Toward the middle of the 19th century, a small group of young artists in England reacted vigorously against what they felt was "the frivolous art of the day": this reaction became known as the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Their ambition was to bring English art (such as it was) back to a greater "truth to nature." They deeply admired the simplicities of the early 15th century, and they felt this admiration made them a brotherhood.
While contemporary critics and art historians worshiped Raphael as the great master of the Renaissance, these young students rebelled against what they saw as Raphael's theatricality and the Victorian hypocrisy and pomp of the academic art tradition. The friends decided to form a secret society, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, in deference to the sincerities of the early Renaissance before Raphael developed his grand manner. The Prc-Raphaelites adopted a high moral stance that embraced a sometimes unwieldy combination of symbolism and realism. They painted only serious - usually religious or romantic - subjects, and their style was clear and sharply focused. it entailed a unique insistence on painting everything from direct observation.
The group initially caused outrage when the existence of their secret brotherhood became known after their first works were exhibited in 1849. They also offended with their heavily religious and realist themes that were so unlike the popular historical paintings. However, the Royal Academy continued to exhibit Pre-Raphaelite paintings, and after 1852 their popularity burgeoned. Their work, though certainly detailed and for the most part laboriously truthful, became progressively old-worldish, and this decision to live in the past, while presenting the judgments of the present, makes the work of an artist such as John Everett Millais (1829-96) appear disturbingly unintegrated. His Ophelia, Hamlet's sister, was modeled with painstaking attention on a real body in water, surrounded by a ravishing array of genuine wildflowers. Millais spent four months painting the background vegetation on the same spot in Surrey, England. He then returned to London to paint his model, Elizabeth Siddal, posing in a bath full of water, so determined was he to capture the image authentically. The result is oddly dislocated, as if the setting, woman, and flowers did not belong together, each keeping its own truth and ignoring that of the others.
William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), a fellow art student and friend of Millais, was more alerted to the theatricalities of his age, and On English Coasts is a political allegory on the theme of strayed and unprotected sheep. Yet the weirdly acidic colors strike unpleasantly on the eye. We are constrained into belief, but against our will: the bright yellow is so garishly bright, and so are the aggressive greens of the sea. The Pre-Raphaelites achieved such intense luminosity in their work by painting pure colors onto a canvas that had been prepared with white paint, sometimes reapplied fresh before each day's work, so as to give the hues added brilliance.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82), the third founding member of the Pre-Raphaelites, became the recognized leader and even formed a second grouping of the brotherhood in 1857, after Millais and Hunt had gone their separate ways. Rossetti came from an artistic and versatile Italian family, and it was perhaps the confidence engendered by this background, and his dynamic personality, rather than his artistic talent, that earned him his prominent position.
Rossetti was a poet as well as a painter, and in common with the other Pre-Raphaelites, his art was a fusion of artistic invention and authentic renderings of literary sources. The brotherhood drew heavily from Shakespeare, Dante, and contemporary poets such as Robert Browning and Alfred Lord Tennyson - Rossetti in particular was greatly attracted to Tennyson's reworkings of the Arthurian legends. He specialized in soulful maidens of extraordinary looks for his romantic themes, using his beautiful but neurotic wife Elizabeth Siddal as his model. Her striking face, with its long-nosed, languid expression, appears in many pictures. After Elizabeth's death, Rossetti's model was William Morris's wife Janey (a Siddal look-alike). She is the one we see in The Day Dream.
Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98), who was a great influence on the French Symbolists, was a friend of Rossetti and Morris. He places his introspective, medievalized heroines in The Golden Stairs in a dreamlike never-never-land that comes close to his own unworldly convictions. This romanticized world may cloy, but there are many who feel at home in the serious play of the Pre-Raphaelites and have no difficulty in responding to their themes.
The main Pre-Raphaelite painters :