The Artist and The Establishment

‘The Germ’ was the magazine of the PRB and although it does exhibit some of the enthusiasm and amateurism of a schoolboy magazine its inward looking focus on the interests of the members of the PRB meant that it was commercially unsuccessful and only ran for four issues. However, it does give us a good insight into their thinking.
The PRB thought art covered all aspects of life so for them art also involved lifestyle. We find this easy to understand in terms of architecture but they saw it much more broadly and so could accept a sculptor and ‘thinkers’ into the group whose artistic credentials were limited. This is a new idea although there had been many societies and even brotherhoods before them, for example the Nazarenes in Rome and Palmer’s Ancients. It explains the eclecticism of ‘The Germ’.

In George Eliot’s Middlemarch Rev. Edward Casaubon (a middle-aged to elderly
clergyman) is obsessed with finishing his scholarly research and his book The Key to All Mythologies which tries to find a unity between all religions (Christian syncretism). It is a very nineteenth century idea that everything can be linked and everything explained. The PRB had the same idea but they are also naive and self-indulgent. They regard fine art as concerning the whole happiness of man and believed art and life should be connected. The word ‘truth’ is frequently used. One of the authors of ‘The Germ’, John Tupper, ended up as art master at Rugby School under Dr. Thomas Arnold.

We should examine the letters and biographies very carefully as the source is unreliable. There were many cultural reasons for exaggeration and distortion. Hunt’s verbatim recollection of conversations held 50 years previously seems unlikely for example. The biography by Hunt’s granddaughter (‘My Grandfather, His Life and Loves’) is a good read and as accurate as Hunt’s as it is based on family letters and recollections. Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen (WWV 49) (Rienzi, the Last of the Tribunes) is an early opera by Richard Wagner in five acts, written in 1840, with the libretto written by the composer after Bulwer-Lytton’s novel of the same name. (The title is commonly shortened to
Rienzi.). Rienzi tries to unite Rome but is undermined by the Colonna and Orsini factions and in the end the Roman people turn on him and he dies. Hunt’s painting shows us an early scene when Rienzi vows justice. His painting suggests the figures facing us are the PRB presented as leaders who will change people’s thinking. Hitler is meant to have told a friend after seeing Rienzi, ‘this is where it all began’, meaning his plans for Germany. Hunt suggested in Druids the PRB were like missionaries coming with new ideas and were ready to die for them. There was a revolutionary atmosphere at the time and a time of change across Europe.

Eye/I – Subjectivity

  • The outer eye – the actual experience of seeing (opticality) and the process of representing exactly what was seen (technique). That is the PRB were interested in the specific optical experience and how to represent it. There are many new observations used by the PRB such as the coloured shadows in Hunt’s Our English Coasts (1852) and the sunlight shining through the sheep’s ear or the blue sky reflected from the top of the man’s hat in Ford Madox Brown’s An English Autumn Afternoon (1852-5). These acute visual observations are often associated with the French Impressionists
  • The inner eye – mental ‘seeing’, feeling, memory, imagination, love,
    faith and spirituality. These are all things that ‘colour’ our seeing.
    Whistler, of course, insisted on painting from memory, the PRB are at the other end of this negotiation between representing the untainted optical image (an impossible project) and representing feelings and imagination in paint.

The PRB saw science as compatible with their aims, they wanted to start at the beginning and go back to first principles using scientific observation to see the world anew. John Ruskin described it as seeing with an innocent eye or with a child’s eye. As we know from people who have recovered their sight an ‘innocent eye’ is unable to recognise anything or act on the world. Representing the world in paint involves a sophisticated mental processing of the visual observation, recognition, categorization with visual schema and the ability to translate this into a form in another medium that others are able to decode in the way the artist wishes.

It is meaningless to talk of the ‘Death of the Artist’ as any message must be encoded before it is decoded although in the past the encoder has been privileged by being seen as the only person truly able to decode. In fact, there is no ‘true decoding’, language is a game we all play in which we all negotiate or interpret our way to an understanding, including the original encoder. The Pre-Raphaelites could not invent a brand new language as no one would understand them. Instead they combined elements from different visual conventions. Compare William Collins (father of Wilkie Collins)The Cottage Door, 1825 or The Skittle Players of 1832 with Hunt’s The Old Church at Ewell, Surrey, 1847 we clearly see the difference between the established style and the new PRB style.

William Collins, The Skittle Players, 1832

Hunt The Old Church at Ewell Surrey 1847

William Holman Hunt, The Old Church at Ewell, Surrey, 1847.

Hunt did not generalize, and we would say he painted what he saw although this begs many questions. Collins has created an ‘artistic’ image with objects selected to create a pleasing composition, framed in darker surroundings with a sense of depth and muted colours. Hunt has painted ever detail equally and evenly across the painting using the colours of the object in sunshine as seen. Robin Ironside, the artist, when writing about the PRB in his book of the same name in 1960 described it as ‘like your eyes are pinned open’. Hunt also had many new, artificial bright pigments that had recently come available from the textile industry. Pigments such as:

  • Chrome Yellow is a natural yellow pigment made of lead(II) chromate (PbCrO4). It was first extracted from the mineral crocoite by the French chemist Louis Vauquelin in 1809. Because the pigment tends to oxidize and darken on exposure to air over time, and it contains lead, a toxic, heavy metal, it has been largely replaced by another pigment, Cadmium Yellow.
  • Mauve, produced by William Perkins.
  • Emerald Green a common name for copper(II)-acetoarsenite, an extremely toxic blue green chemical with four main uses: pigment, animal poison (mostly rodenticide), insecticide, and blue colorant for fireworks.

PRB Technique

The PRB made life-study drawings, sketches, detailed drawings of objects and preliminary painted sketches. The used contrasting colours in way that was not repeated by the Impressionists for 20 years. The members of the PRB were reading about colour theory (see the book on the PRB by Kemp), particularly George Field. These ideas and many personal colour observations were summarized in two founding documents in colour theory: the Theory of Colors (1807) by the German poet and bureaucrat Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and The Law of Simultaneous Color Contrast (1839) by the French industrial chemist

Michel-Eugene Chevreul.
If we examine a Hunt painting, such as Eve of St. Agnes, in detail we see highlights on each fingernail and even each blond eyelash. We also see at this date, 1848, he is using some painterly Titian techniques but we see that he is already painting on a bright white background.

The Pre-Raphaelites tended to have richer, coloured shadows. They never just filed-in part of the painting with scrubbed colour, their highlights are much harder in order to create shape out of an otherwise undistinguished surface of equal tones. They are painting the light that reflects from the surface rather than the object itself, this means as light changes colour, for example, in dappled sunlight under a tree the colour of the light changes and so the colour reflected from the object changes.
The bright white objects provides a luminosity we see in all PRB paintings.
By thinning the paint using a varnish they light is reflected back from the white background through the tint giving an almost stained glass luminosity.
The old idea that the PRB achieved this by painting the pigment over a wet white background is wrong. They painted a little this way (and Madox Brown painted more this way after Rossetti told him it was their secret) but most of their paintings use a dry but brilliant white background if for no other reason than it is very difficult to paint pigments into wet white paint without it smearing.

William Mulready and David Wilkie were already painting on a white background and before that it was the practice of 14/15th century tempera painters and fresco painting (which might be the original source of the idea).


It is unlikely that the PRB actually saw much pre-raphaelite painting. They did see Lasinio engravings of the Campo Santo, Memling’s John Donne Triptych (c. 1475) altarpiece and the Arnolfini portrait by Jans Eyck (1434) as it was bought in 1842 by the National Gallery.
We see a flatter composition, a shallow picture space with ‘holes’ in it for the objects, rather than an articulated, receding space with linear and aerial perspective.

The PRB were trying to put more meaning into their paintings (the inner eye), one could almost say they took facts from the real world and used them to make a point. Each objects has a meaning, such as the tools in Millais’s Christ in the House of his Parents, the triangle representing the trinity, the dove the Holy Spirit. Ruskin makes the point about Tintoretto’s brick wall but the PRB also looked at Hogarth which is full of stories within stories and objects with a significance and a multiplicity of meanings that needs to be read as a book or a poem is read. In this sense the PRB painted in a very literate way, telling a story, making a point, conveying a feeling.

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