Pre-Raphaelite Definitions

The term Pre-Raphaelite is probably one of the most misused tags in art history. So many people have their own slightly different interpretations of what it means to be a Pre-Raphaelite, for example:

Were there three or seven original Pre-Raphaelites in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB)?

Did they all look to the Medieval for inspiration?

Did they admire artists pre-Raphael because they disliked art produced by Raphael himself?

Did they adhere to John Ruskin’s adjuration to study and reproduce nature exactly as it is?

How long did the PRB/Pre-Raphaelites last?

The chances are that one or more answers to these questions will be coloured by the personal view of whomever you interrogate, so rather than add my own veneer to these varied responses, I instead, rely on Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s younger brother, William Michael Rossetti, to provide the answers (from his preface to the 1901 facsimile edition of The Germ).

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB):

In 1848 the British School of Painting was in anything but a vital or a lively condition.  One very great and incomparable genius, Turner, belonged to it.  He was old and past his executive prime… On the whole the school had sunk very far below what it had been in the days of Hogarth, Reynolds, Gainsborough, and Blake, and its ordinary average had come to be something for which commonplace is a laudatory term, and imbecility a not excessive one.

In the late summer of that year, in the Schools of the Royal Academy or barely emergent from them, four young men … Their names were William Holman-Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painters, and Thomas Woolner, sculptor.  Their ages varied from twenty-two to nineteen.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Image-26-01-2021-at-13.45-877x1024.jpg
William Holman Hunt (self portrait) (1845)
Oil on canvas, 39.4 x 45.7 cm
Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.
Charles Robert Leslie, John Everett Millais (1852)
Oil on panel, 30.6 x 25.2 cm.
NPG 1859

The PRB was completed by the accession of three members to the four already mentioned.  These were James Collinson, a domestic painter; Frederic George Stephens, an Academy-student of painting; and myself (WMR), a Government-clerk.  These again, when the PRB was formed towards September 1848, were all young, aged respectively about twenty-three, twenty-one, and nineteen.

Being little more than lads, these young men were naturally not very deep in either the theory or the practice of art: but they had open eyes and minds, and could discern that some things were good and others bad – that some things they liked, and others they hated.  They hated the lack of ideas in art, and the lack of character; the silliness and vacuity which belong to the one, the flimsiness and make-believe which result from the other.  They hated those forms of execution which are merely smooth and prettyish, and those which, pretending to mastery, are nothing better than slovenly and slapdash, or what the PRBs called “sloshy.”  

It would be a mistake to suppose because they called themselves Pre-Raphaelites, that they seriously disliked the works produced by Raphael; but they disliked the works produced by Raphael’s uninspired satellites, and were resolved to find out, by personal study and practice, what their own several faculties and adaptabilities might be, without being bound by rules and big-wiggeries founded upon the performances of Raphael or of any one.  

William Holman Hunt
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1882-83) (This is a version in oils, painted shortly after Rossetti’s death in 1882 from a drawing dated 1853)
Oil on panel, 30.2 x 22.9 cm
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Thomas Woolner (1852)
Pencil, octagonal, 16.3 x 14.7 cm.
NPG 3848

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was the independent creation of Holman-Hunt, Millais, Rossetti, and (in perhaps a somewhat minor degree) Woolner: it cannot be said that they were prompted or abetted by any one.  Ruskin, whose name has been sometimes inaccurately mixed up in the matter, and who had as yet published only the first two volumes of “Modern Painters,” was wholly unknown to them personally, and in his writings was probably known only to Holman Hunt [contrary to popular opinion].

They were to have no master except their own powers of mind and hand, and their own first-hand study of Nature.

Pre-Raphaelite:

The term ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ may be used to describe a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, or when referring to an acolyte of the group, or to describe a technique or mood indicative of the genre.

Pre-Raphaelite Flowers:

For the purposes of this study, Pre-Raphaelite flowers encompass any appearance of flora or fauna in Pre-Raphaelite or Pre-Raphaelite-inspired artwork produced between 1848 and the end of the nineteenth century.  Alongside Rossetti, Millais and Holman-Hunt – some of my favourite artists include: Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98), Charles Allston Collins (1828-73), William Dyce (1806-64), Anna Mary Howitt (1824-84), Arthur Hughes (1832-1915), Edward Robert Hughes (1851-1914), Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919), William Morris (1834-96), Emma Sandys (1843-1877), Frederick Sandys (1829-1904), Marie Spartali Stillman (1844-1927), John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), and George Frederick Watts (1817-1904).

Further reading: 

The Germ. The Literary Magazine of the Pre-Raphaelites (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1992).

Tim Barringer, Reading the Pre-Raphaelites (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2012).

Elizabeth Prettejohn, The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites (London: Tate, 2012).

Christopher Wood, The Pre-Raphaelites (London: Phoenix, 1997).