The Pre-Raphaelite Movement - History and Concepts
Beginnings of The Pre-Raphaelite Movement
Roots in Romanticism
The Pre-Raphaelite Movement grew out of several principal developments tied to Romanticism in early-19th-century Britain. The first was the reaction to industrialization, which had expanded at a feverish pace since the late-18th century, making Britain by far the most technologically and mechanically advanced nation by the 1830s. But with industrialization came an influx of laborers from the countryside who were crammed into dirty, polluted, and unsanitary housing and working conditions in the growing cities, where an increase in crime was also evident. Government regulation had failed to keep up with these rapid changes, and Romantic critics sought ways to expose such changes and ameliorate the situation. Artists and architects such as Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, who was responsible for all the interior designs of the new Houses of Parliament (1836-60), advocated a return to the Gothic style and the supposed healthful, green, and moral environment of the medieval era, which they viewed as the antithesis of the industrial age. Pugin's Contrasts (1836) and The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture (1841) proved enormously influential in promoting the Gothic Revival for the next several decades.
The Italian High Renaissance held a favored place in the British art world especially within the conservative Royal Academy. Founded in 1768, the Royal Academy was originally headed by the painter Joshua Reynolds, a great admirer of the High Renaissance, and especially the Italian Raphael. The Royal Academy championed genre and portrait painting (the latter of which was Reynolds' specialism) and encouraged artists to idealize their subjects in the dress and classicized surroundings reminiscent of ancient Greece and Rome, a tradition known as the "Grand Manner."
During the 1840s, the newly established National Gallery in London acquired two "primitive" works that would help the reputation of early Renaissance art: the Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck (1434) and Lorenzo Monaco's San Benedetto Altarpiece (1407-9). The painting and the altarpiece are very different, but they share an extraordinary attention to detail and a preference for saturated color. The artists who would become the Pre-Raphaelites particularly admired Van Eyck's Arnolofini Portraitfor for its subtle symbolism, its renderings of natural light, and the intensely realized surfaces and textures.
The reaction against the Grand Manner and classical ideals also manifested itself in Romantic painting and its emphasis on the landscape. The works of John Constable, Thomas Gainsborough, and J.M.W. Turner also proved highly effective in shifting attention away from ugly cityscapes. The Romantics offered a nostalgic portrait of the countryside and agricultural life (nostalgic, given that it was a lifestyle that was fast disappearing with the onset of industrialization) and the humbling power of nature over the human figure. Many of these works were associated with the idea of "the sublime," a term coined by Edmund Burke in his book, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), and which proposes that a sublime art would be able to draw out the strongest possible range of emotions in the spectator. The Romantics were championed by the influential art critic John Ruskin, whose work Modern Painters (1843/1846) defended Turner's originality (in particular), arguing that artists should devote themselves to the truths found in the observation of nature. Ruskin contrasted the "vulgarity" and "insipid repetition" of most academic painting with Turner's innovative Naturalism and light effects (Turner's paintings are often said to exemplify the idea of the sublime in art).
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood
Inspired by these early Renaissance works, and by their disillusionment with the Royal Academy's prescriptive and idealistic approach to art, a group of young revolutionary thinkers - William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti - came together to create the secretive Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in September of 1848. Their aim was threefold: to revive British art; to make it as dynamic, powerful and creative as the late medieval and early Renaissance works created before the time of the Italian artist Raphael; and to find ways of expressing both nature and true emotions in art. The three original members were quickly joined by James Collinson and Frederic George Stephens (both painters), William Michael Rossetti (a poet and critic, and brother of Rossetti), and the sculptor Thomas Woolner. Although the impetus and fame of the movement remained with the three original founders, the term "Pre-Raphaelite" came to refer to any art made in the style popularized by the original trio.
The group's early doctrine - which emphasized the importance of each artist's own interpretation and agency - had four parts, as recorded by Dante Rossetti:
1. to have genuine ideas to express;
2. to study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express it;
3. to sympathize with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote;
4. most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.
The Pre-Raphaelites were also inspired by Ruskin's conclusions about "imaginative" modern painters who can "mark [...] the definite and characteristic leaf, blossom, seed, fracture, color, and inward anatomy of everything. [...] There is nothing within the limits of natural possibility that [the imaginative painter] dares not do, or that he allows the necessity of doing. The laws of nature he knows, are to him no restraint. They are his own nature." In a 1851 letter to the London Times, which marked the beginning of his involvement with the group, Ruskin stated that the Pre-Raphaelites "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." Ruskin continued his support for the Pre-Raphaelites until 1854, when his wife Effie asked for an annulment so that she might marry John Everett Millais.
The Breakup of The Brotherhood
Not only was Millais instrumental in repelling Ruskin's support, his own work led directly to the breakup of the Brotherhood. In 1850, Millais exhibited a new painting, Christ in the House of his Parents, which drew criticism from a number of circles, including author Charles Dickens, for blaspheming the Virgin Mary. Critics found Mary, whom Millais had modelled on his sister-in-law, "ugly," suggesting that it was scandalous to depict her as other than an idealized, beautiful woman, instead presenting the Holy Family as ordinary and poor.
In the aftermath of this controversy, James Collinson left the group, while the other members remained indecisive, and did not exhibit together again publicly. Woolner moved to Australia in 1852, and the final straw came in 1853 when Millais accepted membership to the Royal Academy - the very institution the Brotherhood had been challenging - prompting the group's official dissolution. However, while the original Brotherhood lasted no more than five years, the term "Pre-Raphaelite" stuck, and continued to be used in Britain for several decades.
Morris and Burne-Jones lead to Arts & Crafts Movement
In 1857, Dante Gabriel Rossetti met two of his young followers at Oxford: William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. Burne-Jones became Rossetti's apprentice, and Rossetti invited the two friends to help him paint scenes from the life of King Arthur on the ceiling of the Oxford University Union. Between them, the three men promoted an even more rigorously medievalist strand of Pre-Raphaelitism, which espoused the virtues of a pre-industrial life and created paintings and furniture in the style of late medieval art.
Along with Rossetti, Morris and Burne-Jones began to formulate new directions for the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Morris in particular was keen to take the Pre-Raphaelite ideology beyond the realm of fine art, and ultimately founded the Arts and Crafts movement. Morris, with Burne-Jones, Rossetti and a few other associates, founded a new design firm called Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Company. The company specialized in furniture, wallpaper, textiles, and stained glass based on medieval methods of handcraft and with illustrations drawn from Symbolist literature and poetry. Morris later bought out his other partners and renamed the firm simply Morris & Co. in 1875. The company thrived during the 1880s and 1890s, but eventually folded in 1940.
Pre-Raphaelitism Beyond The Brotherhood
Over the next two or three decades, more artists became associated with Pre-Raphaelitism. Many were painters, but there were also innovative sculptors and photographers who contributed to the progress of the movement. Ford Madox Brown was one of the painters who declined to officially join the Brotherhood but remained, nonetheless, closely connected to its members. He shared the Brotherhood's interest in Naturalism, poetry, and literature, but his explicit critique of Victorian society set him apart from most of the other artists. He had helped found Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., and his daughter Lucy (also an artist) married William Michael Rossetti. The painter Arthur Hughes, meanwhile, had met Millais and Hunt early in the Brotherhood years but was not directly associated with the circle until he assisted with the Oxford Union murals. Hughes's work is in fact most emblematic of an "Arthurian" branch of Pre-Raphaelitism that focused specifically on the myths and stories of medieval England.
Several recent exhibitions have explored the relationship between Pre-Raphaelitism and early British fine art photography. Photographers including Roger Fenton, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Henry Peach Robinson were evidently influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites. These early innovators pushed the camera's mechanical representation of nature toward the fine arts and painting. The artists and photographers were often friends and took inspiration from the same literature, medievalism in costume and decoration; and a preoccupation with rendering light and natural detail.
A further shift in the broadening Pre-Raphaelite circle was toward portraits of women. From the late 1860s a number of artists, including Burne-Jones, Madox Brown, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, began painting a series of beautiful, often sexually empowered, women. They used models most of whom challenged traditional Victorian standards of beauty. Many of the models were artists in their own right, including Georgiana Burne-Jones, Marie Spartali-Stilman, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti's favorite model, Jane Morris, the wife of William Morris and a skilled embroiderer (and with whom he had a well-publicized affair).
The Pre-Raphaelite Movement: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Truth to Nature
One of the earliest Pre-Raphaelite goals was to achieve the highest degree of objectivity in their depictions of nature. Millais and Hunt, for example, spent considerable periods of time away from London in the countryside, carefully studying plants and flowers in preparation for their paintings, including Millais' famous Ophelia (1851-2) and Hunt's Our English Coasts (Strayed Sheep) (1852). The preference for an unvarnished, honest aesthetic brought a sense of realism to mythical narrative already familiar to their audiences. For example, Millais's Christ in the House of his Parents features St. Anne's painfully swollen, elderly hands, a detail that British academic painting would softened so as not to offend public tastes.
The interest in late medieval and early Renaissance art from Italy and northern Europe was extended by Rossetti, Morris, and Burne-Jones, who also delved into the legends of medieval England. Their love of medieval craftsmanship was partly inspired by the suggestion, put so eloquently by John Ruskin in his essay "The Nature of Gothic" (1853), that the individual creativity enjoyed by medieval craftsmen was preferable to the "slavery" inherent in the modern industrial system. His argument had a profound effect on William Morris who set out upon a utopian mission to create a world where pre-industrial values and methods were restored. Morris's company specifically emphasized the use of labor-intensive handcrafts and a return to natural materials and dyes. In the same ideological vein, Burne-Jones designed tapestries that revived the arts of embroidery and weaving for a new generation.
Literature and Art
Several Pre-Raphaelite artists were prolific poets and writers. Dante Gabriel Rossetti frequently wrote sonnets to accompany his paintings, which he had inscribed on the frame, including the famous Lady Lilith (1868). Many Pre-Raphaelite artists also took works of literature as their source material drawing particularly on the writings of Robert Browning, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and William Shakespeare.
A key innovation amongst Pre-Raphaelites was to treat scenes from literature without romantic embellishments or crude stereotyping. Millais' Mariana (1851), for example, takes its title and subject from a character in Tennyson's poem of the same name (the poet was inspired by the character from Shakespeare's The Tempest). Rather than depicting Mariana waiting patiently and forlornly for her lover's return, Millais paints her in the process of stretching her back and looking bored with her wait. Morris, meanwhile, was an accomplished and widely published poet, who, in 1892, was offered the post of Poet Laureate of Great Britain (though he turned the offer down). In turn, many poets were influenced by Pre-Raphaelitism, most notably perhaps, William Butler Yeats and Oscar Wilde.
Although Pre-Raphaelitism is most readily associated with painting, the movement had a profound effect on the decorative arts. William Morris was at the forefront of a revolution in design that led eventually to the founding of the Arts and Crafts movement. Morris's company, Morris & Co., was intended to make good design available to a wider range of individuals (although the prices of his hand-printed and embroidered goods meant they were still generally restricted to the upper middle classes). Other artists, such as Burne-Jones and Dante Rossetti, joined Morris's efforts, producing designs and decoration for furniture and tapestries.
Moreover, Pre-Raphaelitism inspired a generation of illustrators including the artist Phoebe Traquair and the iconic Art Nouveau designer Aubrey Beardsley. Their hybrid styles mixed elements of Pre-Raphaelitism with other related movements. When Traquair illustrated famed Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese, for instance, she combined the style of medieval illuminated manuscript, with watercolor paintings on vellum, and decorative motifs borrowed from 14th-century European manuscripts. Although Traquair had been directly influenced by the writings of the Pre-Raphaelites - even embedding the names of Ruskin and Rossetti in her murals for the Edinburgh children's hospital in 1885 - her illuminations also reflect her interest in Celtic and Byzantine arts.
Socialism and The Transformation of Society
In 1848, the year that the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded, Marx's Communist Manifesto was published in London and revolutions broke out across Europe, largely driven by the middle and working classes and demands for democratic reforms. In this context, Pre-Raphaelite interest in medievalism and Naturalism, when set in opposition to the "progress" of industrial society, had unavoidable political implications. Although most of the Pre-Raphaelites were only tenuously associated with socialism, it is tempting to read, for example, a certain challenge to traditional class hierarchy in Millais' Christ in the House of His Parents, particularly when Charles Dickens condemned the artist's realistic portrayal of an impoverished Virgin Mary as "a monster in the vilest cabaret in France or in the lowest gin-shop in England." However, contemporary social and class conflicts are visible in a few of the Pre-Raphaelite's works, including one in Madox Brown's painting Work (1852-65). The Pre-Raphaelite belief that art could alter society gathered strength and developed its full expression in the Arts and Crafts movement, whose mission was clearly articulated by William Morris in socialist terms - to transform the lives of the working classes through arts and design.
Later Developments - After The Pre-Raphaelite Movement
The Pre-Raphaelites became closely associated with the Aesthetic and the Decadent movements that emerged as early as the 1870s. Both moved away from the movement's original ideals of being true to nature and representation of non-idealized subjects. Rather, the Aesthetic movement privileged pleasing compositions over content. Several artists, most notably Edward Burne-Jones, began to paint in the Aesthetic style, producing sensual works designed to evoke bodily response in the viewer.
The Aesthetic Movement incorporated much of the Pre-Raphaelite influence on the decorative arts. Supplied with furniture from Morris & Co. and printed fabrics from Liberty's (a London department store that opened in 1875,) "aesthetes" were able to live as if they were inside a Pre-Raphaelite painting. Even the features of models made famous by Pre-Raphaelite portraits, which had been unfashionable when the movement began, had become the key markers for female attractiveness by the end of the nineteenth century. Rather than petite, plump, and fair, women aspired to be thin, large-featured, and red or black haired, echoing the portraits of Elizabeth Siddall and Jane Morris by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Throughout much of the 20th century Pre-Raphaelite contributions were rarely discussed and the movement, like much of Victorian art, was considered passé. There were some notable exceptions, including Salvador Dalí, who praised the Pre-Raphaelites' paintings of women as "carnal fantasies," and the "gelatinous meat of the most guilty of sentimental dreams." Despite sustained British interest in the movement, international exhibitions of Pre-Raphaelite art remained rare until the 1990s, when interest was revived in Pre-Raphaelite artists as individuals and as a group. These exhibitions challenged the idea of Pre-Raphaelitism as an insular and solely British movement, providing a template for re-examining the Pre-Raphaelite legacy in the history of modern art.