In the mid 19th century, at the beginning of the reign of Queen Victoria, English painting had become bogged down in academic conventions and was at a creative impasse. Reacting against this, three young students from the Royal Academy, Hunt, Millais and Rossetti, founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Their aim was to create a new style of painting, no longer taking the Renaissance as their reference, but turning to medieval art before Raphael, which they considered to be genuine and free. In this respect, they were following the precepts of the influential Victorian theoretician, John Ruskin. Their paintings were very colourful, with numerous symbols and literary references, and sensitive to nature and social issues.
The Brotherhood broke up before too long, but its ideas continued to be a source of inspiration to the English avant-garde for nearly fifty years. The second generation, dominated by Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, applied the Pre-Raphaelite principle to decor, furniture and book illustration. Outside of England, it was the ideas of Burne-Jones in particular that would have a profound influence on the Symbolist movement.
In the late 1840s, the exclusively British Pre-Raphaelite movement appeared in Victorian society in London. Three young students from the Royal Academy were the instigators - William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), John Everett Millais (1829-1896), and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882).
At that time, British painting was at an impasse, pinned down by strict conventions and restricted by the tastes of a clientele that delighted in small genre scenes, usually full of mawkish sentimentality and conveying a moral message. The art was vulgar in the eyes of the three students in revolt, who wanted to "turn the minds of men to good reflection", as Millais used to say, through paintings that would elevate the spectator's thinking.
In their view, it was academic teaching, unable to free itself from the aesthetic rules set down in the Renaissance, that was directly responsible for this creative sclerosis. Their group quickly expanded with the arrival of four new members, each with a very different profile: Thomas Woolner (1825-1892), sculptor and poet; James Collinson (1825-1881), student at the Royal Academy; William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919), Dante Gabriel's brother and a civil servant at the Excise Office at the time; and Frederick Georges Stephens (1828-1907), a painting student with little talent who would later turn to writing and art criticism.
Together they founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. They chose the name as a reminder that the group would concentrate its criticism on a painting by Raphael (1483-1520),The Transfiguration (1518-1520, Vatican Museums). Hunt said it "should be condemned for its grandiose disregard of the simplicity of truth, the pompous posturing of the apostles and the unspiritual posture of the Saviour." They wanted to return to art as it had been before Raphael, free from all academic affectation. It was medieval art, and in particular the art of the Italian primitive painters, that they regarded as the model of purity and freedom.
More than just a simple reaction against academic teaching, the origins of the Pre-Raphaelite movement can only be understood if they are set in the political and intellectual context of the time. In 1848, there were revolutionary movements throughout Europe; the Gothic Revival that swept across England in the 19th century was unequalled anywhere else; art critic and theoretician John Ruskin (1819-1900) exercised great influence in Victorian society. Ruskin advocated a highly moral vision of art to which he ascribed a social role. He placed craftsmanship above everything else in response to the flourishing industrialisation of the time and put forward a poetic, mystical concept of nature. He also said that nature should be represented from direct observation and with sincerity. Hunt, Millais and Rossetti subscribed fervently to these numerous theories.
Carried along by the enthusiasm of their youth, the young Pre-Raphaelites managed to overcome the confused and at times naïve character of their artistic programme, as well as their differences in character and style. The first works to appear under the name of Pre-Raphaelitism publically revealed both the existence and the spirit of a movement that would have a far-reaching influence.
In 1849, paintings appeared in several London exhibitions with the monogram PRB (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) under the artist's signature, without any explanation as to its meaning. Rossetti first presented The Girlhood of Mary Virgin at the Free Exhibition at Hyde Park Corner then exhibited it again at the Royal Academy during the summer alongside Millais Isabella and and Hunt's Rienzi .
Technically speaking, these paintings were similar in their brilliant colours, a heightened realism that reproduced nature in exact detail, and great freedom in the attitudes of the characters. This was all accompanied by learned religious, literary and poetic references. All three paintings exhibited at the Royal Academy were purchased and the critics were quite positive.
Encouraged by these beginnings, the Brotherhood published a periodical, The Germ, whose aim was "to pronounce the principles of those who enforce a rigid adherence to the simplicity of Nature either in Art or Poetry." Although only four issues appeared between January and April 1850 The Germ brought the Brotherhood greater public visibility but undermined the secrecy that its members hoped to maintain. The meaning of the three enigmatic letters, PRB, was revealed in an article in the Illustrated London News News on May 4, 1850.
Subsequently, the Pre-Raphaelites were met with hostility. The subject of virulent attacks at the exhibitions of 1850 and 1851, they were accused of trivialising sacred subjects (in particular Millais Christ in the House of his Parents ) and in the end were never forgiven for their refusal to idealise their images. There were, however, some expressions of support. In particular, they had the support of Ruskin and the new members of the group, like Charles Allston Collins (1828-1873), Arthur Hughes (?-?), and Walter Deverell (1827-1854).
In 1852, contemporary subjects with social themes began to appear in Pre-Raphaelite painting, which once again corresponded to one of Ruskin's major preoccupations. It was the literary subjects that would bring them real recognition that year though. urning to the works of Keats, Tennyson and Shakespeare for their inspiration, the Pre-Raphaelites continued a national, cultural tradition, and succeeded in gaining acceptance for their aesthetic audacity. Once again, it was a painting by Millais that symbolised the new respect the group was enjoying. With his Ophelia, he produced a work that was Pre-Raphaelite in every respect: meticulous naturalism, shimmering colours, complex symbols, and a literary theme breaking away from classic representations.As soon as it appeared, Ophelia was praised by the critics and the public alike.
But success came at a moment when cracks started to appear in the Brotherhood, with each of its members taking a different path: Woolner set out for Australia in 1852, Millais was elected to the Royal Academy in 1853, Hunt left for the Holy Land in 1854… In November 1853, D. G. Rossetti wrote to his sister: "So now the whole of the Round Table is dissolved." However, although the Brotherhood disappeared, the Pre-Raphaelite ideals were beginning to find imitators all over the United Kingdom and moved beyond the framework of painting.
This "second Pre-Raphaelite generation" is represented by the works of Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) and William Morris (1834-1896). United by the same passion for medieval culture, the two men had become friends when studying at Exeter College in Oxford in the early 1850s. A few years later, Morris took up a career as an architect and was introduced to D. G. Rossetti, whose was by then Burne-Jones’' painting teacher. The three produced several decorative projects together (Red House in Bexley, Oxford Union…) and gave a new impetus and new direction to Pre-Raphaelitism.
Gradually, the medieval theme was abandoned; Ruskin himself was concerned to see this obsession with the Middle Ages distancing artists from nature. Henceforth, Burne-Jones and Rosetti turned to Italian art, and to Botticelli in particular. Finally, Jane Burden (1839-1914) and Elizabeth Siddal (1829-1862) – who married Morris and Rossetti respectively - became the true muses of the movement and brought a more sensual dimension to it.
Well-established in the English artistic landscape, the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite movement continued to spread until the end of the 19th century. We find it in the photographic works of Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) and Roger Fenton (1819-1869), and it was one of the major sources for illustration in the United Kingdom. It also influenced the development of the Aesthetic Movement in the 1870s and merged with certain strands of Symbolism. Thanks to William Morris, leader of the Arts and Crafts movement, the Pre-Raphaelite style was embodied above all in the decorative arts, resonating through the exuberant flowing lines of the female and plant forms of Art Nouveau.
Even though Burne-Jones had not been one of the founding members of the Brotherhood, and had abandoned the social, militant and realist dimension sought by Hunt, Millais and Rossetti, he became, over time, the most memorable figure in the movement. His work provides the link between its original ambitions and all later developments. The movement gradually faded with the century: D. G. Rossetti died in 1882, Millais and Morris in 1896, and Burne-Jones in 1898. Right to the end, they would have witnessed their ideas taken up and adapted by younger artists like the painter John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) and the illustrator Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898).