Pre-Raphaelite Movement

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the pre-raphaelite brotherhood
ruskin and the pre-raphaelites
critical fortunes

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), founded in September 1848, is the most significant British artistic grouping of the nineteenth century. Its fundamental mission was to purify the art of its time by returning to the example of medieval and early Renaissance painting. Although the life of the brotherhood was short, the broad international movement it inspired, Pre-Raphaelitism, persisted into the twentieth century and profoundly influenced the aesthetic movement, symbolism, and the Arts and Crafts movement.

the pre-raphaelite brotherhood

The PRB was founded by seven young men, three of whom became artists of major importance: William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and John Everett Millais. All had studied at the Royal Academy Schools, where Millais's precocious talents had been recognized. The other founding members were the aspirant painters Charles Collinson and Frederic George Stephens, the sculptor Thomas Woolner, and the younger Rossetti brother, William Michael. A slightly older figure, Ford Madox Brown, was never a member of the group but shared many of its ideals.

The early days of the brotherhood were marked more by youthful exuberance than by a coherent program, but an admiration for art from the period before the High Renaissance (pre-Raphael) gave the group its name. The increased visibility of work from the fifteenth century in London collections, and notably the arrival of Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Marriage Portrait (1434) at the National Gallery in 1842, prompted the young artists to turn against the old-master tradition propagated by the Royal Academy. Although there was never a single Pre-Raphaelite style, the earliest works to be exhibited with "P. R. B." appended to the artist's signature all bore the hallmarks of bright and brilliant color, sharp-edged draftsmanship, and an absence of the dark hues and carefully planned chiaroscuro of the typical academy product.

First to appear was Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1849), in which passages of striking naturalism were situated within a complex symbolic composition. Already a published poet, Rossetti inscribed verse on the frame of his painting. In the following year, Millais's Christ in the House of His Parents (1850) was exhibited at the Royal Academy to an outraged critical reception. The master of a brilliantly naturalistic technique, Millais represented biblical figures with closely observed portrayals of the features of real, imperfect models. In 1850 the Pre-Raphaelites also produced a literary and artistic magazine, the Germ, which was something of a manifesto for their artistic concerns and ran for only four issues.

From the first, the Pre-Raphaelites aspired to paint subjects from modern life. In The Awakening Conscience (1854), Hunt represented a kept woman realizing the error of her ways, and in 1852 Madox Brown began the most ambitious of all Pre-Raphaelite scenes from modern life, Work (1852–1865). Although the brotherhood included no women, Christina Rossetti, sister of Dante and William, pioneered a Pre-Raphaelite style in poetry, and Elizabeth Siddall—model, muse, and eventually wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti—produced distinctive watercolors and drawings that went unrecognized in her lifetime but received critical attention after the advent of feminist art history in the late 1970s.

ruskin and the pre-raphaelites

The fortunes of the movement turned in 1851, when the most powerful critic of the era, John Ruskin, wrote to the Times (London) in defense of the young painters. Ruskin perceived in the Pre-Raphaelite work an echo of his publication of 1843, Modern Painters volume I, a manifesto favoring naturalistic landscape painting. He emphasized the realist rather than the revivalist elements in Pre-Raphaelitism, writing: "They intend to return to the early days in this one point only—that … they will draw either what they see, or what they suppose might have been the actual facts of the scene they desire to represent, irrespective of any conventional rules of picture-making."

Under Ruskin's influence, outdoor painting from nature became a more central feature of Pre-Raphaelite work. Literary subjects, such as Millais's Ophelia (1852) and Hunt's Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus (1851), were painted in the open air with meticulous attention to natural detail. Ruskin commissioned a portrait of himself from Millais, painted in a landscape at Glenfinlas. Other early patrons of the movement included Thomas Combe, the superintendant of the Oxford University Press; Thomas Plint, a Leeds stockbroker; and Thomas Fairbairn, a major Manchester industrialist.

Under Ruskin's influence, a group of younger painters took up the challenge of Pre-Raphaelite landscape painting. John Brett and John William Inchbold were Ruskin's particular protégés, and their work (such as Brett's Val d'Aosta, 1858) achieved a seemingly miraculous level of detail in the representation of geology, flora, and meteorological conditions. This naturalistic trend in Pre-Raphaelitism was influential in the United States, where the journals the Crayon (1855–1861), edited by W. J. Stillman, and the New Path (1863–1865) publicized Ruskin's ideas. An exhibition of English Pre-Raphaelite paintings toured Boston and New York in 1857. The American followers of Pre-Raphaelitism included Thomas Farrer, William Trost Richards, and J. W. Hill.


The Brotherhood soon began to disperse. Collinson resigned in 1850, Woolner emigrated to Australia in 1852 (an event memorialized in Madox Brown's modern life painting The Last of England, 1852–1855), and it had effectively ceased to exist by the time of Holman Hunt's departure in search of religious subject matter in Palestine in 1854. The works produced from this trip—The Scapegoat (1855) and especially The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple (1860)—established Hunt as "the painter of the Christ." Millais moved to Scotland in 1856 and there created a series of poetic, lyrical works, including Autumn Leaves (1856), before turning to portraiture and more conventional forms of historical painting. Becoming a member of the Royal Academy in 1855, Millais soon joined the artistic establishment and ended his life as president of the academy; from PRB, as one wag put it, to PRA.

Rossetti abandoned oil painting for much of the 1850s and developed a more intimate visual vocabulary, creating small watercolors on medieval themes. It was this vein of Pre-Raphaelitism that inspired a second generation of artists and poets. Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, undergraduates

at Oxford, met Rossetti in 1856 and joined him in an attempt to decorate the Oxford Union building with frescoes on Arthurian themes. The project foundered because the team of young painters had no knowledge of fresco technique. Among them were Arthur Hughes, John Rodham Spencer Stanhope, Simeon Solomon, and George Price Boyce, artists who constituted a second generation of Pre-Raphaelites. Of these, Solomon had the most distinctive voice. His exploration of Jewish and homoerotic themes marked a striking modification of Rossetti's idiom, but after his conviction for "gross indecency" in 1873 he was ostracized from Pre-Raphaelite circles.

Burne-Jones was to become the most important figure in later Pre-Raphaelitism. His early work espoused a Romantic medievalism, but in his maturity he created oil paintings on classical and literary subjects notable for their aesthetic refinement and distinctive poetic atmosphere. After the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, Burne-Jones's work became known to a wider public and was central to the amorphous grouping known as the aesthetic movement. By this time, the realist commitment of the early Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had been completely abandoned. Burne-Jones was an acknowledged influence on the European symbolist movement, from Pierre Puvis de Chavannes to Gustave Moreau and even Pablo Picasso.

Burne-Jones was also distinguished as a designer, especially of stained glass and book illustrations. He and his friend and lifelong collaborator William Morris were inspired by Ruskin's chapter "The Nature of Gothic" and attempted to revive both the aesthetics and working practices of medieval decorative art. Morris in particular excelled in the design of wallpapers, textiles, and hand-printed books. Their manufacturing company, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, and Co., was founded in 1861 and found a small market for such products. Morris became a committed socialist in 1878 and became a primary influence on the founding of the Arts and Crafts movement, which emphasized the use of unadorned natural materials and hand crafting in the decorative arts and architecture.

critical fortunes

Vilified and then celebrated in its own time, Pre-Raphaelite painting fell from favor in the first decades of the twentieth century, and the triumph of French modernism in Roger Fry's post-impressionist exhibitions of 1910 and 1912 marked the beginning of a period of critical disapprobation, which lasted until the 1960s. The major figures left autobiographies or memoirs (notably Holman Hunt's Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood), and F. G. Stephens and W. M. Rossetti produced voluminous memoirs and collections of documents. It was not until the 1960s, however, that art historians paid serious attention to the movement—attention that culminated in the Tate Gallery's magisterial 1984 exhibition The Pre-Raphaelites. Revisionist scholarship in the 1980s began to re-examine the movement in terms of its sociohistorical importance, and feminist scholars examined the role of women Pre-Raphaelites. Since 1990 scholars have re-examined almost every major figure in the Pre-Raphaelite circle, and the popular standing of the Pre-Raphaelites has, perhaps, never been higher. Pre-Raphaelitism has come to be recognized as the highest achievement of Victorian art and a major contribution to European culture.

See alsoMorris, William; Ruskin, John; Symbolism.


Primary Sources

Bryden, Inga, ed. The Pre-Raphaelites: Writings and Sources. 4 vols. London, 1998.

Hunt, William Holman, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. 2nd rev. ed. London, 1913.

Secondary Sources

Barringer, Tim. Reading the Pre-Raphaelites. New Haven, Conn., 1999.

Marsh, Jan, and Pamela Gerrish Nunn. Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists. New York, 1997.

Parris, Leslie, ed. The Pre-Raphaelites. London, 1984.

Prettejohn, Elizabeth. Art of the Pre-Raphaelites. Princeton, N.J., 2000.

Tim Barringer