Truth and Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters

Legion of Honor Museum, San Francisco

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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In a rare combination of beauty and scholarship, San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Museum is presenting “Truth and Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters,” an exhibition that compares the rich, idealist artwork of the mid-19th century English Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (“PRB”) with those masters whom they admired of the Renaissance from Northern and Southern Europe.

It’s a wonderful opportunity to see fabulous art from the Legion’s collection and paintings on loan from all over the world, including works by the Northern Renaissance artists Jan van Eyck, Lucas Cranach, and Hans Memling, and the Southern Renaissance painters Botticelli, Veronese, Raphael, Pietro Perugino and Ghirlandaio, as well as to discover the lush, romantic art of the PRB, many of whom are considered to be the first modern artists.

In 1848, a time of upheaval and revolution in Europe, seven English painters in their twenties, notably William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, opposed the triviality of popular art enforced by the pre-eminent, all-powerful British Royal Academy of Arts. The young rebels wanted to paint more important subjects, those from nature, religion literature, and social issues, and to use a more realistic and natural approach. As the painters matured, they each developed a singular style. Later artists such as Edward Burne-Jones became part of the PRB movement, which led to the Arts and Crafts movement and to Art Nouveau.

Taking themselves quite seriously, the PRB drew up a manifesto and a list of their honored “Immortals” from art and literature through the ages including Jesus Christ, Boccaccio, Titian, and Newton. Confusingly, although they rejected the Royal Academy’s adoration of the Renaissance master, Raphael, the PRB respected his work and included him on their “Immortals” list.

In addition to the importance of the subject matter of the PRB’s art, their emphasis was also on the technical side of painting. They favored applying a white background, rather than a darker one, and using pure primary colors, rather than mixing them more subtlety on the palette. Every aspect of their work is in high focus with the use of rich jewel-tone colors and bright lighting. Even the shadows and backgrounds are as detailed and richly colored as the rest of their paintings.

“Truth and Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters” is organized so one can easily compare and contrast the two schools of art. The exhibit includes a wealth of scholarly information, assembled by a team lead by Melissa E. Buron, director of the art division of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, parent organization of the Legion of Honor Museum.

But it’s fine simply to ogle at the art. World-class standouts among the Renaissance works include Domenico Ghirlandaio’s “Portrait of a Man” and “Portrait of a Woman,” Veronese’ “Lucretia” and Sandro Botticelli’s “Allegorical Portrait of a Lady [Simonetta Vespucci as Nymph]” and “Madonna of the Magnificat.” Favorites among the PRB works are Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Lady Lilith” and “Veronica Veronese,” John Everett Millais’ “Mariana,” and John Roddam Spencer Stanhope’s “Love and the Maiden.”

The inspiring Beaux Art–style Legion of Honor Museum, sitting majestically on a hill overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean, one of the finest sights in San Francisco, is the only venue for this outstanding show, so it’s one of many great excuses to visit California this summer.

By Emily S. Mendel

© Emily S. Mendel 2018 All Rights Reserved

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