Exhibition: Pre-Raphaelites and Their Followers @ The Huntington

Pre-Raphaelites and Their Followers: British and American Drawings from the Huntington’s Collections, until 26th September 2011

A new exhibition of drawings from the Huntington’s collections chronicles the trans-Atlantic exchange of ideas in 19th-century British and American art, at the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art, Susan and Stephen Chandler Wing. In 1848, a small group of British artists and writers banded together intent on reforming art. They rejected what they felt was the Royal Academy of Art’s reverence for the elegant but mechanical art of the Italian Renaissance, especially that of the so-called Mannerist painters who followed Michelangelo and Raphael. Instead, they found inspiration in the work of Flemish and Italian artists of the 15th century—in other words, art from the period before Raphael. They valued its complexity, richness of detail, and intensity of color, as well as its directness, purity, and depth of feeling.

Calling themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the original seven members included some of the best-known British artists of the 19th century, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais.  Their work, and that of their fellow artists, is at the heart of a new exhibition, “Pre-Raphaelites and Their Followers: British and American Drawings from The Huntington’s Collections,” which runs from June 25 through Sept. 26 in the Chandler Wing of the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art.

Most often associated with literary or medieval subject matter, the Pre-Raphaelites and their loose association of friends and followers worked in a wide variety of styles and explored a diverse range of subject matter. Their portraits, landscapes, historical and modern scenes are based on the direct observation of nature, in which individual features of an object, such as the bark of a tree, are often described in sharply focused detail.

The Pre-Raphaelites’ extreme insistence on observed detail was vilified by powerful reviewers such as Charles Dickens—who found it ugly and abrasive to the eye, particularly in works that illustrated medieval or biblical themes—and publicly condemned by Charles Locke Eastlake, the president of the Royal Academy. However, their devotion to nature won the support of critic John Ruskin, whose writings helped spread Pre-Raphaelite ideas across the Atlantic to the United States. There, American artists such as William Trost Richards and John Henry Hill painted landscapes that presented a scientific representation of the modern natural world in minute detail. Following in the footsteps of the British Pre-Raphaelites, these artists formed their own society in 1863: the Society for the Advancement of Truth in Art. As it had in Britain, Pre-Raphaelitism influenced artists outside the membership of the society. Two expatriate American artists who lived and worked in Italy, Francesca Alexander and Elihu Vedder, drew on the “medieval” iconography of their British counterparts to create lavishly illustrated children’s stories and works of literature.

Chronicling this trans-Atlantic exchange of ideas, the exhibition will display 37 Huntington drawings and watercolors by Pre-Raphaelite artists. Prominently featured will be the work of members of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including Rossetti, Hunt, and Millais, as well as their followers on both sides of the Atlantic, among them Alexander, Hill, and Vedder, along with Edward Burne-Jones, John Brett, Walter Crane, Evelyn de Morgan, William Morris Hunt, Aaron Draper Shattuck, and John Roddam Spencer Stanhope.

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