The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

The original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood seven were:

  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)
  • William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919, art critic and brother of D. G.)
  • James Collinson (1825?-81, painter, briefly fianc� of Christina Rossetti)
  • William Holman Hunt (1827-1910, painter)
  • John Everett Millais (1829-96, painter)
  • Thomas Woolner (1825-92, sculptor)
  • Frederic George Stephens (1828-1907, art critic)

Later or unofficial members were:

  • William Morris
  • Edward Burne-Jones
    (1833-98, called Ned)
  • Ford Madox Brown
  • John Ruskin
  • Walter Deverell
    (1827-1854, painter)

  • Algernon Charles Swinburne

The women associated with the group were:

  • Christina Rossetti (1830-1894, poet, sister of D. G. Rossetti)
  • Lizzie Siddal (1829-1862, artist, model for Millais’s Ophelia, ill, died
    of laudanum overdose)
  • Jane Burden Morris (1839-1914, loved by D. G. Rossetti)
  • Fanny Cornforth (1824-1906, model and mistress of D. G. Rossetti)

Hunt, Rossetti and Millais first met in 1848/9 at the Royal Academy School.
Rossetti was a charismatic Italian and they decided to form a brotherhood as
they got on so well. There were other brotherhoods at the time and their secret
society set out its new ideals of art that they submit to the RA Summer
Exhibition signed “PRB” and so revolutionise art.

They had similar ideas to the Ancients, a preference for “primitive” works
(everything before the High Renaissance). Raphael found solutions to the problem
of drawing the foreshortened human figure without it looking distorted. The idea
of “origins” was a popular 18th and 19th century theme, it was believed we
should go back to the very beginning of things.

In 1849 Hunt and Rossetti sold a painting and used the money to visit Belgium
and Holland where they saw van Eyck. They had not at this time visited Italy so
their knowledge of early Renaissance art was limited. In the National Gallery
collection they were shown as peculiarities and displayed only for historic
reasons (Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage was not acquired until 1844). The PRB
“swooned” over this type of art.

A group called the Nazarenes influenced Ford Maddox Brown and possibly the PRB.
Tennyson, and particularly Keats, was a strong influence. We must think of the
PRB as Romantics although this is not a conventional view.

They rejected Reynolds’s idea of “general” (idealised) nature (i.e. look at 20
trees and paint a generalized version in brown not bright green). Of course,
many earlier artists had the same approach and even used bright green but
hagiographies of the PRB try to stress how original they were rather than the
continuity. Frederick Stephens (a friend of Palmer) was a friend of the PRB.
Constable is never mentioned in popular books on the PRB as his original
approach makes them look less original.

When the PRB was first shown at the RA in 1849 (and it is interesting that they
were accepted showing they were not so original) their work received very little
comment. The RA is a marketplace and is a hotchpotch of styles. We have an idea
that a work of art is not great unless it is controversial (like the Olympia
story) and rejected by the academics but in this case they were accepted and

(We now have a distorted view of Victorian society, in fact they were very
modern and go-ahead with many attributes of the modern world. Sentimental
stories we associate with the Victorians such as Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland
and The Water Babies have in fact been sentimentalised in the the 20th century
by Disney and others. The original Victorian stories were very strange, deep and
weird. A major influence of Gauguin was Kate Greenaway and her ‘primitive’ style
of little children playing. See the book “Inventing The Victorians” which
contradicts all the myths.)

In 1850 they sent another three paintings to the RA. Rossetti was a PRB
member for only about a year before he lost interest in the aims. Rossetti told
a journalist that year what “PRB” stood for and provoked a storm as they were
thought to be the artists initials and the term “brotherhood” had negative
associations at the time because of the Chartist Movement and the recent large
meeting on Kennington Common(1848). There was a lot of criticism of Millais
Christ describing him as a “blubbering boy”. The issue seemed to be that a
religious painting was not idealised and showed dirt and “real” people and also
the suggestion of Catholic sympathies. Religious paintings were associated with
the French and Irish and therefore with social unrest, rebellion and revolution.
The PRB were painting in a style Ruskin called “truth to nature” (although this
precise term he only used once in Stones of Venice).

The PRB were influenced by Ruskin’s Modern Painters, 1846 (see the Alison
Smith article and the book “Pre-Raphaelite Vision: Truth to Nature.”) The
paintings did appeal to the Victorian work ethic and they were supported by
Ruskin (although he also had many criticisms of their work, by truth to nature
he did not mean slavishly copying every tiny detail).

In 1851 and 1852 Rossetti did not exhibit at the RA. In 1851 Hunt went to the
Holy Land. Rossetti became interested in line and colour and his work slowly
became associated with the Symbolist movement. Rossetti was the first but his
acolyte was Burne-Jones. There will be a huge Millais retrospective at Tate
Britain in 2007 and a Hunt exhibition in Manchester in 2008.

The PRB D. G. Rossetti was a critic and helped the movement through his
articles. F. G. Stephens painted a little and became a critic. James Collinson
was a sculptor but not prolific. The PRB produced a few issues of a magazine
called The Germ.

The Embodied Eye (see John Berger’s Ways of Seeing)

The increasing materialism of looking. A tension is set up and looking is
seen as an emotional process (Constable’s “another word for feeling”), a
subjective process, a spiritual process.

The embodied eye – no longer an inert mechanical process, e.g. Turner tying
himself to the mast in the snowstorm is an example of the embodied eye. Turner’s
work is like no other composition and reflects the iris of a camera or the eye.
It is like the field of vision of the eye, sharp in the centre and increasingly
vague at the edges.

Ruskin, the embodied eye, a very modern materialist looker. “the greatest
thing anyone can do is show something to someone else.”

The eye not as a seeing machine but a feeling machine. Nature as a
manifestation of divinity. Ruskin is interesting but never seems to cohere as a
single theory. In 1858 he losses his faith.

The 19thC has a whole crisis of looking. The act of observing is something
that changes the observed.

Studying lightning involved human descriptions before it could be recorded.
When they tried to codify these they received all sorts of strange observations,
so that had to try to codify the observations by creating a vocabulary.

Associationism, Saussure.

Ucello, The Flood, paints lightning like a beam of light coming straight down
from the clouds.

See Ruskin quote – we must look at light and colour truthfully. Turner uses
the full tonal range. Turner – the sense of being there. The PRB changed
Ruskin’s mind, a big adventure in the nineteenth century.

Real light reflecting off real surfaces – see Hunt: Rienzi Vowing to Obtain
Justice for the Death of His Young Brother Slain in a Skirmish between the
Colonna and the Orsini Factions, 1848-9.

Painted in the Hackney Marshes, coincides with reading Modern Painters. A
history painting but the background is leaf for leaf from nature. The figures
were meant to be painted outside. The person with their arm raised is Rossetti,
the figure with his arm round the other is Millais.

The dandelion bottom right
is quoted from Raphael’s St. Catherine.

Memling, John Donne altarpiece landscape is also quoted.

The thin trees come from Lasinio engravings (1828?).

Hunt, Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus, 1851. Noel Park, Kent, he took
the mushrooms home to paint.

Hunt, Our English Coasts, 1852. Sizeranne, the French critic, described the
pink candy rocks and blue shadow on the back of the sheep (at Tate Britain at
the moment).The sheep were painted outside. A new, completely radical way
of looking. He used one sheep’s head, copied one sheep, kept them tethered and
lifted them over his head and dropped them to keep them still. (Rossetti enjoyed
beating the lamb, Stubbs flayed and stuffed animals.)

“Thus M. de la Sizeranne says, that in any international exhibition of fine
arts, the galleries set apart for any nation except England bear witness to the
French influences under which its artists have come. The assaults of realism and
of impressionism are broken on the aestheticism of English painters, ‘like the
squadrons of Ney on the squares of Wellington. There are German, Hungarian,
Belgian, Spanish, Scandinavian painters, but there is an English school of
painting.’ ” (see
Years of Modern Painting )

The French appreciated painting in natural light (the translucent sheep’s
ear, the wonderful bright green shadows, the sparkling leaves, done entirely out
of doors).

Millais also painted out of doors.

Brown, Carrying Corn, oil on mahogany, 1854-5 also painted extraordinary
effects of light. Took a year to paint this. This new kind of looking was very

Ford Maddox-Brown, An English Autumn Afternoon, 1852-55

Ford Maddox-Brown, Walton-on-the-Naze, 1859

Quality of light painted on the spot, topographically correct, late summer’s
afternoon. Wife and daughter. It had rained, theatrical part of the rainbow.
Moon just visible. No trees or vertical elements. Blue tones of aerial
perspective reference Claude. Stooked field of beans, emerald green poplar (PRB
colour). Field at left is turnips. Hunt holding wife’s hand. Daughter holding a
spade. Women have let their hair down. Small group of workers. Martello tower on
right. Square rigged ship. Past/present town/country. Chimneys near horizon.
Smoke from steamer on horizon. Englishness is the theme. Rainbow emphasizes
wholeness? Most extreme anti-naturalistic statement, jarring modern buildings.

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