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.  The movement was complicated, combining vestiges of the content of Neo-Classicism and Romanticism with virtuoso demonstrations of technical prowess. 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.  They issued a literary Manifesto, opposed Academic art (based upon the classicism of Raphael), painted en plein air, and organized their own exhibitions—three decades before the Impressionists.

There were two main groups of visual artists.  One 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, 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 PRB were at first not known as individuals.  In their debut exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1848, the artists were designated collectively, through their “PRB” signature on their paintings.  The were at first savaged and attacked by the press, so badly that Gabriel Rossetti did not show publically 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 anomnymity. But the Pre-Raphaelites differed from their French counterparts in significant ways.

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By opposing Raphael, the artists opposed the Royal Academy and the traditional classicism that was a hundred years old, out of date in content, and, to the minds of the young men, thoroughly degenerate.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 moral 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.  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.

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.  The young, all-male community of the PRB believed that art should deal with serious issues and made their debut in 1849 under a cloak of anonymity, hiding their individual identities under the signature “PRB.” Paintings, such as Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents and Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini! which demonstrated the naïve traits of early Renaissance art, shrill colors, intense details broken into fragments and ignored pictorial order.  “Disease,” “deformity,” “dissection,” “ugliness” were some of the charges against the art of the PRB.  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 Ruskin who celebrated the “actual facts” and the “truth to nature” that took painting back to fundamentals.  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 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.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

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

[email protected]

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

Get in Touch!

1 + 6 =