Pre-Raphaelite Art Movement

 1848 – 1854


How to identify Pre-Raphaelite art?

1. Look for Rossetti’s ideal woman

Most of the Pre-Raphaelite characters are women whose beauty is based on real-life mistresses and models of the English painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He was the founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a secret art society. His most prominent muses were Elizabeth Siddal, Fanny Cornforth, Alexa Wilding and Jane Morris, all of whom conform to a certain feminine archetype, known to the Pre-Raphaelites as the “stunner.” She’s a very tall woman depicted in a stiff pose with loose and long flowing red hair in a variety of shades. Also, she’s got a long, straight nose, a strong jawline, sturdy, long neck and full, pouty lips. Usually, she’s heavy-lidded with a dreamy, distant look in her eyes. Her face shows a melancholy, yet calm expression with a wistful gaze that seems as if you’ve just caught her in the middle of an otherworldly experience. Her ethereal beauty and billowing garments, occasionally in a flowery setting, makes her look like a lone maiden from a medieval fairy tale.

Lady Lilith, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (models: Fanny Cornforth and Alexa Wilding)Lady Lilith, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (models: Fanny Cornforth and Alexa Wilding)

Beata Beatrix, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (model: Elizabeth Siddal)Beata Beatrix, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (model: Elizabeth Siddal)

Proserpine, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (model: Jane Morris)Proserpine, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (model: Jane Morris)

La Ghirlandata, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (model: Alexa Wilding)La Ghirlandata, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (model: Alexa Wilding)

2. Their quasi-religious works were inspired by mythological and biblical stories, and medieval tales (Arthurian legends, for example). Also, literature such as Shakespearean plays and Alfred Tennyson’s poems provided a rich source of subject matter.

The Lady of Shalott, by John William WaterhouseThe Lady of Shalott, by John William Waterhouse

This painting is an illustration of Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’ (part IV):
And down the river’s dim expanse
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance –
With glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.

Ophelia, by Sir John Everett MillaisOphelia, by Sir John Everett Millais

Hylas and the Nymphs, by John William WaterhouseHylas and the Nymphs, by John William Waterhouse

3. With bold irreverence to the religious sensibilities of the time, or even beauty ideals, they painted biblical themes in a harsh, realistic manner. That harkens back to Baroque religious paintings but with a softer, brighter palette.

Christ in the House of His Parents, by John Everett MillaisChrist in the House of His Parents, by John Everett Millais

The Annunication or Ecce Ancilla Domini, by Dante Gabriel RossettiThe Annunication or Ecce Ancilla Domini, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The Shadow of Death, by William Holman HuntThe Shadow of Death, by William Holman Hunt

The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, by William Holman HuntThe Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, by William Holman Hunt

The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, by Dante Gabriel RossettiThe Girlhood of Mary Virgin, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti


How the Pre-Raphaelite art movement got its name? And where did it originate?

Raphael (1483-1520), long considered to be one of the greatest artists of all time, was viewed by a group of English painters and poets in 1848 as a negative influence on art. They rejected his Classical style that had been popular for almost four centuries. The Renaissance style propagated by art academies at that time, they believed, lacked true sentiment, and the corrupting art of the Italian master was to blame. Their own inspiration came from earlier Italian artists of the 14th and 15th-centuries who predated Raphael. In pure devotion to medieval and early Renaissance art, they formed a secret society and called it the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The three main artists were William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Speaking of great Renaissance artists, why go against Raphael in particular? Isn’t his contemporary master, Michelangelo, just as great, or perhaps as some scholars today believe, the greatest artist of all time? Surprisingly, for a long period during the 18th and 19th century, Raphael was the considered the uncontested master of Renaissance painting. It was later on, in the 20th century, that Michelangelo was re-appreciated and more focus was put on his works than ever. A simpler reason though they didn’t call themselves “Pre-Michelangelo-ite” might be due to the fact that, despite common perception, Michelangelo was first and foremost a sculptor, rather than a painter. How about the other two great Renaissance masters, Donatello and Leonardo Da Vinci? The first was a sculptor, and the second, though an unparalleled genius and inventor, never focused on one field, hence his painting output is relatively too small.


What gave rise to the Pre-Raphaelite art?

Western Europe during the mid-19th century was changing beyond recognition. Sweeping industrialization made a common sight of factories cramped with workers and urban slums. Not everyone was happy about these changes, and the Romantics were not the only artists to express their aversion. Among the others was a group of young artists growing up during the Victorian era who, like the Romantics, sought an artistic outlet to help them escape that reality. But the prevailing manner of painting at that time – the kind taught by art academies – was disdained by them. Thus, inspiration had to come from another place and time. Some creative minds try to find inspiration in a vision of a far future, but others prefer to turn back the clock. The English artists did just that and they found their inspiration a long way back in time.

They regarded the art establishment to have been corrupted by the principles laid by the great painter, Raphael, four centuries earlier. By brushing him off, so to speak, and all his successors, and developing an obsession with art styles that preceded him, it’s not surprising to find certain common themes in their paintings. Going back that far in history, all the way to the Middle Ages, they wouldn’t find many subject matters that deviate from biblical themes and medieval legends. They were fascinated by enchanted worlds of spells and dreams. They delved in the world of the subconscious and explored the very nature of human identity. Their art movement showed hints of modern ideas which were to be found more than half a century later in Freudian thought and Surrealist art.


Rebels of a New Generation

Artists have always been known to reject the old-fashioned and conventional but this group of art students went perhaps further than any other. They rejected one of the most important of all Western artists along with his influence which was passed on for hundreds of years to artists and art institutions alike across Europe. They were enrolled in one of those respected institutions, the Royal Academy of Arts in London, when they decided that only a secret mission could save art from itself. After they chose the irreverent name “The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood” for their secret group, they used the acronym PRB to sign their paintings. The secrecy around them was very controversial, and it didn’t make matters better that some of the realistic paintings of religious subjects were considered by the public as sacrilegious. Charles Dickens, for example, found their paintings “mean, odious, repulsive, and revolting.”

Their artistic output was small and their rebellion was short-lived (around a decade), after which they disbanded. However, that group of seven young art students started a painting style that remains influential and polarizing, more than 160 years later. A well-known blogger, Hrag Vartanian, posted in 2008: “I don’t know if I would’ve supported Obama as much as I did if I realized his favorite art work was a Pre-Raphaelite painting.”