The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood - Desperate Romantics

'Lady Lilith', (detail)1868 by Dante C.G. Rossetti (1828-82) / Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, USA / Samuel & Mary R. Bancroft Memorial
'Lady Lilith', (detail)1868 by Dante C.G. Rossetti (1828-82) / Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, USA / Samuel & Mary R. Bancroft Memorial

The Pre-Raphaelite movement enjoyed a resurgence thanks to the BBC drama series Desperate Romantics in 2009, which followed the founding group of radical English painters and poets as they pursue the perfect muse, rocking the art establishment in Dickensian London.

With the Tate Britain exhibtion, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde starting this September, prepare to see the brotherhood once again presented as rebels who overturned orthodoxy,  establishing a new benchmark for modern painting and design, combining scientific precision, beauty and imaginative grandeur.
 

Beginnings

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in 1848 by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Other artists in their circle included Ford Madox Brown and William Bell Scott.

Portrait of William Holman Hunt (C19th) by Frederick Hollyer, The Stapleton Collection; Portrait of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1853 by W.H. Hunt / © Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery; Self Portrait, 1847 by Sir John Everett  Millais / © Walker Art Gallery,
Portrait of William Holman Hunt (C19th) by Frederick Hollyer, The Stapleton Collection; Portrait of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1853 by W.H. Hunt / © Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery; Self Portrait, 1847 by Sir John Everett Millais / © Walker Art Gallery,

What’s in the name?

The name Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood referred to their opposition to The Royal Academy's promotion of Renaissance master Raphael as an ideal artist and for their admiration for the abundant detail, intense colours and spiritual quality of Quattrocento Italian and Flemish art.

Departing from popularly accepted artistic conventions of the time, they based their art on principles of naturalism and Romanticism. Themes were initially religious, then subjects from literature and poetry, mostly dealing with love and death. Modern social problems were also explored.  

Each episode of Desperate Romantics focuses around the composition and/or exhibition of a particular painting by a member of the Brotherhood. Here are some key examples all available through the Bridgeman website for licensing.  

Controversy

In 1850 the PRB became controversial after the exhibition of Millais's painting Christ In The House Of His Parents. Their medievalism was attacked as backward-looking and their extreme devotion to detail was condemned as ugly and jarring to the eye.

According to Charles Dickens, Millais made the Holy Family look like alcoholics and slum-dwellers.

However, the Brotherhood found support from John Ruskin, who praised their devotion to nature and rejection of conventional methods of composition. He continued to support their work both financially and in his writings.

Christ in the House of His Parents (detail), 1863 by J.E. Millais (1829-96) & Solomon, Rebecca (1832-1886) / Private Collection
Christ in the House of His Parents (detail), 1863 by J.E. Millais (1829-96) & Solomon, Rebecca (1832-1886) / Private Collection

"go to nature... rejecting nothing and selecting nothing." John Ruskin

Holman Hunt, along with Millais, sought to revitalise art by emphasising the detailed observation of the natural world in a spirit of quasi-religious devotion to truth and was similarly derided in the art press. 

The Hireling Shepherd represents a shepherd neglecting his flock in favour of an attractive country girl. The meaning of the image has been much-debated but been thought to symbolise the pointless theological debates which occupied Christian churchmen while their "flock" went astray due to a lack of proper moral guidance.

Hunt soon became famous for his religious paintings and naturalistic scenes of modern rural and urban life including The Light of the World (1851-1853) and The Scapegoat, 1854, painted during a trip to the Holy Land.  

The Hireling Shepherd (detail), 1851 by William Holman Hunt © Manchester Art Gallery, UK
The Hireling Shepherd (detail), 1851 by William Holman Hunt © Manchester Art Gallery, UK

Elizabeth Siddal: Study for 'Ophelia', 1852 (pencil on paper) by Sir J.E.Millais / © Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery
Elizabeth Siddal: Study for 'Ophelia', 1852 (pencil on paper) by Sir J.E.Millais / © Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

Suffering for one's art

Millais asked Elizabeth Siddal to pose for his painting 'Ophelia'. To simulate the drowning heroine of 'Hamlet', she famously lay in a bath of water, warmed by lamps placed underneath and contracted severe pneumonia.  

For such an important painting, Millais did only a few preparatory sketches.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti has often been identified as the central, most influential member of the movement.

A poet as well as a painter, and in common with the other Pre-Raphaelites, his art was a fusion of artistic invention and authentic renderings of literary sources. The brotherhood drew heavily from Shakespeare, Dante, and contemporary poets such as Robert Browning and Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Rossetti's idealistic passion for several particular women, including his wife Elizabeth ("Lizzie") Siddal  and Jane Morris, invigorated a large number of his works. He was also remarkable for helping to launch the second romantic phase of the movement, which focused more on mood and tragic love, inspiring contemporaries like William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones to produce more sensual works.

Collections
Large collections of Pre-Raphaelite art, represented by Bridgeman, include Manchester Art Gallery, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery , Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, DeMorgan Foundation and Forbes Collection.  The Delaware Art Museum has the most significant collection of Pre-Raphaelite art outside of the United Kingdom.

Snowdrops (featuring Jane Morris),1873 Dante Charles Gabriel Rossetti / Private Collection /The Bridgeman Art Library
Snowdrops (featuring Jane Morris),1873 Dante Charles Gabriel Rossetti / Private Collection /The Bridgeman Art Library


Back to top