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Who were the Pre-Raphaelites and what did they do?

A little bit of art history doesn't hurt anybody!

What does Pre-Raphaelite mean?

The term Pre-Raphelite comes from the name of the Renaissance painter Raphael (1483-1520), and refers to the 19th century painters' ideology, as they intended to reject the artistic ideals presented by the time of Raphael until their contemporaries.

Raphael’s painting, titled ‘The Transfiguration’ served as their example for the rejection of artistic ideals. As Hunt summarised, “its grandiose disregard of the simplicity of truth, the pompous posturing of the apostles and the unspiritual posture of the savior.” Their idea was to paint authentic, natural world – their mission was to advocate genuine expression of purity, morality, piety, relationships, “free from academic affectation”.

Transfiguration. Raphael. 1516–20

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in 1848 by William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1829-1896) and John Everett Millais (1829-1896). It was a group of (mostly) painters and poets, including a wider circle of many more important figures of 19th century England, such as James Collinson, William Morris, Algernon Charles Swinburn, Christina Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown, and later Edward Burne-Jones and John William Waterhouse.

William Holman Hunt
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
John Everett Millais

Key ideas

Their major starting point was to reject the British Royal Academy’s teaching of typical Victorian subjects and painting methods. They preferred to show naturalism, even if it meant the presentation of ‘ugliness’. They wanted to create a modernised type of art that was free from the strict arbitrary rules of the Academy and the convention of contemporary art. Their main innovations included:

‘Ecce Ancilla Domini’ (Behold the handmaid of the Lord), Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1850

Rejecting the way painting was taught in the Academy. Their compositions didn’t include the rules of (1) grouping figures in a shape of a pyramid, (2) one major light source, (3) emphasis on contrasts and dull colours. Instead their paintings were crowded, evenly lit, bright-coloured.

The Shadow of Death, by William Holman Hunt

The representation of their subjects was almost photographic; even if the convention was to put emphasis on the ‘important’ parts and blur the ‘less important’ surroundings.

Love Among the Ruins. Wightwick Manor. 1894. Sir Edward Burne-Jones.

Their subjects were often figures from poets like Tennyson, Keats, and Shakespeare.

Hylas and the Nymphs, by John William Waterhouse


Sir John Everett Millais, Bt Ophelia 1851–2


Lizzie Siddal, the "Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel"

Self portrait 1853-4

The well-known subject of Millais' Ophelia, and many more Pre-Raphaelite paintings, Lizzie Siddal was more than a popular model. Her association with the brotherhood allowed her to practice art and poetry herself, that wasn't  a possibility for most women around that time.



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