Final Thoughts – Victorian Visionaries: Painting the Pre-Raphaelites for the 21st Century

Well, I’m back in Williamsburg, which means the summer is truly over. It’s been a wonderful whirlwind of research and art, and I’m excited to see my final product completed.  I learned more than I had expected to: about the Pre-Raphaelites’ art and my own abilities. The process itself was a constructive experience in regards to multi-media research.  

I began by exploring England’s unrivaled collection of Pre-Raphaelite art and the stamp the artists left on their country’s identity. The visit was also valuable as it demonstrated just how similar the world of the Pre-Raphaelites is to our own. The PRB addressed the issues of female rights, disparities in wealth and status, and other socio-political ills, all of which we encounter today. That is crucial in understanding why they have lasting appeal and how their artistic style may continue its purpose in the 21st century.

When I returned to Virginia, I began work on a design study working off my previous scholarly research. I created a series of sketches and small paintings through close observation of Pre-Raphaelite art. I then moved on to my larger paintings, visual summations of the conclusions I had reached regarding PRB work. My final product is a set of two paintings and one drawing of equal size, which function as a connected series. I’m mostly satisfied with the outcome, and believe the pieces convey a contemporary take on the Pre-Raphaelite spirit. Of course there were compositional details I had to omit, that would have felt out of place or I simply didn’t have time to incorporate. There were moments of hesitation. Sometimes I’d scrap an idea and force myself to return to square one. As for how I might have improved my results, I certainly wish I could have completed all three compositions in oil paint. This might have happened if I had spent less time doing literary research and had organized my model’s schedules evenly, so that each painting could be built up simultaneously. Though all were created with the wet-on-wet technique, working concurrently may have created greater stylistic similarity. I had also intended for a nuanced symbolism in my works, conveying concepts that aren’t glaring and require a bit of searching. I think I fell short of this though; the symbols, such as a yellow pin, do seem obvious in design and intention. This may have been remedied by studying the Pre-Raphaelites’ approach to symbolism, or simply more careful composition planning. I think my works do succeed, however, in channeling the PRB’s depiction of psychological states. The project paintings are more pensive than my typical compositions. The Pre-Raphaelites’ works always focused less on dramatic action in favor of the enigmatic and cerebral.

Before: One of my earlier works, which is more clumsy and has less attention to detail

Before: One of my earlier works, which is more clumsy and has less attention to detail

After: One of my project pieces, which shows a better understanding of composition and detail

After: One of my project pieces, which shows a better understanding of composition and detail

I do see many opportunities for further research within this topic. I could continue with the more scholarly route, investigating why Pre-Raphaelite art is gaining popularity once more. I could also continue to practice their painting techniques and artistic themes. Some artists already seem to share my belief in the modern applicability of Pre-Raphaelite tenets. They reference the PRB style to critique religion, sexuality, and pay homage to art history.

A Separation of Church and Fate, 2014, by Brad Kunkle. Oil, gold, and silver on linen.

A Separation of Church and Fate, 2014, by Brad Kunkle. Oil, gold, and silver on linen.

Other artists champion meticulously detailed painting as a worthy technique, despite the current prevalence of high-resolution photography.

Hand Mirror, 2008, by Catherine Murphy. Oil on canvas.

Hand Mirror, 2008, by Catherine Murphy. Oil on canvas.

They can even make clever nods to pop culture and beauty, and the way many deify them.

Padme Resplendent with Naboo Mandala, , by Carl J. Samson. Oil and gold on canvas.

Padme Resplendent with Naboo Mandala, 2009, by Carl J. Samson. Oil and gold on canvas.

This essence of atmosphere, symbolism, and narrative drama is where the Pre-Raphaelite spirit continues to flourish. At a more fundamental level, artists should sustain the Pre-Raphaelite commitment to art’s ability to change society. The PRB used art as a forceful mode of communication, representing social grievances and challenging dominant attitudes. Sometimes just the ornamentation and labor of their works were a resistance to an increasingly mass-produced culture. The problems they opposed continue to ring true today. Society will continually want for improvement, and the Pre-Raphaelite approach to art can be a compelling force for change.

I had a fantastic time this summer. Thanks so much to the Charles Center, my advisor, and everyone else who helped to make this research possible!