What is Pre-Raphaelite Art?

'Lorenzo and Isabella' was Millais' first painting as a Pre-Raphaelite. The initials PRB can be seen on the leg of Isabella's chair. The painting is inspired by a poem by Keats.
‘Lorenzo and Isabella’ was Millais’ first painting as a Pre-Raphaelite. The initials PRB can be seen on the leg of Isabella’s chair. The painting is inspired by a poem by Keats. 

The term “Pre-Raphaelite” is now used so frequently that many people seem to think it is merely an adjective for any piece of Victorian art.  No, darlings, no.  Every painting of a maiden with voluminous hair is not a Pre-Raphaelite work (you see this a lot on eBay. Long hair, antiquated clothing? PRE-RAPHAELITE PRINT!)

While it can seem to be an umbrella term, it actually refers to art created by members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their followers. On this website, I often include artists like Waterhouse, Burne-Jones, and De Morgan. They were not members of the PRB but they are definitely adherents in style, principle, or subject matter so in my posts I describe them  as  Pre-Raphaelite followers.  To further understand the term, I direct you to Pre-Raphaelites: An Introduction (via Victorian Web).

What was the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood? The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood began in 1848 as a secret group of young 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 rebelling against the current art establishment, mainly the British Royal Academy and their formulaic approach to art instruction. Though the Pre-Raphaelites’ goal was to remain secret, the meaning of the initials “PRB” inscribed on their paintings became public (possibly leaked by Dante Gabriel Rossetti).

They were a group of  idealists drawn together by youthful rebellion and their goals were sincere. In character and temperament, the members of the Brotherhood were vastly different. Millais, Rossetti, and Holman Hunt each had his own distinctive style, but one thing they all agreed on was their displeasure with the way artists were instructed at the Royal Academy.  Training there was formulaic and dry; they longed to rebel against the first president of the RA, Sir Joshua Reynolds (they referred to him as Sir Sloshua).  This instruction led to generations of British art that the Pre-Raphaelites saw as dark and unimaginative.

At the home of Millais’ parents, the young artists studied early Italian frescoes and marveled at the difference between them and the current norms in the art world.  The believed that for the art world to be revived, it needed to return to the time before Raphael, and thus, the name Pre-Raphaelite was born.  In the midst of the Industrial Revolution and scientific discovery, these artists looked backward and created works that celebrated a distinct Medieval aesthetic.

'Isabella and the Pot of Basil', William Holman Hunt
‘Isabella and the Pot of Basil’, William Holman Hunt

Inspired by late Medieval and early Renaissance works, the Pre-Raphaelites created  paintings that were vibrantly different than the art of their contemporaries. Their efforts to stay true to nature resulted in botanical details that were painstakingly reproduced.  The doctrines they followed resulted in paintings with an almost photographic realism. They had their critics, however, and their work was not easily accepted. (Hint: Charles Dickens did not approve. Later, though, he became good friends with Millais.)

'Ecce Ancilla Domini' (Behold the handmaid of the Lord), Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1850. Christina Rossetti is seen as the Virgin Mary, William Michael Rossetti as Gabriel.
‘Ecce Ancilla Domini’ (Behold the handmaid of the Lord), Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1850. Christina Rossetti is seen as the Virgin Mary, William Michael Rossetti as Gabriel.

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 sympathize 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 vivd and colorful brilliance. 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.

The Brotherhood itself did not last very long.  The artists grew in different directions and their styles changed. For the most part, they stayed true to the principles that guided them in 1848 (in their own individual ways).  The members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the artists they influenced had a profound effect on 19th and early 20th-century art. In fact, once you are familiar with them, you can easily spot their influence in popular culture today.

'Lady Lilith', Dante Gabriel Rossetti
‘Lady Lilith’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Though they were a brotherhood, there were many women in their circle that were  crucial to their work. These are the women that inspired the creation of this website. You’ll find I write about Lizzie Siddal a great deal. (I also own LizzieSiddal.com.)

Elizabeth Siddal was discovered in a milliner’s shop and she began to model for Walter Deverell, William Holman Hunt, and, notably, for Millais’ Ophelia.  Eventually, she would pose only for Rossetti. Lizzie became his muse and her features are an important part of his work at this time. She went on to become an artist and poet herself, although her life was punctuated with sadness and ended in a laudanum overdose at age 32, two years after her marriage to Rossetti.

I recommend Lucinda Hawksley’s biography of Siddal  and Jan Marsh’s The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal if you have not yet read them.  Jane Burden Morris and Georgiana Burne-Jones were also integral figures in the Pre-Raphaelite circle.  In later years, many female Pre-Raphaelite artists would emerge, such as Evelyn De Morgan, Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale, Marie Spartali Stillman and more.  There are also many models that I write about on this site, including Fanny Cornforth and Alexa Wilding,  They are the faces of the movement and their contributions should never be overlooked.

You can follow Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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


18 Replies to “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.

  2. 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

    1. Thank you! And I am very interested in your project. Good luck, I’d love to read it when you are finished.

  3. 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?

    1. 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!

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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!


    1. 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)

      1. 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

  7. This is surely what websites are for – how refreshing to see the mutual help and informed discussion.

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