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.
Memories So Fair and Bright
Kimetha Vanderveen’s paintings are about the interaction of materiality and light, the bond between the palpable and ephemeral world in which we live.
Artists Contemplate Sovereignty in Santa Fe
The Santa Fe Art Institute’s 2024 International Thematic Residency focuses on what sovereignty means for artists from across the world.
When I Am Empty Please Dispose of Me Properly
Ayanna Dozier, Ilana Harris-Babou, Meena Hasan, Lucia Hierro, Catherine Opie, Chuck Ramirez, and Pacifico Silano explore the myths of the American Dream at Brooklyn’s BRIC House.
How Did Early Modern European Craftspeople Pass On Their Knowledge?
A new book about object making critically examines a written history of working with materials.
Dual Portrait of Old Master Rachel Ruysch Holds a Trove of Secrets
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has just acquired the rare painting, which depicts the Dutch artist at work surrounded by her signature flora.
Pratt’s 2023 Fine Arts MFA Thesis Exhibition Is On View in Brooklyn
The two-part exhibition features the work of 41 graduating artists across disciplines, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, and integrated practices.
Did Van Gogh’s Disdain for the Eiffel Tower Inspire “Starry Night”?
Art historian James Hall argues that van Gogh replaced the Eiffel Tower with a towering cypress tree and its inaugural light shows with the night sky.
Greek Museum Welcomes Dogs For World Stray Animal Day
Furry friends and their pawrents can visit Athens’s National Museum of Contemporary Art for free this weekend.
The Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation Presents The Feminine in Abstract Painting
Curated by Jennifer Samet and Andrea Belag, this group exhibition in NYC explores the feminine through aesthetics, as opposed to identity or gender.
Ai Weiwei Recreates Monet’s “Water Lilies” Using 650,000 LEGOS
It’s the artist’s largest LEGO artwork to date.
Did a Simpsons Episode Predict the Florida “David” Outrage?
The episode, which aired 30 years ago, made a dark prediction about conservative politics in 2023.
NYU Steinhardt Opens 2023 MFA Thesis Exhibitions
Taking place at 80WSE Gallery in New York’s Greenwich Village, Part I is on view from late March through April while Part II opens in May.
Coasting the Topography of South Asian Futurisms
As part of Hyperallergic’s Emily Hall Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators, Sadaf Padder presents an exhibition to offer insight into her curatorial process.
I’m a Florida Drag Queen and I’m Scared
I’m truly at a loss for what to do for work and what kind of life I can expect to live.