Sensual Mysticism

In 1848, Europe is shaken by the revolutionary turmoil. The Restoration, a fragile building, has shown its political limits and the Ancien Regime faces its last days. Indeed, it is already the rotting corpse, whose fate was set along with that of Louis the XVI. Throughout the continent, constitutions are issued: the kings who used to reign by the will of God only are now forced to seek the popular approval. The flamboyant results of Romantic art in these years is, in part, the result of this utter change in the conception of history. Men find themselves capable of acting over the political and social vicissitude of their countries and join this quest with enthusiasm. A new array of civic values, inspired by a new liberalism, is born and so a new art to express them. In this context, the United Kingdom presents a radically different situation. Queen Victoria has firmly been ruling since 1837, supported by a long tradition of political stability that saved the island even from the Napoleonic conquest. The great wealth brought by the colonial enterprise favoured the situation and saved England from Republican fantasies, so popular in other areas of Europe. Actually, Victorian society was highly polarised, but the stable political context prevented the situation from degenerating.


Liberty Leading the People –  Eugene Delacroix

In regards to the arts, early Victorian Age does not bring consistent innovations. The Royal Academy of Arts and the principles set by its first president, Sir Joshua Reynolds, are still the core of the artistic practice. Classicism is praised, and the imitation of the great masters is praised over invention. By “great masters”, Reynolds and his followers mainly meant the Florentine artists of the High Renaissance, mainly Michelangelo and Raphael, while disregarding the great Venetian painters, above all Titian and Tintoretto, with reasons that closely resemble Vasari’s comments. The value of tradition, the need of constant practice through copying and the preference of drawing over colour show how much Reynolds owed to Vasari’s artistic ideas. In this regard, the Royal Academy of Art fostered continuity in the British visual culture and, in a changing European art world, it must have appeared oppressive to some artists. Notable figures such as Turner greatly suffered from the critical judgement of this traditionalist body, and its influence should not be underestimated. However, in 1848, among the violent revolutions of the continent, a pacific revolution occurred in England; a silent revolution, destined to bring an enduring legacy. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded.


La Ghirlandata (detail) – Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The Brotherhood was made up of a small group of artists and intellectuals who fiercely opposed the standards of the Royal Academy. Their own name shows the aspiration to a purer form of art, before this was definitely changed by the oeuvre of Raphael: he was the first artist to favour idealisation over nature, the Pre-Raphaelites argued, thus betraying the statute of painting. Famous figures of British art joined the group: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, William Hunt, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. Their leader was the passionate art critic John Ruskin, whose work Modern Painters, first conceived as an apology of Turner, stated the supremacy of nature over the ideal, of the sensual quality of things above their intellectual significance. The Brotherhood had actually a brief existence: in 1853, due to internal tensions, it got dissolved and the artists continued their research individually, with utterly different results. Interestingly, Millais, the most prominent member of the group and fierce opponent of Reynolds’s principles, ended up in his same role, becoming president of the Royal Academy. However, their oeuvre inspired future generation of artists, and their legacy goes as far as the early Twentieth century with John William Waterhouse and Frank Cadogan Cowper.


Saint Cecilia – John William Waterhouse

The works of the Brotherhood are characterised by a peculiar approach to nature: they rejected idealisation and the artistic features that this introduced in the academic art. First of all, the Pre-Raphaelites refused to establish a hierarchy between the elements of nature. Their paintings are fulfilled with flowers, animals, small objects of daily use, figures of questionable importance. Nothing is excluded and the main scene takes place in a scenario that attempts to reproduce the full complexity of reality. As Ruskin points out in Modern Painters, although the painting cannot grasp the entire variety of things, the painter ought to crowd every free corner with new objects and ideas. This breaks the Aristotelian unity of register and topic: in Mariana, Millais puts the same effort in depicting the mouse on the right corner as for the human figure in the centre. This tendency toward the horror vacui, indeed, hints also the great interest of the group toward Medieval art, which was considered pure and unadulterated by later Renaissance ideas. In fact, Ruskin despises the Renaissance as much as Reynolds praised it (The Stones of Venice, another work of him, clearly shows this attitude). In this, though, he misses the cultural continuity that occurs between the Middle Ages and the successive centuries.


Mariana – John Everett Millais

In their works, the Pre-Raphaelites experimented with a great variety of themes: religious scenes, mythological episodes, natural scenarios and allegorical portrait, everything is elaborated with the distinctive style of the group. A subtle aura of sensual mysticism prevails, as colours pulse vividly and the variety of details overwhelms the viewer. The group has often been connected by art historians to the later phenomenon of symbolism, and in fact they share the empiricist nature of this: the viewer first faces reality, which hides a further meaning. This is not the bare subject of the painting, as it tends to be in academic representations, but it subtly suggested by the appeal to the spectator’s senses and emotions. Details play a fundamental role as well. This is particularly evident in Millais’s most famous work: Ophelia. Its story, taken from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is well-known: in love with Hamlet, driven mad by his fluctuating behaviour and by the death of her father, she fells into a river and die.


Ophelia – John Everett Millais

Here, the girl is shown between life and death. Lying on the surface of the water, she is slowly being absorbed into the stream of water. The dress, impregnated, expands all around, as well her hair, thus blurring the contour of her figure. She is disappearing, being dissolved by the luxurious natural scenario all around. Millais spent great effort in depicting each plant with the greatest precision, from the seaweed bed on the lower level to the broken trunk on the left, from the flowers in the bush to the robin among the branches. Here, the viewer does not face a defined and easily understandable allegorical message, nor a moral prompt. It is rather the mystery of death, shown through the passiveness of Ophelia while, her conscience lost, she abandons herself into the cold hug of the river. In front of it, our intellect cannot overcome the emotion, nor a sincere reaction to the composition’s beauty, by dismissing it through a rational conceit. Our senses are interpellated first. This is, indeed, the power of the Pre-Raphaelites. They let the spectator return to the work of art, to the silent contemplation of an image before any further and less sincere comment of the mind.




La Ghirlandata

Saint Cecilia



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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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