Pre-Raphaelites take inspiration from Old Masters in Legion exhibition

Radicals in their day, the pre-Raphaelites in mid-19th-century England adopted the styles and principles of early-Renaissance artists in an aim to reform the art of their own time, which they found aesthetically and spiritually shallow. “Truth and Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters” at the Legion of Honor through Sept. 30, containing masterworks from two time periods, spotlights this stimulating movement.

Curated by Melissa Buron, the exhibition contains nearly 100 art pieces from international and local collections. Paintings by major pre-Raphaelites appear alongside those by Italian and Netherlandish influences from several centuries earlier, including Fra Angelico, Sandro Botticelli and Jan van Eyck.

In 1848 in London, seven young rebels including William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Believing the styles and standards embraced by the Royal Academy of Art to be sloppy and soulless, the PRB began creating works in the spirit of early-Renaissance and late-medieval art, which they considered deeper and purer.

Championed by critic John Ruskin, the pre-Raphaelites believed artists should find truth in nature. Their paintings contained jewel-toned colors, detailed imagery, visual symbolism and angular poses rather than the idealized postures found in the paintings of Raphael and, more to their distaste, his followers.

While the PRB had disbanded by 1853, its members and their followers continued working in the pre-Raphaelite vein while broadening the original vision.

Many began admiring High Renaissance and late-Renaissance artists, including Raphael and Venice-based Paolo Veronese. (Raphael, in fact, landed on the pre-Raphaelite list of “immortals,” along with Shakespeare and Jesus.)

Exhibition highlights include Millais’ “Mariana” (1851), a painting inspired by Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” character and a Tennyson poem. The work features glistening color techniques, an angular pose, rich interior detail and emotion. Mariana’s weariness soundly comes across.

John Everett Millais’ 1851 “Mariana” was inspired by Shakespeare and Tennyson. (Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

A replica of Millais’ “Christ in the House of His Parents” (1850) illustrates the pre-Raphaelites’ emphasis on authenticity. Detractors (Charles Dickens included) deemed the painting blasphemous for its down-to-earth (and ugly, some said) depiction of the holy family.

Rossetti’s intimate “Beata Beatrix” (1871-72) pictures Beatrice, from Dante Alighieri’s poem “La Vita Nuova,” at the time of her death, and also references the death of Rossetti’s wife, Elizabeth Siddall.

On the adjacent wall: “A Crowned Virgin Martyr (Saint Catherine of Alexandria),” a similarly posed portrait by 14th-century painter Bernardo Daddi.

Holman Hunt’s “Lady of Shallot” (1888-1905), reflecting the pre-Raphaelites’ fascination with Tennyson’s poetry and Arthurian legend, dazzles with detail and vividly conveys catastrophe.

“Love and the Maiden” (1877), a mythology-inspired work by second-generation pre-Raphaelite John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, illustrates the influence on the artist of his time spent in Italy.

Displayed near Stanhope’s knockout is “Idealized Portrait of a Lady (Simonetta Vespucci)” (1475), one of six featured works by the Renaissance master Botticelli.

Also noteworthy are van Eyck’s “The Annunciation” (1434-1436), Raphael’s “Self-Portrait” (1506), and works by 19th-century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian-era designer William Morris.

A multimedia area features works on paper, tapestries, stained glass, furniture and suits of armor created in the pre-Raphaelite mode.

Truth and Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters
Where: Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, 100 34th Ave., S.F.
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; through Sept. 30
Tickets: $13 (ages 6-17); $19 (students); $25 (65 and older); $28 (general)
Contact: (415) 750-3600,

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