This is a review of The Pre-Raphaelite Legacy: British Art and Design, one of 2 currently running exhibitions dedicated to the Pre-Raphaelites at the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York City.
A couple of things to note about this particular exhibition. If you are expecting something on the scale of the previous Pre-Raphaelite exhibition that originally was at the Tate and then came to the US via the National Gallery you will be disappointed. There are only about 30 pieces or so with the greatest concentration on Edward Burne-Jones. This is not a complaint by any means, I just want to temper expectations for those who might be coming out of town to see this. I’ll be splitting my review into two parts: part one will focus on William Morris: Textiles and Wallpapers, an adjoining installation that runs until the end of July and part two will focus on The Pre-Raphaelite Legacy: British Art and Design. I’m doing it this way because the Morris ends first and I really do think everyone interested in textiles, not to mention the Pre-Raphaelites, would do themselves a disservice to miss it.
If the William Morris installation is the potatoes of the 2 shows at the Met, the Pre-Raphaelite exhibit is the meat. 30 glorious pieces, a mixture of both the Pre-Raphaelites and their contemporaries/those they’ve influenced. Not only do we have the late trifecta of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris & Edward Burne-Jones, there’s also some Lord Leighton, Julia Cameron and Aubrey Beardsley thrown into the mix. BEARDSLEY! I might have done a jig when I saw it.
The exhibit is located in gallery 955, just off the medieval galleries. If you’re coming in from the main entrance on 5th avenue you walk to the stairs (don’t go up them), hang a right and walk straight ahead. Keep walking and eventually you’ll see in the distance the moniker that reads The Pre-Raphaelite Legacy. There is no exhibition catalog like there was at the National Gallery exhibit, instead there is a small catalogue outlying the basic history of the Pre-Raphaelites and a bit about the museum’s particular pieces. One thing I did learn is that apparently the Met has multiple pieces from the latter half of the Pre-Raphaelites but for multiple reasons they’re not always displayed. I don’t want to discuss every single piece in the collection as I think it would take away from visiting it yourselves. I will however touch upon one piece by Rossetti, Burne-Jones and the Leighton (!!!!!!!!) piece they have hanged. There’s some William Morris pieces in this exhibit as well but I will leave it up to you to discover which ones.
The piece that I most was entranced by happened to be by Rossetti, I know surprise right? It’s the Rosa Triplex, red chalk version modeled by Alexa Wilding. Alexa is my favorite of Rossetti’s stunners so when I saw this piece I immediately squealed and sort of walked with a very great purpose toward it. Something that struck me about this (and all of the painted pieces really) are the strokes in them. It’s a wondrous thing to be able to actually see where the chalk moved against the paper and to realize that 100 odd years ago Gabriel was just sitting there, sketching. You can see the tell-tale Rossetti pout in Alexa’s face, the red hair, the dreamy eyes. I overheard one man say that this sketch seemed more languid than the other Rossetti items and I can absolutely see it. Whereas pieces like Lady Lilith and Astarte Syriaca are very much (to me anyway) rooted in earthiness, Rosa Triplex is very dreamlike. It’s also displayed next to another Rossetti piece (of Janey) that while are both in the same medium, the whole atmosphere of both is completely different. Perhaps that reflects his frame of mind at the time in approaches to both models.
The second piece I want to talk about is Burne-Jones’ painting The Love Song. I love this painting simply because there’s not much of a narrative going on, you make your own. One of the things I’ve noticed about Burne-Jones is that in most pieces there’s a definite narrative in his work. The Beguiling of Merlin, The Golden Stair, The Last Sleep of Arthur, these all tell a story. You know what particular moment he wanted to convey. With The Love Song there’s none of that hand holding. Why is the girl playing? Who is she playing for, the gentleman on the left or on the right? To paraphrase a character from Game of Thrones, we know nothing. It’s intriguing. Another thing that you can’t quite get from pictures or scans online is the richness of the colors used. I’ve always thought of Burne-Jones’ usage of color to be remarkable, while say Rossetti used brightness and Hunt was really great at I guess, a glow of sorts (The Light of the World is the best usage of that in my opinion), Burne-Jones had a magnificent usage of depth to his colors. I was able to get somewhat close to The Love Song and it really struck me just how intricate his work really is. His backgrounds are something to be noted as well, the light in the sky especially is something to take note of. Is it twilight? Is it dawn? Or some weird otherworld that our subjects live in? It’s open to interpretation.
Last piece isn’t by a Pre-Raphaelite per se but definitely is related to the brotherhood: Lachrymae by Frederic, Lord Leighton. This was my very first time seeing a piece by Lord Leighton in person and I nearly had a heart attack when I rounded the corner and saw it. Flaming June has been a piece I have been in love with since I was a child (it is also a fantastic song by BT) and I always said I wanted to see more of Leighton’s work but never quite made the effort. Running (literally I jogged to it) into Lachrymae was a treat. I want to start with the frame because it was especially chosen by Leighton. It resembles a door with two Grecian columns on either side, so we’re looking into the grief and melancholy of the painting. It’s very striking and the columns are slightly gilded so there’s a bit of glow that livens up what is otherwise a very depressing tableau. The colors used in the painting itself is dark and combined with the somewhat muted lighting at the met you almost have to peer very closely to make out details. It’s worth the effort however. There’s a bit of hazy gold in the background, mimicking light and darkest before dawn. The folds on the subject’s toga (chiton?) are exquisite, they are so lifelike you can almost reach out and touch them. Her face is just, completely and utterly dejected. She’s tired. There are dead leaves on the ground, again mimicking the sadness but the greenery that also surrounds her suggests that this too shall pass. The painting is also BIG. This always strikes me, the scale of these paintings and I really don’t think that will go away.
So do I think this is a great exhibition? Absolutely. Is it worth coming from out of town for? That’s a bit harder to say. I think if New York is a relatively easy trip for you then by all means make the time to come see the show, the Met is full of fantastic things besides this so you can easily make a day of it. Would I come from say out of country or further than Connecticut (maybe Boston) solely for this? No. I don’t believe that it is comprehensive enough to warrant the fees. However, it is a great supplement to last year’s mammoth exhibition and a great way to further enhance your Pre-Raphaelite repertoire, especially if you are like how I was an a bit hazy on the latter half of the movement.
That’s about it for my review! Comments, questions etc are welcomed. Thanks for reading!