In 1848, as revolutions swept continental Europe and an uprising for social reform known as Chartism unsettled Britain, seven rebellious young artists in London formed a secret society with the aim of creating a new British art. They called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and the name, whose precise origin is contested, nevertheless indicates the chief source of their inspiration. Disenchanted with contemporary academic painting—most of them were colleagues at the Royal Academy of Art and famously disparaged the Academy’s founding president, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), as “Sir Sloshua”—the Brotherhood instead emulated the art of late medieval and early Renaissance Europe until the time of Raphael, an art characterized by minute description of detail, a luminous palette of bright colors that recalls the tempera paint used by medieval artists, and subject matter of a noble, religious, or moralizing nature. In mid-nineteenth-century England, a period marked by political upheaval, mass industrialization, and social ills, the Brotherhood at its inception strove to transmit a message of artistic renewal and moral reform by imbuing their art with seriousness, sincerity, and truth to nature.
At London’s Royal Academy and Free Exhibition shows of 1849, several paintings were exhibited with the cryptic initials “P.R.B.” along with the artists’ signatures; among these were Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice for the Death of His Young Brother, Slain in a Skirmish between the Colonna and Orsini Factions (private collection) by William Holman Hunt (1827–1910), Isabella (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) by John Everett Millais (1829–1896), and The Girlhood of Mary Virgin (Tate, London) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882). These canvases, though diverse in subject, embodied the Brotherhood’s initial aims in their keen observation of the natural world and depiction of subjects that lead the viewer to contemplate moral issues of justice, piety, familial relationships, and the struggle of purity against corruption.
Hunt’s work illustrates a passage from a popular Victorian novel, set in fourteenth-century Rome, by Bulwer-Lytton, and is characterized by a careful description of the outdoor setting. Millais’ Isabella is based on John Keats’ retelling of a story from Boccaccio’s Decameron; the artist re-creates in sumptuous detail the tastes and textures of a medieval banquet, from the creased tablecloth strewn with nutshells to guests at the grandly arrayed gathering. In his portrayal of the life of the Virgin, Rossetti employs an archaizing style and symbolic elements associated with early Renaissance painting: the lily, representing purity, the dove of the Holy Spirit, and the cruciform trellis. Other founding members of the Brotherhood—James Collinson (1825–1881; he resigned after converting to Catholicism in 1850), William Michael Rossetti (1829–1919), Frederic George Stephens (1827–1907), and the sculptor Thomas Woolner (1825–1892)—exhibited less frequently than its three prolific leading members.
The works of the Pre-Raphaelites met with critical opposition to their pietism, archaizing compositions, intensely sharp focus—which, with an absence of shadows, flattened the depicted forms—and the stark coloration they achieved by painting on a wet white ground. They had, however, several important champions. Foremost among them was the writer John Ruskin (1819–1900), an ardent supporter of painting from nature and a leading exponent of the Gothic Revival in England. Ruskin particularly admired the Pre-Raphaelites’ significant innovations to English landscape painting: their dedication to working en plein air, strict botanical accuracy, and minute detail. Though he did not initially admire the Brotherhood’s aims, he later wrote that they “may, as they gain experience, lay in our England the foundation of a school of art nobler than the world has seen for three hundred years.” Experience, in fact, served less to unify the Brotherhood and promote its founding ideals than to foster individual identities and styles. By the early 1850s, the Brotherhood dissolved, though several of the artists remained close friends and collaborators for the rest of their careers. In 1854, Hunt left for a two-year sojourn in the Near East, where he broadened his painting style while upholding the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of Christian subject matter in works such as The Scapegoat (1854–55; Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight).
In 1853, Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898) and William Morris (1834–1896)—two divinity students beginning their studies at Exeter College, Oxford—forged a friendship rooted in common interests: theology, art, and medieval literature. Two years later, they decided to pursue careers in art; mentored by Rossetti, whom they met at Oxford in 1856, they became the second generation of Pre-Raphaelites. While Rossetti and Burne-Jones retained the saturated palette and exhaustive detail of the earliest Pre-Raphaelite paintings, the focus of their work shifted. With subjects taken from poetry and medieval legend—such as the tales of King Arthur and the Divine Comedy of Dante—they presented an aesthetic of beauty for its own sake, and, with other artists and writers such as Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater, popularized the Aesthetic movement in the 1860s. Rossetti’s Lady Lilith of 1867 (08.162.1) originally bore a label admonishing the young male viewer not to be ensnared by the beauty of the Faustian enchantress, but the figure, with her revealing dress, languid posture, and long red hair, is rendered with a sensuality that subverts the label’s warning. Burne-Jones treated a number of allegorical and legendary themes, such as The Love Song (47.26) and The Wheel of Fortune (1883; Musée d’Orsay, Paris), and often focused, as did Rossetti, on portrayals of female vice and virtue.
As their works became more decorative, the Pre-Raphaelites were increasingly interested in the decorative arts. In 1861, Burne-Jones and Rossetti joined Morris’ new design firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. (reorganized as Morris & Company in 1875), producing murals, stained glass, furniture, textiles, jewelry, and wall coverings inspired by botanical motifs. The firm responded to the rift between fine and applied arts caused by the Industrial Revolution and mass production by reviving the workshop practices of medieval Europe, considered a paragon of spirituality and artistic integrity. By the mid-1880s, a movement to unify the arts, known as Arts and Crafts, took root in England and by century’s end was flourishing throughout the British Isles.