Pre-Raphaelites in Love

Sons of England’s middle class and eventual fathers of “bourgeois romance” in painting, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (founded in 1848) emerged from its members’ rebellion against the rigidly repressive rules governing the instruction of art at the Royal Academy, rules handed down eighty years before by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Members of the Brotherhood who would be recognized during their lifetimes as great artists, and with whom Gay Daly is most concerned, were John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, and William Morris. Believing that painting had taken a wrong turn after Raphael, and that “every rose must be painted from a real flower, every face from an actual human being,” these men changed the history of British painting.

They became “dream merchants of their culture, the equivalent of filmmakers in our world,” not through their paintings of roses but of women, hauntingly beautiful, real women who embodied the painters’ romantic fantasies. In their personal lives these women took great risks: They were not only courageous to model, but--when they became the idealized objects of the painters’ personal passions and obsessions--they loved and married these unconventional men. Many of their unions, Daly shows with great empathy, were tempestuous, even tragic, especially after the models-become-wives were burdened by domestic responsibilities, and their husbands stopped painting them after marriage. Pre-Raphaelitism was, after all, “a cult of youthful beauty.”

Drawn from numerous diaries and letters, this judicious study vividly draws a dozen or so women out from the shadows of their famous male counterparts. The portraits are remarkably intimate, the ethos of Victorian England interwoven generously throughout with a seemingly effortless grace.