Sir John Everett Millais – The Controversy Begins

In the last post on Art Nouveau, we met Christina Rossetti, the sister of Dante, one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

The Pre-Raphaelites were revolutionary for their time.  But are they still relevant to our time?  How have seven men, who lived in a different century, changed our world?

The answer lies with their personal narratives, which were reflected and magnified in their artistic productivity.  Their lives were remarkable!  They were radicals, unafraid to challenge anything and everything that had the feel or smell of status quo.  A true brotherhood, they fed on each other’s brilliance.

The status quo responded with predictable outrage.  The critics were offended, indignant, infuriated….but alas, the world was ready for the movement.  Audiences were captivated by the beauty of the women, challenged by the symbolism and enticed by the social, moral and political upheaval generated by their exhibitions.

The brotherhood came together in 1848 at the Gower Street, London home of John Millais’s parents. It started with three: William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  William Michael Rossetti (Dante’s brother), James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens and Thomas Woolner followed shortly thereafter to form the group of seven.

It didn’t take long for the Pre-Raphaelite’s to stir the controversial flames beginning with John Millais’s painting: Christ in the House of His Parents.   Blasphemy!  Critics were appalled. Charles Dickens considered Mary to be ugly and accused John Millais of portraying her as an alcoholic.  It must have been a tense moment, especially since Millais used his sister-in-law, Mary Hodgkinson, as the model. John Ruskin, the leading English critic of  the Victorian era, came to the rescue with a letter to the press, but even he disliked the painting.

Out of controversy comes debate.  And when there is debate, there is discussion and communication.  Perhaps that is the greatest legacy of the Pre-Raphaelites.

“It doesn’t matter how beautifully a thing is painted, it is no good if it isn’t right – it’s got to come out… What does it matter how you do it? Paint it with a shovel if you can’t get your effect any other way.”

Sir John Everett Millais

Dante’s Kid Sister – Christina

“Tread softly! All the earth is holy ground.” 
 Christina Rossetti

Every Christmas, I listen to In the Bleak Mid-Winter, never realizing the connection to Art Nouveau and the Pre-Raphaelites.  That is, until recently.  Dante Rossetti’s kid sister, Christina, wrote the poem which was set as a Christmas carol by Gustav Holst and then by Harold Darke.

Christina arrived on December 5, 1830 to parents connected to the art world.  Her father, Gabriele Pasquale Giuseppe Rossetti, born in Vasto, Abruzzo, Italy, was a poet who immigrated to England as a political refugee because of his support for the Italian revolutionary nationalism.  Her mother, Frances Polidori was the sister of John William Polidori, the friend and physician of Lord Byron. The Rossetti union produced four children: Dante, the poet and artist, William and Maria, the writers, and Christina the poet. Continue reading