Who were the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, why did they form, and what did they achieve?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ as “a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood founded in 1848 to revive the fidelity to nature and the vivid realistic colour considered to be typical in Italian painting before Raphael” this only barely begins to describe what the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood were doing and why. In this essay I am going to look at the Pre-Raphaelites, who they were, what they did, and why. I will look at the work that they did, including their influences, the symbolism within the paintings, and artists that consequently followed the same principles. The Observers Book of Painting and Graphic Art describes the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as “An attempt to bring greater sincerity into art, based partly on truth to nature, and partly on the ideals represented by the Italian art before the renaissance.” I will also explore this idea within my essay, along with the question of why they wanted to make such an attempt.          


The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood were a group of men, who, according to William Holman Hunt, one of the founding members of the brotherhood, wanted “to do battle against the frivolous art of the day”. Originally, the brotherhood was a secret society and was founded by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais; they met while studying at the Royal Academy of Art in London, and then formed the brotherhood in 1848. However, later two more painters, James Collinson, who was engaged to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sister, and F G Stevens were admitted, along with a sculptor named Thomas Woolson. Rossetti, Millais, and Hunt all believed that the main aim of their brotherhood would reform what they believed to be the falling state of English painting at the time. They believed that rather than following the renaissance style of their time, painting should reform to the religious, naturalistic approach that was visible in the works of artists in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, i.e. pre-Raphael, hence their name. Raphael himself, the Italian high renaissance painter, also known as Raffaello Sanzio, Raffael Santi, and Rafael Sanzio de Urbino, was born in 1483 and dies in 1520. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood formed three-hundred-and-twenty-eight years after Raphael’s death.


William Holman Hunt was born in London on 2nd April in 1827, making him twenty-one when he formed the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. His father worked as a warehouse manager and was said to run an evangelical home, in which Hunt would spend considerable lengths of time reading the bible. This is possibly why William Holman Hunt was such a devout Christian throughout his own life, and was possibly his inspiration for paintings such as ‘The Light of the World’. He left school when he was only twelve to work as a clerk, but did not enjoy this and wanted to become an artist. He joined the Royal Academy of Art in 1844; this is where he realised that there was nothing about contemporary British art that he admired. In the last years of his life Hunt became the Patriarch of Victorian painting and remained dedicated to the Pre-Raphaelite concepts and beliefs, the first of Hunt’s painting to incorporate the Pre-Raphaelite ideas was ‘Rienzi’ which was exhibited in the Royal Academy in 1849, only a year after the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Hunt was also awarded the Order of Merit by King Edward VII in 1905. Among Hunt’s paintings are ‘London Bridge at Night’, ‘The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple’ and ‘The Lantern-Maker’s Courtship’ and ‘The Awakening Conscience’. The latter of which shows a young woman rising from the lap of her lover towards a window, which can be seen in the mirror behind her. Elements of the picture such as the cat about to pounce on the bird, the glove and the sheet music on the floor, all allude to the woman’s plight. Symbolism was extensively in the works of the Pre- Raphaelites, such as in ‘The Girlhood of the Virgin Mary’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The works of the Pre-Raphaelites are also linked by their principles, the style in which they are painted, their attention to intricate detail, the inclination to use paint as a medium, and also their subjects. Religion was the most popular subject for the Pre-Raphaelites; Hunt painted a number of religiously themed pictures, as mentioned previously, including ‘May Morning on Magdalene Tower’ which obviously has some reference to Mary Magdalene. He also painted ‘The Light of the World’ which suggests that the picture is about Jesus, which we know from reading the bible, “I am the light of the world” John 8:12. Hunt married a woman called Fanny Waugh, but after she died during childbirth he married her sister Edith. Hunt died in London in 1910.


Dante Gabriel Rossetti was born in England on 12th May in 1828, only twenty years before he formed the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood in 1848. His father was the celebrated scholar and Italian political exile Dante Gabriele Rossetti. His siblings were all as brilliant as himself; his sister Christina became as distinguished a poet as her brother. His brother, William Michael, a writer himself, edited his brother's work after his death and served as the first archivist and historian of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. His other sister was the oldest child, Maria Francesca; she published a commentary on Dante and became an Anglican nun. Rossetti considered himself both an artist and a poet. He spent two years studying at the Royal Academy of Art. Rossetti did not have the same natural ability that can be seen in the minute detail of a typical Pre-Raphaelite painting. Many of his paintings were only produced as a result of great technical effort. Among Rossetti’s paintings are ‘Dante’s Dream’, ‘Arthur’s Tomb’, ‘Ecce Ancilla Domini’, ‘Ghirlandata’ and ‘The Beloved’. Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted a number of religious paintings, one of which he painted in 1848, the first year of the brotherhood, and under the supervision of William Holman Hunt, with whom he was currently living, it was entitled ‘The Girlhood of the Virgin Mary’. This painting contains a large amount of symbolism; this may however, have eluded many people of the time. Examples of this symbolism are the dove in the window that represents the Holy Spirit, the lamp that stands for piety, the vine outside that was intended to be reminiscent of the sacrament of the Eucharist, and finally the lily is supposed to symbolize purity, this is emphasised by the fact that a young angel is clutching it. Rossetti realised that this symbolism may be unnoticed and so explained them in the frame in the form of a sonnet “These are the Symbols. On that cloth of red I’ the centre is the tripoint, - perfect each except the second of its points, to teach that Christ is not yet born. The book, (whose head is golden clarity as Paul hath said) those virtues are wherin the soul is rich; therefore on them the lily standeth, which is innocence, being interpreted. The seven thorned briar, and the palm seven leaved are her great sorrows and her great reward. Until the time be full.” Rossetti did the majority of his work in Great Britain, and specifically London, and though lots of his work appears to have Italian influences, he never visited the country himself. In almost all his paintings he used Elizabeth Siddal as his model. She was later adopted by the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood as the epitome of feminine beauty, but she became exclusively Rossetti’s model in 1852. In 1962, he married her, but another two years after this, she killed herself with an overdose of laudanum, also known as ‘Tincture of Opium’. Rossetti placed a manuscript of his poetry in her coffin, which he later regretted. He eventually left painting and focused on his poetry. In a letter to Ford Madox Brown he wrote, “I wish one could live by writing poetry. I think I’d see painting dead if I could”. In 1866 and 1867 he wrote two sonnets, ‘Soul's Beauty’ and ‘Body's Beauty’, which appeared in print in 1868, along with another sonnet for a picture, ‘Venus Verticordia’. Since much of this poetry had been buried with Elizabeth, and since Dante Gabriel Rossetti kept no copies, the grisly scheme to exhume the volume was set in motion. In the end some friends recovered the book for Rossetti. In 1869 he began recopying and revising these older works and adding new poems to them, he eventually published his volume of poems in 1870. Also in 1870 Rossetti met his new love Jane Morris, between 1871 and 1874 the relationship between Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Jane Morris achieved an extreme intensity and he wrote a great deal of poetry during this time, the majority of which focused on Jane Morris, and his love for her. She left him in 1874 to move with her family. He published another large amount of poetry during 1881. Dante Gabriel Rossetti died on Easter day on 9th April 1882.


John Everett Millais was born in Southampton on 13th August in1829, making him the youngest of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, and only nineteen when they formed. John Everett Millais' father came from an aristocratic family in Jersey and his mother from the home of a well-to-do saddler. In his youth Millais lived for short periods in Southampton, Jersey and Dinan in Brittany before finally settling in London in 1838. He was often considered to be a child prodigy in art. In 1838 he enrolled at Henry Sass' private art school, and in 1840 became the youngest ever student of the Royal Academy Schools entering when he was only eleven. He was exhibiting from the Royal Academy of Art at only seventeen. Joining the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood helped Millais to move from a mannerist style to a more realist one. He was coached by John Ruskin, who subsequently took him to Scotland to paint in 1853. Following this Millais married Ruskin’s wife, Euphemia ('Effie') Ruskin, after their marriage had been annulled. She then modelled for a number of his paintings. The Pre-Raphaelites often took their subjects from literature; Shakespeare was often a popular influence. One painting, by John Everett Millais, entitled ‘Mariana’, features this character from Shakespeare’s problem play or black comedy, ‘Measure for Measure’. In this play Mariana is betrayed by Angelo, the man she is promised to, as when her dowry is lost, he makes up another reason not to marry her, leaving her unchaste. Dante Gabriel Rossetti also painted a picture entitled ‘Mariana’ with the same influence. The poem ‘Mariana’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson could also have been influential, since it also refers to the Shakespeare play, and specifically “Mariana in the moated grange” Measure for Measure. Poetry was also used regularly as a source of subject for the Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shallot’ was the subject of William Holman Hunt’s painting of the same name. ‘Ophelia’ brought increased public acclaim in 1852 and Millais was elected Associate of the Royal Academy in 1853. In 1855 Millais decided to suppress his narrative style of painting in favour of mood and aesthetic beauty, producing ‘Autumn Leaves’. In the 1960’s Millais began painting sentimental, pretty images of children that were popular at the time, these included paintings such as ‘ My First Sermon’, ‘Bubbles’, and ‘Cherry Ripe’. In doing this Millais was turning his back on the original ideals and aims of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Millais’ paintings include ‘Apple Blossoms’, ‘Autumn Leaves’, ‘Isabella’, ‘Hearts are Trumps’ and ‘Cymon and Iphegenia’. Millais became the president of the Royal Academy of Art in1896, but died the same year.


After the formation of the Pre-Raphaelites, many other artists adopted their principles and ideas, such as their meticulous attention to detail, especially when it came to painting patterns, and similar designs, but also in the subjects that they chose to depict. For example, John William Waterhouse also painted ‘The Lady of Shallot’. However, where Hunt chose to depict the lady of Shallot when she was in her tower, Waterhouse chose to show her floating down to Camelot in a boat “And as the boat head wound along, the willowy hills and fields among, the heard her singing her last song, the lady of Shallot”. Using characters from Shakespeare plays as subjects was another idea adopted by other artists following the ideas of the original Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood.  Sir Frank Dicksee painted a picture depicting two of Shakespeare’s most famous characters Romeo and Juliet on the balcony. Referring to the part of the play in which we can read “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east and Juliet is the sun! Arise fair sun, and kill the envious moon, who is already sick and pale with grief that thou her maid, art far more fair than she.” John Everett Millais painted Ophelia from Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, as did John William Waterhouse. In the play she is the daughter of Polonius who is chief advisor to the new King Claudius and she has been courting Hamlet, the prince of Denmark. In the play Ophelia’s character goes mad, firstly because her father has told her she cannot be with the man she loves, but also because the man she loves, namely Hamlet, kills her father, eventually Ophelia kills herself.


The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed in 1848 in rebellion against the falling state of the art being produced at the time. Their painstaking attention to detail, their choice of subjects, often narrative, depicting historical or literary subjects, characters from classic mythology, or with religious basis, the symbolism that they used in their paintings, and their determination to revert back to the type of art being produced before Raphael is what makes their style so distinctive, and their ideals so apparent. However their strong wills did not seem to last since John Everett Millais chose to move away from the Pre-Raphaelite style in his later years, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti abandoned his painting almost completely to focus on his poetry. William Holman Hunt, the oldest of the three founding members, was the only one of the brotherhood to continue with their ideals. However many other artists followed their principles, and the influence they had on art at the time could be seen as their greatest achievement.



·        The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites- Stephen Adams

·        www.preraphaelites.com

·        The Observers Book of Painting and Graphic Art

·        The Bible

·        www.tate.org

·        Measure for Measure- Shakespeare

·        Romeo and Juliet- Shakespeare

·        Mariana- Alfred Lord Tennyson

·        The Lady of Shallot- Alfred Lord Tennyson

·        www.abcgallery.com

·        www.speel.demon.co.uk/artists

·        www.bbc.co.uk

·        The Oxford English Dictionary

·        www.bookrags.com




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