Pre-Raphaelite Masterpiece: Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice for the Death of His Young Brother
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Pre-Raphaelite Masterpiece: Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice for the Death of His Young Brother

The revolutionary spirit of Pre-Raphaelite art finds expression in William Holman HuntÂ’s painting Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice for the Death of his Young Brother (1848-9).

The revolutionary spirit of Pre-Raphaelite art finds expression in William Holman Hunt’s painting Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice for the Death of his Young Brother (1848-9). Like Lorenzo and Isabella,this depicts class conflicts in Early Italian society – the peasant Rienzi’s brother has been murdered by noblemen – and again this is analogous to modern society. A revolutionary gesture dominates the image, and has a double meaning. Firstly, it signifies the radical politics of the Pre-Raphaelites. Both D.G. and W.M. Rossetti wrote poems celebrating European revolutionary movements of 1848, and Hunt himself stated that Rienzi, which documents a 14th century rebellion, was inspired by these contemporary events.9 Secondly, it proclaims that the work is an allegory for the PRB’s “rebellion against the authority of the Royal Academy.” This reading is supported by the fact that D.G. Rossetti, Millais, and W.M. Rossetti served as models for the central figures in this, Hunt’s first statement of his Pre-Raphaelite credentials.

Pre-Raphaelite histories abound with stories of how the members re-christened Sir Joshua Reynolds (first president of the Academy) Sir Sloshua, scorned figures such as Landseer and Etty, and devised the P.R.B. initials as an insolent parody of the R.A. and A.R.A. of the Academicians. But this has more than mere anecdotal significance: the individual members of the Brotherhood were united in their contempt for the Academy and the teachings of Reynolds. With this in mind, there is a sense in which even the PRB’s affinity with the Nazarenes – perhaps the most conspicuously reactionary aspect of their practice – actually propounds its radical character. Considered in this context, the idea of a monastic brotherhood based on an apprenticeship model of instruction (e.g. Ford Madox Brown’s direct tutelage of Rossetti) challenges the conduct of the Academy, with its elections, hierarchies and impersonal teaching programmes, and is another example of archaic practice having radical results.

Given that Reynolds’s Discourses (1769-1790) still formed the dominant body of art theory promoted by the Academy, Pre-Raphaelitism can scarcely be seen as reactionary in comparison. By rejecting Reynolds’s idolisation of Raphael in favour of earlier forms, the PRB was not announcing its hostility to progress, but freeing art from a state of stagnation. This complex situation was clarified by John Ruskin (1819-1900), an art critic and defender of Pre-Raphaelitism. In his view, the Brothers sought “archaic honesty” rather than “archaic art,” and he wrote that their aim was to:

Draw either what they see or what they suppose might have been the actual facts of the scene they desire to represent . . . all artists did this before Raphael’s time, and after Raphael’s time did not do this but sought to paint fair pictures rather than stern facts.

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