Musée d'Orsay: A Ballad of Love and Death: Pre-Raphaelite Photography in Great Britain, 1848-1875

A Ballad of Love and Death: Pre-Raphaelite Photography in Great Britain, 1848-1875

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John William InchboldThe Chapel, Bolton© Northampton, Museum and Art Gallery

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood


In 1848, a number of young painters, notably John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt, deploring the decadent state that British painting had fallen into since Turner's later days, formed the "Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood". They were determined to rebel against academic teaching, and to create a radically different style of painting, returning to the purity, sincerity and natural detail found in the painting of the Italian primitives, untouched by the style and conventions put forward by Raphael and his imitators.

Roger FentonBolton Abbey, West Window© National Media Museum, Bradford / Science & Society Picture Library
Some photographers had personal associations with the painters, whose portraits they took. Both shared a passion for working directly from nature and followed the teachings of John Ruskin, the leading supporter of the Pre-Raphaelites. However, the Brotherhood soon dispersed, with each artist going his own way in 1854: William Holman Hunt left for the Holy Land, the sculptor, Thomas Woolner, despairing at his lack of clients, left for Australia, and Millais entered the Royal Academy. Millais and Rossetti in particular would turn towards a more sensual, amoral art prefiguring the Aesthetic movement, with Millais celebrating colour in every way and Rossetti taking inspiration from Titian and the 16th century Venetian artists.

John RuskinFribourg© The Trustees of The British Museum. All rights reserved.

Ruskin's Perspective


In 1843, when John Ruskin's first volume of Modern Painterswas published, he urged painters to work outdoors and to study nature in all its detail. The Pre-Raphaelites, whom he would later defend, immediately took up the call. They were not content with just making sketches outdoors but produced their final compositions on the spot too. Perhaps these painters were also encouraged in their quest for meticulous accuracy by the studies of nature carried out in the 1850s by photographers using the glass negative, guaranteeing clarity.

John Ruskin et Frederick CrawleyFribourg, Switzerland, Rue de la Palme and Pont de Berne© Droits réservés
Whereas photographers wanted to produce a work of art, and regarded the landscapes painted by the Pre-Raphaelites as a model to follow, shortly after the medium had been invented in 1839, Ruskin described it as "the most marvellous invention of the century", and got his valets, John Hobbs and Frederick Crawley to take hundreds of daguerreotypes of rocks. Indeed, Ruskin was passionate about geology and about the medieval architecture of Venice, which he studied in minute detail thanks to the daguerreotype. A set of these was recently discovered in England.
For this passionate illustrator, the daguerreotype was not a substitute for the failing hand, but a medium that taught people to see more clearly, with its mirror-like silver surface capturing details that sometimes escaped the human eye.

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