Saturday, June 29, 2013

Pre-Raphaelites in Moscow

If you're a fan of Pre-Raphaelite art and you happen to be in Moscow this summer, you're in luck because
the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts is hosting some of the greatest works by the Brotherhood. The exhibition, dubbed "Victorian Avant-garde", is quite spectacular. The space is not large, just one floor, but it has most of the greatest masterpieces and a few lesser-known works from Tate and a few private collections.

I saw it last week and was blown away. An online image or a picture in a catalog could never come close to the brilliant colors, the scope and the beauty of the original paintings. The details are remarkable. And some paintings are so life-like that it's almost eerie.

Here are a few of my absolute Pre-Raphaelite favorites:

"Huguenot Lovers on St. Bartholomew's Day" by John Everett Millais, 1852 

St. Bartholomew's Day in 1572 was the date of a massacre of French protestants known as Huguenots. Roman Catholics, who were doing the killing, would wear white armbands to signal to each other where their own allegiance lay. The context makes the somewhat trite image of a young couple embracing very poignant. The painting itself is vivid in color. The girl's face is so realistic you almost expect her to turn around and look at you. Her dress usually looks plain black in reproductions, but it's actually covered by an intricate design that you can only see on the original.

"Christ in the House of His Parents" by John Everett Millais, 1849-50 

The painting depicts Jesus as a child in the home of his carpenter father Joseph. The little boy bringing in water is probably John the Baptist, while the elderly woman removing the nail from the board is most likely St. Anne. Unlike most religious paintings, this one lacks all exaltation. Everything looks simple to the point of poverty. I also like the painting because of a scandal it caused. When it was first exhibited people were outraged by this depiction of Jesus, his family and their environment. Most critics couldn't stomach that the Lord and Savior would spend his childhood in poverty and obscurity.

"Ophelia" by John Everett Millais, 1851–1852 

This painting seems to have become the official "face" of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. It depictions Ophelia from Shakespeare's Hamlet in the process of drowning herself after her father had been murdered and she had lost her mind. It's quite interesting that drowning Ophelia has become one of the favorite go-to subjects for various artists. Considering that the scene is never shown on stage, but instead is related by Hamlet's mother; artists have a morbid fascination with her suicide. I like it for reasons of personal vanity. I have been told that I look a little like her. (Not sure whether "hey, you look like an insane drowned woman from a play" is really a compliment or an insult)

"The Vale of Rest" by John Everett Millais, 1858-59

Speaking of morbid, this is by far my favorite Pre-Raphaelite painting. Why? I don't know. Maybe because it's just so darn mysterious. Who are these nuns? Why is one working and the other one is just sitting there? Why is she looking out of the canvas? What does she want? Whose grave is it? Why do I exist? It's just a lot of unanswered questions. The original painting is magnificent. The background looks so realistic that you can't quite believe that it was created with paint and a brush. And I do like the haunting gaze of the nun at rest.

"Sidonia von Bork" by Edward Burne-Jones, 1860 

The only non-Millais painting (do you see a pattern here?) that I count among my favorites is this one by Burne-Jones. Sidonia is a witch from a Gothic romance where she is a typical femme fatale, scheming, plotting and killing. The romance was popular among the Brotherhood and they produced several works based on it, this one included. What I found astounding was the work is very small, about the size of an A4 or a little smaller. Sidonia's snake dress seems to have inspired Miranda Richardson's gown from Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow".

So what's your favorite Pre-Raphaelite painting?

You can see these, and many other works, at the Pushkin Museum until September 22nd . Or, for the lucky ones who live in London, most of these painting are kept at Tate Britain.


  1. Thank you for this wonderful post! I haven't seen the exhibition yet and I always forget to write it down and everything. Although I'm particularly keen of impressionists and post-impressionists, Ophelia is one of my favorite paintings.

    1. You should definitely check it out! It's quite brilliant! XD I would recommend going in the morning as the ques get pretty long after midday.


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