The Pre-Raphaelite movement enjoyed a resurgence thanks to the BBC drama series Desperate Romantics in 2009, which followed the founding group of radical English painters and poets as they pursue the perfect muse, rocking the art establishment in Dickensian London.
With the Tate Britain exhibtion, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde starting this September, prepare to see the brotherhood once again presented as rebels who overturned orthodoxy, establishing a new benchmark for modern painting and design, combining scientific precision, beauty and imaginative grandeur.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in 1848 by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Other artists in their circle included Ford Madox Brown and William Bell Scott.
What’s in the name?
The name Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood referred to their opposition to The Royal Academy's promotion of Renaissance master Raphael as an ideal artist and for their admiration for the abundant detail, intense colours and spiritual quality of Quattrocento Italian and Flemish art.
Departing from popularly accepted artistic conventions of the time, they based their art on principles of naturalism and Romanticism. Themes were initially religious, then subjects from literature and poetry, mostly dealing with love and death. Modern social problems were also explored.
Each episode of Desperate Romantics focuses around the composition and/or exhibition of a particular painting by a member of the Brotherhood. Here are some key examples all available through the Bridgeman website for licensing.
In 1850 the PRB became controversial after the exhibition of Millais's painting Christ In The House Of His Parents. Their medievalism was attacked as backward-looking and their extreme devotion to detail was condemned as ugly and jarring to the eye.
"go to nature... rejecting nothing and selecting nothing." John Ruskin
Holman Hunt, along with Millais, sought to revitalise art by emphasising the detailed observation of the natural world in a spirit of quasi-religious devotion to truth and was similarly derided in the art press.
The Hireling Shepherd represents a shepherd neglecting his flock in favour of an attractive country girl. The meaning of the image has been much-debated but been thought to symbolise the pointless theological debates which occupied Christian churchmen while their "flock" went astray due to a lack of proper moral guidance.
Hunt soon became famous for his religious paintings and naturalistic scenes of modern rural and urban life including The Light of the World (1851-1853) and The Scapegoat, 1854, painted during a trip to the Holy Land.
Suffering for one's art
Millais asked Elizabeth Siddal to pose for his painting 'Ophelia'. To simulate the drowning heroine of 'Hamlet', she famously lay in a bath of water, warmed by lamps placed underneath and contracted severe pneumonia.
For such an important painting, Millais did only a few preparatory sketches.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti has often been identified as the central, most influential member of the movement.