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Rejecting the Norm: The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood


In the year 1848, three young British artists, William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and John Everett Millais, united to create the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, n.d.). This group would grow in numbers and influence over the next year, changing British art in the 19th century. The Pre-Raphaelite’s views on art were based on reforming British art by reviving the style and techniques used in painting before the time of Raphael, as the name they picked suggests (Barringer, 1998). Influenced by Romanticism, this rebel group of artists outwardly rejected the idealized conventions of academic art and looked towards the Middle Ages for inspiration in themes, style, and technique. Although outsiders at first, the Brotherhood rose to be considered as one of the most important movements in Victorian England and revolutionized the artistic scene (Barringer, 1998).

The Brotherhood was the official center of Pre-Raphaelitism, beginning in 1848 and disbanding in 1854 (Lang, 2014). During this period, the group of artists would exhibit paintings under the moniker "Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood." The models who frequently sat for the artists in the Brotherhood were also an important part of the history of this movement, and their personal lives and entanglements greatly influenced the artistic style and themes of Pre-Raphaelitism, with some being artists in their own right. With this influence over the artistic scene, the Pre-Raphaelites shaped British art in the late 19th century, creating a uniquely British style of painting focused on nature and realism that separated the Pre-Raphaelites from the academic style of painting that had become the standard in Europe before the mid-19th century. Other artists, poets, and, later, photographers were influenced by the style cultivated by the members of the Brotherhood for many years after this movement. This later group of artists never became an official part of the Brotherhood but formed a circle of artists with tight associations to Pre-Raphaelitism and carried the movement into the 20th century.

Figure 1: The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood created their own style separate from academicism (Millais, 1853).
The Beginnings of the Pre-Raphaelites

Before 1848, the dominating style in British art was academic painting, centered in the Royal Academy in London, where most renowned artists would study and exhibit their works (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, n.d.). Institutions were responsible for establishing the artistic canon of academic painting, and the acceptable style was deeply influenced by classical art and the constant push towards a more idealised form of beauty. The founding members of the Brotherhood, Hunt, Rossetti, and Millais, were all students of the Royal Academy and had been at the center of this artistic scene for years (Lang, 2014). As young artists, they expressed their rebellious attitude to the Academy’s authorities and constantly pushed to include their personal ideas and style in academic painting. The trio considered British painting of the moment to be devoid of independence and creativity and largely artificial and banal (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, n.d.). This feeling of inadequacy led the group to form the Brotherhood as an effort to revitalize and reform British art in the 19th century. As the name suggests, Pre-Raphaelitism considered that after the 15th century all art had been too influenced by Raphael and the other great Renaissance masters, making art formulaic and shallow (Lang, 2014). The Brotherhood wished to break free from these rules that kept academic painters confined to paint in a style that imitated Raphael and took inspiration from the art before the 15th century, as they considered it to be fresh, original, and sincere (Lang, 2014). While Hunt, Rossetti, and Millais shared common interests and ideas which led them to form the Brotherhood, they deeply valued individuality and personal creativity when it came to art, which caused them to develop unique and personal styles while still keeping within the Pre-Raphaelite ideas.

The first painting exhibited with the inscription P.R.B. was The Girlhood of Mary Virgin by Dante William Rossetti as part of the Free Exhibition in London in 1849 (Barringer, 1998). It was exhibited anonymously, only under the initials of the Brotherhood, but later revealed to be Rossetti's work. Known as the most passionate of the Pre-Raphaelites, Rossetti sent the art world a powerful message with this first piece in the Pre-Raphaelite style, breaking into the scene with a new style that looked unlike the other paintings in the room. The Girlhood of Mary Virgin revived an archaic style of painting demonstrated in medieval art, rejecting the idealized forms and faces of the Post Renaissance art of the time (Barringer, 1998). During the first year of the Brotherhood, the founding trio exhibited their paintings anonymously, using only the P.R.B inscription, and opened the way for Pre-Raphaelitism to be recognized in mainstream society (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, n.d.). Rossetti, Millais, and Hunt would later be joined by four other official members of the Brotherhood: James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens, William Michael Rossetti, and Thomas Woolner. While these new memebers shared ideas and contributed to the public presence of Pre-Raphaelitism in the British artistic scene, the founding trio remained the most prominent and important artists of the group (Sizeranne, 2014).

Figure 2: Rossetti's first painting in the Brotherhood shows many of the distinctive elements of Pre-Raphaelite style (Rossetti, 1849).
Key characteristics of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

As it has been mentioned, the Pre-Raphaelites drew a great deal of inspiration from medieval art. The Medieval Revival was at the center of Pre-Raphaelite art, drawing from romantic medievalism (Berringer, 1998). For the members of the Brotherhood, medieval art allowed for more artistic freedom and liberated the artist from the tight constrictions of classical art (Berringer, 1998). Painting techniques were used to emulate medieval frescoes, and the style relied more on flat figures and bright, luminous colors, mixing in the realism of 19th century art (Berringer, 1998). A particular technique used by the Brotherhood was the prepping of the canvas with a white background before putting down any pigment. This caused the colors to pop with a brilliancy incomparable to the more traditional paintings in the Royal Academy (Hawksley, 2001). The medieval revivalism of the Brotherhood has also been called reactionary, as it rejected the traditional rules of academic artists but also rejected the contemporary, increasingly industrialized society by choosing medieval subjects and themes that focused on beauty, spirituality, and symbolism (Berringer, 1998).

When it came to subjects for paintings, scenes set in the Middle Ages and episodes from medieval literature or history were very prominent. Dante Gabriel Rossetti favored subjects relating to medieval Italian poetry and old English ballads (Sizeranne, 2014). Rossetti’s love for Italian literature is evidenced by the many paintings he completed depicting his namesake, the poet Dante, and the object of his affections, Beatrice. John Everett Millais also drew inspiration from literature, particularly William Shakespeare’s work (Sizeranne, 2014). Although Shakespeare was not a medieval writer, much of his plays were set in the Middle Ages. Some of Millais most identifiably Pre-Raphaelite paintings were Mariana and Ophelia, both depicting female characters from Shakespearean plays. This focus on the Middle Ages was part of the Pre-Raphaelite’s interest for medieval art and the styles and techniques from before the Renaissance, but it was also a characteristic inherited from the Romantic movement, which valued the spirituality and individuality of medieval painting (Berringer, 1998).

Figure 3: Pre-Raphaelites would constantly paint medieval settings (Millais, 1851).

Medieval art was not Pre-Raphaelitism's only influence. Although focus was put on medieval themes, this revivalist perspective gave some Pre-Raphaelite artists the freedom to tackle contemporary British scenes, depicting the countryside with naturalism and a realist aesthetic. This was something that was quite unseen in academic painting (Berringer, 1998). Realism and romantic landscape paintings were influential genres for the Brotherhood, especially when it came to the realistic depiction of nature. William Holman Hunt took particular interest in representing the British landscape with great detail, wanting to observe and paint nature rather than rely on conventional forms to represent an ideal nature (Berringer, 1998). One such contemporary scene was The Hireling Shepherd, where Hunt captured a realistic pastoral scene with naturality, as well as transcribing the flora and fauna of the landscape into a detailed picture. While Millais and Rossetti focused on medieval settings, Hunt took up an interest for naturalistic representations of nature and borrowed the pastoral and countryside settings typically seen in Realism. While the themes may differ from artist to artist, the care for spirituality and beauty as represented through nature and breaking free from set rules about aesthetics was at the center of every Pre-Raphaelite painting (Dorment, 2003).

Impact and Legacy

The Pre-Raphaelites were not received with positivity when they entered the art scene in 1848. They were criticized because of their youth and because they refused to adhere to the academic standards for art (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, n.d.). The famous writer Charles Dickens, a prominent figure in Victorian society, even called one of Millais’s paintings “hideous,” and newspapers would constantly negatively critique the Brotherhood (Sizeranne, 2014). After these first stumbles, the Brotherhood garnered a bit of fame thanks to John Ruskin, one of the most important art critics of the time (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, n.d.). Ruskin took an interest in the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly in Millais, and publicly defended them multiple times (Sizeranne, 2014). Ruskin agreed with the Brotherhood's conception of naturalistic beauty and valued the same spirituality in art as them (Hawksley, 2001). Thanks to Ruskin’s support, the artists in the Brotherhood gained and maintained a favorable status in society and were constantly under hire until the Brotherhood disbanded in the 1850s (Berringer, 1998).

Figure 4: John Ruskin influenced the Brotherhood with his writing and promoted their work publicly (Millais, 1854).
Conclusion of the Brotherhood

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood eventually separated, as each artist went on to grow in different professional and artistic directions. John Everett Millais became closer to the Royal Academy until he was elected president in 1896 (Luebering, n.d.). On the other hand, William Holman Hunt continued his interest in portraying spirituality through painting and delved more into his faith. Hunt left England in 1854 for the first of many voyages to Jerusalem, where he pursued inspiration for his art and to connect with his Christian faith (Sizeranne, 2014). After the dissolution of the Brotherhood, Pre-Raphaelitism was kept alive mainly by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who became the center of another circle of artists and influenced them with his ideas (Berringer, 1998). This second wave of Pre-Raphaelites was more loosely associated with one another, and they did not form an official group to exhibit their work as the Brotherhood had done before.

Late Victorian painting was defined by the Pre-Raphaelites’ influence on the styles of numerous painters, poets, and eventually photographers in later years (Berringer, 1998). The aesthetics and ideas of Pre-Raphaelitism defined the work of this bigger circle of artists. Naturalism and medievalism were at the center of late Victorian painting. Pre-Raphaelitism is, at its core, a flexible and unspecific genre, as the artists who took on the label valued individuality, freedom, and personal creativity in art (Hawksley, 2001). Pre-Raphaelites looked for beauty in the naturalistic depiction of reality through techniques like realism and romanticism and through medieval subject matter. While Pre-Raphaelitism was only one of several artistic movements in the 19th century, it was a greatly influential style in British art history and contributed to the formation of a particularly British art canon that continues to persist in the art world today.

Bibliographical References

Barringer, T. (1998). The Pre-Raphaelites: reading the image. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

De la Sizeranne, R. (2014). The Pre-Raphaelites. Parkstone International.

Dorment, R. (2003). Realists and romantics, storytellers and symbolists : changing attitudes towards Victorian painting in the 20th century. In Pre-Raphaelite and other masters : the Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection (pp. 10–25). essay, London : Royal Academy of Arts.

Hawksley, L. (2001). Essential Pre-Raphaelites. Bath, U.K. : Parragon Pub.

Luebering, J.E. (Ed.) (n.d.). John Everett Millais. Retrieved from Encyclopedia Britannica:

Lang, C. Y. (2014). The Pre-Raphaelites and Their Circle. University of Chicago Press.

Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (n.d.). Retrieved from Encyclopedia Britannica:

Visual Sources


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Maya Sánchez Urrutia

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