Meg Wise-Lawrence

The Germ: A Pre-Raphaelite Connection

All our best men
are laughed at
in this nightmare land
-Jack Kerouac "Pomes All Sizes"

William Hunt's "The Scapegoat"Pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt's painting The Scapegoat (1854) depicts a goat caught in the briny mire of the Dead Sea. Behind him is the sky and mountain range illuminated by a bright array of colors we usually associate with science fiction. The reflections on the water—what little there is of it—are iridescent but not beautiful. It's a stark and even ugly painting. As the eye moves forward we see carcasses of dead animals—and the goat. Barely standing, barely alive, his eyes are vacant and his mouth is open with thirst. There's a red floral crown beneath his horns.

The damning religious and social connotations were not lost on all of Victorian England. Nonetheless, one critic, who deemed The Scapegoat "incomprehensible," wrote of Hunt:

The so-called Pre-Raphaelite school has made no converts; that is evident; Mr Hunt stands this year almost alone as its high priest; and no class of the public will give their admiration or their sympathy to the works of this artist.

The movement was founded in 1848, when seven men in England decided to band together against everything they scorned, and for everything they felt art should be. They particularly despised the high art of the Renaissance and called it "slosh"—meaning all they considered to be bad art. They gathered together to discuss art, share influences (from the Bible to Arthurian legends), and they called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In their youthful exuberance, even made a list of those they considered "the immortals"—Jesus Christ, Job, George Washington and Edgar Allen Poe, among others. They wanted to redefine art, recapture romantic medievalism, and depict nature realistically. They influenced Aubrey Beardsley, the Bloomsbury group (which included writer Virginia Woolf and her sister, painter Vanessa Meg's sketch of William MorrisBell), C.S. Lewis and even the Velvet Underground.

The original seven were: painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his art critic and editor brother William, painters William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and James Collinson (at the time engaged to Rossetti's sister Christina), as well as sculptor Thomas Woolner and art critic Frederic George Stephens. Respected critic John Ruskin, one of the most influential men of the time, supported them, as did established painter Ford Madox Brown (whose daughter later married William Rossetti).

Friends and associates soon became part of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Designer William Morris, painter Edward Burne-Jones and poet Algernon Charles Swinburne were soon honorary members of the brotherhood. There were women too, like Elizabeth Siddal, a "stunner" who modeled for the men, married D.G. Rossetti, and produced an impressive body of work before her death by laudanum (not long after the tragic stillbirth of their child). In the Pre-Raphaelites briefly lived broadside, "The Germ: Thoughts Toward Art And Poetry," they published the poems of Christina Rossetti (one of D.G. and William's two sisters) and set forth their manifesto:

*   To have genuine ideas to express;
*   To study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them;
*   To sympathize with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is     conventional and self-parading and learned by rote;
*   And more indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.

William Morris, who later helped found the arts and crafts movement, wrote:

Nothing can be a work of art which is not useful; that is to say, which does not minister to the body when well under command of the mind, or which does not amuse, soothe, or elevate the mind in a healthy state.

Although most of Hunt's work aside from The Scapegoat was better received, most of the Pre-Raphaelite art was only soothing at first glance. It was useful and intricate, steeped with symbolism, and always thought provoking. The Pre-Raphaelite movement attracted and repelled London with its dark realism and sensuality. Lizzie Siddal shivered in a freezing bathtub so Millais could paint his Ophelia. Even the most sumptuous paintings, like those of D.G. Rossetti, could be almost gothic in feeling. The Pre-Raphaelites broke down barriers to make their point: plain and simply, it was time to break free from the constraints of the Victorian era. It was time to evolve.

In 1849, exhibitions by Millais, Hunt and Rossetti displayed the mysterious initials "P.R.B." By detractors, it was speculated to mean "please ring bell" or, in the case of Rossetti, "penis rather better." The Pre-Raphaelites realistic depictions of Biblical times were shocking, as was the moral ambiguity in certain works—particularly Rossetti's, who was considered "too much of the fleshly school."

Rossetti's one moral painting, Found, was of a prostitute outside a churchyard, huddled and distraught. A young farmer has come into town to sell his calf and recognizes her as his former fiancee. He tries to help her, but she shoos him away. Meanwhile the calf in the back of his wagon is struggling for its life against the net its bound in.

In his writing and even his images, Rossetti, like Lord Byron and Zen folkster Leonard Cohen, could be heavy and light; crass and transcendent. Rossetti's pre-feminist sister Christina ultimately chose godly love over mortal love. Millais was once Ruskin's pupil and later married his wife. This was after a scandalous annulment; the marriage had never been consummated. There is currently a successful play, "The Countess," running off-Broadway about this triangle.

The Pre-Raphaelites were romantic. Not Dionysian like Byron, but instead courtly, which is probably why the movement inspired so many women artists like Evelyn De Morgan and Maria Stillman. But like most romantics, the Pre-Raphaelites had their dark side. Laudanum killed Lizzie Siddal; ether troubled D.G. Rossetti's life.

When Rossetti embarked upon his affair with Morris' own "stunner" wife Janey (who, in later years, inspired Oscar Wilde's Mrs. Doolittle), Morris did what any free love advocate would do—he went on a pilgrimage to Iceland. Inspired by what the "boorish" Welshman termed "his Holy Land," he translated their myths, including the Laxdoela Saga's tale of Gudrun who "did the worst to him I loved the most." It was Morris' translation that no doubt inspired D.H. Lawrence's character Gudrun in "Women in Love." Janey eventually broke off the affair with Rossetti, and returned to the life of a "sofa lady": a woman who, rather than taking to drink or drugs, takes to the sofa.


A hundred years before the beats, the Pre-Raphaelites were rejecting the pretensions of their times, and carving out a new path. The seeds sown then now blow through our modern movements. When I hear Lee Ranaldo's poetry and then see him perform with Sonic Youth, I think of D.G. Rossetti's poetry and paintings. When I see multimedia artists like Laurie Anderson, I think of William Morris working on his loom, dictating sonnets, and contemplating Marxist theory (talk about multi-taskers).

The Pre-Raphaelites weren't just attention seeking rogues but trailblazers, even dharma bums. Without William Morris, Bloomsbury wouldn't have existed; without Bloomsbury there'd be no modern bohemians; and without bohemians there'd be no Jack Kerouac—at least not as we know him.

Sterling Morrison of the Velvet Underground said:

I didn't make any effort to impress Andy Warhol. What did I care? I was keen on the Pre-Raphaelites, which maybe is a precursor to Pop.

Hunt's Scapegoat and Rossetti's Found are good illustrations of the Pre-Raphaelite connection to modern creative movements. Both paintings conveyed the artists' sensibilities but with a new, unique subtlety. The Pre-Raphaelites were often accused of moral ambiguity, but maybe the real problem some Victorian critics had with them was their sympathy for the underdog; those who were, as Patti Smith would say, "outside of society."

The Pre-Raphaelites knew that you've got to start your own movement or nothing's going to start. All it takes is a germ of something. That germ continues to grow; then it flourishes and blows seeds all around the world. May the world continue to evolve with the seeds of quiet revolutions.

 Article and sketch of William Morris
© by Meg Wise-Lawrence

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