Summary of The Pre-Raphaelites
The Pre-Raphaelites opposed the dominance of the British Royal Academy, which championed a narrow range of idealized or moral subjects and conventional definitions of beauty drawn from the early Italian Renaissance and Classical art. In contrast, the Pre-Raphaelites took inspiration from an earlier (pre-Raphaelite - before the artist Raphael) period, that is, the centuries preceding the High Renaissance. They believed painters before the Renaissance provided a model for depicting nature and the human body realistically, rather than idealistically, and that collective guilds of medieval craftspeople offered an alternative vision of artistic community to mid-19th-century academic approaches.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- The Pre-Raphaelites rejected not only the British Royal Academy's preference for Victorian subjects and styles, but also its teaching methods. They believed that rote learning had replaced truth and experience. Theirs was one of the first major challenges to "official" art, and their early "institutional critique" is a crucial piece of the history of modern art in Britain.
- Above all, Pre-Raphaelitism espoused Naturalism: the detailed study of nature by the artist and fidelity to its appearance, even when this risked showing ugliness. It also named a preference for natural forms as the basis for patterns and decoration that offered an antidote to the industrial designs of the machine age.
- As part of their reaction to the negative impact of industrialization, Pre-Raphaelites turned to the medieval period as a stylistic model and as an ideal for the synthesis of art and life in the applied arts. Their revival of medieval styles, stories, and methods of production greatly influenced the development of the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau design movements.
Overview of The Pre-Raphaelites
"Beauty without the beloved is like a sword through the heart," Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote. His emphasis upon ideal female beauty made him a maverick among the Pre-Raphaelites.
Important Art and Artists of The Pre-Raphaelites
This painting by Rossetti was the first Pre-Raphaelite work to appear in public. It featured the secretive initials "PRB," indicating that the artist was a member of the newly established Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In the painting, the Virgin Mary appears at home with her mother, St. Anne, and an angel, while her father tends the garden outside the window.
The style is deliberately modeled on late Medieval and early Renaissance paintings, which were highly unpopular in Victorian England at the time. The composition defies the techniques of traditional perspective, with a notable flatness between the foreground and background, which foreshadows later artists' rejections of classical ways of depicting realistic space.
As art historian Jason Rosenfeld points out, "Rossetti's picture represents a revivalist style that draws on early Renaissance paintings from Northern Europe and Italy, blended with a comprehensive religious symbolism expressed in a profusion of clearly observed details and natural forms, such as the lilies redolent of the Virgin Mary's purity and the lamp evoking piety." Rossetti adds another touch of realism by portraying the likenesses of his mother and sister as Mary and Saint Anne; at the time this was considered blasphemous given the standard dependence on classical models for the Holy Family. Rossetti's daring combined with his Medievalist style was highly controversial and drew attention to the limits of the "Grand Manner" that was still celebrated in the British Academy. In effect, Rossetti was proposing a radical alternative way to represent even the most sacred of subjects.
Rossetti's painting of the Annunciation is still mystifying viewers in the 21st century. The angel Gabriel's announcement to the Virgin Mary of her impending miraculous pregnancy is one of the most familiar and popular subjects in religious art, but Rossetti's interpretation of the moment is utterly singular and was criticized for its realism when it was first exhibited.
Taking his inspiration from early Italian frescoes, like those by the monk Fra Angelico, Rossetti chose a simplified palette and composition. But within these self-imposed boundaries, and despite the inclusion of many recognizable symbols of the Virgin (the lilies, etc.), the scene departs totally from traditional depictions. The artist used his sister as a model for the Virgin, highlighting her red hair and the innocent, fragile state of a young woman just awakening from sleep. Since the Renaissance the Annunciation had been used as an example for women's piety and virginity, but the modern expression on Rossetti's Virgin's face and her posture seem disturbed and mysterious and are difficult to interpret as pious. This uncertainty introduced into a sacred scene is typical of Rossetti, and it is above all his Naturalism that allows the viewer to experience such a profound connection to the humanity of the normally idealized Virgin.
Ophelia is arguably both John Everett Millais' masterpiece and the most iconic work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Painted when he was only 22 years old, Millais worked for months in the open air in the countryside, composing the background with painstaking detail. In addition to flowers and boughs, Millais included reeds, the muddy bank, and a water rat.
Elizabeth Siddall, a cutlery-maker's daughter whose unusual looks were highly regarded by Pre-Raphaelite artists, modeled the figure of Ophelia, whose death is described in Shakespeare's Hamlet by Queen Gertrude. Ophelia, having gone mad from Hamlet's rejection, sinks slowly into the river while singing. Millais posed his model in a bathtub filled with water to accurately capture the effect of water on her clothes and hair. Famously, the model nearly died after the candles warming the water went out and she caught pneumonia. Well beyond earlier Victorian genre paintings, in Ophelia Millais strived to recreate a moment from a fictional work as it really happened, in a way that is highly realistic, while being simultaneously romantic and dramatic.
Useful Resources on The Pre-Raphaelites
- The Art of the Pre-RaphaelitesOur PickBy Elizabeth Prettejohn
- The Pre-Raphaelites: From Rossetti to RuskinEdited by Dinah Roe
- Painting with Light: Art and Photography from the Pre-Raphaelite to the Modern AgeEdited by Carol Jacobi and Hope Kingsley
- Reading the Pre-Raphaelites - Revised EditionBy Tim Barringer
- Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and DesignBy Tim Barringer
- Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant GardeOur PickBy Tim Barringer
- The Pre-Raphaelite SisterhoodBy Jan Marsh
- The Pre-RaphaelitesOur PickBy Jennifer Meagher / The Metropolitan Museum of Art / October, 2004
- Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant GardeOur PickBy Jonathan Jones / The Guardian / September 12, 2012
- Tate Britain exhibition to uncover dangerous, sexy side to Pre-RaphaelitesBy Mark Brown / The Guardian / September 10, 2012
- Pre-Raphaelites, Tate Britain exhibition: visions that tell us who we areBy Mark Hudson / The Telegraph / September 12, 2012