What is Pre-Raphaelite Art?

beguiling-merlin-l.jpg The term “Pre-Raphaelite” is now used so frequently that many people seem to think it is just an adjective for any piece of Victorian art. To further understand the term, I direct you to Pre-Raphaelites: An Introduction (via Victorian Web). I confess I’m guilty of occasionally including artists on the site who are not technically Pre-Raphaelite.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood began in 1848 as a secret group of artists: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Michael Rossetti (his brother), Thomas Woolner, William Holman Hunt, Frederic George Stephens, James Collinson, and John Everett Millais. They were revolting against the current art establishment, mainly the British Royal Academy and their formulaic approach to art instruction. Though the Pre-Raphaelite’s goal was to remain secret, the meaning of the initials “PRB” inscribed on their paintings became public (possibly leaked by Dante Gabriel Rossetti).
The Brotherhood’s early doctrines were expressed in four declarations:

  • To have genuine ideas to express;
  • To study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express them;
  • To sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parodying and learned by rote;
  • And, most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.
  • The Pre-Raphaelites created art that is known for its brilliance and vividness of color. They achieved this by painting white backgrounds that they would later paint over in thin layers of oil paint. Their work was meticulous and their subject matter drew inspiration from myths, legends, Shakespeare, Keats, and lovely long haired damsels that we now equate with Victorian beauty.
    There are a few artists that were not members of the PRB, but who are often described as “Pre-Raphaelite” because of the pre-raphaelite influence seen in their work, or because of their close association with certain members of the PRB, namely Dante Gabriel Rossetti. These artists include William Morris, Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Sir John William Waterhouse, Evelyn De Morgan, Arthur Hughes, Ford Madox Brown, and Frederic, Lord Leighton to name a few.

    A Few Pre-Raphaelite links:

    The Pre-Raphaelites: An Introduction at Victorian Web

    ArtLex on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

    Pre-Raphaelite Painting and Design

    Pre-Raphaelites at Artchive

    The Rossetti Archive

    The Pre-Raphaelite Society

    William Morris Society


    17 thoughts on “What is Pre-Raphaelite Art?

    1. I find this website facinating! a summer project of mine this year is going to be based on the Pre-Raphaelites. I love their use of bold colour and elegant compositions, their intrests in the red headed women are a change to a vast Majority who will not only paint only a beautiful woman but an ordinary one at that.The Red Headed women that appear in the Pre-Raphalites (with the exception of Jane Morris) were ordinary but rare and very stunning; going by their portraits.
      The groups title was also a revolt against the well known Raphael. Whom had been a corrupting tribute to the accademic teaching of art, or so thought by the Pre- Ralphaelites.
      I’m inspired by your decision to highlight the lives of the women involved in the young mens lives, as everyone overlooks their existance almost completely when studying this genre of art. Infact in the majority of art the models are overlooked, for without them the paintings would surely cease to exist.

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    3. Hi,

      this website is so interesting! Especially as I am writing a novel about a few sitters for pre Raphaelite painters and sculptors. My main characters are Mary Lloyd (hardly known) and tho sisters known as Dorothy and Lena Dene (real names Ada Alica Pullen and Isabell Helena Pullen).
      My novel is part fact and part fiction. It covers relationships between the women and the maen who painted them but especially between the women themselves. The fictional part is intertwined with autobiographic projections on topics, like gender, sexuality and emancipation on Mary and Lena.

      It is written in Dutch but might very well be translated into English. A synopsis can be found here: http://woordenstorm.nl/dovl/synopsis/the-improbability-of-love/

      Alice Anna

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    5. My husband is directly related to the 2 wives of William Holman Hunt – Edith and Fanny Waugh. I am doing the family tree on Ancestry and found your website fascinating as I am trying to put meat on their bones and find their place in Victorian society. Any ideas?

      • Have you read ‘Pre-Raphaelites in Love’ by Gay Daly? There’s some interesting information in it regarding Hunt’s marriages. Thank you for commenting, I’m thrilled to ‘meet’ you!

    6. You have omitted the fact that The PRB also drew inspiration from the Bible for many of their paintings with William Holman Hunt’s ‘Light of the World’ the most famous example based on Revelation 3 :20 ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock……’ neither
      myth or legend but truth. We are told that it’s message was so powerful that many people were converted to christianity as it was exhibited around the world.

    7. This is a great introduction to this fascinating topic.

      Readers may be interested to know that Rory Fellowes has written a new play (opening July 30 2013 at the Jermyn Street Theatre) about Sir William Blake Richmond, R.A., the profilic painter who created the mosaic decorations in the quire of St Paul’s Cathedral.

      WBR’s father was the portraitist George Richmond, and WBR grew up personally knowing artists such as Millais, Rosetti, Hunt, and Leighton, whose work he revered. Rory Fellowes (whose brother Julian is the screenwriter and creator of “Downton Abbey”) re-examines the life and legacy of this 19th century virtuoso in this new one-man show.

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    9. Hi Stephanie,

      I was just wondering where you got that list of 4 doctrines from? I am writing my dissertation at the moment and know of the list from Wikipedia (I am ashamed to admit) but cannot find the original source. I remember reading once that William Michael Rossetti might have listed them somewhere in a later work, perhaps an introduction to an anthology of letters of something, but don’t know which that would be, and haven’t found it anywhere so far. Unfortunately I think I would fail if I cited Wikipedia!


      • Don’t worry, somehow miraculously I just picked up a book with it on its first page! (after weeks of searching, typical!) It was William Michael Rossetti, and it was written in 1895 (I think as part of the introduction of the Memoirs)

        • I was just about to answer your first comment! William Michael Rossetti, ed., Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His Family-Letters, with a Memoir, London 1895, vol. I

    10. Hi,
      I’m writing a paper focusing on how the description of the three women in Rossetti’s works vary according to th,e then prevalent, idea of a perfect Victorian woman. This is a great website for resources. I’m going to mention it as one of the primary sources 🙂 Good day!

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