paradox ethereal32Sentimental Rebels

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.

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