See caption
The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1849
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) was formed in 1848 by three young English painters: Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. They were quickly joined by Rossetti’s brother William, the painters James Collinson and F. G. Stephens, and the sculptor Thomas Woolner. Their shared aim was to reject what they saw as the formulaic Classical poses first adopted by the High Renaissance painter and architect Raphael (1483–1520) and developed by his successors, which they believed had a “corrupting” influence on the academic teaching of art. They sought a return to the Early Renaissance style of painting that preceded him, hence the term Pre-Raphaelite. Sentimental and vulgar subjects were to be avoided, and instead the brotherhood’s initial inspiration came from the Bible, Shakespeare, and the works of the Romantic poet John Keats (1795–1821).[1]

The formation of the PRB was initially kept secret, and their work was at first well-received. But when their existence became public knowledge members were accused of blasphemy, and of setting themselves up as being better than Raphael,[2] thought even today by many critics to be one of the most accomplished painters who ever lived. Prominent among the brotherhood’s critics was the English author Charles Dickens, who in his periodical Household Words led the attack by describing Millais’ Christ in the House of His Parents (1849–1850) as “mean, odious, revolting and repulsive”.[3] It took the intervention of the art critic John Ruskin in 1851 to help restore the reputation of the group.[2]

The movement was short-lived, effectively over by 1853,[1] but its influence continued in the work of painters including John William WaterhouseEnglish artist known primarily for his depictions of women set in scenes from myth, legend or poetry. He is the best known of that group of artists who from the 1880s revived the literary themes favoured by the Pre-Raphaelites. and Evelyn De Morgan.[4]

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