The Pre-Raphaelites in Russia

Anna Poznanskaya

Magazine issue: 
#2 2013 (39)


At the start of the 21st century interest in British painting has grown all over the world. The staggering success of the most recent generation, the YBAs (Young British Artists), on the international art scene has attracted attention to the wider history of English art. On closer inspection it turned out that the nation which over several centuries had existed in nearly self-imposed cultural isolation was often way ahead of European artists in the field of bold artistic experimentation. Not for nothing did the "revolutionary" Frenchmen - the Barbizon painters and the Impressionists - believe it was their duty to go on an educational tour to London: the compositions of William Turner, John Constable and the Pre-Raphaelites astonished viewers with most surprising innovations. However, because of certain retrospective tendencies initially incorporated into the principles of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the general public had long regarded this group as an eclectic, purely local offshoot of British culture. Ultimately the group's artwork faded from view and became lost amidst the tumultuous events that rocked European art in the second half of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.

The British curators who prepared the major exhibition, already shown at Washington's National Gallery of Art and travelling after Moscow to the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, gave it the provocative title, "Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde". The purpose of their project was not only to bring together the most important pieces of work but also to highlight the exploratory character of the British artists' paintings and their bold experimentation in different fields of visual art, which in turn greatly influenced the development of European culture.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, founded in autumn 1848, was an original artistic response to the revolutionary outbursts of the time in continental Europe. The mysterious letters "P.R.B." featured on the paintings of the young and completely unknown artists caused a stir in English society: this group of students of London's Royal Academy of Arts, each of whom had a unique artistic charisma, wanted to change not only the principles of modern art but also the role it played in society. Like members of various artistic groups of the 20th century, the Pre-Raphaelites engaged with different artforms, and were outspoken about their artistic mission.

Until the mid-i85os the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood's leaders were John Everett Millais (1829-1896), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) and William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), as well as their older friend and mentor Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893), who was never formally a member of the group but shared many of its aspirations.

It was formed at the end of one of the most turbulent decades of British history, when splits in the new industrial society became obvious, and British intellectuals and critics began to question prevailing reverential attitudes towards economic and social progress. Discontent was brewing among artists as well: students at the Royal Academy had to learn by drawing nude figures and copying classical statues. The students studied colour by imitating the old masters, prime among them Raphael, whose pictures were on view in the recently opened National Gallery. When the museum acquired pieces by early Renaissance masters, such as Jan van Eyck's "The Arnolfini Portrait" and the altar doors from San Benedetto painted by Lorenzo Monaco, their compositions proved a revelation for the young artists. They dreamed about reviving the gothic style in painting and about renovation based on the purity and truthfulness of the 15th-century paintings. Unable to visit Italy, the Pre-Raphaelites carefully studied prints of the early Italian frescoes.

They were also familiar with the art of the Nazarene painters, a group of German artists working in Rome from 1809, who created frescoes and compositions on religious subjects, emulating the styles of Raphael and the Quattrocento masters. However, the Nazarenes, who founded the Brotherhood of St. Luke, were quite serious about the ideological substance of religious art and attempted to re-create the way of life of a medieval monastery. The members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, with the exception of Hunt, were fairly indifferent to religious problems and well aware that they were part of a culture with non-existent traditions of religious art, which had been obliterated in the 16th century during the Reformation.

At the same time, in the 1840s, the Church of England spawned a religious movement which brought about changes to the role of the English clergy in society. The movement's torch-bearer was the theologian John Henry Newman, an Oxford professor who, after travelling in Italy, developed a reverence for the primary principles of the early Christian church, conceived when this church was not yet dependent on the state. The boldness and broadness of Newman's views reached far beyond such purely religious doctrines and provoked a wider interest in medieval Italy. In the mid-19th century he had a large following and held enormous sway over British youth; given bitter religious divisions, however, even the slightest interest among artists in Christian themes was thought of by Newman's opponents as a vacillation towards the "enemy" Catholic Church.

The Pre-Raphaelites were faced with a difficult task - to revive religious art without employing the canonical imagery of altar paintings. In their artwork the idea of pantheism gave way to archaeological concreteness, and the ardour and grandeur of Christian images melted into amusing details of genre scenes. Contrary to the Renaissance masters, the Pre-Raphaelites based their compositions not on imagination but on observations from and the faces of everyday life. Before adding human figures into a composition, the artists would painstakingly craft all the details of its interior, or its background landscape, to highlight the carefree and realistically rendered atmosphere of the main scene.

While the Pre-Raphaelites approached the Bible as a source of human drama and searched it for literary and poetic meaning, they also often addressed provocative narratives from modern life that employed religious iconography. Their compositions, focused on social issues and daily activities, often grow into modern parables, demonstrating how the didactic rhetoric typical of religious painting infiltrated every corner of Victorian society.

Historical compositions were the mainstay of Pre-Raphaelite art. The British art scene was traditionally not interested in exciting battle scenes and idealized classical compositions filled with lethargic naked models. Instead, it preferred to study history from William Shakespeare's plays and Walter Scott's novels, or to learn the biographies of great historical figures from the stage performances of prominent actors such as David Garrick and Sarah Siddons. But the Pre-Raphaelites believed that this trend in British painting needed radical modernising reform: continuing to paint in the style of the Italian Quattroccento and to pay close attention to the accuracy of costumes and accessories, they created the modern genre of historical painting, with relationships between characters and their emotions at its centre. An element of genre was given much more prominence in these new narrative interpretations.

Taking their inspiration from the masterpieces of the early Italian Renaissance, the Pre-Raphaelites rejected the black priming, textured brushstrokes and mixed paints that were ubiquitous in academic art. To add brightness and a richness of colour to their compositions, they primed their canvases themselves, applying an additional layer of zinc white. Then they applied the paints as a mosaic of spots of pure tone, in a single thin layer, without glaze and minimising texturing: this method enhanced the brightness of the palette, since the white priming showed through the thin transparent layer of paint. The artists preferred soft sable-hair brushes normally used for watercolours, and painting their pieces "in the open air" (long before that that became a habit of the Impressionists). The style they created was an inimitable synthesis of plein air painting, captivating Shakespearean narratives and topical themes of modern labour.

A new stage in the Pre-Raphaelite movement and its art began in the late 1850s, when a group of young artists, including William Morris (1834-1896), Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) and Simeon Solomon (1840-1905), formed around the leadership of Rossetti. They set out to identify connections between visual art and poetry, painting and music. Keen on achieving aesthetic harmony not only in art but also in daily life, the artists from Rossetti's circle mastered design and book illustration, as well as the techniques of production of furniture, textiles, pottery, wallpaper and stained glass. The arts and crafts movement formed within the Brotherhood's fold brought into focus, for the first time in the history of European art, the problem of artistic design, which ultimately branched out as an independent trend. By the mid-1860s the Pre-Raphaelite movement had a new direction, towards aes-theticism.

An aspiration toward beauty as "the single absolute goal" of art characterises the second decade of Pre-Raphaelite painting. Long before their colleagues in continental Europe, British painters began reflecting on the autonomous aesthetic value of artistic imagery. At that period Rossetti and his companions accomplished a series of works glorifying female beauty, depicting it as full-blooded, glowing with health, and conspicuously sensual. In a conscious attempt to emulate Venetian art of the 16th century, most of all Titian and Veronese, the artists practiced a free-flowing style, with wide brushstrokes applied with a stiff brush. Deep and rich green, blue and dark-red shades replaced the stained-glass-like transparency of the Pre-Raphaelites' early colour schemes. Their enthusiasm for exotic accessories, including objects of Japanese applied art, demonstrates that even at that time British artists were already beginning to explore and utilise in their work artefacts of non-European cultures. Thus, the Pre-Raphaelites' art became a kind of bridge between the Romanticism of the first half of the 19th century and the key styles of the late 19th-early 20th centuries, Symbolism and Modernism.

Although Europe had the opportunity to see some of the Pre-Raphaelites' pieces only at various World Fairs, the artists' innovative ideas caught on. By the late 19th-early 20th centuries Russia, too, was showing interest in this strand of British art. As early as 1863, impressed by the 1862 International Exhibition in London, the writer and critic Dmitry Grigorovich published in "Russkii vestnik" (Russian Messenger) magazine a large piece "Paintings of English Artists", where he provided (practically for the first time for Russian readers) a careful analysis of the character and stylistic features of British art.

Grigorovich admired the originality and uniqueness of English painting, contrasting it with the archaic principles adhered to at St. Petersburg's Academy of Arts1. Grigorovich reviewed in detail the art of the greatest British painters of the late 18th-early 19th centuries and highly praised Hunt, calling his works "The Light of the World" and "The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple", "the most remarkable works of our century"2.

In the last quarter of the 19th century a profound interest in the Pre-Raphaelites' painting developed in certain segments of Russia's artistic community. For progressive artists and critics championing new approaches in art and a search for a national idea in the deep recesses of history, the art of the Pre-Raphaelites held a special attraction. First, they were fascinated by this apt example of exploration and new interpretation of medieval art, and by the courage and eccentricity of the Britons, who were not intimidated by the prospect of competing with dominant academic traditions. The period also witnessed a lessening in enthusiasm for the French realists, whose Russian counterparts, Perov and the "Peredvizhniki" (Wanderers) artists, faced a barrage of criticism and were losing their hold over the public mind. On the verge of the era of modernism, Russia was strenuously looking for pathways toward artistic modernisation and new sources of inspiration.

In the late 19th-early 20th centuries the art of the Pre-Raphaelites became the subject of careful examination and analysis in Russia: over a short period several art periodicals ran long, in-depth reviews of Rossetti and his associates, while John Ruskin's work was no less famous. For all that, the general public could enjoy the Pre-Raphaelites' works only through prints, and critics could view their oeuvre only in France (compositions by the artists of Rossetti's circle and some of the painters once affiliated with the Brotherhood were occasionally shown at the World Fairs in Paris and elsewhere). Considering that Rossetti himself accepted commissions only from private clients and avoided any involvement with official exhibitions, one can understand that in Russia the interest in the British artists' methods was mostly theoretical. In an article "The Pre-Raphaelites and Their Followers in England", published in the "Vestnik izyashchnykh iskusstv" (Messenger of Fine Arts) magazine in 1886, Vladimir Chuiko mentions that he first saw the Pre-Raphaelites' works at the 1878 Exposition Uni-verselle in Paris3. Acknowledging that Rossetti was the Brotherhood's most original, eccentric and productive member, Chuiko judged his art relying only on available prints and copies, as well as on the reactions of English critics.

Like Grigorovich 20 years earlier, Chuiko started his review with a claim that "with the Englishmen, everything is peculiar, everything falls outside the limits of public conventions"4, noting that it was the ideas of their compositions, not their visual vocabulary, that mattered most for the Pre-Raphaelites. Thus, it was content that was invariably in the foreground, and imagery had a strong literary bend. Most of the article is devoted to a careful analysis of Ruskin's views and activities, and general reflections on the character of British culture.

Of much greater interest is Zinaida Vengerova's essay "New Currents in English art. The Brotherhood of the Pre-Raphaelites", published in "Vestnik Evropy" (European Messenger) a year before Chuiko's piece5. Vengerova presented a comprehensive piece of research addressing both the poetic and artistic legacy of the Pre-Raphaelites, carefully emphasising that the Brotherhood united altogether different artists who were temporarily brought together by a desire to challenge the prevailing Victorian style.

As early as 1895 Vengerova was able to understand and to appreciate the "avant-gardism" of the Pre-Raphaelites, and to see that they were important because they "gave a powerful impetus to creative activity without limiting it by formulas and principles, but only teaching the artist to love nature and to be frank about his message"6.

Vengerova provided the most comprehensive and thorough review of Rossetti's art, paying attention not only to his paintings but also to his poetry. Analysing Rossetti's female images, she likened them to Madonnas of the 19th century: "They reflected the contrasts, created by modern life, of doubts and yearning for faith, of sin and the ideal of purity... [In these images] harmony is replaced with mystical grief, the vague anticipation of eternity... Let's add to this... that earthly beauty matters mightily for him as the supreme symbol of spiritual beauty ... it is this conspicuously earthly beauty that sets off the contrasts between soul and body, life and death, which are the foundation of the mysterious charm of Rossetti's type of women."7 Pointing out that Rossetti borrowed from Pre-Raphaelitism and generously developed one of its main elements, mysticism, Vengerova also mentioned Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Rossetti's only follower to win international recognition.

"Mir iskusstva" (World of Art) magazine also covered the Pre-Raphaelites extensively. Sergei Diaghilev mentions the birth of the Brotherhood in his landmark article "Difficult Questions" (1899), saying that the emergence of the group had been a remarkable event in the history of art; the same issue featured Nikolai Minsky's ecstatic essay about Burne-Jones's art. In 1900 the magazine ran Ruskin's essay about the Pre-Raphaelites, translated and prepared for publication by Olga Solovieva, the wife of the renowned Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev. The article was prefaced with a curious caveat: "Disagreeing with many opinions expressed in the present article, the editors nevertheless decided to publish it in order to introduce readers to the views of the recently-deceased renowned English writer John Ruskin."8 Published serially in three issues, the article was accompanied with quite original illustrations - prints of the paintings of Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Vaino Alfred Blomstedt, Arnold Bocklin, James McNeill Whistler, Edouard Manet, Alphonse Legros and Theodore Chasseriau, works by Maria Yakunchikova, views of the Russian pavilion at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle, and other subjects. As for the artwork of the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers themselves, the magazine ran only a photograph of a tapestry, from the Holy Grail series accomplished by William Morris and designed by Burne-Jones, which adorned the English pavilion at the World Fair in Paris. In the same year, 1900, the "New Magazine of International Literature" published an article "Painting of the Pre-Raphaelites since the Group's Beginnings" and three lectures of John Ruskin, again translated by Solovieva. Maurice de La Sizeranne's study "Ruskin and the Religion of Beauty", translated by L. Nikiforova9, appeared at the same time.

Thus, it is safe to assume that although the Russian public had quite a comprehensive theoretical knowledge about Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites and the artists of Rossetti's circle, it was much less familiar with their artwork. Not accidentally, many researchers mention an entry in Vasily Perepletchikov's diary from January 1895: "Yesterday the architect Durnovo made a presentation about the Pre-Raphaelites, more precisely, about Rossetti. We are very much interested in the subject, although, unfortunately, none of us has seen either Burne-Jones or Rossetti and therefore it is almost impossible to form an opinion about them."10

Considering this, it is all the more astonishing that the Russians were able to correctly understand the Pre-Raphaelites' importance, to see in their art the connection between Romanticism and Symbolism, and to appreciate their significance for the development of modernist art. Not accidentally, critical articles written at that time about the new generation of Russian artists increasingly drew parallels with the art of Rossetti and his followers.

The influence of the poetry of Rossetti and his associates on the writers of the Silver Age proved much more obvious, serious and profound. Vladimir Soloviev, Valery Bryusov, Vyacheslav Ivanov and Andrei Bely all acknowledged that the Pre-Raphaelites were a major influence on Russian Symbolism. Working on his "Verses about the Beautiful Lady", Alexander Blok developed an avid interest both in early-Renaissance painting and the works of the Pre-Raphaelites. In 1910 Nikolai Gumilev finished working on a series of poems titled "Beatrice", which opened with a sonnet dedicated to Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Literary critics have thoroughly studied the origins of the Silver Age, but in visual art, by the start of the 20th century, the public was rapidly losing interest in the works of the artists from Rossetti's circle. The Pre-Raphaelites, who had accomplished so great a service for Russian art, faded into obscurity, making way for the overpowering era of Modernism.

  1. At this time the Russian Academy of Arts was in serious crisis, one which in the same year, 1863, spawned the "Peredvizhniki" group.
  2. Quoted from: R.P. Blakeslee. 'Russian critics about the 1851 and 1862 World Fairs in London'. In: "Pinacotheca", Nos. 18-19, 2004, p. 103.
  3. Chuiko, Vladimir. 'The Pre-Raphaelites and their Followers in England. In: "Vest-nik izyashchnykh iskusstv" (Messenger of Fine Arts), 1883, vol. 4, pp. 271-315; 339-374.
  4. Ibid., p. 271.
  5. Vengerova, Zinaida. 'New Currents in English Art. The Brotherhood of the Pre-Raphaelites'. In: "Vestnik Evropy". 1895. Vol.3, pp. 192-235.
  6. Ibid., p. 196.
  7. Ibid., p. 214.
  8. Ruskin, John. 'Pre-Raphaelitism'. Translated by Olga Solovyova. In: "Mir iskusstva", 1900. Vol. 4, p. 49.
  9. Paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites since the Group's Beginnings' by Percy Beth. In: "The New Magazine of International Literature". St. Petersburg, 1900 / 'Sesami and Lili'. In: "The New Magazine of International Literature", St. Petersburg, 1900 / Maurice de La Sizeranne. "Ruskin and the Religion of Bea uty". Moscow, 1900.
  10. Sternin, Grigory. 'From the History of the Life of Arts in Moscow. In: "Russian Artistic Culture in the Second Half of the 19th-early 20th centuries. Moscow, 1984. P. 130.





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