The PRB & Morality
In 1850, John Millais stunned the art community with the above composition, Christ in the House of His Parents, and started part of what became one of the most controversial art movements at the time. Millais’s Christ does not look that controversial to our modern eye; in fact, it looks tame compared to some of the explicit images we are accustomed to seeing. But this painting was met with much criticism. Charles Dickens, someone who typically integrated working class characters into his novels, said the following:
“You behold the interior of a carpenter’s shop. In the foreground of the carpenter’s shop a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed-gown; who appears to have received a poke in the hand, from the stick of another boy with whom he has been playing in an adjacent gutter, and to be holding it up for the contemplation of a kneeling woman, so horrible in her ugliness, that (supposing it were possible for any human creature to exist for a moment with that dislocated throat) she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France or the lowest gin-shop in England” (Dickens 100)
Harsh words, but Victorian English society was used to graceful, beautiful paintings instead of realistic depictions of nature and the everyday worker. It is for this reason that Millais and his colleagues called themselves The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, since they made art reminiscent of the early Renaissance, before Raphael standardized artistic beauty and grace in 1500.
Luckily, Millais and the Pre-Raphaelites had quite a powerful advocate. John Ruskin was the most eminent art critic in England during the mid 19th Century and he wrote that the Pre-Raphaelites were not lacking in artistic skill, they simply painted what they saw, or how they imagined a particular scene to look like (Ruskin 101-102). It was this “truth to nature” quality that Ruskin adored and that contemporary Victorian society abhorred. With their art, Millais and the Pre-Raphaelites mounted a direct attack and criticism of English ideals in art and against the critics themselves.
Thomas Horsfall was not as combative in his critique as the Pre-Raphaelites were, but they ultimately shared ideas in the moral value of art and in definitions of beauty. As seen in Millais’s work, true beauty was what could be realistically seen. In Horsfall’s “Beauty in Large Towns” he writes that carnal beauty is not true beauty and that more faith can be found in the back streets of most cities than the fine ones (Horsfall 22). This is exactly the type of beauty the Pre-Raphaelites elevate – painting real lives, real nature, and real scenes, not a romanticized view of Victorian England.
Ford Madox Brown’s Work was completed 15 years after Millais’ Christ, in 1865, and it continues Millais’s truth to nature aesthetic . While it focuses on ordinary everyday subjects, Work is still filled with unidealized, realistic figures. The scene is also visually chaotic. Unlike Renaissance inspired paintings, your eye is not naturally drawn to a specific figure or interaction. Rather, you are meant to fully explore each character in their labor, emotion, passiveness, or pretention, just like you would in real life. One might call this “hyper-realistic” because of its bright colors and stylized composition, but Work overall reflects the “truth to nature” aspect of a Victorian worker’s setting.
Embedded in Ruskin, Horsfall, and the Pre-Raphaelite’s definition of beauty was the idea that painting and art should be a mirror held up to nature. William Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience captures this idea quite literally, looking specifically at the mirror to the outside world in this Victorian apartment. The awkward positioning of the subjects echoes the realism found in Millais’s Christ, but the most important idea Hunt conveys is the transformative power of nature. The expression on the woman’s face indicates that she has had an “awakening” by looking at nature and this experience liberates her from her suitor’s suggestive gaze. Thomas Horsfall believed that looking at beautiful things could inspire people to create beauty in their own lives; Hunt’s female subject illustrates this moral inspiration in her expression of wonder and amazement at nature. Overall, Millais’s Christ, Brown’s Work, and Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience, each represent a new aesthetic and an art world that sought to not only criticize what was wrong with society and art, but to also set clear goals of artistic beauty, the transformative power of art, and its moral purpose – something that Horsfall would internalize years later in the form of the Manchester Art Museum.
Written by Patrick Scheuring