The movement was originally founded in 1848 by William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais. The name was decided upon as the group aimed to rediscover the painting styles of artists working earlier than the time of Raphael.

The group, initially comprised of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his brother William, James Collinson, the sculptor Thomas Woolner as well as Hunt and Millais. They specialised in detailed studies of medieval scenes strong on elaborate symbolism and noble themes. However, after Millais' 'Ophelia' (1850-1851) was exhibited to great acclaim at the Royal Academy Exhibition the original group dissolved.

As a result Rossetti, together with William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones formed an alternative Brotherhood based in Oxford, specialising in the depiction of pale, ethereal beauties, while Millais and Hunt went their separate ways but continued working according to the original ideas of the movement.

Pre-Raphaelitism was highly successful during the Victorian era and continued into the early 20th century with artists such as Maxwell Armfield and Frank Cadogan Cowper.