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Who Were the Founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood?

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The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood started in a prosperous London neighborhood, in the home of a known child prodigy, John Everett Millais. Three young men destined for artistic greatness formed a tight circle of friends whose passion centered on painting and poetry. Aside from Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt made up the three founders along with William Michael Rossetti (DG Rossetti’s brother), James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens, and Thomas Woolner, other talented artists who contributed to the group.

The brand new fellowship had a distinct purpose. They wanted to create an atmosphere of artistic independence centered on developing free thought and interpretation of their ideals, yet each member remaining responsible to its cause.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood Marker at Gower Street Home of John Everett Millais circa 1848

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood Marker at Gower Street Home of John Everett Millais circa 1848

What is Pre-Raphaelitism?

An artistic movement based on the foundation and principles of the 19th-century artists and writers of Romanticism who sought to recreate and restore the practice thought used in Italian art before the High Renaissance painter Raphael.

A Movement Founded on Romanticism

From the beginning, the founders stood firm on Pre-Raphaelite Romanticism. With this concept, the fellowship worshiped medieval culture, heightening its fascination with a mix of spiritualism and realism. Though Hunt and Millais preferred the path to authenticity, Rossetti remained captivated by Medievalism. Despite the differences of artistic style and the sense of resentment amongst the artists, the riff did not facilitate any actual damage to the solidity of the group. They each believed in a set of four basic principles based on freedom of thought and interpretation, which gave the group a doctrinal foundation they followed with enthusiasm and reverence:

  • Genuine ideas to express
  • Attentive to nature and expression
  • Sympathize with previous expressions of art
  • To produce quality art

Feminine Beauty: The Divine Essence

The brotherhood’s artistic circle centered most of their paintings around the beauty of glorious women. Of the founding trio, it was the wayward Rossetti who worshiped this concept the most, expressing that he could find reflections of his soul in the face of women as theorized by writer Richard Cammel in his 1933 work about the artist “Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Philosophy of Love,” which he suggests:

“The soul of a man is incomplete and must seek its complement, in the soul of the one woman, its affinity. Not by all men, in this pilgrimage of life, is the complemental soul found or findable; but somewhere in the mysterious passage of the human spirit to its Eternal Goal will the two half-souls meet and, uniting, create of themselves that Union with the Divine Essence which is the sum of Attainment…Rossetti, an Italian under an alien sky, taught his Pre-Raphaelite friends to paint the souls of women, and to portray each his own soul in the pensive countenance of his Beloved.”


Medievalism Versus Realism

While Rossetti dominated the sphere and epitome of feminine beauty, Millais and Holman shared their own siren inspired endeavors, though their approach and perception remained more realistic. Despite the Medievalism versus realism friction, there were a few technique distinctions that the founders had in common, and that centered on the influences of nature, immortal figures, and the use of brilliant jewel-like colors which helped emphasize their spiritual avant-garde movement as explained in the informative video shared below.

Let the Exhibitions Begin

The Brotherhood’s first exhibition took place at London’s Royal Academy. The artist’s debuted at the free exhibition show, each showing off their work with the groups designated famed initials PRB, a smart and forward-thinking publicity stunt that gave rise to their cause.

  • Millais’ “Isabella”
  • Hunt’s “Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice for the Death of His Young Brother”
  • Rossetti’s “Girlhood of Virgin Mary”

In the beginning, the brotherhood received high praise from celebrated voices such as artist John Ruskin, who followed the group with close admiration. However, another famous voice countered the enamored critic’s reviews with a harsh overtone which would bring sensationalism and embarrassment to the brotherhood.

Dickens at his desk.  1858

Dickens at his desk. 1858

Charles Dickens' Scathing Review

The Brotherhood remained a tight-knit network until around 1850 when famed writer Charles Dickens denounced the group’s credibility by criticizing Millais at an exhibition in which he presented his work Christ in the House of His Parents. Dickens’ rude remarks about Millais’ sister, Mary, and her less than pleasant appearance, created a controversy surrounding the group’s legitimacy:

"You behold the interior of a carpenter’s shop. In the foreground of that carpenter’s shop is a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed-gown, who appears to have received a poke in the hand, from the stick of another boy with whom he has been playing in an adjacent gutter, and to be holding it up for the contemplation of a kneeling woman, so horrible in her ugliness, that (supposing it were possible for any human creature to exist for a moment with that dislocated throat) she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest ginshop in England. Two almost naked carpenters, master and journeyman, worthy companions of this agreeable female, are working at their trade; a boy, with some small flavor of humanity in him, is entering with a vessel of water; and nobody is paying any attention to a snuffy old woman who seems to have mistaken that shop for the tobacconist’s next door, and to be hopelessly waiting at the counter to be served with half an ounce of her favourite mixture. Wherever it is possible to express ugliness of feature, limb, or attitude, you have it expressed. Such men as the carpenters might be undressed in any hospital where dirty drunkards, in a high state of varicose veins, are received. Their very toes have walked out of Saint Giles’s."

For the artist's circle, there’s no doubt that Dickens’s harsh observation about one of their close artistic associations was quite a blow beneath the belt for the inspirational movement. The critical assessment remained so disturbing that it signified the very beginning toward an end for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Christ in the House of His Parents by John Everett Millais 1849/50

Christ in the House of His Parents by John Everett Millais 1849/50

Three things the English public never forgives: youth, power and enthusiasm.

— Oscar Wilde

The Brotherhood Dissolves

By 1854, three years after Dicken’s merciless rebuke, the Brotherhood dissolved, leaving William Holman Hunt as the sole artist dedicated to its original aim and purpose. The other members remained independent while shaping the Pre-Raphaelite vision into what it’s known, the ethereal tones and romanticized settings of dream-stricken women caught up in a Libertine poses. Many art enthusiasts would agree there’s no other artistic movement, so cutting edge or controversial than the Pre-Raphaelites of Victorian England.

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Cited Sources & Works

  • John Simkin, "Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood" Spartacus Educational, September 1997. (Qoute by Charles Dickens: Retrieved 01/24/2021)




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