Founded in 1848 by the artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and William Holman Hunt, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood represented a youthful rebellion against the established aesthetics of the Royal Academy. The term "'Pre-Raphaelite' was chosen because it reflected their admiration for the early Italian painters of the period before Raphael" (Wood 1981, p. 10). Although the brotherhood lasted only until 1853, Pre-Raphaelite art continued to flourish till the 1920s in the works of followers and disciples such as Arthur Hughes, John William Waterhouse, Marie Spartali, Joanna Boyce, and Evelyn de Morgan.
At a turbulent time, with revolutions raging in Europe, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood initiated a revolution in British culture that had far-ranging effects. Rossetti, Hunt, and Millais resisted the precepts advocated by Raphael's successors and the first president of the Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds. Instead of hierarchical idealism, they promoted egalitarian and naturalistic realism. The belligerent critical reception of John Everett Millais's Christ in the House of His Parents (1849–1850) illustrates the Pre-Raphaelites' blow against aesthetic, class, and gender hierarchies. Their commitment was not limited to aesthetics but extended to social reform as they sought to establish an egalitarian society that would be accepting of unconventional class and gender constructs.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti was a poet-painter who often composed poems to accompany his paintings, guiding the spectator's interpretation. Subverting conventional representations of femininity, he created highly sexualized women; his femmes fatales combined feminine and masculine characteristics, with their long necks, massive shoulders, powerful arms, luxuriant flowing hair, and rosebud mouths, as in Lady Lilith (1868), Fazio's Mistress (1863), and Astarte Syriaca (1877).
Critics often denigrated Millais for the flagrant reversal of gender roles in his depictions of women rescuing men, such as The Order of Release, 1746 (1853), and The Proscribed Royalist, 1651 (1852–1853). Ambiguity and indeterminacy govern outdoor paintings that are devoid of narrative content, such as Autumn Leaves (1856), Spring (1856–1859), and Vale of Rest (1858–1859), in which, rather than endorsing the doctrine of separate spheres, Millais creates a matriarchal world untouched by the law of the father. Unlike Rossetti and Millais, Holman Hunt remained faithful to the principles of Pre-Raphaelite art to the end of his life; like them, he represented gender ambiguity, especially in the The Lady of Shalott (1886–1905) and Isabella and the Pot of Basil (1867) and in his popular religious paintings The Light of the World (1853) and The Shadow of Death (1870–1873), all of which combine conventionally male and female characteristics.
The gender ambiguity initiated by the early Pre-Raphaelites became prevalent in the paintings of the second-generation advocates of aestheticism (art for art's sake) led by Edward Burne-Jones. Privileging the aesthetic over the mimetic, he was upbraided by critics for "sublimely sexless" subjects (James 1989 (1956), p. 147) in paintings such as Laus Veneris (1873–1878), Le Chant d' Amour (1868–1877), The Beguiling of Merlin (1874), The Mirror of Venus (1873–1877), and The Days of Creation (1870–1876). "In a period which was so fraught with sexual anxiety it is perhaps not surprising that the guilt … and the sense of personal impurity and national degeneracy … should be projected onto forms of visual art" (Bullen 1998, p. 216).
A fluid representation of masculinity and femininity also characterizes Simeon Solomon's paintings, such as Love in Autumn (1866), Bacchus (1867), The Evening Star (1871), and The Sleeper and the One Who Watcheth (1870), which critics found effeminate or emasculated. In Solomon's figures the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne noted a "supersexual beauty in which the lineaments of woman and of man seem blended as the lines of sky and landscape melt in the burning mist of heat and light" (quoted in Mancoff 2005, p. 36). Solomon's homoerotic figures represent his attempts to deal with the taboo subject of Victorian homosexuality.
The Pre-Raphaelites' representation of gender ambiguity can be explained partly in terms of their desire to represent life truthfully and thus undermine the idealized, stereotypical gender hierarchy. If one considers that the Pre-Raphaelites deliberately chose to create effeminate men and masculine women that critics saw as "grotesque" and "repulsive," one may realize the scope of their contribution to the extension of gendered boundaries. Their representations of gender ambiguity or unconventional gender roles reflect their awareness of legislative movements (divorce laws, women's higher education, women's suffrage) to ameliorate women's social and legal status and redress legalized gender inequities. Besides painting, Pre-Raphaelite art shaped poetry, as in the work of Swinburne and William Morris as well as the novels of writers such as Elizabeth Gaskell, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy (Andres 2005). The Pre-Raphaelites offered literary artists new ways of extending gender boundaries and representing perceptual, psychological, and poetic realism.
Andres, Sophia. 2005. The Pre-Raphaelite Art of the Victorian Novel: Narrative Challenges to Visual Gendered Boundaries. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.
Bullen, J. B. 1998. The Pre-Raphaelite Body: Fear and Desire in Painting, Poetry and Criticism. Oxford and New York: Clarendon Press.
James, Henry. 1989 (1956). "The Picture Season in London, 1877." In The Painter's Eye: Notes and Essays on the Pictorial Arts, ed. John L. Sweeney. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Mancoff, Debra N. 2005. "Truth to Nature with a Difference: Solomon's Pre-Raphaelite Identity." In Love Revealed: Simeon Solomon and the Pre-Raphaelite Circle, ed. Colin Cruise. London and New York: Merrell.
Wood, Christopher. 1981. The Pre-Raphaelites. New York: Viking.