The Pre-Raphaelites were a secret society founded in 1848 by seven students of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, with the academy’s first president still in charge, Sir Joshua Reynolds. Originally called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, meaning the Brotherhood “before Raphael.” The group was against the strict stipulations, dark color pallets and predetermined themes of the Academy, and would sign all paintings with the initials PRB, to remain anonymous.
The first artists to establish the group were Sir John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Soon Thomas Woolner, Frederic George Stephens, James Collinson and William Micheal Rossetti – the only one that was not a painter, but an aspiring writer – also joined and helped form the Pre-Raphaelites. One of the purposes of the group was to join literature and art. So, in 1850, they create a monthly magazine called The Germ, Thoughts towards nature in art and literature. Although they sold minimal copies and it was a financial failure, the periodical was very acclaimed by the critics.
The Pre-Raphaelites had a common interest in ancient Italian art from the Medieval times. They believed the Medieval art was more experimental and freer than in their own time, and often used the Medieval romance as a theme. Strictly loyal to nature, this group of artists was painting outside way before the Impressionists came along. To represent great luminosity, the Pre-Raphaelites would prepare the canvas with a white layer of paint and apply color to it before it completely dried. This way of painting with light recalls to the Early Renaissance.
Millais painting of Hamlet’s character Ophelia drowning was mostly painted in his studio, but the artist spent days on the river banks painting specific vegetation from Shakespeare’s tragedy. In 1850, Millais showed Christ in the House of his Parents in the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, and it wasn’t well received. The painting shows Jesus as a child in his father’s wood shop. There are many signs of his future crucifixion hidden in the artwork, like the most visible sign, the cut in the palm of his hand, symbolizing the stigmata. Mother Mary is on her knees next to Jesus with an expression of sadness, as if she felt something was going to happen. Millais was criticized for blasphemy because of this work, but today it is considered one of his greatest paintings and a masterpiece of the Pre-Raphaelites.
Charles Dickens accused Millais of being brutally realistic and also blamed the Brotherhood for using repugnant themes, like non-artistic death, prostitution, and extreme poverty. For some time after this, all artwork that had any resemblance to the Pre-Raphaelites, even if the artist was not part of the group, was considered of bad taste.
In The Last of England, which was painted outdoors, Ford Madox Brown portrays a couple traveling to Australia to start a new life. The painting is faithful to the Pre-Raphaelite ideals, as it evokes intense emotion and the luminosity is loyal to the cloudy day out in the ocean. Brown goes through many different transformations in his style, and even though he remained faithful to the Brotherhood for many years, he, later on, becomes a cornerstone of the Symbolism movement.
At the end of the 1850s, the movement was no longer despised, opening up to new followers. This second generation of the Pre-Raphaelites had two leading artists: William Morris, who later founded the Arts and Crafts movement, and Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, whose first works were influenced by Rossetti’s fantasy. Both Burne-Jones and Rossetti liked to portray women wearing Medieval clothing and holding objects that symbolize love.
Rossetti paints The Daydream with William Morris’ wife, Jane Burdon, as a model. In this painting, she is representing a seductive woman with satin clothing and, as the Pre-Raphaelite movement idealizes, in nature. Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal, wife, model and muse of Rossetti that is likewise an artist following the group's ideals. Also, Maria Spartali-Stillman, Burne-Jones’ student, and her cousin, Maria Zambaco, a sculptor, both inspire artists of the Pre-Raphaelites.
Other artists to come later on are Arthur Hughes, encouraged to join the movement after seeing The Germ, Valentine Prinsep, a student of G. F. Watts, and John Waterhouse, who brings the Pre-Raphaelites to the XX century. Waterhouse paints one of his most famous paintings Boreas in 1903, still in sync with the ideals of the movement.
Even though the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood only lasted for five years, its repercussions were seen till the turn of the century. The Pre-Raphaelite is considered the most important British artist movement of history, as it broke free from predefined academic templates and rediscovered Medieval art and culture.
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