The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was started in 1848 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt, as a reaction against what they saw as the stale, formula-driven art produced by the Royal Academy at the time. They aimed to go back to a more genuine art, exemplified as they saw it by the work of the Nazarenes, and rooted in realism and truth to nature.

Why the term "Pre-Raphaelite"? To quote from John Ruskin:

"We begin by telling the youth of fifteen or sixteen that Nature is full of faults, and that he is to improve her; but that Raphael is perfection, and that the more he copies Raphael the better; that after much copying of Raphael, he is to try what he can do himself in a Raphaelesque, but yet original manner: that is to say, he is to try to do something very clever, all out of his own head, but yet this clever something is to be properly subjected to Raphaelesque rules, is to have a principal light occupying one seventh of its space, and a principal shadow occupying one third of the same; that no two people's heads in the picture are to be turned the same way, and that all the personages represented are to have ideal beauty of the highest order..."
It was in reaction to this misdirected worship of Raphael that the Pre-Raphaelites seem to have taken their name. Their ideas were that for every scene a real unidealised landscape or interior should be painted, that every figure should be based on a real model with their real proportions, that the figures should be grouped without reference to any artistic arrangement, and that they should paint worthy subjects. That is to say, as Ruskin had it, to avoid
"Cattle-pieces and sea-pieces and fruit-pieces and family-pieces, the eternal brown cows in ditches, and white sails in squalls, and sliced lemons in saucers, and foolish faces in simpers."

What then, do we see in the early Pre-Raphaelite pictures? Firstly, they are generally bright - much more so than contemporary academic pictures - painted on a white ground. This gives them an instant impact when seeing them in a gallery among contemporary Victorian art. Secondly, the "truth to nature" apparent in attention to minute detail, to colour, and sometimes a lack of grace in composition. Thirdly, a taste for significant subjects - from mediaeval tales, from poetry, from religion.

The original three - Rossetti, Millais and Holman Hunt - recruited Rossetti's brother William Michael Rossetti, the sculptor Thomas Woolner, and two other students at the RA, James Collinson and Frederick George Stephens. They exhibited their work with the initials "P.R.B." (for Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) for a short while, and had a journal, The Germ, attracting much criticism, especially from Charles Dickens, before support from John Ruskin lead to their work being reconsidered in a more favourable light.

Collinson resigned in 1850, and was replaced (though not formally elected) by Walter Howell Deverell. However, the Brotherhood faded out quite quickly, as the three main members went in different artistic directions. Millais became a successful establishment artist, and moved away from his Pre-Raphaelite works to more popular paintings, Rossetti's work became more and more mystical, and very individual, and Holman Hunt, while retaining the realist aspects of Pre-Raphaelite ideals, painted moralistic pictures that may be thought of as moving towards mainstream Victorian subjects.

Other artists working in the Pre-Raphaelite style in the 1850s included Ford Madox Brown, Arthur Hughes, Henry Wallis, Robert Braithwaite Martineau and William Windus. Later, Rossetti inspired a new, younger generation of artists to follow the romantic, medieval type of painting which he himself produced, and these are also called Pre-Raphaelites, and sometimes referred to as the second generation. Most notably they include Edward Coley Burne-Jones and William Morris, and later Simeon Solomon and Evelyn de Morgan. Many other artists of large or small talent who worked in similar style, or somewhere between Pre-Raphaelitism and the aestheticism of Leighton are sometimes called Pre-Raphaelite in a more wishy-washy sense. Several illustrators, such as Henry Justice Ford (who illustrated the Andrew Lang 'Fairy books') and Evelyn Paul were drawing in the Pre-Raphaelite style well past the turn of the century.

Top of page

Pre-Raphaelite Illustration // Background information

Home