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”.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
William used the term “Symbolic Realism” to describe pre-Raphaelite
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
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
"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 ,
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
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.
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
“Red House”, Morris's new Arts and Crafts home in Bexleyheath (SE
London). His wife, Georgiana Mac Donald, and Morris had a long term
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
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
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
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.
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.