A Simple Answer

Solitude, Frederic Lord Leighton

This blog generates a lot of email.  I try my best, but I can’t always answer it all.  Often I will receive an email that I don’t have time to answer that very moment, but as I continue with my day I will mentally compose a reply, usually a great reply.  Later I will embarrassingly realize that I never sent the answer.

Last night I received an email that was one sentence long:  why do you like Pre-Raphaelite art?

I sat there for a moment looking at my screen, dumbfounded because I did not know what to say.  How is it possible that I could not answer this one simple question?  It’s a question that dives straight to the point, forgoing all discussion of the usual topics of Pre-Raphaelite subject matter or artists or models.  That question leaps past my interest in Elizabeth Siddal, it hurdles over my thoughts on the artists’ lives. The question isn’t technically even about the art, it’s about me.  It’s just bare bones:  why do I like it?

I thought that the best way to answer the question would be to think about my first exposure to Pre-Raphaelite art.  What prompted the early gut reaction that told me “I love this.  This is for me.”  What resonates with me?  At it’s simplest form, what draws me to this art?  And I had my answer.

It’s a very simple answer to a very simple question.  It is also the answer that I think explains everything about who I am as a person.  It sums me up completely:

I love stories.

That’s it.  It’s why I’ve been such a voracious reader all of my life.  It’s why I enjoy all kinds of movies, from silent films to the golden years of the Hollywood studios to the current modern day box office. It’s also the source of my love for classical music.  As a child, I used to listen to it  with my eyes closed as I made up sagas to accompany every crescendo. That later led to an enjoyment of opera, the ultimate in musical storytelling.  Give me Maria Callas any day, a true diva before our modern use of the word came to mean something different and, well, less.  Is it all really about the books and the movies or the music?  No, the underlying kernel of everything that captures my interest is that I want a good tale.

My first introductions to the Pre-Raphaelites were through the characters they portrayed:  the Lady of Shalott, Ophelia, Proserpine, and figures from Shakespeare and Arthurian legend. They explored the myths and literature that I already had a taste for and they wrapped them up in symbolism and an aesthetic that appealed to me.  Then I became interested in the stories behind the paintings and the personal lives of the artists.

I know that there are those who don’t like Pre-Raphaelite works and dismiss them as mawkish Victorian art.  To which I shrug and say that may be true from their perspective.  For me, though, it’s been a constant source of  ideas to ponder.  It’s given me themes to explore, biographies to wade through, and time lines to try to piece together. I obsessively pursue these artists who through their work and their own pursuits have given me what I consider the best thing in the world:  a good story.

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9 Replies to “A Simple Answer”

  1. I completely agree. People often ask me why I am drawn to the Pre-Raphaelites more than any other artist group or movement and I have to agree with you. It’s the narrative. For me, no other artistic movement has dealt with narrative so cleverly and so beautifully. Each individual painting of the PRBs holds so much story and perspective on the tale, which is why I will always continue to love studying the movement because you will never be finished. There is always another magical painting or story to discover with the Pre-raphaelites.

    1. Thank you, I’m so glad that you understand exactly what I meant. I’m still not sure that I captured into words precisely what I feel, but I think that, right now, this is as close as I can get.

  2. Um. I may be being overly sentimental today, but your three word answer to that question? Totally made me cry.

    I am so thankful for you.

  3. I think you make a really good point about the appeal of Pre-Raphaelitism in general. Painting went hand in hand with literature and storytelling from the very beginning (The Germ, etc). I think what’s amazing about the Brotherhood was its commitment to contemporary writers of their day, such as Robert Browning and Tennyson. Not to mention their revival of important Romantic poets like Keats Chatterton via their artworks. Or their interest in American writers like Emerson and Longfellow.

    To this day (as in its own time), as an art movement it still gets dismissed as ‘mawkish’ Victorian nonsense. See Joe Queenan’s recent article in the Wall Street Journal: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203554104576655043491334636.html

    But people are always going to be attracted to good stories, just as the Pre-Raphaelites themselves were. Thanks for a really timely post! I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head.

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