What is: Pre-Raphaelitsm?

Carol Jacobi

Rebels. Revolutionaries. Romantics. The Pre-Raphaelites wanted to create a new kind of art, fit for the purpose of a new world.

Their intention was to build on what they admired from the past, not just the Old Masters they were being taught about but a counter-culture of heroes. Their influences ranged from Quattrocento artists to the painters and writers of their own age.

Carol Jacobi talks us through the subject matter and techniques you could expect to see in a Pre-Raphaelite painting. Through forensic attention to detail – both visual and psychological – a Pre-Raphaelite painting invites you to question the world in which we live.

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The Pre-Raphaelites were a group of young art who set out to revolutionise British art. Really they were the first British modern art movement.

They felt art should be important, significant, much much more truthful, not conventional but looking at the new world. This was quite interesting timing. It was 1848, and in 1848 many many other countries in Europe had popular revolutions, and certainly there was part of this revolutionary spirit about these arts students.

The group – they called themselves the Brotherhood – were formed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais. They got they got themselves up to the number of seven, and they called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

The keyword there is ‘Raphaelite’. They didn’t like – they had nothing against Raphael – or any of those sort of great artists. What they didn’t like was people who sort of just used them as short-cut to their own style – the ‘Raphael-lites’.

The Pre-Raphaelites were absolutely adamant that they wanted to make paintings that were really rich in their meanings. And so they very often took ideas for subjects from the literature they really admired: Shakespeare, Keats and so on.

They also took ideas from the Bible. Millais painted Christ in the House of His Parents. Jesus and his family had been painted as everyday working people and Millais went out and he got a grocer to model for the figure of Joseph so he could show arms, muscular working arms.

The public were horrified by this because they used to seeing – particularly the Holy Family – idealised, again like a Raphael. But what Millais was exploring was the dignity of real life, the dignity of labour. So again, this reflects on their politics of the time.

The Pre-Raphaelites adopted only the brightest colours. And sometimes these were very traditional colours, used by the early Italian artists and sometimes they were new, modern, industrial pigments like this vibrant emerald green that you see both in Ophelia and Our English Coasts.

And they’d use very, very tiny brushes to apply the colour and they’d mix it with a little bit of varnish, so you get this unbelievably smooth, almost mirror-like surface.

They would then paint every tiny part of the painting in front of the subject.

A sublime example of this is again Millais’s Ophelia. Millais actually brings us to the banks of the river. There’s no sky in that painting. We’re completely immersed in nature, as Ophelia is. And he sat there all summer, all autumn painting every leaf, every blade of grass, the ripples in the water.

The wealth of detail in a Pre-Raphaelite painting also conveys a wealth of meaning. Every single thing – grass that’s been flattened in a struggle. Or a flower which could be interpreted through the Victorian language of flowers. Every single detail tells you something about the invisible aspects of the scene.

I find endless fascination in the way they paint hands. Every single hand is telling you something about what that person is thinking.

I think the Pre-Raphaelites brought a new intimate personal quality to painting. They examine characters and their settings in intense detail so that you get this new psychological realism as well as visual realism.

The Victorians are thought of as rather dogmatic figures. But Pre-Raphaelites paintings do not tell you, they ask you.

 

With thanks to

Tate

 

Archive

Birmingham Museums Trust

Getty Images

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

National Portrait Gallery, London

Tate

 

Music

Audio Network

 

Artworks

Mariana

Sir John Everett Millais, Bt, 1851

Tate (T07553)

Digital image © Tate

CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

 

Claudio and Isabella

William Holman Hunt, 1850

Tate (N03447)

Digital image © Tate

CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

 

The Awakening Conscience

William Holman Hunt, 1853

Tate (T02075)

Digital image © Tate

CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

 

Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1849 – 1850

Tate (N01210)

Digital image © Tate

CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

 

Life School, Royal Academy: gas lighting, 1865

SSPL / Getty Images

 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1847

NPG 857

© National Portrait Gallery, London

(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

 

William Holman Hunt

Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt, 1853

NPG 5834

© National Portrait Gallery, London

(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

 

Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt

William Holman Hunt, 1853

NPG 2914

© National Portrait Gallery, London

(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

 

As You Like It – Act IV Scene I – Rosalind Tutoring Orlando in the Ceremony of Marriage or The Mock Marriage of Orlando and Rosalind

Walter Howell Deverell and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1850

Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust

(CC0 1.0)

 

Christ in the House of His Parents (‘The Carpenter’s Shop’)

Sir John Everett Millais, Bt, 1849 – 1850

Tate (N03584)

Digital image © Tate

CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

 

Madonna and Child Enthroned by Saints

Raphael, c. 1504

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

(CC0 1.0)

 

The Girlhood of Mary Virgin

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1848 – 1849

Tate (N04872)

Digital image © Tate

CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

 

Ophelia

Sir John Everett Millais, Bt, 1851 – 1852

Tate (N01506)

Digital image © Tate

CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

 

Our English Coasts (‘Strayed Sheep’)

William Holman Hunt, 1852

Tate (N05665)

Digital image © Tate

CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

 

The Haunted Manor

William Holman Hunt, 1849

Tate (T00932)

Digital image © Tate

CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

 

Two Gentlemen of Verona, Valentine Rescuing Sylvia From Proteus

William Holman Hunt, 1850-1851

Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust

(CC0 1.0)

 

Mother and Child ­

Frederic George Stephens, 1854

Tate (N04634)

Digital image © Tate

CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’, Encyclopaedia Britannica

Dr. Rebecca Jeffrey Easby, ‘A Beginner’s Guide to the Pre-Raphaelites’, Khan Academy

Pre-Raphaelite Online Resource’, Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’, ArtUK

Dinah Roe, ‘The Pre-Raphaelites’, British Library, 15 May 2014

Dr. Rebecca Jeffrey Easby, ‘Sir John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents’, Smarthistory, August 9, 2015

The Story of Ophelia’, Tate

 

 

 

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