Pre-Raphaelite Art: A Brief Introduction
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a close-knit group of Victorian artists and academics. Founded in London in 1848, they transformed British art forever.
Controversially for the time, the group rejected boundaries between fine arts, literature, and life. They unceasingly innovated with their artistic approach, constantly experimenting with techniques, composition, and painterly subjects.
We’ve answered the most common questions about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to introduce this fascinating movement. From its leading members to the defining characteristics of their art, discover why they were such a revolutionary creative force.
What period were the Pre-Raphaelites?
The Pre-Raphaelites refer to a loose grouping of artists, illustrators, writers, and poets. This collective lasted from 1848 to the early 1900s.
Firmly within the Victorian era, these artists exemplified many concerns of the age. A yearning for a romantic medieval past, concerns over industrialization, and debates over acceptable sensuality were frequent topics. Indeed, these artists defiantly opposed the capitalist logic and utilitarian philosophy driving British society at the time.
In this way, they popularized notions such as “art for art’s sake” and the value of creative introspection. As a rule, Pre-Raphaelite art broadly avoided political commentary. In contrast to famous authors of the age, such as Charles Dickens, they steered away from social campaigning.
Instead, Pre-Raphaelite paintings prioritized careful observation and intricate detail to get closer to the natural world. Perhaps, for this reason, Charles Dickens was no fan of the movement. He once described John Everett Millais’ paintings as the “lowest depths” of everything that is “mean, odious, repulsive and revolting.”
Despite this, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood also had influential supporters. Their admirers included famed art critics such as John Ruskin and Walter Pater.
What are the main characteristics of Pre-Raphaelite paintings?
Pre-Raphaelite art is characterized by a uniquely paradoxical approach to art. As a movement, it revolutionized modern art by reviving medieval sensibilities.
On the one hand, many artists yearned for a by-gone age of medieval knights, chivalric codes, and emotional mystery. In the same breath, however, this nostalgia led to an intense excitement about the future. Many Pre-Raphaelite themes were immensely challenging for the age, dealing with topics such as infidelity, sexuality, and religion.
In visual terms, the main characteristics of Pre-Raphaelite paintings were:
- Flattened perspectives and lack of pictorial depth
- Sharp outlines and carefully controlled chiaroscuro
- Bright jewel-toned coloring, particularly of the natural world
- Close attention to detail and hyper-realistic technique
- Flouting classical conventions of symmetrical composition
- Frequent representations of female beauty and religious themes
Why are they called Pre-Raphaelites?
The Pre-Raphaelites initially consisted of seven artists who formed a loose association. The name “Pre-Raphaelites” referenced the group’s preference for late-medieval and early renaissance art. This was art originating before Raphael, hence, pre-Raphaelite.
Believing the teaching of the Royal Academy of Arts was far too staid and artificial, they created a novel approach to painting.
Founding members included the painters William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, Frederic George Stephens, and James Collinson. Joined by the sculptor Thomas Woolner and Rosetti’s brother William Michael Rossetti, they transformed British art.
In terms of Pre-Raphaelite inspiration, painters such as Van Eyck, Hans Memling, and Giotto were particularly influential. The young artists prized a return to simplicity and spirituality, an approach amply found in these old masters.
Indeed, the still postures and calm atmosphere of Pre-Raphaelite painting owe a great deal to early Italian Renaissance art.
Who was the most famous Pre-Raphaelite?
John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti are the most famous Pre-Raphaelites today. Nonetheless, Ford Madox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones, and John William Waterhouse are still extremely popular.
Here’s a brief introduction to five key artists responsible for pioneering the movement.
1. Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893)
Ford Madox Brown often painted moralistic and historical subjects. Amongst Pre-Raphaelite painters, he was most willing to tackle social and political issues.
Indeed, one of Ford Madox Brown’s best-known paintings is Work (1852-1865). A distinctly Hogarthian work, it portrayed the entirety of the Victorian social and economic system in the transition to an industrial age.
Other Ford Madox Brown paintings (for instance, Romeo and Juliet) reference the more traditional Pre-Raphaelite focus on medievalism and literature. He also tackled biblical narratives with astounding realism and emotional insight, exemplified in works such as Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet.
While Brown struggled to gain artistic recognition during the late 1850s (and almost emigrated to India as a result), this was also his prolific decade. He later gained significant critical acclaim and continued painting until he died in 1893.
2. Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)
Rossetti paintings typify Pre-Raphaelite art. As one of the founding members, Rossetti also inspired the second generation of Pre-Raphaelite painters, including Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris.
Many of his paintings reference medieval revivalism and intense sensuality. For example, Bocca Baciata (Lips That Have Been Kissed) utilizes a Venetian jewel-toned color palette to luxuriously present its sitter, Fanny Cornforth. For Rossetti, Cornforth represented the platonic ideal of beauty, and the two lived together for many years.
Works painted later in Rossetti’s career, for instance,,, Proserpine (1874), feature another romantic and artistic partner, Jane Morris. Depicting Morris as the Greek Goddess Proserpina, it presents an exquisitely beautiful woman grasping the fatal forbidden fruit.
With rich symbolism and painterly detail, Rossetti’s art stimulated later Symbolist and Aesthetic movements.
3. John Everett Millais (1829-1896)
As another founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, John Everett Millais paintings are astounding in their beauty and painterly skill.
Millais was a child prodigy. At the young age of eleven, he became the youngest ever student accepted at the prestigious Royal Academy School. The Pre-Raphaelite movement was founded at his home on 83 Gower Street (London), and Millais drove the group artistically and intellectually.
Despite this, by the mid-1850s, Millais moved away from a strict Pre-Raphaelite style to focus on Realism. The first seeds of this shift are evident in works such as Mariana (1851). Although the medieval setting, dress, and narrative remain, a more naturalistic approach emerges.
This change of direction displeased some former champions (such as William Morris). Many felt Millais abandoned the movement’s ideals in place of commercial and popular success.
4. Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-1898)
Edward Coley Burne-Jones was loosely associated with Pre-Raphaelite art as a leading designer and artist. He primarily worked alongside William Morris, and the two men championed decorative arts in the UK. Alongside several others, they founded the company Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co.
In addition to his work with Morris, Burne-Jones rejuvenated the tradition of stained glass in England. He completed many designs throughout his career, with windows in Birmingham, London, Brighton, Frome, and Oxford.
Burne-Jones was also an incredibly accomplished painter. Initially inspired by Rossetti's work, Burne-Jones developed his unique artistic approach. From the late 1860s onwards, he often painted heavily atmospheric works referencing classical mythology. The Wedding of Psyche and The Mirror of Venus are just two examples of this distinctive, mature style.
5. John William Waterhouse (1849-1917)
Last but not least in this introduction to famous Pre-Raphaelite painters is John William Waterhouse. While younger than many founding members, Waterhouse embraced the Brotherhood’s artistic approach.
Whereas Waterhouse began his artistic career working in a traditional academic style, he quickly adopted Pre-Raphaelite techniques and subject matter. This included the group’s fascination with Shakespearean subjects such as Ophelia (1894) and mythological figures in Mermaid (1900).
John William Waterhouse paintings also referenced ancient Greek literature and the works of Homer, in addition to modern Romantic poets such as Keats and Tennyson. Reflecting his integral importance to British art and the later Pre-Raphaelites, his art remains on display in prominent galleries such as London’s Royal Academy and Tate Britain.
What is the most famous Pre-Raphaelite work of art?
John Everett Millais’ Ophelia is not only the artist’s greatest masterpiece, but the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s most iconic painting.
Inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the playwright was on the Pre-Raphaelite’s list of “Immortals.” This was a list of painters, academics, and writers they particularly admired.
The painting depicts Ophelia, the tragic character who drowned in a river. In the play, Queen Gertrude reports Ophelia climbed into a willow tree. A branch broke, and Ophelia consequently drowned in the brook below.
Like many John Everett Millais paintings, his attention to detail and professional presentation of the natural world is astounding. The willow leaves and branches, along with various identifiable wildflowers, float alongside Ophelia’s dying body.
When first exhibited at the Royal Academy, the painting received a mixed critical reaction. One critic described it as “strangely perverse,” and another likened Ophelia to a “dairymaid in a frolic.” Nonetheless, the painting has become one of the most famous and admired examples of Pre-Raphaelite art.
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