The Avant-Garde of Yore: 5 Key Works from Tate Britain's Pre-Raphaelites Exhibition, Explained

Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Laus Veneris 1873-1878
(© Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle )

It is easy to forget how radical some artistic movements were when they have become the standard stuff of history books. Opening at Tate Britain next Wednesday, a new exhibition gathering over 150 Pre-Raphaelite works reaffirms how progressive the Brotherhood was when it first emerged in the mid-19th century.

"The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were interested in resuscitating and reinventing art in the present, in England," said exhibition co-curator Jason Rosenfeld Ph.D., Distinguished Chair and Professor of Art History, Marymount Manhattan College. "In order to do that, they wanted to go back to the art before the time of what they called the 'Raphaelites,' the followers of the high Renaissance Italian painter Raphael, who they thought just looked at other art instead of looking at the world around them."

The Pre-Raphaelites loathed the stifling canons of the Royal Academy and the diktat of single point perspective. Instead, they looked at "purer" forms of artistic expression, early Italian and Dutch art, which they combined with modern colour schemes. Their canvases were so detailed as to look bejewelled. The young rebels also sought to represent "things as they actually appeared," explained Rosenfeld, "or how they would have appeared in the period that the picture was taking place. So they were seeking a kind of authenticity."

The show, which features such landmarks as John Everett Millais's "Ophelia" (1851-2) and William Holman Hunt's "The Scapegoat," (1854-6) also puts a particular emphasis on the relationship between fine art and applied arts — most notably through the rise of the Art & Crafts movement.

ARTINFO UK asked co-curator Rosenfeld to pick and comment on five key works from the exhibition.

For images from the exhibition accompanied by explanations from co-curator Jason Rosenfeld, click on the slide show.