Pre-Raphaelite Colloquy

Welcome to the Downeast Colloquy on the Pre-Raphaelite Movement. This small group’s unique reaction occurring within and against England’s art world took place in the mid-nineteenth century. Originally only a few artists railed against the prescribed expectations and teachings in an attempt to redefine the purpose of art, in their artworks and the public’s attitudes, in a more pure way. They did this through claiming the “pure and ideal” prescribed techniques demanded in the Academy which had been constructed for the Western artists since the time of Raphael’s genius were both detrimental and inauthentic to art. Concurrently, their subject-matter would incorporate the impact technology, science, urbanization, politics, religion and gender issues had in influencing the individuals within the movement and within the larger society of Britain during the height of the PRB (Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood) movement.

It is the intent of this colloquy to treat this as either an introduction for those who may be novices in their exploration of an element of art history (or to at least this particular movement within art history), or an opportunity for those who love the artworks associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Movement to expand their knowledge and appreciation of this specific genre at this particular time. In either case, I hope we come away enjoying the journey back to mid-19th century England and how the movement reflects and illustrates a specific period in English history. 

My goal is to expand your discussions beyond an art history discussion by scrutinizing the artists and the artwork in a fuller historical context. As England in the mid-19th century was going through profound changes in its society, ones that had many issues similar to our own era, I hope to seek a fuller understanding of the times in which the movement took root. 1840s England, Europe….and the world, came under the pressure of many factors which altered England and the world irrevocably in so many ways. When this happens in history, the resistance to such changes is found in the many places, but especially the arts. At the same time the arts also define and mold how those changes are interpreted by the masses with some artists attempting to make a statement about the very definition and purpose of art, or to utilize their genius to record their impression of what such impact means through the artwork’s offering in image, sounds or words. Often a dominant entity assumes or professes authority over such messages in the art world, but there are always vanguards or renegades who seek to push back or offer alternatives to the sovereignty over knowledge and hierarchical judgements.

The PRB sought to offer this alternate interpretation of which elements are essential for claiming anything is excellent, pure or correct. From the Renaissance onwards, Western art continued to explore those elements of representational works that defined such descriptors, with the mid-19th century to mid-20th century exploding into the myriad branches that ultimately took artists completely away from representational art for a time. This was calculated and deliberate, with technology and new fields of knowledge contributing to new approaches in art. The Pre-Raphaelites were a major part of the discussion and influenced many movements which occurred decades into the future. Oddly, they were both hoping to return to an earlier “truth” in order to correct the art’s misdirection and take art to a better, purer future. This movement will survive attacks, and many ups and downs for the next century and a half as so many other branches of the art history tree sprout. Presently, the Pre-Raphaelites are riding a huge wave of popularity.

The Pre-Raphaelites were a young, radical group of a few men who sought to change the view of art in England. They were committed to denying the views of the Royal Academy, an institution that dominated the British art establishment and where most of the PRB founding individuals had studied. In the mid-19th century, an artist, to become successful within the establishment and to earn a living, needed to exhibit through a salon attached to an academy. Each member, in rejecting the Royal Academy of Art in London’s dominion, was committed to returning to a more honest approach. Note that the Academy was a fairly recent institution and they felt it had lost its way. For the PRB, they sought a return to the sentiments and practices which could be found in the works of the artists in the early stages of the Renaissance, before the High Renaissance’ values had evolved and they believed confined artists to prescribed expectations for composition, coloring and brush techniques. By the time of Raphael, idealistic representations of the natural world became the norm. This, too, the PRB founding objectionable. The movements aims were threefold: to revive British art; to make it as dynamic, powerful and creative as the late medieval and early Renaissance works created before the time of the Italian artist Raphael; and to find ways of expressing both nature and true emotions in art. Their expressed tenets were:

1. to have genuine ideas to express; 
2. to study Nature attentively, so as to know how to express it; 
3. to sympathize with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote; 
4. most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.  1

As the young men who founded the PRB Movement looked back to the decades of the latter half of the 18th century to understand why the Academy was prescribing instruction as it was, they took umbrage at what they found, especially the techniques used by the founding president, Joshua Reynolds. He is described in his techniques as using the “Grand Style”. For the PRB, they called him Sir Sloshua Reynolds. They were also influenced by the fledgling schools of art history which at that time was attempting an analysis of the elements and purpose of art by placing art work in its historical context. This reevaluation of art will lead to the economic valuations that will define the artworks from that time up until today. How artists will earn a living will also change during this time, moving from the patron towards the gallery. 

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, scientists were focusing on geology, botany, biology, astronomy, physics and chemistry, with each of these fields entering into their modern phases. Botany applied the specific tenets of its discipline when they analyzed the new specimens arriving at the shoreline from the world’s flora and fauna, the exposure to which the circumnavigation of the earth had brought thousands upon thousands of specimens to these shores. In addition, the heavens were further charted for accuracy for purposes of navigation, including the development of evermore sophisticated chronometers to include longitudinal accuracy to add to latitudinal accuracy that had gained traction since the time of Galileo. New energy sources required a greater understanding of the layers of the earth’s surface, and incorporating all the knowledge promoted new inventions in machinery. Geology was the beneficiary here. This first half of the 19th century hastened the changes in society due to these technological changes, as well as new ideas and inventions’ impact on where people lived and what jobs they took. The resulting technological changes can be compared to our own upheavals in society as a result of the digital age.

Their time was known as the industrial revolution. Many were those who took issue with the changes. The Pre-Raphaelites, as well as exploring the purpose of art in the techniques they employed, also exposed the problems in society the new age had wrought. Some of their messages looked to the past for inspiration, or to the lessons found in poetry and literature to inspire their choice of subject. Technological improvements will also give the artists new colors and ability to paint en plain air, with the PRB often spending months out of the studio on many of their works, even requiring them to travel long distances to find both the correct light and landscape, but also the exact choice of ethnicity for the works they chose as most important to portray the truths the works were attempting to emulate.

They were also influenced by their time and place, which was undergoing great change through industrialization, the new understandings of creation that were discussed related to the geological age of the earth and the burgeoning theory of evolution, radicalization of political options for society, new mores related to gender and the females’ place in society, and the specifics of art as they viewed their academic training and how sadly wanting they found this training. It is in this world, one viewed at first from the male perspective but necessarily continued with a retort from the females of their world, that this movement takes root and from which it will change the world of art. It will influence many artists across the genre and will lead to deeper discussions as to the purpose of humanity and how to portray it most authentically, while at the same time opening up contrary or alternate viewpoints about the purpose and potential of art.

My wife and I have long admired the work of the Pre-Raphaelites and this fondness was rekindled by a stay in Oxford a couple of years’ ago. The movement’s importance was due to their London connections initially and primarily, but Oxford brought them so many valuable connections and commissions as they began their quest of the purest art. It so happens this year the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, which has benefitted from the PRB over the more than a century from some of the members’ connection to the city in the mid-19th century. The Ashmolean’s collection is wonderful and they mounted an exhibit in May of 2021 to celebrate what the Pre-Raphaelites mean to them. This video is a superb introduction to the movement. We will find, too, that the new money in manufacturing, building the wealth of Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham, these cities’ support of the painters means that many of their works are now found in their museums.

As a history teacher, each unit for class was constructed to include as many of the accomplishments, incidents and individuals from various cultural milieux as possible. Scientists, philosophers, musicians, explorers, merchants, important women (to move away from dead, white males) and military leaders were introduced to enhance the color of the time period beyond simply the impact kings and queens made from the decisions they took. Dividing history into neat eras, and determining when one of these eras began and ended is a pretense of historians. For the PRB, it is not an easy job to find roots, to contain the artists’ purposes and to comprehend the breadth of their influence on later artists and the culture of Europe and beyond. From 1848 until the present, it will be interesting to explore this influence.

Our meetings will be held over Zoom for a variety of reasons, but mostly for a greater facility in presenting information, images and discussions in a format that accommodates better organization of these elements. In the first meeting on the PRB, we will discuss how well each of us comprehend the characteristics of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood movement. The major individuals who comprised the movement or who influenced it will be introduced, and some of their major artworks will be used to illustrate the movement and its characteristics. Within this first meeting we will also discuss the basic historical setting of the mid-nineteenth century by either reviewing or introducing the significant individuals, incidents, ideas and issues impacting European societies at the time. The numerous factors that impact society at any time will be highlighted in order to illustrate their specific importance during the decades leading up to the year 1848, when the first seven members met and founded the PRB.

As you read further into this introduction to the colloquy, there are some examples of artworks and the artists are introduced with attendant links to supporting websites. Once you have read this material on the movement and the learn a bit about the individuals involved with it, you will be assigned major work from a PRB artist to discuss how it pertains to the PRB philosophy of art. Note that the group splintered in the members’ goals and emphases almost immediately, but the association with the Pre-Raphaelite philosophy will hold fast to many artists throughout the next several generations of artists in Europe and America. It has found favor repeatedly over succeeding decades in the 20th century, with the current last two decades ones that have shined light anew on the movement. Many exhibitions in the founding cities of London, Oxford, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham have been hung, as well as dozens more built up from the facility of transporting artworks anywhere in the world in the modern age. In order for me to fairly assign an artwork to you, either before the first meeting or within a day or two after this introductory meeting, I would like each of the participants to email me with their choice of two artists from the movement who interest them. I will select one of these two choices set by each of you to construct the second meeting’s format. At that meeting we will begin viewing the assigned paintings, plus a selection of paintings from the significant individuals within the movement to illustrate, discuss and analyze the characteristics and symbolism found in Pre-Raphaelite works. Each person will have the opportunity to offer to the group what he or she has found out about the work. These works have been analyzed in depth by prominent art historians and it is my hope that their descriptions will enlighten and instruct you well enough to demonstrate and discuss you assigned work meaningfully and comfortably. As other colloquy attendees could also be assigned another work by your artist, they will also have their own insights into what is important to know about any Pre-Raphaelite work of art and will be most useful in expanding the lexicon of analysis found on each of the artists.  Any anecdotal evidence, expert opinion or clarifying observations about the artwork will be offered to the group for discussion and I will do my best to offer constructive guidance and observations to expand, extend and focus the discussion. Other works by each artist will be offered through screen sharing in order to build a greater familiarity with the artist’s work in order to uncover any evolution or altering of techniques or subject choices taken over his or her career, as well as give us an opportunity to analyze a work without the possible assistance of an art historian’s viewpoints being available beforehand. Again, it is possible that more than one person can choose the same artist, though each would be assigned a different work to discuss. There are critical works completed in the first few years of the movement’s founding that anchor the PRB in art history and these works will occupy our next meetings.

The subsequent meetings will discuss the major artists associated with the movement, with each participant in the colloquy offering the information he or she obtained in the research on the artist assigned to them, or what they may have observed or came to understand about the movement through our discussion and how it might apply to the current painting or artist being discussed. In each of the four meetings, those individuals who were important to the PRB, or who benefitted from or contributed to the movement’s success will be discussed by us in order to complete as much a contextual discussion of the movement as possible in the colloquy. In the end, we will have seen many enjoyable works, and will hopefully appreciate the special place the PRB has in the history of art

Art history seeks to understand why a work of art was produced. Some questions that may be considered by art historians are ones that I hope you can apply to your own PreRaphaelite artist and artwork produced by him or her. These questions are:

who supported and paid for the creation of a work of art, or more simply, why was it created? 

who was the intended audience for a work of art?

who were society’s judges or procurers of artworks at the time and in the place where the artwork was created? In other words, who were the initial critics and what did they say about the artwork?

how was the artist viewed by the society in which he lived when he produced the artwork?

was any attempt at messaging the audience in an effort to influence its world view?

what technical and technology connections can be described to having influence on the artwork’s production and survival? 

how complete is the current history of the artwork’s provenance?

how does the artwork reflect on the society at the specific time it was produced? 

are there ideological/sociological inferences intended by the artist?

which individuals or groups supported the artwork as well as which individuals or groups denigrated the artwork’s message?

how was the artist and the work of art produced by him or her influenced by previous or subsequent art movements?

what specific technical terms associated with the evaluation of an artwork are applicable to the work of art chosen to represent a movement in art history?

how aware was the artist of an intended audience, as well as his/her own ego, in the production of the artwork?

what can we learn about the artist from studying the work of art produced by him/her?

how contemporary or universal is the work of art being considered?

what assertions can an art historian infer from the artist’s choices made while capturing a moment in time and place from his own world? 

Context is critical in art history. Artists learn from those who preceded them, often having access to works done centuries and more earlier. Yet, artists working at a particular time and in a particular place are profoundly influenced by the value judgments made by their contemporaries. The fundamental question an art historian asks is how important is this work of art in defining the time period and place when it was produced, which means a hierarchy of assessment values will necessarily be applied to any work of art. For the Pre-Raphaelites, they had been trained to appreciate, to emulate and to incorporate the Classic training of the principles and techniques founded in the Renaissance. They rejected these principles in the end, looking for what the considered a more authentic, more pure, art found in the eras preceding the Renaissance. Renaissance practices included chiaroscuro, critical incorporation of composition principles, and adherence to the new methods of portraying perspective described by Alberti and Brunelleschi. 

The term, Pre-Raphaelite, is a specific yet confusing one. It was a deliberate choice by those few men who initiated their group and the direction they intended for their work. The admired the works of Renaissance artists, in fact one of the most important to them was chosen for an example found here, the Arnolfini Wedding, which had been purchased by the National Gallery only a few years earlier. This work shared many of the values they loved. It falls into the period acceptable to them. When Raphael perfected all these techniques, constructed perfect compositions based on ideal principles, mastered color divinely, and told stories that attempted to capture the sublime and ideal, this went beyond the charge of the artist in their opinion. The PRB will support the concept of art for art’s sake. The daily experience, the human condition, these were the themes that interested them. Sometimes they chose to explore a famous character in history and capture a narrative in his or her life. But they attempted to humanize that story and that character in their portrayal of the narrative. Yet, many of the artists will also attempt to paint their own version of ideal beauty as they portray their “stunners” in various poses. The PRB women will come to portray the Victorian female for many people.

At first it was an exclusive group who worked anonymously to protect their group’s identity, or at least its aims.They simply signed works with P.R.B.. The movement’s rejection of the Academy and its tenets were clear in their work. This met with strong disapproval of various levels or criticism. Many rejected their attempts violently, such as the criticisms met out by Charles Dickens. As the movement occurred in England, during the era of Queen Victoria, I will rely on websites that all of us can access that will take us back to that time and place. One of the most important is the Victorian Web. In my years as a history teacher, it was an invaluable reference and teaching tool and has been constantly updated since its inception in 1987. Its view of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, or PRB as they initially signed themselves, is a wonderful introduction.

The original founding members were William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Michael Rossetti, James Collinson, Frederic George Stephens and Thomas Woolner. Other important artists who joined or followed in the style of the PRB were Ford Maddox Brown, John William Waterhouse, Frederick Leighton, William Morris, The group of artists had been frustrated with the approach to art instruction at the Royal Academy and were attracted to the ideas of John Ruskin, who was one of the most important art critics in England. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed in 1848. 1848 was a volatile year in Europe with uprisings and protests hoping for more democratic outcomes, republican sovereignty or freedom from a foreign power occurring within myriad countries. Liberal ideas were pressing for change amongst the typically monarchical, aristocratic and conservative countries of Europe, which had suffered many upheavals and overturned leaders in the past several generations, beginning with the French Revolution. The perpetual nemesis nation for the English had been the French, and they had continued to be so right up through the era of the PRB. Yet the relative stability in Europe throughout the decades after the Congress of Vienna had allowed travel and trade between the British and the Europeans on a level that allowed for the Grand Tour to resume. Thomas Cook will instigate his own version of the Tour just about the time of the rising adulthood of the members of the PRB. Several of them, in their attempts at authenticity, will travel and stay for extended periods in lands far from England to polish their craft and understanding of historical context. 

At the same time as Europe was settling into a new political arrangement that found six powers vying for national goals that would continue the tensions occurring on the international scene. That tension was fortified by the growing influence of industrialism, the leader of which was undoubtably Britain. The movement from the countryside to the city impacted the arts, and certainly the PRB’s thoughts. So, too, did the Romantic movement. The poets, painters, writers and musicians of England were central to moving the discussion and the application of the ideals of Romanticism front and center in their work. The first half of the 19th century put many factors into play that created tension within society with competing forces hoping for alternate outcomes. Tensions will arise, of course. There was no universal answer to these tensions, as the changes occurring brought out new ideas, preferences for preserving what was being destroyed, and, like today’s world, no central power strong enough to force resolution. 

This instability bred tension within politics, which often led to hopes for more power among the working class. The ideas that had been fomenting for centuries from the Enlightenment that valued the individual human being’s singular power and intellect, which had led to the French Revolution and the writing of the Declaration of Independence and formation of a new republic at the expense of the English and their monarchy were fresh on the minds of the world. The idea of slavery and abolition of the concept was also prominent on the world’s stage. Even the idea of women’s suffrage was supported by a significant proportion of the population, with Mary Wollstonecraft earning the title the mother of feminism. Literary giants, with females also contributing in new ways, tackled ideas of the Romantic movement and strengthened its hold on the public’s imaginations. Gender Roles became central to the liberal mind in the 19th century and any exploration of the relationships formed within the PRB will bring this paradoxical problem front and center.

In looking at the times, the places and the circumstances that led those few individuals studying art at the Royal Academy to reject their teachers, this colloquy will aspire to expose a broader picture of the era which transpired in southern England in the year 1848. This allow us to comprehend a bit of the political and social attitudes then occurring. In addition, the technological advances in industry, which forever altered the English psyche, economy and culture, will also affect the artists of the day. They will be offered new colors through the expansion of the chemical industry, which will also allow the development of the new art of photography, which will supplant or supplement much of what the artist had be charged with in the past. New portage methods in developing oil pigments that could be carried to the site, rather confining the artist to the studio, will foster en plein air techniques.

The most influential person for the P.R.B., whom each of the founding members read in detail,  was John Ruskin. When the P.R.B. first exhibited at the Royal Academy, they signed their works with the initials, P.R.B.. Each of their works were a stark departure from what they had learned at the Academy and, as reported, they caused quite a stir among the critics with their canvases. But, they were firmly supported by Ruskin. He most admired the painting, Convent Thoughts, by Charles Allston Collins, who accepted the challenge to paint as the Brotherhood even though he did not join them. For any painter, Ruskin had this advice; be true to nature and paint what you see, to have genuine ideas to express; to be authentic and honest about the chosen subject and avoid materialism and self-promotion, to honor the essence of reality and avoid pretense, and offer sound religious or moral lessons through the choice of subject-matter. The artists felt that Medieval and Early Renaissance works were honest and portrayed such honest themes. The painting of Arnolfini and his wife, painted by Jan Van Eyck, hung in the National Gallery and this particularly work was highly admired by the PRB. The idealized worlds and subjects of the High Renaissance, those painted by Raphael and others afterwards, were too mannered and contrived beyond reality in their opinion. Chiaroscuro and controlled lighting were part of this manipulation of the palette. Triangular or centered composition was not required and should not be emphasized.

Though the success of their early works was limited and mostly panned, the support of Ruskin and his recommendations for purchase to important patrons turned an important part of the art world in their favor. They gained patrons from the newly wealthy in the north in Manchester and Liverpool. The technical skill exhibited by the artists also held them in good stead. By the 1860s more adherents to the style joined in the attempt to paint in the manner of the Pre-Raphaelites. Indeed, the movement morphed and altered the initial goals of some of the founding members. Rossetti centered on feminine beauty and the ethereal sublime to which Ruskin spoke. Rossetti came up with the term, Stunner, to exemplify the height of sublime beauty. How he portrayed the feminine form changed the power of females in society.

The two cities that play the most important role in the development of the Pre-Raphaelite artists are London and Oxford. The first was the choice of residency for the artists for the longest time, as well as the source of much of their subject-matter when exposing the moral ills of society in their paintings’ themes. Oxford was central for a chance meeting the expanded the influence of the PRB into other movements. The inclusion of William Morris into the group as a friend and patron is inextricable from the story of the PRB, especially with the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. William Holman Hunt introduced Rossetti to Morris, and it is in Oxford that a chance meeting of Jane Burden will lead to a lifetime triangle that is most complicated between the three individuals.

As the movement began in 1848, it is important to set the table with the events of 1848 in England and Europe. After the liberal revolutions of 1776, 1789, the radicalizations of those ideas in the Napoleonic Era, the continuing revolutions of 1830 and, for England, the Reform Bill of 1832, the hopes of the movements in 1848 were to expand the power of democratic reforms and to deal with the potential and disruptions to society because of industrialism and urbanization while taking into account the growing prominence of nationalism in Europe. Nationalism will drive conservative forces also, with a look back to the roots of any nation’s values and important founding stories. Think of The Three Musketeers, Ivanhoe, The Last of the Mohicans, Lorna Doone, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Treasure Island, Barry Lyndon to ether compliment or contrast with the ideals of the powerful Romantic Movement that was occurring concurrently with Historicism. This only points out the complexity of issues facing the inhabitant of a modern city in Europe in the mid-19th century. 

If you place artists into this world, it is advised to read this article to gain a wider perspective of how the Pre-Raphaelites, living within the times, reading about or observing the changes, and digesting the attitudes offered by various movements, arrived at their statements of purpose. The article mentions the Romantics, the Ancients and the Gothic Revival. For any Englishman, the building of the “new” Houses of Parliament as the Reform Act of 1832 might have caused them to contemplate the meaning of the choice.

As the founding members of the PRB were barely out of their teens, they brought with them both the exuberance of youth to accompany the brashness and emotive power of their commitments. As they were all male, they had to deal with their youthful desires, male egos, and deliberating on their positions related to the current gender issues of suffrage, female status in marriage, sexuality in general, and empowering women to take a more prominent role in society while being allowed more personal choices and freedom to chart their own lives. There were radical examples available in England in the mid-century and the PRB will be tested. As you contemplate this history, consider that the monarch at this time was Victoria. She was the contemporary female monarch and was confronted with all the modern issues to implant into the preservation of aristocratic privileges perpetuated by the crown. It is a complex relationship. You can draw your own opinions as to how successful individual males were in dealing with the issues. I hope we can recognize the prominence of the impact the females in the PRB movement contributed to the nature and success of the painters. Many women associated with the movement were models, most muses, a few artists themselves, and several became major contributors to the efforts of English poetry at this time.

1 The Art Story

Overview of art in the Victorian Era.

Overview of the Brotherhood in context.


BBC. PreRaphaelites: Victorian Revolutionaries  (three parts)

Andrew Lloyd Webber and the PRB.   Scroll down for many other video links

 Dozens of video links found on

Challenging the Victorian Canons of Beauty


BBC. Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Revolutionaries. Part 1

BBC. Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Revolutionaries: Part 2

PRB  Morris, too


Morris    Connect other links    Video

Morris and Rossetti


Females and the PRB   Izzy siddall

William Holman Hunt

William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience

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