The Genesis of Pre-Raphaelitism

Any history of Pre-Raphaelitism must begin with the influences extant in European painting and literature prior to the movement. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, Ford Madox Brown was beginning his painting education on the continent. In his work, we can see the development of some principles that would be fully expressed by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. As a young man, Brown studied in Bruges and Ghent under Albert Gregorius, who himself had been a pupil of Jacques-Louis David; Brown's early works fit well with the 1830s revival of neoclassical sentiment in European art. Brown moved to the Antwerp Academy in 1837 to study under Baron Wappers, from whom Brown learned the ages-old "wash and varnish" techniques of the Dutch schools, a technique that produced muddy, hazy paintings. Most importantly to the story of Pre-Raphaelitism, Brown next traveled to Rome and met the Nazarenes, a group of expatriate German painters led by Peter Cornelius and Friedrich Overbeck, who intended to purify German painting by returning to "religious and cultural archaism," the result of which was an adherence to Roman Catholicism and to the painting techniques of quattrocento German and Italian masters.

The "clean line" and "simple faith" of the quattrocento were by no means the exclusive province of eccentric German painters. Many English painters on the "Grand Tour" were influenced by the painting techniques and subjects of fifteenth-century paintings. By the late 1840s, there was a general interest in late-medieval design-so much so that the Arundel Society was formed in 1848 to disseminate engravings and other copies of important works. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a continuation of this trend; it did not arise ex nihilo, as many scholars have claimed. Timothy Hilton nicely sums up this point:

The influence of the German Nazarenes, the adumbration of such principles as accuracy, archaism, a new look at the medieval past, and intensity of religious, human and literary feeling; all these are present in the course of English art before the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and it must be recognized that the Brotherhood was part of this movement, not its source. (25)

Indeed, recent scholarship has focused on reconnecting the Pre-Raphaelite movement to its continental influences, long disavowed by scholars intent on preserving the "Englishness" of the movement. Alicia Craig Faxon declares in the introduction to Pre-Raphaelite Art in Its European Context that "the separation of Pre-Raphaelite art from European art is an arbitrary one created by modern art historians. As artists, the Pre-Raphaelites used many of the same sources" as their continental counterparts, and "were affected by new sources of art patronage and new modes of exhibition" (11).

Hilton's Pre-Raphaelitism (1970) remains one of the best overviews of the movement for a lay audience, and part of his introduction may serve to set the scene:

Many of the paintings we designate "Pre-Raphaelite" do not look at all like each other. How, one feels, can they belong to the same artistic movement? There could hardly be a greater contrast than that between Edward Burne-Jones's The Beguiling of Merlin and Ford Madox Brown's Work, or between Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Beata Beatrix and John Brett's The Stonebreaker. Stylistically, they do not have a common denominator. . . . To understand what it was about, we need to follow its differing paths, and it is often as important to describe differences as to record similarities. (9)

Hilton's assessment of the movement is quite perceptive. Of the four paintings referred to above, only one, Brett's Stonebreaker, was painted before 1860. Each of the works Hilton uses in his example was painted in a different decade, under very different social, artistic, and ideological circumstances. To "follow its differing paths," we must first understand the common starting point of Pre-Raphaelitism. The history of the movement is by no means a homogeneous whole; in just its first five years, the movement underwent many changes, lost some members, and gained new adherents, all the while subtly-and at times radically-changing with the ideas and views of its practitioners. The movement proper began with the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded by three young students associated with the British Royal Academy of Art painting schools: John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. These three invited four of their contemporaries to join them in their Brotherhood: Rossetti's brother William Michael Rossetti, Frederic George Stephens, Thomas Woolner, and Charles Allston Collins (Collins was denied membership when Woolner objected, and he was soon replaced by James Collinson). Not all of these seven were painters. Indeed, William Michael Rossetti was at the time a clerk, Stephens an aspiring poet, and Woolner a budding sculptor. As I have already mentioned, the original aim of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was to follow John Ruskin's advice in Modern Painters: "go to Nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly, having no other thought but how best to penetrate her meaning; rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing." The members of the Brotherhood began work on paintings in this line, and plans were made for a literary magazine, entitled The Germ, as a showcase for the writings and etchings of the group concerning art and poetry.

The first works of the group elicited thunder from the critical press, less because of the artists' radical painting technique (many artists, like Ford Madox Brown and William Dyce, had already been painting medieval-style works for nearly a decade) than because of their obdurate secrecy. No one knew what the initials "P. R. B." meant on the paintings of the Brotherhood, and their fraternity seemed to the critical press to smack of the idea of the cosa nostra from which all but the privileged few were excluded. The hallmarks of their paintings and poetry, indeed, were fairly uncontroversial: a photographic fidelity to nature in the description or delineation of all objects in poetry or on the canvas, a concern for the moral welfare of the reader or viewer, and a return to the more "pure" artistic forms of the quattrocento, before Raphael-hence the name "Pre-Raphaelite." The critical press seems at first to have sympathized with these aims, commenting on the quaint medievalism of the execution of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Girlhood of Mary Virgin. Yet, once the truth about the nature of the Brotherhood was revealed, the periodical press began its campaign of denouncing the movement for its "misguided attempt to reform" the practice of painting, its seeming Roman Catholic overtones, and the perceived audacity of seven artists under the age of twenty telling their elders about "the truth" in art.

Works Cited

Hilton, Timothy. The Pre-Raphaelites. London: Thames and Hudson, 1970.

Pre-Raphaelite Art in Its European Context. Eds. Susan P. Casteras and Alicia Craig Faxon. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1995.

 

 

Last update 21 September 2003.
Copyright © 1996-2003 Thomas J. Tobin