The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

Find out who the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were and what they painted

Pre-Raphaelite Famous Paintings
A visitor studying Pre-Raphaelite paintings at Tate Britain art gallery in London. Photo ©2011 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to, Inc.

In the middle of the 19th century, the Royal Academy of Arts in London was the ultimate in art tuition. Esteemed Academicians taught students the fundamentals of anatomy, painting, perspective, geometry, and sculpture. But the establishment's view of art was very proscriptive, following either the 'Grand Manner', a Neo-classical style in the tradition of Raphael (1483-1520) or the Romantic style pioneered by Constable (1776-1837) and Turner (1775-1851).

Unsurprisingly, there were students at the Academy who were disillusioned with this, and who rebelled against the Academicians. They rejected the accepted style of painting which idealized nature and beauty to the detriment of truth. They formed a secret society called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood through which they hoped to revitalize painting in Britain.

Who Were the Original Members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood? 

The initial group was formed by seven artists, of whom only three gained notoriety: William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82), John Everett Millais (1829-96). The other members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were Thomas Woolner, William Michael Rossetti (Dante Gabriel Rossetti's brother), James Collinson, and Frederic George Stephens.

Hunt was the main theorist of the group, and was responsible for their guiding principles: the depiction of simple rather than grand subjects, with a serious and moralistic theme, an honest rendition of nature based on direct observation, and an adherence to Christian spirituality.

Hunt wrote in his memoirs that their aim was to achieve a "serious and elevated intention of a subject, along with earnest scrutiny of visible facts, and an earnest endeavor to present them veraciously and exactly."

Rossetti was the charismatic force behind the group, bolstering sagging morale and whipping up popular support with other young artists.

Millais was the most artistically talented of the three; having entered the Royal Academy School at the age of 11 he was under a certain amount of pressure to make a name for himself. It is possible that he saw membership of such a rebellious group as a way of gaining the artistic limelight.

Who Inspired the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood?

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood revered the purity and honesty found in early Renaissance paintings, specifically the group of 15th-century artists who predated Raphael, known as the Primitives.

The idea to form a brotherhood most probably came from the Naserenes, a group of German artists who had banded together a few decades earlier to revive religious art, harking back to the styles of Durer (1471-1528) and Michelangelo (1475-1564). They had called themselves the Lukasbroder (Brotherhood of St Luke). The Naserenes had, however, taken the process to an extreme, reviving archaic styles of painting to create their art.

The third source of inspiration for the group was the art critic and writer John Ruskin (1819-1900) who acted as both mentor and patron to the group. He believed artists should be "true to nature" and, in his book The Stones of Venice, he claimed art was the manifestation of the moral state of society.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood also drew on Shakespeare, Dante, and contemporary poets such as Robert Browning and Alfred Lord Tennyson (a particular favorite of Rossetti).

What Did the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood Paint?

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood insisted that paintings must be done from direct observation of nature, for example when Millais painted Ophelia (1852) he spent four months outside painting the background. They used very strong colors, which at the time seemed garish. They achieved a luminosity in their paintings by using a plain white ground, rather than a colored one.

Symbolism was an important component of the paintings, for example the flowers around Ophelia represent qualities such as innocence, youth, and death.

The subjects that they chose were biblical or inspired by the artists and writers they admired.

Each painting had a moralistic tale to tell, even an essentially pastoral scene of sheep standing along a clifftop (Our English Coasts, by William Hunt, 1852) represented contemporary fears of anarchy and invasion.

The work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was controversial partly because the Brotherhood had kept their existence secret until their first exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1849. This, together with their rejection of the accepted style and their use of a common signature of P.R.B. for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, caused outrage among the critics and Academicians in general.

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. He used an actual carpenter as a model. Charles Dickens described the painting as "mean, odious, repulsive, and revolting".

The brotherhood was defend by Ruskin and they were able to continue show their paintings at the Royal Academy because the president, Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, was a fan of the Italian Primitive painters.

How Long Did the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood Last and Why Did It Break Up?

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed in 1848 and lasted until 1855. Hunt, the theorist of the group, went to Palestine to get realistic biblical backgrounds for his paintings. (Hunt stayed true to his theories throughout his life 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 vocation, eventually becoming president of the Royal Academy the year he died. Millais turned to less controversial and more sentimental subjects, for example The Order of Release (1852-53) is painted in a Pre-Raphaelite style but presents a more dramatic historical narrative. He fell in love with Ruskin's wife while painting Ruskin's portrait, and ended up marrying her. This caused a rift between him and Ruskin, which further alienated Millais from the Brotherhood.

Hunt's departure left the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood under the leadership of Rossetti, who was becoming more and more interested in mythical, medieval symbolism. Together with the artists Edward Burne-Jones (1833-96) and Ford Madox Brown (1833-96) Rossetti revamped the Pre-Raphaelites, switching the focus to a more romantic style. All three became linked to William Morris' Arts and Crafts movement.

The other four original members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood contributed little to the body of work. Woolner ended up as a portrait sculptor. Collinson rejected the Brotherhood's Christian ethics. William Rossetti became an art historian and critic (he doesn't seem to have painted anything). Stephens also became an art critic.

Key Paintings by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

Christ in the House of His Parents by Millais, 1849ñ50
 by Millais 1852
Our English Coasts by Hunt 1852
The Awakening Conscience by Hunt 1853
Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunication) by Rossetti 1849ñ50

Movements Contemporary with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood


Developments that Followed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

The 2nd generation of Pre-Raphaelites led to the Arts and Crafts Movement, Art Nouveau in France, and Symbolism in Europe.