It is in some ways a bit funny that when many of us think of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, we often first recall the works of the latter Pre-Raphaelites and the artists associated with them, rather than the actual Brotherhood that began the movement in the early second half of the 19th Century. Many of the latter-day artists, such as Burne-Jones and Waterhouse, have become as synonymous with the movement as its founders like Rossetti or Millais, and to me that is all the more impressive a testament to their work. Edward Coley Burne-Jones‘ works were more heavily influenced by Medieval legends and ancient myth, and he was not confined to just the medium of paint on canvas, as he explored other venues of expression in painted and stained glass, chintzes and tapestries, and set design and decoration for the stage. As his work matured and he grew artistically, he showed a deep and abiding affinity for narrative art, creating entire series inspired by Sleeping Beauty, Perseus and the Gorgon, and Pygmalion. The darkly sensuous imagery he conjured from his imagination has become as immortal as the myths and legends that he idolized in his youth.
Drawing inspiration from mid 19th Century art movements like The Pre-Raphaelites, and from late 18th Century Romanticism, John Atkinson Grimshaw created indelible images that are imbued with Victorian Era ideals. Innocence. Romance. Beauty. These simple aesthetic tropes of the times are permeated throughout Grimshaw’s work. Whether depicting Gothic manors or urban streets lit by moonlight, faeries soaring through the night or ships in the harbor, Grimshaw’s paintings are almost photo-realistic and yet simultaneously elevated by his imaginative lighting and saturated by his use of Earth tones. Little is known about Grimshaw as a man, and little more is known about him as an artist, but his work on the other hand is quite recognizable even to those outside the art community. Our modern notion of what Dickensian London was like has been greatly influenced by Grimshaw’s work, which itself is just as timeless and unforgettable as the writings of Dickens.
Poet. Painter. Illustrator. Translator. There are many labels which could be ascribed to Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I think of him most often as an aesthetic idealist and as the leading figure in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. His artwork evokes all the medieval pageantry, love and yearning, and lyricism of a troubadour’s song. Drawing from a small number of beatific models from the Pre-Raphaelite movement, such as Lizzie Siddal, Jane Morris, Alexa Wilding, and Fanny Cornforth, Rossetti created an iconic gallery of ethereal women; some callous and detached, some angelic and graceful, but all stunningly rendered by his skillful hand. Of all the 19th Century artists, he remains among my favorites.
From my own perspective Arthur Rackham remains the greatest artist from The Golden Age of Illustration which lasted from the 1880s up until around WWII. Rackham first rose to prominence with his strangely compelling illustrated works that featured all of the various elements of the greatest myths, fables, and fairy tales. The artwork that he produced contained all of the whimsy, romance, adventure, and grotesquerie that was found in their accompanying narratives. Rackham’s images became so ingrained in the minds of many children that his illustrations almost defined the essence of fantasy and legend for generations. Personally, I’ve always found his unique combination of innocent beauty with eeriness, and often tragedy, to be emotionally moving. I can’t think of any other artist in the world of illustration who managed to so evocatively retell the stories of the past with such imagination and believability.
I’ve been a great admirer of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their artistic style for a very long time now. Of all the artists associated with the movement, I think that John William Waterhouse is probably my favorite. This is partly because Waterhouse was consistently brilliant in his creation of evocative scenes inspired by mythology, historical legend, and classic literature. However, while this aspect of his art appeals to me on an intellectual level, I find myself also drawn in by the delicate sense of bittersweet romance and unrequited love on an emotional level. Waterhouse created images of women who were more than mortal women. They are beautiful, seductive, and melancholy representations of our collective longings manifested on the canvas of a master. Waterhouse was one of the last Pre-Raphaelite artists and yet his work overshadows many of the lesser known artists of the movement who came before him.