Properly known as The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, this group of artists was founded in 1848 by the English painters Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and William Holman Hunt, as well as the following poets and critics: William Michael Rossetti, an art critic and Dante’s younger brother; the art critic Frederic George Stephens; the painter James Collinson; and the sculptor and poet Thomas Woolner.
The group was formed in reaction to Victorian materialism and the stiff conventions of he Royal Academy and they were also particularly inspired by Medieval and Early Renaissance art, right up to and including the art of Raphael. They wanted to go back to a style of art that took advantage of intense colors and was full of incredible detail. They abhorred the Manneristic style and rebelled against it.
What distinguished Pre-Raphaelite art was the ability of the painters to portray archaic, romantic, and moralistic qualities in such a way as to mold them into a unique creation. While their initial subject matter came from the bible, history, and poetry, they soon realized that their modern and real world surroundings gave them a rich tapestry of subjects with which to work. Nature once again reigned supreme in the art world and they portrayed this just as passionately as they portrayed the historical themes.
The earliest doctrines of the Brotherhood were to have genuine ideas to express, to study nature attentively so as to know how to express it well, to sympathize with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote, and, most important of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.
The Brotherhood believed that every artist had within his grasp the freedom to create anything and that along with that freedom came a responsibility to express it well. They created a name for themselves and they published a periodical called The Germ, which was used to promote their ideas and influence others.
The Brotherhood created an interesting mix of Realistic and Medieval art and although they were somewhat split down the middle on the issue, there was never much dissention and the Brotherhood stayed in tact. This is primarily because, while many of the artists leaned one way or the other, they all believe that art was to be spiritual in nature and they all treated their art in this manner. During this time, Hunt and Millais developed a unique technique that allowed them to capture a crystal-like quality in their paintings by applying multiple thin glazes of pigment of wet white background. They were looking for a brilliance of color that opposed the use of bitumen used by earlier British artists to create areas of muddy darkness.
The Brotherhood was not well liked by everyone, despite the fact that they had enough of an impact to create their own movement in art history. Many did not like their attention to detail and many thought their work blasphemous, especially Millais’ painting “Christ in the House of his Parents”. Their saving grace was very likely the support they received from art critic John Ruskin, at a time when they were being publicly slandered. This support came in the form of both finances and good critiques.
It wasn’t long after the controversy surrounding Millais’ painting that the group disbanded. However, this was no the end of the movement ad there were a number of artist who were inspired by the Brotherhood. These artists include John Brett, Philip Calderon, Arthur Hughes, Evelyn De Morgan, Frederic Sandys, and Ford Madox Brown.
Rossetti became the primary influence for the Medieval style of art and he became a partner in his friend Wiliam Morris’ firm, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., along with the artists Ford Madox Brown and Edward Burne-Jones. Through the firm, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhoods ideals were upheld and these ideals and the style were a major influence for interior designers and architects of the day. Medieval designs were once again of interest.
Later, Hunt and Millais moved on to create art based on the scientific and realistic knowledge of the time. The idea was to reconcile religion and science. Later they each moved on. However, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood influenced many British artists well into the 20th century. This work even influenced J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the famous Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Later in the 20th century, art once again moved away from reality as the idea of abstract art came into prominence. The detail of the Brotherhood was too intense for many critics and the idea of expressing oneself and one’s emotions through abstract art became important. Despite this, it is quite an accomplishment for a movement that was so criticized and so short in terms of time to have been so strong and influential.