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The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood or PRB was founded in 1848 in London by a group of young British artists among whom principally Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais. These artists wanted to return to the ways of representation and to the spiritual values of the early Italian painters who worked before Raphael, such as the great masters of the Italian Renaissance Sandro Botticelli and Filippo Lippi. They wanted again to draw the actual facts of a scene, as they could imagine the real scene might have happened. They did not respect the conventional, academic rules of the art of their period. The PRB was essentially a Romantic Movement and a precursor movement of Symbolism. It lasted in its latest forms until the beginning of the twentieth century. Since it was so characteristic of many English painters, we consider it here separately.

The PRB painters proposed a return to pre-Raphael times, which meant often Gothic. Thus strong vertical and sometimes even horizontal lines were preferred in frozen, static scenes.

Pre-Raphaelite painters used strong structure in their pictures. They made many portraits, and then applied mostly the traditional pyramidal form.

Pre-Raphaelites painted in pure, sometimes harsh colours on top of layers of wet white paint, in the manner of the early fresco painters. Thus their pictures glow with very bright colours. This technique however was very tedious, so that many artists soon abandoned it, except William Holman Hunt who was also the most religious artist of the group.

Pre-Raphaelitic pictures often represent scenes of classic Antiquity or historical scenes, scenes from the plays of Shakespeare, illustrations of Tennyson’s poems or scenes of Dante’s works and life. The pictures have an obvious moral content, and that not just in their religious representations. Certain artists such as Millais were socially engaged.
The pictures are very detailed as was common in Gothic and Renaissance, and thus very realistic as representations of real objects and figures. Yet, the Pre-Raphaelite artists communicated with strong underlying symbolism. Flowers and plants were often emphasised in the complex scenes.

The pictures remained mostly intimate, so that no far and wide landscapes were depicted. Scenes in forests, between mountains in valleys were preferred. But the PRB painters knew all the techniques of perspective and foreshortening, and they applied them whenever that was appropriate.

Painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and style were among others: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, Edward Burne-Jones, John Everett Millais, Arthur Hughes, John William Waterhouse, and William Morris.

For comments on the transition from other styles to the Pre-Raphaelite style, the same remarks can be made here as those given for the transition to Romanticism in the previous chapter. The PRB was the foremost Romantic Movement in the United Kingdom. In its later period and in particular manifestations, it was a precursor movement to Symbolism.

The Blind Girl

John Everett Millais (1829 -1896). The Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery. Birmingham. 1856.

The painting of Millais is all in soft tomes, bright, but not hurting in contrasts. We see a scene of two poor girls, the younger one coming out of hiding from under the hood of the elder one. The two girls are beggar-girls and poorly clad. The moment is after a rainstorm, and a rainbow glows over a nicely developing landscape of the countryside. The younger girl is curious. She looks at the promise of the rainbow that marks the end of the showers. The elder girl hears that the rain has stopped, and she smells the new, fresh scent. So she lifts her head expectantly, but she is blind.

Even at a short glance, no viewer with some heart can remain impassive at the picture, and not be charmed by its silent attraction. The viewer pities the girls and he or she admires the painter’s skill in joining nice, pastoral colours to a scene that moves all viewers to the desire to help the girls.

Millais used the pyramidal structure for his picture. The two girls form the pyramid, and so does the hood that protected both. This brown form however has been kept rather low, which was an innovation, for usually the pyramid structure is more prominent and covers most of the canvas. Millais placed the form lower, so that about one third space was left on the top to show the landscape.

The painting shows the scene in much detail. Millais did not work in strong or rapid brushstrokes but in the smooth, slow, painstaking work of the patient artisan. He painted the details of the girls and of the landscape quite meticulously. The lines or directions of the girls contrast with the horizontality of the landscape.

The girls are set low, so that the countryside could be well shown in full view. We recognise here the interest of the Pre-Raphaelites for nature. The large dimension of the landscape suggests the loneliness of the girls in this nature. The far rainbow enhances the depth of space. But the sky is still very dark and menacing, and this element breaks the sense of depth to some extent, so that the scene also remains closed and intimate between the girls and this part of the land. Millais painted nice, small details to be discovered. A few blue flowers grow on the left, and to the right is a little blue of water too. The overall brown-yellow-orange hues are surprised by a little red and a little green. But the joy of the fields in the background, the soft green and orange dominate and agree well with the brown of the hood.

The picture invites the viewer to look for eyes. Where are the eyes in the painting? The younger girl turns away from the viewer. The elder girl holds her head high and her eyes are closed. The girl looks inwardly. The title says the girl is blind. She stretches her head forward to the viewer, upward from her lower position to reach out to the spectator. But she only smells and senses, she doesn’t see, and the viewer finally finds no eyes. The elder girl is blind, helpless and lonely,and that feeling is also transferred to the viewer for the viewer finds no eyes in the picture, nothing to draw him or her into the painting. The viewer remains lonely, too. A strange symbiosis therefore sets in between the viewer and the girls. A symbiosis based on the empathy between the viewer and the girls develops, based on a simple sentiment of pity that always touches. Because no eyes look at the viewer, the viewer feels isolated too, just like the girl does. This is a very Romantic image that also bears a touch of social concern, a feeling that would be present in some of the painters of the school of which Millais was a member.

Millais painted the landscape very nicely, and he did not shy away from using many plainly picturesque details. The grasses are orange-green; the grass hangs from a clot of earth on the left; delicate flowers blossom there; birds are looking for insects that come out eagerly after the rain in the meadows, and cows and sheep wander around. In the far is a village, hidden by bushes and trees and the foliage near the horizon shows a nice variety of hues. Remark the double rainbow in the picture. Double rainbows do exist, bu twe see them rarely. The colours of the two rainbows are then iverted!
Our view is always drawn back to the intense face of the blind girl, to the face that emerges from under the dark brown hood. This hood reminds us of the colour of the maphorion of the Virgin Mary.
The colour is brown, and the clothes of the girl are torn in places. Millais placed a black and violet hue in the cloak and robe of the younger girl, colours that well match the brown of the shirt of the elder girl.
Millais’ painting is sentimental, picturesque, and intimate. Millais returned to simple countryside themes of common people, to the pastoral landscapes of England. The girl is a symbol of helplessness, poverty and loneliness. Such themes were very different from the scenes of grand Classic antiquity, which showed Greek heroes in scenes of battles or palaces amidst the white marble statues of Greek architecture. This kind of art flourished at the same time as Millais’ paintings. He had a large audience, and became very popular later with his touching scenes.

John Everett Millais was one of three founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood or PRB. The other members were Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt. The PRB was founded in 1848; all members were very young. The movement grew to more members, but did not last past 1855. Millais, with time, became one of the best known and most generally admired painters of England. For that he had in part to leave the historical or religious themes of the PRB and continue fully with scenes like the "Blind Girl". Millais was knighted, became a member and later even president of the Royal Academy and had to be called Sir John. He was only nineteen years old when he came to the Pre-Raphaelitic Brotherhood, but he would not remain the painter that continued to vow to the style of picturing in all smallest detail and take the PRB style the furthest. He abandoned the tedious way of painting on wet white substrates, and he reverted to a quicker way in using a more natural, rapid way. He married John Ruskin’s wife after her divorce from Ruskin and after a Romantic affair with her during a stay in Scotland with the Ruskins. Millais soon had a large family and after 1855 he had to paint faster and more. He grew rich, and lived the wealthy life of an English baronet. He also painted historical scenes and sentimental pictures of children, which became enormously popular. He made scenes from plays of Shakespeare, such as the unforgettable image of the dead Ophelia floating in the water amidst bright flowers in pure colours. Some of the emphasis on religion, as wanted also by somewhat later Symbolist movements, can be remarked in the appeal to charity in the picture of the "Blind Girl". But the keen observation of nature, the use of bright colours, of realistic detail and of the Romantic mood that pervades the painting, as well as the innovative composition make of Millais an individual that renewed art as did his PRB friends. Millais did paint medieval scenes, but his choice of subjects after 1860 differed from those of other members of the PRB. He made themes that were less intellectual, more easily accessible, less loaded with symbols and mystic, and thus more popular, which assured him a wealthy income. But Millais remained the excellent painter of great talent.

The "Blind Girl" appeals instantaneously. Maybe the theme is a little too easy for our over-sophisticated and modern unsentimental tastes, but the appeal has remained immediate. Millais painted with great skill of feeling for his theme and for the natural landscape. His composition is original, and so is the choice of his colours to a harmonious palette. Yet the composition is merely a new variation of a traditional structure. Millais belonged to the founders of a new movement in art that determined for a large part English painting of the second half of the nineteenth century. The PRB painters gave England its own particular style of painting. Some viewers will like and admire the ‘Blind Girl’ in all aspects of art, in first Impression, Discovery and Recognition.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: July 2010
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