The Pre-Raphaelites

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of English artists, poets and art critics, founded in 1848 by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. They were joined by William Michael Rossetti, Frederic George Stephens, James Collinson, and Thomas Woolner. Their principles were hared among other artists such as Ford Madox Brown and Arthur Hughes. Dante Gabriel Rossetti inspired a later, medievalising strain which included Edward Burne-Jones extended into the 20th Century with artists such as John William Waterhouse.

Claudio and Isabella by William Holman Hunt (1850, oil on mahogany panel). Currently located at Tate Britain, London UK

The Brotherhood’s intention was to reform art with the rejection of the mechanistic approach adopted by the Mannerist artists who succeeded Raphael and Michelangelo. The belief that Classical poses and elegance of Raphael had been a corruptive influence of the academic teachings of art, hence the term Pre-Raphaelite. The Brotherhood focussed its objections on the influence of Sir Joshua Reynolds, founder of the Royal Academy of Arts as that symbolised everything lax and scamped in the artistic process. They sought to return to the abundance of detail, intensity of colour and complex composition of Quattrocentro Italian art.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in the home of John Millais’ parents in London in 1848. The painters Millais, Rossetti and Hunt were present at the first meeting. Both students of the Royal Academy of Art, Hunt and Millais had met previously in the sketching society, the Cyclographic Club. Rossetti was a student of Ford Madox Brown. Rossetti and Hunt shared lodging in Central London. Hunt had started painting The Eve of St Ages based on Keats’ poem, completed in 1867.

The Order of Release 1746 by John Everett Millais (1852-3, oil on canvas). Currently located in the Tate Collection, UK

The aspiring poet, Rossetti, wanted to develop links between Romantic poetry and art. By the autumn of 1848 four more members, Collinson, Stephens and Rossetti’s brother, poet and critic Michael, and the sculptor Woolner had joined to for the seven-member brotherhood. Ford Madox Brown was invited to join but the more senior artist elected to remain independent however he supported the group throughout the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood period of Pre-Raphaelitism and contributed to the group’s publication, The Germ. Other artists became closely associated with the group, including Collins and Munro. At this point the intent was to keep the existence of the brotherhood secret from the Royal Academy.

In the early days of the brotherhood they held declared that art should have genuine ideas to express, study Nature attentively so the ideas could be expressed with a serious and heartfelt sympathy with the old Masters without using conventional methods learned by rote to produce quality pictures and statues. Deliberately non-dogmatic the principles emphasized responsibility of individual artists to determine their own ideas and methods of depiction reflecting the influence of Romanticism of freedom and responsibility being inseparable.

Regina Cordium by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1866, oil on canvas on panel). Currently located at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, UK

The brotherhood was fascinated with medieval culture, especially the spiritual and creative integrity they felt had been lost in later eras. This emphasis on medieval culture clashed with the principles of realistic and independent observation of nature. In the early years of the brotherhood believed the two were consistent to each other , but eventually the movement divided and moved in the two different directions of realists, led by Hunt and Millais, and medievalists, led by Rosetti, Burne-Jones and Morris. However, the split was never absolute as both factions believed art to be spiritual and opposing to the materialism associated with Courbet and Impressionism.

The PRB was influenced by nature and the work of its members reflected the natural world with techniques of bright and sharp focus on white canvas. Reviving the brilliance of colour found in Quattrocento art, Hunt and Millais developed techniques of painting in thin glazes of pigment over a wet white background so that the colours would retain jewel-like clarity and transparency. This emphasis on brilliance of colour was a reaction to the use of bitumen by earlier British artists, including Reynolds, Wilkie and Haydon. Bitumen gives unstable areas of muddied darkness, an effect the PRB despised.

A Man of the Soil by James Collinson (1856, oil on canvas). Currently located at Manchester Art Gallery, UK

In 1848 Rossetti and Hunt made a list of their artistic heroes from literature, including Keats and Tennyson. Some of these heroes, known as ‘Immortals’ would form subjects for the Brotherhood paintings.

In 1849 the first Pre-Raphaelite works were exhibited. Millais’ Isabella and Hunt’s Rienzi were shown at the Royal Academy whilst Rossetti’s Girlhood of Mary Virgin was shown at the Fee Exhibition on Hyde Park Corner. All works were signed with the artist’s name and the initials PRB. Between January and April 1950 the group published the literary magazine The Germ, edited by William Rossetti, consisting of poetry by the Rossettis, Woolner and Collinson and essays on literature and art by associates of the brotherhood. As the short run-time implies, the magazine did not achieve sustained popularity.

William Wordsworth’s Model by Thomas Woolner (1852, marble). Currently located at Dove Cottage and Wordsworth Museum, UK.

The Brotherhood were subjected to public controversy in 1850 after Millais exhibited his painting, Christ in the House of his Parents, which was considered blasphemous by reviewers, especially Charles Dickens, whose sister-in-law had been the model for Mary in the painting. Collinson left the Brotherhood because of the controversy and the group disbanded shortly after although its influences continued. Artists who worked in the PRB style continued but no longer initialled their work PRB.

The original PRB had virtually dispersed by 1853 with only Hunt remaining true to the original doctrines. However, the term Pre-Raphaelite stuck to artists such as Rossetti, Morris and Burne-Jones taking the association of Pre-Raphaelite into a wider and long-lived movement.

Artists influenced by the PRB include Brett, Calderon, De Morgan, Moreau, Sandys, Hughes and Waterhouse. Madox Brown, who had been associated with the PRB from its beginnings closely adopted the Pre-Raphaelite principles.

Pygmalion and the Image: The Heart Desires by Edward Burne-Jones (1878, oil on canvas). Currently located at Birmingham Museums Trust, UK.

From 1856 Rossetti became the inspiration for the medievalising strand of the movement, the link between the natural and Romantic types of painting employed by the Pre-Raphaelites after the PRB was dissolved. Rossetti, the least dedicated to the PRB, continued the name and changed its style. He painted versions of the femme fatale using models such as Jane Morris in his painting of Proserpine. The ideals of the PRB influenced many interior designers and architects, arousing interest in medieval designs and crafts lead by the Arts and Crafts movement headed by William Morris.

The Enchanted Garden by John William Waterhouse (1916-17, oil on canvas). Currently located at Lady Lever Art Gallery, UK.

From 1850 Hunt and Millais moved away from direct imitation of medieval art, preferring to stress the realist and scientific aspects of the movement. Hunt continued to emphasize the spiritual significance of art reconciling religion and science in accurate observation.

©JG Farmer 2019

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