Henry Wallis "Chatterton" (c. 1855–56), oil on canvas 62.2 x 93.3 cm (24 1/2 x 36 3/4 in.) framed: 90.5 x 120.5 x 13.2 cm (35 5/8 x 47 7/16 x 5 3/16 in.) (Image courtesy Tate Gallery, London. Bequeathed by Charles Gent Clement 1899)

Henry Wallis, “Chatterton” (c. 1855–56), oil on canvas, 62.2 x 93.3 cm (24 1/2 x 36 3/4 in), Tate Gallery, London (all images courtesy the National Gallery of Art)

In its first iteration in London, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, the survey now on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, bore the edgier title Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde. We may not customarily think of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) — founded in secret in September 1848 by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and soon attracting other artists — as an avant-garde, but the label does seem apt. The PRB painters and their affiliated artists were an embattled band of refuseniks, rejecting the standard practices of modern painting, and with it modernity itself, as corrupt and unsustainable.

In their day, the Pre-Raphaelites’ work called forth both the general outrage and particular occasions of scandal that we associate with all proper avant-gardes. And like so many vanguards, they were a coterie awash in the energy of youth. Among the show’s highlights are Henry Wallis’s painting “Chatterton” (1855–56), a tribute to the teenage poète maudit and forger Thomas Chatterton (1752–1770), whose marmoreal corpse is crowned with bright waves of glam-rock hair; and, in a more intimate key, a wall of portrait drawings of the group’s young, zealous artists.

Yet the movement, and not only because of its restorationist claims for the art of a distant, “pre-Raphaelite” era, squirms a bit under the avant-garde rubric. Its influence has been diffuse and pervasive, evident in Symbolism, Surrealism, and various popular manifestations, such as the psychedelic poster and album art of ’60s and ’70s rock (one of the lenders to the exhibition is Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page). But often its works are encumbered by their specific references to scripture or literature — Shakespeare, Tennyson, one of Bulwer-Lytton’s forgotten historical novels — and more generally by the onus of the PRB’s reformist fervor. Rather than appearing forward-looking, the group can seem stuck in a nineteenth-century byway, a footnote in the breathless tale of European art racing toward the modernism of the twentieth century.

The moralizing so prevalent in Pre-Raphaelite art and writing comes off as quintessentially Victorian, no matter what controversies it once stirred up: the debate whether the naturalistic depiction of Biblical subjects is “appropriate,” say, is now a matter of merely historical interest. Responding self-consciously to the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution and the uprisings of 1848, the Pre-Raphaelites’ program of creative antiquarianism represents a quixotic seizure, at a historically specific moment, of an imaginatively usable past. And however admirable in principle is the group’s commitment to a painstaking fidelity to nature, in execution the results are quirkier and less heroic than what was achieved by the group’s avowed predecessors (Van Eyck) or its Continental contemporaries (Courbet, Menzel).

William Holman, "Hunt The Awakening Conscience" (1853–5), oil on canvas, 76.2 x 55.9 cm (30 x 22 in.) framed: 106 x 85.7 x 9.7 cm (41 3/4 x 33 3/4 x 3 13/16 in.) (Image courtesy Tate. Presented by Sir Colin and Lady Anderson through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1976) Click to enlarge.

William Holman Hunt, “The Awakening Conscience” (1853–54), oil on canvas, 76.2 x 55.9 cm (30 x 22 in), Tate (click to enlarge)

Still, there is much to see in these paintings. What draws one in is a tension between earnestness and a meticulously rendered luxuriance. The amoral insouciance of the aesthetic is reined in — or isn’t — by the stolid impulses of social responsibility. Holman Hunt’s “The Awakening Conscience” (1853–54), loosely inspired by an episode in Dickens’s David Copperfield, dramatizes a moment when a kept woman feels herself called to lead a new life. The painting’s onslaught of visual detail, including the dizzying, mirrored reflections behind its two figures, nonplussed the spectators who saw it at London’s Royal Academy in 1854 and questioned what it signified. Intended to be a pendant to “The Light of the World” (1851–52), an image of Jesus that was later to become an icon of Victorian Protestantism, and encased in a decorative frame with an inscription from the book of Proverbs, “The Awakening Conscience” was born of Holman Hunt’s fervent desire to preach — even if not all of the intricacies of his painted sermon are readily apparent.

Soon after it was exhibited, John Ruskin defended the painting and obligingly provided a detailed gloss, but those of us (most contemporary viewers, I suspect) not interested in a complete exegesis of its iconography are left with a moment of novelistic intensity, slightly ambiguous, and the riot of visual information at play on the painting’s surface. Writing in 1957, when “The Awakening Conscience” was shown at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Robert Rosenblum proposed in Partisan Review that the incessant busyness of Hunt’s canvas elicits a response comparable to that of action painting: “Most paradoxically, the incredibly crowded two-dimensional pattern, which offered a multiplicity of pictorial incident rarely equaled in the history of art, could even begin to provide those values of a labyrinthine, over-all surface activity which the investigations of a Tobey or a Pollock have taught us to enjoy.”

John Everett Millais,  "Ophelia" (1851–52), oil on canvas, 76.2 x 111.8 cm (30 x 44 in.) (Image courtesy Tate. Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894)

John Everett Millais, “Ophelia” (1851–52), oil on canvas, 76.2 x 111.8 cm (30 x 44 in), Tate.

Here as elsewhere in the works of the Pre-Raphaelites, painterly profusion and the didactic impulse coexist curiously, never in discord but not completely in harmony. Form and content are just as likely to part ways as to align themselves. The lush, fanciful vegetation of Millais’s “Ophelia” (1851–52) creates an opulent natural backdrop for staging the latter moments of the doomed young woman, but the descriptive veracity of each leaf, branch, and flower exerts a magnetic pull, and draws the viewer away from the painting’s central storyline.

From the sensuous immersion in the particulars of the natural world, one need not travel far to find outright sensuality and Eros. Blame the social-realist thread of Pre-Raphaelitism for the desexualized prostitutes of John Roddam Spencer Stanhope’s melancholy “Thoughts of the Past” (1858–59) or Rossetti’s saved-victim tale “Found,” begun in 1859 but not completed. But female characters who were not cast as instances of a pressing societal problem  and instead bore a literary pedigree could be strikingly eroticized, as was the maiden in Edward Burne-Jones’s “King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid” (1880–84), Frederick Sandys’s bright-lipped “Mary Magdalene” (c. 1859) and Millais’s “Mariana” (1850–51), plucked from Shakespeare by way of Tennyson. Though the body of Millais’s figure is fully clothed from the neck down, her arched back and inwardly focused gaze suggest an agitated dream of yearning. By the 1860s Rossetti was creating his sultry beauties inspired by Venetian painting, all lips and hair and creamy skin.

The exhibition catalogue notes that the current show is the first large-scale museum evaluation of Pre-Raphaelite art since the 1980s, and even includes, in what now seems a timely gesture, a photograph of Margaret Thatcher peering into an unidentified painting at the opening of the Tate exhibition The Pre-Raphaelites in 1984, a show that was “circumspect, even timid, in the claims it made.” The assertion that the Pre-Raphaelites were an avant-garde is patently a bold counter to such complacency; and yet it may be  gratuitous, given the fundamental strangeness at the core of the group’s endeavors. The Pre-Raphaelites created a body of work that is at once pleasing and exasperating, astonishing and confounding. There is something that continues to be startling, even shocking about what they were doing — the fastidious intricacy, the keyed-up color, the hyperrealism that can be as awkward as it is exact. This is likely to remain the case, even as more advanced confrontational movements like Dada and Surrealism have been digested into the grand narrative of art history, their provocations now wholly approved and met without so much as a shrug.

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design is on view at the National Gallery of Art (National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC) until May 19.

James Gibbons is an associate editor at the Library of America and a frequent contributor to Bookforum.