English Pre-Raphaelite: In Search of the Absolute

English Pre-Raphaelite: In Search of the Absolute

  • Joan of Arc kissing the sword of deliverance.

    ROSSETTI Dante Gabriel (1828 - 1882)

  • The Wheel of Fortune.

    BURNE-JONES Edward Coley (1833 - 1898)

Joan of Arc kissing the sword of deliverance.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - M. Bellot

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Title: The Wheel of Fortune.

Author : BURNE-JONES Edward Coley (1833 - 1898)

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 200 - Width 100

Technique and other indications: Oil on canvas

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot website

Picture reference: 94-018353 / RF1980-3

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot

Publication date: January 2006

Historical context

Fervent beauty

1848: the “spring of the peoples”. In London, young artists, dissatisfied with academic education, aspire to more authenticity in painting: they deplore the virtuosity and the lack of simplicity of the art of Raphael (1483-1520) and especially of his followers - inspirers of academic principles - defects which, according to them, hinder the true expression of a sincere religious feeling. Enthusiastic on the other hand by the art of the Italian and Flemish primitives, whose simplicity, naive realism and fervor they appreciated, these young people, seven in number, gathered in September 1848 under the name of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (“Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood”), in homage to the period prior to Raphael. Three are painters: Dante Gabriel Rossetti (the leader), William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais. Only the charismatic Rossetti and with him his disciples maintain, in the heart of the industrial and disenchanted century of Queen Victoria, an intact faith in the intimate charge and the highly symbolic value of the work of art, not without transforming Pre-Raphaelism into a languid and refined art.

Image Analysis

Icons: faith and symbols

Rossetti's choice in 1863 to pay homage to Joan of Arc is not innocent. This heroine of the Hundred Years War embodies absolute devotion to the dolphin Charles and zeal for faith. Dressed in armor, the young warrior kisses the sword known as "Charles Martel" which is said to have been miraculously discovered under the altar of the chapel of Sainte-Catherine-de-Fierbois. Kneeling at the foot of a crucifix, she implores God for strength to drive the English out of France. The spectator, captivated by the painter's warm palette (garnets, browns, golds), is invited to decipher the work by a tight framing which shows the voluntary expression of Jeanne (expression redoubled by the masculine features: prominent chin and neck) and above all accentuates the iconic character of the work: celebration of the faith (via a few limpid symbols like the lily of purity) and of the eternal feminine (lush hair and flamboyant coat). For his part, Edward Burne-Jones - a disciple of Rossetti - evokes the equality of men before fate. Chained to a wheel, a symbol of vicissitudes and change, the slave, the king and the poet are the powerless toys of a giant and indifferent goddess: Fortune. Evocative of the primitives by its perspective supported and covered with scholarly references (the nudes refer to Captives by Michelangelo), the work was to take place in a vast polyptych inspired by the Renaissance and devoted to the history of Troy.


The rebels of the marvelous

Rossetti, focusing on the sensual and searing kiss of a woman in love with the absolute, and Burne-Jones, reactivating the traditional iconography of Fortune, seem to turn their backs on their time. Despite their nostalgic atmosphere, their works carry within them a leaven of revolt against the progress of capitalist and materialist society, progress to which industrial ugliness and misery contradict every day. Although they eliminate any anecdote and any direct reference to the present and they bathe in a backward-looking climate (medieval for the first, ancient for the second) and legend, these paintings also invite reflection on the high moral value of sincerity for one, on the vanity of progress in the face of human tragedies for the other. Reinvested in meaning, the Pre-Raphaelite paintings express "the very noble joy of adding to the pure sensualities of the gaze the emotion of a higher thought" (E. Chesneau, 1882). From the 1880s, they naturally found echoes in the nascent Symbolist movement, enamored of ideal and transcendence. The painter Kandinsky even saw the Pre-Raphaelites as precursors of abstraction: "These are the seekers of the interior, of the exterior" (W. Kandinsky, 1912).

  • Jeanne D'Arc
  • Middle Ages
  • Pre-Raphaelite
  • UK


Ernest CHESNEAU, Contemporary English artists, Paris-London, Rouam-Remington, 1882.Wassily KANDINSKY, Spiritual in art, and in painting in particular, Paris, original 1912 edition, reprint Gallimard, coll. "Folio essays", 1989. Roger MARX, Social Art, Paris, 1913.The Pre-Raphaelites, Tate Gallery exhibition catalog, London, Tate Gallery Publications, 1984.William morris, exhibition catalog of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Philip Wilson Publishers, 1996.Artistic Brotherhoods in the Nineteenth Century, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2000.Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), an English master of the imagination, catalog of the Orsay museum exhibition, March 1-June 6, 1999, Paris, RMN, 1999.

To cite this article

Philippe SAUNIER, "English Pre-Raphaelite: in search of the absolute"

Video: Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood. Summary. Literary Movements