Art Guides · British

A Guide to Pre-Raphaelite Painting


Christ in the House of His Parents by John Everett Millais Pre-Raphaelite Painting
Christ in the House of His Parents (The Carpenter’s Shop) by John Everett Millais, 1849-50. Tate Britain, London. Photo via (Public Domain).

Key Artists

  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti
  • John Everett Millais
  • William Holman Hunt
  • Ford Maddox Brown
  • Edward Burne-Jones
The Girlhood of Mary Virgin by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
The Girlhood of Mary Virgin by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1849. London, Tate Britain.

The Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood was a small group of British painters, and also a few writers, that existed between 1848 and 1853. At this time, the Industrial Revolution was rapidly transforming Britain, and the Pre-Raphaelites were among the many people who didn’t think those changes were for the better. They disliked the impersonality of machine-made products and the materiality of the bourgeois class. They also disliked the conventional academic art of their day, which they found to be overly idealized and sentimental. Like many others artists and writers of this era, the Pre-Raphaelites looked back to the medieval past for what they believed was a more moral set of values. In particular, they modeled their work on that of early Italian Renaissance painters like Giotto. They used strong shapes and brilliant colors instead of the intense light and shade (chiaroscuro) of the Renaissance and later traditions. As their name suggests, the Pre Raphaelites went back to art before Raphael.

The Pre-Raphaelites believed in the importance of being true to nature, and their paintings are filled with scores of little details that they found through close observation of the world around them. These details often served symbolic purposes, too. The artists felt that art should serve a moral purpose, since they were concerned about the perceived decline of Victorian British morals. Almost all of their paintings contain include moral messages shown through scenes of the modern or medieval worlds. Some of the artists were deeply religious and often painted religious subjects. The Pre-Raphaelites are typically associated with mythological and Shakespearean themes. However, some sources argue that these works are more properly associated with the Aesthetic movement.

Past and Present by William Holman Hunt Pre-Raephaelites
Past and Present by William Holman Hunt, 1868. Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums, Aberdeen, UK. Photo via (Public Domain).

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood didn’t get a very positive reception from the Victorian art world. The group disbanded after only a few years, but some artists continued to paint in a similar style for several decades. (Surprisingly, one of the leading Pre Raphaelites, John Everett Millais, turned his back on the style and became a celebrated academic painter.) The style is related to other British, European, and American movements of the time, such as the Aesthetic and Arts & Crafts movements and the Gothic Revival, that reacted against industrialization by looking back to earlier times. While the artists in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood aimed specifically to break with the academic and popular traditions of Victorian art, the distinction can be more difficult to recognize today. The Pre Raphaelites weren’t concerned about their art being pretty, but it can appear that was to a twenty-first century viewer. It’s important to remember that our perspective today is very different from that of the mid-19th century.

If you’ve made it this far through the post, you’ve probably noticed that I’m trying a different format than I have for my previous art guides. Which one do you guys like better? Please let me know. Thanks for reading!


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