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Spotlight on the Pre-Raphaelites

  • 2 min read

With a major BBC drama about the lives of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood we thought we should take a look at the work and long lasting influence this particular group of artists.

The name Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood referrers to the groups opposition to the Royal Academy's promotion of Renaissance master Raphael as ideal artist. They wanted to go back to a time and style before Raphael using abundant detail, intense colours, complex compositions, and reflecting the realism of things in the world.

The initial group was formed by seven artists, of whom only three gained notoriety: William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82), and John Everett Millais (1829-96).

In the first few years of the Brotherhood, the leading painters were greatly influenced by the artist and critic, John Ruskin who’s patronage of the group also helped them gain mainstream acceptance. He urged artists to 'go to Nature. Rejecting nothing, selecting nothing and scorning nothing'. The bright colours and photographic attention to detail in Millais's Ophelia 1851-2 (for which he spent four months outside painting the background) were unprecedented. Most importantly they painted with the full colour and brilliance of daylight and painted landscapes out of doors.

The work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was both controversial and shocking. Their painting of religious subjects in a realistic manner was regarded as sacrilegious. Millais' painting Christ in the House of His Parents (1849-50) portrayed Joseph with workman's hands and dirt under his fingernails and he used an actual carpenter as a model. Charles Dickens described the painting as "mean, odious, repulsive, and revolting".

As the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood gradually dispersed Rossetti, together with William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones formed an alternative Brotherhood based in Oxford which lead onto the Arts and Crafts Movement. William Holman Hunt, went to Palestine to get realistic biblical backgrounds for his paintings, and continued to paint in the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood style. Millais was disillusioned by the poor reception of his work and decided to follow his own direction, eventually becoming president of the Royal Academy the year he died.

The movement influenced the work of many later British artists well into the twentieth century. Rossetti came to be seen as a precursor of the wider European Symbolist movement. In the late twentieth century the Brotherhood of Ruralists based its aims on Pre-Raphaelitism, while the Stuckists and the Birmingham Group have also have derived inspiration from it.

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