The Pre-Raphaelites galvanized the British art world in the second half of the nineteenth century with a creative vision that resonates to this day. Rejecting contemporary academic practice as vacuous and stifling, they sought to produce work that was vivid, sincere, and uplifting. Their name affirms their initial sources of inspiration: medieval and early Renaissance art from before the era of Raphael. Originally championed by a small, secret brotherhood, the movement swiftly gained adherents, who introduced new approaches and ambitions.
This exhibition brings together some thirty objects from across the Museum and from local private collections to highlight the second generation of the Pre-Raphaelites, focusing on the key figures Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Paintings, drawings, furniture, ceramics, stained glass, textiles, and book illustrations from the 1860s through the 1890s, many united for the first time, demonstrate the enduring impact of Pre-Raphaelite ideals as they were adapted by different artists and developed across a range of media. At a time of renewed appreciation for art of the Victorian age, the installation directs fresh attention toward the Metropolitan's little-known holdings in this important area.
The exhibition is made possible by the Lillian Goldman Charitable Trust.
The movement began as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, founded in London in 1848 by seven young artists and writers, most notably William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Challenging convention, they painted in an archaizing style, with bright, flat color and unsparing realistic detail. The group disbanded by the mid-1850s, but its impact was far-reaching, stimulating a second generation of artists who expanded the movement's scope and appeal over the next four decades.
Leading them was the bohemian Rossetti, who mentored newcomers Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, former theology students at Oxford. This tight-knit trio redefined Pre-Raphaelite ideals. Moving away from the exacting naturalism and moralizing subjects preferred by the early Brotherhood, the friends cultivated its romantic and imaginative aspects. Alongside medieval prototypes, they embraced classical sculpture and even High Renaissance art. Focusing on mythical and poetic themes, they endeavored to conjure a realm of heightened emotions, aspirations, and visual splendor that would elevate a modern society beset by change. They asserted, in Burne-Jones's words, "Only this is true, that beauty is very beautiful, and softens, and comforts, and inspires, and rouses, and lifts up, and never fails."
Their approach cut across traditional divisions in the arts, forging connections between painting, poetry, music, and decoration. Morris's design firm, founded in 1861, with Rossetti and Burne-Jones among the partners, fostered collaboration among artists and craftsmen, producing objects as aesthetically refined as they were technically brilliant.
The Pre-Raphaelites' influence may be seen in the dreamy imagery of fin-de-siècle Symbolism, the design reforms of Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau, and the hallucinatory compositions of Surrealism. Yet outside of Great Britain, public taste for their work was slow to develop, the creations of Morris & Company excepted.
Several Pre-Raphaelites participated in an exhibition of British art that toured New York, Philadelphia, and Boston in 1857–58, but the movement remained largely unfamiliar in the United States until the late 1870s and 1880s, when London's Grosvenor Gallery brought Burne-Jones into the limelight and posthumous retrospectives revealed Rossetti’s accomplishments. Even then, American connoisseurs—including those who shaped the Metropolitan's collection—gravitated toward French academic masters, the Barbizon painters, or, more daringly, Impressionism. The formal innovations of Post-Impressionism and Cubism further overshadowed Pre-Raphaelite art. In a 1935 essay, Met paintings curator Bryson Burroughs regretfully opined, "the time is not yet ripe for calm judgment of the . . . school."
At the Metropolitan, the Pre-Raphaelites are represented primarily by artists of the second generation, predominantly Burne-Jones. The Museum's first acquisitions in this area were made by Englishman Roger Fry, who served briefly as Curator of Paintings and then as special advisor between 1906 and 1910. He helped procure drawings by Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown, and Rossetti, establishing works on paper as a cornerstone of our holdings. Ironically, Fry, who later championed twentieth-century modernism and decried Pre-Raphaelite pictures as "archaistic bric-a-brac," introduced them to the collection as examples of "creative genius."
In the 1920s the Department of Decorative Arts obtained The Backgammon Players, an early cabinet painted by Burne-Jones, together with ceramics, textiles, wallpapers, and tapestries bought from Morris & Company. The Museum made its greatest Pre-Raphaelite acquisition after World War II with the purchase of Burne-Jones's masterpiece The Love Song, joined in recent decades by the artist's stained-glass window King David the Poet and tapestry Angeli Laudantes.
Spread among multiple departments, these objects—ranging from signature pieces to lengths of fabric—have escaped close scrutiny until now. At a moment of growing appreciation for Victorian art, this exhibition signals that, to paraphrase Burroughs, the time is ripe to "make acquaintance face to face" with the Pre-Raphaelites at the Metropolitan.
Rossetti played a vital role in the Pre-Raphaelite movement as a founding member of the Brotherhood and guiding light to the second generation. A charismatic artist-poet, he attracted a circle of adherents whom he nurtured, and who inspired him in turn, most notably Burne-Jones and Morris. Although Rossetti rarely exhibited in public after 1850, disliking negative press, his passions—romanticism, medievalism, literature, and music—shaped later Pre-Raphaelite art.
From the mid-1850s Rossetti's work was defined by portrayals of gorgeous women, often personifying mystical ideas but derived from actual individuals. During an extended relationship with Elizabeth Siddal he produced ethereal images of womanhood, but after her death in 1862 he moved toward something more unabashedly sensual. Fanny Cornforth, his mistress, appears in Lady Lilith as a legendary temptress whose long golden hair symbolizes her seductive power. In the late 1860s Rossetti balanced such imagery with more spiritualized conceptions inspired by his model Alexa Wilding, and, in his last decade, he became close to Jane Burden, Morris's wife, celebrating her unconventional dark beauty in many works.
Although Burne-Jones decided to become an artist only in his early twenties and received little formal training, he had one of the most prolific careers among the Pre-Raphaelites. Reading critic John Ruskin at university propelled him and the like-minded Morris to seek out Rossetti—"the chief figure in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood"—who encouraged Burne-Jones "to give his whole life to Art."
Wry and whimsical by nature, Burne-Jones was unabashedly earnest and idealistic in his work. Deeply influenced at first by Rossetti, he soon developed a restrained, graceful style ideally suited to pictures evoking the soul’s quest for meaning and perfection. Burne-Jones’s current reputation rests on his paintings, but he was also a highly accomplished designer for Morris & Company, realizing a true marriage of the arts. Apart from a hiatus in the 1870s, he exhibited regularly and to mounting acclaim, bringing Pre-Raphaelitism to a wide audience. The Love Song, a key work of his maturity, reflects the artist’s enthusiasm for the motifs of music and desire.
William Morris was a brilliant polymath. Remembered today as a designer and manufacturer of textiles, wallpaper, and stained glass, he was equally renowned in his lifetime as a poet and novelist. An avid socialist, he fought class inequities, and he also campaigned to preserve green spaces and ancient monuments. Morris fervently subscribed to the Pre-Raphaelites' belief that medieval exemplars could be used to improve the present. Opposed to industrial mass production, he advocated tradition-minded practices, believing that beautiful objects, honestly made, would promote a better society.
To this end, in 1861 the young entrepreneur helped found the decorative arts firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Company. His ingenuity was the driving force behind the enterprise, but it also showcased the talents of Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown, and architect Philip Webb. In 1875 Morris became sole director of the reconfigured Morris & Company. His predilection for historical techniques ensured that profits were modest, and, despite his socialist ideals, his wares were often affordable only to the wealthy. Nevertheless, the company's designs became iconic and many remain in production. Bird hung in Morris's own drawing room at Kelmscott House, Hammersmith, London.