All Things Medieval

Article excerpt

By 1843, the year Charles Dickens published "A Christmas Carol," the British Victorian Era was well under way. But the images we have come to associate with it -- those pensive and poised scarlet- haired beauties that graced the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood -- were not yet created.

In fact, it wasn't until five years later that three young British artists -- Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais -- banded together in London with other like- minded artists to form the group.

Spurred on by the writings of art critic John Ruskin (1819- 1900), the artists expressed in language both artistic and moralistic how they intended to revolutionize British art. They would express genuine ideas, study nature as their primary source, avoid anything formulaic and paint "thoroughly good pictures."

Seeing all these virtues embodied in the period of Western European art that immediately preceded the Renaissance master Raphael, they called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Together they rebelled against what they considered the calcified, artistic traditions of the Royal English Academy -- their style was finely wrought and precise, relying on a bright palette that would first catch the eye then romance the soul.

What was true then is still true today. Their pictures are enchanting, as visitors to the Frick Art Museum will plainly see. More than 100 examples of their work, in the form of oil paintings, watercolors and drawings, make up the exhibition "Waking Dreams: The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites from the Delaware Art Museum."

The exhibition explores the Pre-Raphaelite movement as practiced by its most important members. The collection spans most of the Victorian period, beginning with the work of a young Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), who worked as a student of Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893), and extending to several paintings completed by Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) just before his death.

This extraordinary collection was acquired by Samuel Bancroft Jr. (1840-1915), a successful textile manufacturer and patron of the arts. The only American collector of Pre-Raphaelite art in the late 19th century, Bancroft purchased his first work, Rossetti's "Water Willow," in 1890, and added to his Pre-Raphaelite collection throughout the decade. His collection was donated by his heirs to the Delaware Art Museum.

One of the first things visitors will see when entering the exhibition is Burne-Jones' "The Council Chamber" (1872-1892). A massive oil on canvas, it is still in its original tabernacle frame and depicts a scene from the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty in which the prince awakens to find that the king and his courtesans are all sleeping. It's the largest painting in a show that is the most significant exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite art outside of the United Kingdom.

"He spent over 20 years obsessed with the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, and doing different interpretations of it," Sarah Hall, curator of exhibitions and registrar at The Frick Art Museum, says of Burne-Jones. …