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Perfection frozen in time for posterity

by Sura Wood

Six paintings by Sandro Botticelli, including "Idealized Portrait of a Lady (Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci as Nymph)" (ca. 1475), are included in the Legion of Honor's exhibit "Truth and Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters." Photo: Rick Gerharter
Six paintings by Sandro Botticelli, including "Idealized Portrait of a Lady (Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci as Nymph)" (ca. 1475), are included in the Legion of Honor's exhibit "Truth and Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters." Photo: Rick Gerharter  

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." - John Keats.

After decades of minimalism, canvases brimming with a profusion of textures, birds, apples, extravagant fabrics, the occasional musical instrument and gorgeous women with pounds of cascading, lustrous hair are a shock to the system. Though the cumulative effect of the Legion of Honor's scholarly exhibition "Truth and Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters" can be overwhelming, seeing the thick paint and shimmering peacock blues and other hues of its assembled paintings at close range is a natural high.

The show focuses on England's self-anointed Pre-Raphaelites, a fraternity of young, literary, 19th-century British rebels of the Victorian period who formed a Brotherhood in 1848. Its core founders, including John Everett Millais, a child prodigy admitted to London's Royal Academy of Art at the age of 11; Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who reordered his names to reflect his obsession with his hero, Dante Alighieri; and William Holman Hunt; ranged in age from 19 to 21, with little exposure to art, the world, or experience in general. One-for-all-and-all-for-one insurrectionists challenging the prevailing aesthetics of the era, they set out to break the Royal Academy's rules, determine for themselves what constituted truth and beauty, and figure out what made someone an Old Master, and how to become one on their own terms.

Organized thematically and following a loose chronology, the show links these upstarts with an abundance of masterpieces by the medieval and Italian Renaissance masters who were their sources of inspiration. Exhibition curator Melissa Buron, who spent years researching and pulling together the art - many institutions were persuaded to lend adored works from their respective collections - illuminates and brings immediacy to a chapter of art history that for many is distant and academic. She also succeeds in weaving a relatable narrative of a coterie of ambitious revolutionaries jettisoning the establishment, cocksure as only the young can be that they can change the world.

Seeking authenticity in nature and early European painting, the PRB retreated to a time that pre-dated Raphael. They had no quarrel with the High Renaissance virtuoso - after all, he made their list of "immortals," which included Tennyson, Keats and Jesus Christ - their disdain was reserved for his imitators. Raphael's youthful self-portrait (1504-06), painted when he was about the same age as members of the Brotherhood, is prominently displayed in a splendid gilded frame. Like the magnificent picture frames throughout, it's a work of art that completes the vision it showcases.


John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Love and the Maiden (1877). Oil, gold paint and gold leaf on canvas. Photo: Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco  

The PRB admired Netherlands artists such as Jan van Eyck, whose "Arnolfini Portrait" (1834) had the greatest impact on them of all the early art they encountered. The first gallery pairs Van Eyck's "The Annunciation" (1432-36), which highlights the jewel tones and layered symbolism they revered, with Millais' "Mariana" (1850-51). That painting's central figure, based on a character from Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure," is poured into a brilliant, sapphire blue velvet dress that begs to be touched. Hands on her hips and eyes closed as if in the middle of a morning yawn, she faces a stained glass window with a view onto a garden, a bench with scarlet upholstery behind her, and autumn leaves strewn on the floor. The glowing saturated colors nearly leap off the canvas.

As famous as he is today, Sandro Botticelli, an architect of ethereal barefoot femininity, was nearly forgotten until he was rediscovered in the 19th century by art critic John Ruskin and the Pre Raphaelites. Spotlit and occupying a dark wall it has to itself, Botticelli's tempera painting "Idealized Portrait of a Lady (Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci as Nymph)" (ca. 1475) was reputed to be modeled on a Renaissance noblewoman regarded as the most beautiful creature in Florence, and an intimate of the powerful Medici clan. Her bejeweled, wavy reddish hair, woven with ribbons, and the cameo resting on her alabaster skin contrast with a black background that accentuates her stunning profile. She suffered a tragic death at an early age, her unattainable perfection frozen in time for posterity.

As they matured, the PRB developed an affinity for works by 16th-century Venetian Renaissance artists whose sensuality and reverence of beauty, tinged with mystery and melancholy, appealed to them. With their lush colors, beautifully adorned women in luscious fabrics, and emphasis on mood, atmosphere and intoxication of the senses, what's not to like? In his later period, at the height of his career, Rossetti departed from his characteristic precision for the free-handed brushwork found in portraits of the luminous though haughty "Monna Vanna" (1866), and "Veronica Veronese" (1872), a sultry, red-haired, ruby-lipped beauty enveloped in plush green velvet, who's plucking the strings of a violin with a distracted air. The artwork alludes to the palette and lavish textiles of late Renaissance master Paolo Veronese, who painted "Lucrezia" (ca. 1580-83), hanging nearby. It's hard to miss the parade of glorious redheads; so many, in fact, it's easy to lose count.

The final gallery includes massive tapestries, examples of stained glass and illuminated manuscripts such as "Works of Geoffrey Chaucer" (1896), considered the most beautiful book ever printed. But none can compete with the grandeur, some might say hubris, of William Holman Hunt's "The Lady of Shalott" (ca. 1888-1905). This last major Pre-Raphaelite painting, more like a shrine by virtue of its dominating size, was inspired by a poem about a woman imprisoned in a tower. Forbidden to look out the window, she must perceive the outside world solely through its reflection in an all-seeing, all-knowing mirror - a nod toward Van Eyck. She's depicted with her long auburn mane swirling around her head, dressed in a sumptuous gown with an iridescent blue-green bodice and gathered taffeta skirt. Deeply romantic, its elements of mythology, religion and medieval romanticism are wrangled into a spectacular, altar-like frame. Overdone? Yes, certainly, but what a mighty culmination of a show whose title reads like the opening of a fairy tale. All that's left for visitors is to brace for re-entering the real world.

Through Sept. 30; legionofhonor.famsf.org


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