The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (also known as the Pre-Raphaelites) was a group
of English painters, poets, and critics, founded in 1848 by William Holman Hunt,
John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The three founders were soon
joined by William Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens and
Thomas Woolner to form a seven member "brotherhood".
The group's intention was to reform art by rejecting what they considered to be
the mechanistic approach first adopted by the Mannerist artists who succeeded
Raphael and Michelangelo. They believed that the Classical poses and elegant
compositions of Raphael in particular had been a corrupting influence on the
academic teaching of art. Hence the name "Pre-Raphaelite". In particular, they
objected to the influence of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the founder of the English Royal
Academy of Arts. They called him "Sir Sloshua", believing that his broad technique
was a sloppy and formulaic form of academic Mannerism. In contrast, they wanted to
return to the abundant detail, intense colours, and complex compositions of
Quattrocento Italian and Flemish art.
The Pre-Raphaelites have been considered the first avant-garde movement in art,
though they have also been denied that status, because they continued to accept
both the concepts of history painting and of mimesis, or imitation of nature, as
central to the purpose of art. However, the Pre-Raphaelites undoubtedly defined
themselves as a reform-movement, created a distinct name for their form of art, and
published a periodical, The Germ, to promote their ideas. Their debates were
recorded in the Pre-Raphaelite Journal.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in John Millais's parents' house on
Gower Street, London in 1848. At the initial meeting, John Everett Millais, Dante
Gabriel Rossetti, and William Holman Hunt were present. Hunt and Millais were
students at the Royal Academy of Arts. They had previously met in another loose
association, a sketching-society called the Cyclographic Club. Rossetti was a pupil
of Ford Madox Brown. He had met Hunt after seeing his painting The Eve of St.
Agnes, which is based on Keats's poem. As an aspiring poet, Rossetti wished to
develop the links between Romantic poetry and art. By autumn, four more members had
also joined, to form a seven-member-strong Brotherhood. These were William Michael
Rossetti (Dante Gabriel Rossetti's brother), Thomas Woolner, James Collinson, and
Frederic George Stephens. Ford Madox Brown was invited to join, but preferred to
remain independent. He nevertheless remained close to the group. Some other young
painters and sculptors were also close associates, including Charles Allston
Collins, Thomas Tupper, and Alexander Munro. They kept the existence of the
Brotherhood secret from members of the Royal Academy.
The Brotherhood's early doctrines were expressed in four declarations:
1. To have genuine ideas to express;
2. To study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them;
3. To sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to
the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parodying and learned by rote;
4. And, most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and
These principles are deliberately non-dogmatic, since the Brotherhood wished to
emphasise the personal responsibility of individual artists to determine their own
ideas and methods of depiction. Influenced by Romanticism, they thought that
freedom and responsibility were inseparable. Nevertheless, they were particularly
fascinated by medieval culture, believing it to possess a spiritual and creative
integrity that had been lost in later eras. This emphasis on medieval culture was
to clash with certain principles of realism, which stress the independent
observation of nature. In its early stages, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood believed
that their two interests were consistent with one another, but in later years the
movement divided and began to move in two directions. The realist-side was led by
Hunt and Millais, while the medievalist-side was led by Rossetti and his followers,
Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. This split was never absolute, since both
factions believed that art was essentially spiritual in character, opposing their
idealism to the materialist realism associated with Courbet and Impressionism.
In their attempts to revive the brilliance of colour found in Quattrocento art,
Hunt and Millais developed a technique of painting in thin glazes of pigment over a
wet white ground. They hoped that in this way their colours would retain jewel-like
transparency and clarity. This emphasis on brilliance of colour was in reaction to
the excessive use of bitumen by earlier British artists, such as Reynolds, David
Wilkie and Benjamin Robert Haydon. Bitumen produces unstable areas of muddy
darkness, an effect that the Pre-Raphaelites despised.
The first exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite work occurred in 1849. Both Millaiss's
Isabella (1848-1849) and Holman Hunt's Rienzi (1848-1849) were exhibited at the
Royal Academy, and Rossetti's Girlhood of Mary Virgin was shown at the Free
Exhibition on Hyde Park Corner. As agreed, all members of the Brotherhood signed
works with their name and the initials "PRB". Between January and April 1850, the
group published a literary magazine, The Germ. William Rossetti edited the
magazine, which published poetry by the Rossettis, Woolner, and Collinson, together
with essays on art and literature by associates of the Brotherhood, such as
Coventry Patmore. As the short run-time implies, the magazine did not manage to
achieve a sustained momentum. (Daly 1989)
In 1850 the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood became controversial after the exhibition
of Millais's painting Christ In The House Of His Parents, considered to be
blasphemous by many reviewers, notably Charles Dickens (Dickens considered Millais'
Mary to be ugly. Interestingly enough, Millais had actually used his sister-in-law
Mary Hodgkinson as a model for the Mary in his painting). Their medievalism was
attacked as backward-looking and their extreme devotion to detail was condemned as
ugly and jarring to the eye. According to Dickens, Millais made the Holy Family
look like alcoholics and slum-dwellers, adopting contorted and absurd "medieval"
poses. A rival group of older artists, The Clique, also used their influence
against the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Their principles were publicly attacked by
the President of the Academy, Sir Charles Lock Eastlake.
However, the Brotherhood found support from the critic John Ruskin, who praised
their devotion to nature and rejection of conventional methods of composition. He
continued to support their work both financially and in his writings.
Following the controversy, James Collinson left the Brotherhood. They met to
discuss whether he should be replaced by Charles Allston Collins or Walter Howell
Deverell, but were unable to make a decision. From that point on the group
disbanded, though their influence continued to be felt. Artists who had worked in
the style still followed these techniques (initially anyway) but they no longer
signed works "PRB".
Artists who were influenced by the Brotherhood include John Brett, Philip
Calderon, Arthur Hughes, Gustave Moreau, Evelyn De Morgan, Frederic Sandys and John
William Waterhouse. Ford Madox Brown, who was associated with them from the
beginning, is often seen as most closely adopting the Pre-Raphaelite
After 1856, Rossetti became an inspiration for the medievalising strand of the
movement. His work influenced his friend William Morris, in whose firm Morris,
Marshall, Faulkner & Co. he became a partner, and with whose wife Jane he may
have had an affair. Ford Madox Brown and Edward Burne-Jones also became partners in
the firm. Through Morris's company the ideals of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood
influenced many interior designers and architects, arousing interest in medieval
designs, as well as other crafts. This led directly to the Arts and Crafts movement
headed by William Morris. Holman Hunt was also involved with this movement to
reform design through the Della Robbia Pottery company.
After 1850, both Hunt and Millais moved away from direct imitation of medieval
art. Both stressed the realist and scientific aspects of the movement, though Hunt
continued to emphasise the spiritual significance of art, seeking to reconcile
religion and science by making accurate observations and studies of locations in
Egypt and Palestine for his paintings on biblical subjects. In contrast, Millais
abandoned Pre-Raphaelitism after 1860, adopting a much broader and looser style
influenced by Reynolds. William Morris and others condemned this reversal of
The movement influenced the work of many later British artists well into the
twentieth century. Rossetti later came to be seen as a precursor of the wider
European Symbolist movement. In the late twentieth century the Brotherhood of
Ruralists based its aims on Pre-Raphaelitism, while the Stuckists and the
Birmingham Group have also have derived inspiration from it.
The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery has a world-renowned collection of works
by Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaelites that, some claim, strongly influenced the
young J.R.R. Tolkien, who would later go on to write his novels, such as The Hobbit
and The Lord of the Rings, with their influence taken from the same mythological
scenes portrayed by the Pre-Raphaelites.
In the twentieth century artistic ideals changed and art moved away from
representing reality. Since the Pre-Raphaelites were fixed on portraying things
with near-photographic precision, though with a distinctive attention to detailed
surface-patterns, their work was devalued by many critics. Since the 1970s there
has been a resurgence in interest in the movement.