The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood began in 1848—a year of revolutions across Europe. The movement’s name was a rejection of the establishment Royal Academy’s idea that Renaissance artists such as Raphael had set ideal standards for how artists should paint.
Religion still had a powerful grip on culture and morality as the Pre-Raphaelites painted. But an explosion of science, technology and class struggle was shaking the foundations of Victorian society.
The Pre-Raphaelites portrayed historical events in a realist style, to reflect new discoveries in science and how they were affecting ideas like salvation and morality.
Henry Wallis’s The Stonebreaker shows a labourer collapsed from exhaustion. He’s so still that he may be dead. It’s an indictment of the Poor Laws that drove people into crippling work to access the shelter of the poorhouse.
In contrast, next to it is a portrait of an wealthy engineering business owner who saw himself as an art collector.
Other paintings see salvation in labour, or suggest that those who work are holier than those who don’t. John Everett Millais shows Jesus’s family in a modest workshop. Charles Dickens called Millais’s depiction of Mary “hideous”.
Their view of women is also contradictory. Some paintings challenge prevailing ideas, others reinforce them.
Millais’s Mariana shows a woman confined in a room, looking up at the stained glass window with religious images. But her pose and the way her gaze looks past the images and out of the window suggest a repressed sexuality.
The exhibition is divided into themed rooms on subjects from Salvation to Mythologies. In the Nature room, William Dyce’s Pegwell Bay captures the psychological impact of new discoveries in geology. People are frozen as though time has been paused on the beach.
Geologists swarmed to beaches at the time hunting for fossils. The cliffs looming over them show the vastness of geological time in contrast to the fragile human lives beneath.
There’s a lot to see, so check this exhibition out before it ends in January.
Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, Tate Britain, London SW1P 4RG, until 13 January. Go to www.tate.org.uk