Pre-Raphaelite Sisters review

4 out of 5 stars
Pre-Raphaelite Sisters review
Evelyn De Morgan 'Night and Day'. Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Are you sitting comfortably? Then we shall begin. Once upon a time, seven young men were bored of art. So they formed a club and vowed to paint the way it was done in medieval times, with flat perspective and pointy hats. A few years (and a few affairs) later their group had disintegrated and from the ashes rose aestheticism: big, blooming portraits of large-necked women holding fruit and looking sultry.

And that was the tale of the pre-raphaelites, the end [closes book with a decisive bang].

Or was it? ‘Pre-Raphaelite Sisters’ at the National Portrait Gallery doesn’t just reclaim twelve women closely associated with the Brotherhood – working as artists, models, poets and muses – it radically re-writes the history of the British art movement. It does so by showing it wasn't the sole creation of a small group of male artists and that its most famous artworks are only the tip of the Pre-Raph iceberg.

The exhibition opens with the best-known names: Christina Rossetti, Effie Gray Millais and Elizabeth Siddal. As such, it’s the least interesting part, although it’s always worth reiterating that the woman famous for being Ophelia in a bathtub was an artist too.

The fascinating part is the second set of rooms, starting with Fanny Eaton. The Jamaican-born model was commissioned to pose as any ‘exotic’ character going, from biblical heroines to an Indian teacher. Despite the obvious problems with that, her inclusion here challenges what’s considered pre-raphaelite beauty. It also means that the show features artworks by siblings Rebecca and Simeon Solomon, themselves marginalised figures.

The best, however, comes in the closing sections on Marie Spartali Stillman and Evelyn De Morgan. Both artists fundamentally shift the assumptions we have of pre-raphaelitism being based around images of sexualised, silent women painted by dick-swinging male artists.

De Morgan’s ‘Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund’ is also, hands down, one of the most bonkers paintings in existence. Complete with flying dragons, bawling cherubs, free-floating monkeys and iridescent fabric, it belongs on the cover of a 1970s sci-fi novel. It’s awful, it’s fabulous, it’s decidedly not ‘Victorian’. And it’s worth re-writing the art historical book for.


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