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The Pre-Raphaelites and mid-Victorian art

Video transcript

we're imitate Britain and we're looking at John Everett Millais a philia this is the quintessential Victorian and quintessential pre-raphaelite painting it is and the Victorians painted Shakespeare cried a lot and they even painted a philia quite a lot but this is the painting that everybody remembers it's that moment after Hamlet has murdered a feel his father and she has let herself fall into this river and is letting herself drown no she goes mad after Hamlet murders her father and allows herself to drown and Shakespeare describes the place where that happens and he describes the flowers in the willow tree Emily picks up on that interest in the Botanical setting and expands on it well the botanical specificity this is an artist who's really taking Ruskin seriously Ruskin advised artists to go to nature with singleness of heart rejecting nothing selecting nothing and scorning nothing that is that nature itself has a kind of spiritual power and who are artists to mess with God's work that's right but that was the academic tradition to take from nature and improve on it and to idealize it that was what in fact Reynolds had advised that's the foundation of the academic tradition and so Malay is completely rejecting that he's going into nature and he is trying to be as true to what he sees as possible it's interesting because when we think of painting plein air that is when we think of painting outside we often think of late 19th century French painting we think of the impressionist but of course the pre-raphaelites in England were taking this seriously mid-century Malay found a spot that was very much like the one that Shakespeare described but it's not as picturesque as it sounds painting outside is full of frustrations and difficulties you have insects you have weather variations you have animals and Malay speaks about this with a wonderful sense of sarcasm in a letter that he wrote Malay wrote I'm threatened with a notice to appear before a magistrate for trespassing in a field and destroying the hey I'm also in danger being blown by the wind into the water and becoming intimate with the feelings of Ophelia when that lady's muddy death this is the funniest part I think there are two swans who not a little add to my misery by persisting and watching me from the exact spot I wish to paint my sudden perilous evolutions on the extreme bank to persuade them to evacuate their position have the effect of entirely des ranging my temper my pictures brushes and palette certainly the painting of a picture under such circumstances would be a greater punishment to a murderer than a hanging so we have Malay really clearly at the end of his rope trying to paint this image the pre-raphaelites often show us images of solitary women expressing feelings of longing and frustration and in this case madness the model for this is the woman who become rosette his wife and who was his model and muse Elizabeth Siddal and she apparently proposed for him in a bathtub that they kept warm with some candles underneath although she did get sick because the water did eventually get cold I know he was quite proud of the dress that he had bought for her to wear which was already an antique that was embroidered heavily with silver and is beautifully rendered here as it floats and almost becomes like the water weeds that we see around in fact this painting was really praised in its day for being perhaps the most faithful to nature in terms of its botanical accuracy and we can see clearly not only a large willow tree that has fallen and then has regrown and it's actually wonderful to look at the way that those upturned roots mimic the pose of Ophelia's arms and we see lots of flowers that we can identify very specific and that have symbolic purpose great we see forget-me-nots and poppies which are a symbol of death and violets which are a symbol of faithfulness in fact she's got a chain of violets around her neck which I think comes directly from the Shakespearean play so the symbolic meaning of all of the flowers would have been understood by the Victorian public and interestingly links all the way back to Shakespeare who as you said is very specific as well about some of the flowers that are mentioned so a philia floats with her palms upturned she's not dead yet eyes are open and she seems to be floating down the river but there are lovely passages when you look closely not only at the flowers but especially in the lower-left or we see the light moving through those reeds that are growing up in the water the intensity of the colors and the specificity both of those things I think would have been really new and rather shocking to the Victorian public well part of that was achieved because the pre-raphaelites rejected the traditional mode of painting that is painting on a dark ground and so instead they painted on a brilliant white ground and some of that luminosity really comes through in addition some of these artists actually painted not on a dry white ground but on a ground that was still wet which meant that that white is picked up by the colors and really creates this vivid luminousness and so the pre-raphaelites really were revolutionary we love them now and they seem very familiar to us but they seemed really radical back in the late 1840s and 1850s