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Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

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The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of English painters, poets and critics, founded in 1848.

The group's intention was to reform art by rejecting what they considered to be the mechanistic approach adopted by the Mannerist artists who followed the concept of painting prevalent before the High Renaissance and artists like Raphael and Michelangelo: hence the name 'Pre-Raphaelite'. However, their immediate complaint concerned the continuing influence of the founder of the Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds, whom they called 'Sir Sloshua' because of his formulaic and clichéd approach to painting. (Hawksley 1999)

The Pre-Raphaelites have been considered the first avant-garde movement in art, though they have also been denied that status, because they continued to accept the doctrine of 'mimesis', or imitation of nature, as central to the purpose of art. However, the Pre-Raphaelites undoubtedly defined themselves as a reform movement, created a distinct name for their form of art, and published a periodical, The Germ , to promote their ideas. Their debates were recorded in the "Pre-Raphaelite Journal".

"Medea" by Evelyn de Morgan, 1889, in quattrocento style
"Medea" by Evelyn de Morgan, 1889, in quattrocento style


The central doctrine of the movement was that artists should seek to represent the natural world without preconceptions about what is artistically proper according to traditions and techniques inherited from old masters. Nevertheless, their early work was influenced by late Medieval art. However, Hunt and Millais soon moved towards greater emphasis on the detailed observation of nature. Rossetti's work continued to be influenced by Medieval art.


The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in John Millais' parents house on Gower Street, London in 1848 by a group of art students from the British Royal Academy. (Hawksley 1999) At the initial meeting John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt were present. By Autumn four more members had also joined to form a seven-strong Brotherhood. These were William Michael Rossetti (Dante Gabriel Rossetti's brother), Thomas Woolner, James Collinson and Frederic George Stephens. (Hawksley 1999)

The central idea of the Pre-Raphaelites was that English art had peaked in the Middle Ages. They wanted a return to detail and they wanted more intense colors. As the name of the Brotherhood states they wanted to revive art as it had existed before Raphael.

Historically pigments had not been stable, so when a master painter in 1500 wanted to do a painting he had to apply paints in separate layers and varnish in between. If he chose not to do this then the painting would look fine, but years later colors from back ground layers would start to show through. For example if he painted a landscape and then painted figures on that landscape then the landscape would start to show through over time and the figures would appear "transparent". As pigment technology improved artists stopped having to varnish between layers. (Oil paints will still become "transparent" over time but not like they used to.) One effect of this was that the color schemes became more sombre and the feel of the paintings had changed.

In their attempt to return to a Medieval style the Pre-Rapaelites developed a style of painting whereby they applied thin layers of brilliant colors over a white ground. This led to more vibrant colours and paintings which stood out. The drawback was that mistakes or alterations had to be scraped out with a knife to get back to the white ground. (Hawksley 1999) A mistake would never be painted over.

The first exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite work came in 1849. Both Millais' Isabella (1848-1849) and Holman Hunt's Rienzi (1848-1849) were exhibited at the Royal Academy and Rossetti's Girlhood of Mary Virgin was shown at the Free Exhibition on Hyde Park Corner. As agreed all members of the Brotherhood signed works with their name and "PRB" (Hawksley 1999) Millais was an art prodigy. Since the age of 7 he had been supporting his parents by painting. (Daly 1989) So others at the Academy looked to him for technique. His being with the Brotherhood helped to poularize it with younger artists in London.

Between January and April 1850 the group published a literary magazine called The Germ. William Rossetti edited the magazine, which published mostly poetry by the Rossettis. It also included whatever Dante Rossetti could get friends to contribute including poetry by Coventry Patmore and short writings by other artists. As the short run time implies this was not a literary magazine that got going or big. (Daly 1989)

After early controversy, the Brotherhood was supported by the critic John Ruskin. After the early 1850's the group disbanded and was felt more as an influence. Artists who had worked in the style still followed these techniques (initially anyway) but they no longer signed works "PRB".

Artists who closely relate to the Pre-Raphaelite movement include John Brett , Charles Alston Collins , Arthur Hughes and especially Ford Madox Brown, whose works are often seen as most closely adopting the Pre-Raphaelite principles.

After 1856 Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Frederick Sandys were most associated with Pre-Rapaelitism.

The movement influenced the work of many later British artists well into the twentieth century. Rossetti later came to be seen as a precursor of the wider European Symbolist movement. His work influenced his friend William Morris, in whose firm he became a partner and whose wife he regularily banged. (Daly 1989) Millais' work ceased to be recognisably Pre-Raphaelite after 1860 when he realized that he could sell a Millais for a set price regardles of how much time he invested in the work and started mass producing.

As mentioned before the ideals Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood influenced interior designers and architects, arousing interest in medieval designs, as well as other crafts. Most of this influence was through the Arts and Crafts movement headed by William Morris.

In the twentieth century artistic ideals changed and art moved away from representing reality. Since the Pre-Rapaelites were fixed on portraying things in a very realistic style their work was devalued by critics. Recently there has been a resurgence in interest in the movement as the aesthetic has shifted back to being realistic.

List of Artists

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

John Everett Millais (painter)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (painter, poet)

William Holman Hunt (painter)

William Michael Rossetti

Thomas Woolner

James Collinson

Frederic George Stephens

Associated Artists and Figures

Ford Madox Brown (painter)

Edward Burne-Jones (painter)

William Holman Hunt (painter)

John Everett Millais (painter)

Jane Morris (artist's model)

William Morris (architect)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (painter, poet)

Elizabeth Siddal (artist's model)


There are major collection of Pre-Raphaelite work in the Tate Gallery, Manchester City Art Gallery and Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, the largest.

See also:


  • Daly, Gay (1989). Pre-Raphaelites in love, Ticknor & Fields, New York.
  • Hawksley, Lucinda. (1999) Essential Pre-Raphaelites Paragon, United Kingdom. ISBN 1-84084-524-4

External links

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45