Pre-Raphaelite Art

I have only just become aware that The Delaware Art Musem has placed online a site which very nearly renders me speechless (or typingless, to be sure): The Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Collection of Pre-Raphaelite Art. The collection houses the largest collection of Pre-Raphaelite art outside of England, but art in its widest sense, including jewelry, pottery, and other ephemera, in addition to the paintings and drawings and poetry that most who are familiar with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood might think of. Enjoy the implications of that for a moment, let your imagination take wing, and then, look at the beautiful pictures of the collection.

I do not believe that a person is truly civilized who does not appreciate the art of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Only beasts and demons could despise such beauty, and barbarians who ride the former and are ridden by the latter. Let your eyes take their rest from the ugliness of the world around you, and enjoy these intimations of another, lost, world. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood attempted, in the face of a creeping secularism, to foment a return to a world in which the best of Christian symbolism permeated all, from wallpaper to earrings. Now their works are glittering reminders that touch . . . something . . . in us and remind us of a modern world that just might have been. There is a gentle melancholy to most of the art which I don’t think I imagine, but which may reflect the very Christian (one must specify “high church Anglican” if not “Anglo-Catholic”) disappointment with the late Victorian and early Edwardian ages: the latter the continuation of the former’s spiritual failures, the concretization of the capitulation of that spiritual war being found in the beginning of the Great War, the “war to end all wars.”

In any case, I’ve often showcased the poems and some prose of Christian Georgina Rossetti, sister of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the most well-known of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s artists. She’s one of the greatest of English poets, yet seldom gets the attention she deserves. Why? Because the vast majority of her work is explicitly Christian, which modern litterati cannot abide.

And whether you, dear reader, agree with all or any of the above or not, the images of the collection show us some beautiful creations sprung from the vastly inventive imagination and the skillful hand of humanity, and surely are to be admired. Enjoy.


  1. Let me be the first to say ‘Bravo!’ for appreciating and blogging about the Pre-Raphaelites! I love them! I’ve got my own Christina Rossetti poem to post soon.

  2. Thanks! I love them too, obviously.

    Did you know Christina appears in several of Dante’s paintings and numerous drawings? Probably the most famous with her in it is The Annunciation, where she’s a Mary huddled into a corner, obviously frightened at being confronted by Gabriel walking on flame proferring a lily. Magnificent!

  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I learned metalwork and embroidery, my two great loves, because of the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts & Crafts Movement (which I find hard to separate) and this site is a treasure. Apparently Rossetti’s Annunication was considered shocking in its day because the Virgin is depicted on her bed!

    1. You’re very welcome, Margaret! I’m very glad you enjoyed the link. I only ran across it myself a few minutes before posting it. I can’t get enough of the Pre-Raphaelite stuff, really. There’s just something about it.

  4. The Pre-Raphaelites depicted the world as it existed in the memory of people’s hearts, that particular reflection of the world that inspires and ennobles. It doesn’t matter if that world literally existed- it *should* have existed, and it *should* exist again. But a world of such beauty won’t exist *unless I live like it.*

    “Only beasts and demons could despise such beauty, and barbarians who ride the former and are ridden by the latter. ”

    I love this.

  5. You’ve got it right, David. For them, that beautiful world did exist, at least in their own circle, judging from these exquisite bits of jewelry and the fantastically beautiful embroidered prayer book covers. The English used to be renowned throughout Europe for their embroidery. Now they’re known for being public drunks. It’s a sad devolution.

    We can recover such things, but the living tradition, once lost, requires so much more work to reinvigorate. At least these fine examples survive. We need more real, authentic, handcrafted beauty in our lives, and not just to have it, but to create it. That in itself is a kind of prayer, the creation of beautiful things, however small, however humble.

  6. But one can’t help being disquieted by the overarching eroticism, albeit “spiritualized” and “estheticized”, that pervades the Pre-raphaelite art, the secret (maybe unconscious) worship of Venus “the Mother of harlots and abominations of the earth”. It was the font of inspiration for the “decadent” art of the 19th century “fin de siecle” (e.g. Gustav Klimt and Sezession, D’Anunnzio). It was also the inspiration for the lurid “Sophiology” of Vladimir Soloviov and his scions Florensky, Bulgakov, Berdiaev).

  7. I think you’re especially correct in the case of Dante Rossetti, Vlad. There’s no way to avoid the unsavory background of so much that lay behind such a beautiful facade as that of the work of the Pre-Raphaelites. Still, the “idea” of their work was sound, and the execution was appropriate.

    For my part, I fiind their decorative art (not the paintings) to be a much better realization of the ideal of Pre-Raphaelites than their painting, which is often too heavy-handed, if evocative. As you mention, the evocations are often (even usually) unsavory.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *