Pre-Raphaelite Art

What is Pre-Raphaelitism?

Pre-Raphaelitism was a counter-cultural movement that aimed to reform Victorian art and writing.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood:

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in 1848 by Dante Gabriel Rosetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais. They were a group of Victorian painters, poets, illustrators, and designers who revolted against the 18th-century academicism which still prevailed in the official artistic quarters where the achievements of Blake, Turner, Constable and Samuel Palmer were ignored. Other founding members of the Brotherhood were James Collinson, William Michael Rossetti, Frederic George Stephens and the sculptor Thomas Woolner.


In defiant opposition to the utilitarian ethos that formed the dominant ideology of the mid-century, the Pre-Raphaelites helped to popularize the notion of “Art for art’s sake”. The Brotherhood emulated the art of late medieval and early Renaissance Europe until the time of Raphael – believing in simplicity and accuracy of detail. Generally devoid of the political edge that characterized much Victorian art and literature, their work nevertheless incorporated elements of 19th-century realism.


Freshness in the handling of detail went side by side with a deep sense of the significance of detail, the symbolic and sacramental meaning of objects, such as we find in the symbolism of medieval religion and painting. Further, the surface of Victorian life did not yield objects which seemed other than ludicrous or vulgar to the artists of the time. One side of the Pre-Raphaelite theory is based on the desire for naturalness and directness on the need for truth and claims of science. But it was not really the interests of science that the Pre-Raphaelites were anxious to serve; the more interesting of them at least were concerned to give to things the kind of symbolic reality they had to the medieval mind. In their desire to achieve this they were seduced by lilies, stars, roses to a vague neoromanticism that combined the spiritual and the physical.

The Pre-Raphaelites were moved by the writings of critic John Ruskin, who became their advocate. His doctrine encouraged artists to paint directly from nature, “rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.” Thus Pre-Raphaelite artists worked explain air trying to capture minute details on their canvas.

Critical Reception:

The sensuousness of the Pre-Raphaelites was considered culpable by prudish Victorians when it came to the beauties of the human body. They heavily borrowed subjects from poetry and medieval legends like the tales of King Arthur and the Divine Comedy of Dante and presented an aesthetic of beauty as their philosophy embodied and along with other artists and writers such as Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater, popularized the Aesthetic movement in the 1860s. Shakespeare was also a source of inspiration for pre-Raphaelite paintings, Millais painted drowning of Ophelia in Hamlet.Rossetti’s Lady Lilith of 1867 bore a label admonishing the young male viewer not to be ensnared by the beauty of the Faustian enchantress, but the figure, with her revealing dress, languid posture, and long red hair, is rendered with a sensuality that subverts the label’s warning. Burne-Jones treated a number of allegorical and legendary themes, such as The Love Song  (from the folk ballad “Alas, I know a love song, / Sad or happy, each in turn.”) and The Wheel of Fortune and focused on portrayals of female vice and virtue. Critics did not receiveTate’s exhibition  pleasantly:


Though interesting to the eye of medicine, to the non-professional beholder they are unpleasant–not to say, revolting.” (Punch)

prepare yourselves, as befits such a subject Pre-Raphael considered for the lowest depths of what is mean, odious, repulsive, and revolting.” (Charles Dickens, Household Words)

Today many consider them as “medieval moderns” and admire their unabashed originality and creative impulse.

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