Formed in London in 1848 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and William Holman Hunt, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was an English group of artists that was artistically opposed to the artist Raphael, his style, and his influence on the course of art. The Pre-Raphaelites sought to reform what they believed were mechanistic approaches to art and to restore art to earlier styles of Italian and Flemish schools. Also opposed to the formulaic techniques employed and taught at the English Royal Academy of Arts, the Pre-Raphaelites are considered art’s first truly avant-garde movement.
The Pre-Raphaelites’ tenets could be distilled to these initial doctrines: to express original ideas, to study nature, to revere what is genuine in art of previous eras and to dismiss what is conventional, and to produce one’s best work. These tenets were set to be deliberately vague in order to allow artists to play them out freely and according to their own ideas of self-expression. The Pre-Raphaelites were defended by the famous critic and writer John Ruskin who supported their loyalty to nature and their rejection of conventionality.
Painters of the movement still sought to portray art with great precision, but they decried rote methods and formulas in order to achieve their end results. The three founders of the brotherhood were joined by four other members: James Collinson, William Michael Rossetti, Frederick George Stevens, and Thomas Woolner. This band of artists and critics became loosely associated with other artists such as Charles Edward Halle, Ford Madox Brown, Robert Braithwaite Martineau, and John William Waterhouse. Other critics, designers, and writers also espoused their beliefs about art.
The movement strongly influenced the arts and crafts movement. In particular, the designer William Morris and his company have been linked to a strong Pre-Raphaelite connection. The Brotherhood’s first showing was in 1849. Although the group only formally lasted for about five years, their long term influence has been great. The artists themselves were youthfully enthusiastic and led rather Bohemian-like lives. In many ways they were anti-Victorian—opposed to a prim and proper order of expression. They believed the accepted art of their day was frivolous and they wanted a return to truth and nature. Initially the Pre-Raphaelites were a secret brotherhood and signed their works with their names along with the initials P.R.B.
While the Pre-Raphaelite painters each found their own manner of expression, they generally employed some common traits such as a luminous use of color, employment of literary influence, and a fusion of romantic subject-matter with realistic portrayal. The Pre-Raphaelites had a great influence on subsequent movements such as Symbolism. Some of best known Pre-Raphaelite works include The Golden Stairs (1880) by Edward Burne-Jones, Ophelia (1852) by John Everett Millais, The Lady of Shalott (1888) by John William Waterhouse, and Proserpine (1874) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.