HAIR! Pre-Raphealites Invade Washington

"Monna Vanna," by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

“Monna Vanna,”
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

I’m not a fan of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, despite the sisterhood I feel with the Titian-haired gals he painted so lovingly. Too much languor, treacley sentiment, overwrought “classicism,” and way too much billowing hair! Thousands disagree, maybe millions, and they’re flocking to the National Gallery of Art’s “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848 – 1900.” If you’re a fan, it’s bound to please. I went for the “design” part.

First, I hit the companion exhibit, “Pre-Raphealites and the Book.” Founded in 1848, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (among them, Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and William Holman Hunt) longed to create a new style of painting inspired by art that came before Raphael, but, stuck in England, they had to imagine late medieval and early Renaissance works. To help them along, they sought engravings, such as the book exhibited here, “Pitture a Fresco del Campo Santo di Pisa, Florence,” 1812.

The connection between words and visual images fascinated the Brotherhood. Dante Gabriel himself wrote poetry, as did William Morris, who founded Kelmscott Press. Morris and Eirikur Magnusson translated and published “Volsunga Saga,” 1870. As he was finishing up his “The Earthly Paradise,” (a copy of which is shown here), Morris became enamored with Icelandic lore, perhaps to take his mind off his disintegrating marriage to Jane Burden, who had become entangled with Rossetti. Also seen are Morris’ Celtic-inspired initial letters for “The Tale of Beowulf,” 1895.

“Goblin Market and other Poems,” by Christina Rossetti, has a frontispiece and title page by Dante Gabriel, who pulled strings to get his sister’s work published by Macmillan & Co in 1862 when it was hard for a woman to see her work in print.

William Morris joined the British Socialist movement in the 1880s and several of his tracts are here: “Art and Socialism,” 1884, “Monopoly, or, How Labour is Robbed,” 1890. Morris’s distaste for mass production opened his eyes to the harsh realities of the working classes of the day.

"Ophelia," by John Everett Millais

by John Everett Millais

John Everett Millais’ “Ophelia,” 1851, drew me to the main exhibit. Like sea grass in the water, Ophelia’s hair fans out around her transported face as her body floats, covered in flowers, down a lush-banked stream. The riot of growth frames her stillness, her hands in a Buddha benediction.

Once there, I enjoyed breezing through the jewel-colored rooms, each with a theme (“Origins,” “History,” “Literature”) My favorite room was “Beauty,” where another Millais painting of “Sophie Gray,” 1857, struck me as fresh and contemporary. This room is also juicy with gossip. We see a photograph of Rossetti’s housekeeper, muse, and lover, Fanny Cornforth (whatever happened to Jane Burden?) near his painting, “Bocca Baciata, which the notes helpfully translate as “Kissed Mouth.” Indeed. Fanny, natch, possesses a mass of untamed red tresses. Nearby is Frederick Sandys’ chalk drawing, “Proud Maisie,” (1870), a young woman fiercely biting a lock of her hair, possibly a visual echo of Rosetti’s Delia, (“Return of Tibullus to Delia”) who also chews on her hair. Three Julia Cameron photographs add to the room’s charm.

Finally! I’m in the room of stuff that I’d come to see in the first place. It’s a bit disappointing—I’d hoped for more, but what’s here is fine. Arthurian legend adorns a tooled nail-studded leather chair (1856-7) by Rossetti and Morris. A screen covered in “Heroines,” was designed my William Morris and embroidered by Elizabeth Burden in 1860. “The Strawberry Thief,” a printed textile is pure Morris: birds in a profusion of strawberry plants (1883). A pine cabinet, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum, shows stylized “Backgammon Players.” Ceramic tiles depicting the story of “Cinder Maid,” (1862), designed by Morris and painted by Lucy Falkner, are from the Huntingon Library and Gardens. “Peacock and Dragon, “ a wool tapestry

"Cray," textile design by William Morris

“Cray,” textile design by
William Morris

that Morris used in his own home is hung by “Cray,” an undulating floral textile meant to mimic the tributary of the Thames. Morris insisted on traditional, natural dyes and required 34 hand-painted wood blocks to create this vivid cranberry, pink, and green cotton piece.

In the last room, we’re brought to earth by Edward Burne-Jones’ spooky “The Rock of Doom” and “The Doom Fulfilled,” perhaps to prepare us for emerging directly into the Pre-Raphealite gift shop. What would our dear old Socialist William Morris have made of that?


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