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The Founding of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

"Greensleeves was my delight,
Greensleeves my heart of gold
Greensleeves was my heart of joy
And who but my lady Greensleeves."

~Traditional, 16th century

Although the traditional tune associated with this English folk song may be more well known in its religious incarnation of the 19th century Christmas carol "What Child is This," its original lyrics are far from spiritual in nature. During the period of this composition, green was the colour of "lightness in love," indicating a promiscuous nature. The phrase "a green gown", was a reference to the grass stains on a woman's dress from engaging in sexual intercourse outdoors! Dante Rosetti's namesake painting, "Greensleeves" utilizes the intense colours and heavy emphasis on symbolism of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood movement -a group of English painters, poets, and critics, founded in 1848 by himself along with William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais. The Brotherhood sought a return to the abundant detail, intense colours and complex compositions of Quattrocento Italian art, rejecting the formal classicism of the mannerist artists who succeeded Raphael and MIchelangelo. With an interest in history, medievalism, and nature, the colourful and controversial Pre-Raphaelites, had a significant impact on the artistic movements of the time, particularly in Scotland and on Scottish artists. Over time, however, their work became devalued by many 20th century painters and critics as styles moved away from realism, but interest in their works underwent a major revival during the 1960s, with major exhibitions in the 1980s and this very decade!

Today marks the 1848 founding of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  


The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (later known as the Pre-Raphaelites) was a group of English painters, poets, and critics, founded in 1848 by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The three founders were joined by William Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens and Thomas Woolner to form the seven-member "brotherhood".


The group's intention was to reform art by rejecting what it considered the mechanistic approach first adopted by the Mannerist artists who succeeded Raphael and Michelangelo. Its members believed the classical poses and elegant compositions of Raphael in particular had been a corrupting influence on the academic teaching of art, hence the name "Pre-Raphaelite."


The brotherhood sought a return to the abundant detail, intense colours and complex compositions of Quattrocento Italian art. 


Dante Gabriel Rossetti,  illustrator, painter and translator and the pimary founder,  was later to be the main inspiration for a second generation of artists and writers influenced by the movement, most notably William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. His work also influenced the European Symbolists and was a major precursor of the Aesthetic movement.


Rossetti's art was characterised by its sensuality and its medieval revivalism.  Several portraits show ladies in green, including the one above, titled "Greensleeves".


Designed by Carol A.L. Martin, this tartan also recalls the colors associated with the Lady Greensleeves, the name of familiar ballad often assumed to have been composed by King Henry VIII.   Scholars note, however, that the piece is based on an Italian style of composition that did not reach England until after Henry's death, making it more likely Elizabethan in origin.


The first verses of many begin:


Alas, my love, you do me wrong,
To cast me off discourteously.
For I have loved you well and long,
Delighting in your company.

Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight,
Greensleeves was my heart of gold,
And who but my lady greensleeves.


At the time of its likely origin, the word "green" had sexual connotations, most notably in the phrase "a green gown" which was a euphemism indicating the staining of garments in the green grass during lovers' trysts.  And in Chaucer’s age, green was also an indicator colour of lightness in love. 

For more on the Pre-Raphaelites, click the namesake painting for information about the Tate Museum's 2012-2013 exhibition.