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Pre-Raphaelite art is a reminder of Mom's influence

May 12, 2013|By CHRIS COPLEY | chrisc@herald-mail.com
  • Rosemary Bacon, second row, second from right, stands among her family, including Chris Copley, far right, at a family gathering in 1979.
Photo courtesy of Chris Copley

My mother made me a journalist. And a musician, an artist, a poet and a playwright.

I realized this recently while taking in an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. —“The Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848 to 1900.”
My mother, Rosemary Bacon, grew up in a small town in Michigan, the youngest child of four by eight years and hugely creative. She studied piano and played the organ at her church. She drew. She sang.

After high school, she went to Taylor University in Indiana and took art and music classes. Her vocabulary became educated and polysyllabic.

But in her freshman year, Rosemary met a preacher’s son who planned to pursue a career in Christian ministry. A year and a half later, they married. Fifteen months after that, I was born. Three siblings followed me at two-year intervals.

Even though she was quickly thrust into motherhood, Rosemary continued being creative. She knitted. She painted by number. She made slumped-plastic bowls and colored-sand paintings. She drew pictures for her children. She sang with us. She took us to libraries and art museums. She used big words in everyday conversation
Rosemary didn’t lecture about being artsy and crafty. She just engaged us in creative activities. As we grew older and took on art, writing and music, she encouraged us.

One of my cherished memories is from my high school years in Toledo, Ohio. A once-in-lifetime exhibit of works by Claude Monet, a founder of French Impressionist painting, came to the Art Institute of Chicago. At my mother’s urging, my father took the day off work, and all the Copley kids — five by then — skipped school. We piled into our station wagon, drove six hours to Chicago, waited in line, gawked at Monet’s spectacular paintings and drove home. All in one day. A great day. That made an impact on me about the importance of art.

The trip to the Monet show came back to me when I took in the National Gallery’s press opening for the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition.

This is the first survey of Pre-Raphaelite art in America, according to the National Gallery. So I took a day off from work and made the pilgrimage to Washington to see the works of art face to face.

For me, the Pre-Raphaelites have a legendary quality: A group of young artists banded together to bring radical realism, social commentary and moral values to fine art. They resisted the burgeoning industrialization of society. They praised frankness. They favored medieval imagery.

I have loved Pre-Raphaelite art and design since I first encountered it a decade ago. The movement’s medieval references, realism and bright colors appealed to me.
The Pre-Raphaelites’ impact rippled through Victorian art and culture for decades. They influenced William Morris, a central figure of the Arts and Crafts movement of the 1880s and ’90s, and Aubrey Beardsley, a provocative Art Nouveau illustrator active at the turn of the century.

All this looks impressive to me as I look backward through time. But life in the 1840s and 1850s during the Pre-Raphaelites’ beginnings was full of change: Industrialization changed manufacturing and eliminating many traditional jobs; Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species” challenged the biblical concept of creation; trade unions rose in prominence; concerned citizens tackled social issues of public health, poverty and working conditions.

In the midst of all that, the Pre-Raphaelites nurtured their new vision of art. They had no idea what the outcome would be. They just stuck to their vision.

Now it’s my turn. Looking backward, I can see my mother’s fingerprints on artistic and literary endeavors throughout my life. But when I was a young child, she couldn’t have predicted how her son might turn out. But my mother had a drive to include art, music and literature in her life and in the lives of all her children. She stuck to her vision.

Thanks, Mom.

If you go ...
WHAT: The Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design, 1848 to 1900
WHEN: On display through Sunday, May 19
WHERE: National Gallery of Art, on the National Mall, Washington, D.C.
COST: Free
CONTACT: Go to www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb
MORE: The National Gallery of Art co-organized an exhibit on the Pre-Raphaelites with the Tate Gallery in London. The show has 130 paintings, books, drawings, tapestries and items of furniture.



Pre-Raphaelites made a 19th-century splash
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed in September 1848 by friends and fellow art school students in London, England. The group’s core members were John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt, all around 20 years old and their older mentor, Ford Madox Brown.

At the time, many European countries had national academies that taught art in traditional, accepted styles. Groups of young rebellious artists formed break-away associations outside the national academies; most had little impact on the art world.

But the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood made a splash. They rejected the contemporary British trend toward grandiose historical paintings or soft-colored images of mythological gods and goddesses. The Pre-Raphaelites favored bright colors, medieval imagery and precise realism. They used the new technology of photography to capture nature in motion. They used newly invented tubes of bright pigment. They painted scenes of ordinary, middle class, English life as well as legends and medieval images.

The Pre-Raphaelites were arguably the first avant garde art movement in England.

— By Chris Copley

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