The Impressionists and Pre-Raphaelites sprang up at much the same time but how different they were! One looked to the future, the other to the past; one sought representation, the other sought accuracy. In both France and Britain a band of young artists rejected the status quo of the established art world and were in turn rejected by it. Yet the artistic response of the two movements was so very different.
In France the Academie des Beaux-Arts endeavoured to control the style and content of contemporary art, seeking realism in portraits and historical themes. Alternative approaches to art were stifled. The group of young artists later known as Impressionists met together from the mid-1860’s not only to discuss the development of art but how to transform the artistic world of their day and actually make a living from it. Most of them often painted landscapes en plein air and produced paintings with less realism but reflecting the true colour of a scene, its sunlight and shadows. They included Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cezanne and Edgar Degas. Although they diverged in individual styles we easily recognise these paintings for their settings, colours and brushstroke techniques. Their works are generally restricted to paintings though Degas’s sculptures are highly respected. The best collection of Impressionist works is at one of my favourite two art museums, Musee d’Orsay in Paris (my other favourite is the Uffizi Gallery in Florence).
In England, a similar reaction by young artists was taking place but echoing romantic idealism from medieval times. In 1848 the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, later joined or allied with the likes of John William Waterhouse, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. As in France, they had no respect for the established art society, in this case the Royal Academy.
Pre-Raphaelite art sought to copy nature accurately rather than in the slightly later Impressionist manner. In 1860 architect Alexander Beresford-Hope described this as “a most strong and determined realism – a determination to paint nature absolutely” and he added a further aspect of the Pre-Raphaelites: “a sort of mysticism, half-hieratic, half-theological and withal chivalrous”. It is easy to see personalities and principles which led to the broader Arts and Crafts Movement, both earthed in the philosophies of John Ruskin.
We are now the beneficiaries of both these movements, the Impressionists and Pre-Raphaelites, in their very different ways. We can see how Impressionism was a more natural artistic development in the historical context of the last 160 years. The romantic idealism of Pre-Raphaelite art can be seen in Art Nouveau so it was not isolated even if its flowering was brief. We have a good number of Impressionist tapestries available to us today but few Pre-Raphaelite tapestries; let’s hope for more soon. We will place these art wall tapestries on The Tapestry House website as they are woven.