WILMINGTON, Delaware — Asked what “Pre-Raphaelite” means, one may conjure an image of a beautiful woman with graceful hands, a long neck, masses of red or black wavy hair, and a languorous expression, usually dressed in a vaguely medieval costume. It’s a stereotype based largely on the paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who devoted much of his mature and late work to such “stunners” (in his words). The Delaware textile magnate Samuel Bancroft was enthralled by Rossettian women, which explains why the Delaware Art Museum has the finest collection of Pre-Raphaelite art outside the United Kingdom — but a collection that leans heavily into the beautiful woman tropes of the movement.
The museum’s current exhibition Forgotten Pre-Raphaelites goes some way toward complicating typical notions of the “Pre-Raphaelite.” The term dates to 1848, when Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and William Holman Hunt, rejecting the conventions of the Royal Academy, dubbed themselves the “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood”: inspired by quattrocento Italian art, they sought to paint with a fresh, naïve eye and a heightened sense of detail and color. Some years later, a “second wave” of Pre-Raphaelites — Rossetti again, with his younger friends Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris — would provide the basis for the still-familiar stereotypes of the movement (the languid women, the medievalism), as well as jump-starting Morris’s Arts & Crafts movement.
That earlier Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic of almost photographic realism is evident in some of the works in Forgotten Pre-Raphaelites, such as George James Howard’s “Algiers, Cecilia in Pink” (c. 1892–93) and Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon’s “Ventnor, Isle of Wight” (1856). Tellingly, the museum has hung Frederick James Shields’s “Apple Stem” (1878) next to a botanical drawing by John Ruskin (the founding Pre-Raphaelites’ mentor and patron), underlining the movement’s pursuit of naturalistic detail. Indeed, the only work in Forgotten Pre-Raphaelites that evokes the stunners of Rossetti or Burne-Jones is Winifred Sandys’s fine watercolor “White Mayde of Avenel” (after 1902).
Frankly, however, it’s more personal associations than aesthetic commonalities that allow the curators to present these artists as “Pre-Raphaelite,” forgotten or otherwise. Bodichon, better known as a campaigner for women’s educational rights, had studied with Hunt; Sandys’s father was a painter and a close friend of Rossetti’s. If personal filiation is the principal category of inclusion, then perhaps the most Pre-Raphaelite picture of all here is Marie Spartali Stillman’s “Kelmscott Manor, from the Field” (not dated). Spartali Stillman studied with Ford Madox Brown and was an intimate of the Rossetti circle, and her painting depicts Morris’s Oxfordshire home. Yet little about this charming watercolor sets it apart from other late Victorian outdoor scenes.
The artistic “power couple” Evelyn and William De Morgan, represented in the museum’s A Marriage of Arts & Crafts: Evelyn & William De Morgan, clearly had impeccable Pre-Raphaelite affiliations. Evelyn studied at the Slade School of Art, one of the few institutions where women students could draw from the nude; she came of age, thanks to her painter uncle John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, among a circle that included Morris and his family, Burne-Jones, Rossetti, and a crowd of other Pre-Raphaelite-adjacent artists. Trained at the Royal Academy as a painter, William designed stained glass and tiles for Morris’s design firm before founding his own ceramics studio.
William was something of a one-man ceramics renaissance. His tiles and dishes, whose designs work deft and witty variations on medieval, Iberian, and Islamic themes, were much in demand as luxury items. Not merely a fine designer, he was also a skilled mathematician and chemist. He ceaselessly experimented with methods of firing his ceramics and with the formulation of their colored glazes; in particular, he successfully reinvented the incredibly beautiful, and fiendishly difficult, reduced-firing lusters of medieval Islamic pottery. The depth and magnetism of his glazes, and his mastery of carefully plotted geometric forms, are perhaps most startlingly displayed in his “Fish and Net Vase” (1882–88), a piece of copper-glazed earthenware in which the surface pattern — a bulging white fishnet over a school of dark red fish — combines a remarkable three-dimensional illusionism with a kind of hieratic formalism.
Evelyn was clearly a painter of great gifts and ambition, but while her paintings are easy to like, even to respect, it’s somewhat harder to find in them a unique, fully realized artistic vision. Their astonishing degree of finish (even the smallest detail is painstakingly wrought, with barely a brushstroke visible) sometimes renders her subjects more plastic than flesh, and her bright colors and lighting can seem garish (an offense of which the first-generation Pre-Raphaelites were often accused as well). She was deeply influenced by Botticelli — “Flora” (1894) is almost a Botticellian pastiche, though a very attractive painting in its own right — and her figures are closely akin to those of the Pre-Raphaelites Simeon Solomon and Burne-Jones: but an attenuated, watered-down Burne-Jones.
These beautiful and smoothly rendered figures — their idealized features often indistinguishable one from another — seem all too often posed, stagily and unnaturally, before painstakingly delineated but strangely depthless backgrounds. “Cassandra” and “Helen of Troy” (both 1898) are at first glance almost reflections of one another, apart from their differing hair colors and robes and the iconographical details of their surrounds.
Those iconographic details are important, for Evelyn continually sought to convey specific ideas through her paintings. Both De Morgans were devoted spiritualists, and were intensely active in political causes like women’s suffrage and (after the Boer War) pacifism — causes that Evelyn addresses in her art. The strange “The Red Cross” (1914–16) depicts a crucified, red-robed Christ being borne aloft by angels above a devastated landscape of tombstones and ruins, a protest against the epochal wastage of the First World War.
In “The Gilded Cage” (c. 1900), a young wife looks longingly out a window at a troupe of passing bacchanals while her elderly scholar-husband, at a desk stacked with books of art, music, and poetry, casts an unfocused gaze on the foreground. At the upper right, a caged bird symbolizes the woman’s plight in this ill-sorted marriage. It’s a pointed critique of May-December marriages, and the Victorian marital institution in general. Fortunately, while Evelyn was 16 years younger than William, there’s no evidence that their marriage was anything but happy and mutually supportive, aesthetically, financially, and emotionally. Given Rossetti’s tawdry track record with his succession of models and lovers, the De Morgans’ career provides a refreshing bookend to the Pre-Raphaelites’ sometimes discouraging reproduction of traditional gender hierarchies.
Forgotten Pre-Raphaelites continues through February 5 and A Marriage of Arts & Crafts: Evelyn & William De Morgan continues through February 19 at the Delaware Art Museum (2301 Kentmere Parkway, Wilmington, Delaware). Forgotten Pre-Raphaelites was curated by Dr. Sophie Lynford, curator of Pre-Raphaelite art at the Delaware Art Museum. A Marriage of Arts & Crafts: Evelyn & William De Morgan was co-curated by Sarah Hardy, Curator, De Morgan Collection, and Dr. Margaretta Frederick, Curator Emerita, Delaware Art Museum.