What Was The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood?

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Learn about the art movement set up in rebellion and the artists who populated it 

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a secret society of young artists founded in London in 1848. They were opposed to the Royal Academy’s promotion of the ideal as found in the work of Raphael, an Italian Renaissance painter born in the 1400s and rival of Michelangelo. Raphael epitomized the Renaissance style, which expressed classical ideals of beauty, serenity and harmony and was characterized by strong light and dark shading.

The brotherhood rejected this and sought a return to simplicity of line and large flat areas of intense color and rich detail found in Quattrocento Italian art—work created between 1400 to 1499 before Raphael began painting. They adopted a realist approach in their work and embraced the idea of imitations of nature being an integral part of art.

The Pre-Raphaelites defined themselves as a reform movement, and after creating a distinct name for their form of art, they published a periodical, The Germ, to promote their ideas. The group associated their work with John Ruskin, who an English critic whose influences were driven by his religious background.

The founding members were William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. So join us as we discover more about these rebellious artists through the work they created, as well as find out about the other artists who joined the brotherhood.

The Awakening Conscience, 1853, William Holman Hunt

As one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, English painter William Holman Hunt was well-known for his great attention to detail, vivid color, and elaborate symbolism. These elements of his works were influenced by the writings of John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle, who felt the world should be read as a system of visual signs. For Hunt it was the duty of the artist to reveal the correspondence between sign and fact.

Of all the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Hunt remained most true to their ideals throughout his career. In this painting, The Awakening Conscience we see his highly moralistic approach come into play by showing a kept woman in a modern setting in order to explore contemporary issues of sin, guilt and prostitution. The young woman is getting up from her lover’s lap and, like most of us, is inspired by the light pouring through the window from the garden—and realizes the error of her ways. The complex composition is loaded with symbolism and intricate details such as the bird trying to escape from a cat, emphasizing the painting’s underlying message of redemption.

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (From the collection of Tate Britain)

The Annunciation, 1850, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti was the third original member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and he was largely responsible for the movement’s magazine The Germ published in 1850, which laid out the principles and ideas behind the brotherhood. Rossetti's art was characterized by its sensuality and its medieval revivalism and he often asked Elizabeth Siddal to model for him. Over the next decade Siddal became his muse, his pupil and his passion —they were married in 1960.

This painting, titled The Annunciation, is also known by its latin name Ecce Ancilla Domini (Behold the handmaiden of the Lord). It depicts Mary announcing that she will give birth to Christ the child. She appears to be recoiling as if disturbed from sleep. Rossetti’s interpretation of the subject was seen as radical at the time. The artist rejected the tradition of representing the Virgin passively receiving the news. Instead he wanted the picture to have a supernatural realism. Rossetti deliberately used a limited color palette for this oil painting, with white, symbolic of virginity, being the dominant color. It’s complemented by a vibrant blue, a color associated with Mary, and then red for Christ’s blood.

The Annunciation by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (From the collection of Tate Britain)

Ophelia, 1851, John Everett Millais

John Everett Millais was a child prodigy who showed an early talent for painting. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in his family home at 83 Gower Street, London and he was big exponent of the style up until the mid-1850s. Millais began to develop a new form of realism in his art and his works became enormously successful, making him one of the wealthiest artists of his day. However former admirers of his work saw this as a sell-out, having notoriously allowed one of his paintings to be used for a soap advert.

Back when he was fully submerged in the Pre-Raphaelite world, this painting Ophelia became a perfect demonstration of the style. The painting depicts the drowning of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. Picking flowers she slips and falls into a stream. Mad with grief after her father’s murder by Hamlet, she allows herself to die. The flowers she holds in the painting are symbolic with poppies meaning death, daisies innocence and pansies love in vain. At the time, the painting was regarded as one of the most accurate and elaborate studies of nature ever made. The artist put so much emphasis on the landscape that he painted it first and Ophelia second, making nature the true focus of the piece.

Ophelia by John Everett Millais (From the collection of Tate Britain)

The Golden Stairs, 1880, Edward Burne-Jones

Artist and designer Edward Burne-Jones was associated with the later phase of the Pre-Raphaelites and he worked closely with designer William Morris on a wide range of decorative arts. In regards to his painting, though he had no formal training, under the watchful eye of Rossetti he developed into an incredibly skilled painter. In regards to style while he was affiliated with the Pre-Raphaelites, his tendency to leave the real world meant he received some criticism.

In his painting, The Golden Stairs, Burne-Jones exercises his interest in investigating a mood rather than telling a story. He deliberately left the meaning of his pictures ambiguous in order to spark debate. In this particular image, one view is that 18 women are spirits in an enchanted dream, yet the painting might also just be purely decorative. The beauty in Burne-Jones’ work was that they could be as much about design as they were meaning.

The Golden Stairs by Edward Burne-Jones (From the collection of Tate Britain)

Saint Barbara, Marie Spartali Stillman

Marie Spartali Stillman was a British painter of Greek descent and the great female artist of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. During her 60-year career, she produced over 150 works and took part in exhibitions in the UK and US, the only British Pre-Raphaelite artist to do so.

The subjects of Stillman’s paintings were typical of the movement, often depicting female figures, scenes from Shakespeare, Petrarch, Dante and Boccaccio, as well as Italian landscapes. In this painting, Saint Barbara, Stillman depicts the early Christian Greek saint and martyr in fairly traditional fashion. In the painting she is shown holding a peacock feather, a Christian symbol of immortality due to the belief that peacock flesh does not decay. Saint Barbara is frequently associated with the feathers in reference to her home city of Heliopolis, which is known as the city of the phoenix, for which the peacock was often substituted.

Saint Barbara by Marie Spartali Stillman (From the collection of High Museum of Art)

Toilet of a Roman Lady, 1869, Simeon Solomon

Simeon Solomon was an English Pre-Raphaelite painter noted for his depictions of Jewish life and same-sex desires. His work was celebrated by the Pre-Raphaelite founders yet his chosen subject matter was often met with mild outrage, as he portrayed androgynous characters exercising their sexual desires with abandon. The artist has two artworks banned, and Solomon’s career was cut short when he was arrested for having sex in public toilet with another man. He was fined £100 and never exhibited again, however the literati of the time including Oscar Wilde and John Addington Symonds, shared his sensibilities and collected his works.

In this painting an Amazonian-like woman is attended by three servants. The setting is classical and is inspired by Solomon’s visit to Italy and Pompeii in 1867. Throughout his work the artist fully embraced the beauty worship and decadence of the Aesthetic Movement, a style that championed pure beauty and emphasized the visual and sensual qualities of art and design over practical, moral or narrative considerations. The androgynous quality of the central figure aligns with the philosophy of the Aesthetes as well as Solomon’s own preferences.

Toilet of a Roman Lady by Simeon Solomon (From the collection of Delaware Art Museum)

Lucretia Borgia Reigns in the Vatican in the Absence of Pope Alexander VI, 1910, Frank Cadogan Cowper

Frank Cadogan Cowper was an English painter and illustrator of portraits, historical and literary scenes, and is described as "The last of the Pre-Raphaelites” as the detail and photographic precision fell out of fashion and a step away from reality was welcomed in the art world.

Cowper used both oils and watercolors in his works and was particularly celebrated for his portraits, which he began exhibiting more in his later years. In this painting however, Cowper captures a crowded scene and re-creates a scandalous incident from the history of the Popes. In 1501 the illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander vi, Lucrezia Borgia, took his place at a meeting. The artist has invented this suggestive moment where two noblemen part Lucrezia’s dress so that a friar can kiss her shoe. The room in the Vatican Cowper has painted still exists and the artist travelled there to copy it, as well as painting the faces of the Cardinals from their original portraits.

Lucretia Borgia Reigns in the Vatican in the Absence of Pope Alexander VI by Frank Cadogan Cowper (From the collection of Tate Britain)

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