Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (1848)

The Pre-Raphaelites were a secret society of young artists, founded in London in 1848. They were opposed to the Royal Academy’s promotion of the ideal as exemplified in the work of Raphael.

John William Waterhouse, The lady of Shalott, 1888

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The Pre-Raphaelites were a loose and baggy collective of Victorian poets, painters, illustrators and designers whose tenure lasted from 1848 to roughly the turn of the century. Drawing inspiration from visual art and literature, their work privileged atmosphere and mood over narrative, focusing on medieval subjects, artistic introspection, female beauty, sexual yearning and altered states of consciousness.

The origin

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, La pia de’ Tolomei, 1880

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Pre-Raphaelitism began in 1848 when a group of seven young artists banded together against what they felt was an artificial and mannered approach to painting taught at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. They called themselves the ‘Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’ (PRB), a name that alluded to their preference for late medieval and early Renaissance art that came ‘before Raphael’. The painters were: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, James Collinson and Frederic George Stephens. The non-painters were sculptor Thomas Woolner and Brotherhood secretary William Michael Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s brother. Inspired by the work of old masters such as Van Eyck, Memling, Mantegna, Giotto and Fra Angelico, and following a programme of ‘truth to nature’, the artists advocated a return to the simplicity and sincerity of subject and style found in an earlier age.

Which were the main features of their paintings?

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ecce ancilla domini, 1850

Characterised by flattened perspective, sharp outlines, bright colours and close attention to detail that flouted classical conventions of symmetry, proportion and carefully controlled chiaroscuro, early PRB paintings of religious subjects such as Hunt’s A Converted British Family’, Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents and Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini (1850) shocked critics with a hyper-realism perceived to be at odds with the sacred events portrayed. The 1850 Royal Academy Exhibition inaugurated what would remain an antagonistic relationship between establishment critics and the Pre-Raphaelites. Critics were particularly dismayed at the hints of Tractarianism and Romishness they detected in the detailed, ecclesiastic symbolism of Millais’ picture. They were further horrified by the painter’s blasphemous depiction of the Christ child as a red-headed member of an unidealised labouring-class family. Both Hunt’s and Millais’s paintings hinted at the breakdown of the social order, a worrying subject during a period where recent revolutions in Europe threatened to spread to Britain.

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Early doctrines

The brotherhood’s early doctrines, as defined by William Michael Rossetti, were expressed in four declarations:

  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;
  4.  to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.

Later development of Pre-Raphaelites

Frederic Lord Leighton, The Maid with Golden Hair, 1895

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 The movement influenced many later British artists into the 20th century. Rossetti came to be seen as a precursor of the wider European Symbolist movement.                                                                                        In the 20th century artistic ideals changed, and art moved away from representing reality. Since the Pre-Raphaelites were fixed on portraying things with near-photographic precision, though with a distinctive attention to detailed surface-patterns, their work was devalued by many painters and critics. After the First World War, British Modernists associated Pre-Raphaelite art with the repressive and backward times in which they grew up. In the 1960s there was a major revival of Pre-Raphaelitism. Exhibitions and catalogues of works, culminating in a 1984 exhibition in London’s Tate Gallery, re-established a canon of Pre-Raphaelite work. Among many other exhibitions, there was another large show at Tate Britain in 2012–13.

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