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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Love and lust at the National Gallery of Art

John Everett Millais (1829-96). Ophelia, 1851-52. Tate. Presented by Sir Henry Tate, 1894.
Ophelia is probably the most popular of the works in the current exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, modeled after Shakespeare's Ophelia in Hamlet, and to draw her correctly, the artist had a model lie in a bathtub which he warmed with oil lamps but worked so diligently, he forgot when the lamps went out, the model got sick, and never recovered.
And there's lots more to see at the National Gallery of Art.
Love, lust, triangles, passion, prostitutes, virtue, mysterious deaths, and a monster snake to name just a few subjects, are to be found in the stunning Pre-Raphaelites exhibition at the West Building, but only for a few precious days more.

The show ends Sunday.

It's another of those fantastic Gallery displays which you want to stay forever. Rather like a glorious sunset or a perfect day in April, you want to capture and relive the experience of enjoyment over and over.  It's a fantasy ride, one I've taken six times and may get in another one before Monday.

And it's not only art, but lots of literature, drama and religious subjects that enrich each of the eight galleries, filled with productions created by the "Pre-Raphaelites," a gang of seven Brits who broke with tradition in 1848 and rebelled against the rigid classicism of Raphael (1483-1520) and Michelangelo (1475-1564) whose art they were supposed to use as models for their own.

This brotherhood drew nature with painstaking detail, spent hours outdoors, drawing on riverbanks to ensnare every last fold in each blade of grass, who returned to the classics and romanticism for themes they admired and wanted to explore. They embellished historical scenes, many with a Victorian flavor, and who’s not to enjoy anything Victorian? 

For inspiration they often relied upon Shakespeare, Tennyson, and Wordsworth whose works they combined with a fascination with medieval themes that would divide them later. 

Their productions unleashed Britain's first avant-garde art movement, pieces from it on display in the U.S., only at the National Gallery of Art.

According to just about everybody, the mid-19th century was "an era of vast political and social change.” (Prithee, name an era which is free of “vast political and social change.")

This group of poets, critics, and artists included the three founders, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and later, William Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens, and Thomas Woolner.

Some of them attended classes at the Royal Academy of the Arts, founded by Sir Joshua Reynolds, whom they called "Sir Sloshua."

Greeting visitors in the first gallery is the astonishing and revolutionary work by John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents (1849-1850) for which you should allow several minutes to study its complexities.  (Stand your ground when the next viewer tries with body language to push you aside.)

When it was first exhibited, the painting drew widespread criticism and some considered it blasphemous. Charles Dickens (yes, that Charles Dickens), said Millais made the Holy Family look like alcoholics and slum-dwellers, who posed in strange and ridiculous ways. The catalogue quotes Dickens:

Mary was "so horrible in her ugliness...a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France...."

The charming and red-headed, blue-eyed Christ Child stands in the center of his father’s carpentry shop with his mother on knees offering him her cheek and comfort for his hand has been cut by a nail.  Blood drips upon his large foot. Joseph and John the Baptist, shyly carrying water, stand with others in a Trinity design around the table.  Millais's portrait of John's expression of sorrow and trepidation is distinctive in its composition and  magnificence, one to admire for the ages.

Debate about the painting created so much turbulence, Queen Victoria requested to view it privately at Buckingham Palace.

John Everett Millais. Christ in the House of His Parents (The Carpenter's Shop), 1849-50. Tate. Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund and various subscribers, 1921.

Then there was the love triangle between Millais, the art critic John Ruskin, and Ruskin's wife, Effie, who all took off on a trip to Scotland together in 1853, so Millais could paint Ruskin, who was much an avant-garde himself, for unlike many of his contemporaries, Ruskin offered praise instead of attacks on the Brotherhood's presentations.

Effie had served as the female subject for Millais in his The Order of Release 1746, about the Battle of Culloden, which Millais completed the year of the trip to Scotland. Three males and a dog, likely a male, too, surround a woman whose face is the only one to appear in its entirety.  She exudes confidence and strength, welcoming her husband home, and hands the guard a note.  Has she traded her virtue for her husband's release? The painting created an uproar and drew huge crowds which increased interest in the Brotherhood, for like any communicator can tell you:  Nothing builds traffic like controversy.

John Everett Millais, The Order of Release 1746 (1852-53). Tate. Presented by Sir Henry Tate, 1898.

Speaking of...

Without any satisfaction to find in the marital bedroom over the years, Effie turned to a nearby resource and grew increasingly attached to Millais. A year after the trip to Scotland she cited as her reason for annulment of her six-year marriage, lack of consummation, while Ruskin told his attorney that her female body disgusted him. (!) (He did try to forge another marriage later, only to be rebuffed when the bride-to-be consulted Effie.)

Well!  You can imagine the public’s response (and interest), and talk about scandal. Hell hath no fury like a man scorned.

In 1855 Effie and Millais got married and had eight children in the first 13 years of their marriage, however, her ex and his venom on paper continually spewed harsh criticism of Millais's work. (What a surprise.)

Just a couple of years later found Millais painting Effie’s younger (by 15 years) sister, Sophie, and you cannot look at her portrait (in the show) and escape the infatuation and adoration of the artist for his subject. She is about ready to pucker up and blow him a kiss or plant one on his lips. A pretty good effect, no? Yes, Sophie may have felt a mutual warmth for her brother-in-law. "Take me," she seems to say. Later, she developed anorexia nervosa
which preceded mental illness, all experienced before a marriage in 1873 to a man not liked by her family.  Her only child, a daughter, was 8 years old when her mother died at age 38 in 1882.

John Everett Millais, Sophie Gray (1857). Private collection c/o Christie's.  

What else?  The exhibition is much more than Millais. I just seem to be hung up on him.

In Jesus Washing Peter's Feet, 1852-56 by Ford Madox Brown (1821-93), Jesus was initially drawn shirtless, but the people demanded his chest be covered, and they got it. 

All this and much more in the exhibition and 250+ page catalogue which describes and reproduces many of the 130 paintings on full pages of color, along with the sculptures, books, photographs, and decorative objects in the show. (Would you believe there's a gift shop at the end?)

Alexander Munro, 1825-71. Josephine Butler, 1855. Marble. The Mistress and Fellows of Girton College Cambridge. The label says "Josephine Butler was a social reformer and advocate for women's rights.  Her deep religious convictions, charismatic persona, and rhetorical skill made her a compelling public speaker."

Alexander Munro.  Young Romilly. c. 1863. Marble. Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh.  Purchased 1993.  The label says this work is "among the most successful treatments of nature in Pre-Raphaelite sculpture....The subject comes from William Wordsworth's poem 'The Force of Prayer' (1807):

Young Romilly through Barden woods
Is ranging high and low;
And holds a greyhound in a leash,
To let slip upon buck or doe."

I dare say, some Washington, D.C. residents might want to rent the eager greyhound.

While at the exhibition, do not, do not overlook the frames which hold the paintings. Stand back and admire their design, and the complements to the pictures they make.

A docent, who has visited the exhibition four times, and I celebrated our Pre-Raph joy at an information counter Wednesday. If you think my descriptions about this show are exaggerated, do let me know, and I'll refund your admission charge.

Oh!  And there is British fare on the menu at the Gallery's Garden Café, including an English cheese board, "bubble and squeak," Cornish pastry, and Sherry Trifle.

The curator, Diane Waggoner, the Gallery's associate curator of photographs, said the exhibition, organized by Tate Britain with the National Gallery, was five years in the making, but its breadth and collection from around the world suggest a production of far more years.

Said Dr. Waggoner:  It was appropriate for the art of the past to shape the art of the future. Amen, brothers.  And, amen, sisters.

Hour-long Gallery talks about the exhibition begin at 1 p.m. at the Rotunda in the West Building on May 16 and 17.  About 50 attended the talk on Wednesday.

What: Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848–1900, and the books

When: Now through May 19, 2013, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and 11 a.m. - 6 p.m., Sunday

Where: Main floor, the West Building, National Gallery of Art, 4th at Constitution, NW, Washington, D.C.

Admission: No charge

Metro stations: Smithsonian, Federal Triangle, Navy Memorial-Archives, or L'Enfant Plaza

For more information: 202-737-4215

The people wait for entry to the Pre-Raphaelites at the West Building of the National Gallery of Art.  That's a banner of Millais's (again!) Mariana, 1850-51/Patricia Leslie

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