The Pre-Raphaelites (or the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 1848-c.1853) were a group of young Victorian artists who briefly banded together against the dark, moribund art promoted by the English Royal Academy, then disbanded to develop highly individual artistic careers. The three founding painters (who became the most famous) were art students age 18 to 20; they derived their name from their desire to return to the simplicity and sincerity of painting before Raphael (considered the fountainhead of academic rules of art as promulgated by conservatives such as Sir Joshua Reynolds and the watercolor societies). But there was no resemblance between their works and the frescos of Giotto. Their professed aims were: to find serious and genuine themes to portray (this meant themes from the Bible or contemporary society); to portray nature carefully and accurately, without idealization; to portray scenes or situations objectively, without regard to academic rules of design or coloring; and to make only sincere, thoroughly good art. These aims most of the painters ignored. They painted subjects from poetry, romance, medieval history and fantasy; took sensual delight in brilliant, prismatic and irreal colors; painted decorative and stylized figures in sentimentalized poses; larded their works with arcane symbolism; and made much kitsch. For one year (1850) they published a literary magazine, The Germ. Their "rebellion" was at first roundly attacked by the novelist Charles Dickens and others, but championed after 1851 by the critic John Ruskin, whose support came "like thunder out of a clear sky." He provided them with superb press relations and professional guidance, though he glibly misrepresented their works and often irritated them with his meddlesome mentoring.

The Pre-Raphaelites were in aims and method opposite to the Impressionists: where the Impressionists used objects vaguely to define qualities of light, the Pre-Raphaelites used light precisely to define the qualities of objects; the Impressionists explored the latest works of science, while the Pre-Raphaelites ransacked scripture and poetry; the Impressionists celebrated everyday pleasures, the Pre-Raphaelites preached tired moralities; the Impressionists learned to use paint analytically, the Pre-Raphaelites aimed to use it rhetorically. Although they did break new ground in material realism and prismatic color, to my eye the Pre-Raphaelites fought the repetitive, hackneyed and pompous art of the Academy with cloying, mawkish and preachy art of their own. Their technical innovations were remarkable and worth knowing, if you can stomach the sentimentality.



The most popular and successful of the founding group was the child prodigy John Everett Millais (1829-1896), who eventually became president of the Royal Academy. He repayed Ruskin's support by eloping with his sex starved wife, Effie Gray, in 1853. We can ignore his remarkably finished paintings of beautiful girls and literary episodes, as he worked almost exclusively in oils.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), son of an Italian revolutionary, was the intellectual leader of the group, responsible for cementing them as a "secret" brotherhood. He studied drawing with John Sell Cotman while a student at King's College, London (1837-42), but spent more time writing poetry. He thought of himself as a poet painter, after the example of William Blake, and approached Ford Maddox Brown (1821-1893) to give him painting lessons. Personality conflicts soon ended this training and he moved to share a studio with Holman Hunt. Rossetti ignored everything the PRB was said to stand for, and used watercolors in a rough but technically daring style. Arthur's Tomb (Sir Launcelot Parting from Guenevere) (1854, 23x37cm) summarizes the main points: a frivolous but enchanting theme (Arthurian legend), stylized and coarse drawing, superficial imitiation of the flat style of early Italian frescos, and decorative color. The surface is covered in Rossetti's favorite viridian green, the rough colors of the tomb created by scumbling colors (rubbing them on nearly dry) rather than brushing them out. As Martin Hardie noted, "Rossetti was not a natural craftsman.... He impregnates our imagination not only with his subject matter but with his fight to achieve an impassioned result." Ironically, he was so contemptuous of public condemnation of his early paintings that after 1850 he almost never allowed his works to be exhibited again. Rossetti displays the strong literary associations that course through the Pre-Raphaelite sensibility; he avoided biblical themes in favor of poetic legends, and his precedent paved the way for the craze in medieval topics found in "second wave" Pre-Raphaelites. Like most of his peers, he had an abrasive relationship with Ruskin, who commissioned a painting and then made Rossetti paint it over until he got it right. Rossetti met Elizabeth Siddall in 1850, and she became his "virgin princess" and favorite model. They married in 1860 after a decade of living together, but she died in 1862 of an overdose of the opiate laudanum, ruled accidental. In 1871 Rossetti and the poet Algernon Swinburne were venomously attacked in an anonymous article as "immoral and fleshly poets"; in the aftermath Rossetti became increasingly reclusive, paranoid, and dependent on the calming drug chloral hydrate. Even so, he became fairly successful later in life, creating many oil paintings of languid femmes fatales, — sad memorials to Siddall and made without any help from Ruskin.

Third among the founding members, William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) is possibly the most interesting of the tribe, and held most closely to the PRB principles throughout his life. Hunt had a badly deformed sexual outlook, which he disguised by spewing moral platitudes: he fell in love with a Chelsea prostitute, Annie Miller, and tried to redeem her for marriage by using her as the model in preachy paintings such as The Awakening Conscience, but Annie was a good working girl and went on whoring anyway. His search for nature and truth aimed at moral nature and divine truth, and his observation of nature paradoxically includes a sensual pleasure in bright colors. When he gets down from his New Testament pulpit, Hunt's paintings can be very intriguing in their meticulous observation and use of prismatic color; on seeing one of his oil paintings in 1856, the French painter Eugène Delacroix was "astounded" by the brilliant reds, yellows and blues Hunt wove into the fleece of white sheep. Some of Hunt's best works are night scenes observed under moonlight or torchlight. He painted minutely detailed landscapes of the Holy Land and Egypt, with brilliant yellow skies and violet mountains, during several trips to the Middle East after 1854. His secular painting The Apple Harvest - Valley of the Rhine, Ragaz (1883, 39x44cm) is dominated by the popular Pre-Raphaelite harmony of violet against green, with touches of blue and orange thrown in for contrast. The high key and lack of chiaroscuro permits exploration of a great range of bright colors, painted for brilliance against a pure white ground. The theme of a family united in toil would be familiar to most Victorians, and the painting was a market success for its inclusion of a favorite tourist landscape. Hunt went on to receive the Order of Merit in 1905 and write a biased autobiographical account of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

Following in the steps of these founding Pre-Raphaelites were a number of painters who shared some of their aims or methods. Precise observation of nature became the specialty of George Price Boyce (1826-1897), who attached himself to the Pre-Raphaelite circle (his diary, published in 1980, is a key source of information about the group). Son of a prosperous wine merchant, Boyce apprenticed to an architect, but veered into a painting career after a memorable meeting in 1849 with David Cox. After training at the Royal Academy schools, he exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1853-61 and joined the Old Water-Colour Society in 1864. Streatley Mill at Sunset (1859, 40x52cm) is a good example of his many landscape paintings, which often include the vernacular architectural of 16th or 17th century farmhouses, mills and bridges in the soft colors of early twilight, intensified by the contrast between red roofs and green trees. This tiny image cannot show it, but each leaf in the trees is carefully painted; the facade of the building shows every brick and ivy vine, the roof every thatch twig. Other details of the building reveal Boyce's great knowledge of architectural engineering; most of his architectural paintings include a small cat somewhere in the picture, a touch that became his trademark.

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-1898) of Birmingham turned to art at the urging of William Morris (1834-1896), like him an Oxford undergraduate preparing for the clergy. Morris was inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites to become a crafts manufacturer and socialist prophet. Burne-Jones traveled to London in 1855 and worked for a time designing ceramics, frescos and stained glass with Morris, then informally apprenticed himself to Rossetti in 1856. Like Rossetti, he was interested in medieval and mythical subjects, but preferred classical figures drawn after Botticelli, which he saw in visits to Italy in 1859 and 1862. His early drawings are strongly patterned, with figures much resembling Rossetti's. Sidonia von Bork 1560 (1860, 33x17cm) exemplifies his marvelous eye for visual effect and strong design, which he used to create many beautiful pieces for the Morris crafts studio. For Burne-Jones the visual arts were a search for fantasy: "I mean by a picture a beautiful romantic dream, of something that never was, never will be — in a light no one can define or remember, only desire — and the forms divinely beautiful." The elegant profile and hand of Sidonia is set within an involved but powerful pattern of black loops in her dress and the pearl decorated net around her hair. The design is made flat by filling it with her dress and closing off the distant spaces with hanging tapestry and figures. The painting exudes a pungent yearning for the mix of luxury and violence that characterized the century between Renaissance and Baroque.

Burne-Jones was elected to the Old Water-Colour Society in 1864. He exhibited little before 1877 but thereafter quickly became famous, particularly among foreign collectors. His Phyllis and Demophoön (1870, 91x46cm) is taken from a story in Ovid's Heroides: The gods turned Phyllis, Queen of Thrace, into an almond tree to relieve her lovesick yearning for Demophoön, and when the youth returned and embraced the tree in grief at her transformation, it blossomed and for a moment turned back into the lovely queen. The painting is in some measure autobiographical, for the woman who modeled Phyllis was Maria Zamboca, a Greek sculptress in London and Burne-Jones's passionately possessive mistress. This gouache created a scandal when Burne-Jones presented it at the OWCS exhibition of 1870. In fear of possible public condemnation, the society president asked him to drape the genitals of Demophoön with removable chalk; Burne-Jones indignantly refused, withdrew the picture from the show and then resigned from the society. (He was reinstated in 1886, the year after he was elected to the Royal Academy.) He ceased public exhibition almost entirely during the 1870's, when public condemnation of the "immorality" of Rossetti and other Pre-Raphaelites turned dangerously strident. Instead, Burne-Jones traveled twice to Italy in 1871 and 1873, accumulated a significant reputation for book illustrations, stained glass, needlepoint and tapestry designs (manufactured as collectibles at the Morris workshops), and painted steadily in private. When these works were first displayed at the inaugural exhibit of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, Burne-Jones became famous and fashionable overnight. He exhibited every year at the Royal Academy from 1889 to his death, and his late paintings show a marvelous command of colorful, flat, patterned designs; lyrical, lively and rhythmic figure drawing; and affecting mythical images of earnest souls wanly yearning for love. Notable among his last works are the many beautiful watercolors in circular format, on fantasies inspired by the names of flowers, collected in The Flower Book (c.1882-98).

Although I don't find a lot to like in the Pre-Raphaelites, it gets really bad in the sequel: the "second wave" Pre-Raphaelites. These include Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919), whose decorative allegorical medievalism is at the same level as her husband William De Morgan's artfully glazed pottery, and Albert Joseph Moore (1841-1893), who adopted a pseudoclassical style as the pretext for an endless series of flaccid, contrived female nudes and figure portraits. Moore, De Morgan, Burne-Jones, the American artist James Whistler and others loosely formed the Aesthetic movement, associated with annual exhibitions at the Grosvenor Gallery from 1877 to 1891. (The Grosvenor was built by the wealthy aristocratic amateur artists Sir Coutts Lindsay and his wife, expressly to provide a more progressive exhibition space outside the Royal Academy.) Excluding Burne-Jones and Whistler (who were innovators and supreme individualists), perhaps the best thing to come out of this "art for art's sake" movement was the deliciously frothy parody of the "fleshly poet" Bunthorne and the "greenery yallery Grosvenor Gallery," in Gilbert & Sullivan's comic opera Patience (1881).

An excellent overview of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood can be found in The Pre-Raphaelites by Andrea Rose (Phaidon, 1992); although almost all the paintings included are oils, the range of works presented is very instructive to browse. Victorian Watercolors by Christopher Newall (Phaidon, 1987) provides a sympathetic sampling of Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic paintings in the context of other Victorian watercolor styles. The best overview of Ruskin's influence on the Pre-Raphaelites is the centenary exhibition catalog Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites by Robert Hewison, Ian Warrell & Stephen Wildman (Tate Gallery, 2000). There are a few Pre-Raphaelite paintings included in Victorian Landscape Watercolors by Scott Wilcox and Christopher Newall (Yale Center for British Art, 1992).