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 changed the face of art in England and the Western art 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 it was neoclassical in 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 academic art, 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 referred to as art sanctioned by the Royal Academy and similar European institutions. 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 methods like perspective and shading created the impression of a three-dimensional space.
Despite the Academy’s dominance in the English and British 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
Christ in the House of His Parents by John Everett Millais. Painted in 1849-50. Tate Britain (London)
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. For them, 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 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 it; 3, to sympathise with what is direct, serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote; and 4, 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 between 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 the growing relationship between art and religion during this period, the use of real models for these holy figures was considered borderline blasphemous in artistic circles. 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 facing heavy opposition and eventually dissolving 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 Pre-Raphaelite 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 Pre-Raphaelite artist, John William Waterhouse, embraced the 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.
While the second generation of Pre-Raphaelites maintained the original aesthetics of the group, their thematic focus shifted slightly. Rather than a preference for religious subjects, they turned to stories from literature, poetry or medieval legends, such as King Arthur, Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott and the Divine Comedy of Dante, with a proclivity for the tragic. Rather than the moralizing lessons of their predecessors, they presented a unique aesthetic of beauty for its own sake, an approach that would have a profound impact on the Aesthetic movement of the 1860s.
As the Pre-Raphaelite style gained popularity, the movement’s ideals began to enter the mainstream, influencing legendary artists such as Ford Madox Brown, Henry Wallis, John Brett, Arthur Hughes and John William Waterhouse. While many of them were painters, there were also designers, poets, sculptors and even photographers who contributed to the continuation of the movement. In addition to the Aesthetic movement, both the Arts and Crafts movement and Symbolism are regarded as descendants of the unprecedented style.
While the aesthetic ideals of the Pre-Raphaelites continue to be seen to this day, the group’s lasting legacy remains one of challenge and revolt. Theirs was among the first significant oppositions against the “official” art of the major European academies, emerging even before the Impressionists in France. Theirs is a crucial piece in the history of modern art in both Britain and Europe, unafraid to show ugliness, challenge tradition or celebrate beauty for beauty’s sake.
“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