites; the others were, for the most part, painstaking realists. The distinction had little resonance in England. In France, when Gauguin painted The Vision after the Sermon, his old friend Pissarro aspersed Gauguin's sincerity. England escaped this ideological storm.

 


Dante Gabriel Rossetti

(see collection)
 







Ford Madox Brown

(see collection)



Ford Madox Brown
King Rene's Honeymoon

 



Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Astarte Syriaca
1877

The model for this painting was Jane Burden, who lived with Rossetti after the death of Elizabeth Siddal and the break-up of her own marriage with William Morris.
 


 


William Holman Hunt

(see collection)
William Holman Hunt
The Light of the World

Another member of the Brotherhood, William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), carried his obsession with realism to the point of sailing to the Holy Land, in the hope that his religious paintings would acquire greater authenticity. For his painting The Scapegoat, Hunt tethered a billy-goat in the desert near the Dead Sea. Appropriately enough, the animal died.

 
Hunt's most celebrated work is probably The Light of the World. A preoccupied Christ, wearing a threefold crown of light, gold and thorns, holds a lantern in his hand; benighted, he knocks at a door. As the tall weeds growing on the threshold evince, the door has long been closed. It is, of course, the door of the soul. Lithographic reproductions of the work were once to be found in Christian schools the world over. The edifying message of the painting conformed to public expectations of the time. Oscar Wilde's observation that "All art is quite useless" should probably be understood as a provocation directed towards those who believed that all art must be socially and morally useful rather than his last word on the subject.

 
Rossetti did not possess the technical mastery of Millais. Millais' realism, notably in his Ophelia, is as obsessive as Hunt's; Rossetti was less concerned with detail than cither Hunt or Millais. He turned to his own advantage the difficulty he experienced with perspective, creating paintings whose lack of depth suggests a timeless world distinct from that of everyday life, His painting is more allusive than that of the other Pre-Raphaelites - perhaps in compensation - ana as a result his work is both more evocative and more moving.

Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-1898) was reading theology at Oxford when, with William Morris, he discovered Rossetti's work. When Rossetti delivered a lecture at the Working Man's College, Burne-Jones approached him, soon becoming a disciple, though Rossetti was only five years his senior. Burne-Jones' women are derived from the Renaissance figures he had had occasion to study in the course of several journeys to Italy. Mild, pale and ethereal, they appear in paintings dealing with Greek mythology and Celtic legends. Burne-Jones' paintings, like Rossetti's, lack real depth, and this, along with their narrative or allegorical content, lends his work a Symbolist quality.


Edward Coley Burne-Jones

(see collection)
 



Edward Coley Burne-Jones
The Wedding of Psyche
 

   
 


Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

(Encyclopaedia Britannica)

group of young British painters who banded together in 1848 in reaction against what they conceived to be the unimaginative and artificial historical painting of the Royal Academy and who purportedly sought to express a new moral seriousness and sincerity in their works. They were inspired by Italian art of the 14th and 15th centuries, and their adoption of the name Pre-Raphaelite expressed their admiration for what they saw as the direct and uncomplicated depiction of nature typical of Italian painting before the High Renaissance and, particularly, before the time of Raphael. Although the Brotherhood's active life lasted not quite five years, its influence on painting in Britain, and ultimately on the decorative arts and interior design, was profound.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed in 1848 by three Royal Academy students:
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was a gifted poet as well as a painter, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais, all under 25 years of age. The painter James Collinson, the painter and critic F.G. Stephens, the sculptor Thomas Woolner, and the critic William Michael Rossetti (Dante Gabriel's brother) joined them by invitation. The painters William Dyce and Ford Madox Brown, who acted in part as mentors to the younger men, came to adapt their own work to the Pre-Raphaelite style.

The Brotherhood immediately began to produce highly convincing and significant works. Their pictures of religious and medieval subjects strove to revive the deep religious feeling and naive, unadorned directness of 15th-century Florentine and Sienese painting. The style that
Hunt and Millais evolved featured sharp and brilliant lighting, a clear atmosphere, and a near-photographic reproduction of minute details. They also frequently introduced a private poetic symbolism into their representations of biblical subjects and medieval literary themes. Rossetti's work differed from that of the others in its more arcane aesthetic and in the artist's general lack of interest in copying the precise appearance of objects in nature. Vitality and freshness of vision are the most admirable qualities of the seearly Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

Some of the founding members exhibited their first works anonymously, signing their paintings with the monogram PRB. When their identity and youth were discovered in 1850, their work was harshly criticized by the novelist Charles Dickens, among others, not only for its disregard of academic ideals of beauty but also for its apparent irreverence in treating religious themes with an uncompromising realism. Nevertheless, the leading art critic of the day, John Ruskin, stoutly defended Pre-Raphaelite art, and the members of the group were never without patrons.

By 1854 the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had gone their individual ways, but their style had a wide influence and gained many followers during the 1850s and early '60s. In the late 1850s
Dante Gabriel Rossetti became associated with the younger painters Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris and moved closer to a sensual and almost mystical romanticism. Millais, the most technically gifted painter of the group, went on to become an academic success. Hunt alone pursued the same style throughout most of his career and remained true to Pre-Raphaelite principles. Pre-Raphaelitism in its later stage is epitomized by the paintings of Burne-Jones, characterized by a jewel-toned palette, elegantly attenuated figures, and highlyimaginative subjects and settings.

 



William Holman Hunt

(see collection)

William Holman Hunt
The L
ady of Shalott
Illustrations for Poems by Alfred Tennyson
Robert Burns
Natura naturans
1895
 
 

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