A Celebration of the Radical Art of the Pre-Raphaelites

“Sometimes thou seem’st not as thyself alone, But as the meaning of all things that are.” ~ Dante Gabriel Rossetti

One of the most iconic paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite era is John Everett Millais’ Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece, ‘Ophelia’ (c. 1851-52), chosen as my header image. When I saw his beautiful but mournful likeness of Shakespeare’s ill-fated heroine from Hamlet up close and in the flesh, during the Tate’s 2012 exhibition – Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde – it was a special moment.

A taster of the exhibition from art historian Lucinda Hawksley:

Ophelia took many months to complete, in exacting conditions in a watery corner of leafy Surrey, and tested the painter and his muse, model and later artist herself, (Elizabeth Siddal) to the limit. Poor Lizzie’s health suffered as a result of lying in cold baths for hours on end as John became engrossed in his art. The story behind Ophelia.

“Thus Millais denied technical convention, drew from nature, reconstructed the past and embraced technological progress in materials.” ~ John Ruskin in a letter to The Times.

The trailblazers of Victorian art were undoubtedly the three founding members of a group of artists, known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB): Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828 – 82), Sir John Everett Millais (1829 – 96) and William Holman Hunt (1827 – 1910). The later four members of the PRB were James Collinson, a little known genre painter, Thomas Woolner, sculptor and artist, plus William Micahel Rossetti (younger brother of Dante), and Frederic George Stephens.

The Early Years

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed in September 1848. It helps to understand the historical and political context from which their art developed: the age of the Industrial Revolution and the Gothic revival, marking the end of a turbulent decade in British History. Perhaps with a degree of sympathy for Chartism and the People’s Charter of 1838, the early works of the Pre-Raphaelites shared the rebellious, anti-establishment energy of these years, and earned notoriety for its creators in Victorian society.

William_Holman_Hunt_The Hireling Shepherd

The Hireling Shepherd by William Holman Hunt (1851)

Woolner’s emigration to Australia marked the break-up of the PRB in 1853, after which the members of the brotherhood followed independent careers. Hunt travelled to the Holy Land to pursue his authentic brand of religious history painting, while Rossetti explored and developed an iconic style of female beauty in art, a forerunner to the aesthetic movement. Millais remained at the forefront of European artistic culture, and Morris and Burne-Jones became known for their romantic depictions of medieval poetry and literature.

Edward Burne-Jones_Love_Among_the_Ruins

Love Among the Ruins ~ Watercolour by Edward Burne-Jones (c. 1870-73) titled after the poem by Robert Browning.

I adore their art, (hence the image of Veronica Veronese on my About page), and also that of other artists associated with the wider Pre-Raphaelite circle, such as Edward Burne-Jones, Arthur Hughes, William Morris, Frederick Sandys, Ford Madox Brown, Frank Cadogan Cowper, John William Waterhouse, John  Roddam Spencer Stanhope, John Brett, Henry Wallis, Walter Howell Deverell, Poet Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal, an artist in her own right, (lover and wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti).


Veronica Veronese by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1872)

There’s nothing outrageous about Pre-Raphaelite art to the modern eye, but in the early to mid 19th Century it caused an outrage! Ten years before Impressionism became popular this group of innovative painters and sculptors wanted to portray their imagery and subjects with a more realistic feel, departing from the existing and popular Renaissance style of Raphael.

John_Everett_Millais - Mariana

Mariana by John Everett Millais (1851)

The PRB eschewed the influence of Sir Joshua Reynolds, (founder of the Royal Academy of Arts), and derided him with the sobriquet ‘Sir Sloshua’ because of his broad style of academic mannerism. Quite simply, their ground-breaking art took the Victorian art world by storm.

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse  (1894)

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse (1894)

They had a champion for their new type of vivid and colourful portrayals; depicting religious, landscape, literary, mythological and historical scenes, under the patronage of the prominent Victorian art critic, John Ruskin.

BBC Documentary – Victorian Revolutionaries:

I think this rather prophetical excerpt from The Guardian in 1851 perfectly sums up their aim and legacy:

The true distinction of these men is, that they are poets on canvass, and paint mind, character, and feeling, while the most of our figure painters – at least those who attempt anything beyond the delineation of humorous scenes – do little else than give a prosaic and literal representation of the action or person they profess to depict. In how many cases is the title of a picture a mere after-thought? How often is an historical piece nothing more than a collection of costumes? The rich colours, the minute and careful finish which mark the works of Millais and Hunt, give one the impression of being the natural result and accompaniment of the intense vividness of their conceptions, and not mere efforts of executive art; and these qualities are here but subordinate to the higher interest of expression which pervades the whole. In a word, these painters have touched a deeper chord than English art has hitherto known; and in no short space of time their merits will be clearly recognised as are now those of a Keats or a Beethoven, whose works, when first promulgated to the world, were pronounced strange, unintelligible, and contrary to all rule.

Their private lives were as colourful as their art, hence author Franny Moyle wrote a book that explored their relationships with each other and their muses. The book was later adapted by the BBC as a drama series by the same name: Desperate Romantics, with Aiden Turner (of recent Poldark fame), Rafe Spall, Samuel Barnett and and Tom Hollander in the main roles. It was the first fictionalised programme that drew me in to their world and made me a fan!

Desperate Romantics Featurette:

I love Rossetti’s poem, Sudden Light, which also featured in a scene of Desperate Romantics between Gabriel and Lizzie:

From Faust ~ Goethe

She excels

All women in the magic of her locks;

And when she winds them round a young man’s neck

She will not ever set him free again.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Lady-Lilith

Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (c. 1866-68)

Prose that inspired Rossetti’s lustrous painting of Lady Lilith, modelled by Alexa Wilding, (c. 1866-8 altered 1872-3), as the archetypal ‘femme fatale’, a figure of both danger and allure. To me it’s erotic and aesthetic appeal is arresting. Swinburne commented, “For this serene and sublime sorceress there is no life but of the body.”

‘Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil’ ~ John Keats (1st verse) based on a story from Boccaccio

Fair Isabel, poor simple Isabel!

Lorenzo, a young palmer in Love’s eye!

They could not in the self-same mansion dwell

Without some stir of heart, some malady;

They could not sit at meals but feel how well                 5

It soothed each to be the other by;

They could not, sure, beneath the same roof sleep

But to each other dream, and nightly weep.

Isabella was Millais’s first completed painting after the formation of the PRB, and exhibited at the RA in 1849.  Curator Jason Rosenfeld reveals the story behind John Everett Millais’s painting Isabella:

Some Pre-Raphaelite trivia/tidbits:

  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting Beata Beatrix (c. 1864-70) was a hommage to Dante Aligheri and also to his muse and deceased wife Elizabeth Siddal, who died at the tender age of 32 from a laudanum overdose.
  • William Morris, known principally as a poet and collector of rare books and manuscripts, and later for his textile designs painted only one known easel painting – a portrait of his future wife (Jane Burden) posing as La Belle Iseult (c. 1857-8).
  • Edward Burne-Jones painted his lover Maria Zambaco (c. 1870), as a commission from her mother and his patron, Euphrosyne Cassavetti, and is confessional in content.
  • Dante-Gabriel-Rossetti - Astarte-SyriacaThe largest sum of money Dante Gabriel Rossetti received for a work of art was £2,000 from the photographer Clarence Fry, for his 6ft high sensual oil on canvas of the ancient Syrian Goddess of love, Astarte Syriaca (c. 1877), modelled by Jane Morris (who he became obsessed with).
  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti had Lizze Siddal’s remains exhumed so that he could retrieve his poems which had been buried with her.
  • John Everett Millais fell in love with his patron and mentor’s unhappy wife Effie Ruskin. She eventually left Ruskin (and had their unconsummated marriage annuled), married Millais and had 13 children with him.

A Passion for the Pre-Raphaelites by PRB enthusiast and collector Andrew-Lloyd Webber:

It would not be right to neglect to mention those artists who had influenced the Pre-Raphaelite movement, such as the arrival of Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait at the National Gallery in 1842, and after his death, the visionary printmaker and poet William Blake (1757 – 1827), with his disregard for academic conventions. Then there were the German artists Overbeck and Pforr known as the ‘The Nazarenes’ based in Rome, who drew elements from both Northern and Italian Renaissance styles, and the British painter William Dyce.

I have included a small gallery of some of my favourite Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

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