Pre-Raphaelite Art

What is Pre-Raphaelite Art?

The Pre-Raphaelites (also known as Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) were a group of young British artists that around the 1850 opposed the artificial, manneristic and conventional style of the English Academic painting. They proposed an alternative approach to art which privileged the study of nature, a focus on realism and details, medieval and literary subjects, and bright colours.

The term Pre-Raphaelite was chosen by the members of the secret group at the beginning of its foundation; they marked their paintings with the cryptic initials “P.R.B” (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood), refusing to give further explanation of the acronym. The name explicitly alluded to their main sources of inspiration: late Medieval and early Renaissance Art, old masters like Giotto, Mantegna and the Flemish Van Eyck and Memling, literally the art that came ‘before Raphael’, characterised by simplicity, moralizing purposes, accuracy in details and vivid colours. The Pre-Raphaelites saw in Raphael the breaking point with this tradition and being taught to conceive him as the master par excellence, they rejected him to reject the academic institution.

Examples of Pre-Raphaelite artworks

History of Pre-Raphaelite Art

The Pre-Raphaelite group was founded in London in 1848, when seven young artists – the youngest was 19 years old, the oldest 23- who had met each other in the context of the Royal Academy Schools, began to reject the official art proposed by the academy. The aim of the confraternity was to bring back the “Pre-Raphael” art, the art of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, in which they grasped a simplicity and a truth that had subsequently been lost during Mannerism.

William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens and Thomas Woolner were the seven founding members of the group, and they were painters, poets, and art critics, and they founded the secret association in John Millais’ parents’ house.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood rejected the art proposed by the British Royal Academy because of its artificiality and Victorian subjects, but they also refused the institutional teaching method, mocking the Academy’s founding president, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), calling him “Sir Sloshua”. They firstly took inspiration from other European movements that supported the same ground-breaking demands, for example the Nazarenes in Germany. In January 1850, they also published their literary and artistic magazine, called The Germ: Thoughts towards Nature in Poetry, Literature and Art, where they wrote reviews, essays and original poetry.

In a historical moment where England was shaken by political and social turmoil and massive industrialization, these artists proposed a renewal also in the art practice, realizing canvases typified by seriousness, sincerity, truth to nature and exasperated realism.

Pre-Raphaelite art was technically characterized by the brilliance of its palette (that reminds the tempera technique used in middle-ages), sharp outlines, flat and archaizing compositions and the rejection of the hierarchy of symbols, in its paintings each figure had equal importance.

From the point of view of the subjects, Pre-Raphaelites privileged religious, literary, poetic and social subjects, drawing on the fairy-tale and mythological domains and with a predilection for female subjects; their paintings always communicated the struggle of purity and morality against corruption.

However, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood has been also the object of controversies and accused of blasphemy, mostly because of its realism. Christian subjects like the Virgin Mary in John Everett Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents have been described as “horrible and ugly”, “a degenerate type”, because they did not respect the idealizing statute of religious art. Also, Pre-Raphaelites included subjects that were not appreciated by the official art, like poverty, emigration and prostitution. Anyway, the group of artists found support from the leading art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900), who admired their innovation, attention for landscapes and Christian motifs.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood officially ended in the early 1850s, but the artists continued to work together, and they laid the foundations of new movements. Their legacy is also present in Design and Decorative Arts. Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones struggled against industrial mass-production, joining William Morris in his design firm and influencing the following developments of Arts and Craft and Art Nouveau movements.

Notable Pre-Raphaelite Artists

  • William Holman Hunt, 2 April 1827 – 7 September 1910, English
  • John Everett Millais, 8 June 1829 – 13 August 1896, English
  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 12 May 1828 – 9 April 1882, English
  • William Michael Rossetti, 25 September 1829 – 5 February 1919, English
  • James Collinson, 9 May 1825 – 24 January 1881, English
  • Frederic George Stephens, 10 October 1827 – 9 March 1907, British
  • Thomas Woolner, 17 December 1825 – 7 October 1892, English
  • John William Waterhouse, 6 April 1849 – 10 February 1917, English
  • Arthur Hughes, 27 January 1832 – 22 December 1915, English
  • Edward Robert Hughes, 5 November 1851 – 23 April 1914, English
  • John Collier, 27 January 1850 – 11 April 1934, English

Related Art Terms

  • Art Nouveau
  • Symbolism
  • Romanticism
  • Early Renaissance Painting
  • Nazarene Movement
  • Arts and Crafts
  • Victorian Era
  • Naturalism


About Cinzia Franceschini

Cinzia Franceschini is an Italian Art Historian specializing in the History of Art Criticism, with a second degree in Communications and Sociology studies. She studied in Padua, Brussels, Turin as well as anywhere with an Internet connection. She works as a guide in Museum Education Departments and as a Freelance Writer. She writes about Contemporary Arts and Social Sciences, and how they intertwine.