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The Pre-Raphaelites and mid-Victorian art

Video transcript

we're in Tate Britain and we're looking at John Everett Millais really important early pre-raphaelite painting Christ in the house of his parents the pre-raphaelites wanted to strip away all of the traditions of painting that had accumulated almost like heavy layers of varnish painting since the Renaissance since Raphael and nowhere is that more clear than in this painting so what we see here is Christ as a child he's wounded himself we see a drop of blood clearly a foreshadowing the crucifixion and we see Mary his mother comforting him and also I think being comforted by him and then we also see Saint John the Baptist and also Joseph who's also tending to Christ he's showing us Christ not in an idealized environment but in a workshop that reminded contemporary viewers of what a carpenter's workshop in mid 19th century England looked like kind of specificity that showed that he was really looking so it's not idealized at all it's not softened it's not made more beautiful and all of that really went against traditional treatments of the Holy Family of Mary and Christ and st. Joseph's and st. John since the time of Raphael Leonardo those figures were truly idealized in a way that reflected their divine status so by taking that away that idealization away I think it felt to Victorian viewers as though they had undermined the spirituality of these figures you know all of that is true but there are some exceptions if we think back to the work for instance of Caravaggio you have an artist that is taking spiritual figures and placing them in a world that was concrete that was low that was real but he was still ensconcing them in a kind of spiritual darkness and here it's as if Millay has turned the lights on in a Caravaggio and he's giving us this brilliant spotlight on the specificity even of the dirt under the fingernails and that was certainly something that was recognized by Victorian viewers his painting was attacked by Charles Dickens of all people who wrote in the foreground of that very carpenter's shop is a hideous wryneck blubbering redhead 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 that for the contemplation of a kneeling woman so horrible in her ugliness that 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 so interesting to hear Dickens actually turn against the kind of specificity that the artist is rendering since it's so much a part of his own literature but it does speak to expectations in the 19th century about what art should be at this moment when the pre-raphaelite Brotherhood was trying to remake those expectations so if you look at the painting carefully you can see that the figures have a angularity they move in ways that feel very different from the gracefulness and elegance of Renaissance figures there's a linear hardness to the way that male has created their contours and that hardness reminds us a Flemish painting from before Raphael from say the early 15th century this is really the self-conscious reviving of those ideas and just like in that northern Flemish painting we also have borrowed this notion that one can imbue ordinary objects with symbolism and this is a painting that is full of symbolism for instance if we look just over the young Christ's ahead we can see on the back wall there's a a carpenter's triangle just over Christ's head that triangle means something it means the Trinity and we might look at the ladder in the background and think about the ladder that we see in images of the descent from the cross where the followers of Christ climb a ladder in order to remove the nails and bring him down from the cross we can see those nails but also on that ladder there's a Dove the reference to the ultimate baptism of Christ where the Holy Spirit will appear who's always represented as a dove and we see Saint John the Baptist actually on the right carrying a bowl of water so there is this kind of vivid rendering of all these forms all these people with a kind of particularity that is not idealized that makes them all the more true all the more vivid and so we can immediately imagine why the Victorians had such problems with this painting