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The Pre-Raphaelites

Founded in 1848 by English artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais et William Holman Hunt, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood generated a revival of the influence of Italian primitives, precursors to Raphael, thus infusing a new artistic perspective.


View our selection of Pre-Raphaelite works.


These three founders advocated for a return to artistic authenticity, breaking free from the chains of mannerism and distancing themselves from English academism. In the midst of England's bustling industrial revolution, the Pre-Raphaelite movement also aimed to infuse a dose of morality, drawing inspiration from both national literature and medieval art. Quickly recognized from the 1855 Universal Exhibition in France, this movement later played a foundational role in the development of the Arts & Crafts movement, which aimed to restore noble and virtuous craftsmanship in all aspects of life.


Evelyn de Morgan, 'The Mourners' (1915) / National Trust Photographic Library / Bridgeman Images
Evelyn de Morgan, 'The Mourners' (1915) / National Trust Photographic Library / Bridgeman Images


Aesthetic diversity of the Pre-Raphaelites


The Pre-Raphaelite movement infused new vitality into the 19th-century British artistic landscape. Although the term "movement" is used, each artist developed a distinct aesthetic. Millais distinguished himself through meticulous work reminiscent of the Flemish primitives, while secretly admitting his admiration for Raphael despite contrary statements. On his part, Hunt, steeped in neo-Gothic influences, drew inspiration from medieval Italy and literature. Rossetti, in turn, expressed his love for Dante's poetry through a melancholic and enigmatic iconography, populated by red-haired women embodying both legendary heroines and fatal seductresses. The models for these artists, such as Elizabeth Siddal or Jane Burden, were both muses and often artists in their own right.


The best-known female artist within the Pre-Raphaelite movement was Evelyn de Morgan. Her exquisite paintings often depicted mythological and allegorical subjects, characterized by rich colors and intricate details, capturing the essence of the movement's aesthetic while adding her unique touch to the narrative.


Dante Gabriel Charles Rossetti, 'Dante's Dream' / © National Museums Liverpool / Bridgeman Images
Dante Gabriel Charles Rossetti, 'Dante's Dream' / © National Museums Liverpool / Bridgeman Images


Although considered eccentric in Victorian England, the Pre-Raphaelite movement was a response to the prevailing academism. It was also a means of poetic and emotionally charged expression. Unlike a synthetic artistic approach, it advocated a return to artistic singularity. This paradox is reflected in their relationship of both admiration and rejection towards Raphael's art, seeing him as both a genius and a corrupter. What they rejected was not the master himself, but rather his disciples.


A Quest for Ideals and Modernity


Pre-Raphaelitism embodies a pursuit of ideals and perfection while diverging from classical artistic norms. The three artists drew inspiration from medieval and Renaissance art, considering these periods more faithful in representing nature. However, it would be mistaken to label them as reactionary. Indeed, by breaking away from classical academism, they aimed to ground their movement in modernity. Emphasizing vegetation in their creations, they didn't hesitate to leave their studios to paint outdoors, benefiting from recent innovations such as paint tubes.


Evelyn de Morgan, 'Angel with Serpent,' (1870s) / Photo © Christie's Images / Bridgeman Images
Evelyn de Morgan, 'Angel with Serpent,' (1870s) / Photo © Christie's Images / Bridgeman Images


Although the group enjoyed a relatively favorable reception from the public in 1849, it dissolved three years later. However, it was resurrected in an expanded configuration, welcoming new painters such as William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. These new figures gradually moved away from the initial naturalism to embrace a more decorative aesthetic. This evolution gave rise to a significant movement in England, the Arts & Crafts movement, dedicated to decorative arts and noble craftsmanship.


View our selection of Pre-Raphaelite works.


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