Truth and Beauty Exhibit
By Iride Aparicio

Photos Courtesy: Antonio Gadong

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – , “TRUTH & BEAUTY: The Pre-Raphaelites and The Old Masters” exhibition at the Fine Arts Museum of the Legion of  Honor in San Francisco, is unequaled.  It is the first major art exhibition in the world, to show the original works of the “Pre-Raphaelites” painters alongside the masterpieces of the Renaissance painters who inspired them.

To understand the importance of  the  “Pre-Raphaelites” in the history of art, we need to regress, mentally, to Victorian England in the year l848, and walk through the galleries of  its  ROYAL ACADEMY exhibition on its opening day. Inside, we will see a student in his twenties, by the name of DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI, admiring the painting of  “Saint Agnes”  by WILLIAM HOLMAN  HUNT, another student at the Academy. Nobody could imagined that the casual encounter of these two young artists would change the world of art.

During their conversation, both  students admitted being discouraged by the rules imposed to them by The Royal Academy in London, that as the arbiter of taste and instruction exerted a powerful cultural force in the art works of its pupils, determining what was  beautiful.

At the time, it was considered sacrilegious to go against the rules of  The Royal Academy, but together these two  painters along with  JOHN  EVERETT  MILLARS, another student, decided to rebel against the Academy’s restrictions and define their own visual vocabulary of Art. With that purpose, the three students formed a “secret” artistic alliance they called  “The Pre-Raphaelites Brotherhood”

Raphael (Italian l483-l520)
Self Portrait 1506
(Oil on Canvas) Gallery Degli, Uffizi, Florence

The  Pre-RAPHAELITES selected the name of Architect and painter, RAPHAEL, (Shown above in the self-portrait he painted when he was twenty-two years old) for two reasons: because he was the leading figure of the Italian High Renaissance Classicism, and because his paintings had what he students were striving for in their own pictures:  beauty, quality and authenticity. Yet,  by calling themselves Pre-RAPHAELITES, their intention was not to model  their own paintings after RAPHAEL's but after the Italian masters who came before him: From  GIOTTO to LEONARDO. 

As Canon, for their brotherhood, the Pre-RAPHAELITES adopted Art Critic and friend JOHN RUSKIN’s suggestion: The artist should go to nature in all singleness of the art, selecting nothing, believing all things to be right and good, and rejoicing always in the truth.” Which RUSKIN had written in l89l and had been published in the  first of his five volumes of Modern Painters.

no (Italian)  (1469-1523) Noli me Tangere 1500/1505

Perugino (Italian)  (1469-1523) Noli me Tangere 1500/1505


One way to model their own paintings after those from the Italian masters’ paintings for the Pre-Raphaelites was to  imitate the Italian Masters’ techniques: To use large flat  areas. Geometry, in the composition of  their figures. Simplicity of  line in sketching them, and an equal number of figures in each side of the picture for balance. They also began to paint their pictures using brilliant colors. (Compare the similarities between MILLAIS  painting below and  PERUGINO's painting above )

John Everett Millais (British l929-1896)
John Everett Millais (British l929-1896)
Christ in the house of his parents (The carpenter’s shop)

Modes or Styles:

The Pre- Raphaelites also followed the Renaissance’s artists four modes or styles: Sfumato,  from the Italian fumo (meaning smoke) is a style where the colors in the painting are blurred. Unione (from the world Union ) a style where the transitions of colors is subtle. Cangianto (meaning change) an style where a different color is used for emphasis in shadows. And Chiaroscuro  The most dramatic of the styles where the figures appear to sink or emerge in pitch black darkness.

Later on, other painters JAMES COLLISON, THOMAS WOOLNER, WILLIAM MICHAEL ROSSETTI and FREDERIC GEORGE STEPHENS joined the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) which continue with seven members until it ended in the 20th Century when the artistic ideals changed and moving away for representing reality.

L-R Melisa Buron, Director of the Art Division, and Max Hollein Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco
L-R Melisa Buron, Director of the Art Division, and Max Hollein Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

On his opening remarks at  the Press Preview of the exhibition, MAX HOLLEIN,  Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, emphasized that the wonderful exhibition we were about to see, was created after he arrived as Director of the Fine Arts Museums and encouraged the curators to propose ideas for a unique exhibition. that would bring rare masterpieces from collections worldwide to the city to share with our audiences in San Francisco.  "TRUTH AND BEAUTY: The Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters" is the result of this collaborative dialogue.

The exhibition was created by the Fine Arts Museums of S.F. and a team. All four of the conservation departments were engaged in the preparation for this installation. He added that the importance of the new museum exhibition, which took two years in the making, is that it is the only exhibition in which the original paintings from the Master painters and the Pre-RAPHAELITES who used to learn from them, could be compared by its audience.  

L-R Wandle design registered l884 designed by Willian Morris (l834-96) and Field armor ca 1520 Steel and leather  (Germany)
L-R Wandle design registered l884 designed by William Morris (l834-96) and Field armor ca 1520 Steel and leather  (Germany)

Director HOLLEIN  mentioned to the press the difficulties in loaning Master painting from  different museums in the world including Australia, and the richness of  the exhibition that allows the public to admire not only the group hundred master paintings, but also several illustrated books from England’s Victorian era, illustrations, Stained glass works, tapestries, furniture, and even a complete metal armor.

Book William Morris
William Morris (British) 1834-1896

In her introduction to the press conference, Director of the Art Division, of  The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco MELISA BURON, gave the press a brief history of the Pre-Raphaelites, and then a tour around each gallery’s rooms where she stopped to discuss different aspects of the paintings.

Bright Colors

Talking about the bright colors on the Pre-RAPHAELITES’s painting, she said that what might be difficult for us now, to understand as we look at the beautiful Pre-Raphaelites paintings, is that what we are looking at was considered “radical contemporary art” during the l9th Century. “The Jewel-toned colors and very symbolic interiors were very different from the painting that were traditionally produced by the British Artists before the Pre-Raphaelites.  She said.


Also interesting to observe in the exhibition, is that the Pre-RAPHAELITES  did not paint many Madonnas or Nudes. This copy from a painting in the Uffizi in Florence that was made during their period may be an exception.

Cesare Mariannecci (Italian l819-l894)
Cesare Mariannecci (Italian l819-l894)
Copy after “The Birth of Venus” by Sandro Bottticelli in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence (1868) Commissioned by the Arundel society

The Pre-Raphaelites painted only a few panoramic paintings, which may indicate that they preferred to paint portraits of men and women and mitate their composition, the colors, the medium and the style of the original as painted by the Italian masters  

DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI  (l828-l822) PAOLO VERONESE (Italian) 1528-1588  (on the right)

The portrait on the left, by DANTE GABRIEL ROSSETTI  (l828-l822) is an oil canvas imitating the portrait on the Right by PAOLO VERONESE (1528-1588) If we observe the painting we notice that both painting represent a single woman off center in the  picture frame. Both women are dressed in an olive color velvet dress. However, on VERONESE’s portrait, the velvet in the dress blends with the dark background while In ROSSETTI’s  picture, the velvet in the dress of Veronica Veronese (l872) was painted so realistically that one could almost feel its softness by looking at it. There are many more similarities between the two pictures, but the one we will mention is the expression in the women's faces. The one in VERONESE's portrait, does nothing for us, but the melancholy expressed in the eyes of ROSSETTI’s model as she touches the strings of her violin, moves us.

Using Literature as Inspiration:

And because some of the Raphaelites were  poets, some were inspired by literary sources. One example in the exhibirion is Isabella and the Pot of Basil (l867),  the picture below, painted by WILLIAM HOLMAN  HUNT that was inspired from a story written by BOCACCIO (A Renaissance’s writer)

Isabella and the Pot of Basil (l867)

The story is about a woman who keeps the head of  her murdered lover buried on a pot of Basil in her  room and waters the plant with her tears every night

If we observe this picture we can notice the perfection in detail. In the wrinkles of the curtain, the  iron chains in the lamp hanging from the ceiling, the leaves in the basil plant, the embroidery in the table cloth, to name a few. And even if we don't know the story, if we observe the expression in the eyes of Isabella the picture moves us, because we can detect her sadness. Such minute detail in a painting was something that the English painters had never seen in England before.

At the end, we should mention that being creative artists, not all the Pre-RAPHAELITES followed their own  rules modeling their paintings. Some began modeling their pictures from the fifteen Century Netherlanders and Flemish painters, like JAN VAN EYCK , and from the German and the Venetian paintings of  PAOLO VARONESE,  who is considered a Post-Raphaelite.

For the Art lovers, and artists, this exhibition is a "must see" because it is unique. It allows the visitor to experience different Styles of painting,  compositions, and even compare the mediums that were used by the Italian Masters and later on copied by the  Pre-Raphaelites.  And for those interested in art, TRUTH AND BEAUTY: The Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters” will show you the TRUTH and BEAUTY about art, present and past.

"TRUTH AND BEAUTY: The Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters" Exhibition will be at the LEGION OF HONOR Lincoln Park 100 34th Avenue until September 30, 2018. For information call 415-750-3600 or online to