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Who were the Pre-Raphaelites?

Written by
Jessica DavidsonTeaching Fellow in British History, University of Keele
Oil painting, Love among the ruins, by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-1898), 1894, against the oak panelling of the Great Parlour at Wightwick Manor
Oil painting, Love among the ruins, by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones at Wightwick Manor, West Midlands | © National Trust Images/Paul Raeside

Find out about the people that shared an artistic vision and created a new movement. Shunning the popular Royal Academy approach to art they focused on natural, religious and mythological themes. Discover how their radical style became popular leading to hand-made art becoming popular for a mass audience.

Who were the Pre-Raphaelites?

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a 19th century art movement founded in 1848 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and several of their friends. The name refers to their interest in early Italian art before Raphael (born 1483), which was a rejection of the artistic canon championed by the Royal Academy at the time.

What was Pre-Raphaelite art?

The artists shared an interest in nature and realism and a close link with literature and poetry. The works are rich in detail, particularly in depictions of the natural world. Christian religious imagery, Arthurian romance and mythology were popular themes.

Oil painting on canvas laid down on panel, Road to Calvary (after Veronese), previously attributed to Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830 - 1894), 1850 to late 19th century, after an original Veronese in the Louvre. A painted oval of Christ, bowed under the weight of the Cross, being assisted by a figure on either side; left, two mourning women.
Oil painting on canvas laid down on panel, Road to Calvary (after Veronese), previously attributed to Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830 - 1894) | © National Trust images

Though they called themselves a brotherhood, the circle grew to include female artists as well, including the pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, poet Christina Rossetti, and Elizabeth Siddal: Rossetti’s wife, muse, and a painter in her own right.

Over the next few decades, Pre-Raphaelitism grew from an exercise in youthful idealism into a mature artistic movement with a socialist edge.

Close up image of a wooden settle with half finished painted scene of people by William Morris at Red House in London
A William Morris painted settle at Red House in London | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Art and industry

Merchants and industrialists were great patrons of the Pre-Raphaelite painters. As today, the very wealthy were interested in supporting the most exciting, cutting edge art of the time.

Their interest in the movement seems at times to be at odds with their work – the imaginative and natural against the scientific and mechanical. Art provided the artists a retreat into the beautiful, an escape from the utilitarian ideology of the modern world.

Some of the artists began to experiment with older techniques of craftsmanship, most notably William Morris, whose decorative arts company sought to celebrate the handmade and unique in an age of mass-production.

Progressive painters

Though often criticised for being backward looking, with an interest in ‘primitive’ artistic styles, the Pre-Raphaelite’s efforts to include contemporary social issues in their works and break down the barriers between literature and art was radical for the time.

Trusted Source

This is a Trusted Source article written by Jessica Davidson in affiliation with the University of Oxford. Jessica is a Teaching Fellow in British History at the University of Keele.

Octavia Hill (1838 - 1912) (after John Singer Sargent) by Reginald Grenville Eves, RA (London 1876 ¿ Middleton in Teesdale 1941)

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