The Pre-Raphaelites

Dr Dinah Roe introduces the unique band of artists, poets and designers known as the Pre-Raphaelites, charting their formation and evolution from the 1850s to the late 19th century.

La Ghirlandata by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's painting La Ghirlandata (1873) depicts women playing musical instruments, as many of his paintings did.

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The Pre-Raphaelites were a loose and baggy collective of Victorian poets, painters, illustrators and designers whose tenure lasted from 1848 to roughly the turn of the century. Drawing inspiration from visual art and literature, their work privileged atmosphere and mood over narrative, focusing on medieval subjects, artistic introspection, female beauty, sexual yearning and altered states of consciousness. In defiant opposition to the utilitarian ethos that formed the dominant ideology of the mid-century, the Pre-Raphaelites helped to popularise the notion of ‘art for art’s sake’. Generally devoid of the political edge that characterised much Victorian art and literature, Pre-Raphaelite work nevertheless incorporated elements of 19th-century realism in its attention to detail and in its close observation of the natural world.

Driven by, as Oscar Wilde put it, ‘three things the English public never forgives: youth, power and enthusiasm’, Pre-Raphaelitism found itself paradoxically poised between nostalgia for the past and excitement about the future.[1] 19th-century disagreements over whether their art was forward-thinking or retrogressive set a precedent for current critical debates about the extent to which their work should be considered ‘avant-garde’.

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt

As typical of many Pre-Raphaelite artworks, William Holman Hunt's The Awakening Conscience (1853) displays meticulous attention to detail and is full of symbolism.

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The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

Pre-Raphaelitism began in 1848 when a group of seven young artists banded together against what they felt was an artificial and mannered approach to painting taught at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. They called themselves the ‘Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’ (PRB), a name that alluded to their preference for late medieval and early Renaissance art that came ‘before Raphael’. The painters were: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, James Collinson and Frederic George Stephens. The non-painters were sculptor Thomas Woolner and Brotherhood secretary William Michael Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s brother. Inspired by the work of old masters such as Van Eyck, Memling, Mantegna, Giotto and Fra Angelico, and following a programme of ‘truth to nature’, the artists advocated a return to the simplicity and sincerity of subject and style found in an earlier age. Their aims were vague and contradictory, even paradoxical, which was only to be expected from a youthful movement made up of strong-minded individuals who sought to modernise art by reviving the practices of the Middle Ages.

The Blue Closet by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The Blue Closet (1857) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti is a prime example of the Pre-Raphaelites's use of Medieval imagery.

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Characterised by flattened perspective, sharp outlines, bright colours and close attention to detail that flouted classical conventions of symmetry, proportion and carefully controlled chiaroscuro, early PRB paintings of religious subjects such as Hunt’s A Converted British Family’, Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents and Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini (1850) shocked critics with a hyper-realism perceived to be at odds with the sacred events portrayed. The 1850 Royal Academy Exhibition inaugurated what would remain an antagonistic relationship between establishment critics and the Pre-Raphaelites. Critics were particularly dismayed at the hints of Tractarianism and Romishness[2] they detected in the detailed, ecclesiastic symbolism of Millais’ picture. They were further horrified by the painter’s blasphemous depiction of the Christ child as a red-headed member of an unidealised labouring-class family. Both Hunt’s and Millais’s paintings hinted at the breakdown of the social order, a worrying subject during a period where recent revolutions in Europe threatened to spread to Britain.

Christ in the House of His Parents by John Everett Millais

John Everett Millais's Christ in the House of His Parents (1849-50) shocked critics when it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1850.

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Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Like Millais's Christ in the House of His Parents, Ecce Ancilla Domini (1850) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti provoked strong opinions from critics for its depiction of a religious subject. His sister, the poet Christina Rossetti, was the model for Mary, right.

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Though the Brotherhood was vilified in the press by such notables as Charles Dickens, who detected in Millais’s painting ‘the lowest depths of what is mean, odious, repulsive and revolting’[3], from 1851, the painters were vigorously defended by critic and Pre-Raphaelite patron John Ruskin, from whose Modern Painters I & II (1843, 1846) Hunt later claimed that the group had derived its ideas about the importance of truthfully representing nature.

Review of Royal Academy exhibition of 1850

A damning review of the Pre-Raphaelites’s artworks on display at the 1850 Royal Academy exhibition.

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Literature was always as important as fine art to the Pre-Raphaelites; their paintings are often inspired by subjects from the bible, medieval romances, Arthurian legends, Ovid, Chaucer and Shakespeare. However, it is in their relationship to contemporary poetry that their avant-garde spirit is indisputably evident. In 1848, Rossetti and Holman Hunt drew up a list of ‘Immortals’, or artistic heroes, which included not only canonical writers such as Homer, Dante Alighieri and Boccaccio, but also recent predecessors and contemporaries such as Byron, Keats, Shelley, Longfellow, Emerson, Poe, Tennyson, Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, Robert Browning and Thackeray.

Ophelia by John Everett Millais

Ophelia (1851-52) by John Everett Millais, inspired by Shakespeare's Hamlet. Shakespeare was admired by the Pre-Raphaelites and was on their list of ‘Immortals’.

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The Pre-Raphaelite passion for modern writing was reflected in the PRB journal The Germ (1850), which contained not only pictures, but also reviews, essays and original poetry. Interested in the beauty and sound of language, Pre-Raphaelite verse experimented with forms such as the ballad, lyric and dramatic monologue. The Germ only survived for four issues, but this experimental periodical is an important forerunner of the Modernist ‘little magazine’. Its eagerness to explore the interactions between words and images set a precedent for subsequent high-profile Pre-Raphaelite projects; Rossetti’s, Millais’s and Hunt’s illustrations for an edition of Tennyson’s poems brought a collaborative spirit and a new respectability to the commercial art of book illustration.[4]

Pre-Raphaelite journal, The Germ

Pre-Raphaelite journal, The Germ [page: title page]

Front cover of Pre-Raphaelite journal The Germ, 1850, which set out the group’s vision and included art, poetry and essays.

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The Moxon illustrated edition of Tennyson's Poems

The Moxon illustrated edition of Tennyson's Poems [page: [67]]

William Holman Hunt’s illustration to ‘The Lady of Shalott’ from the Moxon edition of Tennyson’s Poems, 1857. Hunt later turned the image into a painting.

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Though its goals were ‘serious and heartfelt’, the PRB was founded in a spirit of waggish male camaraderie which expressed itself in pranks, late-night smoking sessions and midnight jaunts around London’s streets and pleasure gardens. Yet the formative female presence in the group’s early years should not be overlooked. Artists’ model and Rossetti’s wife Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal not only posed for many Pre-Raphaelite works, but also produced them herself. Patronised by Ruskin, she painted, drew and wrote poetry. Other women artists associated with the Pre-Raphaelites include: photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and painters Rosa Brett, Barbara Leigh Smith, Anna Mary Howitt, and Marie Spartali Stillman. Significant Pre-Raphaelite female models include: Annie Miller, Fanny Cornforth, Jane Morris and Marie Zambaco, among others. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sister Christina was the only woman to publish with the group, contributing poems to The Germ (1850). Her sonnet, ‘In an Artist’s Studio’ (1856) sounded a prescient note of caution about the dangers of Pre-Raphaelite worship of the female muse. Christina Rossetti would become one of the greatest poets of her age.

Notebook of Christina Rossetti (two of six), 18 December 1856-29 June 1858

Manuscript copy of ‘In an Artist’s Studio’ by Christina Rossetti, copied into one of her notebooks, 1856. A comment on the female muse, the poem remained unpublished during her lifetime.

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Pre-Raphaelitism’s Second Phase

Pre-Raphaelitism survived the Brotherhood’s dissolution in the early 1850s, resurfacing in 1857 when Oxford undergraduates William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones teamed up with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and painters Arthur Hughes, Valentine Prinsep and others to decorate the Oxford Union debating chamber with Arthurian murals. In London, Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Ruskin, Prinsep and painter Ford Madox Brown taught art classes at the Working Men’s College, a Christian Socialist institution that sought to give working class men access to a liberal education. These adventures put the wind back in the sails of the Pre-Raphaelite movement; in 1861, Ford Madox Brown and architect Philip Webb (among others) joined Morris, Burne-Jones and Rossetti in founding a decorative arts firm which would become Morris & Co. As a protest against mass-production in the industrial era, the firm’s designers revived hand-crafting and old techniques in order to emphasise the unique qualities and the beauty of natural materials, inaugurating the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Literary Success and Controversy

Important literary developments of this period included a volume of William Morris’s poems, The Defence of Guenevere (1858), and George Meredith’s Modern Love (1862), a scandalous sonnet sequence about marital breakdown. Christina Rossetti’s poetry collection, Goblin Market (1862), was the first unqualified Pre-Raphaelite literary success. Illustrated by her brother Dante Gabriel in a style that would become widely imitated, it was also a landmark publication in terms of Victorian book illustration. Critical reaction against Algernon Charles Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads 1866, whose subjects included necrophilia, sado-masochism and blasphemy, caused the publisher to withdraw the volume. Championed first by the Pre-Raphaelites and later by the Aesthetes of the fin-de-siècle, Swinburne’s controversial ideas about poetry’s purpose evolved into an aesthetic philosophy that elevated artistic quality over moral, political or social content.

Pre-Raphaelitism’s Later Stages & Influence

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Poems, 1870 attracted the critical ire of Robert Buchanan. His excoriating review, entitled ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry’, attacked Pre-Raphaelite poetry for its eroticism, medievalism and general rebellion against cultural norms.[5] The very qualities derided by Buchanan attracted influential critic Walter Pater, who took over from John Ruskin as defender of the Pre-Raphaelites. Pater’s essays praising the art and poetry of Morris and Rossetti would become seminal works of Aestheticism. They were reprinted in various versions and editions from 1868 to the late 1880s, including Appreciations: With An Essay on Style (1889). Proto-aesthetic qualities were also evident in Pre-Raphaelite paintings of the 1870s and 1880s which featured striking, sensual figures in narratively ambiguous situations. Examples include Rossetti’s and Astarte Syriaca (1877) and The Day-Dream (1880) and Burne-Jones’s Laus Veneris (1875) and The Golden Stairs (1880), works which anticipated Symbolist art.

During the 1880s, the Arts and Crafts Movement’s celebration of natural forms, artisanal craftsmanship and collaboration informed Morris’s developing socialism. In publications, lectures and addresses to striking workers, he called for a social revolution, arguing that industrial capitalism had exploited labourers by alienating them from their work and from each other. In 1884 Morris founded The Socialist League and become editor of its journal, The Commonweal, where his utopian novel News from Nowhere (1890) was initially serialised. The novel imagines a post-revolutionary England that has returned to the simplicity of a pre-industrial era, where class distinctions have been abolished, and mankind has been reconnected with the natural world. Today this novel is seen as a foundational text of the environmental movement.

William Morris's News from Nowhere

William Morris's News from Nowhere [page: frontispiece and title page]

News from Nowhere by William Morris, 1890. Frontispiece illustration depicts a Socialist ideal of freedom, equality and fraternity across the globe.

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Examining the interactions of word, image and design remained a preoccupation of late Pre-Raphaelitism. In 1891, William Morris founded the Kelmscott Press where he designed and manufactured beautifully illustrated books. The Press’s crowning achievement was The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (1896), illustrated by Edward Burne-Jones. Literary Pre-Raphaelitism found new admirers in Aesthetes and Decadents like Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, Arthur Symons and Ernest Dowson. The spirit of The Germ informed magazines such as The Yellow Book (1894-7) and The Savoy (1896), publications which presented work by Yeats, Beardsley, Symons, Walter Sickert and Joseph Conrad.

A Book of Fifty Drawings by Aubrey Beardsley

Aubrey Beardsley’s cover design for magazine The Savoy, here reprinted in 1897. The Aesthetes and Decadents were strongly influenced by Pre-Raphaelitism.

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Though the extraordinary amount of negative criticism they attracted (and still attract) might lead us to think otherwise, it is important to remember that the Pre-Raphaelites were not only dreamers, but also innovators. Though part of a complex and protean movement, the Pre-Raphaelites were united in their refusal to recognise boundaries between literature and fine art, their insistence on experimenting with material, form and technique, and their irrepressible, unrespectable spirit in an age that prized conformity.


[1] Oscar Wilde, ‘The English Renaissance of Art’, Essays and Lectures by Oscar Wilde (London: Methuen, 1908), p.120.

[2] Tractarianism grew out of the Oxford Movement (1833-41), which advocated, among other things, the restoration of religious rituals long abandoned by the Church of England. Its views were widely regarded as uncomfortably sympathetic to Roman Catholicism.

[3] Charles Dickens, ‘Old Lamps for New Ones’, Household Words, 12 (15 June 1850), p.12.

[4] The ‘Moxon illustrated edition’ of Tennyson’s Poems (London: Moxon, 1857).

[5] Robert Buchanan, ‘The Fleshly School of Poetry: Mr D G Rossetti’ first published in The Contemporary Review, 18 (August-November 1871).

  • Dinah Roe
  • Dr Dinah Roe is a Senior Lecturer in 19th century literature at Oxford Brookes University. She specialises in Victorian poetry, specifically that of the Pre-Raphaelites and is planning a book on the interactions of literary and visual arts in Pre-Raphaelite art.

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