Luminous color and meticulous detail with a medieval influence — these are the central tenants for which the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is known. But they could also be labeled revolutionaries, a seemingly incongruous term for a group that was so vocally influenced by the past. Their story is filled with mystery and intrigue, revolt and re-invention. One of art history’s most compelling secret societies, the Pre-Raphaelite artists quickly became household names thanks to their highly modern take on medieval tropes. Read on to learn more about this fascinating group of painters who irrevocably change the face of art in England and the Western world.
The British Academy
Before the emergence of the Pre-Raphaelites, English art of the early 19th century was much like its French counterpart, meaning that it was neoclassical taste and heavily influenced by the standards of the Academy. London’s Royal Academy, like the French Salon, was one of the most important arbiters of taste and aesthetics in the Western world during this period. Found in 1768 by King George III at the suggestion of Sir William Chambers, the Academy quickly set the standard for both current and future artists in England. Among its founding members were the great portraitists Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, the Swiss neoclassicist Angelica Kauffman, the landscapist Richard Wilson and the colonial American painter Benjamin West. As part of their founding charter, members were required to teach the next generation of young artists through the Academy setting, ensuring their aesthetic ideals endured.
The term “Academic art” has since been used to refer to art sanctioned by the Royal Academy and similar institutions throughout Europe. For the most part, the great academies favored neoclassical and romantic aesthetics and a highly polished style, generally preferring mythological, religious or historical themes. Brushwork was clean and virtually invisible, while perspective and shading were used to create the impression of a three-dimensional space.
Despite the Academy’s dominance in the English art world, 80 years after its founding, a young group of artists dared to challenge its classical ideals. Founded in London in 1848, the group that became known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was born.
An Artistic Revolt
The Pre-Raphaelites were not shy about their revolt against the Academic standards of beauty that reigned supreme; their very name exposed their aesthetic views. In their view, the Academy was stuck in a belief that Renaissance works — particularly the work of Raphael — were the ideal towards which modern artists should continually strive. The Pre-Raphaelites, conversely, felt that neoclassicism was stale, trivial and too far outside reality. Instead, they sought to emulate medieval and early Renaissance art, i.e., the art that came before Raphael.
Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Giotto di Bondone and Fra Angelico — these were the heroes of Pre-Raphaelite art. Drawing from these early masters, their art defies Renaissance ideals of perspective and beauty. Instead, their focus shifted to a luminous color palette that mimicked the tempera paint of medieval artists, as well as a minute attention to detail that lent their works an almost decorative quality.
John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were the group’s founding members, though their circle quickly expanded to a group of seven with the addition of William Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens and Thomas Woolner. It was Dante Gabriel Rossetti who recorded the Pre-Raphaelite’s early aims:
1, To have genuine ideas to express; 2, to study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them; 3, to sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote; and 4, and most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues (Rossetti, 135).
Not long after their founding, the Pre-Raphaelites began to exhibit their works; in 1849, several artworks were shown with the mysterious “P.R.B” initials alongside the artists’ signatures at London’s Royal Academy and Free Exhibition shows. Among these was The Girlhood of Mary Virgin by Rossetti (Tate Britain, London), a work regarded today as the first great masterpiece to emerge from this “secret society.” Filled with Christian symbolism and executed with exceptional detail and a vibrant palette, the painting fits the Pre-Raphaelite doctrine entirely.
Rossetti’s painting made waves in London’s artistic circles after its exhibition. Capturing the Virgin Mary at home with her mother, St. Anne, and an angel, the work is a compelling marriage of naturalism and medieval revivalism. Rossetti used the likenesses of his own sister and mother in his depiction of the young Mary and her mother. Given the prevalence of classical models in religious art during this period, the use of real models for these holy figures was considered borderline blasphemous in artistic circles of the time. Paired with his revolutionary new style that disregarded traditional perspective, the work offered a radical new alternative to the Academy’s more conventional, neoclassical aesthetics.
The Second Generation
Despite the fact that the group faced heavy opposition and eventually dissolved in the early 1850s, the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic did not fade away. Not only did the group’s members continue to experiment with the style, but a second phase of the movement, largely inspired by the work of Rossetti, began to emerge around 1860. Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, two artists who had met at Oxford, became the principal proponents of this second wave. Both were mentored by the great master Rossetti himself, and they adopted the same saturated palettes and high level of detail espoused by the initial members. Another Academic artist, John William Waterhouse, embraced the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s aesthetic principles after viewing their work in an exposition. Despite the movement’s rejection of the Academy’s infatuation with Neoclassicism, Waterhouse was so skilled and successful in his romantic new style that he was elected to be a member of the Royal Academy — the very institution his predecessors disavowed.
“Art Term: Pre-Raphaelite.” Tate.org.uk. Accessed 14 June 2022. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/p/pre-raphaelite
Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His Family-Letters, with a Memoir, London 1895, edited by William Michael Rossetti.
The Pre-Raphaelites, United Kingdom, 2008, by R. La Sizeranne.
“The Pre-Raphaelites.” MetMuseum.org. Accessed 14 June 2022. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/praf/hd_praf.htm