Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood Begins Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood sought to re-energize English art through passionate attention to natural detail, applying a neomedieval, contemporary aesthetic to religious and literary subjects. The Pre-Raphaelites profoundly influenced the output of later nineteenth century English and American art and literature, including realism and naturalism.

Summary of Event

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s commitment to revitalizing English art must be placed in the context of a more general effort by artists and theorists to combat the social malaise of industrialized England through the cultivation of a medieval aesthetics. The Gothic Revival in architecture Architecture;Gothic Revival and art, which had begun with eighteenth century antiquarian interest in the Middle Ages, acquired the explicit goal of reviving national spiritual life through the neomedieval works of architects such as Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin Pugin, Augustus Welby Northmore (1812-1852). Meanwhile, Romantic theorists such as Thomas Carlyle Carlyle, Thomas (1795-1881) turned to the Middle Ages to recover a sense of spirituality and community held to be vitiated by the Industrial Revolution. Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood[PreRaphaelite Brotherhood] Art;Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood[PreRaphaelite Brotherhood] Art;English Millais, John Everett Hunt, William Holman Burne-Jones, Sir Edward Coley Morris, William [p]Morris, William;and Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood[PreRaphaelite Brotherhood] [kw]Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood Begins (Fall, 1848) [kw]Raphaelite Brotherhood Begins, Pre- (Fall, 1848) [kw]Brotherhood Begins, Pre-Raphaelite (Fall, 1848) [kw]Begins, Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (Fall, 1848) Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood[PreRaphaelite Brotherhood] Art;Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood[PreRaphaelite Brotherhood] Art;English Millais, John Everett Hunt, William Holman Burne-Jones, Sir Edward Coley Morris, William [p]Morris, William;and Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood[PreRaphaelite Brotherhood] [g]Great Britain;Fall, 1848: Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood Begins[2660] [c]Art;Fall, 1848: Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood Begins[2660] [c]Literature;Fall, 1848: Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood Begins[2660] Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Ruskin, John

By 1848, art students Dante Gabriel Rossetti Rossetti, Dante Gabriel , John Everett Millais, and William Holman Hunt had formed a bond out of their dissatisfaction with the conventions of the Royal Academy of London. It was the work of art critic John Ruskin Ruskin, John who led them to believe that the history of art had suffered when the Italian artist Raphael Raphael (1483-1520) moved away from natural to artificial subjects. The Pre-Raphaelites also found inspiration in the Nazarenes, a German Romantic school of painters led by Johann Friedrich Overbeck Overbeck, Johann Friedrich (1789-1869) and Peter von Cornelius Cornelius, Peter von (1783-1867), who had formed a quasi-monastic community around 1809 in Rome, intending to revive art by turning to medieval Italian models.

In the autumn of 1848, Rossetti, Millais, and Hunt transformed their artistic association into the initially secret society called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, attaching the initials “P.R.B.” to their first public works. United in their contempt for the conventions associated with the Royal Academy’s chief influence, Sir Joshua Reynolds Reynolds, Sir Joshua (1723-1792), whom they derided as “Sir Sloshua,” the Pre-Raphaelites met regularly to paint, discuss art theory, and list heroic figures whom they dubbed Immortals. Four new members were added to the group: painter James Collinson Collinson, James (1825-1881); art critics Frederick George Stephens Stephens, Frederick George (1828-1907) and William Michael Rossetti Rossetti, William Michael (1829-1919), neither of whom was much devoted to artistic production; and sculptor and poet Thomas Woolner Woolner, Thomas (1825-1892).

The artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood developed a number of techniques that gave their works a highly distinctive style. They produced intensely bright images by applying pure colors over a white ground, consciously avoiding the conventionally dark palette of academic works. Following Ruskin’s aesthetic philosophy of passionate attention to the details of nature, the Pre-Raphaelites devoted themselves to reproducing the minutest details of their subjects. To achieve vividness in landscapes, they also followed Ruskin’s advice for English artists, painting their subjects outdoors. The artists put these techniques on display for the first time in the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition of 1850. Their first productions, including Rossetti’s Rossetti, Dante Gabriel The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (1848-1849) Millais, John Everett , Millais’s Lorenzo and Isabella (1848-1849), and Hunt’s Rienzi (1848-1849), signaled the Pre-Raphaelite predilection for religious and neomedieval literary subjects. The oil paintings were well received.

Flush with the success of their first exhibitions, the Pre-Raphaelites began in 1850 to publish The Germ, Germ, The (magazine) a magazine that featured articles and poems expressing their artistic program. Contributions came from like-minded nonmembers as well, including artist Ford Madox Brown Brown, Ford Madox (1821-1893) and poets Coventry Patmore Patmore, Coventry (1823-1896) and Christina Rossetti Rossetti, Christina (1830-1894). Only four issues of The Germ were published, however, because open hostility toward the movement erupted with the second phase of their exhibitions in the spring of 1850. Art critics attacked the Pre-Raphaelite treatment of religious subjects in works such as Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini (1850), while excoriating Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents (1849-1850) as unconscionably radical in its naturalistic depiction of Christ in a carpenter’s workshop. The works of other artists affiliated with the Brotherhood, such as Walter Howard Deverell Deverell, Walter Howard (1827-1854) and Charles Allston Collins Collins, Charles Allston (1828-1873), also came under critical fire, leading to dissension in the ranks of the Pre-Raphaelites, including Collinson’s resignation and Rossetti’s refusal to publicly exhibit future works.

Christina Rossetti.

(Courtesy of University of Texas at Austin)

Millais and Hunt continued to carry the public mantle of Pre-Raphaelite art, soon winning supporters for their cause, even as critics continued to attack works such as Collins’s Convent Thoughts (1853). The Pre-Raphaelites found a patron in Thomas Combe Combe, Thomas (1797-1872), the superintendent of Oxford University Press, while John Ruskin Ruskin, John defended the Brotherhood’s devotion to natural detail in influential letters to The Times of London Times, The (London) . Soon, Millais’s Ophelia (1851-1852) and Hunt’s Our English Coasts (1852) were critically acclaimed.

Rossetti, who had begun to work often in the medium of watercolor, adopted a more idiosyncratic style. He had also become absorbed in a passionate love affair with Elizabeth Siddal Siddal, Elizabeth , a favorite Pre-Raphaelite model who began to paint and write in close association with Rossetti. Shocked by Rossetti’s highly sensual depictions of women in works such as Bocca Baciata (1859-1860), Hunt began to distance himself from the Brotherhood (though he continued to paint according to Pre-Raphaelite principles), while Millais’s election to the Royal Academy (in 1853) and his return to a more conventional painting style (after 1856) signaled his departure from Pre-Raphaelitism.

A second phase of Pre-Raphaelitism was initiated by Rossetti’s influence on two new disciples, Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones and William Morris, who became the leading artists of a revitalized Brotherhood. The artists first began working together in 1856 on a series of frescoes for the Oxford Union. They based their work on Thomas Malory’s Malory, Thomas Le Morte d’Arthur Morte d’Arthur, Le (Malory)[Morte dArthur, Le (Malory)] (1485) and formed a new focus on chivalry. During this period of collaborative work, Burne-Jones and Morris brought into the fold artist Arthur Hughes Hughes, Arthur (1832-1915) and poet Algernon Charles Swinburne Swinburne, Algernon Charles (1837-1909).

After the death, probably by suicide, of Elizabeth Siddal in 1862, Rossetti lapsed into a bohemian but productive lifestyle, producing numerous oil paintings of sensuously depicted women. His paintings included haunting recollections of Siddal such as Beata Beatrix (1864-1870). Burne-Jones and Morris took on the public face of Pre-Raphaelitism, winning more and more converts. Burne-Jones, influenced by Sandro Botticelli Botticelli, Sandro (1444-1510), won acclaim through the highly stylized, androgynous figures he applied to Pre-Raphaelite themes, as in The Beguiling of Merlin (1874). Morris moved Pre-Raphaelitism into numerous media, including the poetic works The Defence of Guinevere, and Other Poems (1858), the designs of his Morris & Co., and his Kelmscott Press.


The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood inspired numerous artists to adopt the style and subject matter first cultivated by Rossetti, Hunt, and Millais. John William Waterhouse Waterhouse, John William (1849-1917) stands out among the later artists directly indebted to the Pre-Raphaelites. His The Lady of Shallott (1888), for example, is just one of his works that continue to cultivate the Brotherhood’s neomedieval aesthetics. The Decadent illustrator Aubrey Beardsley would prove a less-faithful follower, with his flippantly erotic 1892 illustrations for an edition of Le Morte d’Arthur Morte d’Arthur, Le (Malory)[Morte dArthur, Le (Malory)] that mocked the high seriousness of Pre-Raphaelite practitioners such as Burne-Jones.

Besides moving so many artists to medieval and biblical subject matter, the Pre-Raphaelites also developed interests in socially conscious artwork, a legacy of the Brotherhood’s founding during Europe’s socially tumultuous “hungry forties,” which included the 1848 Chartist demonstrations by the working classes in England. Works on social problems associated with prostitution, such as Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience (1851-1853) and Rossetti’s Found (1853-1881), as well as Brown’s study of the working classes, Work (1852-1863), and Morris’s critical writings, joined in a more general Victorian interest in the social conditions of an era of expanding industrialization.

Pre-Raphaelitism also had a tremendous impact on late Romantic writers such as Christina Rossetti Rossetti, Christina and the essayist Walter Pater Pater, Walter (1839-1894). Pre-Raphaelitism also influenced the aesthetic movement that began in the 1860’s, a movement that included Swinburne and the American painter James McNeill Whistler Whistler, James McNeill (1834-1903). The Pre-Raphaelites also triggered a reactionary movement of classicist artists, including Frederick Leighton Leighton, Frederick (1830-1896). Especially with Morris’s extension of Pre-Raphaelite principles into the media of design and printing, the movement helped define English and American tastes into the twentieth century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Andres, Sophia. The Pre-Raphaelite Art of the Victorian Novel: Narrative Challenges to Visual Gendered Boundaries. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2005. A critical examination of the place of gender in Pre-Raphaelite art and literature. Chapters include “The Pre-Raphaelites and the Victorian Novel” and “George Eliot’s Pre-Raphaelite Gendered Imperialism.” Includes illustrations, bibliographical references, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burdick, John. William Morris: Redesigning the World. New York: Todtri, 1997. Provides an overview of Morris’s career as an artist, designer, and social philosopher. Includes plates of Morris’s artistic works in various media, including his work as a printer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chandler, Alice. A Dream of Order: The Medieval Ideal in Nineteenth-Century English Literature. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970. Places the Pre-Raphaelite movement within the larger context of medievalism in art and architecture, with detailed treatment on the critical stances of Ruskin and Morris.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Des Cars, Laurence. The Pre-Raphaelites: Romance and Realism. Translated by Francisca Garvie. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000. Offers an overview of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, with numerous color plates. Includes a documents section with excerpts from the writings of the Pre-Raphaelites and critical reactions to their work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hardwick, Paul, and Martin Hewitt, eds. The Pre-Raphaelite Ideal. Leeds, England: Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies, 2004. Examines the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s philosophy of art and literature.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hawksley, Lucinda. Essential Pre-Raphaelites. Bath, England: Parragon, 1999. A survey of Pre-Raphaelite work, with color plates that trace the movement and its influence on later artistic works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tobin, Thomas J., ed. Worldwide Pre-Raphaelitism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005. Explores the global reach of the movement. Includes the chapters “William Hunt, Race, and Orientalism,” “Symbolist Debts to Pre-Raphaelitism: A Pan-European Phenomenon,” and ’Pre-Raphaelite Ornaments in the European Slaughterhouse’: Pre-Raphaelitism and Croatian Culture.” Bibliographical references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wood, Christopher. The Pre-Raphaelites. London: Seven Dials, Cassell, 2000. An artistic and historical analysis of the Pre-Raphaelite movement from its beginnings to the final phase associated with Burne-Jones and Morris. Includes numerous illustrative color plates.

Emergence of the Primitives

Rise of the Cockney School

Barbizon School of Landscape Painting Flourishes

Oxford Movement Begins

Courbet Establishes Realist Art Movement

Morris Founds Design Firm

Naturalist Movement Begins

Aesthetic Movement Arises

New Guilds Promote the Arts and Crafts Movement

Decadent Movement Flourishes

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