I recently attended a Pre-Rafaelite exhibition at the Tate Britain in London. It was easily one of the most solid and satisfying exhibitions I've ever been to, probably because of the obvious focus on Beauty so evident in a majority of the paintings.
Current scholarship - including that of the exhibition curators - not only links Pre-Rafaelitism to Aestheticism, but claims that the former morphed into the latter. This is something of an oversimplification. However, Stephen Calloway - curator of the Cult of Beauty exhibition recently held at the Victoria & Albert and the San Francisco Legion of Honor - explains that 'the Aesthetic movement' was really a conglomerate attempt by somewhat disparate residents of Holland Park (Leighton) and Chelsea (Rossetti):
As will be immediately apparent, those who came to be identified in this period as protagonists of the Cult of Beauty - the poets and painters, makers or thinkers - were perhaps more united in their opposition to prevailing orthodoxies concerning art and design than in any comfortably shared vision or precise definition of the beautiful.
- from The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1890
From exhibition descriptions:
Beauty came to be valued more highly than truth, as Pre-Rafaelitism slowly metamorphosed into the Aesthetic movement. In 1855 Millais started creating compositions 'full of beauty and without subject'
I find the concept of beauty 'without subject' to be somewhat perplexing and potentially vapid. A better vehicle for Beauty might be a 'conducent subject'.
Although Holman Hunt's The Scapegoat (pictured below, along with the smaller version which features a magnificent rainbow) is my favourite Pre-Rafaelite painting, I have long found Ophelia by the oft-overlooked Arthur Hughes to be the loveliest of the Pre-Rafaelite paintings. It is rivalled for beauty by several others including the more famous Millais version, but Hughes was able to imbibe a soulful mystique and saturated colour in his paintings that others such as those by Ford Madox Brown tend to lack.
Following are shots I took at the London exhibition - including a few I took a few days later at the Manchester Art Gallery - of the Pre-Rafaelite paintings I found most beautiful. Also depicted is an interesting sculpture of Puck by Thomas Woolner, an associate of Charles Darwin. Each image is accompanied (preceded or followed) by an image of its exhibition label.