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Art and poetry : a study of the illustrations of two pre-raphaelite artists, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais Life, Allan Roy

Abstract

Despite the growing scholarly interest in the Pre-Raphaelites, the defining characteristics of their illustrations have not been determined, and the complex interrelationships between these works and their sources have been neglected. This study of William Holman Hunt's and John Everett Millais' illustrations for poetry outlines and applies exegetical techniques that are indispensable to the literary investigation of Pre-Raphaelite designs. Illustration is a fundamental aspect of Pre-Raphaelite art, which is often overtly literary. Indeed, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood not only based their paintings on contemporary poetry, they were also practising poets. Their sensitivity to literary styles and themes is reflected in the complex interpretative methods of their designs. Most significant Pre-Raphaelite illustrations contain figurative elements; a few are genuine visual allegories, in which an illustrative secondary level of meaning embodies a symbolic primary one. These facts have been obscured by the restricted criteria for visual allegory proposed by such critics as Angus Fletcher. Allegorical art can be formally naturalistic, and E. H. Gombrich maintains that the Neo-Platonic theory of analogical symbolism justifies associations between beautiful images and spiritual concepts. On a simpler level, analogies between external and internal qualities can become what Gombrich calls "natural metaphor." This device is especially appropriate to naturalistic art, in which traditional iconography can be introduced among non-figurative motifs, in a process that Erwin Panofsky terms "disguised symbolism." In utilizing these fundamental aspects of visual art, Hunt and Millais followed the lead of their immediate English and continental predecessors. German illustrators and their followers employed elaborate symbolic techniques, while such artists as William Mulready and the members of the Etching Club introduced greater realism into English illustration. Though Hunt and Millais hoped conjointly to illustrate Keats' "Isabella" and other works, their mature interpretative approaches are strikingly different. Influenced by Ruskin and by Evangelical readings of the Bible, Hunt specializes in symbolic methods employed by early Renaissance artists. In his illustration for Tennyson's "Godiva," he employs elaborate "disguised symbolism"; in his design for "The Lady of Shalott," he intensifies the allegorical level of the poem by relating its thematic and symbolic elements to a clearly defined hierarchical system, while visually epitomizing his own conception of the artistic imagination. Even when Hunt parallels literary effects with primarily formal techniques, his disposition of motifs is more significant than their rendering. By contrast, Millais is more concerned with natural metaphor than with specific symbolism, and he varies his style to approximate different aspects of his sources. Avoiding violent interactions between figures, he depicts dramatic situations and emotional states with subtle gestures and chiaroscuro. Comparing the designs of Hunt and Millais demonstrates the diversity and critical complexity of Pre-Raphaelite illustrations. Despite the differences between their works, however, both artists produced visual interpretations of literature, which must be related to their sources and to the total oeuvres of their creators. Like many great illustrators, Hunt and Millais produced their best designs for poems that were compatible with their own favorite themes and symbolic methods.

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