Article by Mary Vareli
In the popular imagination, the term “Pre-Raphaelites” conjures up pictures of medieval romance as a result, ironically though, a movement that began a rebellion against artificiality and sentimentality was itself identified with a kind of escapism. Pre-Raphaelite art became distinctive for its blend of archaic, romantic, and moralistic qualities.
The brotherhood was formed in London in September of 1848, as a group of 19th-century English painters, poets and critics who reacted against Victorian materialism and the neoclassical conventions of academic art, by producing quasi-religious works or works inspired by the pagan tradition. More particularly, they were inspired by medieval and early Renaissance painters up to the time of the Italian painter Raphael – whom they saw as the fountainhead of Academism – and the Nazarenes.*
The main members of the group were John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was the central figure, a painter and a poet. The painters who followed the three members of the Brotherhood, being considered as equally important, are James Collinson, Thomas Woolner, W.M. Rossetti, an art critic and brother of Gabriell, as well as F.G. Stephens, also an art critic. Millais eventually left the group, but other English artists joined, including the painter and designer Edward Coley Burne – Jones, Ford Madox Brown and the poet and artist William Morris. The eminent English art critic John Ruskin was an ardent supporter of the movement, the influence of whom was of critical importance to the movement.
The Pre Raphaelites hated academic influences and trivial genre scenes. It has to be admitted that before the revolutionary movement of the Brotherhood British art was very much dominated by the Royal Academy, its first president being Joshua Reynolds. Most affluent people considered themselves admirers of the Art just because they had their portraits painted by famous painters who flattered them considerably. The Pre-Raphaelites despised the fact and this was the main reason why they formed the brotherhood. In 1851, for the Times, John Ruskin states, “They intend to return to early days in this one point only that, so far as in them lies, they will draw either what they see, or what they suppose might have been the actual facts of the scene they desire to represent, irrespective of any conventional rules of picture-making and they have chosen their unfortunate tho’ not in accurate name because all artists did this before Raphael’s time, and after Raphael’s time did not this but thought to paint fair pictures rather than represent stern facts.”
On the other hand some contemporary personalities, Charles Dickens for instance, criticized the work of the Brotherhood. More particularly he called their work , referring to Millais’ “Christ in the House of His Parents” 1850, as “odious, revolting and repulsive” considering the claim to go behind Raphael as an anti -progressive reversion to primitivism and ugliness. Fortunately, John Ruskin defended them strongly. Soon the new painters had their admirers, particularly among the increasingly affluent middle classes of the Midlands and North of England.
The brotherhood had a specific code in creation, they wanted to have genuine ideas to express and for this reason they studied nature attentively. Rossetti’s idiosyncratic style was full of mysterious undertones; he used colour not to describe nature realistically but to suggest mood and feeling Hunt, on the other hand, used colours on a fresh study of the natural world. They sympathized with what was direct and serious in previous art and not with what was conventional, self-parading and learned. Their main aim was to produce thoroughly perfect pictures and statues. The desire for fidelity was expressed by means of detailed observation of flora and the use of clear, bright, sharp-focus technique, reproducing their works brightly and clearly working them into a wet, white ground. The ancient technique of fresco painting, which was slow, difficult and unconventional, gave brilliant luminosity to their colours. They also needed to find exact models for the settings and people in their pictures, that’s why every painter had a specific model appearing in all his paintings, choosing models from the prettiest girls of the time.Their moral seriousness is seen in their choice of religious or other uplifting themes, as a consequence, they turned to the Bible for inspiration.
Other influences were Shakespeare and Leonardo Da Vinci, Dante, Chaucer, Shelley, Landor, Thackeray Homer, Fra Angelico and Raphael Hogarth, Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, Poussin, and Michelangelo. All members were attentive to lyrical excitement by the poets John Keats and Alfred Lord Tennyson. Rossetti, more particularly, had a passionate taste for Romantic and Medieval Literature and Hunt was influenced by what he had read in Ruskin’s praise of the Venetian’s in Modern Painters. In all its phases, Pre-Raphaelite art owed something to John Ruskin. In literature, their works may be considered a phase of the romantic movement. In looking back to the Middle Ages, the school paralleled both the Oxford movement in the Anglican church and a Gothic revival led by the English architect Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin.
“On the first day the priest Could find no heart in the beast, And two on the second day”
A Bad Omen, Dante Gabriel Rossetti
”A Sonnet is a moment’s monument,
— Memorial from the Soul’s eternity
To one dead deathless hour.”
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
In 1850, the members published a periodical called The Germ, in which some of Rossetti’s earliest literary work appeared. The most interesting facts were the ones that followed.
The end of the fairy tale
Soon after Ruskin’s support, in the popular imagination, the term “Pre-Raphaelites” started to conjure up pictures of medieval romance as a result, though ironic, a movement that began a rebellion against artificiality and sentimentality was itself identified with a kind of escapism. Around society, interest grew in classical literature and the history of ancient Greece and Rome, as well as in the legendary medieval past of Britain itself. Additionally, classical themes provided opportunities for artists to combine sex and art in a tasteful manner acceptable to Victorian sensibility. By 1853, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had virtually disbanded with only Hunt remaining true to the Brotherhood doctrine. New classical painters emerged like Sir Frederic Leighton, Evelyn De Morgan, Sir Edward Poynter, and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. The second wave of pseudo-medieval Pre-Raphaelitism began in the 1860’s and survived into the 20th century. William Waterhouse is still the most prominent representative of the followers.
*Nazarenes : Young German artists who formed a brotherhood in Rome in 1810 to restore Christian art to its medieval purity. Like the Brotherhood, they reacted against their academic training and had turned to the early Italians for an alternative to the dark paint and conventional gestures and expressions of the art school.
Page 2 images
1.Lady Godiva, John Collier, 1898
2.Hylas and the Nymphs J.W. Waterhouse, 1896
3.John Everett Millais (right)
4.Dante Gabriel Rossetti (left)
5.Herbert James Draper, A Water Baby, 1900 (right)
6.William Holman Hunt (left)
Cover Image: John William Waterhouse, Nymphs finding the head of Orpheus
Click on images for a slideshow of the magazine pages, then follow the arrow.