Art history has exorcised Pre-Raphaelites from the canon of “correct” Modern art, but the PRB was the first group to self-consciously declare themselves avant-garde artists. The small group set themselves apart from the major art exhibition agency, the Royal Academy, by flouting their standards and rules. Instead to adhering to the required neo-Classicism of the Grand Manner, inherited from Sir Joshua Reynolds, the artists reached back in time to find more “authentic” sources for inspiration. They issued a literary Manifesto, published their own magazine, The Germ, painted en plein air, and organized their own exhibitions—three decades before the Impressionists and sixty years before the Expressionists.The Pre-Raphaelite (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) artists established a style and content in 1848 that was so successful and beloved that the “realism” of this group lasted as a British tradition well into the Twentieth Century. Combining art and poetry, the movement was complicated, combining vestiges of the content of English literature and lingering Romanticism with virtuoso demonstrations of technical prowess. Paradoxically, they were inspired by the rapidly changing social situation in England–living in the present–and the art of the early Renaissance–revisiting the past. The program of the group, as articulated by William Michael Rossetti was simple and straightforward. The goal of the Brotherhood was to “to have genuine ideas to express, to study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them, to sympathize 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, and most indispensable of all, to produce throughly good pictures and statues.”

The sobriquet PRB mocked the famous suffix RA, used by members of the Royal Academy to draw attention to their selection to that august body. There were two main groups of visual artists, associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, but only one group actually used the title. One, the original PRB, was organized around the young precocious painter, John Millais in 1848 and included other painters, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Holman Hunt. This group included lesser known painters and writers, William Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Thomas Woolner, and Frederick George Stephens. The second group formed around Rossetti and included, the painter, Edward Burne-Jones and the interior designer, William Morris, the leaders of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and the artist, Ford Maddox Brown. The two groups developed almost twenty years apart but, in the public mind, were connected through subject matter and the devotion to medieval ideals of craft and morality. The artists who called themselves the “PRB” were at first not known as individuals. In their debut exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1849, the artists were designated collectively, through their “PRB” signature on their paintings. At first no one noticed their work but by the second year, the three artists, Rossetti, Hunt, and Millais, were recognized as a distinct group and therefore a distinct danger. They were at first savaged and attacked by the press, so badly that Gabriel Rossetti did not show publicly again for a decade. However, their moral stance towards art as craft and elevated labor and the moral and religious content of their subject matter found a defender in England’s most powerful art critic, John Ruskin, who also felt that art should have a moral purpose. As the artists found support, they emerged from anonymity.

The Pre-Raphaelites took their name from the paintings from the pre-Raphaelite artists of the Early Renaissance: those painters who preceded Raphael. By opposing Raphael, the artists opposed the Royal Academy and the traditional classicism that was a hundred years old, out of date in content, and, to the minds of the young men, thoroughly degenerate. The PRB was a reforming group with the goal of returning painting to the medieval values of careful craft. There was a moral stance in their adherence to craft.  In the meticulous attention to the infinite detail of nature, the artists were recording the presence of God in nature. This tradition of intense description can be traced back, not only to the Italian Renaissance but also to the medieval paintings of Northern Europe. In England, one could point to the meticulous art of Hans Holbein, an English mannerist who handled Tutor detail with a sharp eye. To borrow Panofsky’s description of the artists of the Northern Renaissance, the realism of the Pre-Raphaelites was based upon a vision that was both “microscopic” and “macroscopic.” In other words, the artist saw as through a microscope and a telescope, perfect vision, both near and far: the world revealed in all its manifest detail. This is an important comparison because it points to the interest of Millais and Rossetti and Hunt in the time before Raphael when artists were moving away from Medieval conventions and striking out into unknown territory: reality. They appreciated the artists’ struggle in finding and developing a new language that would be suitable to the new modern world. The century before Raphael was a period without conventions and formulas. In contrast, by the time of Raphael, the Renaissance had found its schema and artists began to follow the rules. Believing the these same rules were still being followed at the Academy which was still teaching old conventions, the artists valued the earnest realism to the artists who painted everything in microscopic/telescopic detail–near and far.

Sir John Everett Millais. Christ in the House of His Parents (‘The Carpenter’s Shop’) (1849–50)

This double vision is clear in the work of John Millais. His painting, Christ in the House of his Parents, caused a scandal when it was shown without a title in 1850. The painting is a narrative, typical of the English artists of this time; it is a story of childhood, the early years of the Christ child working in the shop of his father, Joseph. He has injured himself and is seeking comfort from his mother, Mary. People who cared about such things were irritated by the placement of Christ in a lower class working family. “Ugly, graceless, and unpleasant,” Blackwood Magazine complained. According to Time Present and Time Past: The Art of John Everett Millais by Paul Barlow, Charles Dickens, a champion of the lower classes said that the painting was “the lowest depths of what is mean, odious, repulsive and revolting.” He was dismayed by the “hideous” “ugliness” if Mary. The facts of the life of Jesus suggest that he would have certainly worked for his father who was a carpenter, but the story that Millais told was Medieval in its symbolic complexity. The entire cast of characters in the life of the child are present, his mother, his grandmother, his father, and even John the Baptist, who bears water to tend the wounded palm of the young Christ. Heavy with portents of the crucifixion, the painting includes a flock of sheep outside the workshop, signifying the people what follow Jesus. In terms of realism, the duality of close and far is present. The wood shavings off the plane lie curled on the floor, each twist meticulously lined with wood-grains. In the background, the curling wool of the sheep is limned with the same intensity of vision: each hair can be discerned. The hard work of a family who labored for a living was revealed in the messiness of the setting and the bodies of the participants which betrayed the toll of a craft that required extreme physical strength. It is as if Millais is making a social point–if Jesus was alive today, this is how he and his family would live and work, struggling to survive from day to day, never sure of where the next meal would come from. Clearly, the sheep do not belong to the Holy Family but to a wealthy overlord who is absent but suggests a contrast between class comfort and social precariousness.

Compared to their secular French counterparts, the PRB—Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood—had a distinctly religious cast with Christianity of the New Testament providing inspiration as a source of spiritual value. They modeled themselves on the early nineteenth century group, the Nazarenes, who also sought a more authentic art through a more “primitive” approach to art making. Paintings, Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1850), demonstrated the naïve traits of early Renaissance art, shrill colors, intense details broken into fragments and ignored pictorial order. But Rossetti’s painting, like that of Millais, told an uncomfortable truth. The very young Virgin Mary is being informed by the wingless Angel Gabriel that she has been made pregnant by an absent God. In contrast to earlier works of the Renaissance that show Mary as considerably older and more prepared for such an “annunciation,” this adolescent Mary shrinks from her unwanted fate. Rossetti was asking a question–if Mary was confronted with an angel telling her that she was pregnant through no fault of her own, announcing that her life would be changed forever, what would be her honest human reaction? This young Mary in her spare room, devoid of comforts, shrinks from the prospect of an unwanted pregnancy and all the problems that would cause her and her family. This is no joyous event, and, in a curious way, this painting by Rossetti is a prelude to that of Millais: Mary was double burdened, not just by a child but by a foreknowledge that this child was domed to a horrible death. Millais’s Mary is a mother in agony, reading the portents that caused her pain, a suffering that the artist demonstrated with her thin frame. “Disease,” “deformity,” “dissection,” “ugliness” were some of the charges against the art of the PRB.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1850)

Queen Victoria sent for Millais’s offending painting and poor Rossetti never exhibited in public again. But from 1852 on the Brotherhood found valuable support from art critics John Ruskin who celebrated the “actual facts” and the “truth to nature” that took painting back to fundamentals. In his book on Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the artist William Holman Hunt wrote of the critical attacks on the PRB and wrote of “the humiliation, which we now suffered” and how it impacted his family. He stated that “my name was treated as a proverb of ignorance and wrong-headedness little short of criminality.” He noted that “Rossetti had ceased to exhibit’ and that “Millais could more boldly defy our enemies” until “In the midst of this helplessness came thunder as out of a clear sky–a letter from Ruskin in The Times in our defense. The critic in that paper had denounced our works as false to all good principles of taste, and also as wrong in linear and aerial perspective..” Hunt quoted Ruskin’s rescue letter: “..there has been nothing in art so earnest or so complete as these pictures since the days of Albert Dürer..And so I wish them all, heartily, good speed, believing, in sincerity, that if they temper the courage and energy which they have shown in the adoption of their system with patience and discretion in framing it, and if they do not suffer themselves to be driven by harsh or careless criticism into the rejection of the ordinary means of obtaining influence over the minds of others, they may, as they gain experience, lay in our England the foundations of a school of Art nobler that the world has seen for three hundred years.” The PRB produced a revolution in taste and caused a new appreciation for Early Renaissance art. The first group of the Pre-Raphaelites followed their predecessors of the Fifteenth century by painting on white ground, using bright and pure colors, and painted directly from the careful study of nature. The brightness of the hues, after centuries of subdued tones and deliberately darkened colors, came as a shock to the audiences of London who were blinded by this new light. The historically accurate detail was rendered at a level of the daguerreotype and the content of the painting was literary and contemporary, Biblical and mythological, and always with moral content and didactic lesson. It is often said that the English were a literary race, and that the French were more attuned to the visual arts.  Although this comparison is simplistic, the English allowed and welcomed literary content while the French gradually removed narrative from the visual arts. While it is true that the PRB artists enjoyed painting literary subjects, from the Bible to Shakespeare to tales of King Arthur, all from English literature, the Pre-Raphaelites were very popular in France and, because of their contemporary subject matter, were often an inspiration for the Naturalists.

As the leader in the Industrial Revolution, England was a society split between the future and the past, cherishing its own native heritage which, at the same time, destroying the past. Pre-Raphaelite art was similarly Janus-faced, looking to the past while examining the present. The Pre-Raphaelites told stories from the Bible and evoked a pre-modern Britain of King Arthur and fairies as an antidote to modern times. But, by the 1850s, the Pre-Raphaelites shifted their gaze to modern London and the modern problems of industrialization and modernization. The third founding member, William Holman Hunt, who was deeply religious, painted what might be called a “modern problem” work: a kept woman coming to realize what she had done to her life. In an review of The Awakening Conscience in 1854, the Morning Chronicle called it “an absolutely disagreeable picture, and it fails to express its own meaning, either in general composition or thought any agency of its details. The complicated compound shadow in the mirror is also a mere piece of intricacy without any good or valuable effect.” But John Ruskin defended it in May of 1854, stating the obvious: “I am at a loss to know how its meaning could be rendered more distinctly, but assuredly it is not understood. People gaze at it in a blank wonder, and leave it hopelessly.” One can conjecture that the London audience was naïve of the topic of sexual trafficking that was an underbelly of Victorian life, but it should be noted that The Awakening Conscience preceded Édouard Manet’s Olympia by a decade. The setting is not a brothel but a place far more discrete, one of the maisons damnées furnished by young men for their mistresses. According to Kate Flint’s “Reading The Awakening Conscience Rightly,” “Hunt hired for the purpose a typical mason de convenance, Woodbine Villa in St. John’s Wood.”  Author, J. B. Bullen wrote in The Pre-Raphaelite Body: Fear and Desire in Painting, Poetry, and Criticism, “Though the woman here does not represent professional prostitution, Hunt realized that his was a contribution to the multiplicity of discourses which had built up around the female sexuality in the period. The female body had become the site of a ‘moral panic,’ it was a point of intersection between purity and pollution which served to define, on the one hand, the integrity and inviolability of the bourgeois home presided over by its angelic female, and on the other hand the wilderness of sexual chaos by which that home was seen as embattled. In this way, the fallen woman had a double and powerful hold on the mid-Victorian imagination simultaneously repellent and exciting, engendering both pity and loathing.” She continued, “Commercial sexuality was a prominent feature of urban life, and made itself felt from the conspicuous display of the lowest class of prostitute which crowded the London streets to the highest rank of kept women who rode daily in Hyde Park. Misery and destitution, as well as luxury and wealth, were the material facts of prostitution, but the representation of women in contemporary discourse is another matter. The language, the vocabulary, the imagery, the rhetoric of metaphor and metonymn, the visual images involving suicide and despair or opulence and riches all combined to mythologize and unusually to demonize the fallen woman.”

William Holman Hunt. The Awakening Conscience (1854)

The Pre-Raphaelites were socially aware but not politically active, but, in their youth, they were rebels with a cause, announcing their presence in 1848. By returning the artists of the Early Renaissance, the Pre-Raphaelites found a primitive and pious sincerity in content and a sharp edged observation in technique that gave sacred stories an intense gloss of convincing detail.  Unlike many of the avant-garde groups in Europe, the Pre-Raphaelites were not as overtly political or critical of the state.  There is no question that witnessing, albeit at a distance, the Revolution of 1848, impacted the interest of the Pre-Raphaelite artists in the nation’s poor. England had lived through one revolution in the seventeenth century and had no desire to live through another.  The English desired equilibrium over all things, particularly after witnessing the horror of the French Terror, and staved off a rebellion of the lower classed with small measures of Reform. Chartism, a reform movement, rather than a revolutionary movement, finally succeeded in securing universal male suffrage in 1867. Until then, according to French writer, Alexis de Tocqueville, there was a real “affection” by the lower classes for the upper classes. Other English artists, such as the American, James Abbot McNeill Whistler and the French artist, James Tissot, painted the wealthy and privileged middle class in Great Britain, the PRB pioneered in the “problem picture,” or paintings that dwelt on the problems of modern life in the city, especially those faced by the lower classes.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.  Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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