Kudos to the organizers of this exhibition for using major international loans to make an art-historical point. It’s one thing to say that Britain’s Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was inspired by certain Renaissance artists; it’s quite another to show their work cheek-by-jowl with actual paintings they would have known in London in the 1850s. The most telling example came from hanging similarly sized vertical compositions by Millais, “Mariana,” and van Eyck, “Annunciation” from Washington, side-by-side. The bright, jewel-like colors, precise delineations and other-worldly expressions glowed from each.
Of course, the trouble with matching the PRB with Old Masters is they looked not only derivative, but distinctly second-rate. It didn’t help that San Francisco wound up with far from the best representatives of PRB work; the Holman Hunt show that came through Minneapolis a few years ago featured a dozen paintings superior to anything in this show, and where there were famous compositions they were scaled-down copies of the originals. Nevertheless, it would be hard to top not only the sensational van Eyck, but fine works by Botticelli (Frankfurt), Raphael (Florence), Veronese (Vienna) and others. In themselves, they made the Uber ride to the Legion of Honor worthwhile. Not to mention the art history lesson.