A group of mid-nineteenth-century artists inspired by the simplicity of pre-Renaissance Italian art, the name meaning 'before Raphael'. They favoured a close observation of nature and rejected academic rules. They drew on literature for subject matter and were closely associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. Members included John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Dante Gabriel Charles Rossetti Beata Beatrix Dated 1880

The Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood

The mid-nineteenth century Pre-Raphaelite style began as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a self-named band of reactionary male artists who met as students at London’s Royal Academy in 1848. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais were united in their condemnation of the Royal Academy’s old fashioned teaching methods.

In the 1840s, Rossetti, Millais and Hunt saw two great early Renaissance masterpieces at London’s National Gallery: Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, 1434, and Lorenzo Monaco’s San Benedetto Altarpiece, 1407-9. The paintings dazzled the young artists with their rich, jewel-like colours, photographic levels of realism and subtle Symbolist references. The name of their group - the Pre-Raphaelites – came from their fascination with these early Renaissance paintings, made before Raphael’s day, which they felt had a greater connection to nature and the real world.

Another key influence on the Pre-Raphaelites was the rising trend for Romantic landscapes, exemplified by the artists John Constable, Thomas Gainsborough, and Joseph Mallord William Turner, capturing the sublime energy and emotion of the natural world.

Styles and Subjects

Both Holman, Hunt and Millais made paintings with sharp attention to detail and highly realistic lighting, creating nearly photographic depictions of scenes in nature or in well-lit interiors. Rossetti was the more arcane member of the group, producing enigmatic paintings with less concern for minute precision. Biblical and medieval literary themes were popular subjects along with subjects from literature and poetry, particularly those associated with love and death. They often invested a further private symbolism into their art through certain objects and plant forms. The vitality and freshness of their paintings reflected a deeper moral conscience running through their art, calling for a simpler way of life more in tune with the natural world amidst the overwhelming effects of industrialisation in nineteenth century Britain. 

Pre-Raphaelite Women

Although the Pre-Raphaelite movement was dominated by male artists, women played a vital role in its development. From the 1860s, Pre-Raphaelite paintings featured a new female archetype who was tall, strident and sexually empowered, challenging the submissive, idealised Victorian stereotype. The flowing long raven hair, pale skin and red lips of the Pre-Raphaelite woman became a defining feature of their art. Far from being idealised into an unattainable emblem of beauty, these were real women - the wives, mistresses and friends of the men who painted them - as English writer John Ruskin (1819-1900) noted, 'Every Pre-Raphaelite figure, however studied in expression, is a true portrait of some living person.' The paintings were harshly criticised by the Victorian public for challenging the conventional representation of women, yet they now capture the changing spirit of the time. Many of their muses were also artists, including Georgiana Burne-Jones, Marie Spartali-Stillman, Jane Morris and Elizabeth Siddall, but historically their work has been overlooked in favour of their male colleagues.

Beyond the Brotherhood

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a relatively short-lived phenomenon that only lasted around five years, from 1848-57. Cracks first began to appear in 1850 when Millais exhibited his Christ in the House of his Parents, 1849-50, at the Royal Academy. The painting attracted huge amounts of criticism, most notably from the English writer Charles Dickens (1812-1870) who described Millais’ depiction of Mary as 'so horrible in her ugliness that she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster…' The scandal caused friction amongst members of the group, who chose not to exhibit together in the future. However, Ruskin was one of their strongest supporters, celebrating their close connections with the natural world and the revival of medieval culture.

After the dissolution of the group, their influence lasted several decades, with a second wave of artists referred to more generally as the Pre-Raphaelites, including painters Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Maddox Brown, William Bell Scott and the Arts and Crafts designer William Morris.

Arts and Crafts

In 1857 Rossetti first met Morris and Burne-Jones, inviting them to help him paint scenes from the life of King Arthur on the ceiling of the Oxford University Union. Morris later founded the interior design company Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. with Peter Paul Marshall and Charles Faulkner, specialising in furniture, wallpaper, textiles and stained glass based on medieval craft methods, with illustrations drawn from Symbolist literature and poetry. Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Maddox Brown also made contributions to many of the company’s designs. Morris later took sole ownership of the company, changing the name to Morris & Co., a company which thrived in the 1880s and lasted until the 1940s.

Later Developments

Many Pre-Raphaelite ideas were adopted by the Arts and Crafts movement that swept across Britain and into the United States throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Symbolism also grew out of Pre-Raphaelite imagery, taking it further from the real world and closer into the realms of the mystical and otherworldly. The Aesthetic movement of the late nineteenth century was also a continuation of many Pre-Raphaelite ideas, but with a greater emphasis on beauty and 'art for art’s sake' over moral or social concerns.