The Pre-raphaelites: Love, Sex and Legacy

Explore the style, scandals, life and work of the infamous Pre-Raphaelite Botherhood.

By National Museums Liverpool

Isabella (1849) by John Everett MillaisNational Museums Liverpool

Rebels with a cause

The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood was formed in London in 1848 by seven young artists dissatisfied with the standards prevailing in British Art. Its three founding members were William Holman Hunt (1829-1910), John Everett Millais (1829-96) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82). 

They advocated an art of extreme 'truth to nature', which they understood in different ways. They painted in bright, clear colours with great attention to detail, and frequently chose high-minded moralistic subjects, loaded with symbolism.

Millie Smith (1846) by Ford Madox BrownNational Museums Liverpool

The Pre-Raphaelites were unique because they painted very different subjects from the rest of their contemporaries, including scenes from everyday life.

The Stonebreaker (1857-1858) by John BrettNational Museums Liverpool

John Brett’s 'The Stonebreaker' is a highly detailed depiction of working class rural life. Such paintings of everyday scenes were frowned upon by the art establishment. They were considered common and not elevated enough to be given attention in art.

Dante's Dream (1869/1871) by Dante Gabriel RossettiNational Museums Liverpool

The Pre-Raphaelites drew influences from literature and poetry. Dante Gabriel Rossetti was inspired by his namesake Dante Alighieri, the Italian poet. Rossetti was obsessed with the love between Dante and his muse Beatrice. This is depicted in the painting 'Dante's Dream'.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had a reputation for scandal, with dramatic personal lives and complicated relationships. In 'Dante's Dream', Rossetti based Beatrice on his friend William Morris's wife Jane Morris, with whom he fell in love. She modelled for Rossetti many times. 

Perhaps the most famous Pre-Raphaelite muse is Lizzie Siddall, who also modelled for ‘Dante’s Dream’. Rossetti and Siddall fell in love and had a long affair before marrying. An artist in her own right, Siddall died of an overdose of laudanum when she was just 32. Rossetti had

The Eve of St. Agnes (1847-1857) by William Holman HuntNational Museums Liverpool

Although their exhibited works were reviled on their first public exhibition, the group rapidly became popular and influential. Liverpool became a notable source of support in the mid-1850s when its Academy repeatedly awarded its annual prize to Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

Liverpool became the only provincial town to have its own distinct school of Pre-Raphaelite artists. Local merchants and industrialists in the area often bought Pre-Raphaelite pictures to add to their growing art collections. The Pre-Raphaelite artworks at National Museums Liverpool are among the best in the world.

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