The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of English painters, poets, and critics, founded in 1848 by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The three founders were soon joined by William Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens and Thomas Woolner to form a seven-member "brotherhood".
Controversy tainted the group early on with commentators believing their name implied that they were superior artists to Raphael, but the influential critic John Ruskin supported them and ensured their success. However, after Millais' 'Ophelia' (1850-1851) was exhibited to great acclaim at the Academy Exhibition the group dissolved.
The criticism garnered by the PRB was often derogatory, aiming to ridicule their "backward" aims in painting technique, their supposed Roman Catholic leanings, or the triteness of their poems. There is an extensive canon of the writings of the Pre-Raphaelites themselves, and one may find many examples of works by the Rossettis, William Morris, Algernon Swinburne, and others.
No one can deny that the works these young men produced are truly great. However, in their own immature rebelliousness, they unfortunately made hypocrites of themselves. The PRB scorned The Royal Academy for its snobbiness and closed, high society ways, although they themselves were very reluctant and too jealous to allow many others into their society as well. The artists painted with great detail and professed to paint realistically. However, although they didn't idealize, they often omitted distortions. This causes their work to have an almost surreal effect.
The exaggerated realism of the pre-Raphaelite pairing ends itself well to fairy tales: in such an artwork, a small bird might appear to be a giant, rendered in painstaking detail. The Pre-Raphaelites lived a consciously bohemian lifestyle, and as a result, art history books about the Pre-Raphaelites read as if they are fairy tales themselves - mentioning dreams, marmots, and muses.
They were clever and sardonic. Their irreverence still makes them seem curiously modern. Alison Smith, co-curator of the Tate exhibition, is surely right in seeing the pre-Raphaelites as the first modern art movement and in subtitling her show "Victorian Avant-Garde". They were radical in their ways of looking, viewing their subjects with an intense psychological acumen. They were radical, too, in their techniques of painting. That pre-Raphaelite super-realism was achieved through meticulous attention to detail. The artists preferred painting outside the studio, the strange and often shocking candour of their vision exaggerated by the effects of natural light.
It should not be forgotten that painting was only one aspect of the group’s aesthetic agenda, which extended into literature, design, photography and even home decor. Forerunners of Aestheticism, they believed in the powerful interaction of the physical world and the human imagination. The Pre-Raphaelites were certainly a group whose ambition sometimes outran their talent, but as Robert Browning (a friend and mentor to the movement) reminds us in his poem about a painter, Andrea Del Sarto: ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp / Or what’s a heaven for?’
Initially inspired by early Renaissance paintings, the Pre-Raphaelite movement is perhaps best remembered today for the detail and colour of its lavish paintings as well as the romanticism of much of its subject matter. Drawing on everything from biblical stories to classical mythology and modern literature, the likes of Madox Brown, Burne-Jones, Millais, Hunt and Rossetti created some breathtaking art, with over 150 such pieces
The group's intention was to reform art by rejecting what they considered to be the mechanistic approach first adopted by the Mannerist artists who succeeded Raphael and Michelangelo. They believed that the Classical poses and elegant compositions of Raphael in particular had been a corrupting influence on the academic teaching of art. Hence the name "Pre-Raphaelite". In particular, they objected to the influence of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the founder of the English Royal Academy of Arts. They called him "Sir Sloshua", believing that his broad technique was a sloppy and formulaic form of academic Mannerism. In contrast, they wanted to return to the abundant detail, intense colours, and complex compositions of Quattrocento Italian and Flemish art.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, organized in 1848, wished to create fresh and sincere art, free from what its members considered the tired and artificial manner propagated in the academies by the successors of Raphael. Influenced by the well-known critic, artist, and writer John Ruskin (1819-1900), the Pre-Raphaelites agreed with his distaste for the materialism and ugliness of the contemporary industrializing whorl. They also expressed appreciation for the spirituality and idealism (as well as the art and artisanship) of past times, especially the Middles Ages and the Early Renaissance.
The pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in London in 1848 by the painters Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and James Collinson, the sculptor Thomas Woolner and two writers – art critic Frederic Stephens and William Michael Rossetti, who was Gabriel's brother, the PRB's secretary and the editor of their short-lived journal, the Germ. At the time, the eldest of them was 24.