Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Pre-Raphaelites at Tate Britain and Millais' Christ In The House Of His Parents

“Led by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) rebelled against the art establishment of the mid-nineteenth century, taking inspiration from early Renaissance painting. The exhibition establishes the PRB as an early example of the avant-garde: painters who self-consciously overturned orthodoxy and established a new benchmark for modern painting and design. It will include many famous Pre-Raphaelite works, and will also re-introduce some rarely seen masterpieces.” - Tate Website

Last week, I finally got to Tate Britain to see the exhibition Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde.  The PRB are a favourite of mine and it was great to see so many of their paintings all together (along with predecessors’ and followers’ works).  Many of the paintings had been borrowed from other collections, some of which, I was finally seeing in the flesh for the first time.  It was also great to see paintings that I see every time I visit the Tate, given their own breathing space (rather than crammed in and too high up to see properly).  Viewing these works in this context surrounded by other PRB paintings was very interesting; Hunt’s The Finding Of The Saviour In The Temple had been placed side by side with Millais’ Christ In The House Of His Parents, as well as being of a similar size and looking very impressive next to each other the curator is cleverly inviting us to compare these two approaches to depicting the childhood of Jesus.  Millais' Christ In The House Of His Parents is one of my favourite paintings and in this post I have attempted to examine this work and its appeal.
John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents (The Carpenter's Shop), 1849-50, Oil on Canvas, 86.4x139.7cm

When first exhibited, this controversial painting was not well received because of its use of realistic figures and environment, (the interior was painted from a real carpenter's workshop).  One critic described it as ‘pictorial blasphemy’ and the well known author Charles Dickens was particularly vehement in his criticism of the depiction of Mary calling her "horrible in her ugliness".  Viewing the painting today, from a 21st century perspective, I don’t see ugliness, I see ordinary people with dirty fingernails, wrinkles, even a receding a hair line, in Joseph’s case.  The idea of the holy family as real working class people rather than idealised figures incensed the critics of the day but this is exactly what draws me to this work.   

The painting combines real models and emotions with layers of symbolism and slightly stylised poses; reminiscent of early renaissance masterpieces, along with keenly observed detail that brings to mind the work of Dutch baroque masters, with their intricately detailed subjects caught in a luminous stillness.  All this creates a mystical, otherworldly feel that is prevalent in the work of the PRB.  Although some critics dislike the combination of these elements, feeling that the works are oddly dislocated. I feel that this painting has a romanticised, reverential and thought provoking atmosphere.    

The painting shows an imagined scenario not described in scripture.  It was unusual but not unheard of to depict an event not specifically mentioned in the Bible and meant that Millais had the advantage of being released from many of the set rules associated with familiar biblical depictions.   Furthermore in the Bible there is very little information on Jesus' childhood and so the artist is free to imagine what the child Christ's life could have been like.  The exhibition includes an earlier version of this subject by John Rogers Herbert. Although we can see hints of Pre-Raphaelite leanings Herbert’s painting has a soft approach to the modelling of forms, his use of colour is more harmonious and muted while the use of typical old master garments and softened idealised faces contrasts with Millais radical realism.  

John Rogers Herbert, Our Saviour, Subject to His Parents at Nazareth (The Youth of Our Lord), 1847-56, Oil on Canvas, 81.3x129.5cm

The family dynamics also take on more emphasis in the Millais as the characters interact and create a narrative that is easily read. The painting also contains much symbolism to aid the narrative.  

Jesus has cut his hand on a nail in Joseph’s workshop his mother has come to comfort him but appears more distressed than Jesus, who offers her a comforting kiss. Mary's forehead is wrinkled as she lifts her brows in an expression that conveys more than just love and worry, to a fervent devotion. Perhaps her distress is a sign of her recognition of her son’s future death, which is prefigured by the cut on Christ’s palm and drop of blood on his foot.  The carpentry tools in the background are further symbols of the crucifixion while the ladder suggests the building of a cross rather than the door currently being constructed.  Joseph examines the cut, moving Jesus’ hand into a gesture of benediction as he does so, while young John the Baptist brings water to clean the wound.  John carrying the bowl of water and the dove in the background brings to mind the later event of Jesus’ baptism especially the work of Piero Della Francesca, an early renaissance artist.

Piero della Francesca, The Baptism of Christ, c.1450, Egg Tempera on Poplar, 167 x 116 cm

The Holy Trinity is symbolised by the carpenter's triangle on the wall, above Christ's head.  St Ann is seen removing the offending nail from the door.  The last figure, described as an assistant carpenter, balances the composition and many regard this as the reason for his inclusion, I find him an interesting addition and a reminder that the Holy family lived and worked in a community and did not exist in an isolated ‘alternate reality’, which many old master works would seem to suggest.  Across the gallery is hung Hunt’s Light of the world in which Jesus stands at a door and knocks, the door here symbolises the door to the soul described in Revelation 3:20 and I wonder whether it was coincidence that Millais’ depicted the holy family at work around a door or was it a deliberate symbolic inclusion? 

William Holman Hunt, The light of the World, 1851-2, Oil and Gold Leaf on Canvas, 122x60.5cm 

Years after I first viewed Millais' Christ In The House Of His Parents I still find it captivating and continue to see more and more within it, I hope that my musings inspire you to delve under the surface of other familiar works. 

Overall this was a fascinating and inspiring exhibition, which was well worth the visit. You can find out more about the PRB by following the links below.

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