From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts & Crafts Movement
Yale Center for British Art
February 13–May 10, 2020
IT WAS IN THE 1960s that I was first drawn to the artists of the 19th-century Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB)—to their sultry, soulful women and their tender and gallant Arthurian men. The aggression and materialism of modern capitalist society were under attack in the ’60s, and many a countercultural youth, myself included, found a kinship with the PRB sensibility from the Victorian period: a love of nature and the bucolic, and the call for a simpler, gentler, and more æsthetically-infused way of life.
Right before the Covid-19 pandemic closed everything down in early March, I was able to revisit the work of these dissenters. It was a faux spring day as I walked across the historic 17th-century, Puritan-designed New Haven Green to the Yale Center for British Art to see the exhibit Victorian Radicals: From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Arts & Crafts Movement. The exhibit drew heavily from extensive holdings in the Birmingham (England) Museums, which, in collaboration with the American Federation of Arts, had organized it.
There were the iconic works by the Pre-Raphaelite art stars: painter-poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti and painters William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais. These three young men were barely out of their teens when they founded the movement in 1848. Having seen only reproductions in the past, I was stunned by the beauty of Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix, in which Dante’s muse is seen in a state of rapture.
Also in the Yale exhibit were works by PRB-associated artists who came of age later, such as Maxwell Ashby Armfield and his dazzling Tristan and Isolde, made with watercolor, gouache and gold paint, and his Self-Portrait, with the brooding artist wearing a pink ascot, his delicate fingers holding a paint brush, a glass vase of lavender flowers standing nearby. (The work was used over a century later for the cover of the Oxford World’s Classics 2006 edition of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.)
James Cassell is an artist and writer living in Silver Spring, MD. He wrote about poet-activist Steve Abbott in the Jan.-Feb. 2020 issue.