Posted by Mathilde, 17.11.2017


Today, the mention of Pre-Raphaelite painting brings to mind images of languid women with opulent red or dark hair, reclining in vividly coloured floral environments – but how did it all come to be?

Everything started in 1848, when three students at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, revolted against the academic tradition they were taught. They denounced academic painting as commonplace, conventional and mechanistic. Their names were Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt, and they were about to change the face of British art.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1847), John Everett Millais (1853), and William Hunt (1853)

The secret society known as the Brotherhood of the Pre-Raphaelites grew up to seven members, including poets, art critics and essayists. They devised a manifesto and launched 'The Germ', a (short-lived) review.

The name ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ was picked because Italian Renaissance master Raphael embodied the academic tradition that was forced upon them. The Pre-Raphaelites meant to retrieve the pictorial and spiritual purity of the Italian Quattrocento, the period between late Middle Ages and early Renaissance where gothic and medieval influences still had a place of honour. The Italian primitivists of the Quattrocento (among whom Botticelli or Donatello) resorted to abundant detail, intense colours and complex compositions. Their motto was to render transcriptions of Nature as purely as possible, hence the attention paid to details and their adequateness to the environment. Overall, Pre-Raphaelite art was based on a technique imbued with sincerity.

In 1849, the ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’ by John Everett Millais was exhibited at the London’s Royal Academy and Free Exhibition show. It was decried as blasphemous: the Virgin was said to be ugly, and the holy family to look like medieval peasants, hunched and bent. Critics deemed the work backward, archaic, and promoting a distasteful pietism.

John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents, 1849

The Pre-Raphaelite movement was a reform movement, but kept some similarities with the tradition: they fain painted history scenes and mythological episodes, imitated Nature to a realistic effect, and even followed the Victorian bidding of injecting moral subjects in their art. Here, Holman Hunt represented the ‘Awakening Conscience’ of a young kept woman, who rises from her lover’s lap to look eagerly outside the window, at the purity of the green canopy.

Holman Hunt, Awakening Conscience, 1853

At the end of the 1850s, a second generation of artists joined the existing Brotherhood: Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris became pillars of the movement, and carried it out to the end of the century. Their apparition also resulted in an internal schism within the movement, between those with a preference for medieval subjects (Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Morris), and those adept of realism (Hunt and Millais).

This second generation introduced a noteworthy diversification in the media used to make art: precursor to the emergence of the British Arts and Crafts movement (1880s), William Morris set out to produce stain glass, wallpapers and even pottery, spreading the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic to the decorative arts.

Saint Cecilia, W. Morris, 1900 (detail)
Birds and Pomegranates, 1926 (wallpaper)

But what would bring eternal fame to the Pre-Raphaelites was their treatment of literary heroines from European mythology, the Legend of King Arthur, and the works of Shakespeare, Dante and other poets. Impersonating these heroines were a few unforgettable women – wives and lovers, but muses above all: Jane Burden, Fanny Cornforth, and Elizabeth Siddal. The modern-day temptresses lent their unconventional features (swan-like neck, strongly-defined jaws, thick eyebrows) to the timeless and mystical heroines, producing some of the most disturbingly beautiful portraits of women ever painted.

Ophelia, 1852, John Everett Millais
Lady Lilith, 1872-73, D. G. Rossetti
Proserpina, 1874, D. G. Rossetti
The Lady of Shalott, 1888, J. W. Waterhouse
Cleopatra, 1887, J. W. Waterhouse

The Pre-Raphaelite movement per se ended with the death of its main protagonists at the end of the 19th century. However, its aesthetic lasted well into the 20th century, with artists such as John William Waterhouse, Aubrey Beardsley and Gustave Moreau underlining the importance of the Pre-Raphaelite legacy for other art movements, such as Symbolism or Aestheticism.

Salome Dancing before Herod, 1876, Gustave Moreau
Salome, 1893, Aubrey Beardsley