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Pre-Raphaelite Art

Pre-Raphaelite Waterhouse

Read the article below on Pre-Raphaelite art and answer the comprehension questions that follow.

The Pre-Raphaelites or Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of English painters, poets, and critics, founded in 1848 by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Inspired by the theories of John Ruskin, who urged artists to ‘be true to nature’, they believed in an art of serious subjects treated with maximum realism. Their principal themes were initially religious, but they also used subjects from literature and poetry, particularly those dealing with love and death. They also explored modern social problems.

The three founders were joined by William Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens and Thomas Woolner to form the seven-member "brotherhood". Their principles were shared by other artists, including Ford Madox Brown, John Collier, Edward Burne-Jones and John Brett, and extended into the twentieth century with artists such as John William Waterhouse.



These artists rebelled against conservatism in Victorian painting. Instead, admiring the simplicity and clarity of medieval Italian art before Raphael (1483-1520), which gave them their name ‘Pre-Raphaelites’. 

Inspired by late Medieval and early Renaissance works, the Pre-Raphaelites created vivid paintings that were vibrantly different than the art of their contemporaries. They painted in bright, hard colours with great attention to detail, and frequently chose high-minded moralistic subjects, loaded with symbolism. The doctrines they followed resulted in paintings with an almost photographic realism.

The Pre-Raphaelites found support from the critic John Ruskin, who praised their devotion to nature and rejection of conventional methods of composition. Initially, he favoured John Everett Millais, who travelled to Scotland in the summer of 1853 with Ruskin and Ruskin's wife, Effie Ruskin, née Gray. The main object of the journey being to paint Ruskin's portrait. Effie became increasingly attached to Millais, creating a crisis. In subsequent marriage annulment proceedings, Ruskin himself made a statement to his lawyer to the effect that his marriage had been unconsummated. The marriage was annulled on grounds of non-consummation, leaving Effie free to marry Millais, but causing something of a public scandal.  

Some of the best loved works by artists working in the Pre-Raphaelite style include:

John Everett Millais: Ophelia (1852)

Shakespeare provided a rich source for pre-Raphaelite paintings, but rarely for simple theatrical effect. Millais uses the drowning of Ophelia in Hamlet to demonstrate close nature study, with many of the plants also carrying symbolic significance, including forget-me-nots and the poppy for death. The setting for this painting was the Hogsmill River at Ewell in Surrey, and the model, was the red-headed Elizabeth Siddal. She famously posed in a bath of water, which was heated by lamps for this painting, catching a terrible cold as a result. 

pre raphaelite millais

Arthur Hughes: The Long Engagement (1859)

Inspired by the pre-Raphaelites while a student at the Royal Academy, Hughes maintained their style and themes long after the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had disbanded. He specialised in literary and romantic subjects with figures often in landscape settings, using a distinctive palette including purple from newly available pigments. This memorable two-figure composition, together with a faithful dog, is a poignant commentary on a contemporary social issue. A clergyman who is too poorly paid to marry, and during their long engagement ivy has grown over the name of his beloved, cut into the tree. 

pre raphaelite hughes

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: The Blue Bower (1865)

Rossetti was born and brought up in London but of Italian parentage. He was the flamboyant driving force behind the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and also a celebrated poet. His early work was mostly in watercolour, concentrating on medieval romantic themes such as the Arthurian legend, and he began painting in oils seriously only in the 1860s. Elizabeth Siddal had been his model, mistress and wife, but after her suicide in 1862 Rossetti turned to the earthier Sarah Cox. Lacking any specific subject, The Blue Bower is a typical celebration of controlled female sensuality, often matched in his poetry. Passion flowers add to the atmosphere and the symbolism, together with exotic details such as the Indian jewel and Japanese musical instrument. 

pre-raphaelite rossetti




Comprehension Questions 

1 - In which country was the Pre-Raphaelite movement based?

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