The Pre-Raphaelites
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The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

The Magic Circle. JW Waterhouse 1886

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in 1848 by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  They were joined later that year by William Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens and Thomas Woolner, making seven original members. The members were aged between nineteen and twenty three years old (2). In the 1849 Royal Academy Exhibition the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood gave their paintings an air of mystery by signing them “PRB”.

The Pre-Raphaelites were not specifically against Raphael and subsequent artists, they were against the Royal Academy's textbook “Seven Discourses on Art” that had been handed down by Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first President, as a guide to art and which idolised the High Renaissance, beginning with Raphael, as the ultimate artistic achievement (1).
In particular they were against "Mannerism" or highly stylized art in which faces became cartoons and backgrounds were scarcely portrayed at all. 
(You can click on the images to see them full size)

The PRB recorded their ideas in a magazine called The Germ

William Holman Hunt called his version of Pre-Raphaelite art "Symbolic Realism".  He summed it up as:

“..the frank worship of Nature, kept in check by selection and directed by the spirit of imaginative purpose which seems to be a fairly broad definition of art of any kind. Well might William Michael [Rossetti] observe that 'Truth is a circle” (3)

John Everett Millais (1829-1896)

Millais was the son of a musician father and was born in Southampton to Jersey born parents. He was the youngest ever member of the Royal Academy, joining at 10 years of age. His family lived at 83 Gower Street. He was befriended in his early teenage years by Holman Hunt, another precocious talent who was two years his senior.

Millais was an established exhibitor at the Royal Academy by the age of 18 and his work at this time conformed to Mannerist tastes:

His first major painting in the new style, Christ in the House of his Parents, depicted the young Jesus in a realistic working environment with realistic parents:
The painting combines detailed realism (Millais used a real carpenter's shop for the setting and a carpenter as a model for Joseph's legs) and symbolism – the sheep are the Christian flock to come and the cut hand prefigures the crucifixion.In 1849 this was felt to be almost sacrilegious.

Charles Dickens, in the publication “Household Words” noted that:

'You behold the interior of a carpenter's shop. In the foreground of that carpenter's shop is a hideous, wrynecked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed-gown, who appears to have received a poke in the hand, from the stick of another boy with whom he has been playing in an adjacent gutter, and to be holding it up for the contemplation of a kneeling woman, so horrible in her ugliness. that (supposing it were possible for any human creature to exist for a moment with that dislocated throat) she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest ginshop in England ... Wherever it is possible to express ugliness of feature. limb or attitude, you have it expressed. Such men as the carpenters might be undressed in any hospital where dirty drunkards, in a high state of varicose veins, are received. Their very toes have walked out of Saint Giles's'.

The painting was displayed by the Academy despite these attacks.

The new style found a champion in the form of the art critic John Ruskin who defended the painting in The Times and the Pre-Raphaelite style became widely accepted. Ruskin and his wife Euphemia Chalmers Ruskin (Nee Effie Gray) visited Millais and, in 1853, asked him to join them on a trip to Scotland. Millais filled his sketchbook with drawings of Euphemia. At the end of the holiday Euphemia returned home to her parents and, being wealthy, started proceedings for annulment of her marriage on the grounds, agreed with Ruskin, that he was impotent.

Euphemia later wrote that when she challenged Ruskin on his coldness:

"He alleged various reasons, hatred to children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and, finally this last year he told me his true reason... that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April." (4)

Millais attempted to portray ideals in his art yet married Euphemia. Modern puritanism has a problem with an obviously flawed individual portraying moral tales but ideals are usually aspirations, not achievements.

Lorenzo and Isabella 1848-49 

Lorenzo and Isabella is based on Keats' poem “Isabella, or the pot of basil”. Isabella falls in love with Lorenzo, who works for her brothers. This love affair conflicts with an arranged marriage plan so her brothers kill Lorenzo.
The 12 people attending bring to mind the Last Supper and the blood orange being offered by Lorenzo is a harbinger of death. The white rose above Lorenzo signifies pure love and the cross of the passion flower above Isabella signifies crucifixion and the martyrdom to come. The innocence of young love, surrounded by those afflicted by the concerns of the world and the brutishness of those planning murder is the central motif of the picture. The portrayal of Lorenzo and Isabella as a bubble of love is quite striking, love shown as concern for each other and as tender protection of the beautifully rendered dog.

I came across the following, coarse, materialist analysis of the painting:

"The brother represents sexual energy, his phallic kick, the nutcracker, the phallic shadow on the table and the spilt salt like semen."

It is amusing to realise that this Freudian inspired analysis has used the metaphor of sexual energy for evil intent. In the pre-raphaelite view there was no need for a metaphor.

The Bridesmaid (1851)

In The Bridesmaid Millais shows the supersitition that if a bridesmaid passes a piece of wedding cake through the wedding ring nine times, she will see a vision of her future lover. The orange blosssom on her breast is a symbol of chastity.
The salt cellar (often mistaken for a sugar caster) symbolises the salt offering, a covenant with God, and the fruit the destiny of becoming a mother, the orange being a symbol of marriage in medieval art. The expression on the model is one of hope, that marriage will have purity and love, tinged with apprehension. The model was a Miss McDowall.

The materialist analysis: "the woman is contemplating with fear and fascination future sexual consummation. This is hinted at by the phallic shape of the sugar caster, disrupting the work’s symmetrical composition, a symbol (though presumably not a conscious one on Millais’s part) of the man whom she is hoping to visualise” Tim Barringer, The Pre-Raphaelites, London 1998, p.92.

This shows how the critic has utterly failed to grasp the pre-Raphaelite credo: Truth to Nature. The innocence of the bridesmaid is like the orange blossom, it cannot be portrayed in terms such as repressed sexuality. The brutish analysis of the critic is akin to the brutishness of Isabella's brothers and is a form of Mannerism in the sense of being a caricature, a style that is in fashion with a particular gang.

Ophelia 1851-2

Elizabeth Siddal was the model. Her expression is so convincingly near to death because she suffered from severe hypothermia whilst modelling for this picture in a studio bath. The river was painted en pleine air and is the Hogsmill River in Tolworth. The red poppy is symbolic of sleep and death and it is ironic that Elizabeth became a laudanum addict. The posed hands are reminiscent of saintly surrender.

The Boyhood of Raleigh 1870

Painted whilst Millais stayed at the Octagon in Budleigh Salterton.

The boys are Millais' sons, Everett and George.

William Holman Hunt 1827- 1910

Hunt was born in London, the son of a warehouse manager. He worked as an office clerk before being accepted at the Royal Academy Schools in 1844 where he met Millais. He was one of the three founding members of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

William used the term “Symbolic Realism”  to describe pre-Raphaelite painting.
In 1865 he married Fanny Waugh. They left England for the East in August 1866; however while in quarantine detention in Florence Fanny gave birth to a son, contracted miliary fever (fever that produces small swellings like prickly heat ) and died. Hunt returned to England in September 1867. The following year he travelled back to Florence to work on a memorial to Fanny.

A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids 1850

Hunt was an atheist when the PRB was formed but saw his symbolic realism as a way of expressing religious sentiment.

Hunt's more obvious use of symbolism was to cause a split in the pre-raphaelite brotherhood.  Hunt believed that symbolism was acceptable if the painting could be read as realism but also contained symbols  that could be discovered.  William Rossetti and JR Stephens, two of the six original members felt that allegory in particular was to be avoided.

“The office of painting is with the visible world, or the ideal, in some kind; and, although it may have a certain value as a means of expressing ideas of great moral or theological importance, it seems clear to us that there is a degradation of the Art involved in making it the servant either of ethics or theology, because it stands, by right, supreme in its own sphere”

"if a painter has bound himself to the service of dogmas or beliefs, he has given his labor to what the next generation may prove to be an error, or a delusion" (On Allegory in Painting. Anonymous. The Crayon 3 [1856], 114).

Hunt's answer to this criticism was that a painting should combine the symbolic and natural as the real.

The Scapegoat 1854

The Scapegoat was the only full picture painted by William when he visited the Holy Land during a crisis of faith in 1854.  

In the Jewish faith of the Old Testament, on the Day of Atonement a goat would have its horns wrapped with a red cloth – representing the sins of the community – and be driven off..

The picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1855.   The exhibition notes contained the following remarks by William:

"the scene was painted at Oosdoom, on the margin of the salt-encrusted shallows of the Dead Sea. The mountains beyond are those of Edom."

Our English Coasts 1852

Dante Gabriel Rossetti  1828-1882

Christened Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti he adopted Dante as his first name in honour of Italian author Dante.  Dante Rossetti was a poet as well as an artist. 

His father and mother had emigrated from Italy to London where Dante was born.  His father was professor of Italian at King's College London and a noted Italian poet.  His brother was William Rossetti, the art critic and poet and his sisters were Christina Rossetti, the celebrated poet and Maria Rosetti, an author.

Dante studied at Henry Sass's Drawing Academy from 1841 to 1845 when he enrolled at the Antique School of the Royal Academy, leaving in 1848. After leaving the Royal Academy, Rossetti studied under Ford Madox Brown and then under Holman Hunt,  He was one of the three founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

He met Elizabeth Siddal in 1849 when she was 20 years old and, along with the other Pre-Raphaelites, used her services as an artist's model.  She was the model for Millais' Ophelia. They were married in 1860 and she died of a laudanum overdose in 1862.  In 1858 Rossetti met Fanny Cornforth and used her as a model and mistress.  When his wife died she moved in with him.  During his time with Fanny he carried on an affair with Jane Morris who was married to William Morris, a fellow Pre-Raphaelite artist and founder of the Arts and Crafts movement.

Dante was a chloral addict and possibly alcoholic.

His first major painting as a Pre-Raphaelite was The Girlhood of Mary Virgin in 1849.

The Girlhood of Mary Virgin 1849

This shows Mary and her mother, St Anne.  The palm branch on the floor and thorny briar rose on the wall allude to Christ’s Passion, the lilies to the Virgin’s purity, and the books to the virtues of hope, faith and charity. The dove represents the Holy Spirit.

Rossetti's Models


The Later Pre-Raphaelites

William Morris 1834 - 1896

William Morris was only 14 when the PRB was formed.
He was born in Walthamstow and studied classics at Oxford University.  After university he studied architecture and married Jane Burden and became friends with Edward Burne Jones and Dante Rossetti.

His first calling was as a classicist, poet and author.  He translated Icelandic Sagas into English and published numerous poems and novels.   He only painted one full size canvas called “La Belle Iseult” (also known as  “Queen Guinevere”).

In 1861 he helped found “The Firm” and, along with his partners, started the Arts and Crafts movement.

Edward Burne Jones 1833-1898

Burne Jones was a fine artist, designer and gifted decorative artist.  He was a close friend of Dante Rossetti and William Morris.  In fact he was such a close friend of William Morris that he stayed at the “Red House”, Morris's new Arts and Crafts home in Bexleyheath (SE London).  His wife, Georgiana Mac Donald, and Morris had a long term affair.

 Burne Jones had an affair with his model Maria Zambaco.

Maria occurs over and over again in Burne-Jones' paintings.

Edward's stained glass work was of the highest quality.


John William Waterhouse 1849-1917

John Collier 1850-1934

Lady Godiva 1898

Marie Spartali Stillman 

Commercial Art

Fine art for  advertising

Perhaps the most famous example of the use of fine art for advertising was Millais' “Bubbles”.  Millais painted the picture of his five year old grandson William James in 1886 and called it “A Child's World”.  It has some strong Pre-Raphaelite symbolism and is in the tradition of “Vanitas” painting – all is vanity.  The painting was acquired by Thomas J Barratt for the Pears Soap company and modified to include a bar of Pears soap so that it could be used in advertising.

Even when William James rose to the rank of admiral he was still nicknamed “Bubbles”.  Fine art added a sense of quality to products.

The Sale of Prints
Although few people could afford a genuine Pre-Raphaelite picture the art dealer Gambart and Holman Hunt realised that the artist holds the copyright to both a painting and prints.  They, and subsequent leading Victorian artists often made more money from prints than from originals.  Furthermore, the possibility of prints vastly increased the value of the original copyright.

The Arts and Crafts Movement

In 1861 William Morris, Ford Madox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones, Charles Faulkner, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, P. P. Marshall, and Philip Webb founded the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. which began the Arts and Crafts Movement.  The ethos of The Firm was traditional craftsmanship using simple forms and it often applied medieval, romantic or folk styles of decoration.
The Arts and Crafts movement also advocated economic and social reform and has been said to be essentially anti-industrial. However, copies of the style were mass produced and contributed greatly to what we think is “Victorian”.

The Legacy of the Pre-Raphaelites

Pre-Raphaelite art became the academic art of the nineteenth century although realism trumped symbolic realism.

Victorian academic artists such as Alma Tadema infused their work with realism leading to a popular romantic realism:

It is ironic that by the end of the nineteenth century the Pre-Raphaelite Style was adopted in the same way as the style of Raphael had been adopted all those years before.

The Pre-Raphaelites deeply influenced academic art in the USA, France (symbolism), Germany and Russia in the later nineteenth century.  In Russia a group called the The Peredvizhniki (itinerants), composed of artists such as Vladimir Makovsky, Ilya Repin and Nikolai Yaroshenko introduced an “ideological realism” which was akin to symbolic realism.

In the 1990s several groups such as the Stuckists and the American Contemporary Realists have re-visited the Pre-Raphaelite approach.  Possibly the greatest revival has been in the USA.

References and further reading

(1) See The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood
(2) Full text of "the Germ"
(3) Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. William Holman Hunt 1905.
(4) James, William Milbourne, ed. (1948). The Order of Release: The Story of John Ruskin, Effie Gray and John Everett Millais Told for the First Time in their Unpublished Letters. University of Michigan: J. Murray. p. 1.
The Pre-Raphaelite Tragedy.  William Gaunt. 1948. Jonathan Cape.  London


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