The Pre-Raphaelite Legacy: British Art and Design

May 20–October 26, 2014

The Pre-Raphaelites

Sir Edward Burne-Jones (British, Birmingham 1833–1898 Fulham ) | Angeli Laudantes

Sir Edward Burne-Jones (British, 1833–1898). Angeli Laudantes, 1898. British, Merton Abbey. Dyed wool and silk on undyed cotton warp (15 warps per in.; 5-6 per cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 2008 (2008.8a–c)

The movement began as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, founded in London in 1848 by seven young artists and writers, most notably William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Challenging convention, they painted in an archaizing style, with bright, flat color and unsparing realistic detail. The group disbanded by the mid-1850s, but its impact was far-reaching, stimulating a second generation of artists who expanded the movement's scope and appeal over the next four decades.

Leading them was the bohemian Rossetti, who mentored newcomers Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, former theology students at Oxford. This tight-knit trio redefined Pre-Raphaelite ideals. Moving away from the exacting naturalism and moralizing subjects preferred by the early Brotherhood, the friends cultivated its romantic and imaginative aspects. Alongside medieval prototypes, they embraced classical sculpture and even High Renaissance art. Focusing on mythical and poetic themes, they endeavored to conjure a realm of heightened emotions, aspirations, and visual splendor that would elevate a modern society beset by change. They asserted, in Burne-Jones's words, "Only this is true, that beauty is very beautiful, and softens, and comforts, and inspires, and rouses, and lifts up, and never fails."

Their approach cut across traditional divisions in the arts, forging connections between painting, poetry, music, and decoration. Morris's design firm, founded in 1861, with Rossetti and Burne-Jones among the partners, fostered collaboration among artists and craftsmen, producing objects as aesthetically refined as they were technically brilliant.